Ron Lazzeretti placed the call to Michael Keaton from his hospital bed. It was December 2006 and Lazzeretti, a seasoned commercial writer and director, was putting together the biggest project of his career so far, his second feature. He’d written the script and had producing partners on board, and though he was laid up with a ruptured appendix, he was determined to get the star to sign on.
“I was stoned to bejesus on morphine, with a spiking-high fever, sweating bullets, with a tube in my stomach,” Lazzeretti says. “I was probably babbling.” In his delirium, he made a slip he immediately regretted, comparing his film’s protagonist, a suicidal assassin, with one of the actor’s biggest roles. “I said, ‘There’s a little bit of Batman to this guy.’ As soon as I said it, I thought, this could be a deal breaker. But he said, ‘I know what you mean. There’s a dark side to him. He’s wrestling with this other side.'”
Keaton took the part.
The pieces were falling into place, but Lazzeretti wasn’t going to be directing anything anytime soon. “My body had contained the rupture and formed this infectious abscess,” he says. “They wouldn’t be able to remove the appendix for two months while they eradicated the infection. We had a winter movie, with a little window of opportunity. . . . It would be better to have the movie and facilitate the next thing than wait a year and have it maybe happen, maybe not.”
So Lazzeretti and his partners decided to find another director. “Michael wasn’t sure about bringing in someone else. We were seeing everything the same way. He was like, ‘I’m really excited about this story—I think I could do it.’ It felt like the cavalry coming in.” Keaton, they agreed, would direct, making his debut behind the camera, and Lazzeretti would stay on as a writer and producer.
The Merry Gentleman, shot here over 26 days last March and April, debuts January 18 at Sundance in the Premieres section, which features noncompeting but highly anticipated films by indie and international directors. It will be the first feature conceived, financed, and made in Chicago to appear in the festival in several years.
Lazzeretti, who’s 48, grew up in Niles and Glenview and now lives in Oak Park. He studied journalism and radio/TV/film at Northern Illinois University and found work writing PR and ad copy after graduation. To improve his writing, he took classes at Second City and put on shows at the theater’s Players Workshop with his teacher Judy Morgan, who had shared the main stage with the likes of John Belushi.
In the late 80s Lazzeretti was hired to write TV commercials for the boutique ad agency Eisaman, Johns & Law. “It was an island of misfits, a put-on-a-show-in-a-barn kind of enterprise,” Lazzeretti says. “It’s a very seductive, intoxicating atmosphere—a strange mix of artistic laissez-faire and observing an almost military hierarchy. If you say, ‘Build a barn and fill it with live chickens by tomorrow morning,’ you might get an eye roll, but the next day there’s a barn with live chickens.” Lazzeretti learned a lot from the directors he met on set and even started codirecting with one of them, Venturino Liberatore.
In 1995 Lazzeretti and Liberatore started their own commercial production company, Two Olives. “We produced a zillion commercials,” Lazzeretti says, including spots with Michael Jordan and local radio legends Steve Dahl and Gary Meier and for clients like Chevy Blazer and WGN.
From time to time they’d call in Tom Bastounes, a Second City alum who’d auditioned for them at EJ&L. “Tom wasn’t really in the industry anymore because he got tired of auditioning,” Lazzeretti says. “He was funny, but he was a pain in the ass. If he didn’t get the job, he’d call and say, ‘I just saw the commercial. I’m funnier than that guy.'”
In the late 90s Bastounes approached Lazzeretti with an idea about an autobiographical movie in which he would star. He and Lazzeretti would cowrite the script, Lazzeretti and Liberatore would direct, and Bastounes—heir to the grocery distributor Chicago Produce—would handle the financing.
“There were a few little criteria Tom wanted to incorporate,” Lazzeretti says. “He wanted to use his family business as a backdrop. And he was taking opera-singing lessons at the time. It became a screenwriting exercise: you’ve got a fruit market and opera. What would you do with that?” Lazzeretti turned out a romantic comedy about a former opera student working in the family produce business; after he’s reunited with a diva ex-girlfriend, he rediscovers his love of opera.
