Writers often try to capture the frontiers of the human imagination on the page. That which can be imagined encompasses the domain of our work.
But how do we create the unimaginable? How do we begin honestly exploring the moments in life that only a select few truly know the horrors of? Must one have had to witness such atrocities to fully understand them?
Like most realities a writer creates, our own experiences don’t always matter. Instead, our ability to empathize is what allows us to explore the limits of the imagination and even that which lies beyond those borders. Throughout his lengthy journey as an actor, Fran Kranz had spent countless hours fine tuning his own abilities to empathize, as he embodied characters on the screen. It was this well-worn resource that led him to write Mass, his feature film debut as a writer and director. Mass takes place in the aftermath of a violent tragedy that affects the lives of two couples in different ways. What both couples have experienced is unimaginable.
While a well-written script can garner industry attention, the project still needs talent capable of delivering performances that amplify the ideas that the script positions and who are willing to go to the depths the script requires. Kranz found a willingness in seasoned cinematic veterans, Reed Birney, Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, and Ann Dowd. Together with Kranz, they were willing to imagine the unimaginable.
Pipeline Artists contributor John Bucher recently discussed the project, and the challenges of dealing with difficult subject matter, with Fran Kranz and Ann Dowd.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
John Bucher: I wonder if we could start by talking a little bit about why difficult topics are not explored in art that often anymore. Any thoughts about that?
Ann Dowd: People are looking to escape, I think—
Fran Kranz: I guess so.
Ann Dowd: ... what feels very hard. I shouldn't speak for others.
Fran Kranz: No, no. I don't know. And it's funny because it really did not occur to me in the writing process or in wanting to do this, but I'm hearing a lot of it now as we talk about the film and, "Why would you choose this? (Why) would you have your directorial debut with this heavy material?," this question of why. I never asked that myself. I couldn't think of anything else. I couldn't stop thinking about this. I don't know if I'm capable of forgiveness in the most difficult situations, in the unimaginable. In these unimaginable circumstances, I don't know what I would do.
I'm scared of it, but I'm hopeful I could find a way to move forward. I was a new parent when I started reading about these meetings in the wake of shootings in this country. And I had to confront these ideas. I always dreamed of directing. I was working on something else that, I guess, it wasn't as intense as this. But it just ... This pulled complete focus. And I've never looked back and I've never thought about this as challenging material. I thought about it as something I needed to work through myself, I needed to think about. I wanted to believe in forgiveness. I wanted to believe in healing and reconciliation, finding paths forward.
And I can think of no more important exercise in the world today, in this kind of divided country—working through problems and differences. These circumstances are so tragic and so difficult that the idea of sitting across, face-to-face, from someone you're essentially at odds with or have blame or hate for and working through that, I think, is something that feels very necessary today. So, I never thought of it as challenging. I just thought of it as something necessary. And I had no choice. Sorry. Does that makes sense?
Ann Dowd: Of course it makes sense.
John Bucher: Ann, when you saw this character of Linda on the page that Fran had written, what drew you? What caused you to need to be a part of telling this story?
Ann Dowd: Well, I think you just said it, the beauty of the writing, (the) extraordinary nature of the writing, which was the truth, which had clarity and no escape, and the wisdom of that. That's what an actor is drawn to. So when I read it, the first thought was ... well, two thoughts at once. I think you've heard this maybe a hundred times, but it bears repeating. How could you ever turn this down? And I knew I would never. And can you stay and drop to the level of grief that respects this story and those in the world who have suffered the unimaginable and the responsibility that comes with that? Not about my interpretation. No. There's a far deeper purpose here. And I was very, very drawn to that. In uncharted territory, shall we say?
John Bucher: Fran, when you were crafting this script that had impact with these amazing, talented actors, as well as the audiences that have been exposed to this story, did you consciously think about the power of the words in the script, or did you try to zone out of your consciousness in communicating emotions—how conscious was that use of words?
Fran Kranz: Yeah. It's really a neat question. Look, I'm an actor and I've never written anything to completion. It's obviously my first movie. And so I approached writing as an actor, as improvisation, right? I knew who my four characters were. The dynamic was simple and straightforward. It's a mother and a father of a shooter and the mother and father of a victim. And I just put myself in each of their shoes, and I tried to work through situations that I discovered through research or that were inside of me.
