A winner among losers – Director, screenwriter Eric Ustian and “Most Guys are Losers”
by Bondo Wyszpolski
If he’d been really good in front of the camera it’s possible that Eric Ustian would not have found his way in behind the camera. “Failing as an actor,” he says, “was my biggest gift as a director.”
Ustian, who lives in Hermosa Beach and has an office in Manhattan Beach, heads up Pier Avenue Films, which he founded about six, or seven years ago. It’s a small, independent company just releasing its first full-length feature, “Most Guys are Losers.” It stars Mira Sorvino, an Oscar winner for her role in Woody Allen’s “Mighty Aphrodite,” and Andy Buckley, who played David Wallace in “The Office,” the comedy series that aired on NBC. Among the other actors is Grace Caroline Currey, better known locally as Grace Fulton, the daughter of noted El Segundo surf painter Damian Fulton (Currey also recently starred in “Fall,” about two young women stranded atop a 2,000 foot radio tower).
Although “Most Guys are Losers” is based on a book by Mark Berzins, Ustian wears the proverbial many hats. He not only directed the film but wrote the screenplay and is one of its primary producers.
“I’m a coming-of-age, romantic comedy writer,” Ustian tells me. “That’s my skill set. I don’t try to write anything else. That’s what I’ve been writing for 20 years.” And to pigeon-hole him even further, Ustian reveals that the two filmmakers who most influenced him as a child growing up in Naperville, outside of Chicago, were John Hughes (“Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Pretty in Pink”) and Richard Linklater (“Boyhood,” “Waking Life”).
It dropped into his lap
The cinematic version of “Most Guys are Losers” is about a man who owns several bars in Chicago and has long observed — what shall we call them? — the pathetic dating-mating rituals of young people with a drink in one hand and maybe two or three in their bellies. This has motivated him to set a high bar when it comes to any prospective boyfriend for his daughter, in particular the one who is attending college in far-off California. That same daughter is bringing her boyfriend home for Thanksgiving, and of course there’ll be a showdown.
So how did Ustian chance upon Berzins’ book, and how did he decide that it would make an entertaining movie?
“That’s a crazy story,” he begins. Apparently a copy of the book was on the table at the company’s first office, which was on Pier Avenue, a couple of blocks up from Hermosa Avenue. When people would stop by they’d notice the book, and women in particular would be drawn by the title. Ustian would then tell them the backstory of the author, which often impressed them because Berzins wasn’t quite the rigid SS officer he might first have seemed.
Part of that backstory reveals that Berzins was both open-minded and generous. “He and his wife,” Ustian says, “adopted their nephew who was transitioning to a man because he was on the streets and homeless.” Ustian was moved by “the irony of someone saying all guys are losers” and then “showing compassion for that situation.”
It then happened that Ustian was able to spend some time with the author, including Christmas night, 2016, when Berzins’ daughter was in town with her boyfriend, whom the father was meeting for the first time. And so Ustian was privy to the interaction between dad and prospective son-in-law. Ustian liked the kid, and thought the father was being a bit harsh with him, but at the same time it was as if the idea for a story was being dropped in his lap.
“I knew I had something,” he says. “I just didn’t know what it was.” Then he spent about a year and a half writing the screenplay. He also points out that if the girl’s boyfriend hadn’t been in town and meeting Berzins, making a movie out of the encounter and the book might never have occurred to him. He chalks it up to Fate, and who can say otherwise?
After this, it took a year to secure the financing in order to start filming.
Money begets talent begets money
There’s a bit of a conundrum here. In order for a movie to make money it needs money to get off the ground. And if one is casting a fishing line in the hope of catching a reputable actor, it helps if there’s some bait attached to the hook. I’m not sure how much money Ustian had in his own pocket, but the main financier, he says was his late uncle Greg Stubblefield, who at the time was battling terminal cancer but saw his nephew’s project as his legacy, especially its ultimate message of finding the right partner, and where love wins out of over fear and other obstacles. In some ways, we have an archetypal story in which the apprentice needs to prove to the Master that he’s worthy to win the hand of his daughter or, in other words, to take the baton and run with it. You see, even rom-coms can have mythological resonance.
