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“Sending Your Script to Someone is Like Asking Them to Never Speak to You Again”: Fran Kranz on the Making of His Grief and Reconciliation Drama, Mass

Mass (Photo: Bleecker Street)

Two sets of parents enter a plain, drab room located down the hallway of an unassuming Episcopalian church. Their reason for meeting pertains to their respective sons, both of whom have died. One set of parents have lost their son to a mass shooter at his high school, the other set’s son was himself the mass shooter. 

That is the basis for Fran Kranz’s emotionally raw debut feature, Mass, a film that is necessarily an actors’ showcase but also an exercise in pared-down filmmaking that finds tension and release in the subtlest of camera gestures. As the parents debate everything from potential warning signs to “nature versus nurture,” Kranz allows his cast (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton as the grieving parents and Reed Birney and Ann Dowd as parents unsure if they’re allowed to grieve) to lean into the emotional and physical exhaustion that comes from the tense confinement within a single room. Less a film with a “message” than a film infatuated by its heightened scenario, Mass leaves no stone unturned in its characters’ quest to accept the unacceptable.

A few days before Mass opened in limited theatrical release from Bleecker Street, I spoke with Kranz, an accomplished actor who performed in the most recent Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, about being a first-time director, the importance of confirming a location, and resisting the urge to “open up” the text.

Filmmaker: In asking about the origins of this project, I know there are many different starting points. You had read and were influenced by Desmond Tutu’s 1999 book, No Future Without Forgiveness, you had recently become a father yourself, and you were a successful actor who was looking to write and direct a feature film. Have you always had a desire to get behind the camera? Was it the story for Mass that you were always interested in telling or was it the wanting to go into directing that ultimately put you behind the camera?

Kranz: Since I was a kid I’ve wanted to be an actor, a writer, and a director. I made bizarre, ridiculous home movies growing up, and I thought it was something I would grow into. And then here I was, some 20-odd years later of being a professional actor, and I still hadn’t made a film. I was getting more and more frustrated. I had written scripts that just weren’t realistically going to get made. I showed my agents a script for an “alien invasion” movie and they were like, “What is this? What the hell are we supposed to do with this?” I wasn’t sure how to get my foot in the door.

I think part of me was just scared, thinking, “Can I pull it off? Would I even be good at this?” But there were several reasons for [directing my first film] taking so long. I think what the real catalyst was — and what the emotional catalyst for Mass’s narrative in particular was — was my having a child. I felt like I didn’t want her to see me like this. It’s one thing to be a struggling, out-of-work actor, and it’s another to emotionally be at the mercy of impending disappointment and rejection and the waiting for specific phone calls. I wanted her to have a dad,  or a role model, that was more proactive than that. Even if Mass crashed and burned, at least I took action and followed my dreams and put in the effort to realize them. I ultimately felt that it’s one thing to disappoint myself every year with not having made a movie, but it’s another thing for her to have to see that. I didn’t want her to see that eat away at me. That was the real kick in the pants.

To your earlier reference, yes, the origins of Mass were somewhat inspired by Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgiveness. I was learning about the concept of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in college and was really disturbed by it. I didn’t think that I could forgive someone who had, for instance, taken a loved one away from me. I also watched a documentary on South African apartheid, Long Night’s Journey into Day, that had premiered at Sundance that year [2000], and it also troubled me. What stuck with me was this notion of: How could I forgive and subsequently live with myself while holding onto all of this resentment and hate and anger?

When the Parkland, Florida school shooting happened in 2018, I felt compelled to learn more. When I came across the concept of these meetings [between grieving parents], I made a connection between that setting and this film. That was a kind of “lightbulb” moment for me, and that became the story I want to tell. It was also, of course, very low-budget and felt like something I could get off the ground.

Filmmaker: So when you wrote the screenplay for Mass, did you write with a smaller scale/lower budget in mind? An economy of means, if you will?

Kranz: Yeah, especially since no one knew what to do with the alien script! I had made a few attempts to write other screenplays, but this one felt right. Once I began writing about a meeting between two sets of parents, I grew fascinated by several possibilities. The first was that it was incredible that human beings were willingly participating in these meetings. A meeting of that magnitude takes so much courage and, while I believe we want to see people behave that way, we don’t see enough of those “sitting down and listening} [meetings] in our world right now. Any sort of meetings like that are between politicians who possess no ability to compromise or to get anything done. When the country is incredibly divided like they are now, a meeting like this would demand real courageous behavior, and yet here were private meetings between two sets of parents, and there’s an intimacy and simplicity to that. There’s an extraordinary kind of transcendent behavior that comes with trying to collectively reconcile. It felt like a story that should be told and it consumed me. The story always felt emotionally “big,” operatic even, like it would be the most emotional story you could imagine. And while I hate to use the word “lucky,” I didn’t have to overthink the budget, as I knew that the majority of the film would be set in one single room. The movie obviously incorporates other elements outside of that room, but it’s primarily inside that one space. Of course, raising funds for production was not easy. No one wanted to give me money…

Filmmaker: Did you need a proof-of-concept to get the ball rolling? Or perhaps some of your cast attached?

