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What Happens When the Parents of a Mass Shooter Meet With the Parents of One of His Victims?

Writer-director Fran Kranz grew up at the time of Columbine and had his first child around the Parkland shooting. He talks about how those experiences, and his memories of being bullied, informed his stark, moving drama ‘Mass’

In the austere drama Mass, two couples meet at a church, heading down to the parishioners’ hall to have a difficult conversation. We don’t know anything about them, but from their exchanges, we start to put things together. One couple, Richard (Reed Birney) and Linda (Ann Dowd), are here to discuss their teenage son Hayden, who gunned down 10 people at his school before killing himself. The other couple, Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Gail (Martha Plimpton), are here to discuss their teenage son Evan, who was one of Hayden’s victims. The mass shooting happened six years ago, but this is the first time these four adults have all gathered together to talk about what happened. There’s no mediator — it will just be the four of them in the room — and you can feel the tension in the air.

The feature debut of writer-director Fran Kranz, an actor who was part of the 2012 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman with Philip Seymour Hoffman and one of the stars of Dollhouse and The Cabin in the Woods, was initially conceived as a play before being turned into the talky, intimate film that opens tomorrow in theaters. For the majority of the movie’s nearly two-hour runtime, we’re in that room with Richard, Linda, Jay and Gail as they go from pleasant chit-chat — how long did it take you to drive here? — to raw, emotional back-and-forth about the tragedy that now forever binds them. Did Richard and Linda ever suspect their boy was capable of murder? Could they have done more to prevent it? How are Jay and Gail ever going to move on? And what does everyone in that room hope to get out of this meeting? 

As Mass rolls along, the answer to that last question seems to shift as the conversation evolves from respectful to heated to despondent. 

The unfussy, natural performances are quite moving in their simplicity — it’s impossible to imagine how such a wrenching dialogue would play out in real life, but Mass feels like a pretty plausible scenario. And Kranz keeps the sermonizing to a minimum. Mass is “about” gun violence, but thankfully it doesn’t feel like an issue film. Instead, it’s about how ordinary Americans try to make sense of something utterly senseless — and also how victims’ families try to learn how to forgive the parents of a killer. To use a touchy-feely term, Mass is about how broken people figure out how to heal.

That’s certainly how Kranz, who turned 40 over the summer, envisions his film. But he’s also modest enough to recognize that making a movie isn’t going to fix larger social ills such as mental health and the proliferation of guns in our society. “I don’t have solutions or necessarily explanations,” he told me over the phone this week. “This is pure artistic expression — my hopes and fears around this subject, and around being a parent.” 

During our interview, we talked about his childhood connection to Columbine, his own difficulty with imagining how he’d be able to forgive a killer and how being bullied as a teen impacted the making of Mass.

Before Mass, I wasn’t that aware of these face-to-face sessions between the parents of a shooter and the parents of a victim. How common are they?

I came across a handful that were specifically related to shootings — some just at a private home, and some at a house of worship. I spoke with a journalist who told me that there’s many more [meetings] that we’ll never know about — it’s just that some of these have been shared with journalists. There’s obviously no transcript — they’re very private, very sensitive meetings. 

The real genesis of this film goes back to when I was in college — I learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. I remember being so upset by it, because I didn’t think I could do that — I didn’t think I was capable of forgiving someone who took something so dear to me, who had taken a loved one. I watched these videos and read transcripts of these amnesty hearings and saw these people forgive — I didn’t think I was capable [of doing that]. 

And when the Parkland shooting happened, I was a new parent — my daughter was a little over one, and I came across these meetings. I was just trying to learn more — I didn’t have a movie in mind — and I came across these meetings, and it forced me to confront those old feelings, because now I had a kid. I worried about her safety. I had to think about all of these terrifying things — most of all, the idea that if something ever happened, I might be in some sort of prison [of a] life of hatred and blame and heartbreak. I didn’t want that, but I didn’t know how to avoid that. 

These meetings were exactly working through that. The very purpose of these meetings is to try to move forward and to try to find healing or forgiveness or reconciliation [in] the most difficult circumstances.

You’ve talked about the fact that you were bullied in school. We learn that happened to Hayden, too. What’s interesting to me is that Mass is about these four adults, but the real main character is Hayden, this young man who was the shooter who we never see.

The movie in many ways is about young men. It’s about a lot of things — about parents, marriage, raising children and, obviously, the event itself and that topic — but a lot of it is about young men. 

