A Shared Tragedy: Fran Kranz’s Mass Explores the Emotional Aftermath of a School Shooting

Photo Courtesy Bleecker Street

It’s ironic that a movie called Mass, Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, opened at Sundance in the first year that crowds couldn’t gather en masse in Park City. Regardless, critics watching from their laptops heaped praise upon the film, which was subsequently acquired by Bleecker Street and slated for theatrical release on Oct. 8, 2021.

To put it mildly, Mass deals with difficult subject matter. Six years after their son is murdered in a shooting spree by a classmate, Gail (Martha Plimpton) and Jay (Jason Isaacs) schedule a face-to-face meeting with the parents of the gunman—Linda (Ann Dowd) and Richard (Reed Birney)—in an effort to move forward with their lives. Set almost entirely in a small church antechamber, the film largely sidesteps the political implications of the tragedy, instead offering a raw, deeply personal look at grief, rage, forgiveness, and the all-but-impossible task of making sense of the unimaginable.

For Kranz—an actor best known for his roles in films and TV shows produced, written, or directed by Joss Whedon, including The Cabin in the Woods, Dollhouse, and Much Ado About NothingMass is the culmination of a nearly lifelong dream to become a filmmaker. After trying and failing to garner interest in bigger-budget projects—including a script about an alien invasion—he realized it was time to scale down his ambitions and focus on a more contained story. He found that story in the wake of the Parkland school shootings in February 2018, which sent him down a rabbit hole of research that eventually led to the script that became Mass.

Kranz spoke with Boxoffice Pro about casting his four leads, how horror movies inspired the film’s cinematography, and why he hopes Mass’s exclusive theatrical window holds.

Mass is your directorial debut. How long had you been wanting to become a filmmaker, and what made you decide to finally take the leap?

I dreamed about writing and directing most of my life. I made attempts at writing, and they either weren’t very good, they were never complete, [or] they were big. I wrote a script about an alien invasion that I really thought was amazing, but people looked at me like I was crazy, like, “What do you expect to do with this? No one’s gonna give you money to make this thing.” So I started, with some frustration, realizing I needed to have a smaller scope.

And then the Parkland shooting happened. My daughter was a little over one year old, and it affected me differently. I was really overwhelmed by it, and I felt this need to learn about these shootings. And that started two years of research, reading nothing else but about the subject, and researching different shootings, reading about families, reading stories, articles, things online, anything I could find. I was pretty obsessed and could not pull focus away from it. And the film kind of came out of that research.

I think a lot of times the family members, or the parents specifically, of school shooters are not really talked about or sympathized with or humanized in any way. But this movie does a really good job of humanizing the parents of the shooter. I saw a TED Talk from a few years ago with Dylan Klebold’s mom from Columbine—

Yeah, Sue Klebold. I’ve seen that, yeah.

I’m wondering if that informed how you wrote the two parents of the shooters.

Absolutely. I think I’ve read everything you could find from Sue Klebold and listened to that TED talk as well. I wouldn’t say any one character is modeled off any one person. They’re sort of combinations of things that I found in real life and then things I brought to the character, but you’re obviously going to see connections and feel those connections because Sue Klebold was a big inspiration.

I say this with I think a healthy amount of insecurity and humility, because I can only hope that families, victims, communities will appreciate or accept the film. I’ve never experienced anything like this directly. I wrote it really out of fear of these situations, and frustration and anger and confusion, because I had a child, and I don’t want it to be my story. But I am not a victim.

But it was honest, hard work, and two years of crying in front of a laptop, or another year of crying in front of Adobe software or Vimeo or—I guess we used Avid also. Before the action of the film takes place, you learn Martha Plimpton’s character, Gail, wrote Ann Dowd’s character, Linda, a letter asking her to know her son. This was a line and an idea that came out of doing this research and feeling like I want to feel closer to these people so that I care, so that I feel empathy and I can try to transmit those feelings to audiences through this film in order to bring awareness and compassion and change to this awful epidemic in our country.

You brought up Martha Plimpton, and she’s really extraordinary in this movie. I don’t recall ever really seeing her quite this way before on-screen, I guess because she’s known more as a comedic actor. Can you talk a little bit about how she got involved? To broaden that question a little bit, all four actors are known for being supporting players for the most part. Was there something about not casting “movie stars” that you found worked for the premise?

Yeah, it’s funny. Because A, I never imagined getting actors of that caliber or that well known. But at the same time, yes, there was a discussion internally, just on my own and with producers, to achieve the kind of realism that the film depends on. Because you really want to be in that room and not be distracted by anything else and feel like you’re watching real life. It was important that you didn’t have a recognizable face. We sort of joked about a Tom Hanks in a role, and how maybe that couldn’t work necessarily. And at the same time, who are we kidding? Tom Hanks would be amazing. So it’s this sort of a strange hypothetical where, yes, you want the actors to disappear, but we’re also trying to get a movie made and sold, right?

