Mass is, without a doubt, one of the best films of 2021. It’s a movie that the words like powerful and vital don’t even begin to describe.
The powerhouse ensemble cast boasts Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, and Reed Birney as parents who meet face-to-face after a school shooting. One pair are the parents of a victim, the other the parents of the culprit.
Mass is directed, written, and co-produced by Fran Kranz, who is best known for his work as an actor. This is his directorial debut.
I caught up with Kranz to discuss the film, its outstanding cast, the financial white lie that got it made, and the incredible response that Mass received at the Sundance Film Festival.
Simon Thompson: Was the experience of making Mass what you thought it was going to be?
Fran Kranz: It’s funny because I had so much on my mind when making it that it was very difficult to stop and appreciate what was happening. Everyone had a really good time. I’ve been on a lot of sets, and this was a remarkably positive one. There was a lot of laughter, despite the subject matter. The crew was very close, but no one was being paid a lot of money. We went into production as a SAG ultra low budget. We eventually jumped that line, so people got a little bonus, but this was not about the money. It was remarkable to experience the positivity in the general attitude on the set. I occasionally would receive a compliment like, ‘This is going well,’ or, ‘I’m surprised you’ve never done this before,’ and I would kind of tense up and try to ignore it because I felt like that if I relaxed for a second, it was going to fall apart. So many things can go wrong with a movie and certainly during those 14 days in Idaho. Honestly, I can’t think of anything that went wrong.
Thompson: Emotion plays a huge part in Mass.
Kranz: Oh, a huge part. I have to give credit to the four main actors because they went to a place and did something unique. I’ve been around actors doing emotional work before. I did Death of a Salesman on Broadway, and I would watch the cast do it every night. I’d sit backstage and watch Philip Seymour Hoffman and Andrew Garfield go at it and admire them so much for what they did. What we did with Mass was even more unique than that. With the intensity and the short amount of time that it took, I think the actors knew that they had to completely surrender to it in a different way. When we finally wrapped, the following day was so emotional. We were in Sun Valley, Idaho, which was gorgeous, and the snow was starting to fall. I remember going for a drive, and I just started weeping in my rental car. I didn’t know what to do with myself. It really could not have gone better.
Thompson: This is such authentic and powerful dialogue that the risk is that it could seem phony or hammy if it were over-rehearsed. How did you avoid that happening?
Kranz: We had about two and a half days of rehearsal. It was a laughably short amount of time. We all met in New York, and we had a tiny rehearsal space in Times Square. I’d just worked with this writer-director, Richard Nelson. I did his play at the Public Theater, and I hadn’t experienced anything like it before. He told the actors, ‘Whatever doesn’t work for you, wherever you feel like you’re faking it, tell me, and we’re going to change it.’ It seemed insane. I thought that I was the actor, so let me figure it out. That’s what we do, right? He doesn’t have the actors project; he doesn’t have them present themselves to the audience in any way. If they’re sitting at a table at dinner, they’re going to sit at the table and eat dinner, and it doesn’t matter if half the audience can’t see half the table’s faces and their backs are to them. That stuck with me, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s what I need to do for Mass.’ So I gave them that same Richard Nelson speech, and they went to work. They started saying things like, ‘I don’t know if I’d say that. What’s this?’ They excavated the text and found where they felt they would or would not be saying something based on the information they knew. It could be something as specific as the diction or the word choice. Rarely was there something I felt that was sacred, and I pushed back, so for the most part, I’d try and give it to them.
Thompson: Mass sounds like a journey. It is for the audience, certainly. There’s also the journey of the process for you. What was the journey in getting this made? You are a successful actor but a first time writer-director, and these smaller projects are challenging to get off the ground at the best of times. A lot of people end up spending their own money to get these projects off the ground.
Kranz: Yeah, I did that. I tried not to. It’s funny because I had this whole list of people, after going through my phonebook, which included parents, friends, and so on. I had a bunch of people that I was going to hit up for money, but no one would get back to me. I joke that sending someone your screenplay is like asking them to never talk to you again. I was not getting a response, and I was embarrassed about it at the time. I was so desperate to make it that I went online to Harvard Business Services, created an LLC, went to the bank, opened up a checking account, put in $30,000, and started telling people I had partial financing. I was too embarrassed even to tell my producers where that money was coming from. Now I look back, and I’m sort of proud of it because I feel like the movie sold, and we’re going to get our money back, and we eventually we did get investors. I hate to say that no one took it seriously because I had many people give me very thoughtful notes and read it very quickly. I’d say the majority of people were like, ‘Oh no. This actor wants me to read a screenplay. How uncomfortable.’
Thompson: It’s hard, and there is a stigma to it in the industry, even now.
Kranz: Absolutely. I feel like I’ve been on the receiving end of these things before, so I could sympathize with people not getting back to me or taking a very long time to read it. It’s funny because now the movie is coming out, there are these screenings around town, I have people texting me, or I am hearing from people that are so excited to hear about the movie and say congratulations, and I think, ‘Yeah, you never really got back to me two years ago, did you?’ I have no hard feelings because I get it, and I think that’s why I felt like I had no choice but to start the financing myself. Everything changed at that moment. Truthfully, I had a friend say that even if you have just $1 towards your movie, then you’re partially financed. That’s how I treated it. You can call it Wild West independent filmmaking or a white lie, but I was just trying to get the thing made.
Thompson: What was your first step after securing that partial financing?
Kranz: Casey Mott, one of the producers, is someone I had worked with on a film he directed. I needed him to be a part of Mass because I wanted his help and advice. After all, he had just gone through the whole process of putting together his own movie. He had got a job in Idaho, where he’d grown up, running a theater there. He told me he couldn’t help me unless I made it in Sun Valley, and there were a bunch of small-town American churches there if I wanted to take a look. That’s how I found Emmanuel Episcopal, where we shot Mass. I had to do it before the ski season started because then all the prices quadrupled. I had a location, a date, and partial financing, so all of a sudden, I had coverage, and then, truly out of the blue one day, I got an email saying Jason Isaacs would like to meet. I wasn’t even sure if agents were reading it, and then suddenly, I was meeting with a movie star. It was wild.
Thompson: Thankfully, Mass went down phenomenally well and then sold at Sundance. If that hadn’t happened, did you have a plan B for getting this movie out there?
Kranz: Oh, no. That’s really depressing (laughs). No, I did not. Sundance felt like such a success after that screening. I’m not going to lie, you hear about your Rotten Tomatoes score, and you see the response on Twitter, and it’s only natural that you, as a production and a crew, pay attention to those things. Then the harsh reality hit where people said, ‘Oh, this is a tough sell because of the subject matter.’ I never saw it that way. I still see it as a hopeful movie with a positive message. It’s about forgiveness, reconciliation, reparation, and healing. It’s a big experience. I think it’s formidable because it’s so emotional. Maybe I’m crazy, but I feel like you walk away from this movie with some sense of hope because of what these characters can do in this attempt at healing. So, did I have a plan B? Might I have just put it on YouTube? Maybe. I think this movie has something positive to say and can promote positive change. I believe that with all my heart, so I wanted to get it out there, no matter what it took. Thankfully, Bleecker Street bought it, but there was definitely a moment of me thinking, ‘Wait a minute. What’s going to happen? I thought we just had this big, successful premiere?’ It took the marketing team to come up with a plan, and here we are.
Mass is in theaters now.
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