How Fran Kranz Made ‘Mass’ More Than a School Shooting Drama

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Photo Source: Courtesy Bleecker Street

“If I ever make another movie,” posits Fran Kranz, “I’m going to make a real concerted effort so that no one can possibly say it could be a play.” He says it with a laugh, but he’s only half kidding. Since he began promoting his feature “Mass,” which premiered last fall, the writer-director has received variations on that feedback countless times. 

When the film in question is a four-person dialogue piece set in a single, sparse room, that is to be expected. Furthermore, it nearly was one. “For most of the development of it as a script, it was as a stage play,” Kranz recalls. “I switched back at the 11th hour because what was critical to this was that it felt like real life. I wanted this to be very disarming in that you felt like you got plopped into an incredibly intimate, private situation.” 

Nominated for best first screenplay and already the winner of the Robert Altman Award for its director, casting director, and ensemble at the Film Independent Spirit Awards, “Mass” depicts a meeting between two sets of grieving parents in the aftermath of a school shooting. Ann Dowd and Reed Birney play the parents of the shooter who then turned the gun on himself; Martha Plimpton and Jason Isaacs are the parents of one of his victims. It’s treacherous territory for any filmmaker, let alone a first-time writer-director like Kranz. 

Inspired in part by the 2018 Parkland shooting, which occurred just as Kranz had become a parent himself, “the movie became about something much different,” he explains. “Something more universal about grief and about how we find ways to heal. How do we live with pain? It just sits on a bed of research about shootings.”

Kranz has enjoyed success as a working actor since the early 2000s, eventually making his mark on series like “Dollhouse” and in films like “The Cabin in the Woods.” However, he dreamed of writing and directing “as far back as I can remember,” he says. “I naively thought they would all come together—writing, directing, acting. It’s not that I wasn’t trying. But as the years went on, I became increasingly anxious about it—because I thought, This is the dream you’ve had since you were a kid. Why haven’t you realized it? Are you afraid, or do you not have the material?” 

His catalyst for getting “Mass” made was becoming a father. “As an actor, so often you’re passively waiting for a phone call,” he says. “I didn’t want my daughter to see my happiness dictated by some decision outside of my control. I wanted her to have a more proactive role model.”

Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton in “Mass,” Courtesy Bleecker Street

The wait, though frustrating, turned out to be an asset in disguise: It made Kranz a more pragmatic creative. Early on, he wrote a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel “Blood Meridian,” followed by another script about an alien invasion. He had strong opinions about “Mass” and how it should be told, and it coincided with his intent “to consciously think of smaller-budget ideas, more manageable ideas,” he says. “I was way up in the clouds with these huge, ambitious projects, and so I did start thinking, OK, how can I make something that I can do myself? My research about shootings was strangely serendipitous because of that.” 

Ultimately, the principal actors’ performances more than made up for the film’s small scale; they all rank among the best of their respective careers. As to how Kranz helped each of them get there, he “put a premium on performance and collaborating with the actors in a way that was sort of exceptional to this movie,” he says. “I needed them to have ownership over the material in a way that felt unique to other films. I felt the most important thing I could do was just be flexible as a director and giving as a writer.” 

This story originally appeared in the Feb. 17 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Casey Mink
Casey Mink is the senior staff writer at Backstage. When she's not writing about television, film, or theater, she is definitely somewhere watching it.
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