From first-time feature writer/director Fran Kranz, the heartbreakingly moving drama Mass tells the painfully intimate and tragic story of two sets of parents (Reed Birney & Ann Dowd and Jason Isaacs & Martha Plimpton) who have suffered great loss. As they put words to their own grief and anger, they reach a level of understanding that just might help set them free to truly heal.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, which you can both watch and read, Kranz talked about why he felt so compelled to tell this story, the challenges of working almost entirely within one room, wanting to explore the idea of redemption and forgiveness, the incredible actors that make up this cast, and how he’ll need to take a break to recharge before directing his next project.
Collider: First I want to say this is a terrific film with incredible performances and I’m definitely looking forward to talking to you about it. But I have to ask, once you were ready to make your feature debut as a writer and director, knowing that you’d have to dedicate all this time to it, did you ever consider lighter fare, the first time around? Was it always this film and this story that you felt compelled to tell?
FRAN KRANZ: It’s funny, I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea. I was so naive, as an actor. At the wrap party, as an actor, that’s it. You’re done and you go home, and you maybe do some ADR and occasionally there are reshoots. And then, you hopefully get to go to some premiere later and celebrate. I was so emotional. People wanted me to give a toast or a speech and I was so emotional. The next day, I was driving around Sun Valley in the mountains, just holding back tears. I was a mess. And I had accomplished nothing. I’d done nothing. Now, I talk to directors and they say that’s the vacation, that’s fun. Everything starts in post. It has been a lot. It’s been emotional. It was emotional writing it. It was emotional making it. It’s emotional talking about it. But I had no choice. This thing took over my life. I didn’t start doing the research because I wanted to make a movie. I started reading about these things because I was upset and because I felt like I needed to know more. I was scared and I was frustrated or angry, and I just needed to know. There was never any question about having to do this work. I just did not know how much it entailed, as writer, producer, director, and everything. I’m the production company. I was just overwhelmed, but it was also a dream come true. And now that audiences are responding to it, it just feels like I have more work to do, but I can think of nothing better.
It seems like there’s an endless list ways this could all have gone wrong. You’re telling a story through conversations that are mostly in just one room. When did you realize things were actually all working and that it was a compelling story?
KRANZ: I got good feedback on the script. I tried to treat the conversation as if these were four equal parties and four equal human beings, who are real human beings. There was no good or bad. There was no antagonist or protagonist. There was an equivalence. I wanted their humanity and I wanted them to have dignity. I think that was important from the very first step. I wasn’t trying to say, “This person’s at fault. This person did this thing and these characters are going to find it out, so that they can blame them.” It’s about the complexity of being a human being and the tragic mistakes we make or the things we miss because we love unconditionally. Because we love our children so much, we make mistakes. That felt truthful. When I did this research and read about these things, that’s what I read about. I very rarely read about parents that were monsters, or parents that were so conspicuously bad. That’s just not what I’ve found.
Starting from that point helped the script and I got good feedback. I was open. I wanted notes. I wanted to change things. I didn’t have any experience, so I don’t think I had a big ego about it. I just wanted to be better. And then, when I got the actors, we had a two and a half day rehearsal. We sat at a table to do table work, which is basically dissecting the script and making sure it all worked. We were getting a lot of good work done there because I needed to make sure the words were there, so they can take these emotional journeys and the words would carry them to these emotional places. The four actors are better actors than I am and I wasn’t about to sit there telling them how to be emotional. They know how to do that. It was just about making sure that the journey was there. The other thing we did was that Ryan Jackson-Healy, my cinematographer, was there with a camera. We had our Alexa mini and we had lenses. We had the camera we were going to shoot with, and he moved around the table to help us understand our shot list, in between the rehearsal and the shoot. It was a camera test. Ryan sent me the footage and I saw it. I saw the movie. I could see it. We weren’t yet in Idaho, but I saw these actors playing with each other and reading these lines, and I knew it was gonna work.
Did you make a conscious decision, from the beginning, not to be in the first film that you did as a writer and director? Did you intentionally not want to direct yourself, or did it just not feel like there was a role for you in this story?
KRANZ: It was never conscious. I wrote that opening first. I wrote that in one sitting. I loved this idea of people helping people, and I loved the misdirection of not knowing where this was going. I really believe, if the movie was just the four parents, the audience would connect with it differently. It would be a movie, if that makes sense. You’d get to sit down and watch this, you meet these people, it’s fiction, and you could be safely disconnected from it and safely detached. I worried that you would not be as empathetic, you would not be as affected, and you would not be as engaged and connected to these people, if you just met them on their own. So, if I introduced them through these three supporting characters that feel like they’re from another movie, and there’s almost a comedic element and you get to laugh at a few jokes, lean in and wonder, “What is this? What are we seeing?” By the time the parents arrive, the audience can be blindsided by what the movie is really about.
I just believed that that would connect us in a more intense way with the story, that the empathy would be greater, and that our connection would be more profound, if we did not see it coming and we learned about this in an organic, odd way. So, I wrote those supporting parts, and I didn’t write a part for me. With the parents, I felt like I’m not quite there yet. I never thought about it. I never consciously thought about it, one way or the other. There just wasn’t a part for me. I don’t know. I don’t really, at the moment, have an interest in directing anything that I’m in. For some reason, I feel like I wanna just tell a story that’s in my head and have a deep emotional connection with it. At the moment, acting and placing myself in a role I feel like would muddle and would be a distraction in that relationship, if that makes sense.
