Veerle Baetens makes her directorial debut and lays it all out with her new and shocking film, When It Melts (El Deshielo). Ahead of the movie’s release in Spain on February 9, we chatted with the actress-turned-director about how she adapted the harrowing story to the screen, the reactions to the film, and her elaborate filming process.
When It Melts is about a Belgian woman named Eva whose life changed forever during one unforgettable summer in her hometown. Just wanting to fit in and struggling with a rough family life, thirteen-year-old Eva accompanies her two best friends, Tim and Laurens, as they play a game that prompts neighbourhood girls to strip if they can’t guess the answer to a riddle. However it quickly gets out of control, and as an adult Eva finds herself still reeling from its effects. When she decides that her only option is to face her past and return to her hometown, Eva mysteriously packs a large block of ice in her car to get her revenge. While it's marketed as a coming-of-age film, it's anything but the feel good movie you might be imagining. Instead, viewers should be prepared to encounter intense themes of sexual assault and heavy childhood trauma.
The film is based on the best selling book by Lize Spit, Het Smelt, originally published in 2016. Baetens, the film's director, is a Belgian actress that has been in numerous movies and TV series. She's most well known for her 2012 role in The Broken Circle Breakdown that was nominated for an Academy Award. When It Melts marks Baetens first time directing, and she definitely doesn’t hold back or take the easy route with this one. While When It Melts may be gut wrenching, it also shows the incredible reach and patience of Baetens. What has been more than five years in the making, she approached this film with a craft and conscious eye that only someone experienced in the industry can provide, proving that her films are bound to become international sensations. When It Melts has also been showcased at a number of film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival, the Seville Film Festival, and the Sao Paulo and Braunschweig film festivals where is was awarded Best Film.
Veerle, When It Melts is your directorial debut! As an already established actor, how was it to be behind the camera? Is directing something you’ve always wanted to do?
It was an amazing experience, and I think I have been wanting to do it for a long time (laughs). I’ve co-written a series, called Tabula Rasa which also came out in Spain, and for me the next step was “okay, I’m going to write but then I’m going to direct also.” For me it was a logical step to make.
So the film is based on the best selling book by Lize Spit, what drew you to this story in particular?
Well it was presented to me, so a producer of a film that I did, The Broken Circle Breakdown, I think in Spain it's Alabama Monroe, so he asked me to direct it and I hadn’t read the book, so of course I read it. And I was immediately touched by little Eva because I recognised myself in her. I think we all had a state of insecurity and wanting to please, but I remember it very clearly because I wasn’t the girl they fell in love with, I wasn’t the girl the cool girls would frequent and would want to hang around with. So I recognise myself in her, and in the adult Eva, I was touched by her.
I was also intrigued by her. Because of her trauma she has this sort of mechanism of shutting down, of silencing herself, of being consumed by this trauma. I recognise that in people around me, but I didn’t understand so I wanted to examine, question, or dive into that. And I’m happy I did because it really made me realise how this happens, and I think a lot of people don’t understand and still don’t understand how it happens. I hope this film in a way opens eyes or shows how it is that people are not resilient and are not able to stand up and fight back, or fight again and again and again, and why for some people it's dangerous to open up. And then the third reason why I really love the book is because of its tension, its thriller aspect. But also to funnel where Eva gets stuck, and the build up of the tension in the story is really really well done in the book, so I really love that.
And were you the one to adapt the book to the screenplay?
Yes, but for two years I wrote alone, and then I thought “ah this is just too difficult,” and I called in help. And he’s [Maarten Loix] my co-writer, so we did it together.
And how long did that process take?
Five! (Laughs)
Five years?
Yes! And actually even six because we started doing the workshops and blah blah blah, I mean like the auditions and so on. But you keep on writing. But the form or what you want to talk about, what you want to tell, that was ready after five years.
That definitely sounds like a long process.
It was!
Did you have a specific vision for how you wanted it to turn out or maybe differ from the book at all? Or did you stay pretty true to that original story?
That’s why I wrote for two years by myself, I wasn’t able to take distance from the book. I really wanted to stay loyal to it. There's directors that say, “read the book then throw it away,” and I read it five times because I think it’s a form of respect in a way. But then again, after two years I wasn’t able to make it my movie. And I needed to take a distance because it wouldn’t be a good movie if it were completely loyal to the book, because the character is very passive. She’s has an interior monologue the whole time, and it doesn’t work on film. So we really needed to make her more active. In the book she stayed that distance and she talked to herself that whole time.
Also, the boys were from the beginning very cold-hearted, while in the movie in the beginning they’re not. And Laurence during the whole book is very cold-hearted while in the movie you still feel something of a “I don’t know, are you sure?” So they’re warmer in the movie. And it was necessary to be able to make it realistic that Eva stays with these boys, playing these games, you know what I mean?
Yeah, it makes it almost more shocking or realistic?
Yeah! If they were cold from the beginning people would be like, “Why are you staying? Why are you hanging out with these kids? They’re horrible!” And in the book it works because she’s thinking and you can read her state of mind, but in the movie I didn’t want a voiceover.
No, I agree. I think it worked out really well the way you did it then because I haven’t read the book so it makes sense the way I saw it. I also thought that the actors were really well cast, everyone did a really good job. What was the casting process like, especially for the younger actors?
Very, very intense. Long (laughs). First we did a lot of video tapes and then on the personal one-on-one basis. And then we would come out with like 300 or 200 kids that we started casting in groups, sort of workshop style, where we would let them be with us a day and we would give them lessons in acting so that they would forget they were auditioning. Then the best of them could come out in the learning process. So that was, elaborative?
An elaborate process?
Yeah, an elaborate process. And then we first did the kids, of course, because I wanted to cast Eva on the basis of the child actress. So it was a long process and first we did the kids, and then the adults. Actually Eva didn’t have to, Charlotte De Bruyne who plays Eva, didn’t have to audition because she's a good actress. I hate auditions myself, I don’t like doing auditions either. I mean taking auditions from other people, I don’t like it. Because I feel their pain and fragility. So Charlotte, she just came in. I put them together in a room, Rosa and Charlotte and I just let them do exercises and it was perfect.
So the film is a coming-of-age, but it also deals with a lot of complex and intense issues like childhood trauma and sexual assault. How do you interpret the message of the story from the book and how did you translate that through the film?
I think the book has a slightly different message, Lize Spit often says that the movie is about trauma and dealing with trauma, while the book is also a portrait of a family. The mechanism of the book is the game, but it's also about the family. And that is what interested me in the book. But in the movie, it was very difficult to tell the story. Its different techniques, its different way of telling something, and so the trauma is different I think. Trauma vs growing up in a dysfunctional family, you know?
Yeah! Because I haven’t read the book I wasn’t sure if the book was going to give off the same message or if in adapting it, that message changed at all.
There's a difference in message. But it's difficult to say about the book what the message is, I think that's more for Lize to say. But I know when she talks about it she says her book is about the dysfunctional family, and especially how it is to grow up in that kind of family, and how a village is numb to it. While the movie is more about dealing with trauma and how trauma can completely occupy someone and someone's development and someone's character. How not everyone is able to deal with their trauma or to become a real person, to become an adult.
Yeah, and I felt like that was one of the saddest parts of the film, that Eva didn’t have a support system at all through her family or any friends to deal with any of the things she was going through, and I’m sure that is a reality for a lot of young people. So it was definitely one of the most heartbreaking points.
Yes, absolutely. That's why the film is so confronting, because if you are looking at it and you're testifying, you are at that moment the only friend and the only one who keeps watching. And you're the one who's forced to watch and you feel obliged to watch because no one else is watching.
Yeah, the viewers are the only ones that aren’t turning their backs on Eva and her story.
Yeah, of course.
The movie has already been released in some countries and shown at a number of film festivals, including the Sundance Film Festival, so what have been the audience reactions so far? Is it what you expected?
That's a good question. I think a lot of people say like, “in every country the response is different,” but to be honest I feel that in every country that I come to, the response is quite the same. People are quiet, people are shocked, punched. And often the questions are the same, of course, “how did you work with children like that telling this story?” But also how they found it beautiful and got the message. The movie wakes you up also, like, “oh maybe I should be more attentive or more aware of what’s happening around me,” you know? So people are being thrown back.
There are people who don’t succeed in going to the movie because the character is so difficult to connect with. And it's one of the rules of filmmaking, make sure your audience connects with the character, but I made a movie about someone you cannot connect with because she doesn’t want to be connected with. So that was hard to do. And a lot of people understand from the beginning in a way, but some people don’t because they’re not sensitive to this kind of person. It's not a judgement what I’m saying but it is the fact that not everyone sees it.
Definitely. And going off of that, I heard you once said that this movie is “for quiet people because quiet people often have the loudest minds.” I think this relates to the aspect that only certain people will relate to the main character, is that what you meant?
Yeah absolutely. Although the theme wouldn’t be that I’m going to make a movie about people who cannot say what happened to them. But in a way it is, and for me she still is not able to say it. I mean some people say “ah I would have wanted her to say it, what has happened to her!” and I would be like “no! No, it's not a movie about someone who is able to do it.” It's only because she opened the box of Pandora, all the ghosts are out, the monsters are out now.
It was also interesting that you can tell part way through the movie what is going to happen at the end with the ice cube, and at that point it's just leading up to see how or why she gets to that point.
Actually, we shot the movie without the making of the ice cube. I had let it out from the script three years ago because in the writing I didn’t need it, and then in the edit we didn’t find an interest for the movie, we didn’t find a front door. But I said, “fuck, we need the fabrication of the ice cube!” (laughs). So we went back into filming and we did a reshoot, and so it's exactly as in the book, she makes this ice cube and then leaves and you get the riddle around the same time.
So finally I did want to ask, I’m sure people have asked you about this before too in the film but because the film includes some intense and explicit scenes that also include child actors, what was the filming process like?
It was one of my main concerns. I’m an actress, I’ve been acting for twenty years and I know what spot that is. It’s a fragile spot, you’re very naked, you want to please your director so you go very far if needed. So it needs to be protected, and I knew that. And I knew with child actors it isn’t different, as a matter of fact it’s even more necessary to protect them. And so what we did is, first of all, the casting process was very important to see what kind of groups of kids we would get and how they would get along and be supportive to each other. I think that that’s the most important thing, that they were confident towards each other and had faith and confidence in each other.
Through this casting process, a psychologist specialised in trauma was attached and she already actually gave me advice in seeing some kids doing their auditions. We did workshops for three days, so she would come in and say things like, “hmmm, this is fragile” or “too fragile” or “yes, but I need to work with him or her apart from that on his or her emotions.” So there was a psychologist attached to the project, she was there when we shot the scenes of course, and the most important thing is confidence – in us and in the technical team. I think the major aspect is I knew what it is, so I knew the tricks and I knew what was necessary to keep them healthy.