Kranz: The order of events was that I first tried to obtain the money [myself], and then I brought on several producers: Dylan Matlock, Casey Mott, and J.P. Ouellette. They were all folks I had worked with before, and I needed people that could really run the production, nuts-and-bolts wise. Casey had just written and directed a movie [A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2017)] that I had acted in and helped produce. Once we had that [team] in place, we still didn’t have any money to make the film and we still didn’t have a cast. I had written the role of Richard for Reed Birney but, and no offense to Reed (I’m sure he’d agree with me on this!), but having him attached wasn’t necessarily going to get the film greenlit. He’s an amazing actor, but a lot of actors who are very well known in the theater community are not considered household names to the general public. And they’re not helping with the financing of film productions. Nonetheless, I never believed I would be able to cast actors like Reed in my film. I had specific actors in mind who often worked in the New York theater community, and Reed was one of them who I wrote the part for, but I never imagined it would happen. And while Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Ann Dowd have accumulated theater and stage experience throughout their careers, I never imagined casting people that well-known.

When we initially went out with the script, I took to cold-calling people, essentially. I joke about this, but sending your script to someone is like asking them to never speak to you again. This is also true for asking people for money. A lot of people in my phone book should probably no longer be a contact because they did not get back to me [laughs]. The process was difficult ,and I was frustrated and desperate to make the film. I ultimately decided that I was going to make it as though my life depended on it. And so I created a production company online and then opened up a bank account which I deposited $30,000 into and started telling people that the film was partially financed. 

While we didn’t have too many investors, eventually a few came aboard, albeit in a funny, very irregular way. I was always told that in order to get a film going, you had to secure a location and a start date, that nothing is real without a date and a location. So that was something I got. Everything came together in the late summer/early fall of 2019 and we shot in November of 2019. Films can be in pre-production for years and years, right? But this came together pretty quickly. The Parkland shooting took place in February of 2018 and we shot the film in November of 2019. Once I was able to tell a little white lie about being financed, agencies began sending me lists of their actors. 

I should also note that it was extremely important for me to hire casting directors [Henry Russell Bergstein and Allison Estrin] to legitimize this project in a major way so that it wasn’t just “some guy with a screenplay.” We all began filling out the pieces, and that started with having a location and establishing a window of time to film in. I knew we had to be finished with the shoot by Thanksgiving, as that’s when Sun Valley, Idaho’s ski resort town, opens up and the prices triple in cost. Once I established the shooting date and had casting directors working with me with some financing in place, things sped up. Once we cast our lead actors, I said, “I don’t want any [outside] money on this film. I’m going to use my own money. I know how good this thing’s going to be.”

Filmmaker: When it came to settling on a location, what were the most important factors? Had you considered filming on a soundstage? Or was the natural light that pours into the room a deciding factor for you?

Kranz: It’s funny, as I’ve admittedly forgotten a bit, but I spent a lot of time Googling different churches and visiting their Facebook pages to view any photos they had posted, essentially so that I could scout the location from afar. I looked at churches in North Carolina, Texas, and obviously Idaho, where we wound up shooting the film. It was important to me, however, that the church not be in Los Angeles or New York. Knowing that I was a first-time director, I felt like I needed to go somewhere that I didn’t consider “home.” I needed to have some privacy and solitude for the journey that I was about to take, and I needed to completely focus on the project. I need to “get out” a bit and have the location feel like 40 out of the 50 states. That ultimately meant avoiding the more common locations or cities that so many films are shot in and where so many actors live.

