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In Bleecker Street’s Mass, the impact of a school shooting on two sets of parents — those of a victim (played by Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) and those of the perpetrator (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd) — meet for a raw and emotional conversation years after the shooting took place. Throughout the course of the film, which unfolds in real time, the group attempts to find healing — even if that process dredges up plenty of grief and pain.
The intimate drama is an acting masterclass featuring four veterans delivering some of the best performances of their careers. Anchoring it is a thoughtful and compassionate script from writer-director Fran Kranz. Dowd and Kranz spoke to THR about the powerful drama, how actor-turned-helmer Kranz allowed his cast space to deliver their best performances and the healing power of finding empathy for others.
Fran, did a specific moment in recent history inspire you to start writing this film?
FRAN KRANZ The movie initially came out of a desire to know more about the subject. I was this new, terrified, angry, frustrated, confused parent thinking about the frequency of these events in this country. The real catalyst was the Parkland [Florida] shooting [on Feb. 14, 2018]. I went online that night and started reading everything I could about gun violence and mass shootings in America.
I’ve always been really fascinated and inspired by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, but I didn’t feel like I had any kind of entry point into a film about the TRC. As an American, I didn’t know what I could really to do with the passion for this thing that happened in another country when I was growing up. My research into mass shootings [helped me make] that connection. I thought of this meeting between [the parents] like an amnesty hearing in South Africa. It is an effort to heal and potentially find reconciliation through unimaginable pain.
Ann, what was your reaction to the script when you first read it?
ANN DOWD It was so beautifully written — so powerful, intentional, clear — that there was no question. The one real [scary] thought was, “Can I settle into this level of grief and stay there?” Thank God I’ve been doing this job for a minute or two, so I knew that I wasn’t going to let the fear of it influence whether I said yes or no.
Fran, you and I were both in high school when the 1999 Columbine shooting happened. Did that feel like a turning point when this became a never-ending crisis?
KRANZ Absolutely. I think Columbine has been underneath my skin for 20 years. I know exactly where I was when I found out it happened, and I remember taking in my school with a whole new set of eyes. High school is hard for everyone, and I think everyone experiences some sort of bullying. You certainly wish harm on people who have hurt you, especially at that age. To think that peers of mine essentially went there — that was horrifying.
When my daughter was a toddler, I realized I’m going to make mistakes constantly. I love this girl more than anything, and yet sometimes I go to sleep at night thinking, “Man, I screwed up today.” Parenting is hard work, and I don’t think I could have made this film if I wasn’t so struck by or disarmed with compassion for the parent of a school shooter. We understand and sympathize with victims’ pain, but it’s harder for us to find ourselves in the parents of the shooters who have some compassion for [their children, too]. The film is about finding a way to cultivate a new kind of empathy.
Fran, what did your acting experience offer you when you stepped into the director role?
KRANZ I never imagined [hiring] actors with this kind of talent, so I recognized what I had and how lucky I was. I tried to put a premium on their instincts — great actors have great insight into human behavior and human nature. We had a two-and-a-half-day rehearsal where it was critical that I had no ego about the script. I had to listen to them and hear where they were confused, or where they thought something didn’t quite work, or something was missing, whatever the case may be. They’re as good as it gets; you truly don’t get better than these four actors.
DOWD Did I have anything to change? About who [my character] Linda was?
KRANZ There were little things. At one point, I had Linda volunteering at a suicide prevention hotline. You pointed out that it was a bit confusing for this woman’s journey, where she was — was that appropriate to share with these people? I liked [that detail] because I thought it was endearing that this woman was trying, and I thought it felt truthful. But it took an actor to come in and say, “Yes, but … ” I needed those actors to be 100 percent engaged with the material. [I didn’t want] a moment where Ann was just politely and respectfully doing the lines because I had written them. I really tried to stay out of their way because, again, I recognized their talent and tried to give them a long leash, to stay out of the room, be very careful and economical with my words.
Ann, does having an actor as a director make a difference?
DOWD Yes, it certainly mattered. That was a wonderful bonus, [on top of] his kindness and intelligence and natural compassion that was ever present from sentence one in rehearsal. He knows exactly what it means when you go to that place of vulnerability. It was a beautiful reminder to the actors, I think, to let us settle into where we [were]. I loved the closeness and, it seemed to me, tons of privacy. Fran wasn’t in the room. … I forget where the cameras were; were they there? They must have been because we have a film, but I don’t remember them.
KRANZ Jason [Isaacs] mentioned that as well — that he didn’t remember the cameras. It was designed that way to not be invasive or intrusive of what they were doing. I did not want to be in the room, so we designed a system that was literally clockwork — we moved with the sun. I knew we only had two or three takes for certain scenes because we were doing almost 20-minute takes. I know as an actor it’s really unhelpful and unwanted, really, when anyone on set is concerned about how we have no time. That kind of energy is never helpful for performance. Every day was a Hail Mary of sorts; if anything went wrong, it could have been a disaster. We did the work so that we could revolve around these actors and let them act. There was a lot of faith there. The fact that the actors can’t remember the cameras is probably the greatest thing I could have done as an director.
There is a lot of meaning in the film’s title. There’s a religious connotation — it takes place in a church. And, of course, there’s the mass shooting that brought these four together. But I’m curious what you thought about the title as you were making the film.
KRANZ To me, it is about the gathering of people, the assembling of people, the bringing of bodies together — the secular definition. And that also speaks to the power and value of human connection, physical human connection. I really believe the most transcendent things in life happen when we’re close, when we’re together, when we can see one another in person. These conversations aren’t possible, this kind of healing and forgiveness. Reconciliation is not possible without sitting down and being in the physical presence of one another. I worry about how divided the country is, and I am very much attached to this meaning of bringing people together. That’s why the movie is shot the way it is. I didn’t want to compromise that with flashbacks or inserts or even music because I wanted to celebrate the action of people sitting down and listening to one another.
DOWD I support that. We try to convince ourselves that we’re different from one another. And surely we are. We share a human heart and a wish and desire to lay down the burdens of our lives, even though we try our very best to hold on to them. As human beings, we are a collection of people together. And the thought of separateness is an illusion that we cling to.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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