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School massacre film was ‘unlike anything we had ever done before’

Mass examines how people find the will to persevere in the aftermath of tragedy. Georgia Humphreys hears more about the incredibly raw drama

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Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry and Martha Plimpton as Gail Perry in Mass. Credit: Press Association Images

Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry and Martha Plimpton as Gail Perry in Mass. Credit: Press Association Images

Press Association Images

Reed Birney as Richard, Ann Dowd as Linda, Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry, Martha Plimpton as Gail Perry. Credit: Press Association Images

Reed Birney as Richard, Ann Dowd as Linda, Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry, Martha Plimpton as Gail Perry. Credit: Press Association Images

Press Association Images

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Jason Isaacs as Jay Perry and Martha Plimpton as Gail Perry in Mass. Credit: Press Association Images

On February 14, 2018, a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida, left 17 people dead.

While there had been news reports of similar massacres for years, LA-born actor Fran Kranz had become a father for the first time in 2016.

And the tragic event had such an emotional impact on the now 40-year-old that it ultimately led to him making Mass, which marks his writing and directing debut.

The new Sky Original film follows two sets of bereaved parents, Jay and Gail (Jason Isaacs and Martha Plimpton) and Linda and Richard (Reed Birney and Ann Dowd), who meet years after a school shooting tore their lives apart.

The hope is talking privately about the unspeakable tragedy will help them all move forward.

Mostly shot on one set, the entirety of the couples’ discussion unfolds in real-time onscreen, and it’s an intimate, nuanced, and devastating exploration of grief, anger, and acceptance.

For the cast, “this was a film unlike anything we had ever done, or even read”, notes New York native Plimpton, who rose to fame thanks to her role in classic 80s adventure film The Goonies.

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The 51-year-old said: “We were compelled not only by the fact of its unusualness, of its bravery and its skill in the writing but also by Fran Kranz, our director, who is just such a smart, sensitive and empathic and funny person, that we knew it was the kind of thing that we would have a really extraordinary experience or incredible time doing.

“I know each of us had our own concerns. When each of us found out who was going to be in it and what it would be like, it was scary, it was daunting.

“We had no time, we had no money, but we jumped right in.”

For a horrifying number of people, school shootings are a lived experience. And yet, it’s a subject that’s rarely talked about on-screen.

Kranz – who has starred in the film The Cabin in the Woods and the TV series Dollhouse – explains he wanted to do something different with Mass, and focus on a “really human story”.

For two years, he read nothing but subject material for the project.

“But it started as just a concern, as a person, as a parent,” he said. “I didn’t have a movie in mind – I was working on another screenplay”.

One of the reasons Kranz wanted to make Mass is because he is “so worried” about his country, and his young daughter growing up there.

“When I was doing research, just because I have my own personal concern and frustration, coming across these stories I thought, ‘If people knew more about the families and the survivors and the children and the teachers, and if this was someone you knew, someone you were close with, you would feel so differently and so passionately about figuring this out immediately’.

“That’s part of why I wanted to tell the story the way I did and say, ‘I’m just going to leave you in a room with four survivors, treat them equally, treat them all with as much dignity and humanity as I could possibly write, and I wonder if that will change our perspective’.”

Interestingly, the filmmaker had studied the work of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Committee (TRC) while at college years ago.

He recalls watching the documentary Long Night’s Journey into Day, about four amnesty trials for people who’d confessed to heinous crimes and expressed contrition, one of which concerned the murder of an American woman, whose parents met with the family of her killer prior to the trial.

“When I learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa and those amnesty hearings, I was amazed.

“But truthfully, if I was really honest, I did not think I could participate, or even want to participate, that I’d just want retribution and punishment.”

But then, he adds, there would be the “hate that you live with because of that”.

He said: “So I felt I had to write about this for my own need to believe in it and understand it, that you can work through the pain and find ways to reconcile with people you feel blame towards.”

For British actor Isaacs, 58, Mass is not really about the tragic events the four characters have endured.

“It’s a film about people whose marriage has ground to a halt and whose life has ground to a halt because they’re paralysed – crippled – by blame they hold and guilt they hold and ideas that are stopping them living their life,” suggests the Liverpool-born star, whose previous film roles include the Harry Potter series and The Patriot.

“And so the situation mirrors restorative justice meetings, all the meetings in the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission; anytime anybody is brought face to face with the people they think are responsible for what’s gone wrong in their life.

“An enormous number of people wake up in the morning with their hearts full of hate, and they’re really poisoning themselves. And that’s what the film is about to me.”

Plimpton agrees with Isaac that, “thematically, the film tells a story that’s applicable to all of us”.

“But I also think that the impetus for the film is important. And even though it’s not a political story, or a political film at all, I do think that its origin and where it comes from is important, because it is such a constant lived trauma, and something that, certainly in America, we live with all the time.

“And that’s not to take away, however, from the reality that what these people have come here to do is find a way to move forward, and how do we do that? And can we? As my character says, ‘I wake up and we do this activism, and nothing’s ever changed’. And I think that that’s an important part of the film.”

With rich and gripping writing, Isaacs summarises Mass as a thriller.

“It kept me turning the pages,” he said. “Our characters, their marriage is disastrous at the time we walk in – we want it to be better.

“But I think Jay is typically male in that this terrible thing that’s happened to him, he’s turned into stuff to fix outside himself; to fix the law, to fix psychiatry’s definitions of people, to fix his wife, who he thinks is the one who’s got all the problems.

“And that’s a very universal thing, and certainly something I recognised.”

Sky Original Mass will be available in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from Thursday, January 20


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