There’s something special about a film that can spark a conversation about a taboo subject and ultimately create more empathy in the world. This very idea is what makes Mass one of the most important films of the year. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that allows the audience a fly-on-the-wall perspective during a meeting between the parents of a school shooting victim and perpetrator.
Premiering at Sundance 2021, Mass was written and directed by Fran Kranz and stars Jason Isaacs (Jay) and Martha Plimpton as the parents of the shooting victim and Ann Dowd (Linda) and Reed Birney (Richard) as the parents of the school shooter. Filmmakers Academy sat down with the film’s producers J.P. Ouellette and Dylan Matlock to learn how they produced a film with a modest budget of $300,000 and a production schedule of 14 days that’s considered one of 2021’s biggest Oscar snubs.
Filmmakers Academy: As Fran Kranz’s directorial debut, what brought him to this project? Is he someone that you’ve worked with before?
Dylan: We met Fran five or six years ago and did a production with him on a movie that he starred in and produced. We became friends on set and were chatting about what was next. J.P. and I were writing a horror TV series and we were excited about bringing him in on that; so we were talking about that, and J.P. ran into him at a cookoff, and they were talking about other projects and he had written Mass. He was just like, ‘Hey, give it a read, check it out.’ And I think it was just for notes but once we read the script, we had to do it. We were so excited about it. It just jumps off the page. You get so invested right away, and we knew that we had to get this movie made.
Filmmakers Academy: Was the inspiration of this film purely based on Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage?
J.P.: [Fran] does love that play. There are a lot of comparisons and stories of that nature. So yeah, we get that comparison a lot. I’m sure it was on his mind. He has a huge theater background but mostly it was just a great structure to lean on because he was researching these events for about four years and just working on what kind of story he wanted to tell and would affect him. And that’s what led to the conversation. He just wanted a conversation that started their kind of conversation. So that’s kind of the structure he was leaning on. But yeah, I can see the comparisons to that.
Filmmakers Academy: As producers, when you decided to take on this project, what specifically spoke to you both about Mass?
J.P.: It was just the most powerful script I’ve ever read so, I mean, that was easy. I knew on page about 50 that it was a movie that had to be made and probably my next movie to make. It was just inspiring and that doesn’t happen too often with a script. It’s extremely well written, well designed; it reads like a mystery novel; it’s very gripping and emotional.
It’s one of the only times I’ve ever cried reading a script. Sure, you can get emotional watching a movie and stuff like that but we read so many scripts and so much material that we’re kind of disconnected and it’s the business part of us, and this one broke through that. So, once it did that twice and I was sobbing while reading, which is very rare, I just knew it was our next movie. [I] called Fran up and told him we had to do it and called Dylan and said, ‘Hey, we found the next movie,’ and he read it next.
Dylan: It was funny getting the call from JP. I could just feel the excitement on the phone. It’s like this is the one, I’m telling you. And, reading it, the characters are so empathetic. There are so many interesting thoughts that are brought up and it just felt like these people were really going through it, that you could just see the information unfold, that you could see how the characters were just naturally reacting to the situation and it made it so engaging. And, you wanted to dig deeper into it.
Filmmakers Academy: Did Fran know at the time that this was going to be his next project? Was he thinking that he would send this script out to his producer friends or were there other projects in line?
J.P.: As far as Fran’s screenplays, it was going to be his next one. I believe it was the one that was his obsession for years, it was a completed script, it was fleshed out and ready, and like Dylan was mentioning earlier, he just sent it to me for notes.
He kind of undersold it a little bit and was like, ‘Hey, I got this script, man. Give me some notes,’ and stuff like that, and didn’t tell me too much about it. And once I realized that it was a complete film and a powerful film that everyone’s experienced now, he was like, ‘Okay, so like, what do we do?’ I read it in, I think, April 2019. And then he’s like, ‘I have to start shooting in January;’ he had a big HBO show. He’s like, ‘Either we get it done before then, or we have to do it after I wrap next summer.’
