Interview: Producer Dallas Sonnier Talks Pushing Boundaries & Making Great Movies Away From Hollywood

Dallas Sonnier is one of the bravest and most exciting film producers working today. Through his company Cinestate, Sonnier he has delivered a roster of punchy movies including the Kurt Russell western Bone Tomahawk, Vince Vaughn crime-thriler Brawl In Cell Block 99, the brilliant Mel Gibson thriller Dragged Across Concrete and the gonzo-horror Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich. 

Sonnier makes movies that push boundaries and embrace their genre tropes. They’re movie which are made away from the confines of Hollywood, something which allows them to be fresh and daring. He’s continuing his hot streak with actioner V.F.W, fright pic Satanic Panic and a remake of 80’s horror Castle Freak to name but a few.

Movies In Focus caught up with Dallas Sonnier to discuss Puppet Master: The Littles Reich, S. Craig Zahler’s Dragged Across Concrete and what it’s like to push cinematic boundaries. Sonnier is a great guy – and this is a great interview. Enjoy…

How’s it going, Dallas?

We’re really busy. It’s good to be this busy. There are times I wish I could just go on vacation and turn my brain off for a while but with all the success it only means that it’s going to get worse in terms of commitment and overwhelming days. But man, we’re having so much fun doing it that I wouldn’t want it any other way. 

The passion shows. From Dragged Across Concrete, Standoff At Sparrow Creek – they’re such great genre movies. 

Thank you. We have a lot of fun making them, that’s for sure. We’ve got another one already in post-production, called Satanic Panic and we have a new movie called V.F.W, which in America stands for Veterans of Foreign Wars. It’s basically The Wild Bunch meets Night of The Living Dead. Yeah, we’re having some fun. 

Last October I saw Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich last October in Mayhem Film Festival over here in the UK and it went down so well. The audience loved it. How did that come together?

It all started on such a strange note. My wife came to me and said ‘I got this email from a producer who wants me to do his publicity’ and I asked who and she said ‘Charles Band’. I said, ‘Oh my god, you’ve got to sign this guy immediately’’. So, my wife became Charles’ publicist and frankly, she had never seen any of his movies and really didn’t know who he was – of course he was a legend to me. Through my wife doing really great work for Charles, I ultimately got to meet him and I showed him Bone Tomahawk and I talked t him about Craig Zahler and we agreed to a deal where  I acquired the rights from Charles and Craig Zahler wrote the script. It was such a fluke how it all came together but I’ve become very close friends with Charles and we’re about to remake another one of his films called Castle Freak. It’s a great story about how it came together. 

Obviously, I’ve worked with Zahler a bunch of times and he had a great take on Puppet Master and how to refresh it and perhaps do something totally different. 

Was it difficult reinterpreting the franchise? It was obviously dormant, so were there any issues blowing the dust off it?

Yeah. Here’s the great thing: Charles is still making his own Puppet Master movies and we didn’t want to stop him from doing that. Most of the time when a Hollywood company comes around looking for the remake rights, it means that the original creator lets go of their version. I came to Charles and I said, ‘Look, we can never have too many Puppet Master movies in the market place. It’s only going to be a good thing – the genre fans will benefit from it. You keep doing your world, and I’ll do a separate world. Yes, they’ll be called Puppet Master. Yes, Andre Toulon will be in the movie. For the most part it will be a totally different story and a totally different universe and we’ll also create a series of original puppets beyond the old-school line up’’.  

He was really happy with that arrangement. It allows the fans who simply will never accept a new version of Puppet Master to get movies from Charles and his original franchise but it also allows us to do something new. In terms of the story, when you hand the Puppet Master franchise to Craig Zahler, you know you’re going to get something crazy and awesome. 

And you did. There’s the scene with the baby…I was watching and I thought and I think everyone thought ‘are they going to go there’? And you did. That takes balls…

That moment in particular is a collaboration between Craig Zahler and Tate Steinsiek, our special effects make-up artist. The two of them came up with that crazy idea and obviously, that moment is going to stick in your mind…forever! 

Did you ever think it was going too far? 

I always think about whether or not something is going too far. I’m a terrible judge of that because I don’t think anything goes too far. I think I’ve seen every film that pushes the boundaries –  I think A Serbian Film is a work of art – so I’m not the best judge for that. We thought that if you could do it in a way that was such a great practical effect – which it was – that even if we couldn’t get away with it, it would have people coming away from it saying, ‘my god, they did that so well’’. 

I’ll tell you a funny story…my wife, who likes horror films, but not in the way that I do, she’s certainly not a student of them in the way that I am, she came to the premiere with me and when that scene happened, I got punched in the shoulder and she turned to my producer-partner and she goes, ‘’how could you let him do this?’’

Where the special effects crew happy to be working with some many practical effects?

We’ve worked with Tate Steinsiek and his team a number of times now. Puppet Master was the first and when we hired him he did a bunch of great design work with Zahler, with the director, with the producers and he was incredibly helpful on set on how we would pull it off. The budget on the film was very low and therefore the special effects budget was very low but it didn’t matter because he found ways to do it for a price and the results are some of the best effects that I’ve seen in any horror film. 

As a fan of horror films and practical effects it does stand out. Even low budget films are using more and more CGI, which ruins them. This was a nice, gnarly little movie. 

Yeah, yeah. Fangoria, which he have now acquired and resurrected as a brand and as a magazine, has a history of celebrating practical effects. When we had gone into production on Puppet Master we didn’t yet own Fangoria, but I knew that we might have the opportunity to acquire it and I had it in mind about putting Fangoria as the label in front of Puppet Master. Even if we hadn’t Fangoria, we still would have been uber-committed to practical effects because we just believe that is the way to make a movie. Obviously, every practical we do we try to make the best possible but at the end of the day I will take the shittiest practical effect over the best visual effect every day of the week. Every single day of the week. 

You’ve brought back Puppet Master and you’ve also brought these horror icons into it. How did they get involved? 

Michael Pare is a friend of mine from Los Angeles. I used to live in Los Angeles for many years and Michel and I had become friends and he has a small role in Bone Tomahawk and Udo Kier had worked with us on Brawl In Cellblock 99 and had become one of my close friends, so when we were putting together Puppet Master we had discussed Udo from day one. In terms of Barbara Crampton that was me reaching out to her representatives and having Charles Band text her and say, ‘’this Dallas guy is a good producer and he’s got my blessing to make this movie’’. Barbara has become practically family at this point. She’s now writing for Fangoria, she is producing the Castle Freak remake for us and she has become very involved in our company in many ways. I’m such a fan of here and thrilled about her own career resurrection and if anyone deserves the attention and accolades it’s Barbara Crampton.  

She’s great in the movie. She gets to show a very different side in this movie. 

We try to do that a lot when we’re casting. Our budgets are limited, so we can never offer anyone their full rate, so what we tend to do is approach people with an offer that they can’t refuse because it’s an opportunity to do something different. That goes back to Vince Vaughn in Brawl In Cell Block 99 – and even Don Johnson to an extent in that movie. It’s how we were lucky enough to work with Richard Jenkins in Bone Tomahawk and it’s how we were able to get Barbara to do Puppet Master, Rebecca Romijn in Satanic Panic – all of these tremendous actors that we have in AFW and so on and so forth. I think it’s a strategy of ours that has worked several times in a row now, even going back to Puppet Master, Thomas Lennon played the hero and the lead. Even though it’s a comedy and he’s funny, we all agreed to have him play it straight and deadpan. It’s a terrific performance of his because he chose to do it that way and he joked at the premiere, he said, ‘who knew my Citizen Kane was going to be a Puppet Master movie’. He’s right. 

He is. He’s a great loser in the opening.

He is, yeah! