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Electric Ghost Magazine is an independent online film publication dedicated to heterodox navigations of transformative cinema. 

 

Run by cinephiles educated in film interpretation, we heed the medium's message, separate its wisdom from its blindness, and show how film can act as a guide to life.

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Outlaw Cinema: In Conversation with Dallas Sonnier

 Interview by David G. Hughes / @BelovedFire_

 

"We will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot." 

 

 

As independent cinema goes, consider Cinestate the Cain to A24’s Abel, the sinistrous and ostracised brother of the fawned upon favourite. They are the production company behind Bone Tomahawk (2015), Brawl in Cell Block 99 (2017), The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2018) and Dragged Across Concrete (2019) – truculent, incendiary and controversial genre movies that take no prisoners and make no apologies.

 

The company is owned by proud Texan, Dallas Sonnier. Sonnier began to work in the Hollywood industry as the representative of talent including Greta Gerwig and wrestler-turned-actor “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Learning the producer trade through a slew of low-budget action films starring Austin, it wasn’t long before Sonnier set his sights higher whilst at the same time feel a craving to return to Dallas, his beloved hometown from which he bequeathed his name. By now, Sonnier had gone through terrible tragedies in his personal life that fatefully mixed love and violence, his mother murdered by her second husband before killing himself and, if that wasn't bad enough, his father murdered by the jealous ex-lover of a woman he was dating. 

 

It was only when he met writer-director S. Craig Zahler that a serious opportunity arose and Sonnier bet his house on the success of Bone Tomahawk, a bold and shocking western that would come to star Kurt Russell and leave huge impression with audiences and critics. With its success, the gamble paid off and Sonnier established Cinestate as a Texas-based production company that placed full creative control in the hands of the artists, no matter how radical or controversial. The powerful pairing of Sonnier and Zahler continued; Brawl in Cell Block 99 was an astonishing re-working of Dante’s Inferno only with Vince Vaughn re-born as a skull-crushing pugilist in the U.S. prison system, and Dragged Across Concrete, according to our own review, was a pathos-laden “film with a subtle soul and a primal edge.” In between, Sonnier invested in The Standoff at Sparrow Creek directed by Henry Dunham, a well-received albeit controversial Reservoir Dogs (1992) inspired claustrophobic thriller about a group of militia starring James Badge Dale. Now, having purchased and resurrected the iconic Fangoria horror magazine, Sonnier is bringing his two companies together in a reboot of the infamous Puppet Master franchise, a twelve movie saga depicting accursed and quite murderous anthropomorphic puppets.

 

We spoke to Dallas over video, he in Texas with a Bone Tomahawk poster poised over his head like a halo, and me in London from the Electric Ghost Magazine office. Dallas was amiable and spoke with alacrity, good for open and comfortable dialogue, likely a result of his relaxed disposition that could suddenly turn into an authoritative 'lets get serious' foreboding. Sonnier spoke to Electric Ghost Magazine for the purpose of promoting the UK release of Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, but he was open to discussing everything from the political controversy of his films, the unlikely existence of Dragged Across Concrete, how tragedy has influenced his life, the importance of Texas, his work with Fangoria and much more. 

 

Electric Ghost Magazine: By way of introduction, it would be great if you could tell me how you came to Cinestate and what your vision of it is?

 

