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See Inside July 2008

Green Porno: SciAm Talks Insect Sex with Isabella Rossellini

A humanized view of invertebrate love

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Editor's Note: The extended Q&A with Isabella Rossellini mentioned in the July  magazine can be found here. Video clips of this program can be found here.

Isabella Rossellini, well known as a supermodel and movie star, is now making short films for mobile devices that illustrate the sex lives of dragonflies, earthworms and other creatures. But they are not like standard nature shows. In these films, which she researched with the help of Wildlife Conservation Society experts, she not only details unusual aspects of the critters’ biology but also dresses up as them and mimics sex with paper cutouts. We asked Rossellini what she hopes to accomplish with the films on invertebrate love, dubbed Green Porno, which premiered May 5 on the Sundance Channel’s Web site.

How did you get started making these short films?
Sundance was interested in experimenting and expanding the definition of film. Sundance said, “Would you be interested in making films for the mobile?” We thought short films would be something that people would dedicate two minutes to watch, but longer would be difficult.

You call it Green Porno—what’s the story behind the name?
Sundance wanted, if possible, content that was environmental, because the channel and Robert Redford [the creative director of the network] are very dedicated to it. And then they said, “Because this is new media, can you make it flashy and funny?” Flashy to me translated into sex, so it’s great to do a very short little series about the life of bugs.

Was it hard researching the sexual behavior of bugs?
It was difficult. I was always joking with some of the scientists I called that when it comes to insects, you can go through pages and pages and pages of how their mouths work, and I kept on saying, “I want to know how the genitalia work.” There are great descriptions about mouths and not much about sex.

I read scientific books that have a lot of terminology that is hard for me to understand. So I bring it back to humans. That’s the process I tried to illustrate when I did Green Porno. I was terrified of making mistakes. I’m a very big supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society, so I kept calling them, and their scientists are very kind.

How far did you go with the costumes?
Often I had the bug eyes. Once I have the eyes on, I can’t see anything. But the earthworm was the worst, because the costume is 35 feet long. Once I was in the costume I couldn’t come out, and then my arms were along my body, so I was completely strapped, and it’s very constrictive. I almost broke out of it one afternoon after being there for three hours while they were fiddling with the lights for some reason—“Ahh, I can’t wait, I’m going nuts!” They [the costumes] were fragile. Once I humped them, they came apart [laughs].

You also play the males quite often—for instance, in one of the shorts, you portray a small male spider that sneaks up to mate with a large female to avoid getting eaten.
Obviously, there are lots of species of spiders, and I had to generalize there—spiders have the most incredible sexual rituals. If I do another series [of films], I might have to add more spiders—they do things that are very funny.

So why focus on insects as opposed to the rest of the animal kingdom?
Mammals would look too pornographic. With the bugs, they’re so strange and far out, they’re comical. If a human being behaved like a bug, he or she would be arrested.
Also, when I was little, I always said I should have been born in Africa or been like Jane Goodall. That was my dream. And then when I moved to live in the country, I discovered all these bugs in my backyard. I discovered you can do your own safari. Animals are everywhere. Some are more romantic, like tigers and elephants and chimpanzees, and some are less romantic, like earthworms, but they are just as interesting.

Note: This story was originally published with the title, "A Bug’s Sex Life".

This article was originally published with the title "A Bug's Sex Life."

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