Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, Fran Kranz share intimate clash of grieving parents in ‘Mass’

Listen to the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the cast of 'Mass' (Part 1)

One room. Four actors. Two broken pairs of parents unpacking a devastating tragedy.

Fran Kranz’s directorial debut “Mass” is a powerful drama opening in D.C. theaters Friday.

“I remember exactly where I was when Columbine happened. … I was a senior in high school,” Kranz told WTOP. “After the Parkland shooting, I was a new parent, listening to a parent on the radio and I had to pull over. … I went straight onto Amazon to buy books about mass shootings. … I became obsessive. I spent two years reading nothing but.”

He read about reconciliation meetings between parents of both the culprits and victims.

“I read about these meetings and I thought, ‘Oh my God, how do people do this? What happens inside of those rooms?'” Kranz said. “That was essentially what I felt like I needed to know. I needed to know how you heal, can you possibly forgive and how do you move forward with your life? … That’s when the movie kind of crystalized in my head.”

Jason Isaacs (“The Patriot”) and Martha Plimpton (“The Goonies”) play grieving parents of a boy killed by the son of Ann Dowd (“The Leftovers”) and Reed Birney (“House of Cards”).

How did Isaacs and Plimpton tap into what seems like such unimaginable grief?

“It is not unimaginable,” Isaacs said. “Everything is imaginable. That’s what actors do. We imagine we’re in love, we imagine we’re in hate, we imagine the world is being invaded, we imagine we’re dying, that’s what we try and keep ourselves open to. … I could give you pretentious answers to pull the curtain back, but you’re helped by a believable situation.”

Isaacs researched real-life reconciliations from national genocides.

“These encounters really happen,” Isaacs said. “People really did go in South Africa to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recount the worst things that anybody had ever done to anybody and sit with people who had done those things to their family.”

Dowd and Birney are dealing with a different kind of grief, mixed with guilt.

“I felt really grateful and honestly honored to be part of it,” Dowd told WTOP. “To be able to step into the life of a human being who has levels of grief and guilt that are impossible to describe, the profound hope was to be able to drop into her life in a way that would honor her and the many people who suffer as a result of this kind of loss.”

Imagine the sense of failure that the mother of a murderer must feel.

“What did I miss and how did I miss it?” Dowd said. “You’re outcasts. The idea of not being able to bury your child. We understand why, but oh gosh, it’s an unbelievable journey, finding your way back to some level of life. How does one do it? I just don’t know the strength it must take. … All defenses, put it all down and just take one step at a time.”

If anyone is the antagonist, it’s Birney as the aloof estranged father.

“He’s the one who’s most protected,” Dowd said. “That is the way he moves through his life; that is the way he survives. Reed Birney is an entire pleasure to work with. Though it may seem entirely inappropriate, we did a sincere amount of laughing. Birney is a very funny guy. In that kind of shooting with this material, periods of laughter were essential.”

The result should be Oscar consideration for all four players.

“It’s very flattering when people say nice things about you as an actor, but I’ve been the same actor for 30-something years,” Isaacs said. “The only times I’ve ever had attention was when someone has written something utterly brilliant that conveys the human condition. … At those times, actors get the attention that should be given to the writers.”

As a screenwriter, Kranz gradually doles out information with dialogue sans exposition.

“Isn’t that the way in life?” Isaacs said. “We open our mouths and say words, but do they truly express what we’re thinking? Are we not running through a million things that we’re not saying? When other people are speaking, are we not criticizing them or wishing they were saying something else? In well-made stories, it’s always things you’re not saying.”

In fact, it takes 35 minutes for Plimpton to reveal the premise, as shown in the trailer.

“It’s engaging, entertaining and intriguing to try to figure out what’s going on,” Kranz said. “That’s a good thing as far as telling a story, but I also knew and paid more attention to the reality of how these people would speak to one another. They know what happened, so why would they get into a room and start speaking about the things they know?”

From a directorial standpoint, Kranz makes a powerful choice to visually express change.

“We change lenses,” Kranz said. “We go from spherical to anamorphic at a key moment in the movie to suggest that their lives have changed forever, their worldview has changed forever, their perspective has changed. We did that with a lens shift.”

We won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say there is a transcendent moment of hope.

“I wouldn’t be a part of a film that offered no hope,” Isaacs said. “It’s realistic, complex, a big, messy, human crucible. There’s nothing Hollywood about the story. It comes from real research. It’s not happy clappy. … The world offers no easy, perfect solutions, but moving into any kind of solution and marching into the wind is better than curling up paralyzed.”

Even if you’ve never faced this level of grief, everyone can relate to human conflict.

“They’re carrying hate and it poisons them,” Isaacs said. “They’ve dug themselves deep ditches … but something human happens in the room that makes the rest of their lives a little bit easier. … Our film is one of the biggest films I’ve ever been in. It has enormous stakes. … That felt like one of the most important stories I’ve been lucky enough to tell.”

5 stars

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with the cast of 'Mass' (Part 2)

Listen to the full conversation on today’s “Beyond the Fame” podcast.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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