Eric Ustian knew two things when he finished reading Mark Berzins’ book “Most Guys Are Losers.”
First, he wanted to adapt it for television or the big screen. And he had to change the location.
Nothing against Denver, but Ustian needed to bring the story to his hometown.
“It had to be filmed in Naperville,” he said. “The book has universal truths. It was easy translating this story to Naperville.”
Ustian, a 1998 graduate of Naperville North High School, is making his writing and directorial film debut with “Most Guys Are Losers.” The movie stars Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino and her legendary father, Paul Sorvino; Andy Buckley, known for his role as David Wallace on “The Office,” and Keith David.
Set to premiere in theaters on July 1, “Most Guys Are Losers” has a distinct local feel that will look familiar to Naperville residents. Ustian, who now lives in Los Angeles, made sure of it.
“I love my hometown,” he said. “I was so fortunate to grow up there. And it’s because of the people. Being out here for 23 years, it’s not that California people are bad people. It’s just that Chicagoans are great people.”
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As much as Ustian, 42, loves his life in California, he still has fond memories of growing up in Naperville. Yes, he misses Chicago winters.
He competed on Naperville North’s golf team and dabbled in basketball, but he showed little interest in the arts in high school. He and a friend had a show on the local Naperville television network, NCTV-17, and that sparked an interest in production.
By chance, Ustian was discovered by agents during a trip to New York City and given a shot at acting. Faced with a decision between attending the University of Iowa and taking a chance on Hollywood, Ustian chose the latter.
It hasn’t been easy, but he’s persevered.
“It makes me emotional to think about it,” Ustian said. “My dream was to make a movie, and now I’ve made a movie. It took decades to get here, but I did it.”
While Ustian has appeared on shows including “Six Feet Under,” his true love is working behind the camera. He was a production assistant on “Secretary” and “Blades of Glory” before forming his own production company, Pier Avenue Films.
“Acting is what helped me get settled out here, but it just wasn’t my thing,” Ustian said. “As soon as I was behind a camera, I knew that’s what I really wanted to do.”
Building a dream team
“Most Guys Are Losers” focuses on a bar owner, played by Buckley, who pours years of experience into a book about helping women — specifically, his daughter — differentiate between good guys and bad guys. But when faced with his daughter bringing home a guy for Thanksgiving, Buckley’s character goes against the advice from his own book.
Ustian’s adaptation is based on the time he spent with Berzins, the actual writer of the how-to book. He saw firsthand how Berzins was unhappy with his daughter’s boyfriend, and Ustian felt the irony of defying the book’s advice made a more interesting story than the book itself.
Casting turned into a dream scenario when Mira Sorvino came aboard and quickly was followed by Paul Sorvino and Keith David. Buckley was chosen for the lead role because, as Ustian said, “it’s impossible not to like him.”
Ustian believes the younger members of the cast, including former Naperville North football player Belmont Cameli, are bound for stardom. Another cast member, Kevin Miles, makes a brief appearance at a time before he became known as Jake from State Farm.
Gathering everyone in Naperville was a surreal but special time for Ustian.
Ustian returns when he can, staying at his childhood house where his mother still lives. He even attended a recent football game between Naperville North and Naperville Central.
But for all the memories he cherishes, it was during the production of “Most Guys Are Losers” that he formed a deeper connection with his hometown.
“Everyone wanted to be a part of it, and they really rolled out the red carpet for us,” he said. “Being part of that culture and understanding it, there’s nothing like that here. I’m just grateful for the way we were treated.”
18 days in Naperville
Ustian and his crew filmed the bulk of “Most Guys Are Losers” at the end of 2019 in Naperville.
They spent much of the 18-day shoot in the downtown area, filming around the Riverwalk and inside Frankie’s Blue Room on Chicago Avenue.
The scenes featuring the family home? That’s Ustian’s childhood house.
“It was a great deal … it was free,” Ustian said with a laugh.
“The advantage of shooting at home is I had a bunch of friends and family who helped me out,” he said. “When you shoot in and around Chicago, it’s a lot different than in L.A. People in Chicago want to work with you.”
It took multiple rewrites for Ustian to get the story where he wanted it, and the pandemic put further delays on the project. Now that the arduous process is behind him, though, he can’t wait for people to see the finished product.
There’s a red-carpet premiere event planned for Los Angeles, but Ustian said there also will be a special showing in the Chicago area. He’s not sure when or where it will be, but he relishes the opportunity to return some of that hometown love.
“It was one of those movies where everything came together,” Ustian said. “It just worked, and that’s so rare in this business.”