Interview: Filmmaker Fran Kranz on Making Mass and the Most Honorable, Important Thing People Can Do Right Now

One of the most talked-about films of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Mass, the writing/directing debut of actor Fran Kranz, which thoughtfully examines the journey of two sets of parents whose children were directly involved in a high school shooting. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd play the parents of the young shooter, while Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton play the grieving parents of one of the boy’s victims. Feeling a great deal like a stage play—four characters spending almost the entire film in a single room (and it’s no coincidence that Kranz cast a quartet of theater veterans)—Mass takes place years after the tragedy tore all of their lives apart. They have agreed to meet face-to-face as part of their journey of grief, anger, and acceptance, hoping to put at least a part of this incident behind them once and for all. Some of the characters are more successful at this than others.

Mass Ann Dowd and Reed Birney in MASS. Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

Although Kranz has been acting steadily since childhood (with smaller parts in films like Donnie Darko, Training Day, Orange County, Matchstick Men, and The Village), he gained recognition through the Joss Whedon-created series “Dollhouse” as Topher Brink, which led to a leading role in the films Cabin in the Woods (co-written by Whedon), as well as the Whedon-directed adaptation of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Kranz has had the directing bug for a while, but he was in search of the right story to tell. Sadly, the real world provided the impetus for writing Mass, which at various points was a movie, then a play, then a movie again, while fully realizing the stage play elements within it. I’ll let him explain the rest in our extended recent conversation about the conception and making of Mass. Please enjoy…

I first saw this film during Sundance in January, and it really stuck with me. I was particularly pleased that you cast Ann and Martha in it, two actors with deep Chicago theater roots.

Oh yeah. There’s so much theater in the DNA of the movie. It feels like a play, it started as a screenplay, but I switch gears and made it a stage play, but my heart was set on a film, so I switched back. It is what it is: four people at a table for about 75 minutes, so of course it would make an interesting, compelling play. I always though I’d need theater actors, and that’s not a knock on film actors. There isn’t really a difference, or at least there shouldn’t be one. For me, there is a naturalism, which is ironic because the camera picks up everything when you think of the great film actors like De Niro and the subtlety of some of his great performances. But I think of theater actors as being able to present real life in a more elevated way, with a naturalism that is so stunning when it is presented beautifully and honestly, and I attribute that to great stage actors. I’ve met a few in New York through doing stage work, but I knew from the beginning I wanted four actors with a background in theater because essentially what they will be doing is putting on a little play. We’ll have such long takes, we’re going to shoot chronologically, they have to live through this conversation and keep it all together; it’s not a regular scene out of the film, this is unique, and I knew I needed strong stage actors.

I had assumed that the scenes in that room were shot chronologically—I don’t know how else you could have done it.

Yeah, I’d never done this before—first-time director—so I needed to ease my way into it. So I started the film with the beginning of the film. I had three brilliant supporting actors, and the opening of the film was certainly easier storytelling and directing than the conversation and how emotional the film gets. It was baby steps, easing my way into being a director, four-page days, lighter material. So by the time the four parents arrive and we did get to the conversation and we did shoot chronologically for the end of the shoot, it was nine days in the room, but it took about a day to get them seated at the table and the door closed to leave them alone in the room. And those were the final eight days of production, and at that point, I’d only been a director for six days, but at least it wasn’t my first time on set in that capacity.

Was the stuff at the end, where the meeting is breaking up, also shot at the beginning?

Yeah, and this happens in films. It feels noteworthy in this film because of how emotional it is. The majority of the film is in one room and is an uninterrupted conversation, but there’s an ending outside of the room, and we shot that before the conversation, which was a risk. We’re used to that as actors; you rarely shoot in chronological order. But the intensity of this movie and the big emotions involved made it a challenge to do that, certainly. It was a bit of a crap shoot. “Are we going to get this right? Are we going to match the emotions and be in the right place?”

As a parent, I can see how you could put yourself in the shoes of the victim’s parents. How difficult was it for you to empathize with the other parents in the writing process?

It’s strange. I was a new parent when the Parkland shooting happened. My daughter was just over one, so I responded to these events differently. That event was the real catalyst for me starting to do this research, and it wasn’t because I had a movie in mind. I just wanted to know; I needed to know more about this because I was so horrified and frustrated by what is happening, and I need to know more. What shocked me was learning about the parents of the shooter, in a lot of different instances. And what shocked me was that I was so heartbroken by their stories, so moved. I didn’t find a monster, I didn’t find some terrible parents, or abusive, wicked parents. I came across complicated human behavior, tragedy, mistakes, because parents love their children irrationally, unconditionally, obsessively, passionately, and you make mistakes because you love so much and can be blinded by the healthy choices of your own behavior or the unhealthy choices. That to me was so human and so relatable that I became fascinated by these meetings; I saw four human beings in these rooms. I didn’t see a bad guy or good guy, protagonist or antagonist. I saw equivalence among them, dignity and humanity, and I wanted to defend them. I wanted four people earnestly try to heal and help one another. So that’s how I treated it because I don’t think the movie would work if you took a side. I don’t think that the conversation is as compelling if there were a character who was anything less than a fully three-dimensional person.