Dallas Sonnier: So, I was born and raised in Texas and went west like most people who want to get into the movie business. I went to USC Film School and worked at an agency for many years, as an apprentice. I ended up going into representation; I represented Greta Gerwig, Jessica Goldberg, Leslye Headland, Alex Timbers – all these fancy people. For the most part, they were early on in their career, so the management fees were not very significant. But I also represented “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Needless to say, we made more money representing Steve than the combination of the rest. We made a lot of movies together and it was great fun. But it was clear that Steve was only going to act for a certain amount of years and then retire. I could tell his heart wasn't in it in the way someone would need it to have been, so we helped him transition into podcasting and reality TV. At that point, I was representing S. Craig Zahler, and we sold–no kidding–twenty-five screenplays into the Hollywood system and not a single one of them got made. One independent movie got made, called The Incident at Sans Asylum but they changed the name to Asylum Blackout (Alexandre Courtès, 2011). It’s a fine movie, but we really looked at each other and said: ‘if we’re going to do this, we have to do something special.’ That’s how Bone Tomahawk came to be. Zahler wrote it specifically for himself to direct and for me to produce. I went around town trying to get it financed. We had a bunch of false starts, so I called a mortgage broker and a lender and I took a loan out on my house to finance the movie with my home. I also felt disconnected from Los Angeles. I was living in L.A. trying to raise my family and all of a sudden I had three kids, which is a lot for Los Angeles – a very expensive town to live in. I felt I wasn’t a good fit, so I convinced my wife to move to Dallas, Texas, and we did! We sold my house to Kylie Jenner and started Cinestate. It evolved from there.

 

Staying with the genealogy, part of my growing-up was watching direct-to-video action movies. That was Jean Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, and, sometimes, Steve Austin. I remember seeing Hunt to Kill (Keoni Waxman, 2010) and thinking, ‘Wow, this is actually decent’. Since then, I realised that you made it. I want to ask you about that stage of your career firstly. It seems that you’ve gone through a Roger Corman-esque school – quick-turnaround schedules on small budgets with strict formulas. What are your memories of that time and what did you learn in those formative years as a producer?

 

What was so great about our time with Steve is that the movies were 'in the black' before the cameras rolled. We pre-sold all of the US distribution and much of the foreign distribution up-front before we shot the movie. We said: ‘Okay, we have this script, Steve Austin, this director’, which distributor wants it? This is the Steven Seagal model, the Jean-Claude Van Damme model.

 

Yes, very much so.

 

So, we took that Seagal-Van Damme model and applied it to Bone Tomahawk and Brawl in Cell Block 99. My thesis was: the model was great, but the movie stars could be more iconic, like Kurt Russell, Mel Gibson, and Vince Vaughn. And why couldn’t the scripts be better? Why couldn’t the directors be better? That model was attracting a certain level of script, of director. I said: 'that can’t be’. The model is great – it’s so savvy, so why can’t we put a better script in, a better production plan in, but retain the ‘in the black’ factor before we start shooting? That became our model and it really has been a successful run for us. It’s a way to transfer final cut and total creative control to the filmmakers. Our filmmakers are getting final cut, final everything because we are already financially profitable, so we don’t need to worry about it. They can make whatever movie they want within the boundaries of the budget and the schedule, and that’s how you get something fantastic. We literally took the Seagal-Van Damme model and brought it into 2019 and beyond.

 

"We are a flamethrower to censorship. I do not believe in ever telling someone they can’t do this or that, or that’s too dark, or too risky, or too violent, or too sad."

Gary Daniels (left) and Steve Austin (right) in Hunt to Kill (2010)

 

We’ve interviewed a lot of directors on the site, but I wanted to interview you because I get a strong sense of authorship from Cinestate. You have a very cohesive brand, with a singular focus and a philosophy. Could you help me articulate this philosophy?

 

We are two things. We are committed to protecting the creator; the creator and the creator's decision-making trump everything. I want a screenplay that hasn’t gone through a terrible diffusion process from Hollywood, with the executive's cavalier notes and garbage thoughts. I want it unfiltered. Even if it's rough around the edges, that’s okay, I don’t want it so polished. I want to challenge our filmmakers by giving them so much responsibility that they have to step up and deliver something that is singularly theirs. I think the word 'collaboration' is an overused word. I don’t love that word. I don’t seek collaboration. What I seek is greatness out of the director, the crew and the writers because we strive to that level as producers. That's the first thing. The second thing is that we are a flamethrower to censorship. I do not believe in ever telling someone they can’t do this or that, or that’s too dark, or too risky, or too violent, or too sad. I want to encourage everyone to bring their authentic sense to the table. They cannot worry about what other people are going to think about them, if someone is going to censor them, if the script is too controversial to accept financing. I am building an infrastructure and a brand that can get behind movies that won’t be overtly censored, but subtly censored, either during the screenplay development where the scary parts are taken out, or when the big Hollywood universe just doesn't support the movie and it gets pushed under the rug. We are the amplification of genuine, authentic movies that wouldn’t be made in big Hollywood. 