The Opera Lover, which cost less than $1 million to make, was shot in 1999 and screened that year at second-tier film festivals like the Hamptons and Newport. Reviews were mixed. “While it may want for drama or surprise,” Oliver Jones wrote in Variety, it “emits enough good feeling and solid character comedy to make it a crowd-pleaser at film festivals and other limited showcases.” It screened at the Music Box in 2002 and has been shown on the Sundance Channel, Showtime, and the Movie Channel. The independent distributor Vanguard Cinema released it on DVD in January 2005.
“It’s charming, but when I look at it now I see a million things I’d do differently,” Lazzeretti says. “Whatever its charms, there were either too many visions or not enough of one. But it legitimized our production business. Coming from an ad agency, people thought, ‘They’re not directors.’ But after we did The Opera Lover, they thought maybe we are directors.”
Lazzeretti and Liberatore went their separate ways in 2000. Lazzeretti freelanced as a commercial director for a while before joining the ad agency Draftfcb as creative development director in 2006. Meanwhile he and Bastounes were developing The Merry Gentleman from a script by Lazzeretti that predated The Opera Lover, about an Englishwoman who witnesses a murder and then becomes entangled with both the killer and the alcoholic detective investigating the case.
Bastounes brought on executive producer Paul J. Duggan of Jackson Income Fund and Dennis Nardoni of Point Hardy Development to raise the budget, which industry sources estimate to be in the mid-seven figures. In the summer of 2006, casting director Rachel Tenner, who had worked on the Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, secured Kelly Macdonald for the female lead. Bastounes was set to play the detective—all they needed was the killer.
Steven A. Jones, one of the producers, got the script to Keaton; Lazzeretti was preparing to meet him in Los Angeles when his appendix ruptured. After Keaton took over as director, Lazzeretti sat out preproduction, checking in periodically during his recovery. By the time they were ready to shoot, in early spring, he was well enough to be on the set and consult with Keaton on character and backstory.
“I felt like I was treated more like a playwright than a screenwriter,” Lazzeretti says. “The playwright’s point of view is valued. A screenwriter isn’t always welcome in that way. But particularly when Michael was in a scene, there were opportunities to be a set of eyes for him and confirm that things were going all right.
“Keaton was always looking for ways to maximize the humor and juxtapose that with the darker elements. A lot of the other stuff he did, I was totally in line with. There’s a timelessness to it that’s reflected in the style without being steeped in nostalgia or calling attention to itself. I wouldn’t call it noir, but it has those elements to it.”
After The Merry Gentleman wrapped, Lazzeretti returned to Draftfcb, which had granted him leave to work on the feature. In his spare time he’s working on a couple screenplays and putting finishing touches on the fourth and final chapter of a short film collection, Something Better Somewhere Else. The first three entries, “Flowers,” “Wedding Night,” and “Last Day,” have played the festival circuit, but he plans to reenter all four as a feature-length package. They show ordinary Chicagoans straining to find satisfaction in troubled marriages and the workplace and star local talent, including Tim Polk, John G. Connolly, Christian Stolte, and Will Clinger. “It’s like an old concept record where the different songs hang together,” Lazzeretti says.
Lazzeretti heard from Bastounes over Thanksgiving weekend that The Merry Gentleman had gotten into Sundance. Creative Artists Agency will be representing the film and attempt to broker a distribution deal. It’ll be Lazzeretti’s first time at the festival, and his wife and teenage kids are all making the trip.
While Lazzeretti is hopeful about The Merry Gentleman‘s prospects, he’s managing his expectations. “I’m going to try to have a good time,” he says, “but it’s not necessarily what I think of when I think of having a good time. These things make me neurotic. I get knotted up having to deal with people and crowds and something of that scope. It’s like a cattle drive. By the time you get from one end to the other, you’re so dazed and exhausted that it’s more a sense of relief than it is running around yelling ‘Yippee!’
“I don’t have that ‘king of the world’ emotional response to things,” he continues. “You do a film in the hopes they’ll let you do it again. The artists I’ve really admired, like Woody Allen and Bob Dylan, all these guys seem to care about is the next thing they’re doing. That way, you get less caught up in the things that aren’t important, and it allows you to focus on what is.” v
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