When Martha’s name came up—I know you said you think of her and a lot of her more recent comedic work—I’ve seen her onstage many times and she’s an incredible actor. One thing that inspired me about the choice was her work going all the way back to Running on Empty. That is a really deeply human, restrained performance. She has this really emotional scene with River Phoenix in Running on Empty, but she doesn’t let it overwhelm her. She contains the emotion in a way that’s really beautiful and honest.

Photo Courtesy Bleecker Street

I saw the movie as sort of a suspense film, in the sense that you take a while to set it up. I get that part of the reason for doing that is to set up the very delicate nature of this impending interaction, but I also saw it as being a way of kind of building suspense, right? Did you approach it in that way too?

Absolutely. It’s obviously such sensitive subject matter, but I’ll be honest that with Ryan Jackson-Healy, my cinematographer, we approached a lot of shots by speaking about horror films, or even Spielberg, in particular War of the Worlds or Jaws. I mean, it’s undeniable the film is very dark subject matter. And we did make a choice to approach certain technical compositions that way. Another inspiration was Michael Haneke and a lot of his films that obviously cover a lot of dark subject matter as well.

I’m really proud of my supporting actors, and the opening 15 minutes of the film. To me, it was always important and necessary to introduce the four parents with regular people, so to speak. People that haven’t experienced incredible tragedy and have these damaged lives. People that feel more like the audience. So it’s not meant to sort of feel irrelevant or a tonal change, the first 15 minutes. It’s leading you down a very specific path so that these four parents arrive when you’re primed and ready for them.

The title here seems to have sort of a double meaning. Mass could mean mass shooting. It also takes place in a church, so it can mean a church mass. Can you talk a little bit about the double meaning in the title and how it pertains to the film’s themes?

Yeah. I like a third meaning, the assembling of bodies, the gathering of people, you know, a mass of people, a crowd. You go in a dictionary, and “mass” has a few definitions. It’s not just this sort of double entendre. But to me, the division between a secular and a religious meaning, that’s kind of where the movie is for me, this ambiguous kind of spiritual realm.

I love the title moving between those spaces—the religious mass and then the secular mass of just the gathering of bodies. That’s why the title has a special place in my heart. The idea of being with people and seeing them and seeing their humanity face to face. To experience the things they do and to achieve the kind of reconciliation that they’re looking for is only possible through physical human connection.

This is sort of another conversation, but I worry about the world we live in and how it becomes increasingly more isolated. And I worry about the way we behave and treat each other online through avatars and through social media platforms. I think when you’re in person, when you’re face to face with someone, you behave differently when you can see someone’s humanity and share in their experience and understand their grief and experience shared suffering.

I know this is coming out in October; Bleecker Street is releasing it. Do you know what the release strategy is going to be? Because we’re seeing a lot of day-and-date streaming and theatrical premieres.

I’d be reluctant to say anything with too much certainty in the world we live in. But the release right now is October 8 exclusively in theaters, hopefully for a good run. I think that’s really up to the audiences showing up. I believe we will not be on video on demand or pay TV for a while after the exclusive theatrical release … that’s the hope.

Obviously taking into account people’s sensitivities with Covid-19 and going into a theater to watch a movie, is there a preferred way that you would want people to see this movie?

We’ve certainly talked a lot about it internally with Bleecker Street, and one thing that we agreed on was that the movie’s pretty overwhelming. We had one screening before the pandemic, it was a rough cut, and there was probably 50 people in a theater that could fit about 300. So it was not very crowded, but it was intense. It was an intense experience.

I don’t say this because I think the movie’s so great, I say it because the story is fiction, but the events that inspired it are not. Obviously because of Covid-19 and the pandemic, but also because of the subject matter, it would not be appropriate to host or create a screening that had more than 150 people or a capacity over 50 percent. We want the space and the intimacy and also kind of the privacy to experience that, if that makes sense.

At the same time, kind of going back to the movie’s title, there is that communal experience that you have in a movie theater, that shared communal experience with other people.

In 2019, when we finished shooting, that was a goal of mine—that this was a movie where I wanted people in a crowded theater crying together. And when the pandemic started, I remember there was a lot of talk about submitting to festivals and just trying to sell the movie. “Hey, we got a movie in the can, we should sell it when no one else can shoot.” But I strongly believed, “No, we have to wait as long as it takes to make sure we can have people in theaters together watching this movie.” And look, that was early 2020, and so much has changed. So I come at it with a different perspective.

It’s funny because I actually felt the power of the Sundance virtual screening. I know being at the Eccles Theater and having 2,000 people watch this movie would have been amazing. But I felt so much joy and affirmation and humility just being a part of that Sundance virtual screening. So there are ways to achieve resonance and connection in the world we live in today.

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