Fran Kranz Talks His Drama 'Mass,' Impossible Grief, And The Power Of Ann Dowd [Sundance Interview]

Fran Kranz’s “Mass” is likely one of the most emotionally pulverizing films ever made about America’s gun-violence epidemic – but across its 110-minute runtime, not a single shot is fired.

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Instead, this intimate chamber piece centers on the parents of two teenagers involved in a school shooting, who come to the table six years later in hopes of finding a way forward from the unfathomable tragedy that’s ripped their lives apart. Kranz – a first-time writer-director better known as an actor in “The Cabin in the Woods” and on TV’s “Dollhouse” – takes his time revealing information about both sets of parents. 

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In the film’s early stages, as his characters arrive at a small-town church for a face-to-face meeting, it’s not initially clear whose son was gunned down, and whose pulled the trigger. This decision allows “Mass” to keep its characters on equal footing and, at least initially, keep any judgments at bay. When Jay (Jason Isaacs, ‘Harry Potter”) and Gail (Martha Plimpton, “Raising Hope”) first sit down across from Richard (Reed Birney, Broadway’s “The Humans”) and Linda (Ann Dowd, “Compliance”), their small talk carries an air of quiet resignation; “ice-breakers” aren’t exactly useful in a dialogue built along such unbearably traumatic emotional faultlines. 

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But “Mass” patiently brings into focus the deep, abiding grief of its characters as they seek healing, forgiveness, and some small measure of grace. Set almost entirely inside one small and unremarkable conference room, Kranz’s film is a claustrophobic and often devastating watch. But it’s also a dazzling actors’ showcase, and a beautiful meditation on what consolations might be possible for those seeking justice where there is none.

“We live in this country that is so divided, where there seems to be so much anger,” explains Fran Kranz, speaking via Zoom after the film’s world premiere at Sundance this year. “This is a movie about reconciling what appears to be irreconcilable, and restoring something that’s broken.”

Fran Kranz spoke to The Playlist about the delicate process of making “Mass,” witnessing the power of his performers firsthand, and what he hopes audiences will take away from his most powerful film about these most painful of subjects.

“Mass” has been acclaimed at Sundance; this is its world premiere. How does it feel to finally screen this film for audiences?
I’m exhausted. I’m still kind of overwhelmed. The response has been wonderful and overwhelming, and there’s sort of attention on “What do you want to do next?” And I’m like, “I just want to sell my movie and focus on ‘Mass’ still.” It’s a weird thing. I’m an actor, and I’m not used to this kind of attention or playing this kind of a part. My heart is still completely in this movie, so it feels disingenuous to “talk about my directing career.” As a director and a writer, this has been such a journey. It’s just so indistinguishable from my heart and soul at this point. 

Where’s your head at currently with it?
I just want it to find the right home. I believe in this movie so much, and I’ve experienced how it moves people, from early on in the writing process to the shooting process – and in ancillary ways that you wouldn’t expect. We were rehearsing the movie in New York City, in Times Square; we had a short rehearsal with the actors. And right after, I’d go find a restaurant or a coffee shop and immediately sit down to start doing rewrites, while it was still fresh. 

I remember sitting at a table next to five or six women, and eventually they saw me with my script and I seemed kind of crazed. They asked, “What are you doing?” One thing led to another, and I told them what the script was, and they said, “Oh. We just had one.” They were from Santa Fe, Texas, where there’d been a shooting. They were just affected by the fact someone was even doing this. And this might sound self-important, but it’s been a burden. It’s been emotional. I feel so attached to this, like a child. Until it has a home and has been seen through everything, it’s hard to relax. I just feel like I have work to do.

There’s such an empathy and an insight to “Mass.” When did you first know it was a story you wanted to tell? 
Everyone’s experienced loss, and grief. And as artists or storytellers, we have to be allowed to write about things we haven’t experienced; that’s what artists do. I’ve never experienced anything like these events, been directly involved, or known anyone who has been. But I was so overwhelmed by the Parkland shooting. I was a new father, and it hit me differently, but what I was feeling boiled down to this compassion and empathy for these people, wanting to know they’d be okay and that there is life beyond such extreme tragedy. 

