'I really wanted to make a movie for the younger version of myself'

Anthony Schatteman on love, authenticity and acceptance in Young Hearts

by Amber Wilkinson

Young Hearts is a sweet-natured coming-of-age drama that sees its 14-year-old gay protagonist Elias (Lou Goossens) coming to terms with this sexual identity after he realises he is attracted to his new neighbour Alexander (Marius De Saeger). Writer/director Anthony Schatteman - who won a Kplus Special Mention for his film from the youth jury in Berlin - drew on his own teenage experience for the film, which emphasises romance and is aimed at a younger audience. We caught up with the Belgian filmmaker to talk about young love and being yourself.

It seems this is a very personal story for you, not just emotionally but biographically?

Anthony Schatteman: That’s right. Initially, I really wanted to make a movie for the younger version of myself, because when I grew up, I had some questions about being an adult, being a man and about my sexuality as well and I never really had examples in literature and movies where the main characters struggled with these same questions that I had. So I really wanted to make a movie that is watchable for every age group because, of course, there are a lot of coming-of-age movies and coming out movies, LGBTQ movies about the same topics but in a lot of them there are sexual scenes or scenes where there's a reference to sex. I really wanted to just focus on a romantic point of view, so even an eight year old watch it.

Although it's less common now there is still this thing where a lot of coming out films still have a tragic arc and it's nice to see one that doesn’t

AS: Someone asked me, ‘Is it that easy to come out in Belgium?’ I was like, it's not That's not what I wanted to portray. I didn't want to say it was so easy to come out. I just really wanted to make an uplifting loving movie where people can just smile and just be themselves.

Your movie is really about his personal, inner struggle, his struggle with becoming an adolescent - we've all been there on some level. People are accepting in ways that maybe not everybody would be accepting, but this is a romance. Straight kids have been having movies like this for years.

AS: We wanted to make a sentimental love story with a lot of strings. I grew up with these family movies in the Nineties, like Matilda, or like Mrs Doubtfire, The Parent Trap, with Lindsay Lohan. All these movies did so much for me. And I see, with my friends, they’re still our favourite movies. We watched them with our parents every Wednesday afternoon after school. I really wanted to make this kind of movie. I never intended to make a young adult movie but it just happened and I just followed my heart.

Anthony Schatteman: 'I never intended to make a young adult movie but it just happened and I just followed my heart'
Anthony Schatteman: 'I never intended to make a young adult movie but it just happened and I just followed my heart' Photo: Thomas Nolf
The relationship between the boy and his grandad is also interesting in the film. Did you model that on anybody?

AS: Well, my grandmother always was my best friend. When I grew up, she was like a second mother and she passed away when I was 12, right before I started struggling with these questions. So I always had in mind that if she would have lived, my life would have been different because parents expect a lot from their children, but grandparents look differently at their grandchildren. So I always had this thought that I would have been more free with her.

My other grandmother is still alive. She's 97. We don't really talk about my sexuality. She knows, but she's different from my other grandmother. And then my grandfather passed away 10 years ago, and recently I was there and she started crying. She's like, ‘Yeah, I don't do this. Normally, I don't cry with people because I'm a strong woman. And I don't want people to see I'm weak’. And then she said, ‘You cannot imagine how it is if you're 67 years together with someone, if you lose if you lose this, you can't imagine how it is’. And I can't imagine how it is. These words are so beautiful that I just took all my grandparents together into this one character who was portraying the conversations I needed.

The casting is super-important because as you say, there are no sexual scenes. So a lot of it is based on either touch or glance

AS: The casting was quite heavy, but really fun, because we saw more than 1,500 people, boys from the age of 12. The youngest was 11 up to the age of 18, I think, because we were also thinking maybe we would find his brother or something already. It was an open casting with 15 boys for 30 minutes that was quite intense. I did it together with one of my best friends, who is a child psychologist and therapist professionally. So he really helped when people were asking a lot of questions. We found Alexander - Marius De Saeger - first. Then I knew, okay, this is the age, he had just turned 14. Then we had to find a match for him. One week after, luckily, Lou came into the casting, and I immediately knew that he could potentially be the main character, seeing the two boys had this chemistry already. They became best friends.

It’s an energetic film, with lots of running about and bikes and swimming, how was all that to shoot?

