‘Mass’ filmmaker explores forgiveness and reconciliation after tragedy

Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Ann Dowd and Reed Birney star in "Mass," written and directed by Fran Kranz. The drama explores the themes of grief and reconciliation through a plot where the parents of a school shooting victim and the parents of the shooter sit down to talk.

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In the new movie “Mass,” a couple whose son died in a school shooting come face to face with the parents of the perpetrator, years later. 

The film is the directorial debut of veteran actor Fran Kranz. He wrote the script shortly after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A new father at the time, he wondered how he would react if his child were caught up in such a tragedy.

Why We Wrote This

Is it possible to heal and progress after a mass shooting? In an effort to understand the effects of such events, Fran Kranz wrote and directed the new movie “Mass,” which offers lessons for a divided world.

“What would I do? How would I handle this? Could I face these people? Could I forgive them? How do you move forward? These were all things that I just needed to know about myself,” he says in a phone interview. “‘Mass’ is a meditation on all of that. It is me wanting to believe in forgiveness and wanting to believe in reconciliation. But not knowing how to get there.”

His research and writing led him to focus on the people most affected by mass shootings and how their lives unfold afterward. “That was the most important story I could tell,” he says.

“We can’t go back and change the past,” he adds. “But how do we promote a better future? How do we promote positive change?”

Fran Kranz had a young child at home in 2018 when 17 people were killed by a gunman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The veteran actor couldn’t let go of that event – or the idea of how to forgive in the face of it. 

“I was a new parent when the Parkland shooting happened. ... I was so upset, horrified, and angered. I just wanted to learn more,” says Mr. Kranz in a phone interview. “So I started doing research. I felt like I needed to because these things were affecting me differently now that I had a child.”

Why We Wrote This

Is it possible to heal and progress after a mass shooting? In an effort to understand the effects of such events, Fran Kranz wrote and directed the new movie “Mass,” which offers lessons for a divided world.

The result of that journey is “Mass,” Mr. Kranz’s debut as a writer-director. It sees couple Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), whose son died in a school shooting, come face to face with Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), the parents of the perpetrator, years later. For almost two hours, the quartet talk, scream, and cry as they relive the tragedy, offering viewers a cathartic experience that will leave them thinking about grief and reconciling for hours after the credits have rolled. 

Prior to researching mass shootings, Mr. Kranz had been fascinated by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa – which between 1996 and 2003 aimed to heal the country by uncovering human rights violations during apartheid. Eventually, his focus on forgiveness and reconciliation morphed into a script. As he wrote, he began to wonder how he would react if his child were caught up in such a tragedy.

“What would I do? How would I handle this? Could I face these people? Could I forgive them? How do you move forward? These were all things that I just needed to know about myself,” he says. “‘Mass’ is a meditation on all of that. It is me wanting to believe in forgiveness and wanting to believe in reconciliation. But not knowing how to get there.”

Courtesy of Bleecker Street
Veteran actor Fran Kranz makes his directing debut with "Mass," whose script he wrote shortly after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people.

Mr. Kranz met with charities and groups, including Moms Demand Action, as well as parents of victims. He read every book and article about mass shootings he could find and watched documentaries, all so he could try to figure out how they have become so frequent. Ultimately, though, he became more and more focused on getting to know the people, the families, the children, and the teachers who had been involved. 

“That was the most important story I could tell – the people affected and the lives they’re living now. That was really all that mattered,” he says. “We can’t go back and change the past. But how do we promote a better future? How do we promote positive change?”

To achieve this, the filmmaker wanted to look at the aftermath of a school shooting from a different perspective. That’s why he set “Mass” several years after the cataclysmic incident.

“I feel like it’s easier for us to move on with our lives when the media stops covering something. I wanted to see these people years later,” he says. “To show just how lasting the effects are. My hope is that it pays a new kind of attention to the subject, in an effort to promote more positive change.”

Deborah Carr, a professor of sociology at Boston University, says that even though this sort of meeting typically wouldn’t be advised by professionals, there are potential positives to it. 

She acknowledges the risks involved, as the family of the victim might not get the answers that they’re looking for. “But it could go really well. It could be a case whereby both families speak their piece,” she says. “They grow to understand each other and become empathetic. They might come away, not necessarily with closure, because there is the belief that closure isn’t possible when you lose a child, but it might at least lead to understanding.”

Like Dr. Carr, Rachel Brandoff, an assistant professor and coordinator of the art-therapy concentration at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, is intrigued by the premise of “Mass” and the results that it could produce. In particular, she notes, it’s sometimes forgotten that both sets of parents are grieving the loss of their child. 

“The art of being a parent is not just seeing your child for who they are now in this moment, but imagining who your child can become and all of the wonderful things that you hope will be in their future. Both families lost that,” she says. “So there is potential to share grief, if the families can get past the unique circumstances of feeling like they lost their son as the fault of another.”

Even though “Mass” is set in a church, the writer-director says that he came up with the title for its secular meaning, “that of just people gathering together, the assembling of bodies,” he explains. Mr. Kranz, who was raised as a Christian but no longer practices, more than welcomes discussions about its religious themes, though.

“I want the audience to walk out asking about their own relationship with spirituality,” he says. “I think it’s healthy and important to have a relationship with the unknown and some kind of symbol that is outside of yourself. Because I think accepting that and exploring it leads to humility, which leads to interdependence.”

He doesn’t know if “Mass” actually offers concrete “solutions or explanations” for how communities, families, and survivors can try to heal from similar tragedies. He just wants viewers to realize that, while grief may not go away, you can certainly “live with it differently” and “don’t have to be at war with it.” 

Courtesy of Bleecker Street
(From left to right) Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd talk together in a scene from "Mass."

Another of his aims is for “Mass” to encourage those who watch it to try to heal the huge divide that currently separates swaths of the United States. Like the four parents, he wants to see more people with different opinions come together to listen, empathize, and connect with one another. 

“I don’t have the authority or experience to craft how we could do that in this country,” he says. “It just feels so urgent and necessary to be able to talk, to be able to heal, and to be able to recognize a sort of shared common humanity so we can move forward. Because I worry if we can’t do that, if we just want to be at odds with one another, I don’t know where to find hope in a world that wants us to remain antagonists.”

“Mass” is available in theaters on a rolling basis starting Oct. 8. It is rated PG-13 for thematic content and brief strong language.

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