This filmmaker finds a way to craft a brilliantly intimate film that lingers with you long after your first watch.
Sundance is a breeding ground for emotionally stunning films like Veerle Baetens’s When It Melts. The story, which premiered in the festival’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition, is not unfamiliar, yet showcases a tenderness that many directors struggle to find in their projects, let alone their directorial debuts.
Baetens’ film is an achievement on many levels of indie filmmaking. As her story defies the usual rules of dual-timeline films, which is that one period is often more interesting than the other, and navigates the awkwardness of intimacy in puberty, Baetens never loses focus of her film’s thesis.
When It Melts follows Eva (Charlotte De Bruyne) after having a quarrel with her younger sister for moving out of their shared apartment and receiving an online invite to an event celebrating the life of a friend who died when she was young. As she prepares to attend, Eva thinks back to her small-town youth and her friendship with two local boys. Jan’s death casts a shadow even in these early flashbacks, leaving one to wonder if his passing is the catalyst that causes Eva to freeze a block of ice, put it in her car and drive back to her old village with it.
It’s hard to find the words that capture the complexity of Baetens’ provocative feature debut. There are many layers to this complex story that could easily get lost in the muddy waters of over-saturated stories of abuse, yet Baetens takes the time in her writing and editing process to give each moment space to exist and breathe with the audience. When It Melts also benefits from Rosa Marchant’s and Charlotte De Bruyne’s heartbreakingly juxtaposed performances of Eva.
Baetens and actress Rosa Marchant, who plays the young version of Eva, sat down with No Film School at Sundance 2023 to discuss navigating their newfound roles in the film, breaking down how to create a safe space for intimate scenes, and the joys of finding and collaborating with trustworthy creators who trust you
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
No Film School: Congratulations on When It Melts being at Sundance 2023. How does it feel to have this film as your directorial debut for a narrative featured at Sundance?
Veerle Baetens: I've never been at a festival with a film, as a director, because I'm an actress. I've been an actress for 25 years now. But this festival has something very special to it. You feel that the founder is really into artistic storytelling. It's all about the storyteller and what the artist wants to talk about and bring to the world. So, it's nice to feel that it's not about the market. It's not about numbers and money.
NFS: What about you, Rosa? How do you feel about this film that you're in at Sundance?
Rosa Marchant: Yeah, it's really cool. Yesterday, I was with the other leading actor, Charlotte [De Bruyne]. We were walking in Main Street, exploring a bit. There were all different kinds of people asking us about the movie, because they saw our card, and they were like, "Wow. What's it called? I want to see it." Many people ask us about it. Also, people who had already seen it. Everybody is very kind and interested in all the movies.
NFS: That's a great feeling to have. Everyone is here to celebrate filmmaking. I know that this is a story that's partially based on a novel, but you made it your own story. What initially attracted you to this narrative?
Baetens: When I read the book, I recognized myself in little Eva a lot, wanting to be seen or validated by, especially at that age, boys wanting to be seen as pretty or a possibility. I was very uncertain by myself of how I looked. The opinion of others was very important. That is also to Eva to the extent that she betrays her values. She wants to be loved, but she's waiting for everything to come from them to feel love and has no love for herself. That touched me.
For the adult Eva, I was fascinated by this silence because I don't know it. I can easily talk about things, but she clearly can't. I see I have people around me who also struggle with this, I call it, the human mechanism of shutting down and just silencing yourself.
I also get a lot of people saying things like, "Oh, she's or he's so using their past as an excuse to not take life in their hands." Every time I hear that it just makes me very mad because it's not that easy for a lot of people to come out. We're in a period of #MeToo, and you need to come out and open. Of course, yes, but some people just can't. I wanted to give it a closer look.
Yeah, a microscope on someone's life. Maybe I wanted to offer a sort of friend to her, so that the spectator, the audience, becomes the only friend she has. Powerless to help her, but she's powerless to help herself too.
NFS: What attracted you to this role of young Eva?
Marchant: I think it's a very important story. It has very universal aspects in it. When we saw it for the first time with our family, the crew, and the cast, they were all really touched. Everybody kind of found something that was personal to them. Everybody found a little piece of themselves in it, and I think that's something. Also, growing up, and then figuring out friendship, peer pressure, and all that. So that's interesting. You don't see that as often.
NFS: It's a topic we often don't look at, especially in our society. We don't value young teenage girls. They're going through so much, and they're often taken advantage of. They're at a weird intersection of navigating their place in the world when that's a lot of pressure to put on a child. I feel like you balanced these elements and aspects very beautifully in the script and also as a director. What was the process like for you to find that balance?
