Most of Fran Kranz’s Mass takes place in one room with the same four actors. Despite that static setup, the movie feels surprisingly bold and dynamic. So how did the first-time writer and director pull it off?
Although Kranz is new behind the camera, he’s a longtime actor, which likely made it easy to elicit performances from Martha Plimpton, Jason Isaacs, Reed Birney and Ann Dowd that ground the film’s high-stakes emotions.
But it also may have had something to do with the six movies listed below. Leading up to production, Kranz studied up on films that share some of Mass’ strongest elements: transparent and non-manipulative camerawork and a precise focus on character. Clearly it paid off, because the final product tells a big story—of two sets of parents meeting to grieve unspeakable loss, and hopefully reconcile, in the wake of a school shooting—in an impressively scaled-down style.
“What these characters do is so extraordinary and takes such courage, that I wanted to honor that by not having flashbacks or cinematic conveniences,” Kranz explains. “To sit in the room and stay there, through the awkward moments, through the contradictory moments, the moments where they repeat themselves, the small talk, and then the really cathartic emotional moments—all those things rolled into one. It’s all part of life and part of what it must be like to face people under these circumstances.”
Mass is now playing in select theaters.
I used this film as a kind of North Star or compass, meaning that I believed if a conversation is compelling enough people will sit through it. My Dinner With Andre is cinematically simple. It’s just two people at a table and must have been only a handful of setups. I had to have faith that I could do the same. Also as a first-time director I didn’t want to overreach or attempt anything too ambitious as far as the camera was concerned. My cinematographer Ryan Jackson-Healy and I never wanted to get in the way. The thought was to just let the camera be where it needed to be. We had plenty of concepts behind the camerawork but the main focus would always be the performance.
Yasujiro Ozu came up often as a visual or stylistic reference. Like My Dinner With Andre, we used Ozu’s work as a way of speaking about cinematic simplicity. I designed the opening of the film, with the supporting characters setting up for the meeting, in the style of Ozu. I’d like to think anyone familiar with his work might see that effort. I wanted almost entirely static and wide shots. I wanted the viewer to feel we were presenting them an ordinary world, a world like their own. We used frames within frames to emphasize spaces and geography. We had the characters walk in and out of rooms in single shots, allowing the empty spaces to endure on their own. I was hoping this would add a real-world quality to the film and story. It was essential that by the time the parents arrive the audience feels they are watching real life onscreen, unadorned and unaffected, where all characters and spaces have a kind of equivalence. The first shot of the room where the majority of the film takes place is a direct reference to Ozu’s “tatami shot.” This is a shot where the camera is placed at a low height, supposedly at the eye level of a person kneeling on a tatami mat. It’s a way of subtly telling the audience you are simply observing the scene or story presented to you. I wanted the audience to be a part of the conversation and this shot felt like the perfect way to invite them into the space.
Ken Loach in general was a big influence and good reference to keep close at hand. This movie, however, felt like a perfect example of how a director can completely disappear. I think about this movie and I remember only story and performance, only the world on display. Ken Loach and his cinematographer Robbie Ryan are invisible, yet the film is, at least in my mind, unforgettable cinema. This served as a great reminder of how effective you can be by stepping back and observing from the right distance. Admittedly, it also helped me with my insecurity around being a first-time director. I did not have flashy shots up my sleeve. This movie affirmed for me that I didn’t need them.
Ryan and I referenced Andrea Arnold’s film for Robbie Ryan’s cinematography. It was never a comparison emotionally or even in terms of story. I just admired the handheld photography and was amazed that it was the same cinematographer as I, Daniel Blake. For Mass, I wanted the camera to mirror or parallel the emotional state of the characters. We would begin mainly in the static two-shot, only slowly introducing coverage. As the characters move further into the conversation we would introduce movement. At first almost imperceptibly as they feel each other out, then more purposefully as the characters search for answers and meaning. Eventually we introduced more significant movements like pans. Eventually the conversation begins to deteriorate as the characters get more emotional. By that point we fall into handheld camera. The hope is the change is so gradual that audiences don’t realize or ever see the evolution of camera movement. It’s just felt through the story and performance. By the end of the film we have a full perspective shift when we switch from spherical lenses to anamorphic lenses. Long story short, on set I would constantly refer to the journey as “Ken Loach-Robbie Ryan to Andrea Arnold-Robbie Ryan.” That was the aesthetic camera path.
Mass is about a lot of things in my mind but one of those things is definitely marriage. It’s also about repairing broken relationships and living with resentment. I think this reference speaks for itself in that way. Outside of the subject matter, though, I referenced Scenes From a Marriage for many of the same reasons I referenced My Dinner With Andre and I, Daniel Blake. Bergman just places the camera where it needs to be, then lets the characters exist and the audience observe. I must have watched Episode 1 ten times leading up to principal photography. The evolution is so seamless, without realizing it you travel from documentarian observer to intimate guest at a dinner party gone off the rails. It was almost a perfect road map for much of my own film’s conversation.
Last but definitely not least. This was always my main emotional comp. People would ask, “What do you want this movie to feel like?” I’d say Time of the Wolf. I love Michael Haneke because he’s just amazing but this lesser-known film of his (if there are lesser-known Haneke movies) might be my favorite. It begins in this incredibly unassuming way but quickly takes on enormously heavy subject matter and themes. The pacing is slow but continuously shocking. I think it’s masterful. It also takes on an apocalyptic event, usually reserved for big budgets, without ever showing it or using the kind of set pieces and action we are used to in those movies. Moreover, it’s as intense as any large action movie could ever hope to be. It tells an epic story in an intimate way. Ultimately the movie has a mysterious quality and resolution to it. To this day I’m not exactly sure how to articulate it or at least how I felt, but it speaks to the exhausting and enduring nature of life and living. It’s a hard watch but I believe that’s because it’s meaningful. I’ll never forget the last image and all that it lit up inside of me. I wanted to dig that deep with my movie. I’d be very pleased if people read this and intuitively feel Time of the Wolf’s influence on Mass.