Martha Coolidge on a Romance That Cuts Across Time in “I’ll Find You”

There’s an amusing little ditty mocking Adolf Hitler that Benno (Stellan Skarsgard) sings to bring Robert (Leo Suter), the young man at his door in Berlin, into his confidence in “I’ll Find You,” a necessity when no one can be trusted during the Nazis’ invasion of Poland during World War II. Teasing him with “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball” to test his vocal range, seeing whether the singer will be able to match him note for note, Benno’s gusto at demeaning Der fuhrer within the sanctity of his own home was once something director Martha Coolidge could hear during her own childhood after the war when her mother used to sing the same song.

“That’s not special. I think everybody sang it,” Coolidge recalls. “They sang it in Europe, they sang it in the US. What can I say? We were all like that.”

That playfulness is laced throughout “I’ll Find You” in spite of the dire situation at hand when Robert arrives in Berlin to prove his talent to Benno, a world-class opera singer, but only as a means to get what he really wants – to be reunited with Rachel (Adelaide Clemens), a violinist he went to music school with. Once believing the two could never be together because of his Catholic faith, it proves to be what allows him to pursue Rachel after she’s taken to a concentration camp along with her family. Both are able to stay alive because of their musical gifts, as Rachel is forced to perform for Nazi commandants while Robert and Benno do soon the outside to gain information that could lead to her release and while the outlook is inevitably bleak, Coolidge brings a light touch to show the hope that’s necessary to carry on.

Told over the course of the years leading up to the war and during, the film follows a younger Robert (Sebastian Croft) and Rachel (Ursula Parker) evolve from rivals into friends at a prestigious academy run by a benevolent headmistress (Connie Nielsen), with the young man’s realization that he’ll never be as good at violin as his female counterpart leading him to change his tune. However, the director of “Rambling Rose” and “Angie” is able to express a far larger cultural shift as the vibrant daily life in Poland is darkened considerably as war looms on the horizon and the relationship of Robert and Rachel, for whom it would seem nothing is insurmountable after resolving their own differences as children, counter pure evil as they would their music, reaching deep within themselves to uncover otherworldly skill.

An unreal team behind the camera was able to pull off the period drama at a time when it couldn’t be more difficult, with Coolidge joined by “Godfather” producer Fred Roos and “The Sting” screenwriter David S. Ward (working from an original draft by Bozenna Intrator) on the Polish co-production and sitting out the pandemic to see the inside of theaters, “I’ll Find You” arrives on both the big screen and homes around the country on VOD as its themes sadly couldn’t be any more timely and the director spoke about how she was able to manage such a massive international production, telling a story across generations and finding silver linings.

How did this come about?

Actually it goes back a long way. I first came to Hollywood, partly invited by Francis Coppola and Fred Roos, who I’d spoken to way back, and then I started working at Zoetrope, trying to find a project to make there. And two [projects] came and went, but it was an incredibly exciting time to be around Zoetrope, [and eventually] Fred brought me [“I’ll Find You”]. He sent the script to me when the other director fell out, and he asked me if I’d be interested. I had never been offered a movie like this before. I was very interested, but what really got me was the love story. The idea of going into a World War II movie with a love story was very strong for me, and I think when you ask, “How do people survive?” Well, they survive hoping for that.

You avoid cliche quite early for films set during this period with how colorful the film is. What was it like setting the tone aesthetically?

It was very interesting and intentional. The more I read about Poland between the wars, the more I realized that Poland was in a very different situation than most of the other European countries. They weren’t in the huge economic collapse that was going on. They were very successful, and they wanted to have their own history and control of their own lives, so the new generations growing up there were thinking a little more like Americans in that I can do what I’d like, and there’s room to fit and all of that. Then when everything changed and the Germans came, it just ripped the floor out from under them. And I went with a beautiful costume designer [Elzbieta Radke] who went with us on our palette, and particularly Lodz, but also Krakow, it has many colors, but they’re subtle. They’re not like popcorn. They have a period [feel] to them, but they’re very happy. People really had an emphasis on color. And then during the war, we do get a little drab – the whole color drains out of the picture, but color comes back at the end.