 

The word that pops up again and again in relation to your movies is “populist”. That’s become a politically loaded term, usually uttered with a negative connotation. What’s your opinion on that designation?

 

I love it. I think it’s great. All of the headlines seem to be 'Movies for the Trump Era’. That’s just so lazy, that’s a lazy way of describing us. I’ve been thinking about this type of movie, and this type of company, since I was a child. This is the extension of my father taking me to Predator 2 (1990) when I was nine years old and proving to him that I can handle it. Then he showed me the Michael Cimino films and various other movies – very adult films. We really learned about the history of cinema and he treated me like an adult. I want to return that favour to the audience by treating them like adults and not children.

 

The word ‘lazy’ is salient as when I watch a Cinestate movie I don’t necessarily see topical but something with a deep lineage, as far back as the birth of cinema. 

 

The word I have fallen in love with lately is ‘Hellinic’. Meaning...

 

Ancient Greece.

 

Greek in its mythology. So while everyone is skewing towards the YouTube generation, here we are making two and a half hour movies and trying to buck the system. It’s become clear to me that we are never going to be a perfect fit with Hollywood; we will always be the renegade Texans running around trying to stir the pot. Really it’s not provocation for the sake of being provocative, but trying to make something that people fall in love with and has staying power. I think people are going to remember Dragged Across Concrete and these other movies decades from now. I do not believe that they will remember some of the stuff that big Hollywood has put out in the last couple of years. You’ve got to look at the independent space to find the movies that have been really special recently. Even though I don’t share the same world-view as some of my colleagues, I certainly respect the hell out of their movies which are way more fascinating than the stuff coming out of the studio system.

 

Do you consider yourself an outsider? Are your movies counter-culture?

 

They’re absolutely counter-culture. My hope is that we can build enough of a brand, we can build our own ecosystem, in which our own counter-culture qualities start to become culture again. Right now, currently in the marketplace, we are counter-culture for the most hilarious reasons. I love it, we lean into it, and it becomes part of our DNA and our brand.

 

“I think that’s an appropriate brand for the movies that we make – Outlaw Cinema. We are just following in the footsteps of Waylon and Willie.”

 Matthew Fox (left) and Kurt Russell (right) in Bone Tomahawk (2015) 

 

You’ve used it to your advantage. 

 

During the 70s, there was a movement in country music where Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard got together and created this outside culture, this counter-culture in country music, and they called it ‘outlaw country’. So, our friend Jacob Knight, who lives in Austin, he called us ‘Outlaw Cinema’. I think that’s an appropriate brand for the movies that we make – Outlaw Cinema. We are just following in the footsteps of Waylon and Willie.

 

You are the new Highwaymen. 

 

[laughs] We are the new Highwaymen! I love that. I listen to it all the time. 

 

The parallel is very apt. Staying on the political side of things, it’s strange to me that people would scrutinise your films for, potentially, appealing to a conservative audience when, surely, almost every movie that is financially successful must, at some level, appeal to a conservative audience otherwise you’re alienating, say, 50% of the American population. You said: “you understand that audience deeply.” I think I know what you mean, but if you could expand on that?

 

