Fran Kranz’s Mass is one of the most striking films of 2021, as audiences are given an intimate look at two sets of parents dealing with the effects of a school shooting six years later. I got to chat with the producers J.P. Ouellette and Dylan Matlock of Circa 1888 about their experiences working on the film and what they hope audiences take away from it.
Nicole Ackman: I want to start out by telling you how much I love this film and how impactful I think it is. I managed to snag a ticket for it last year at Sundance and it has been my favorite film of the year ever since. So I'm so excited to get the opportunity to talk to you both about it. First, how did you end up becoming producers?
J.P. Ouellette: It goes all the way back to childhood. I've loved movies since I was seven. They were my babysitter growing up and I ended up pursuing it. I took screenwriting and film courses, I went to film school, and then just jumped in. It's all about, you know, driving out to LA and getting that first job. I started as a production assistant, just like everyone else, doing all the small things on set. Then you work your way up through production, doing assistant directing, and then eventually producing after over a decade of hustle and you finally get your big break to go film your own movie. It's a cool journey.
Dylan Matlock: We grew up kind of during the American independent boom. As kids when you're learning about what a writer does, what a director does, what a producer does, we were so inspired by Sundance. I was like, I’ve got to have a movie at Sundance. That was the dream. I went to the University of South Carolina and went the same sort of route of doing production. When I met JP almost a decade ago, we started writing together and then wanting to tell stories together. The first thing that either of us produced was a movie together: a little horror indie. Since then, we just love our working relationship and we actually got to live the dream and have a movie at Sundance. That was really exciting.
Ackman: From what I was reading, you have worked with a lot of first-time directors. Is that something that you do purposely?
Ouellette: It kind of happens naturally when you're starting out on your producing journey. Those people are starting out their directing journey or their writing journey and you're always coming up together. It's often people we've worked with in the past. We worked with Fran [Kranz, writer and director of Mass] on a film five years ago, even before he sent us a script for Mass. It's about building those relationships, so when it's someone's time and they're making their first movie and they need to depend on someone, they turn to us. They're like, you've worked with many first-time directors and we've known each other for five years and we want to make this movie. We go through the script and if it fits it, it fits and we go on the ride together.
It's always great because first-time directors are ambitious. They're not like old grizzled directors that we grew up in the studio system working as a set PA and assistant director. Everyone's energy is always good, which is the most important because it's their first movie, so it's their baby. We're in charge of gathering the team and making that happen for them. It’s a great challenge.
Matlock: You're going to be working together for a year, two years, even three years, just to get one movie out. So it's important to have those people that you vibe with and connect with. We love first-time directors because, a lot of times, they're like, this is my story. This is the one that I want to do first, this is the one that I’m really passionate about.
Ackman: When Fran first sent you the script, what were your immediate thoughts?
Ouellette: Fran kind of sideswiped me with the script. He totally undersold it. Like I mentioned before, we worked together about five years ago. Maybe three years ago, we bumped into each other at a cookout and caught up. I just sold a studio script and he congratulated me and asked if I could read his script and give him some notes. He didn't tell me much about it. He gives me Mass, and it sits on my computer for a couple of weeks. As Fran will say, every time he asked someone to read the script, it was like asking to never talk to them again.
I love Fran. He hired us when he was producing his first movie. We were his production team, so he knew I had the story background. About two weeks later, I read Mass which, if you've seen it and experienced it, you know. I cried twice. I never cry reading a script, because I get a ton of scripts and I'm able to disconnect from the reading process and try to find the emotion to go make the film and how it all connects. But with that script, I cried twice. I had to call him immediately; I finished the script at about 1:30 in the morning and gave Fran a call. I said, we have to make this movie and he's like, alright, let's talk in the morning. And then I sent it off to Dylan and I go, dude, you gotta read this.
Matlock: I'm gonna say, it was the opposite for me because it wasn't undersold. I got a call from JP. He's like, you’ve got to read this script; it's awards-worthy; we’ve got to do it. And I was just like, okay, I gotta read it right now.
Ouellette: So it was undersold to me and then…well, I didn’t oversell it. I was just telling Dylan this is wild, this is the best script I've ever read. You don't usually get that call too often from your producing partner.
Matlock: Yeah, not oversold. But there was definitely an excitement that Fran did a good job. Because when I talked to him, he was just kind of like, oh, I don't know. We were just so pumped with the script so we were like, let's do it all in one room. Let's have a 72-page scene. Yeah, no cutaways, no flashbacks. We were on board, pretty much from the get-go.
Ackman: I don't see how you could not be with this script. In the production process, was there anything that occurred as you were getting everything sorted out, either in casting or location or anything, that you were super excited about? That you felt had to be exactly right, and it fell into place the right way?
Matlock: We were really excited because Reed Birney was already attached. He’s a Tony Award winner and he and Fran went way back from their Broadway days. So we already had an amazing actor set up for one of the hardest parts. Richard is such a hard character to do, because he's the opposite of everyone. He doesn’t go through the cathartic moment. So that was exciting to have him on board.
Ouellette: We had him and then we had to start getting creative with the financing. Because when you start going around with a drama about the aftermath of school shootings, it's not a thing that gets people excited. So we went around, we put some money in the banks, Fran put his personal money in the bank. We started getting those pieces and going location scouting to find the perfect church and getting the great casting team together to go bring it out to the agents. I said to Fran, if we want to make this movie, we just have to set a date and tell everyone we're filming that day and it'll all come together. There's a lot of power in that, especially in film. So we just picked it, like, okay, in November, we're filming.
