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L-R: Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd star in 'Mass,' written and directed by Fran Kranz.     

After every shocking and upsetting news report about a mass school shooting, my mind tends to drift to the parents' lives behind it. How do they make sense of what happened and why it happened? How do they reason or (sometimes) mourn the loss of their child when so much damage has been inflicted upon the lives of others? What challenges do they face with keeping a job and maintaining people to lean on? These questions are explored - and quite beautifully, I might add - in Fran Kranz’s writing and directing debut Mass, one of the year’s very best films.

In Kranz’s sincere work, tragedy befalls Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton), a couple living in a daze. Their son was a victim of a mass shooting at his school. But rather than capturing the horrors of the event as it happened (a la Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, from a killer’s perspective), Kranz wants to have a meaningful discussion about it by having Jay and Gail meet face-to-face with the parents of the shooter, Richard and Linda (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd).

What follows is a film that takes place in a single room, telling a story from two different perspectives. Everything that is presented is how one might imagine this would play out. It opens with an Episcopal church in Idaho setting up for the day, unaware of what will transpire later in one of their meeting rooms. It highlights how people carry on with their lives while parents of such a tragedy go on, one baffling day after another. Can there be any true release from this gradual deadening? 

Mass is a remarkable study of grief and acceptance that’s both timely and important. It showcases four of the best performances of the year, and it challenges your own thoughts and feelings. There’s a lot to unpack here, and the rewards are worth their emotional weight in gold. 

Q&A

The Denton Record-Chronicle rang up Mr. Kranz to discuss his filmmaking debut. We chat about creating an honest look and feel with Mass and its value beyond your viewing. Read the transcribed conversation below, make the trip to see the film and prepare to walk out with a greater understanding of humanity.

The following is a transcript of an interview conducted on October 5. Some of the questions and answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Preston Barta: You achieve something here that I try to do with my interviews: an organic dialogue and conversation. That authenticity carries across to your visuals as well, with the white walls that envelope the characters. Usually, that’s a filmmaking no-no, but you embrace it all because it’s a human reality. How did you arrive at wanting to take this authentic approach?

Fran Kranz - 'Mass'

Actor-turned-filmmaker Fran Kranz.

Fran Kranz: “There was never any question in my mind that it had to be bare bones. I didn't want the church to look like a concert hall. It had to be people in a room, speaking to one another at a table. And I loved that the tables in the church were actually these plastic folding tables. We had our own production design, but we embraced all that [discomfort], even what hung from the walls. That was sort of a mantra between Ryan Jackson-Healy, my cinematographer, and I.”

“I was always so amazed at the courage it took for these people to do this. When I first read about one of these meetings because of a school shooting, I couldn't believe it. I truly couldn't believe that these people could do that. I wanted to know how, and I had always been fascinated with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. Mostly because I didn't think I could do it. I didn't think I could forgive someone that took something from me like that. What was so incredible about those hearings in South Africa was the notion that in order to get amnesty, for the perpetrators to get amnesty, they needed full disclosure, they needed to speak the truth, and they needed to show remorse. Whereas when we think of the criminal justice system in courts, we think of people lying to get off. This idea that the truth will set you free was so powerful, but yet I was always disturbed by it because I just did not think I could do it.”

“So, when I came across these meetings a few years ago, when I started researching the Parkland shooting, I made this connection to the TRC, and I felt this is what I have to do. I have to write a story about this because of the courage that these people show. I don't want this to be extraordinary. I want this to be talked about. I want people to believe that this is something helpful and necessary to sit across the table from someone you are at odds with or disagree with, or blame or even hate, and work through those differences.”

“We wish our leaders did more of that. We wish we were more capable of that. I think people want to receive forgiveness as much as they want to grant it. These are feelings that we have, and yet they're the hardest things to do. So, I wanted to celebrate that, just the simple act of conversing across the table, that's all that matters. I didn't need anything else. I just wanted the room, the table and four great actors.”

Do you see yourself being more hungry for opportunities like this? The meetings, for instance. As you said, you got a lot out of that. You had a certain set of feelings walking into it, then the ground shifted. Do you see yourself chasing more opportunities like that? Whether it involves a project or not?

