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TV Junkie Interview: Isabella Rossellini and 'Animals Distract Me'

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Last year Isabella Rossellini released a second installment of her "Green Porno" series on the Sundance Channel. She's back with an hour-long documentary called "Animals Distract Me" for the Planet Green network which will premiere this Saturday at 10pm. In the film, Rossellini explores everything from what kind of animals are living in an environment as urban as New York City to the direct impact our food choices are having on the planet. Rossellini has been training guide dogs for years, so we follow her and one of her canine trainees on a trip from her suburban home to downtown New York for a day - how does the dog respond to this stress? How does it perceive a conversation she has indoors - what does it see and what does it hear? From here to a lunch with Chef Mario Batali, Rossellini makes sure that each experience is connected to animals and the environment: what animals go into our food? How are fish taken from the ocean and is this sustainable? Where did these dogs come from anyway?

These thoughts might flit through your head as you go through your day, but Rossellini and her collaborators, Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers, creatively bring these thoughts to life through an augmented reality where Rossellini becomes absorbed into the animal's world and the science is made transparent. Frequently interjecting his observations and answer to her questions, a ghostlike Charles Darwin (also played by Rossellini) manifests himself at key moments during the program. Gilbert and Byers are the fellows whose costuming and art direction made Rossellini's "Green Porno" series so engaging and humorous so if you enjoyed those short films, you will very much enjoy the very weird, funny and informative "Animals Distract Me."

We had spoken with Rossellini six months ago about "Green Porno" so our conversation about "Animals Distract Me" seemed to easily pick up where we had left off. [Note: Here is our Channel Zero podcast with the full interview - feel free to subscribe today.]

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Isabella Rossellini: Hi Tom, how are you?

LAist: Doing great, I'm really excited to speak with you about your new program on Planet Green, "Animals Distract Me." I was fortunate enough to see it and it's a lot of fun. It reminds me a bit of a previous project of yours for Sundance, "Green Porno." A difference is that, whereas "Green Porno" was a series of short vignettes, you've put together a theme that goes on for the duration of this [hour+] program, it's much more in-depth.

Isabella Rossellini: Exactly, it's a different format. Each "Green Porno" was about two minutes and it started with my saying, "If I were...." and then the name of an animal, and then transforming myself into an animal via costume and then explaining how they mate. Instead, this one is much more complex - the pretext is to talk about science, and animals, by taking a regular day of my life where I get up, I go to work, I work mostly as a model and an actress, I go to a photographic studio, I discuss a possible fashion exhibit, I have lunch with chef Mario Batali.

It's just a day where I am constantly reminded that there are animals, even in an urban environment, such as New York. And then there is a constant and realistic apparition of Darwin [laughs] whom we can talk with about evolution and certain things that animals do. When you get to do a film that is an hour or more long we can go much more in depth than something that is just 2 minutes.

LAist: But we get to see you transform in this as well.

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Isabella Rossellini: Yes, right, you do, you get to see me as a Demodex [a creature that lives in your eyelashes] and it's a little bit like "Green Porno" when I become the animal, but that's the only time. Oh, and then I become like a chicken whose breast is growing [laughs] because it has taken hormones. But there's also scenes in the hour-long special, where I'm having a fashion conversation and we get to see the scene through the eyes of the dog that is there, how the dog perceives it. The dog has a different kind of eye, they are basically colorblind. We changed the set, we didn't go black and white, we tried to get as scientific as possible. We constructed a set that very colorful, and we did the same set in beiges to see what the dog sees. Dogs also see more movement than we do, they have cells in their eyes that see things that would escape our attention, like a breeze blowing through flowers, or clothes shifting on a rack, and so we focus on those things.

Also, we begin to speak gibberish because the dog wouldn't understand our words - so I tried to speak gibberish but I peppered it with some words that the dog could follow, like "food," and "sit." And then the dog's attention goes to smell - to my underarm and if I'm sweating or if my heart beats or if my stomach is growling because I think that this is what the dog's attention would go to - I don't think they care about fashion.

LAist: Also, are you not the mysterious Darwin that appears?

Isabella Rossellini: Yes, I am, I am playing Darwin. I thought at first I could do a different accent in English but it was too difficult to distinguish my voice, it was too difficult for me to do an English accent convincingly and you couldn't tell the difference between my voice as myself and my voice as Darwin. So then I asked my friend Cambell Scott to do the voice.

LAist: When Darwin appears he's kind of an evolutionary conscience for you.

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Isabella Rossellini: Right, when he appears he's a kind of conscience, he answers my questions and tells us the science behind what we're seeing. I wanted to make sure that everything that is said in the film is scientifically correct.

LAist: Everything is very well researched and a lot of the questions that you raise are on the minds of a lot of people today: What are we doing to the environment? Where are we getting our food from?

