Interview with LOLA's Emma Appleton and Stefanie Martini

Emma Appleton and Stefanie Martini attend the Edinburgh International Film Festival to discuss their experience of filming LOLA, the 1940s-set sci-fi from Irish indie filmmaker Andrew Legge.

Off the back of high profile TV roles this year, Everything I Know About Love’s Emma Appleton and The Last Kingdom’s Stefanie Martini have paired up to lead indie filmmaker Andrew Legge’s latest curio LOLA. Appleton and Martini star as Thom and Mars, two sisters in 1940s Britain who create a machine – the titular LOLA – that intercepts radio and television signals from the future. They use this glimpse of the future to help Britain with the war effort, fall in love with art and culture that no-one has experienced yet, and ultimately have to deal with the consequences of altering the future.

Appleton and Martini were in attendance as LOLA screened in competition at the 75th Edinburgh International Film Festival earlier this month, so I caught up with the actors on the experience of making the film, how they crafted their performances, and what they would do if they had their own LOLA…

LOLA is in a similar vein to Andrew Legge’s previous films, particularly his short The Chronoscope. How familiar with his work were you when this film ended up on your radar?

Stefanie Martini: Not at all but I can remember being sent it and thinking, “this is mad but I’m into it”. He’s got such a distinctive style and all the sort of Zoom chats we had with him were really interesting, it was a really collaborative process, so I was interested as soon as I saw it.

Emma Appleton: I had never seen anything like it before, there was one film in particular where he has parts that are sped up and it’s just that old fashioned way of making a film that I don’t think anyone does anymore.

SM: He’s such a film nerd! He’s so nerdy. He gave us a huge list of really terrifying films to watch. Lots of Kubrick.

EA: It’s really embarrassing ‘cause he’ll be like, “you know that bit in such and such film” and we’ll be like, no!

I was going to ask what reference points there were for you guys as actors on the film, to help you get the cadence and speech patterns of the time?

EA: It’s such a unique film, so I didn’t really have my own reference points, it was very much led by Andrew and we watched Barry Lyndon because there was that particular scene that was all done by candlelight. There was a scene we did in the film where we used that particular lens. So he had certain references to get us into the world.

SM: And Raw. The film Raw, with the sisters relationship in that. Which is kind of a mad reference but there was something really energetic and animal about it which fits, in a way, because Thom and Mars are so interconnected and a bit feral. So there were some quite niche references but it’s because you need to think outside the box on this film, it’s not standard in anyway. Accent-wise, I think we just looked at the time and decided to think more about the differences in our tone of voice and patterns of speaking.

EA: I decided early on that I wanted Thom to be really clipped because she thinks about everything she’s saying before she says it.

SM: Whereas Mars is very much “I’m a bit over here…now I’m over here!”, a bit like me really! Since they’re both such different people, there’s a lot more character choices than trying to be specific to a time and place.

Emma Appleton, director Andrew Legge, and Stefanie Martini attend the premiere of LOLA at the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

You mentioned having zoom meetings with Andrew – did this film come about when the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak?

SM: Yes, two years ago, August 2020.

EA: I think my first meeting with Andrew was pre-COVID, we were all very innocent. Then I signed on – we both signed on – and then COVID happened and it kept getting pushed to the point that, as an independent film, we could work within the parameters needed to keep everyone safe.

SM: Yeah, there was only two of us, occasionally other actors but not really, so they put us up in a wedding venue on the border between Dublin and Kildare. One county would go into lockdown and the other wouldn’t so one day we could get an Uber and the next day we couldn’t, we couldn’t go shopping or anything. But it was nice that while the world was going mad, we were able to get back to doing what we loved.

EA: Also just having that bit of extra time to prep, we started working on our characters and had more meetings with Andrew and having that time and space to collaborate. So by the time we got to Ireland and started rehearsing, we had already put a lot of work in.

That sisterly bond comes across very well on screen, it seems very natural and authentic. Was there anything you did off-screen to foster that connection on-screen?

EA: Just spent time together.

SM: It’s very easy, it’s a very natural friendship. I remember my agent saying, “it’s with Emma Appleton and she’s not a fluffy actress, and you’re not a fluffy actress, neither of you are fussy and it’ll be great!”

EA: We also had something in common already in finding the film interesting and wanting to do it, and we had to live together in this cottage in the middle of nowhere. That was good because we got to have quiet time together, cooking together…

SM: There wasn’t any time off, it was actually the most intense job I’ve ever done. I had to learn about four new skills on the film! How do I operate a camera? How do I play guitar? Andrew only told me with about a week’s notice that Neil had written me something to play on guitar. So I had to learn how to play guitar, I had to do a dance, I had to go record music.

EA: I just turned up and said some lines and left again…

So that was your singing on the film?

SM: It was. Is it ok? I actually haven’t watched the film.

I’m completely tone deaf so I’ve no idea, but it sounded good to me…

SM: That’s fine! I haven’t been able to get the link sorted.

It’s a good film, you should see it!

SM: I’m going to see it tonight, finally!

If LOLA were real and you could see what lies ahead, what would you hope to see in the future and what do you think you’d actually see?

SM: You’d probably just see depressing things, like climate change. Climate change, that’s a whole other film! How we would use it to stop climate change. I didn’t know much Bowie before this film, my parents listened to stuff like Queen and Alison Moyet so I missed all the cool stuff. So I think I would just want to see more music.