They were equal. There was no good or bad. There was no protagonist or antagonist. There was a kind of equivalence. And I believed in each of them, and I wanted to plead for each of them, because I don’t really believe in monsters. And so I just tried desperately to have them speak their truths and honor that with integrity. It was really difficult, you can imagine, because I kept bumping into obstacles. I knew where I was trying to get, but I didn't know how I'd get there. I did have all these different pieces of little scenes inspired by a moment. For instance, I read that the parents' shared photographs. So I improvised that scene. How that would connect to the next scene, I didn't know. But it slowly came together. The key was there was no status. I was each of these people fully and respectfully.
John Bucher: Ann, you're no stranger to characters with really layered, complex emotions. What was your process like in taking the words that Fran had written on the page and embodying those into this character of Linda?
Ann Dowd: Staying with the text several times over, in the privacy of my home, let us say, sitting with it in silence, in the quiet, spending significant time alone. I remember being in a playground and looking at children. I thought of my own. I saw where it connected and what I didn't understand and what I did understand. But I think the most important part of the journey for all of us was in the two and a half day rehearsal process, in which we went through the text to understand all of us together, what we were doing and to work through the bumps that didn't quite connect for us and just see where we were. The most important part of that process was an establishment of trust. It was very clear, very quickly that we were safe with one another, that we all understood what was ahead of us. We all wanted it to go to the depths it needed to go to and put everything else aside.
And having done it for a while, all of us, you didn't have to speak of what is the work ahead. We knew. The strength of that writing, trusting it, trusting that it will take us from here to here to here, wherever we need to go, and it will find its own path. Know your words. Don't go up here to get them in the middle of a scene, because then you're out. Know your words. Do your homework. Trust that she will give you, she meaning Linda for me, what you need to understand. Listen carefully in the quiet and move forward. And listen to the people in front of you. Take off all burden. (That’s) true in life, too. I can remind myself, "If you stop planning what you're going to say and listen to what that person is saying, the conversation will flow. How's that for a ... What kind of answer was that?
Fran Kranz: That was great.
Ann Dowd: Shallow.
Fran Kranz: I thought that was great.
Ann Dowd: I don't know the answers, unfortunately.
Fran Kranz: No, that was great.
John Bucher: Last question, and I wonder if you both could respond to this. Our audience consists of artists and creators. And this story's very moving, but also very inspiring, I believe, to artists and creators because it really speaks to the power of a well-written script and incredible performances. This is not about special effects or crazy locations. This is something that a lot of artists could look at and say, "Wow. Yeah. This is just great writing, great story, great acting, great performances." For artists and creators who are trying to get their work out into the world and create something that has resonance and has something to say with meaning, what would you say to those artists?
Fran Kranz: Gosh. I don't want to ... I don't feel like I have any sort of ... enough experience or authority to tell people advice or anything. I'm so amazed by these meetings, whether it was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission or Forgiveness Project or meetings between parents that I could only imagine what was said. They have nothing but their thoughts and feelings and words. They have nothing to use, but just their expression, which I thought was so amazing and terrifying, but extraordinary, that you just have to express yourself and be honest and allow yourself to feel pain and express your desires. And it's just human. It's just being human.
That's why I was so adamant about shooting this movie in a room with bare walls and no music and no cuts and no flashbacks. I had to respect and honor what these meetings really are and just the effort (it takes) for humans to heal and move forward.
Ann Dowd: I'm going to say something because he won't say it. This (pointing at Fran) is a definition of an artist, because Fran knew the story he wanted to tell. He knew how he wanted to tell it. He got a ton of pushback, "No, you need this. No, you need that." He never fell off his path of what he wanted to tell. That's an artist. And to me, that gives strength and hope and freedom to filmmakers. Now, actors know, too. Don't give up that love story, honey. Keep going. Find it. Tell the universe you're here and ready and waiting. Nobody else can tell you. You know. You already know. Okay? He's (again gesturing to Fran) too humble. You know what I'm saying? No. He's not too humble. That's part of his greatness. He's not too humble.
Watch John Bucher’s entire interview with Fran Kranz and Ann Dowd.
Mass is playing in theaters nationwide.
*Feature Photo: Ann Dowd and Reed Birney star in Mass (Bleecker Street)