Interview with Thomas Heinemann (LOLA ON THE PEA)

“Two ponies and one fish”

Thomas_HeinemannEver since her father ‘vanished in thin air’, Lola (11) lives with her mum on a houseboat on the river. More and more Lola withdraws from real life, cherishing her father’s souvenirs and memories. She becomes a loner, an outcast. Until two newcomers shake her world upside down: Kurt, applying to become her mum’s new boyfriend, and Rebin, a refugee boy staying illegally with his family in Germany. They force Lola to take action and leave her world of dreams. LOLA ON THE PEA tackles some serious issues in a playful way, in a festive celebration of colours and music. This makes the film by Thomas Heinemann perfectly accessible for a very young audience. We only wondered why in LOLA ON THE PEA some adults behave like caricatures.

Thomas Heinemann: In children’s films in general adults are outsiders with their own agendas and problems. Like the clumsy policeman, who is so proud about his new uniform. The way he jumps on his bicycle is homage to postman Jacques Tati in JOUR DE FÊTE. I’m a big fan of Tati, and the use of sound in his work. Rebin’s father, played by Kurdish actor Ferhat Keskin, is not a caricature. He added a lot to this movie. Many small elements in his performance surprised the young actors and made the scenes look more spontaneous.

Lola_PosterFacing them is Tabea Hanstein (Lola), playing a very strong girl. Even in her toughest moments, Lola doesn’t cry… although once she’s on the edge of bursting into tears.
Heinemann: That scene is often mentioned by fathers, fighting their tears after the screening. Tabea is really strong. I didn’t pick her in the first place for her acting, but for her empathy in the way she listened to me when we first met. How she sympathised with the story made me realise she was the right one.

Sometimes you let her talk straight into the camera.
Heinemann: In this way she shares with us a specific kind of thoughts, guiding us along the ups and downs in her life. This enabled me to make some tough statements. And it’s a format that youngsters are familiar with, as it is often used in reality shows.

How did you find your actors?
Heinemann: I was quite pragmatic in this matter and decided not to organise an open casting. A friend of mine is a teacher in a school nearby the town where we were shooting. He introduced me to some pupils and most of them ended up in the movie. The other actors I knew from theatre groups that I worked with.

Lola_3You have a history in children’s theatre?
Heinemann: My uncle ran a children’s theatre company in Basel, Switzerland and my father, who was a stage builder, joined them in the early seventies. As an immigrant worker he was sent back to Germany while I stayed in Switzerland, living in a sort of commune, where I wrote my first play at the age of 12. In this theatre group all roles – even adult characters – were played by children. I found that a bit cheesy. When I started my own company, children and adults were equally represented. In those days, you never saw children and adults sharing one stage. We worked in almost every art form: theatre, dance, music. After running this company for 15 years, the stage became too small for me and I lacked new challenges. Film was the next step. I started working with a friend in a production company.

Working with children again?
Heinemann: Not exactly. My first job was convincing Werner Herzog that his script for INVINCIBLE sucked… Not an easy job, and for sure I failed! Now LOLA ON THE PEA takes me back to my roots, literally! Several actors in the movie used to play as children in our theatre group years ago. Somehow this made me feel like a family patriarch.

Lola_2By telling the story the way you did, you enable yourself to introduce serious issues (divorce, asylum seekers, diversity etc.) to an exceptionally young audience.
Heinemann: Some people don’t like me using a humorous tone to bring up serious issues. But for me this is the way to do it.

The joy is also in the colours. I’ve seldom seen a film so colourful.
Heinemann: The art design of the film was very elaborate. Like on the boat, creating the atmosphere of a place where you would actually like to live. And usually colour grading is only a small job, but for LOLA it took us 15 days. Moreover we had some bad weather during the shooting that we had to cover up in the post production.

What happened to the boat afterwards?
Heinemann: That’s a tricky question. The film woke up sleeping dogs. We planned to sail the boat up the river to shoot some scenes, but then came out as a houseboat, this vehicle was illegal. This caused serious troubles for the owner, who had to sell his boat. Now the village governance bought it. They probably have a new destiny for it in mind.

Lola_1Do you perhaps treasure a romantic sailor man’s dream, considering all the shipping nostalgia in LOLA?
Heinemann: This element I can’t explain, but it adds a certain airiness to the movie. Maybe it is because I grew up on movies with Errol Flynn, that I saw every Sunday with my dad in the local cinema.

I appreciated that LOLA took a typical ‘big city story’ to the countryside, which created a whole new setting for this kind of adventures.
Heinemann: Even in small villages you’ll find people like Rebin’s family, sometimes living in circumstances even worse than in this movie.

I found the marriage scene very meaningful: a new world opens up in the dreams of people who forget about their sad situation when thinking about their roots.
Heinemann: I’ve been to Turkish wedding parties in those dreadful sport centres, big neon lit halls. But when the dancing starts, the outside world seems to disappear. Dancing nurtures their hearts and souls and the ugliness around them doesn’t matter anymore. The wedding scene is also a romantic ‘1001 Nights’ fantasy, for which we used a lot of theatre effects: blue walls, glittering stars, red curtains…

Music plays an important role in the movie, with a ‘brass battle’ as the ultimate climax.
Heinemann: In my theatre days, we often introduced children to brilliant music that normally they would never listen to. I hate those popular pop rock songs on a soundtrack. I prefer a wide spectrum of musical styles: brass music, country, surf, Balkan beats… The final musical battle was a huge challenge for the composer: traditional brass music with an oriental beat… But the song nowadays is often played on the radio, so apparently it worked out well.

By the way: congratulations for having the courage to make a children’s film without a single animal appearance. A dignified decision!
Heinemann: I should remind you there was one scene with 2 ponies and one with a fish! We saved the fish’s life, as he was originally intended to be sold as live bait.

Gert Hermans