My producer, Casey Mott, who lived in L.A. at the time, got a job in Sun Valley, running their regional theater, The Argyros as their new executive director. He told me, “Look, I can’t help you unless you shoot your film [in Sun Valley].” And so I thought to myself, “Okay, well, at the very least I’ll go scout churches there.” That’s what I wound up doing, eventually connecting with the landscape and embracing the “small town” quality to it. There was a quiet beauty to the landscape and it possessed a sadness and melancholy as well — no offense to Sun Valley, of course! While some of that had to do with the time of year we planned to shoot the film [November], there’s also a particular image [that reoccurs in the movie] of a field and a mountain range and a fence that feels a lot like a “forgotten America,” where there are old, discarded water wheels and rusted, broken down barbed-wire fences. There was also a piece of survey tape that was there when I went to scout the location and it remained there when we returned for the shoot. The shot of the survey tape that blows in the wind was something that just happened to be there when we arrived. There were no props or production design elements added to that shot. In my script, I mentioned that Gail and Jay park by a broken fence and that it looks like an accident might have occurred. I wanted the setting and the survey/caution tape to trigger Jay to think about the central event of the film. Anyway, we just happened to find that location and it really resonated with me. The church that we chose did as well.

Filmmaker: Once you had your location and shooting dates set, were you able to get in any rehearsal time with your cast? Either in Idaho or somewhere else prior to principal photography where you could mark the floors with the exact dimensions of the space for blocking purposes?

Kranz: We did rehearse, yes, in New York, and luckily everything worked out. It would have been too expensive to fly our actors out to rehearse on location in Idaho, but it was critical that we hold a rehearsal, somewhere, with everyone prior to the shoot. One of the first conversations I had with Martha Plimpton and her agent was about the need for a rehearsal, and that she wasn’t going to sign on to the film unless we had scheduled rehearsal time out. I agreed with her, but as these were working actors located in different parts of the world, it was going to be difficult. 

We finally found a weekend where everyone could meet in one of those typically dingy, grungy rehearsal spaces in Times Square. My co-producer, Marissa Ghavami, coordinated the whole meeting and we used as exact dimensions as we could of [our location], the Emmanuel Episcopal Church. I showed Marissa photos of the church, and we tried to bring similar walls into the rehearsal space. That too was important, as our cinematographer, Ryan Jackson-Healy, attended the rehearsals and attempted different camera tests with different lenses while the actors rehearsed in the same room. 

There were a lot of moving pieces happening simultaneously, but it was wonderful because it felt like we were working on a play. Of course, there’s so much “theater” within the DNA of this movie, right? And while my script began as a screenplay, I eventually switched to trying to write it as a stage play to get it produced. Most of the screenplay was written like it was going to be a play, right down to how I was receiving notes and fine-tuning the beats of the script. So, to rehearse in Times Square and do “table work” allowed us to block everything out. I told [the actors], “if you feel the instinct, just follow it and get up [and walk away from the table].” The actors played with that a bit, but I was able to recognize during the rehearsal that every time one of the actors stood up or tried to “escape the table,” it felt phoney, like it was just blocking for the sake of blocking. Maybe some viewers’ criticism of the film is that the characters don’t physically do much, but I just didn’t see a reason for them to get up from that table. There’s no reason for them to. If we tried too hard, it would feel like we were “opening up the text” for the heck of it. There’s some blocking in the finished film, of course, but it’s so minimal! 

I remember a great story about Elia Kazan writing a letter to the original cast of Death of a Salesman, approximately 300 performances into their Broadway run. Kazan had returned to watch their performance one night, and he wrote them a letter where he rips them apart, saying “You guys have really lost it. You’re all terrible and hamming it up now. And he says to the actor playing Happy [Cameron Mitchell], “Men don’t cry. Actors do.” That line really struck me and I mentioned it to my cast after our rehearsal, telling them that we don’t need to move away from the table at all. We have cameras ready to film them, and we can incorporate closeups throughout),but we don’t need to get up from that table for the first hour of the film just because we think we need to. Once Jason Isaacs’s character, Jay, finally gets up for a sip of water, that is the first “motivated action” and blocking of their entire conversation up to that point. I think that moment still feels right, it feels natural.   

Filmmaker: Perhaps it’s foolish to ask if the film was storyboarded, but knowing the exact dimensions of the room you would be shooting in, were you able to predetermine what moments would work best for two-shots, over the shoulder shot-reverse shots, etc.?

Kranz: It’s funny because we created storyboards for the opening of the film and a little bit of the ending, but my drawings were terrible. However, Ryan and I were able to at least develop a language together from that and figure things out. Also, Ryan was able to visit Sun Valley for three days to scout locations with me and take some photos. While we were there, I was essentially playing each of the roles and Ryan was getting a sense of what our shots would look like within the space of that church. We did specify certain visual choices ahead of time though, like that the first close-up would be on Martha Plimpton’s face, where we cut from the children’s artwork hanging on the windows of the room to her face. The cut from those drawings to Martha’s face was always storyboarded. 