“I'd like to think so. So much of what motivated me and kept me focused and dedicated to this project was not knowing how I would respond in the same situation. I was a new parent when Parkland happened. I was terrified by all these ideas. The research and reading kept me up at night. I don't know how I could handle this stuff. I want to believe in forgiveness. I want to believe in reconciliation and redemption because if we don't allow for that, I don't know what the point is.” 

“I worry sometimes we have this feeling that we don't operate on the premise that people can change in society. There's a lot of hate and this kind of notion of banishment these days. It scares me. So, I want to believe I'm more capable. I want to put this story out in the world and celebrate its simplicity because I think it should be encouraged. I think the conversation should be encouraged.”

What I found so true, through watching this, is how your partner will pick up the conversation whenever they feel that things may go south, whether it becomes too emotional or angry. Did you plug into any poetry or music that allowed you to figure out when you needed to go high or low? It really is all a science of balancing the language and how the actors need to deliver it.

“I was sort of a crazy person writing this because I was treating it as an actor, improvising a scene with four characters. But I, of course, was alone. So, it was like I had schizophrenia or some multiple personality disorder. That was the major challenge of the early writing process: I would run into obstacles or dead ends because I was arguing with myself. I believed there were no good or bad people in this film. There's no antagonist, no protagonist — it's these four real human beings that have dignity and are there to help, but also defend themselves or they're trying to get answers or find meaning. And it's sort of a search and desire that has basic human integrity, I think.”

“It was difficult to move through the conversation when I believed in each character and played them as honestly as I could. Obviously, I was making a great effort to have it feel like a real conversation with contradictions and redundancies, with people overlapping and misunderstanding one another and not saying the things they want to say, having trouble articulating themselves. All of that was in there, but when elevated language came out, when there was poetry, it generally came out of the most painful research. I don't want to get specific because I feel sensitivity to each of these scenarios, but when I would - I'm going to get emotional - when you read the eulogies for children, it can take you to a place emotionally that's so hard, it changes the way we speak and feel and express ourselves.”

“For instance, when Martha Plimpton's character has a very emotional moment towards the end of the movie, speaking to Ben Richard, so much of that came out of the hardest parts of the research and feeling the most empathy or pain, or just heartache over what's transpired in this country. I don't think I necessarily had music or film or other things in mind. I mean, it truly was a connection to the personal knowledge I had of some of these families and some of these kids.”

I want to end this conversation by discussing a certain image, and it's the piece of tape flapping in the wind on the fence. It’s shown in the trailer, I believe, but it’s a recurring image. Did you discover that at the location, or was it planned to create meaning in your story?

“I wanted to find a landscape that represented grief and how it never goes away but it changes. The look of the landscape evolves over the film. The story is fiction, but the events that it comes out of are not. I wanted to step outside of the church when they all relive the [tragic] day. I thought it was important to step away and have a sense of listening to these things rather than seeing them. Hearing them and being able to think about them rather than re-enacting them. I wanted a shift there, a storytelling or perspective shift.”

“As for the tape, it's meant to serve as a reminder of caution tape, but it was actually an old discarded piece of survey tape. That was real tape that was just on that fence in Idaho. We scouted a month prior, and it was still there when we came back. I thought there was something to that. It was personal for me because I felt here's this discarded piece of survey tape. I'm trying to find an image of the American landscape, and here's this old broken piece of survey tape. It somehow spoke to me of how these things keep happening, and it's inexcusable. It's deteriorating and hurting our country. And I thought of this forgotten survey tape as a reminder that we need to survey the land and what's happening. We need to take notice of it. We had art direction and production design tape to put on this fence, and I said, ‘No, that's the tape. That's the tape we're going to use. Leave that tape.’ Thankfully, no one ever took it down.”

Mass opens in select theaters this weekend. In the Dallas-Fort Worth area: the Angelika Film Center in Plano and Dallas.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Critics Choice Association and the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work here, on FreshFiction.tv and on RottenTomatoes.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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