When I think about making a movie, specifically under the Cinestate brand, I think outside of the boundaries of Los Angeles all the way to the boundaries of Manhattan. I think about everything in between. I think about that audience first. I do make movies that play well in LA and New York; I think there is a real saturation of film-lovers, true cinema aficionados, that live there, but my first priority is to make movies for people who live outside of LA and New York. I live in Dallas, Texas, in the middle of the country, I spent my family vacations in Louisiana, Florida, New Mexico and Colorado – areas outside of the coast – and I live in that world. I go to church on Sundays, I drive my kids to school. I have a traditional lifestyle. My experience is very much the American Dream as it used to be considered. I love that – that’s how I enjoy life. My movies play extremely well to the folk in those states because their experience is similar to mine. I’ve also experienced deep tragedy: I’ve lost both of my parents to domestic gun violence, a bunch of my best friends lost their lives to drugs and alcohol, and I’ve got friends and family members still struggling with it every day. But I don’t let that be a hindrance; I use it as a source of motivation. This is just the world I live in – tragedy, family, middle America. My movies tend to be about those type of people and their journeys. There are a lot of really great filmmakers who are covering the progressive experience in other aspects of our country and the world. I applaud them for that and I love their movies. But those are not my experiences, so I tell the stories that I know and I feel comfortable telling because I have lived those stories or known someone who has. So I gravitate towards stuff that feels more middle American and that’s where the authenticity comes out of it. I don’t think anyone wants me to make something more progressive, as I wouldn’t understand it as much as something more traditional. That’s just where I come from, that’s me being authentic to myself. Then again, I have Fangoria which allows me to run wild and do all kinds of crazy stuff that has nothing to do with my life. I have two great companies running parallel, but man oh man has it confused the critics #FilmTwitter. 

 

What I find amusing about the Twitter discussion around the Cinestate/Zahler movies is that it’s as if the critics almost reluctantly accept the fact that the movies are good.

 

[laughs] Yeah, there are a lot of qualifiers at the beginning of our reviews, a lot of people clarifying their worldview or personal politics. But you know what: I have to be principled at this moment and live by my own rules. I would never censor their views, or say ‘you can’t say that about my movie.’ In fact, I welcome it. We have a rule on our social media that we post every major review, whether it is good or bad. We are not going to curate a phoney false positivity towards a movie experience. We want people to see all kinds of reactions. I love it when The Atlantic reviews our movies! Honestly, it's flattering that I got them thinking that much. We’re having a good time, but we’re sticking to our principles and we’re making sure that everyone who wants to review our movie, that their voice and opinion is as important as the people who love our movies. That’s a renegade quality and, again, more to our brand.

 

"Bone and Brawl are terrific movies–I’m so proud of them and they’re so personal to me–but Dragged is the icing on the cake, the culmination of all the hard work."

 Don Johnson (left), S. Craig Zahler (centre) & Mel Gibson (right) on the set of Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

 

If you could expand on your relationship with S. Craig Zahler.

 

I’m his producing partner, his manager. Zahler and I are attached at the hip. He’s ingrained and woven into the fabric of Cinestate and everything that we do. He and I will probably be buried next to each other one day in some cemetery. I met him because he sold a script back in the day, in the mid-2000s, called the Brigands of Rattleborge. It was a western that won a contest called the Black List – a great company that shines a spotlight on amazing screenplays that haven’t been produced yet. So, everyone in town read it, fell in love with it, and everyone wanted to sign Zahler. He agreed to take on a manager and asked to speak to everyone who asked to meet with him. His agent set all the managers up on 12-minute windows where fifteen of us, back-to-back, rolled these calls with him. My understanding is that most talked about their accomplishments, their clients. I went another route and took the minutes to act under the assumption I already represented the guy. I got on the phone and told him, ‘okay, here’s what we’re gonna do with this script, send it to this person, go to this cast person and so on’. Zahler really responded to my energy and my efforts, I flew to New York and we started a working relationship. That expanded after we sold multiple screenplays together into a producing partnership when I financed Bone Tomahawk by putting my house on the line. So, we are going to work together again and again. In fact, he’s got a new book that we published called Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Challenge. We’ve got a screenplay and we’ve got The Jim Henson Company attached to help us with creating the titular character. We’re out to actors and financiers and things like that. His goal is to make Hug Chickenpenny his next movie. Beyond that, we have other scripts that he’s writing or written. It’s all very positive and everyone is in a good spot. 

 

I want to talk about Dragged Across Concrete. I think it's your finest movie to date.

 

Me too.