There were a few other key moments that I knew I wanted in the film, but for the bulk of the conversation that takes place over the course of the movie, I sadly did not know what we’d get. I tried to have faith in movies that were conversation-heavy, like My Dinner with Andre or 12 Angry Men, films that didn’t display incredibly fancy camera movement. I mean, My Dinner with Andre consists of a handful of setups, essentially a close-up of a medium shot and then the two-shots. 12 Angry Men is more dynamic and has a ton more coverage, but we never wanted the viewer to feel like the director was getting in the way. I didn’t want any directorial flourishes! I just wanted the audience to be in that space with the actors.

Ryan and I talked a lot about how to get the viewer into the room, how the photography would mirror or parallel the emotional intensity of where the characters were in their conversation. The camera begins from a more stable, fixed position, where there’s not a ton of movement. We then incorporate a few two-shots that bounce back and forth. We talked a lot about Ingmar Bergman’s film, Scenes of a Marriage, where the first episode consists of an interview with the two leads, and so I thought we could bounce back and forth between two-shots for the first ten minutes of their conversation and then slowly introduce camera movement once they start sharing family photographs. We had a sense of how we were going to slowly “deteriorate” into handheld camera movement, but we didn’t want to overthink it. As a first-time director, I thought to myself, “Look, you don’t know what you’re doing, man, so don’t act like it.”

Filmmaker: What was the post-production experience like, where you’re going over footage and various takes? Was your editor told to cut for performance? For story?

Kranz: I had a panic attack at the start of the edit, because I didn’t realize what I was in store for. As an actor, my job is typically finished by the time we have the wrap party, and, on Mass, I was overjoyed and crying over having finished the whole shoot. Looking back now, I think, “You were so naive. You hadn’t done anything yet. There was so much work left to do!” When I arrived back in Los Angeles with 100 hours of dailies that I was handing over to an editor, I panicked as I realized that I knew nothing about editing. I had to stop everything and say, “We cannot begin editing until I learn how to edit.” I took Premiere tutorials that I found on YouTube just so I could figure out how to make very primitive sketches of various scenes. I wanted to at least communicate what I wanted and send some footage back and forth to my editor, Yang Hua Hu. 

We had two cameras in the room filming our four actors, and the footage in the room itself totalled approximately 70 hours. The edit was therefore a very scary experience for me, but Yang Hua Hu was almost super human in his abilities to help me out. We also worked with two other editors, J. Davis and Christopher Ma, which was necessary due to the sheer amount of footage we had to get through. But yes, it was difficult and very intense. There was a lot of panic there.

Filmmaker: Four actors, two cameras, one location, all very pared down, some might say ideal for home-viewing. The film premiered at Sundance in an all-virtual setting where we were all physically apart from one another. As the film is now opening in theaters, what has the experience of the film’s rollout been like for you? 

Kranz: It had been tough for a while. I remember calling Martha Plimpton early in the pandemic saying that we had to wait [to screen the film] until people can be together in a crowded room and crying together. We had a rough-cut screening in February of 2020, and it was really emotional. I knew that the movie worked then. I was so emotional when we had our Sundance premiere virtually. I’ve had a movie or two [that I was an actor in)]premiere at the Eccles Theater, and maybe I was more cynical about the experience then. But when Mass screened virtually at the festival, I had an incredible time. I’m embarrassed to say that you can find Q&As we did during the festival on YouTube that I’m crying through. But now we’re here and the movie is coming out in theaters thanks to Bleecker Street, our U.S. distributor, and I’ve still never seen the movie with an audience in person. I desperately want that.  

At the same time, we’re all very mindful of the sensitivity of the film, and it’s not something we should necessarily pack a theater for just for the sake of having an audience. It’s an emotional story, and I think [Bleecker Street] is right in choosing to be a bit more reserved and restrained in hosting premieres and private screenings, etc. This is not a film you schedule with an accompanying party. There’s also the health and safety protocols involved in screening a film publicly now that may prevent a full house from coming together. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t interested in that and in whatever validation or recognition that that can offer, but we’re where we are. If it’s 50% or 25% of a filled theater of people being around each other, crying and sharing a human connection, well, that’s what the movie is about. The title, Mass, is about the assembling of bodies, the gathering of people. It doesn’t have to be some major event to affect change and promote something positive and healing. The actors are giving four unforgettable performances, and it’s as simple as that. I’m trying not to get my hopes up or pay too much attention to the noise and buzz surrounding the film, but I think it’s hard to argue that there are better performances out there this year. I think they’re giving four of the year’s best and I hope they’re all recognized for it.

 

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