Fran Kranz on Packing an Emotional Wallop Into “Mass”

Although Fran Kranz had begun to think about what would eventually become the movie “Mass” in the weeks after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the inspiration for how he’d tackle such a difficult subject came when his research led him to meetings set up in the aftermath of tragedy between the aggrieved and those either responsible for their pain or connected to them. He was reminded of a book he read in college, “No Truth Without Forgiveness” by the Archbishop Desmond Tutu about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa tasked with resolving a half-century of institutionalized racism and human rights abuses during the Apartheid era, and how it was not necessarily the suggestion of sweeping political gestures that could heal the country when so many were affected that any such resolution was dissatisfyingly abstract, but the willingness by all to come to the table and air out the the differences in their perspectives in the hopes of some clarity. The first steps towards a national shift in perspective could only take place if it happened in small rooms first.

Kranz is slow to let you know exactly why the married couples Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gayle (Martha Plimpton) and Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd) are meeting at a church at the start of “Mass,” though it involves their teenagers Evan and Hayden, respectively. Neither are around to speak for themselves, and the parents find themselves at a loss for words after being brought together by a mediator, yet still having no idea where to start a conversation in the face of incalculable loss. Speaking broadly is revealed to be a form of protection as a discussion takes shape when the parents hang onto details as they would embrace their sons, eager to glean any information when learning something about their child, as painful as it may be, also gives them new life while alternately looking for loopholes they can comfortably escape into when feeling as if they’re being attacked, and with a quartet of fearless actors and a script made to feel as if it endured the same trials by fire as forging a sword, “Mass” cuts through the various platitudes that are often offered in the wake of unspeakable events to presenting refreshing truths about processing grief and the bravery it takes to engage to clear a possible path towards forgiveness.

It’s a devastating directorial debut for Kranz, always a scene-stealer as an actor from his breakthrough role in “Dollhouse” to more recent turns in Max Winkler’s “Jungleland” and Casey Wilder Mott’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” and while his generosity towards his actors is clear from the final product, his work behind the camera – filming in chronological order and allowing the space to breathe in the most confining scenario – make the drama a rarity these days in trusting its cast to give it its considerable power. With the film now arriving in theaters after a celebrated premiere earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Kranz spoke about how he worked out the particulars of both the script and the ensuing shoot to give it such emotional authenticity, putting his actors in the position to do their best work and the film’s sensitive and quietly breathtaking camerawork.

One of most impressive aspects of the film is that while the characters are constantly talking around something, you have something to hang onto as an audience. Was there something throughout that you knew could pull audiences through?

Yeah, I really tried to pay attention to what people would honestly talk about based on the information they have. These four characters live through this experience, so they’re not going to walk into a room and talk about that experience first. They all live through it. They’re trying to find new information. They’re trying to find understanding and to make sense of something, so it makes for really gripping storytelling. It’s a tribute to the actors and my great team, the cinematographer and editor, that I think the movie works, and it’s incredibly gripping and suspenseful, but that wasn’t truly the effort so much as it was to be honest about how people would talk in this situation. We had a two-and-a-half day rehearsal, where so much of the focus was, “Would you say this based on what you know or what you’ve lived through? Is this information that you would already have? Is this information that you would care to find out based on the information you already have? Things like that. So there was a lot of scrutiny and attention to detail about what needs to be said and what is absolutely necessary to be said.

You’ve said you had at least a couple of the actors in mind, but when you see them start interacting with each other, does it change your ideas of what this could be?