EA: I think I would use LOLA to try and stop things happening. I think I’d want to steer clear of anything scary, only because I think it’s true that you don’t have any control over anything and you’ve just got to let it play out and do the best you can in the moment. I think the temptation to interfere would be too strong though.

There is a part in the film where you argue about the morality behind meddling with the future. Do you think there is any moral obligation to get involved, if you know what’s going to happen?

SM: It would be hard not to but I suppose the risk is so great, you just don’t know. It would be really hard if you knew something terrible was going to happen, particularly to someone you loved. That’s the only time I’d jump in, if it was personal. But we’ve all seen Back to the Future, we know what can happen! Where does it stop?

EA: You could be stopping one thing but then causing something else. It’s like that classic saying, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”, so I think you just need to let things play out. I think when you’re in a situation is the only time you can do something. What you would you do?

I think I’d just kick back and let it unfold.

SM: It’s like that film Don’t Look Up, like would anyone do anything about it anyway? It could just be everyone living as if there isn’t a huge asteroid coming to earth.

EA: I haven’t seen it, apparently I haven’t seen any films ever – who has?

It would be hard to take that responsibility because if it goes wrong, how do you live with yourself?

EA: And then do you try and fix that? You could kind of get stuck in this complex loop, like where does it end?

SM: Like in my own life when I’m trying to control everything, that’s when things go wrong. The only way things go well is when I go ok, cool, this is happening and all I can control is my reaction to that. But I wouldn’t want that responsibility on a global scale.

EA: That’s why we’re not politicians.

So you mentioned David Bowie, and Bob Dylan features as well, as your character is into these artists from the future. If you were to send back any art from now that you would want people in the ’40s to see, what would you send back? Music, films, if you’ve seen any…

EA: (laughing) If I’ve seen any!

SM: Everything Everywhere All At Once? That’s just incredible, that’s an experience. It’s absolutely mind blowing for us so for them, they’d have never seen anything like it.

EA: Can you imagine if people in the 40s saw it? When you get asked a question like that, you can’t think of any art ever…

SM: Who’s the guy who sang Hallelujah? Jeff Buckley? I’d send that back, that’s a beautiful album. I’d send that back. What would be useful would be if we could send them back something like Pussy Riot, some really feminist stuff, some footage of the progress we’ve made. And Portrait of a Lady on Fire, I’d send that back.

You’ve both done a lot of work in TV in the likes of Everything I Know About Love and The Last Kingdom, how does that experience differ to working on a film like LOLA?

SM: I think Emma’s done a lot of big boy stuff and I’ve done some quite mad indie films…

EA: The Last Kingdom is pretty big…

SM: It is, to be fair. But making this film was unlike anything else, because it’s so erratic and chaotic.

EA: It’s unlike anything we’d ever worked on because it’s done like a documentary, the camera has to be motivated so you walk into every scene and there’s a conversation about why the camera is there and how can we get it over there? So it would very much be you (Stefanie) moving the camera. So it was almost – I haven’t done theatre – but that’s how I imagine that process would be. TV is like, you go in, you block it through, you film your wide, you film your close-ups…on this actually, watching it, I realised we didn’t do close-ups so I could’ve done something bigger. It’s very unusual.

SM: I feel like on TV, there’s a lot of people sitting there going okay, is this clear? Does this make sense? Is this what the audience wants to see? As a performer, you have zero control over what it ends up being. Whereas on this, Emma and I had such a huge say in the words we said, how we thought the scene should be and what we thought would happen. Some of the rehearsals involved just rewriting the script with Andrew, and we had so much more control and input than we usually do. Andrew really respected what we had to say and it was such a brilliant dynamic. I kind of love working in big boy television because it’s all looked after and you can just turn up and focus on your character so there’s not as much pressure. On this, it was really all of our heart, all of our soul, and all of our blood, sweat and tears.

EA: Because of the way it was shot, like a documentary, we could actually mess things up and go no, let’s keep it, it was real and other times you’d mess it up and try it again. Oona Menges, our DP, would see the camera moving and think “oh no, that’s actually good!”. Like breaking all the rules and throwing everything out the window that you’ve ever known.

SM: Andrew would be like, “Less drama! Less drama!” and we’d be like, “but the story!”, and it was such a push and pull. He wanted things messy. Me and Oona, for the first week, were essentially trying to do the same job because I operated the camera a lot and she didn’t necessarily know I’d want to do that, we didn’t really communicate that. It would involve me trying to block the scene and we’d just try to be the same person. There’d be times I was standing there saying my lines while she held the camera, which didn’t work for me, but it didn’t work for Oona if I was there all the time. She has her opinions and she’s so good but we developed a really good language with each other, where we worked things out together, like she would just chuck me the camera whenever she thought I’d be comfortable with it, which I just loved so much.

What are you working on next?

SM: I’ve just done a BBC series called The Gold, which should be out next year, which has been fun.

EA: I’ve been lucky in that I’ve had two shows come out this year, Everything I Know About Love and Pistol, and with this coming out too, it’s been a big press year. Feel like I did two years of filming and now it’s all being seen! So hopefully soon I’ll go back into filming, there are lots of interesting jobs out there.

LOLA screened in competition at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and can be seen later this month at Frightfest, as well as on general release later in the year.