 

Similar to what you were talking about with authenticity and your experience, Dragged Across Concrete resonated with my experience. I grew up in a working-class family in a small town in the North of England. The culture and attitudes that you see in Dragged Across Concrete –they may be controversial and you can certainly disagree–but they exist, they are real people. Dragged Across Concrete actually represented what is a huge, neglected chunk of the nation, both in your country and mine – a depiction of urban morass and malaise. I want to know what your initial reaction was to the film.

 

The first time I saw it, I felt as strongly about it as the overall finished product. The great thing about Zahler is by the time we see something, it’s so meticulously edited and crafted – he does his own score, he has a great relationship with our cinematographer Benji Bakshi, he does tonnes of rehearsal with the actors – so, although its not sound-mixed or colour corrected, its basically the movie. I make suggestions along the lines of surgical notes, but never coming in and saying, ‘you know, the third act doesn’t work.’ I’ve never had to do that and nor would he accept that note. So...I think Dragged Across Concrete is a masterpiece. It was so hard to get made but I’m so proud of it for so many reasons, but mostly because it shows the evolution of Zahler as a filmmaker. Bone and Brawl are terrific movies–I’m so proud of them and they’re so personal to me–but Dragged is the icing on the cake, the culmination of all the hard work. What’s amazing to me is that the movie exists. I mean, that scene in Don Johnson’s office, or the amazing performance from Tory Kittles – that they exist is just a miracle. 

 

Anecdotally, watching the film last year at the London Film Festival, I was sat in a half-empty audience and, as you say, I couldn’t believe that this movie existed. It was so forthright. I distinctly remember the discomfort within the room, the shuffling in the seats. People didn’t know how to respond. That oscillation was fascinating. It puts you in a place that I call ‘an optimal zone of discomfort’, in which you are forced to confront something, to re-adjust and re-asses. If I can get philosophical for a moment, for me the central theme of that film, which I have noticed in your other films, particularly The Standoff at Sparrow Creek, is the idea of discernment – the importance of choosing well and the consequence of choices. There is almost a Zen-like detachment about action and consequence.

 

Yes.

 

"These movies are personifications of my feelings towards disingenuous morality.”

Mel Gibson (left) and Vince Vaughn (right) in Dragged Across Concrete (2019)

 

You see it in the way that the violence is depicted - very matter-of-fact, almost comically detached sometimes, in a way you don't know how to respond. Does that reading resonant with you: action-consequence?

 

Yes, it does. I think you are on the right track and the answer is yes. The main reason why I have fallen in love with these screenplays and these filmmakers and wanted to get the movies made is that I am interested in deeply flawed humans, and the complicated nature of humanity. For everyone to walk around with such a pious attitude is a farce. It is a farce. I am not interested in that. That’s boring to me. It feels false and disingenuous. I get really fired up when I see disingenuous morality. I want to fight back against that. For me, these movies are personifications of my feelings towards disingenuous morality. That’s not what these movies are for Zahler, or for Vince, or Mel, or Kurt Russell. Everyone’s experience is different. For me, it’s my way of calling out disingenuous morality. 

 

I’ve never been to Texas, but I know it’s a very cultural place and it seems very important to you. What’s it like having a media company, which is also a publishing house, in a non-coastal location? Is the local culture and industry important to you, or was it purely a personal decision because of your heritage?

 

It’s both. Moving here was a point of personal pride to me; the home-town kid coming back, setting up shop, raising his family here and building something special. The other part of it was establishing Dallas as a potential area for film. Since I returned home, there has been a successful director here named David Lowery (A Ghost Story), but we probably lost him to Los Angeles. The new owners of the previous Weinstein Company, Lantern Entertainment, are now based out of Dallas. Dallas is growing rapidly into a strange additional epicentre of the film business. I’m very excited about that. While it's having a cultural renaissance, it’s also always deeply understood money. What a great place to start a studio: full of smart investors, supportive communities and great artists. 

 

The Fangoria purchase: was that purely business or also a personal thing?