Oh, 100%. The script was very much in place. It was good enough to get those actors to show up to a rehearsal [when] they weren’t getting a lot of money. It was not about that. [laughs] They were there because of the script. And I’d never done anything before. And it was the four actors and that rehearsal that took the script to a whole other level. There were moments where characters recount the events of the day, and they start to speak in monologue, and the other actors would say, “I don’t want to listen to this. Why am I sitting here listening to this? I want to interject, or I want to say, ‘I don’t want to hear this.’” And I would just write that [into the script]. Reed Birney and Ann Dowd are telling a story about the day of the event. And Jason Isaacs said, “Why am I listening? I don’t want to hear this.” That was something that came out of rehearsal and it happened a lot, where all of a sudden you were breaking up the literary quality of the script that felt too much like a speech — too much like writing — and to turn it more back into four people conversing and even arguing. It came to life in a whole new way when we got into that rehearsal room and I just tried to listen to the actors instincts. Wherever they felt something, we had to pay really close attention to it because it may have demanded a change in the language.

From what I understand, it was Casey Wilder Mott, your old pal from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that lured you to film in Idaho. How did you locate the right church to set this in?

The original script was just one room, even as a screenplay because for a while, it was a stage play. But the early drafts were just the parish hall and I spent so much time it’s embarrassing, ust Googling churches around the country, sort of stalking them on satellite images, or even going on their Facebook pages, so I could see community photos posted of the church. I was cold calling churches in North Carolina — I really had no idea how to begin. It was like a needle in a haystack. So when Casey said, “I can’t help you unless you shoot it here,” it narrowed it down and I said, “Well, I’ve got to give this a shot.” I wanted to find a church that did not look like a concert hall or some kind of architectural marvel. I didn’t want the convenience of some beautiful background behind my actors. I wanted to embrace that discomfort for myself and for the audience, that we’re just going to focus on these four people talking. That’s all this is. It’s all about the courage and the integrity it takes to sit in a room across from a person you’re at odds with, or feel blame towards and hate towards and repair the relationship and reconcile. That I think is such a beautiful, courageous, dignified thing, and I wanted to lift that up and elevate that.I thought to have some incredible Gothic revival church would take away from it.

Still, I think Emmanuel Episcopal in Hailey is this beautiful, beautiful church, but there’s a modesty to it, a humility, a small town kind of quality to it that spoke to the sincerity of what was necessary for the film. It’s about a place for prayer. It’s a place for community. It’s a place where people go to get help. That’s what it is. It doesn’t have to be stunning to look at in the inside.

Because it was such a small place, you couldn’t actually be in the same room as the actors during filming and you likely wouldn’t have wanted to be anyway, but what was it like figuring out how to get what you needed from the camerawork without being unobtrusive?

There was not a lot of room, but I also just wanted to stay away from the actors. I felt like they needed to perform it like a play and I wanted to give them space for the emotions and to try things out, so it was all by design, to have as few people in that room as possible so that they could just look at one another. I didn’t want them to have any distractions. I can remember the first time Ryan Jackson-Healy, my cinematographer, walked into the room. I was so nervous, because I thought, “Oh, my God, no one would want to make a movie in this room,” and Ryan just looked around and said, “Well, it’s a room.” [laughs] And I loved it because from the beginning, we said “This movie is about embracing discomfort. We’re not going to take an easy way out. We’re not going to rely on flashbacks or inserts. We don’t want some stunning background,” and Ryan just kind of looked around and embraced it, saying, “This where we’re going to do it. Let’s figure it out.”

We developed a fairly simple system of shooting it to start, because we believed in movies like “12 Angry Men” and “My Dinner with Andre” worked. As long as the conversation is compelling enough, people will sit through it. But we wanted to add a camera movement and change the aesthetic as the emotions change in the conversation. As the conversation becomes more emotional, we wanted the camera to reflect that, so it slowly deteriorates and unravels the stable, static camera into movement, and then into a handheld. Eventually, the whole perspective shifts and we go from spherical lenses to anamorphic to show that essentially when tragedy strikes, when you lose someone close to you, your world changes. It changes the way you see the world. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic, I lost a dear friend and I didn’t know what to do with myself or where I was. I remember walking down the street and not having a clear sense of where I needed to go in that moment. The world changes when something devastating happens like that, and I wanted to reflect that with a shift in the camera.

“Mass” opens on October 8th in select theaters. A full list is here.