Since Ustian already had some tangential connection to how movies are made (and more on this in a moment), he understood the process, that you decide on the actors you want and you offer them a role. However, “They’re not going to take them,” he says. “You’ll get one out of 10. It’s a numbers game,” and there are a lot more numbers (or hoops to jump through) for a first-time screenwriter or director. But, of course, one has no choice but to move forward.
In other words, Ustian says, “You try your dream. My dream’s Mira Sorvino. I’m like, hell, let’s try it. She took it. My next dream’s Andy Buckley. I’m a fan of ‘The Office,’ and he’s perfect for the role, and I’m like, well, he won’t take it. He took it. So all of our actors on the first pass took the roles. That was great, but that was also throwing a loop in our process because that means I had to get all the money right away.”
Not too surprisingly, Ustian continues, “it was easier to get the money once we had these actors. So you see the balance here? I had trouble getting the money, and I needed money for the actors. Then I got the actors, and thank God the money came.”
But what really gave the fledgling project some serious cachet was landing Mira Sorvino. And, as a quick aside, Mira’s father, Paul Sorvino, has a small role at the end of the film. He passed away not long afterwards.
The main actors in “Most Guys are Losers” are based in and around Los Angeles. Part of the film was shot on Dockweiler Beach in Playa del Rey, part of it inside Rock & Brews in Riviera Village, and some of it in a Manhattan Beach office. The remainder of the film was shot in the Chicago area, where actors were found and auditioned for the minor roles. Altogether, Ustian says, there were 19 days of shooting in Chicago and 14 here in the South Bay.
Keeping it beachy
Eric Ustian moved to Los Angeles when he was 18 (he’s 42 now) because he had some acting gigs lined up. “I was never a very good actor,” he admits. “I worked hard to be adequate.” He’d also enrolled at UCLA and mentions that the first class he took there was on screenwriting, in which the professor emphasized that “every single movie and every single story is about love. It was a very interesting screenwriting class and it shaped me,” he says. “You’re impressionable when you’re 18.”
However, Ustian didn’t finish college, and here’s why. “I got a job as a set production assistant on a movie called ‘Secretary’ (2002, with James Spader, Maggie Gyllenhaal, etc), which is an indie film, and the first day I walked on that set I fell in love with it. I knew that this was what I wanted to do, and it was such a great experience that I never went back to college.”
He would continue to work on movie sets during his 20s, and after starting Pier Avenue Films he produced a few reality shows and documentaries, including “3D Safari: Africa,” “Jillian’s Travels,” and “Living Large.”
Ustian discovered the South Bay when he attended a fraternity party at Chiller’s in Redondo Beach. This was how he’d envisioned California from his home in the Midwest, as something resembling one of the Beach Cities and not Beverly Hills or Westwood. So by the time he was 21 Ustian was living in Manhattan Beach, and he’s lived locally ever since. Furthermore, he feels it’s advantageous to be disconnected from Hollywood and to keep his company in the South Bay.
Perhaps his keeping an arm’s distance from Hollywood and its penchant for special effects-laden blockbusters goes back to his early days in Chicago and being enthralled with the less splashy films of the aforementioned John Hughes and Richard Linklater. He paraphrases the latter who said that we don’t need superhero movies because life is interesting enough. “And that’s my style,” Ustian says, referring to his own film. “This is about a real family — and that story’s interesting enough without stuff blowing up.” And maybe that’s another reason (apart from tax incentives) why he wanted to film part of “Losers” in Chicago — in homage to his filmic predecessors.