One of the supporting characters [a surly young guy who works at the church] is beautifully played by Kagen Albright — it’s his first movie. [When] we first see him, he’s framed within the frame — we see him through a kitchen-island window, and it’s purposeful. It’s presenting, “This is the subject of the movie: a boy that we’re not really sure about. The boy that seems like he might have some issues. There’s maybe something off about this kid.” [He’s] framed on purpose, and it’s a subtle thing — I don’t think anyone’s going to pick up on it, but it’s something important to me, because I’m essentially saying, “This is a story about young men.” 

I feel like [with] experiencing bullying, everyone can come up with a story of being teased and made fun of — high school is traumatic, period. [But] I was 18 when Columbine happened — I was a senior in high school, I was the shooters’ age. To experience any kind of bullying — to be hurt in high school is so common, right? Everyone can relate to that. But to be at that age and to think a peer, essentially, could do that was such a terrifying shift. I can remember where I was [when] Columbine [happened] as clearly as I can remember where I was on 9/11 — it was a life-changing, world-changing event for me. And I think wrestling with those feelings and those fears and knowing that a peer was capable of this — and, also, the heartbreak of knowing that [loss] of innocence — it never left me. 

When Parkland happened, the first thing I did was buy Dave Cullen’s book Columbine — I mean, the first thing, immediately, I was buying books about shootings all over the country: Aurora, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, even Norway, internationally. It was almost that there was something inside of me that had never really been reconciled or worked through because of the trauma of that day of Columbine.

If Mass is about young men, what do you think you learned about them over the course of making the film?

I worry about a world where we become increasingly more isolated. I worry about a world in which we relate to one another through texts, emails and avatars as much, if not more so, than we do in person and the physical presence of another person. I think it becomes so easy to dehumanize people. It also becomes so easy to become hyper-individualistic and just reinforce your own feelings. I mean, it’s talked about in the film, but I think there are elements of the modern world that cultivate bad things like detachment and disconnection. 

And, look, I don’t know how to stop these [things] — I don’t know how to change course. I don’t have solutions or explanations. This is pure artistic expression — my hopes and fears around this subject, and around being a parent. I believe that if you feel less humanity around you — if you’re not experiencing it directly, in the flesh, in person — you’re not going to feel a connection to much of anything. There’s an alienation and a despondency to that, which can be deeply disturbing and lead people to make decisions and lead to actions that no longer recognize the value of human life. 

The characters talk in therapy-speak — it’s almost like they’re in couples’ counseling together. Was that a thematic choice, or is that how these sessions go in real life?

These people would have had therapy, I think, and they’re getting therapeutic advice. They’re getting encouragement from professionals — from family, from friends — but there’s been guidance to get here. They probably conversed through attorneys or through therapists. 

I wanted to infuse the movie with this notion of people helping people. The movie, there’s so much therapy to it. And, yes, I believe the characters have been coached because this is a terrifying situation to put yourself into — it takes a ton of courage. So it felt truthful to me that there would have been some coaching — that there would have been scripts [about how to communicate]. Once they get into the room, [that script] totally flies out the window, but there would be things that they were trying to say and guidelines and boundaries and talking points, all of those things. But it turns into something completely different when you’re face-to-face with the people and left alone. 

Mass is very balanced in its compassion for both couples. But did you find yourself sympathizing with one side over the other?

I thought of them all equally. I wrote the script like an actor improvising for a role, and there was never any question that there [wasn’t] anyone [who] had more value. I treated them all like human beings with dignity and that they had their truth to share. There was no good or bad — there was no antagonist and protagonist. 

I get that, but I wonder if any of their perspectives was harder for you to understand and embody in the writing. Imagining being a parent of a shooter would be different than imagining being a parent of a shooting victim.

Richard is a challenging character because he has to defend himself. He knows these people are there and blame him and [are] suspicious of him — [Jay and Gail] would feel satisfied if they could say, “You were a bad parent and we can blame you, and now we get to walk away with some understanding.” That might, in the immediate future, feel good, but that’s not going to ultimately help them. 

For Richard, he goes on the defensive, and that’s a difficult position to be in as a writer, or as a person, because you want to show your humanity, but you’re also there for a purpose. [Jay and Gail] are going to ask questions — they deserve to ask questions, and you have to answer them. 

But, ultimately, I believe in full disclosure — truth [sets] people free, and that’s ultimately what these characters want to hear. They want to hear the truth, and in that truth, they might be able to find the humanity. That’s the path toward reconciliation — no matter the regrets, no matter the mistakes.