 

I listen to a podcast every single day called the GaryVee Audio Experience. He’s a business motivational speaker and an entrepreneur. He’s been a great source of inspiration for me and I use his teachings almost daily. Gary always talks about ‘brand, brand, brand’, that the brand is key. I can go and build a brand from nothing, but what if I can resurrect a brand with some nostalgic qualities and some value built in? I went on Twitter, poking around, and someone associated with Fangoria tweeted that their dream job had become their worst nightmare. I thought that’s a sign something's up and maybe there’s an opportunity for me to get involved. I reached out to the owner at the time and he was ready to move on. We made a deal together that made sense to both of us and we had the unbelievable blessing of picking up Fangoria. Originally a magazine from 1979 - 2014, it went out of business. We resurrected the magazine but also brought Fangoria into movie producing, publishing and podcasting. We’re taking an iconic horror brand and turning it into a horror entertainment studio, which is really fun. Now it's a chance for us to be the torchbearers of this amazing brand. I was noticing that when we were posting on social media about Puppet Master, it was getting ten times the amount of engagement than when we posted about a random movie that doesn't have the intellectual property attached to it. That’s no surprise, that’s why Hollywood is making nine sequels of every franchise. But, in our low budget horror world, it’s a massive level of engagement. For me, the Fangoria label has a nostalgic quality to it, a DIY, practical effects, auteur-driven quality. It’s also about access, about the person who doesn’t live in LA. There’s a young teen who wants to be in movies one day, reading Fangoria and seeing our movies, and we provide an access point to them. I adore what’s happening in the current market of horror movies these days; you’ve got some really cool franchise sequels like Halloween (2018), thoughtful and compelling movies like Us (Jordan Peele, 2019) and Hereditary (Ari Aster, 2018). Those movies are important and I love them as an audience member, but as a filmmaker with Fangoria we are always going to have a little of the throw-back quality to it – fun, tongue-in-cheek, doesn’t take itself too seriously. Fangoria is fun. It’s just fun. 

 

"We made this gonzo, absolutely bananas, total reimagining of the Puppet Master movie."

Udo Kier in Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich (2019)

 

And what can you tell me about your first Fangoria production, Puppet Mater: The Littlest ReichI watched it last night. It’s still with me now. It’s bewildering. 

 

I got to pick up the Puppet Master remake rights! I didn’t want to do a straight remake, but I said to Charles Band (producer of the original Puppet Master movies): ‘Look, I love your Puppet Master movies. I rented Puppet Master with my Aunt Missy over Thanksgiving break in 1989.’ I watched it at her house and I loved it! It was a cool, fun horror film that didn’t take itself seriously. When I got the chance to get the remake rights and become friends with Charles Band, it was an opportunity I dove on. Then, lo and behold, Zahler tells me he wanted to write the script! I couldn’t believe it. We put a great team together, cast Thomas Lennon and Barbara Crampton, and we went and shot this movie with Tommy Wiklund and Sonny Laguna, two directors that Zahler is really fond of. We got to shoot in Dallas, which was so fun. We went to an old hotel which has sadly since burnt down. Now we are a part of Dallas lore, as one of the only places you can see the Ambassador Hotel is in our movie. We made this gonzo, absolutely bananas, total reimagining of the Puppet Master movie. I credit Zahler for writing an unbelievable script and we did the best we could to execute that script. It’s really off the wall, the movie is so much fun and absurd. Puppet Master did incredibly well financially in the US, beyond my wildest imagination. Since then, we have produced Satanic Panic, which is another horror comedy, and we just finished a movie called V.F.W. (Veterans of Foreign Wars), which is basically older ex-military guys versus punk mutants. Literally a week from Monday, we also start production on a reboot of another Full Moon/Charles Band movie called Castle Freak (Stuart Gordon, 1995), which we are shooting in Albania of all places.

 

What’s your opinion on the situation of the industry as a whole? When I look at Cinestate I see nostalgia for the mid-budget, 1970s film. 

 

I have three young kids, so I go see all the big Hollywood animated movies. I watch them and enjoy them as your average Joe, suburban Dad. I don’t worry about that space as it has nothing to do with me. Nothing. Nothing to do with my business, my goals, my aspirations, the movies I make. What we’re building is something so outside the system, so different, it’s hard to call us Hollywood. We’re over here in Texas messing around with Outlaw Cinema. I follow the movie business from an audience perspective, but I don’t even care enough to comment about big Hollywood because it has nothing to do with me. 