I went down a rabbit hole researching the subject. But the foundation came 20 years ago in college, when I learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I read these incredible stories coming out of the amnesty trials there, where families would meet perpetrators and offenders of their loved ones. All they did was share stories, to speak about their truth and experiences. On one level, that’s so ordinary; but on another, it’s the most extraordinary thing I could imagine. It takes such incredible strength to speak about the most vulnerable, painful things in your life. Making that connection, I knew it was something I wanted to write about. It just hit me as, “This is a conversation compelling enough to sit through.” 

What about this made it the right project for you to make your writing and directing debut?
I’d been looking for a one-location, low-budget idea, and it all just started to crystalize and coalesce. This is not to sound bitter: I love big movies. I want to make big movies one day. But I really felt like the most powerful things are still interwoven into everyday human life. I wanted to tell a story that was simple, that had these acts of incredible courage and bravery and transcendent behavior, in what was otherwise this normal, simple setting… This is real-life human heroics, not superheroes and not flashy, and yet what these people do in this room is as incredible as anything we could dream up in fiction. I believe that.

It’s also a story about two marriages that are in trouble, one intact and one not. You want these people to heal, all four of them. And as difficult as the film can be at times, I believe there’s healing and hope for all of them. Something happens to these people, just through making this effort to come together. 

Desmond Tutu said, “When there’s no room for retributive justice, there can only be restorative justice.” Retributive means punitive, punishing the offender; here’s a situation where the offender is gone, so what do you do? Restorative justice is what these four people are doing, and that I think can be the most healing, transcendent justice of all. It’s about connecting. It’s not about punishment. It’s about rehabilitation.

“Mass” is contained in a way that showcases these four performances. You’re best known for playing Marty in “The Cabin in the Woods,” but you also performed the role of Bernard in “Death of a Salesman” and were on Broadway with “You Can’t Take It with You.” What made you decide to do this as a film, not a play?
I can probably best answer that by admitting it was a play for a long time. My first draft was a screenplay, because I had wanted to make a movie. But quickly, I realized that I love theater, and the second draft was a play. I’d just worked with this writer-director Richard Nelson, who’s done a lot with the Public Theater in New York, and he’s famous in particular for this style of theater that’s extremely realistic. He talks about achieving verisimilitude and putting real life on stage, so the actors don’t cheat out to the audience. There’s no presentation. You speak in the volume you’d use to speak with the person in front of you. You’re not projecting or blocking out for the audience; you’d do a scene at a table and have a real meal, and have your back to the audience for 20-30 minutes. 

It was a strange thing and not for everyone, but the people who did like it would say that they’d never seen anything like it. I drank that Kool-Aid. I got into it and loved working with him and wanted to adopt that for this play. It’d be phony to have a lot of blocking, and I wanted to honor the intimacy of what it would be.

But I just kept thinking that we had to be closer to these actors. As a theater person, I hate to say something like this, but it is too intimate for theater. We have to be on the characters. We have to watch each of them listening. We have to see the moments that are private. So much of this movie and the dynamics of what happens in the room – from a cinematography and editing standpoint – depends on a public realm and a private realm. We get to see the four of them show things that can be seen by the other three, but then we also need to see the moments that are more internal. It felt like that could only be done on film. 

So, I went back to doing it that way. But I think the film retains that theatrical spirit. It stars four amazing actors with theater backgrounds, and I approached it like a theater director. You talked about “Death of a Salesman,” and I would never compare myself to Mike Nichols, but I did try to emulate the way he handled that play’s process. I wanted us to just share stories and talk. Granted, he was in his 80s when he did that show, but we didn’t block until maybe a week before previews. Nobody was even on their feet the first month. It was about growing to trust one another, becoming close to another. I knew that was the only way this would work. 