I was so motivated and that’s when I called Dylan. I was like, ‘Hey, can we pull this off? Can we make this movie?’ And we just kind of sat Fran down and told him how we thought the movie could happen on a low budget in a tight timeframe and what we had to do. We just gave a checklist of these are the things we have to do, and we have to do them by this time and choose a date to shoot, and it’ll all come together. I don’t think any of us believed it but we pretended – we fought with each other – we got emotional, we kind of had a little white lie about going around town saying we were financed, and stuff like that. And, it all came together. So, we pulled off a miracle.
Filmmakers Academy: There are films that tackle similar subject matter like Denis’s Polytechnique or Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Lynne Ramsay’s We Need To Talk About Kevin. Each of these films offers a unique perspective to what has become a recurring, almost common, tragedy. From your perspective as producers of such a purveying issue, can you speak to how you make this kind of film in 2021? Can you expand on your message and how this film furthers the conversation?
Dylan: I think it’s exactly that. It’s a conversation starter and what drew us to it is that this is about the aftermath. This is about parents six years later. We have like no flashbacks, nothing like that. We just deal with people healing after such a tremendous trauma. It’s all about how do they come together? How could they heal? How could they grieve properly? And I think it speaks more to the trauma that we’re all going through right now. When we shot this, we hadn’t experienced the pandemic yet. But, you know, this film just kind of speaks to healing. And I think that’s what’s been so powerful for people.
Filmmakers Academy: What I thought was very beautiful about the film when watching it is the way that Fran and your team tackled empathy. Empathy is extremely difficult and it’s also hard for audiences because it could be uncomfortable. You have to consider both sides. Everyone always wants to position characters as good or bad but when you start to break it down, it’s really not so black and white, typically. What’s great about this film is how you have discussions and explore both sides of such a horrible circumstance. I was particularly impressed with how you chose to parse this in a tragedy. Can you speak to what you hope audiences will take away from such themes?
J.P.: The reason why empathy came through so well was that during the writing process, Fran was able to get into the heads of each character. He described it almost like a bit of a multiple personality issue while he was writing because he would be in the head of one parent, and then he would jump across the table to the other. And that process really shows in the writing, and then the acting, so he was able to answer all the actors’ questions and anything about emotion and they were really able to flesh that out in the rehearsal process.
It’s an A-political film, in a sense, because it’s not throwing one side of the debate in your face or the other, it’s bringing just two affected families from an event. And it’s letting you make the decision. It’s not alienating anyone in the audience, because – and that’s by design, so it can bring in anyone to listen.
One of the most important kinds of reviews and reactions to the film was a parent, saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be a teaching tool for parents who have potential problematic children. They’re going to see what Anne and Reed go through in their story and they’re going to see the reflections and what is going on in their own household.’ And that could eventually prevent something because they’ve shared this emotion and looked at their future. They looked at their future with this film of being across the table from a set of parents whose son died because of their son. And that was really, really powerful for me.
Filmmakers Academy: It must be gratifying, even though it’s such a hard subject matter to tackle the way that it’s resonating with people in the way that it’s starting a conversation. Ultimately, that’s the beauty of the film, right? Where most people might want to show all of the elements, you decided to talk about something that’s the post-effect that still creates discourse. Can you discuss the decision in the symbolism behind it all taking place in the church and the religious undertones in the film?
Dylan: Sure, I think why it was originally in the script is because this is where a lot of these meetings do take place – in churches all around America. It’s about how people come together and I think that was the main aspect of it for us. That is the power of forgiveness, the power of just coming together as a community.
Filmmakers Academy: I read that you shot it over the course of 14 days. Could you speak on the challenges of such a short production? For example, what was it like preparing with the talent Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed, Birney, and Anne Dowd? And were there any logistical challenges that you weren’t expecting?
J.P.: We were quite prepared, even though we were such a small movie, and part of it was the happy accident of we were shooting in Idaho during November. So the sun would go down at about 5 PM, so our days were extremely short. So, that was actually quite a happy accident. Even though we had 14 short days, we had a very well-rested crew and a cast that were able to rehearse all night, so they would only have these eight hour days, tops, so they would go home together and eat food and have each other go over scenes and call Fran if they had any questions – stuff like that.
So we had that happy accident, which usually, you think shorter days would ruin a movie, or affect a movie because we’re so used to working 12-14 hour days and packing in a full schedule. But it actually, in turn, created a lot of like, more creative time for everyone. So that was a happy accident. And just the rehearsal process as a whole.
