Updated October 2, 2020 - 3:32 pm
In other hands, the story at the heart of “The Ringmaster” could have been a gripping, psychological horror movie.
A man becomes obsessed with what have been dubbed the world’s best onion rings, at times to the detriment of their sweet-natured creator? It isn’t that far removed from Annie Wilkes’ over-the-top fandom in “Misery.”
In other hands, though, that story never would have been told.
In 2015, fresh out of rehab for a gambling addiction, Las Vegan Zachary Capp used an inheritance from his grandfather to finance a documentary about Minnesota onion ring legend Larry Lang.
From its humble beginnings, the project would spiral out of control, consume three years of Capp’s life and eventually rope in Piero’s Italian Cuisine and its owners, Freddie and Evan Glusman; Las Vegas-based Dollar Loan Center CEO Chuck Brennan; Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of Kiss; and Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis.
Capp became so fixated on his subject, he kept creating new scenarios and drifting further away from the “fly on the wall” standard of most documentarians.
At one point, members of Capp’s crew compared his love of Lang and those onion rings to the way Lennie loved his rabbits in “Of Mice and Men.”
“My crew kind of thought what was happening behind the scenes was more compelling,” Capp says, “and, I guess you could say, they mutinied against me, and they turned the cameras on me.”
Growing up, Capp regularly visited relatives in Worthington, Minnesota, where he fell under the spell of Lang’s rings and his secret family recipe.
“It’s definitely the batter that’s the secret,” Capp says. “They’re not too thick. They’re not all, like, uniform rings. They’re all different shapes and sizes. They’re thin and crispy. The flavor is out of this world.”
The delicacy dates back to 1949, when it debuted in Lang’s father’s small-town restaurant. In later years, after a fire claimed the business, Lang would take the recipe into other Midwestern kitchens.
“I was always fascinated by Larry,” Capp says. “He was so beloved in that community. Wherever he went, even after his family’s restaurant burned down, the masses would go wherever he was. And not only just for the onion rings. They wanted to see Larry.”
Whether anyone wanted to see a movie about him, though, remained a question — even to Capp’s crew and Lang himself. Several of the people Capp paid to make the film openly mock the project throughout “The Ringmaster,” which is available digitally and on demand starting Tuesday. (For more information, see TheRingmaster.com.)
“Zach’s been working on a documentary about onion rings for three years of his life, full time,” friend and co-director Dave Newberg says, incredulously, early on in the finished product. “Full time!”
As the project began deteriorating, director of photography Pete Berg reveled in Capp’s misery. “Zach was, like, completely deflated,” he says in the film. “But in a way — in my own way — I was kind of excited filming Zach and seeing how sad and deflated he was.”
They, like most viewers, could tell that Lang — a bit of an introvert who lives with his sister and loves Cherry Coke with a childlike fascination — had little interest in being in the film. He’s simply too nice to have ever said no.
When confronted with this on screen, Capp doesn’t want to hear it. “He needs people to tell him sometimes what’s best for him,” he says, defiantly, of Lang.
Upping the stakes
How did a simple documentary about onion rings, of all things, go so horribly off the rails?
“I was blinded by my own ambition making this film,” Capp admits now. “I would do whatever it took to see this production through and create the most compelling narrative possible.”
In looking for ways to end the documentary, Capp kept setting the bar higher and higher.
He threw Lang a birthday party, but when that wasn’t as triumphant as he’d hoped, Capp arranged for Lang to be a judge at his hometown’s annual turkey race. (Lang couldn’t take the pressure and withdrew.)
Capp brought Lang to Brennan’s now-shuttered combination pawn shop and gun range in South Dakota for a taste test with the members of Kiss and a cooked-up business proposal.
In June 2018, Capp flew Lang and his sister, Linda, to Las Vegas — it was the wide-eyed Lang’s second time on an airplane — for a tasting with Raiders officials at Piero’s to try to sell them on the idea of branding the treat as Raiders Rings.
“I just wanted the happiest ending ever made in the history of cinema,” Capp says in the film. So, you know, no pressure.
That’s the sort of behavior that led the crew to turn its cameras on the filmmaker, capturing his struggles and a brief falling-out with Lang.
“I was on the fence of whether the movie was going to be about Zach or whether the movie was about Larry,” Berg says in the documentary. “And I was still kind of thinking in the back of my head, ‘This really shouldn’t be a movie anyway.’ ”
‘An intense experience’
Without spoiling things, Capp never got his happy ending.
More than two years later, the future of those beloved onion rings remains up in the air. Lang’s health has declined, and there’s currently no way for anyone to taste the concoction that nearly drove Capp over the edge.
He burned through most of that inheritance, including trips on private planes, making the documentary. At one point, the crew staged something close to an intervention when they became convinced Capp had replaced his gambling addiction with some of these unhealthy behaviors.
All of that is on display in “The Ringmaster,” which ended up becoming just as much about Capp’s quest as Lang’s onion rings. It’s similar to the turn taken by another Las Vegas-based film, “The Amazing Johnathan Documentary,” when its maker became one of its stars.
Since completing “The Ringmaster,” Capp says he’s been writing a lot and contemplating his next project.
“I probably will do something a little more heartfelt and easygoing,” he says of his follow-up. “This was an intense experience. I don’t know, man. Maybe like a Hallmark movie. Something definitely lighthearted, I think. For my own health, I think I need to do something like that first.”