By Risa Nye
It’s hard not to give in to the urge to use the onion as a metaphor when writing a story that centers on onion rings. But the truth is, The Ringmaster tells a many-layered story that resembles nothing so much as an onion in that it begins by telling one story which gradually peels away to reveal another, closer to the central core of the filmmaker and the main subject of this documentary.
Writer/Producer Zachary Capp, fresh out of rehab for his gambling addiction and blessed with an inheritance that allows him to chase his dream of becoming a filmmaker, chooses as his subject the history of the onion ring, inspired by the ones he grew up enjoying at Michael’s, a family-owned restaurant in a small town in Minnesota. When he is unable to find out much about the origins of the deep-fried objects of his desire, he turns his focus to a master of the onion ring: the son of Michael Lang, the restaurant’s owner. Capp’s quest to make his mark as a filmmaker by devoting what turns out to be three years of his life takes him from Minnesota to South Dakota and finally to Las Vegas.
Capp uses his seed money to buy top-notch equipment, pull a crew together, and begin filming at a bar in Wilmont, South Dakota. The taciturn subject of the documentary is a dedicated, quirky character named Larry Lang. Larry has spent his life in restaurants, creating onion rings that people drive from miles around to gorge on; the onion rings that an onscreen shadowy Tom Sietsema, food critic of The Washington Post, describes as “ the world’s best.” The recipe is known only to Larry, and he insists on doing all the preparation himself. Capp will dub him “The Lord of the Rings” when he finishes making his film. That is, if he does actually finish making it.
Originally intending to create a television show called “American Food Legends,” Capp pivots early on to a documentary about Lang, despite the obvious reluctance of his subject to say more than a few words on camera with many long silences in between. We begin to see a few problems with this situation, but it’s hard not to sympathize with Capp who is hoping for a win-win: he makes a movie and maybe helps Larry take his onion rings to the next professional level. The wish to help Larry, and the steps Capp takes to “make things happen,” point to the complexity of relationships between a documentarian and his subject. Members of the crew soon pick up on the fact that Capp’s obsessive desire to create and capture the “greatest onion ring moment in the history of South Dakota” may be clouding his vision. One crew member suggests that “this should be a documentary about how not to handle the subject of the documentary.”
Midway through the film, director of photography Pete Berg expresses his belief that he personally finds it more interesting to focus on Capp’s desire to keep chasing rainbows in order to find the perfect ending for his movie; and everyone involved is concerned about Larry when he pulls away from the camera. Members of the crew lean toward mutiny while Capp’s inheritance dwindles. The crew starts colluding behind Capp’s back and filming him surreptitiously. Capp’s intentions are good, but all agree that what they have is not the movie they wanted to make: the movie should be about why Capp is making the movie in the first place. Just about everyone changes hats in this film. At one point, co-director/producer/editor/co-writer Molly Dworsky finds herself joining the cast and making onion rings for Raider bigwigs in Las Vegas!
Capp does some on-camera soul searching before he gets on board with the new direction the crew wants to take. He acknowledges that the relationship between documentarian and subject has crossed a line and caused hard feelings. By trying to help, he created change in Larry’s universe; however, as co-director/producer/co-writer/editor Dave Newberg observes, “This amount of change is something that someone should ask for.”
When the outer layers are peeled away, the story becomes one of exchanging one type of addictive behavior for another; it’s about chasing a dream and knowing when or if to cut your losses and walk away. And it’s about the complications that ensue when people knowingly enable addictive behavior.
Do we ever get to see the most epic onion ring moment in the history of the world? Not this time. But you may get a few tears in your eyes at the ending.
Watch the trailer:
The Ringmaster is now streaming via Apple TV, Prime Video, Google Play and other streaming services.
Larry Lang passed away on November 9, 2020. Every Purchase of the film will benefit Alzheimer’s Research in his memory. This obituary includes a short film of Larry making his onion rings at the late Michael’s Steak House.
Watch a photo gallery video of his life and Michael’s Steak House prepared by his family.
The Ringmaster Official Website
Current news on
Read Filmmaker Zachary Capp interviewed by Gary M. Kramer for Salon
The original pitch poster for the project. Producer Peter Berg wrote about the early stages of the project.
Larry never did reveal his secrets but there are many recipes online to try yourself. We like Cat Cora’s take.
You might want to read “How to Cut an Onion Without Crying (We Tried Everything!)”
There plenty more including lonng and short videos like this.
Don’t forget to mark on your calendar June 22 to celebrate National Onion Ring Day.
The National Onion Association celebrates with ten of their favorite recipes.
Read more at the trade publication Onion News (not to be confused with The Onion satirical paper.
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Do you want to see another movie about a different Deep Fried with Holes in the Middle to eat? Check out The Donut King.
It is available to stream through many independent art cinemas
Risa Nye is a San Francisco Bay Area native. Her essays, stories and articles have appeared in a wide variety of publications, including several anthologies. She has an MFA in creative writing from Saint Mary’s College in California. She co-edited Writin’ on Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything in Between When Children Leave the Nest.
Her memoir, There Was a Fire Here, was published by She Writes Press in 2016.
Her books can be ordered wherever books are sold. Start with your local independent bookseller or
Find it here at Indiebound or Author’s page at Amazon.com
Enjoy her essays and reviews, including her forays into the world of mixology as Ms Barstool, at www.berkeleyside.com, and on a range of subjects at www.risanye.com.
Risa has written about food, beverages, and movies at EatDrinkFilms (at the end of each page hit “older posts” for more).