 

You’ve really chosen your lane, making innovative movies within your lane.

 

Let me add this: we are perfectly suited for writers, directors and actors who have gone to Hollywood and been told all the reasons why their movies couldn’t be made – too long, too dark, to this or that – we’re the perfect home for you. Come find us. We are your kindred spirit. We pass along final cut to our filmmakers. We are auteur driven like the 70’s; Cimino is my favourite filmmaker of all time. They are a lot of similarities between Cimino and Zahler, in terms of their experience. We are the perfect place to make something special, an unfiltered experience. You can stand by your movie and say, ‘that was 100% me.’ So if you want to have that Jennifer Carpenter scene that stops the entire narrative thrust of Dragged Across Concrete that behaviour is supported because they believe in it. All I care about: did the director believe in it?

 

"I have been to Hell and back, losing both of my parents, sitting in court trying to gain the justice my Dad’s killers deserve. There’s natural desensitisation to violence based on what I’ve experienced."

 Dallas Sonnier on the set of The Standoff at Sparrow Creek (2018)

 

Touching on the sensitive issue of the tragedy in your life, which you’ve talked about so you don’t have to re-tell the story, but wow does it influence your films? As someone who is ostensibly a victim of violence, or has witnessed horrific violence, you wouldn’t think you would make films about violence or feature violence. Yet you don’t shy away from the issue. Is that conscious or does it not even come into your head when making movies? 

 

Bret Easton Ellis, whose one of my favourite novelists of all time, I recently read his new book, White. There’s a chapter called ‘Liking’ and its fantastic. It is pure old man yells at cloud, but it's so interesting to hear his take: he says, ‘I came to realise that I was not a good judge of what was going to offend someone else’. The same thing goes for me. I have been to Hell and back, losing both of my parents, sitting in court trying to gain the justice my Dad’s killer’s deserve. There’s natural desensitisation to violence based on what I’ve experienced. At the same time, I also have a deep respect and understanding for what a person goes through in a violent situation. I think about my place in the movie business, what stories I can authentically tell, and naturally they will have a level of violence because it's something I understand. So, our next Cinestate movie is called Run, Hide, Fight and it takes place within a school shooting. It’s going to be another highly controversial movie, with a level of violence that will make people uncomfortable. But it is a movie that I understand deeply and I have the patience and respect to get out in front of and guide to completion in a way that it is no exploitative. 

 

How has film acted as a guide to life for you?

 

I was a suburban American kid in the Golden-era of suburban American kid movies – The Lost Boys (Joel Schumacher, 1987), The Goonies (Richard Donner, 1985), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1982).

 

I saw traces of that in Puppet Master.

 

We were influenced for sure. I was infatuated with movies from an early age. Part of that was my Dad allowing me to see them whenever I wanted; I convinced a baby-sitter to let me watch Jaws (1975) when I was 5. I was able to handle it. I eventually made my way to USC Film School while still in high-school. I knew I wanted to be a producer, never a director, or writer, or actor. I was coming from a privileged situation in which I was surrounded by business people who became wealthy by starting companies. I deeply understood business and I deeply loved movies, but I do not have a creative streak in me. So, I followed my dream by going to Los Angeles and getting into the movie business through USC Film School. Movies have been a deeply ingrained part of my life. Movies are fascinating, but since a kid I watched them through a producers lens and never really as an audience member! Except...when I am watching them with my kids. 

 

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is available on digital download July 5 and on DVD & Blu-Ray July 8.

 

You can follow the work of Cinestate by heading to the website or following them on Twitter @CINESTATE.

 

You can also stay updated with Fangoria by heading to its website and subscribing or following them @FANGORIA

 

 

David G. Hughes is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Electric Ghost Magazine. He has written for Quillette, Little White Lies, Film International, Live for Films, and more.

Published July 4, 2019

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