What was it like finding your crew for an international production like this? I understand you found a Polish cinematographer and production designer out of Los Angeles.

Because film is such an international language, if you research the country you’re in and the habits of the crews in that country, whether they’re union or how it’s controlled, it’s really not that hard. There’s still an [assistant director]. There’s still a production manager. But you’re not speaking directly to everyone if you’re not a native speaker. That’s why I felt it was really a plus to have [a few Polish-Americans] because they could speak to their crew. And by this time, I was in Poland and I said, “Well, let’s look for Polish people first. Let’s start.” There are a couple of famous Polish cinematographers, though they were busy and we looked around in Hollywood and came up with Marek [Dobrowolski, the production designer] and Alexander [Gruszynski, the cinematographer], and they were perfect. Neither one of them had made a film in Poland before and that was really interesting.

We had decided even earlier than that that we were going to do the film mainly in English because it’s an international language, so we did go and look for some of the very young actors in England, not here [in the U.S.], because they’re there and they’re trained, so it was great. We used many European actors from every country, just wonderful actors and I loved getting to know all the actors in this movie.

Something you navigate wonderfully is having actors of different ages playing the same characters. Is that difficult to figure out when you’re the connective tissue between those performances?

The best thing is to get them to know each other, so you’re talking to each one of them about their history, but they’re mostly making that up. They create their history as well from the script and from whatever resources they can come up with. What was wonderful was how the families meshed. Ursula [Parker] is American, but is a violinist, so it was great how she meshed with the English actors and some of the other actors, and we had quite a group of youngsters involved in this picture and then their older halves. They mostly were working the same time, so they did meet each other.

Leo has said how emotional he got shooting in the ghetto. What was it like being allowed into those locations to film?

The ghetto itself actually was in Lodz, so we went to that part of the city, and we built the ghetto and people came out of their houses and came up to me and other members of the crew and said, “I remember when it was just like this.” Now that is stunning. That never happened to me before, and it was really interesting because you meet so many people with so many memories. Basically, there’s so many stories, that have to do with the war and what people did, depending on their religion or their beliefs. It was an incredibly emotional experience to go through.

Is it true you were presiding over 550 people on set at one point? Was it like your David Lean moment?

It’s true. There were a few, but it was a little bit closer to gangster films or something because of the underground [nature of it] and things like that. But it was great. And I’ve worked on big [productions]…I mean, “Real Genius.” Geez. I had hundreds of people. But it’s a big deal. And I’m honored to have done it and the only way to do it is with an international crew, so you have a first [assistant director], second ADs who speak multiple languages. The whole thing is complicated, but it works. It’s a film.

The other scene I wanted to single out is filming with Stellan Skarsgård performing in front of a full orchestra in that beautiful concert hall. That seemed like it must have been a fun day to shoot.

Well, there are many ways to interpret the word “fun.” [laughs] Of course, it was fun. When I first talked to Stellan, he said, “I don’t sing, and I will not be singing.” And that was like, “What?” But he did anyway. And I got a beautiful tenor to sing for him and gave him singing lessons, so he’s singing, but the recording [in the film] is the other tenor and I’ve learned the band is playing from the same score, so the orchestra is actually playing the instruments, but it’s not being recorded with them because then it would change every time you stopped and went to a new recording, it would change. That would be bad. But Stellan’s a lot of fun and he was great singing. And God, that beautiful theater. That’s where [Sebastian Croft, who plays Robert as a] boy sings. It’s so incredible when he sang and the look on Stellan’s face. I love that look.

What’s it like getting it out into the world at this time?

After waiting this long, I am so happy. I went to a one screening, and I was so happy to go to it and have people there, people who didn’t know me and I’m so happy that it’s coming out. Because when you make films, you make them for people. It’s not made for nothing and it’s great to hear everybody’s reaction, hear their thoughts, what it makes them think of, what it makes them remember. That’s really, really great. It’s very hard to make films like this, because you’re treading into people’s lives and I’m glad that it has warm thoughts that do come up or memories that are very important to people.

“I’ll Find You” opens on February 25th in select theaters including the Arena Cinelounge and Encino Town Center 5 in Los Angeles and on digital on iTunes, Amazon, and Vudu.