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Sundance's debut class: Questlove, Robin Wright, and Fran Kranz discuss their first films

David Canfield
·13 min read
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EW x NRDC Panel Series: First-Time Filmmakers

Entertainment Weekly interviews first-time filmmakers Fran Kranz (Mass), Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)), and Robin Wright (Land) about their directorial debuts at the Sundance Film Festi

Sundance is a place of discovery. It's where debut directors blossom, where some of the greatest names in moviemaking got their start, where a new class emerges. This year, it happens to be fielding some higher-profile first-timers than usual. There's Golden Globe-nominated actress Rebecca Hall, behind the black-and-white adaptation Passing. Acclaimed comic Jerrod Carmichael, whose On the Count of Three is one of the fest's buzziest titles. And that doesn't even cover the participants on EW's star-studded panel.

As part of EW's 2021 Sundance Film Festival panel series with the NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), we gathered three directors making splashy feature-film debuts at the event, which deliver on what these artists have long proven themselves capable of in a new medium. Gathered over Zoom instead of, sadly, Park City, are Golden Globe winner Robin Wright, who also stars in her movie Land; Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, behind the 1969-set doc Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised); and Fran Kranz, behind the dialogue-heavy (and performance showcase) Mass.

In a rich, in-depth conversation, the three directors discussed the challenges of getting their projects off the ground, the messages behind their films, and what they see in their filmmaking career going forward. Read on for edited excerpts of the conversation, and watch the full roundtable above.

Sundance Institute

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I wanted to start with a big question, which is the decision to direct a film and really, for each of you, this film. Robin, you'd helmed episodes of House of Card beforehand; what made you feel ready to make the big-screen transition with Land?

ROBIN WRIGHT: The script came to me during a period of time about three years ago when we, not only in America but internationally, were experiencing these random shootings that were going on, starting once every three months and then it became bi-weekly. And I just resonated with this script about how each individual deals with their loss, with their grief. And it's very singular, the way people deal with it. And this is not only a story about one person's journey of erasing herself and finding a renewal in faith and hope to want to live again, but it's about human kindness and resilience.

Hearing that, it made me think a lot of Fran's film for perhaps more direct reasons. Fran, can you talk a little bit about that and the decision to make Mass?

FRAN KRANZ: Yeah, Wow. That was very cool to hear because I kind of only know, obviously, I haven't seen the films yet, so I kind of have these rough, basic, plot point ideas of what these movies are. So that took me back for a second to hear that about your film, Robin, and very excited to see that. [Mass'] story is about a parent whose children where involved in a mass school shooting, and they are meeting years later after the event in an attempt to find some understanding and a way to move forward. But the film is really about is how we deal with, and I'm echoing a lot of what Robin said here, but how we deal with loss, grief, resentment in the case of one family, guilt, shame, and the challenge that these parents face unpacking this unimaginable pain and loss of losing a child.

I'm not sure I can really speak to the something happening that is inspiring movies like this. That's a big question. I don't know if you got 45 minutes for that. For myself, the conception of this began with the Parkland shooting and it was the first shooting where I was a father myself. My daughter would have been 15, 16 months old when the Parkland shooting happened. So it was a different experience for me and that was really the catalyst to finally do something. I dreamed about directing a movie all my life, but I'm about to turn 40 so I wasn't that motivated [Laughs], so I made this like my life depended on it. A lot of urgent motivation.

Mass Distraction Media

Questlove, what about for you? There's a lot of found footage in your film. I imagine there had to be a pretty concerted decision to really go forth with a project like this.

AHMIR "QUESTLOVE" THOMPSON: Imagine there's a festival in 1969, with Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers, Gladys [Knight] and the Pips, Max Roach, so many. For over 300,000 people. It was documented and 40 hours of footage were shot and then its next destination was inside of a dingy basement for the next 50 years.

I didn't believe it, I was like, I know everything about music, at least about my post-modern, culture music; there's no way this happened and no one knew about it! Even when I looked online, there was no information about it. In the beginning, the imposter syndrome that I was carrying in 2017, told me, "No, this is way too important to have a first-time driver at the helm, to tell this story, you should get a real director." Then the music dweeb in me, the NYU professor, all these others, the storyteller in me, I just had to see it for myself and I decided that, "Yeah, I should be the one to tell the story." It took three years for it to happen.

I'd love to get into that nitty gritty, a little bit. Films are always hard to get off the ground, especially when you haven't directed one yet, and Questlove, I'm especially interested in your case, given as you mentioned, the years-long process and how a film like this has to be put together. What were some of those challenges?

QUESTLOVE: The challenge was, first of all: This is a story in 1969, so anyone who was of age, was kind of kissing 80 to 85, if they were still living, and the people that I found were mostly people that were kids at the time, anywhere between the ages of 5 to 10. So it was a struggle to find someone that had clear concise memories, we scoured the earth until we found the perfect 10 talking heads to tell the story from their perspective. And then, COVID happened, and then we really had to get innovative. It was like, we really should dive into the narrative more and what we discovered was that the circumstances that even brought that concert to be, being that concert was thrown in 1969, during the height of riots, Martin Luther King was assassinated, all the civil rights figures were dead, people felt lost, and there was panic in the air and people were burning down cities and they were like "Let's do a concert to keep them happy." Those same circumstances that led to the civil unrest of 1969 were happening in real time in 2020.