As I mentioned, we were extremely well prepared because Fran insisted on having a huge two-day rehearsal about a month before, once we had our cast locked. A month before we shot, Fran sat everyone down – the cast – and they went over everything for two days. So, the actors were able to sit with the material, and essentially get off book in a theatrical sense for four weeks.
The material was with them for four weeks. And that made us so well prepared that it was just him setting up shots and moving around the table throughout the day and covering 8 to 12 pages a day. And the cast was just nailing it every time. So, it was kind of easy. I don’t want to brag or jinx the next movie or anything, but we knew going in that this is not a challenging movie. It’s up to us to just set the pieces, and everything kind of just went well. What do you think, Dylan?
Dylan: Yeah, I think that’s a big part of it is being prepared when you have a 14-day shoot that you know you’re going to be up against it. And I think the fact that we did come in so prepared; we knew it was going to be one location. So, some of the logistical stuff was simpler than some other films.
We just did a road movie where we were in four different states and that was a little different logistically. We were like moving to a different place every day. But, so, we had that handled, but I think it really goes to show that if you take the time in prep, it’ll really pay off. Again, this is the most prepared I think I’ve ever had a cast, they were so amazing in that Fran was so meticulous about all the stuff that he wanted, and we wanted to make sure that we had in place, so it really was that.
Filmmakers Academy: Fran is classically trained as an actor and he turned director, so there’s something to say. Especially for a film like this, which is more theatrically based in orchestrating and is really about the performance of the actors carrying us through this story. It seems like there is something to say about that talent and skill that he has. Compared to other directors, what is the big difference that you see when working with a director that isn’t an actor versus working with Fran who is an actor?
J.P.: Fran’s history, I mean, he’s one of the smartest people I’ve worked with as well. Yale graduate, you know, studied theater there, in the business over 20 years as a professional actor, and just those skills really separated him on set from any other director we’ve worked with. He was just able to – from the writing and character creation – able to, like I was saying earlier, jump in the heads of each character, and then also be able to answer his actors’ questions about each emotion and where he was writing, and speak in the code that actors speak in.
Some of the great directors, they know all of the different acting structures and teachers and things, so they’re able to speak in their language. But Fran, it was just natural. And then the actors, on the other hand, trusted Fran so much, that it wasn’t just a first-time director with someone with a great idea from a technical sense. It was one of their fellow actors who was telling them what to do, guiding them, and the trust was just wide open. And that really, really separates the differences between the two types of directors.
Filmmakers Academy: Many of our readers are younger and up-and-coming filmmakers that want to be DPs, directors, and even producers. What are some of the qualities that you look for with directors going into projects and what are some red flags that directors should be aware of?
Dylan: I think it’s all about storytelling. Me and J.P. work so well together because we actually started writing stories together. So, when we’re looking for collaborators, that’s one of the first things that we want to know is their idea of story and does it excite them. Like, us talking through ideas with them, how do we gel? How do we bounce? Do we have the same idea for these projects? And it really is about how you vibe with someone – how well you could work together. Are they open to trusting you? Could you build that relationship?
Because at the end of the day, making a movie is a long process. It’s a marathon and you want to know that you have people on the same side, in the corner that could work together. That’s probably the main important part is being able to work together as a team.
Filmmakers Academy: The fact that this is all in one room for primarily the entire film is both an enormous feat and I’m sure challenging. It’s reminiscent of a classic like 12 Angry Men or even Hitchcock’s Rope in the sense of confinement. Did you explore any other films for inspiration? And how did you choose to navigate such challenges?
J.P.: It was quite interesting because 12 Angry Men was a big one because we had the table – My Dinner With Andre – there are a few other films that we would reference and play and rewatch and stuff like that. To keep it fresh, you really have to keep your eye moving, keep the camera moving, and not from a sense of like, ‘Oh, the camera’s on a dolly and it’s doing different things.’
