Versatile Belgian actress Veerle Baetens, known for her incandescent turn as the bluegrass-singing mom whose daughter takes ill in Oscar-nominated “The Broken Circle Breakdown,” joins the Sundance World Feature Competition with her provocative feature directing debut, “When It Melts,” an unflinching portrait of the lasting impact of untreated trauma. Film screens Jan. 21.

What drew you to adapt Lize Spit’s prize-winning novel “The Melting”?

At first, it was an offer a producer made. I read the book and I was touched by young Eva’s desire to be valued, to be loved. With the adult Eva, I felt sorry, but I found her difficult to grasp and thus fascinating. I know people who have been silenced and later on silence themselves. By making this movie I wanted to get closer to understanding people who have buried their pain deep inside of them, where no one can see it and where it silently hollows them out. … It is a vengeance story on a human scale.

What were the challenges in adapting the book?

It wasn’t easy. The book is written in three timelines and we brought them back to two. It was a question of distilling the most important elements. It took us in total, with breaks of course, six years. Co-screenwriter Maarten Loix and I wanted every character and their decisions to be human, and in a way even understandable. Also, we made Eva a more active character. Last but not least, the book treats some sensitive topics and it took us a long time to find the right balance in how far to go.

You found some really compelling young performers. 

None of the kid actors, except for young Tess (Eva’s little sister) had any experience in acting. The casting process was very long and very intense, but a beautiful experience. They first sent in tapes. We narrowed them down and invited some to do a face-to-face audition. Again, we narrowed down [the field] and started auditioning in the form of workshops. They would have acting lessons/games for a whole day where you could see them starting to relax and pick up things, really play with each other. They would go home, having learned something. Each time, the group got smaller and smaller until the final cast was formed.

With the final cast we kept doing workshops on acting, not using scenes from the movie, but scenes that somehow touched/treated the same topics. Like scenes from “Lord of the Flies,” “Goonies,” “Girl Interrupted,” “American Beauty,” “Stand by Me” and so on. We spent a lot of time together so that trust was built between them and us. I only started to really rehearse scenes from the movie with them a few weeks before shooting.

“When It Melts” by Veerle Baetens. Photos courtesy of Sundance Institute

How did you prepare the kids to shoot the traumatic event that haunts Eva’s life? 

The kids themselves call it the scene, the sword of Damocles hanging above their heads. It was of course a big thing. To begin with, at the time of the shoot, all of them were over 14. Rosa, who plays Eva, was actually 16 at that time. She is the oldest of the bunch. We were lucky to find such a talent who looked less than 13 years old and yet of an age where she could have a real conversation about it, reflect on it. Not only that, she had read the book before she came to the audition.

I insisted on having someone attached to the project who was familiar with trauma. The psychologist was already involved in the last stage of the casting process. When we finally had our cast together, we spoke with the kids and their parents. We read the script together and talked about their fears, their own lives and experiences and of course the scene. The psychologist pointed out what we should pay attention to for every child. The shooting of the scene was scheduled at the end of the shoot so that they had all the time possible to be together, to become a tight and loving group.

We had three days to shoot it, so time to do it in as gentle a way as possible. Rosa was given an in-ear piece. I would talk to her during the shooting of the scene and tell her a story with different connotations. Also, when she was alone in the image, all the other actors would go out of the room.

The psychologist was on set during the shooting of this scene and after every take she would take them out for games like Tetris or cutting fruits like ninjas or something. Anything to get their minds working in a different way from what they had just been feeling. Apparently, that is how you avoid trauma from settling in. Of course, it was intense; heavy for all the actors. But because there was trust, professional guidance and aftercare, it was managed in the best way possible.

What surprised you most about directing your first feature?

That it felt good. As an actress you are always in a fragile position, always depending on the opinion of others and you need a feeling of safety to be able to do that work. It felt good that I knew that and that I could be the one trying to provide that, so that the cast could give their best. I felt like a parent, very focused, very passionate.

What’s next for you? Do you want to continue writing and directing?  What is your next acting job?

Oh yes! I am actually discussing the adaptation rights of a play with an English author. I cannot say more about it, but I am very excited to dive into it shortly. I don’t know what my next acting job will be. I have been so busy finishing the film that there was no time for acting. But I’m looking forward to diving into a part soon.

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