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Wrestling with reconciliation

Mass director Fran Kranz and actress Ann Dowd discuss grief, spirituality, and forgiveness after tragedy

From left, Jason Isaacs, Martha Plimpton, Reed Birney, and Ann Dowd in a scene from Mass Facebook/Mass

Wrestling with reconciliation

The film Mass, which opened in theaters last week, tells a difficult story solely through dialogue between four central characters meeting in a church basement. The two couples are trying to heal from a mass school shooting six years earlier involving their sons. One son was the shooter. The other, the victim. Writer and director Fran Kranz drew inspiration for the film from real-life stories of forgiveness documented by the Forgiveness Project and the Truth and Reconciliation Project. I spoke with Kranz and Ann Dowd, the actress who plays the mother of the shooter. In this edited version of our conversation, they share why they made the film, the complexities involved, and deeper spiritual aspects they hope others see.

Fran, what was your motivation for bringing this movie, with such a difficult premise, to the big screen?

Fran Kranz: I wanted to believe in forgiveness myself. I wanted to believe in reconciliation, because I worried under these circumstances I might not be able to do it—I might not be able to find it, grant it, or receive it. I was a new parent, so I was this fragile, vulnerable mess, where the sidewalk terrified me. Everything became dangerous because I had this new, intense love but concern for my child and her safety, her everything—her whole being. I felt like I had to confront these ideas in the wake of these events that happen all the time. It was deeply troubling me. When I came across these meetings, I had to know more about what they were. I didn’t have a movie in mind. But when I read about them, I immediately thought, this is what I’ve been thinking about. This is what’s been troubling me. This is the thing I want to know how to do. So I started writing about it, essentially as a way to work through it myself. In that sense it’s very personal—journaling through my thoughts, fears and hopes.

Do you feel like you did work through them?

Kranz: I don’t know. I think what these people do is the most extraordinary thing. And I want to lift that up and celebrate it, in all of its ordinariness, in all the plainness of it—it’s just four people sitting around a table trying to work through their differences. There are no flashbacks. There are no inserts. There’s no score. It’s not this striking, stunning church. I wanted this unadorned, because I thought the basic human action, the conversation they’re having, is as extraordinary as any of us could ever do—trying to heal, trying to help one another heal.

What was the most difficult part of making this film really work?

Kranz: It’s all been difficult for me. It was emotional writing it, shooting it. We didn’t have a lot of money. We didn’t have a lot of time. And it’s been emotional talking about it. I had an early draft, and a friend of mine gave me a note—Richard Nelson, he’s a brilliant writer—saying, “I’m not saying this as a criticism, but as something you should look at: [The film’s characters] are very polite.” And to me, I’ve read about these meetings—the Forgiveness Project, and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, meetings like it—and they are polite. They are so decent to one another. There’s no screaming and yelling. They don’t leap over the table and grab one another. But what he said stuck with me, and I think what finally happened is that—I’m going to get emotional—I hadn’t gone there myself yet. I was writing the structure, but I hadn’t really dug deep yet. It wasn’t about being angry or rude and impolite. It was about tapping into that deeper level of emotion. That came later, after I’d done more research. I had to read and learn about certain kids and teachers and children and families. I just hadn’t gone far enough.

The film is set in a simple Episcopal church but only dances around the edges of God and faith. What was your thinking about delving into those aspects more?

Kranz: My hope is that people who watch this film walk away and think about their own relationship with spirituality, their relationship with the unknown, with life and death and the meaning and purpose of it all. Those kind of questions, I think, are religious. I never had any question about setting it in a home or a community center because I needed the presence of spirituality. I wanted it to be God-adjacent. It’s something they all have to struggle with and think about. There are four distinct characters with four distinct relationships with the unknown and the spiritual. I wanted it to be part of the film in order for people to ask those questions themselves.

Ann, I’m curious about how your Catholic background affected your role as the mother of the shooter.

Ann Dowd: I’m not a practicing Catholic. However, the values that I’d connect with Jesus help in terms of the way we relate to one another. I don’t know that it affected the playing of Linda. But it certainly affected me. Not in a church way, though I love the church, especially when it’s empty. That sounds horrible, but I love the peace and the profound “something” that is in a church, and being comfortable being alone physically but knowing you’re not alone spiritually.

What makes sense to me about the church basement is that door of spirituality has been opened by the human beings that want a church. The door is open. There is the help we need to try to move forward.

Kranz: I loved this church in particular when we were scouting churches and I first saw it. The basement, this room, was directly beneath the nave. I love this notion that God or spirituality was around the corner. It was available if you chose to see it or connect with it or have a relationship. One of the characters seems to be an atheist and seems to know how to explain what happened through science or deal with his emotions through politics and activism. But ultimately, he is covering up this volcano of anger, and he is so clearly at war with grief. At the end of the film, there’s a moment when he’s offered an opportunity to go through that door. He’s directly asked the question: What is your relationship with something greater than yourself, something unknowable, the mystery of life? This person who wants to have knowledge and mastery over what happened so it doesn’t have power over him has to come face-to-face with the notion there are things he can’t explain. And how do you live with that?

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.


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