We would have a two-camera set up around the table and it would just move clockwise the whole day for eight hours. And so you would constantly have different reactions, different sizes, camera sizes, you know, on your actors and getting different emotions for the same line that they would do maybe a dozen times. So, it gave a lot of options in post-production, and that’s what you want to be doing when you’re filming is to get enough coverage and options for the post-production process. Because with something like this, you can never go back again and get something. You’re not going to get a reshoot with someone like Jason Isaacs, who has a wild schedule, and get the church in Idaho again. Like, it’s not going to happen.
So you’ve got to plan and cover everything and just have that plan to have energy. You know, it’s like, we’re sitting around a table for 72 minutes, or whatever it was. And it’s like, how are we going to give the energy? Where are the pieces where the blocking will change? And you just have to have a great plan. Fran had that and was able to go through with it perfectly.
Filmmakers Academy: Did you shoot the film in order or how was that executed over the course of the 14 days in terms of organization, keeping everyone in the pocket, just having the crew stay up to speed? It seems like it can get confusing. When I was watching the film, and specifically noticing the cinematography, it starts very locked off. Then, over the course of the film, it switches to more handheld, shaky singles, and you change the aspect ratio. Was it easy orchestrating all of that as a production and staying in tune?
Dylan: We started actually with the bookends. So, we had Breeda [Wool], Michelle [Carter], Kagan [Albright]. We started with them at the opening of the movie and then we also had the ending of the movie. We shot all that stuff first and then we went into the room and spent days and just would go, basically, in scene order – and start the day like maybe about a page back and work our way back into it. But, we would make sure that it had that progression that you see.
J.P.: Yeah, the only part that was in chronological order was the room. It was eight days in the room chronologically, and then the first maybe four or five days of the shoot was the bookends, driving pieces, establishing shots, things of that nature. But it was actually quite easy since we’re doing it chronologically. When the energy changed, our AD, Tony [Becerra] would have these perfect breaks of where shots would change and what we needed to set up for the next day. And then, we all knew when the handheld aspect ratio change was going to start. So, there was never any going back and forth. So, it was actually quite streamlined.
Filmmakers Academy: I would love to talk about the tasteful use of comedic relief to set up the film with the characters leading into it. I particularly liked the use of that Shakespearean loll after the room sequence with the flowers in the box, setting up for that final scene between the two mothers. What was the intent behind that and the juxtaposition? Did you want to give characters that sense of relief? Because it is very relieving after you go through that whole sequence.
Dylan: Yeah, Breeda is so amazing in it. There was that set up – that you wanted that relief – and you set them up at the beginning, and you are kind of laughing, but you’re also wondering, like, ‘Why is this person so tense and why are they so jittery about this thing and it kind of also builds up that suspense. So, you’re kind of like – you’re laughing, but you’re also kind of like intrigued – like, what’s going on with this character? Like, why is she like this?
But I think it speaks to the script and how well the little things get set up – the little – like, ‘Where do I set the Kleenex box? It’s kind of funny that she’s wondering so much about this little Kleenex box and then, of course, it pays off so tremendously. And it’s those little things that really pay off and work so well dramatically, as well.
Filmmakers Academy: Now, did the script change at all from the time of reading it to the time of execution? Were there any major changes that you saw evolved over the course of it or was it very true to what it was when you first read the script?
J.P.: It was pretty true. I mean, we always said that, you know, we got the luckiest script ever. Yeah, it was ready. I mean, I think we had like two notes and I found one typo – and I was like, ‘Yes, I found something!’ It was perfect from the get-go. And then on the day, it was just the actors going over the pieces. Especially with the beginning of the film where she’s setting up, just making sure that the mystery on the page came out through her anxiety. It’s like, why is she anxious?
The reader has this mystery and turns the page, but she has this information that everyone else doesn’t. So, she’s anxious and that energy [is something that] we would debate it at the end of the day, like, ‘Was it too much? Was it not enough?’ And it just ended up being perfect. And it gives you this weird light released and before you get in the room, and then she comes back and it’s almost like a breath of fresh air.
We were actually talking about this last night where there’s actually after everyone’s forgiven, and they have their moment in the room with the four of them, you can actually hear an audible breath that the sound design team put in, and it’s one of my favorite parts of the movie because everyone in the theater when you see it – or, see it with someone – everyone after they hear that there, they allow themselves to breathe again. And then there’s the box and then you’re laughing and you’re just like, ‘Oh, great, I need this after 70+ minutes of pure just emotion and crying and everything.’ You finally get to breathe and then laugh with this kind of odd, energetic, anxious woman and it’s just so great.