Did coming from an acting background help you draw some level of realism out of the actors?
As far as the performances went, for what the five of us needed to accomplish in that room, our [prep] had to be more like group therapy. 

I wasn’t approaching Ann or Martha saying, “I need you to dig deeper.” I didn’t need to pull emotion out of these people. They brought it. They’re four of the best actors. You don’t get better. I have to credit the writing, but I also have to credit the way the actors took ownership of the writing. It was important to me that if they had a problem with a line, we had to solve it, and that a rewrite was on the table. All four actors tweaked lines to make it flow for them, to support the naturalism necessary to get to those emotional places. The actors couldn’t be struggling or bumping up against the lines; they couldn’t fake a single moment. 

Ann Dowd’s performance is particularly stunning, the emotional devastation and loneliness she carries as a mother annihilated by her son’s actions but also questioning how to mourn him. How did you build that character, and was it always important to you to show that side of this story?
It never for a second felt like any conscious decision to treat empathetically the parents of the shooter. My heart was there from the beginning. What those people have gone through is unimaginable in a way that’s possibly not thought of as much just because we don’t dare to go there ourselves. It’s unthinkable. My heart broke for the stories I read, that those parents have made public. I had a ton of passion in writing those characters.

With Ann, something mystical is happening. There’s no doubt about it, and there’s something truly magical about what she does in this film. She’s spoken about it in interviews, that she let this woman in. You didn’t know sometimes if she was going to be able to get through it. She had taken on the burden of this person in such a real, truthful way that it was overwhelming for her. It was a privilege to watch, but you felt concerned for her at times. She’s an incredibly strong woman and could get out of it, too, but it was a marvel to watch. You’re asking people to comprehend the incomprehensible, to face all that they don’t want to face. At the end of the film, what she’s asking is, “How well do we really know each other? Can you ever know each other? And also, how hard have we really tried?” 

There’s so much doubt and sadness she carries in herself for maybe not trying hard enough to know her son, and because she was afraid of him at times. It was easier not to deal with the anger and the problems, which we can all relate to on some level in our families; it’s easier to let it keep going to to maintain an equilibrium, status quo, or peace. But there could be some festering, insidious problem with a family member, but it’s scary and hard to face it. That’s what Ann wants from this meeting. She wants people to try harder to face the difficulties and disturbances in others, to face the people we don’t want to face and listen to the people we don’t want to listen to. If it’s not compromise, it’s a shared humanity that makes for more healing and a restorative future. If we live divided and angry, we worry it’ll destroy us. 

“Mass” is one of the most thoughtful films I’ve seen about the American gun crisis, in its collisions of mental illness, anger, politics, family, and emotional disconnect. But its ideas about finding a way forward don’t feel preachy. Tell me about addressing these issues without rendering some kind of reductive diagnosis.
Early drafts had a lot more of the diagnosis you’re talking about. It was longer, and there was more commentary. I realized it was just me, that it was pretentious and indulgent. I’d pare it down and realize how much the characters would not talk about. But so much of that feeling and passion still lives inside of it. 

I worry we’re living in a world of people who’ve become so comfortable being isolated from one another. I’m not a religious person, though I am spiritual. But I can’t help but wonder what’s sacrificed in an increasingly secular world. What are we losing as we become further disconnected from community? 

Underneath all this was a real personal concern about directions we appear to be moving in. I don’t know why some people have done horrible things, but I speculate on it. I don’t think there’s an easy answer for the shooting in our story. But most important was being true to the room, and true to the simplicity of the story. I had to pare out all the things I wanted to say, and only say the things that would be said. But all those questions and feelings are contained in the answer to why I think these four people are heroic for getting in a room with people they’re fundamentally at odds with. That’s a microcosm of what this world needs more of. You have this transcendent behavior in a room you never imagined capable of it. 

“Mass” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking U.S. distribution.