Isabella Rossellini: I think so. Of course, we don't have a problem with starvation in most of the United States but now there is a new problem: What kind of food do we eat? Are we eating too much of something? Fish used to be very healthful but that news spread everywhere so now the amount of fish that is taken out of the seas is excessive so there is tremendous damage to the ocean. It's being emptied, basically. So now I have a difficulty eating fish, I know I like it, but how often should I eat it? When I grew up I only ate fish once a week because it was rare. But now we have industrial fisheries and they can catch everything. With the satellites they can track down the fish and take them. When I grew up we had fish on Fridays and it was always the domestic stock.

Another thing that was frightening to me was to learn that the United States allows certain antibiotics and hormones that are forbidden in Europe. When you find out that American meat is not allowed in Europe for health reasons, it's kind of frightening to me.

LAist: And also in America, we import a lot of things [from 3rd world countries] that aren't held to the standards we have here.

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Isabella Rossellini: Exactly, it goes both ways. And this problem we have with obesity, is it the food we eat or the quantity? These are some of the questions that we are touching on.

LAist: I enjoyed the Mario Batali segment where you weigh the pros and cons of each ingredient to your meal. That was both illustrative and engaging - at the end of it, he still put together this really good meal that you could have responsibly.

Could you tell us about what inspired you to present this program to us? What is the root of your concept?

Isabella Rossellini: When I was 14 or 15 and I was dreaming about what I would do as a grownup, I always thought I would do films about animals. But I never did, I ended up being a model and I ended up acting and that went very well. You imagine things as a child and then as you grow up you dismiss it saying "Well, life went in this direction instead of that direction." Now that I'm older and I'm not modeling as much anymore, and I act, of course, but not as much work as I used to do. But then when [Robert] Redford offered me to do short films on the subject of the environment and I did "Green Porno" and as I was doing them, I said "Oh look, this is what I was thinking of doing when I was a little girl." And here I have come, all the way around.

I enjoyed "Green Porno" a lot and they were very appreciated, they were immensely successful on the web and that's what led me to be in touch with Planet Green to do a more formal film. So this is my first longer format film. It's a lot more structured and professional format and it was wonderful for me to learn that and to see that I can do it. I hope to be able to do more.

LAist: The look and feel of your films is so simple and accessible but sophisticated in how it transmits this scientific information.

Isabella Rossellini: I work with these 2 great guys, Rick Gilbert and Andy Byers. I do most of the drawing at the beginning and they take these drawings to the stratosphere and they have the best taste and humor. I know that the humor and the charm is in Rick and Andy's design, in the art direction, they are essential collaborators to my work.

LAist: The topics in "Animals Distract Me" are so important right here and now. What do think about what has happened in this last year? We had in the Gulf of Mexico one of the worst oil spills ever, and millions of gallons of highly radioactive water pumped into the ocean in Japan.

Isabella Rossellini: It's incredible, it's very very frightening. I think everyone is frightened about 2 things: our own health, and also the health of nature. Everybody wants to be able to go to the beach and to have fun and to catch a clam and to open it up and eat it without worries that we have poisoned and destroyed these things. I don't know what to do. The film has a feeling, I'm asking: what do we do? The scale of the problem is so enormous though, it can make one feel defeated.

LAist: It's so frustrating.

Isabella Rossellini: Very. But you know the tone of gloom over the environment was one of the things I was trying to change with "Green Porno." When I worked on "Green Porno" I worked with a marine biologist who was active in preserving the ocean. When he saw "Green Porno," the ones about the insects, he contacted me to see if I could do some on marine animals. He said that the doom and gloom has alienated a group of people because once there is no hope, people don't want to participate.

But, of course, there is hope, we have to correct our ways to make things better. He thought that the humor could bring the news about the environment to people in a different way, to reopen these doors. I've always been dedicated to making my films humorous. I want people to laugh at first and then gain some information.

LAist: Throughout "Animals Distract Me" this seems to be true. You talk about food, you talk about shark-finning, you are putting the knowledge out there for people to act more responsibly when they go to the store or when they think about supporting something.

Isabella Rossellini: Yes, but I don't see myself as an activist or someone who is moralizing or preaching. When I write I ask myself how do I feel about something. When I sit down and eat tuna, I think "Tuna, really? Maybe 5 years from now we won't be able to eat it." The first film my father, [Roberto] Rossellini, made with my mom, Ingrid Bergman, was Stromboli and one of the strongest scenes in the film is tuna fishing and now [activity is] endangered. Tuna fishing in the Mediterranean has a moratorium on it because the tuna population crashed. It's shocking that within a generation you can have that damage.

You think it would take a long time but it doesn't. We can kill off a species within a few years. I'm trying to present this shocking experience that I had for somebody to identify with and perhaps say, "I used to remember in my backyard, we used to have frogs, but now they are gone." I don't go out to point fingers and tell people what to do or what to think, it's more of an observation in my life.

LAist: These are distressing questions and observations but it doesn't detract from how entertaining "Animals Distract Me" is. There are some very funny scenes.

Isabella Rossellini: This is important, I'm hoping that people will laugh and have fun with the film.

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"Animals Distract Me" premieres at 10pm on Saturday, April 23, on Planet Green.