It’s interesting because I talk to a lot of actors who direct, and some are totally okay with directing themselves while others never want to direct themselves. There doesn’t really seem to be an in between.
KRANZ: Yeah, that’s interesting. I wanna make another movie just simply to see if I can improve on the mistakes that I made. I feel like this is having success and I need to do another one just because of that. But I don’t know. We’ll see. I have no desire to go play and direct Hamlet. Not that those guys that do it aren’t awesome. I think it’s great. I’m a big Kenneth Branagh fan.
Did you always know that you wanted to take this journey to a place of redemption and forgiveness, or would you have been okay if it never got to that point and if it didn’t feel right?
KRANZ: I wanted to believe in those ideas because I didn’t know if I was capable of that. The literal catalyst for the film was the Parkland shooting because I was a parent at that time. It was the first major, high-profile, mass shooting that happened when I had a child and it affected me so differently. I was overwhelmed and I started reading about it. When I came across these meetings, the connection I made was with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. When I learned about that in college, I was deeply disturbed by it because I did not think I could do it. I did not think I could forgive someone who took a loved one or a family member from me. It terrified me because what that meant is that I would be living a life of hate and blame, forever. I’d be stuck with that pain, that resentment, and that hatred, and that’s a terrifying thing to think about. I had to confront those feelings again when this Parkland shooting happened because I was a parent and I started to worry about my child and the country she was gonna grow up into. I didn’t know how I was going to get there necessarily.
I’ve read a lot about the amnesty hearings in South Africa. There’s not a whole lot to read about these meetings in the wake of shootings because, obviously, they’re private, they’re painful, and they’re extremely sensitive. It’s not as if you get some transcripts. There are little details you get, here and there, that people have been open enough to share, so I tried to construct one. I was coming at it from having these people all be inherently good human beings. I didn’t know how we were going to get there, but I was curious. I was interested in the idea that forgiveness doesn’t benefit all of the parties equally and maybe there’s even a transactional quality to it, where I get to forgive you and feel better about myself, but what does that mean for you? I wanted to explore that because I didn’t knowhow any of this stuff works, but I felt like I needed to. I felt like I desperately wanted to believe in reconciliation and forgiveness, but I just didn’t know how to get there. That is what the movie is. It’s very personal, in the sense that I’m working through this myself, but these four characters are my proxy.
I just thought that moment was so interesting.
KRANZ: I think of this movie as being very much about restorative justice. Someone said, “But the victim and the perpetrator are gone. That’s not restorative justice, if they’re gone.” And I don’t know. I wanna push back on that, in the sense that maybe that’s taking it too literally and limiting our point of view. I think it’s simply the effort. It’s making the effort to forgive, making the effort to heal, making the effort to reconcile. Those intentions are restorative because they are not punitive. Those intentions are restorative because they are not retributive. You’re not asking for retribution. You’re not asking for punishment. That’s what it means to me. I immersed myself in those stories, in large part, because they don’t all end the same way . . . At the end of the day, I’m so worried about this increasingly divided country. I’m worried about the country that my daughter is growing up into, and I’m worried about these events and the frequency of them. I feel like, if there’s not some effort to reconcile, if there’s not some effort to restore and repair these broken relationships, I don’t have a lot of hope. I don’t know how we survive. I don’t know how we can move forward, if we can’t start to make a better effort to bridge this divide. It seems like it’s just getting further and further divided, as opposed to trying to reach some common ground.
So, the idea of sitting down at a table in the physical presence of someone, and not online or through avatars, but being physically present and trying to work through your problems with someone that you are at odds with, or feel blame towards, or have hate towards, I can think of nothing more extraordinary and necessary. That was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to lift up that action and elevate that as being important. That’s one of the reasons we don’t leave the room, really. It’s just four people at a table, white walls, very little production design. The church was a modest church. It doesn’t look like some concert hall. I just wanted to focus on the basic action that these people are trying to work through their differences.
Are you someone who has other scripts written that you’re currently working on getting made? Do you use that outlet as a catharsis to get right onto the next project, or are you figuring out what you want to do next?
KRANZ: I was trying. I feel like I’m still working on this. I’m so emotionally attached to this. I’m exhausted. I feel like a crazy person, but I can’t break away from it. It’s like being in a relationship. I’m not ready to move on. I do have other scripts. I was working on something when this all happened and just put it aside. So, I have these unfinished ideas. I’ve been dreaming about doing this most of my life, so I have a lot of unfinished ideas that never made it and I couldn’t really get over that hump. This one, I was able to, mostly because of this desperation and urgency that I felt around it. It felt important. It felt like what these people are doing is extraordinary, but it shouldn’t be extraordinary. We should be encouraging it. It should be something that we see happen more in our society. I wonder if it would be helpful to make a practice of this. So, I have another idea, but I truly think I need to really be done with this one first, whatever that means . . . It’s emotional. I definitely need a break. I wanna be a dad. I just want those moments. We’ll see. I definitely have ideas, but I’m gonna need a beat. I’m gonna need a spa, or a rehab or some institution. Something will work and get me energized again.
Mass is now playing in theaters.
No one’s had a career quite like this man.
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