Baetens: It was a very long process because the book contains 470 pages or something and it was a long way. We've written for five years. So, balancing all of these issues, emotions, events, and traumas, was a search of going back and forth, turning right, coming back, going further on, turning left, and not going back. It's a good question, but it's a difficult question because it's something that takes so much time.
That's why I think that we succeeded in balancing because we took our time to write it. I didn't want to do injustice to people who have really experienced these things. There are a lot of topics. I mean, there's also the neglect of parents, but there's also the fact that girls are always seen as an object or often seen as objects wanting to be pretty. It's all about being pretty.
As an actress, I also know it. That's why I think passing to directing is also sort of a relief for me. Not having to perform, not having to be something at that time, at that moment. For women also comes looks, and directing was a good time off of that. Being able to give this safe place for the actors where I know they need to be completely fine and trusting when they perform.
NFS: That's a big topic right now when we're having these depictions of assaults on screen. It's keeping the cast safe and making sure that they feel protected at all times. How do you frame these moments of assault on screen while keeping everyone safe? What kind of preparation goes into this before you step on set and when you are on set?
Marchant: Veerle created a very safe space for us, and also with the crew. The people she chose to work with were all very close to us, very understanding of the whole process, patient, and everything. I was very good friends with all the kids. We knew each other before we started filming. We trusted each other, so that helps. So it felt very safe, and we were all very close.
Baetens: I thought that it was very important that they knew each other. The casting process was already in workshop style, so they would be together for a whole day with the group of kids. And then, when we got the five of them, all five of them, we did workshops. Also, the sister, so they were all together and we're giving workshops on acting. We also spend a weekend at the beach, at the sea, being together, cooking together, making jokes together, laughing together, and talking about ourselves.
We would ask each other questions like, “What is the most beautiful song that you know? What is the most beautiful clip in a film that you know?” We got to know each other. Then, of course, comes the scene itself. It's shot at the end of the shoot. For a month, they were playing together, were together in hotels, ate together, and played together.
Marchant: We called it the scene.
Baetens: Yes, it was the scene.
The scene. We rehearsed the fight. We rehearsed the game before the fight, but we didn't rehearse the scene itself. It was for the moment. Also, there was a psychologist attached who was there on set, who talked with some kids even more intimately, several times, so that everything was cleared out and known. That trust could be built in. And you know what is so beautiful? We still meet each other because I think aftercare is very important. We still spend so much time together talking. All of them, in a way, have this feeling of, you're the only ones. They're singing it to each other. You're the only ones that have seen me-
Marchant: As I am.
Everyone was saying, "Oh, you guys, I can be myself when I'm with you. It's always so nice to be together. We can just talk about everything. I can tell you everything." So, it's really, really nice.
Baetens: Yes. I think acting can be so liberating. Especially for kids at that age, they changed so much. They become better with themselves.
NFS: Yeah. It's allowing yourself to be vulnerable.
NFS: When you allow yourself to be vulnerable, not only to others but to yourself, you learn a lot.
Baetens: Yes because the movie talks about that. She's not able to do it anymore because it's too scary. These kids, actually, they learn to be vulnerable, especially the boys. That was beautiful, huh? Also, Elisa is a beautiful, beautiful young lady. But also, she's like, "I can't be." She also evolved emotionally, made an evolution in that.
During the shooting of this scene, Rosa had an in-ear. I was afraid of this scene being connotation to something that is not for her yet. So, I talked to her when she did the scene. I pulled it away from everything that's sexual. It was, storywise, more about fighting and soldiers.
NFS: Rosa, do you feel comfortable kind of talking about that process, having the in-mic in your ear, and filming the scene?
Marchant: Yeah. It was a long day. We took a whole day to do it, but it was also fun. I think we had maybe the most fun in between, before shooting and after, to compensate or something. But it is not easy. I was a bit nervous about it at first, but once you do it, it's like, you just go for it.
Baetens: It happens. This psychologist also was there to take them out after every take, to get them into another part of the brain that is more, like you had to say, who's the worst dressed person on set? Or not being in your emotional part of the brain.
Marchant: I was 16 years old when we were filming, and now I'm 17 years old. I had already read the book before I started auditioning. So, I knew what was going to happen, and I knew the story. Yeah, so in that part, you were very well prepared.
Baetens: I had the luck to have a girl that looks 11 years old, and it's good for later on. I was happy to have a mature and older child to play with a younger one.