We said we were partially financed, which technically we were, but we were being creative about that. We had enough to get the casting director and do location scouts in Idaho, where we eventually found our church. Then investors were taking us seriously. They were like, you have a Tony Award winning actor, an amazing script, casting directors bringing it out to the biggest agencies and attracting the other talent, which we eventually got. It was a little white lie that turned into getting our funding and getting our boots on the ground in Idaho and having just the best cast we could have ever had for this. And then we just had to get in the can. That was our job, we had just had to film it before the end of the year, before everyone parted ways for the holiday break. That was our goal in 2019, right before the pandemic and everything like that. We got it just in time.
Ackman: You were really lucky with your filming schedule to have gotten it done just before everything started. Were there any other things that were influenced by the pandemic?
Matlock: We were able to have a little test screening only a couple of weeks before the shutdown. At least we least got to see an audience react to it so we kind of knew where we stood. Sadly Sundance had to be virtual, so that was a little different. But they were really great for having the first year doing it all virtual and we were still able to meet buyers. People saw the movie and got excited about it. We were lucky in that sense, but definitely, the post-production and the trying to sell the movie was all kind of in a weird zone that no one had been in before.
Ouellette: Even just with sound mixing and doing color correction, Fran could only go in one day a week and sit on the other side of that room as the colorist. Then they would do notes all week because we were two months in, three months into the pandemic. There was no workflow yet and it slowed everything down a lot, but not in a bad way. We were able to spend a lot more time with the film. Fran kept fine-tuning the edit to these perfect beats with Yang Hua, our editor, who just let the whole movie breathe. It became this beautiful process.
It worked out with the timing of Sundance to submit and get it all in for the following year. So it was a blessing in disguise to have the extra time because we didn't have the big money to get everything done. You know, for a studio movie they can just be like, our schedule is eight weeks and we're getting it done whatever it costs. We had to spread it out over eight months almost, but it was a wonderful journey.
Ackman: What is one of your favorite things about the film?
Matlock: I love the performances. I think the script is obviously so well written. I like how it draws you in because little information is dropped, but it's natural to the characters, because they all know what happened. And it's able to unfold in such a natural way. You could tell the characters are guarded at first, that they slowly let the walls come down. The conversation just opens them up. I don't think I've ever had a cast that's been more prepared in my life. These actors every day came knowing the material, and they obviously were open to the experience on set when we were shooting, but I think they were just so prepared more than anyone I've ever worked with.
Ouellette: One of my favorite parts was what I learned from them and from Fran about the acting process and the rehearsal process. Often on independent films, you don't have the time or money to do rehearsals. Sometimes you get the actor on the day they work. This wasn't like that; Fran wanted to spread it out and have a rehearsal weeks before we even started filming, with all four of them in a room doing table work. That process and what it led to on the screen changed me as a producer forever to the point where we just had a new movie, and we were pushing rehearsals. We got there, like no, we have to have more rehearsals upfront.
Even though we're still making small independent films, we've changed our approach because Fran’s over 20 years of acting experience, but then becoming a director really opened our eyes to that process. Usually, we would just be like, okay, we got to produce a movie for X amount of dollars and X amount of days. We’ve got to grind and get it done and get people in and out. This movie had a little more breadth to it and it shows in the film.
Another thing Fran did was he went and searched for churches all over the country. He was sending us Google Map links, like pin drops all over. Then all of a sudden he's in Idaho, and he found the perfect church. He was like, I love this church, but I also love the isolation of it. We were like, we can build this whole room on a soundstage in LA; it's a room. But he was like, no, what if we all just isolated out here? We were out there for almost two months as a crew and then the cast was there for about three weeks. It really worked. We didn't have any distractions. There were no dinners; there were no friends hitting us up.
We had very short days, because we shot in a real church in November in Idaho, so the sun would drop at about 5pm. Because you would have extremely short days less than 8 to 10 hours, then the cast would go have dinner together and meet with Fran and work on the next day's work. Because we didn't have this drawn-out schedule with these crazy 14 hour days, the crews were watching movies together and getting dinner and it was amazing. It was like a summer camp for movies out there. We were isolated and just making this great movie on our time, whatever time we needed.
Ackman: There's a real theatricality about it that I think is something that comes with that rehearsal time and how natural it all feels. You have to remind yourself that you're watching actors at times.
Ouellette: They just draw you right in and it was all about the work they put in and getting into those characters. Someone just mentioned to us the other day that they're actually teaching Mass in an acting school already. That's what this movie and this story is; it's something bigger and more special than anything. This was a great one to be a part of putting together.
Ackman: To wrap up, what do you hope that audiences who see the movie take away from it?
Matlock: I really think it's such a cathartic experience. It's such a way to heal. We’ve all been going through a lot these last couple of years and I think it's about community and being able to open up to each other. I feel like people should not shy away from watching it just because of the subject matter. It's really uplifting and it translates to everything. It is about school shootings, but it's also about how do you heal? How do you reach out to someone that you feel you've built this wall up against?
Ouellette: I feel the same way. I want audiences to be able to break down a little and get away from the desensitization of what we see in the media all the time. We see the events and they happen so often in our country that sometimes you gloss over it and just change the channel when you're watching the news. This is an apolitical film, it doesn't get into any of the political stuff, it doesn't beat you down with facts and agendas. It just shows you the raw emotion of overcoming grief in these situations. It takes place six years after the event. That's what I love about this film, too, is that it doesn't show any of the events. It just shows what these folks are going through and you share that with them. It gives you a whole new unique experience and relation to what goes on in these events in our country.
Ackman: I definitely found it cathartic. Thank you both so much for chatting with me. It was honestly an honor to get to talk to you both about this film.
Mass is available to rent on Prime Video and be sure to read Wealth of Geek's review of the film.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Bleecker Street.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.