Once you realized that this was the subject you were going to tackle as a play or film, did you immediately have second thoughts and wonder why you were doing something so heavy and provocative right out of the gate?

Yeah, but I believed in it and believed it could work. And there was a stubbornness to it because people told me it wasn’t going to work. They said you have to have flashbacks and break the conversation up. “People won’t sit through this. Young people will never watch this movie because their attention spans are too short.” Things like that. I dug in my heels because I believed in it because I can’t think of anything more extraordinary than sitting across the table from someone you feel hatred for or blame toward, but coming to that table to work through that. I think that’s the most courageous and inspiring behavior, and I wanted to lift that up and elevate it, and I believe that if we jump out of the room, if we have flashback or infuse some sort of visual poetry into this movie, we undermine the challenge and the courage that it takes to work through differences with those you are at odds with. These are the most difficult circumstances that I could ever imagine, yet these are people trying to heal in the face of that, and I can’t think of anything more inspiring.

In my mind, I was making the biggest movie you could imagine; it wasn’t just some movie in a room. In terms of taking on those themes, at a certain point, I didn’t think that I had a choice as a parent. I became obsessed with the research and these stories of people I learned about. I couldn’t sleep at night and was crying in front of a laptop. I felt like I had not choice and still get emotional talking about it. And I’ll be honest, I’d written a screenplay about an alien invasion, and everyone thought I was crazy and said “Who’s going to give you money for your $100 million movie. You need to lower you sights.” I never wanted to make a movie in a room, but when I came across these meetings, I knew it was a movie. And it was definitely not a bad thing it was going to cost very little and I didn’t need to try and raise millions of dollars. That was helpful, I’ll admit.

Mass Jason Isaac and Martha Plimpton in MASS. Image courtesy of Bleecker Street

A traditional story has a beginning, middle and end. This story feels like the end of something, a process maybe or series of events. Did you make adjustments in the screenplay to make it more of a complete arc? And don’t get me wrong, there is a rhythm to this screenplay that is so beautiful; you give everyone a moment to shine.

It’s interesting. I really appreciate the question and the observation. The early drafts of this were—I don’t want to say uneventful, but they were polite. The characters went into this room, they worked through something, and they were generally polite and decent to one another. The movie was almost strange at that point in the writing process, in that there was very little structure to it. almost robbing the audience of catharsis. For me, this was what I was reading from meetings like the Forgiveness Project and the Truth in Reconciliation Commission; there’s not some dramatic structure, it’s not theater or a three-act structure; it’s just these meetings, and can these people reconcile, can they find a way to forgive or can they not? I just wanted to put that on screen. I can think of nothing more honorable in today’s world, with how divided the country is and this way we seem to normalize hating people we don’t know. I thought having people in a room, physically present with one another, face to face, working through their problems—I can think of nothing more honorable and important right now. I just wanted to present that. But believe me, people were constantly saying, “You should really hit this beat 30 minutes in. This should really happen before page 30, hit this beat around page 60. I push back on all of those things because I wasn’t try to make a normal movie here. I’m not trying to make a normal movie here; I’m trying to make something different. If we try to somehow meet in between, we’ll have nothing. If I try to also have a three-act structure with my unique movie that is just about these people meeting, I’m going to have a mess. I stuck to my belief that all that mattered was this conversation. It evolved, it got more emotional, there is a clear catharsis, there is more of a clear climax to the movie. But the original genesis was the thought that I didn’t need to do anything more than have these people sit down, talk, and see where it goes. That’s in the soul and spirit of this movie, that it’s just that.

The film reminded me that grief is an interesting thing because many people hold onto it as long as they can, because if we let it go, we have to ask ourselves “Where do I go from here?” There’s a lot of that going on in your movie, that leaving this room might mean leaving grieving behind.

I don’t want to give spoilers away, but one of the characters really speaks to that and why they’re afraid to forgive and shake hands, because they will lose their relationship with the lost loved one. It will change that relationship. It’s a really powerful and scary notion; it scares the hell out of me. I wrote this and was obsessed with these stories and meanings because I don’t know if I can forgive or how I’d deal with these things. But I want to believe in forgiveness and that you can heal or at least move forward. For me, there’s a reoccurring image of landscape in the film, and that’s grief. I wanted to represent the human subterranean where these feelings go and how you live with it and never really escape it, how it’s a part of you. Visually, the image evolves, the look and feel around the image changes because you live with grief but you can live with it maybe more easily and peacefully. You don’t have to be at war with grief; you can find a relationship that lets you move forward, and that’s so much what the journey is about. Forgiveness doesn’t benefit all parties equally; I’m certainly not telling people to forgive everybody, especially in situations like these. The movie isn’t meant to say this is what you should do; it’s a thought or meditation about it. This is just my artistic expression about how we deal with grief and how we can live with it. There’s a lot of complexity to the notion of forgiveness that can contrasted and juxtaposed with the way we live with grief in a healthy, more positive way.

Fran, best of luck with this. And I hope you still get to make your alien-invasion movie too.

Thank you, take care.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.