Filmmakers Academy: Something that I would love to know more about in terms of symbolism – could you talk about that reoccurring shot with the field, the marker, and the irrigation line going through it? Was there something that Fran was trying to go for with that, and was that the high school in the background?
J.P.: It was. That was a real piece of tape. That’s not production design or anything like that. Even six months before our shoot, Fran saw it when we were scouting in the high school, he saw it there. A piece of caution tape that was years old. And it kind of spoke to him a bit that it was a piece of tape from a potential horrific event at the school years ago. This tiny little piece of police tape is just still hanging on this fence. And it just really stuck with him to the point where we came back and shot there six months later, and he’s like, ‘Great, the tape’s still here.’ And he’s like, ‘Of course, it is – it’s probably been here for five years.’
So, it’s like, it just became this moment. This symbol where especially Jason Isaacs’ character can think about and reflect on that this is the place of the event. This is something that has weight. And it actually ended up becoming our movie poster as well for Sundance, just the ribbon on the fence.
This became that symbol and then at the end we see it one more time and then the school lights turn on in the background for a football game or something. And it just like shines that hope behind it – that this event is past us – this event, this little piece of caution tape will always be here blowing in the wind, but people are forgiving.
Filmmakers Academy: Was the film based or inspired by an actual incident?
J.P.: No, we were very careful about that – just like the legality of it. We didn’t want to just be one place; we wanted to be Any Town, USA. And whatever the audience wanted to put in their head, that’s what we want. If you’re thinking of Parkland, if you’re thinking of Columbine, because that was the first one, that’s what had the most effect on you while you were a student or young parent – or Virginia Tech, which Dylan – is on his mind. I’ll let him get into that in a moment. But like, we just wanted to have a broad sense of this is Any Town, USA, because that’s where this happens – that’s where these events happen.
Dylan: Yeah, exactly. My sister was at Virginia Tech at the time. She was on campus and knew some of the people sadly. We didn’t want it to be just one but it is sadly something that so many communities go through. We didn’t want to make it a specific one but do connect to all of the victims and all the communities affected.
Filmmakers Academy: There’s a great block of dialogue from the father, as he racked through all of the victims saying like, ‘Oh, no, I know, I’ve lived through this and I’ve counted through this in my head every single day.’ And I think the director and the way it was written does a really good job to convey that. Something I’d love to know about from a producer standpoint – how was it like working with the cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy? And what do you look for in a DP when bringing them on board? Was he the first pick or was he someone that Fran Kranz worked with before?
J.P.: I believe they worked [together] before or they definitely knew each other. They’re family friends and he was, I believe, just a graduate of AFI. And yeah, they’ve just reconnected and brought him on the film. Searching for a DP is quite a battle. We’re doing it on the new film and we just worked with a great one on Little Brother, as well [with] Conor Murphy. And now on our new film, we’re trying to introduce him to our new director. So it’s about finding that connection because the DP/Director connection is one of the most important on the set.
What we look for is literally – on the new film we’re doing now – we just went through reels and stuff that the director sent us and we didn’t like any. So we said, ‘Hey, we just worked with Conor, look at his stuff.’ And they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s amazing. Let me have a meeting.’ So it’s just about finding that artistic click and then, of course, the personality needs to click, as well, I think for those two positions.
Filmmakers Academy: And that’s what I thought was great about Ryan’s cinematography is the attention to detail. There was a great composition. It was never stale. And how much time was spent on just figuring that out and orchestrating it?
J.P.: That was a huge part of prep. Fran had this amazing shot list and design for the whole film. So, the look is very kind of simple fly-on-the-wall; reads more like a play but it has good energy, because part of a director’s job is shot selection, and when to be on a close-up, when to not, when to move around. And that was just perfectly planned and the director’s phase of pre-production.
Filmmakers Academy: What are you most proud of for accomplishing this film?