When asked what he’s learned from making “Most Guys are Losers” that he can apply to his work going forward, Ustian laughs and says “I learned I did everything wrong before, and that I will do everything differently now.” He’s clearly exaggerating, but as someone running a production company in addition to writing and directing it’s also clear he’s a lot wiser today than he was going in.
“Yeah, I learned a lot,” he says. “That actors matter. In the marketplace, and to viewers, [audiences] connect with the actors. Some directors don’t understand that it’s not about us; people go to the movies to see actors and stories… It’s all about the writing and the actors.” That’s why, he repeats, it was so important to have Mira Sorvino agree to be in his film.
Of course there are some directors whose movies we’ll rush out to see regardless of who’s in the cast, just as there are works by authors and recording artists we’ll go out of our way to read, listen to, or acquire no matter the content.
And so, with one film now being rolled out, are there more in the pipeline?
“We’re in pre-production on two movies,” Ustian replies, “and we’ll be shooting them this year.”
Are these films that you wrote?
“Yes, I always write, direct, and produce. The most powerful thing — and it’s what I do — is to have control over the creative process, top to bottom.” Ustian is fully aware of what that entails. “It’s very brave to put things out, it’s very risky. But I can tell you, success or failure, it was me.” His financial backers have apparently come to terms with this as well. They’ll put up the money, and let Ustian make the creative decisions.
If “Most Guys are Losers” is even a moderate success, it should lead to other opportunities, from larger budgets to bigger stars.
“Let me tell you how important that is,” Ustian replies. “Our projections show that we’re going to get our money back on this film relatively quickly. Those are projections from distributors and sales agents and, once you make one film, you can go to an investor or capital group and say, Look, we made a profit on this first film.”
That’s a huge difference, he continues, than going to them with nothing but 110 pages of script and saying, Just trust me.
However, Ustian seems to prefer that Pier Avenue Films remain small and intimate. Remember, he’s not the guy looking to make superhero movies but rather well-crafted stories of real people in convincing situations. And, again, “I’m always going to be the only writer.”
It’s more than ego. It’s what Ustian does, and what he excels in.
“I’m a writer because I have to write,” he explains. “I’ve written since I was six-years-old. I didn’t start writing to sell anything, I didn’t start writing to make movies — I just had to write all the time. That’s what I did as a kid.
“A girl I know was asking me, How do you know when you’re a writer? Was it because you’ve sold a screenplay? I said No, I was always a writer. If I didn’t sell the screenplay I’m still a writer… With this film we just had everything come together. That’s the rare part of it. But I’d write anyways.”
And now it’s on the big screen
Ustian believes that “Most Guys are Losers” will appeal to a wide audience. “I’ve written a lot of films,” he says, “and this one’s the broadest. So I would say it’s a family film. The cast reflects how I see America. We live in Southern California; it’s diverse, and there’s everybody from everywhere. So it was important for me to reflect that in the movie. I cast African Americans, gay people, transgender people, a lot of women — that was important to me. And that’s what I love about Southern California, this is a melting pot.”
Like most films that had to tiptoe around the pandemic, “Most Guys are Losers” had some hurdles to surmount. It was first shown, before being completed, at the Denver Film Festival in 2020. “Then the world shut down,” Ustian says. “We were shut down for 10 months; we couldn’t even film. It took us about a year to finish it.”
Movie theaters were closed as well, so more uncertainty followed.
“This is an independent film that’s low-budget by big studio standards,” Ustian says, “but it’s a broad-range film that really suits theaters — and so regardless of what happened, this was the right time for it. A Thanksgiving release is the perfect time for it, and this is when people are getting back in theaters.”
Most Guys are Losers (starring Andy Buckley, Mira Sorvino, Michael Provost, Grace Caroline Currey, Keith David, and Paul Sorvino) opens this Friday at the Cinelounge Sunset, 6464 Sunset Blvd, Hollywood. Tickets and refreshments must be purchased in advance. For reservations and screening times, call (323) 924-1644 or visit cineloungehollywood.com. ER