WORTHINGTON — Worthington native Larry Lang and his famous onions rings are the subject of an upcoming documentary, "The Ringmaster," which will premiere Aug. 8 at the Festival of Cinema NYC in New York.
Producer and co-star Zachary Capp grew up visiting his grandparents Emory and Esther Anderson in Worthington. During his visits, he frequented Michael's Steakhouse, then-home to Lang's onion rings.
The rings debuted in 1949 when Lang's father, Michael, opened the restaurant as Mike's Spaghetti House. He later brought the onion ring recipe to Worthington Country Club in 2010, seven years after Michael's was sold, and later prepared and cooked the rings at Wilmont Saloon No. 7, which has since closed.
"Wherever Larry Lang or the onion rings were, I would always go," Capp recalled.
A few years ago, Capp's paternal grandfather passed away and left him an inheritance to jumpstart his dream to become a filmmaker.
“All my life, my grandfather had told me to follow my passion,” Capp said. So he put the inheritance money into creating his production company, Capp Bros.
Capp's original plan was to create a TV docuseries titled "American Food Legends," where he would travel around the country and interview small-town culinary giants — starting with Lang.
He consulted one of his Ithaca College buddies, Dave Newberg, who was primarily directing TV shows and animation. Newberg agreed that Capp should pursue the idea, so Capp began filming. Capp also reached out to the Worthington community through a Globe article and asked people to submit personal stories about the impact of the Langs and their onion rings.
The next day, Capp had hundreds of voicemails and emails.
“That’s when I decided we needed to shift the focus a little bit," Capp said, "and it became this feature documentary about the Langs.”
When Capp finished filming and editing his first draft of the film, he sent it to Newberg for review.
"My professional opinion was that this wasn't a viable product for the television market," Newberg said. "It was a love letter to Larry."
As Capp continued filming, Newberg noticed that Capp was more focused on Lang than on actual production. So Newberg asked the film crew to start shooting a lot of behind-the-scenes footage of Capp.
At that point, Newberg got another Ithaca College film school friend involved — Molly Dworsky, a Twin Cities native.
Dworsky did some digging and discovered that her grandparents and Capp's grandparents were next-door neighbors in St. Paul. That connection piqued her interest even more strongly than just the Minnesota heritage.
"I thought, 'Of course I'll work on this project,'" she said. She could offer some local insight as a Minnesotan.
Dworsky and Newberg quickly became co-directors of what would evolve into "The Ringmaster" as it looks today.
When Capp finished his next cut, Dworsky and Newberg agreed that it left too many unanswered questions. For example, Dworsky said, viewers wouldn't know where they could purchase the famous Lang onion rings.
"Then it became this interesting challenge about how we take this footage Zach had shot and turn it into something engaging for the masses," Dworsky said. "It became about how Zach tried and failed to help Larry and these onion rings rather than being a documentarian."
The new vision for the project was "more interesting and more honest," Dworsky added.
Newberg said that the film follows Capp's attempts to make Lang's onion rings world-famous. First, Capp worked with Lang's sister Linda to get the onion rings sold at Badlands Motor Speedway in Brandon, S. D.
"I wanted to try our product in a different venue," Linda said.
Capp had connections to the band KISS, which was affiliated with the speedway. He arranged a tasting with band member Paul Stanley in 2016, and the partnership with the speedway was born.
Lang didn't want to leave his position at Wilmont Saloon No. 7, so Linda agreed to cook the onion rings at the speedway.
However, the arrangement was short-lived — after serving the Lang onion rings for just one season, the speedway closed and was put up for sale.
Next, Capp used his connections with NFL bigwigs to try to get people to invest in Lang's product. He flew Larry and Linda both to Las Vegas to pitch the product.
"Our film culminates in this crazy, high-stakes adventure in Las Vegas," Newberg said.
In the end, Newberg said, the film is "beyond what anyone thought it would be."
"It's a story of people who are good and who have the best intentions for each other," Dworsky said, "but intention doesn't always translate to reality."
"The people around Larry believed Larry deserved better," Dworsky added. She described Lang as the kind of person who is unlikely to advocate for himself.
These emotions are evident in the dramatic trailer, which was released July 1 and has already accumulated more than 250,000 views on the Capp Bros. Facebook page.
"We're aware that the impact of the trailer has been divisive and has been riling people up," Dworsky said. She referred to the backlash received when Capp posted the trailer in the "Growing up in Worthington" Facebook group. Some local viewers thought Lang had been unfairly coerced into doing the film.
"People who watch this film will find themselves wondering what they would have done in this situation," Dworsky said. She added that the trailer is just a snapshot of the film, with soundbites out of context.
"Zach, at every step, was trying to honor this family. Everyone involved in the process fell in love with Larry and Linda," Dworsky added.
"What's interesting about going to see film is the conversations you have after the film," she continued. She hopes the movie will get viewers talking about the actions portrayed, but also about the legacy the Lang family has created in the Worthington community.
"The film does really capture the importance Michael's Restaurant had in Worthington and in southwest Minnesota," Newberg agreed.
To see the Lang family portrayed in film is "absolutely thrilling," Linda Lang said.
Larry Lang is an Alzheimer's patient at age 65, although Linda said he started showing symptoms years ago. Capp promised that some of the proceeds of the film will be put toward Alzheimer's research.
"If this movie can help with that, then that would be wonderful," Linda said.
After the movie premieres in New York and completes its film festival circuit, Capp said he will bring a showing to Nobles County. Although there's no firm date set, he intends to come before the end of the year. All proceeds from the local showing will go directly to the Lang family.
"This film has consumed my life for three years," Capp said. He added that it's fitting for the film to premiere in 2019, the 70th anniversary of the Lang onion rings.
Capp describes the film as "heartwarming, heartbreaking and hopeful."
"At the very least," Newberg said, "(Capp) is shining a light on people who are important to him and to the community."
To follow the film, interested parties can search @theringmasterfilm on Facebook or Instagram or visit theringmaster.com.