Even though there were a lot of challenges in figuring out a model to still shoot in COVID, there's a lot of sound issues, we shot outside. There are a lot of crickets, people stayed on farms, a lot of roosters [Laughs]. Stevie Wonder lives near an airport, that sort of thing.

Robin, you mentioned some of the background and the inspiration for your film and when one looks at a short synopsis of it, they might not necessarily see that connection, but having watched it, it's very much there. How did this story for you provide a conduit to talk about the kinds of issues that had sparked you?

WRIGHT: The word trauma was pretty much the foundation of why you make a movie about the different ways one can heal and how individuals can lose all belief in a new found faith or lose their own moral and ethical beliefs because of this life-alternating event that happened in their life. When your life that you know and have only known, is ripped out from under your feet by a stranger, you can never go back to being that person, will never be that individual again, fully, wholly. So how do you transform one's self? I wanted to talk to the new generation of children. How beautiful human beings truly are. We're all born beautiful and I think we're all born compassionate and empathic and life and trauma damages those beautiful inner things in us. It's so simple, the theme of this movie. It's, I know what you've been through.

In this movie, your character, she goes through it. It's a physically tough role. How was that balance for you, especially this being your first film?

WRIGHT: It was a beast for sure.

Looked like it.

WRIGHT: There were times where I couldn't leave the set because I was laying in the snow and if I had made footsteps in the new fallen snow, we couldn't a second take because we didn't have time because the schedule was so tight and we had four million scenes to shoot every day. You had to trust those people 400 meters away when you were freezing. You were like "Yes or No, do we need another take?" And they were like, "That sucked, do it again." You had to trust that they were right.

Ryan Jackson-Healy/Sundance Institute

Fran, you're not in your film but you are of course an actor as well. You've got an acting masterclass before you in Martha Plimpton, Ann Dowd, Jason Isaacs, and Reed Birney, and they're all so great in this movie. How did you work with them?

KRANZ: This movie that's mostly in a room around a table, a realism or naturalism was the most important thing; we couldn't ever break that. I had a script that I was proud of. I had certain things were really important to me. From the very beginning, I said, "Look, whatever is bumpy for you, whatever is not working for you, call it out, we will tweak it, it's got to flow."

It was a lot of flexibility. I'm not sure about improv necessarily, but we had small rehearsal in New York which was essential so we could get to know one another. I never felt like I was showing up with some great direction. The directors that I thought I could try and aspire to be like for this particular situation were the ones that stood out of the way but created and environment where people were open, where there was a lot of healthy vulnerability were people could share stories. Sharing emotions, things like that. That was important because obviously the level of emotion in the movie and the places that some of these actors go, we needed that. I joke that I felt like I was a game manager. They'll call certain quarterbacks and I was just a game manager, I didn't do anything that special. I truly had this amazing, amazing cast.

Let's talk inspirations. Robin, to me Land felt like movies I've loved from the '70's and '80's almost, the silence and the real focus on nature.

WRIGHT: You nailed it. I am a child of the '70's. Those films that I saw when they came out have stayed with me and they were my inspiration. Jeremiah Johnson, with Robert Redford. Very silent movie, in the snow mostly and they really shot in the elements. And one of the biggest inspirations just to want to be a director was The Black Stallion. The child-like nature of that animal that that child brought out in that animal. I was aligning myself with

You take minutia from all this, even songs. Listening to Questlove talk about the great '70's songs and the meaning of that one line in that Marvin Gaye song that I will never forget, you live with these things that are embedded in you and that's what makes our own style. Then it's how do you imbue your own style with that thing that you just love and inspired you to want to make your style.

KRANZ: Just listening to Robin there, I had this example of this movie, there was a movie I loved called Time of the Wolf by Michael Haneke and it had nothing to do with my movie and it had nothing to do with the premise or how we were going to shoot it and one location, it just was a feeling that it brought out in me and it was feeling I wanted audiences to have watching my movies. I couldn't even articulate it well, I think there's just a lot of truth to that. It gets a response out of you. It does something to you. It sticks with you, changes you, some story that influences you when they're these apples and oranges, they're sort of seemingly, totally disparate things. I thought that was interesting.

Questlove, who did you have in the back of your mind while making Summer of Soul?

QUESTLOVE: I would consider myself a cinephile because I spent 20 years on a tour bus where basically all I did was watch every movie, every documentary known to man, mostly to pass the time. Once you'd stop doing that, then you'd watch the director's commentary and once you'd do that, you'd graduate to a criterion level.... Because I've done that already, there wasn't a particular documentary that I set to match, I just wanted to make sure that the story was right. Because this is a documentary, you go in with your own agenda in the beginning but then you slowly realize that the story gets written out for you.

But I [fell] down rabbit holes. It was like,"Let's take this song away and add more space for…" and the next scene: You probably have, and it's a good problem to have, an embarrassment of riches as far as what to leave on the cutting room floor. That was the hardest thing about making this film, that it's way too much information.

Yeah. I could tell. Every minute of that movie when I was watching it just felt so fascinating.

QUESTLOVE: Yeah. My first draft, it was amateur hour. [Laughs] It was three hours and three minutes and so on.

KRANZ: I was laughing what Questlove said about the three-hour cut because I worked so hard trying to trim down my movie. I remember finally looking back and seeing I'd only cut three minutes. That was heartbreaking.

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