Dylan: I really think about how much people connect with it. We were so lucky to do a test screening before the pandemic. So we got to see it that way. And then when we had our premieres and were in theaters, we got to go a couple of times and see it with people. This really is a movie that’s great to be shared with others. I think after some of our premieres, we would be in the lobby for like two hours chatting with people. I think I’m so proud of just how real this is and how it connects with people. And, lets people have conversations about such a hard topic. But, it really is all about community.
J.P.: I’m really proud of the film just as a whole and just as an experience, as well. I’m proud of the team – that we pulled it off. It was such a small film. It was under $300,000 – for a feature is kind of an impossible task. And we pulled it off and made this little movie that became one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year. And it has this effect, like Dylan was saying, it’s a conversation starter. That’s why I love it when people even just order it on-demand with just someone in the house and they watch it. Because they have someone to talk to after. That’s what this piece is about.
[I’m] just really proud that this little story, this little piece of art has this effect to the point where we’ve had mothers of school shooting victims post about it, and how real it is and how therapeutic it was to witness this movie, and how it’s a teaching tool. We’re beyond proud for stuff like that. So yeah, it was a great journey.
Filmmakers Academy: That’s amazing. And that is very true for someone who hasn’t dealt with a tragedy like this. For myself, it was very therapeutic to watch. That was one of the first things that came to mind. I’m like, in a weird way, I feel like I understand this a bit more. And the film did a really good job of being a vessel for that. And something I’d love to know for our audience, we have a lot of first-time producers that are going into projects similar to this. What’s some advice that you could give them going through this process now that you’re on the other side?
J.P.: We were just saying in our production meeting last night, your movie’s made in prep. You’re making a movie, if you’re an upcoming filmmaker, one thing I was saying last night was, ‘Measure twice, cut once.’ So, that means do everything in prep that you can – do it twice – go over it. Because sometimes you only have one day to shoot at a location or one day with a certain actor, and it has to be perfect. It has to be ready. And, don’t let anyone tell you not to get coverage or move on too fast just when you’re filming. That’s one thing we learned on Mass is cover, cover, cover.
We shot eight hours a day, two cameras, and had all the coverage we ever needed. So, it turns out better if you make your movie in prep and then are able to finish all of your shots and get everything you need.
Dylan: It’s finding the right people, finding the right crew, finding the right cast. Just finding everything so that you know that you’re all in it together. I think what was important for us is also making a start date, like, ‘Hey, we’re shooting at this [time].’ There’s a lot of power in that. It’d be like, ‘Alright, no matter what, we’ve got to get this movie made, we truly believe it, let’s pick a start date.’ For first-timers, start with a script that you’re passionate about, that you love, that you could also see making for a smaller budget. Because that’s what a lot of it takes as a first-time producer is doing that.
Filmmakers Academy: Well, we really appreciate your time and would love to know if there’s anything else you’d like to add for the audience to know. Is there anything that’s coming up next that you feel like talking about?
J.P.: Thank you for taking the time to help spread the word about Mass. It’s available everywhere on-demand, DVD, Blu-ray – so seek it out on iTunes. Especially, it’s just something we want to share and the audience has been our grassroots marketing campaign. So we just want people to keep watching it and sharing it with others. So, it just spreads this cathartic experience through our country, which we need.
We’re getting really excited; we just finished post on Little Brother, which is a movie about another social cause that we care about a lot – is the mental health crisis in America. It deals with a suicide attempt and two brothers’ journey after that event. And it’s just a beautifully shot movie and the edits are just wonderful. We’re going out to the big festivals soon with it to try to repeat what we did with Mass. So we’re pretty excited about that one, as well.
Dylan: We’re just so excited about it. Another first-time director so that we vibed with very well – Sheridan O’Donnell – and I don’t know how we’re so lucky. We’re able to pull together an amazing cast again. We’ve got J.K. Simmons, who played the father and the two brothers are some great young actors – Philip Ettinger and Dan Diemer. So again, just so excited about being able to make a movie that is human characters that people will connect with and really see themselves in. So, it’s been very thrilling. And these movies don’t shy away from the subject matter. You really will, after watching them, go through an emotional experience, but that’s what makes great movies. That’s why we all want to watch, we all want to have that experience and I think both these movies accomplish that. You’ll feel like we’ve been saying – cathartic.