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Director Martha Coolidge, Producer Wage Bitter Fight for Control of Holocaust Drama

Variety logo Variety 2/15/2017 Gene Maddaus
© Provided by Variety

Veteran director Martha Coolidge is embroiled in an ugly battle with a Polish-Canadian producer for control over an independent feature about a love story set amid the Holocaust.

The producer, businessman Zbigniew Raczynski, fired Coolidge last month, alleging that she caused the production to spiral out of control, nearly doubling its $8.4 million budget. Coolidge — who was the first female president of the Directors Guild of America — enlisted the DGA to help her fight back, and won an arbitration ruling on Tuesday granting her control of the film.

Also on Tuesday, Raczynski filed a lawsuit in L.A. Superior Court, alleging that Coolidge physically attacked him on set and wore a Nazi SS officer’s outfit — including a Nazi hat — while filming scenes depicting the Auschwitz concentration camp.

The film — titled “Music, War and Love” — is nearly completed, but is stuck in limbo between Raczynski, who financed it and has barred Coolidge from the editing room, and Coolidge, whose contract entitles her to final cut.

In a statement to Variety, the DGA said that Raczynski’s lawsuit “is an attempt to avoid a final and binding decision from an arbitration ruling in Ms. Coolidge’s favor on Feb. 14.”

“The arbitrator, after hearing the facts of the matter, clearly ruled that the producer’s attempt to terminate Ms. Coolidge from the picture is ‘invalid,’ that Ms. Coolidge ‘must remain the director of the Picture,’ and that ‘no one other than Ms. Coolidge may supervise or direct the editing and post production of the Picture,'” the DGA said.

Raczynski’s attorneys refused to participate in the arbitration. In their lawsuit, they lay out a story of a chaotic runaway production, and allege that Coolidge berated anyone who tried to rein her in.

According to the suit, the film was based on the story of Raczynski’s father. The trouble began soon after Coolidge was hired to direct the film in the summer of 2015. Raczynksi alleges that Coolidge caused delays in pre-production, and was not available full-time because she had to teach a class at Chapman University. Photography began in Poland more than a month late, in October of 2015.

Once shooting started, Raczynski alleges that Coolidge was regularly late, ignored the schedule and budget, and made costly last-minute changes.

“Coolidge took irrational and hostile positions with production staff and members of the crew, oftentimes yelling and screaming at crew members for issues that were the result of Coolidge’s aforementioned actions,” the suit states.

Raczynski alleges that Coolidge also attacked him and tried to force him off “her” set, and displayed a “severe and inexcusable lack of judgment” by wearing the SS officer’s hat during the Auschwitz scenes.

Shooting was not completed that fall, and the production was forced to return to Poland in the summer of 2016.

The problems continued in post-production. According to the lawsuit, Coolidge was absent for two weeks without notice, and spent $700,000 on a “completely unusable” cut of the film. When production staff raised concerns about the cost overruns, “Coolidge became combative, verbally attacking and berating those individuals,” the suit alleges. Coolidge’s cut also exceeded the maximum run time, the suit alleges. Coolidge allegedly fired the post-production supervisor without authorization, according to Raczynski.

In her argument to the arbitrator, Coolidge lays out a much different version of events. Once she was hired in 2015, Coolidge contends that she realized the script could not be shot within the budget, and had to hire a new writer to pare it down.

Once she completed a cut of the film last fall, she testified that she screened it for the producers and a select audience — and that the audience and the producers liked it. She however decided that it ran too long, and needed another week to cut it down. However, Raczynski shut down production on Nov. 3 and banned her from the editing room.

Two weeks later, Coolidge was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident. According to Raczynksi’s suit, she was hospitalized for five weeks, during which time she kept the producers in the dark about her medical condition and her ability to complete the film. Coolidge thwarted the producers’ efforts to have a doctor examine her, setting and canceling an appointment, and refusing to reschedule, according to the suit.

Coolidge maintains that she was willing to be examined, but wanted her personal doctor and her lawyer to attend. They could not settle on a date by mid-January, when Coolidge was fired.

Coolidge took the case to arbitration, alleging that Raczynski had violated the DGA’s basic agreement, which provides that a director who has completed 100% of principal photography cannot be fired except in cases of “gross willful misconduct.” Raczynski’s lawyers argued that the dispute was not subject to arbitration, and boycotted the hearing. The arbitrator, having heard only Coolidge’s side, ruled in her favor.

Raczynski is seeking a finding that Coolidge breached her agreement, and also wants “millions of dollars” in damages.

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