NFS: I want to talk to you about this timeline that's in this movie. It's interwoven. It's past and present. Was it always written like that in the script? Or I think the better question here is, how did this timeline change from the script into the editing process, into the final cut?
Baetens: Good question. We did a re-shoot event. The fabrication of the ice block was in the script three years ago. But in writing, we didn't feel that. It's crazy how writing is something else. It's another world, and it's another way of telling a story than an image. It got lost because we didn't need it. Then, we filmed it, we edited it, and the structure that was written didn't work at all in the edit. In between the scenes themselves, the scene itself worked, but the structure didn't work. What happened with the script as we moved back and forward between past and present a lot more, shorter bits
We needed to search in the edit for, “How can we make the audience stay attached to young Eva? And how can we keep them?” It's not so difficult for young Eva, but it was difficult for older Eva to stay attached to her. And still, we decided to just first start with Eva's life, because the storyline is in the present. The past is a sort of, I didn't want it to be only an illustration. I wanted it to be two timelines, but it has already happened.
Then, we realized we needed this block of ice. We started feeling the movie. That made the entrance of the movie, and it was necessary. I was very happy that the producers [Bart Van Langendonck, Ellen Havenith, and Jacques-Henri Bronckart] said, "Okay, just do it."
So, we stayed a lot longer in every timeline. The difficulty was switching between those two timelines and staying in an emotional line that actually does this. It happens in the present, in a way. You see it also in the image. The image just begins in the past and begins quite large. In the present, she's already in the box.
NFS: What was the biggest challenge for both of you during this entire production?
Baetens: From 470 pages to one and a half hours. That, and turning adult Eva into an active person. In the book, she's passive completely. It's an internal monologue. It's beautiful to read, but it's dreadful to see someone just look. I didn't want to work with the voiceover, so I wanted to. So, making her more active.
Then, yeah, immediately trying to get the attention of people interested in adult Eva. I think that was very difficult because it is a character that normally would not be someone you would be drawn to or not a lot of people. I think that was the most difficult topic, creating empathy for a present Eva.
Marchant: Everything was very new to me. It was the first time that I ever acted. I think making sure that the evolution of Eva is very clear, that she changes, and that she is the way she is because of things that happen. The evolution she goes through in the story. Making sure that that is clear in the film was important to me and in the script. Yeah, that was like, I wanted to make sure that I do, yeah, the right way.
Baetens: And you did it marvelously. Because you see her evolution. You see her first wanting to be pretty. Then, oh, well, okay, I will provide the riddle. Then, when the riddle is going on, okay, shit. No, these girls, I need to protect them. Oh, fuck. I'm kicked out. Here, I don't have a place, so fuck, I need to be in there with them. And then, she just betrays her values. And you captured that perfectly.
NFS: There were multiple moments in the movie where I wanted to hug you. It's like, "Oh, I need to protect this child."
Baetens: That's an important feeling. That's a feeling that I wanted to create, like, "Ugh, protect them. Protect them."
NFS: Do you have any advice for any first-time actors, and then actors who want to make their directorial debut with a narrative feature?
Baetens: I would say, "Don't wait." This was hard to do for the first movie. I mean, it's two timelines. It's about difficult topics. I don’t want to say take it easy or take something easier. No, no. Even though, I think, the business is very about some things about money and time.
Take your time and try to defend this as much as you can, this time, and how you want to do it. I had a great producer who gave me the time, who gave me the time needed and the possibilities of making my choices.
It wasn't Francis Ford Coppola and The Godfather, how who had to fight for everything. It wasn't that. I was very free. So, find a producer who cares about what you want to make.
NFS: Rosa, do you have any advice for young actors or actresses?
Marchant: The same trust is just as important as your director. And that's what I had with Veerle. I really wanted to do it.
Baetens: You really wanted to have the part.
Marchant: Yeah, I really wanted to. And I think, yeah, that's important to fight for what you want to do.
NFS: How was the experience of watching the film for the first time with an audience?
Marchant: It was really fun, but also stressful. I sat next to Veerle. It was the first time that I sat next to you during the film. It was really funny.
I was also nervous about it because it was the first time that we saw it with an audience and not with the cast and crew. So yeah, it was pretty nerve-wracking, but also exciting.
Baetens: It's like being a parent, or I remember it from my dad being at a performance for piano. Or that you get to know that he's afraid that you make mistakes. It’s not because he's feeling ashamed of you or embarrassed, but because he loves you and he wants people to love you. So we all have the same problem. That's what you're like there like, "Oh, people. Oh, don't wait. Ooh, this is a little bit too long." Or hear the music, it's too loud. And you just see every... But it was great at the same time.