AS: If I think about the free summers I had when I was young, what did we do, we went swimming, we went biking, we just did nothing, actually. But I think everyone had those moments when they were young. And we didn't have cell phones. I really wanted to make an authentic movie. I think if you take away the phones in this movie, it could also happen in the early 2000s or the end of the Nineties. I really wanted to have this bubbly energy and those two boys were exactly this. So that's why we also chose to just follow them with a camera and be very energetic.

Were you improvising a lot of that because quite a bit of it doesn’t have much dialogue?

AS: During rehearsals, we never worked with written dialogue, we were just about energy. We went bowling together, we’d just hang out a lot. We talked about emotions, we talked about, what is fear for you? What is love for you? What t makes you emotional? All these things and they had such different stories. But we knew what love was, we knew what pain was, we knew what sadness was. So this made us so strong that even on set we could just talk about emotions. It was really amazing for me to see how these two kids are so good. The actor who plays the father, Geert Van Rampelberg, is a really good actor in Belgium but I even saw him being blown away by this new talent. It was so cool to see.

I'm a bit concerned about the state of Belgian pop music though.

AS: My father was a singer in Belgium as well when I grew up. He won the Soundmix show - it’s a show where you have to replicate someone else - so he became famous with this. It was a more classical genre then but it's so nice that we have these Flemish songs in Belgium and it was really fun to make music for this.

I didn't know if Van Rampelberg would sing but he did it so well and he enjoyed it so much. The lyrics in that music, I wanted it to be like a metaphor for what Elias doesn’t allow. The father sings about the first love, about following your heart at the end. Everything that Elias needs to do but growing up in this heteronormative environment makes it hard for him. I really just hope that the film opens up a dialogue maybe between parents and children. My parents were always accepting. But as long as I didn't reach out to them, they were a bit like, okay, maybe it isn't like this. Maybe they already knew but they were waiting for me to reach out. It's so nice to hear that people say, ‘Yeah, we really need those stories’.

I guess you had to spend quite a bit of time crafting the friend group that they are part of, and especially the female character, played by Saar Rogiers, who is Elias’ girlfriend near the start

AS: I already knew who Saar Rogiers was, because last year there was a film at Berlin called Sea Sparkle. But it's three years ago that they shot that. So she was still a kid. Now she came to the casting and she has become so mature, so beautiful. And I thought she's maybe too mature for being the girlfriend of my main character. But she was so good that there was no there was no hesitation, she had to do it. I can imagine myself with my female friends around that age, I was still very small. My girlfriends were all a bit bigger. They were also a bit more mature than me then. So it was actually nice to see.

Lou Gossens as Elias in Young Hearts. Anthony Schatteman: 'During rehearsals, we never worked with written dialogue, we were just about energy'
Lou Gossens as Elias in Young Hearts. Anthony Schatteman: 'During rehearsals, we never worked with written dialogue, we were just about energy' Photo: Polar Bear
It really reminds me of my best friend when I was young, she was always there. I was with her or she was with me. We were not boyfriend or girlfriend. People thought this and people were saying this, but I never felt this. We were just best friends. It's so weird that people always assume that when you have a lot of girlfriends that you might have a relationship with them. And you're so young, why do you need to talk about these things if you just want to have fun?

I'm really happy about the whole friend group. The three girls in it came in together and just the chemistry was what they had. I knew this was perfect. They’re such a good match. So we were really lucky. The brother of Elias is also his brother in real life, the little sister of Alexander is his real little sister. It was just that, for me, it was all about being yourself. And the fact that they were surrounded with their own family on set made it very easy for them to be themselves.

Even though this is just having its premiere, presumably you’re already thinking about other projects you want to make. Do you think you’ll stay with young adult stories or are you planning to target different demographics?

AS: It was never really my intention to make a young adult movie, it just grew a bit like this. And I'm really happy that this is my first feature as well. I couldn't have made this 10 years ago. I think I was not ready to really tell my heart in a movie or something. The next project is not a young adult movie but it's still very personal. I think it made me learn or realise that simple plots are gppd. I think this movie is very clear. It's about a boy who's struggling with his identity. And I think it made me realise that it's really important to just have a clear story. During my 20s. I was making very difficult plots and like pitches, and I saw no one could relate to these things. Now I just did everything I wanted to see and I didn't overthink it. Even being here, I think it's good because I'm quite a commercial director. I grew up with these big Hollywood movies - when I saw Titanic, my life changed. So I always wanted to do this. And in film school, I was the outsider because everyone was talking about directors I’d never heard of. So the fact that I just did it and that people are happy seeing it is so wonderful.

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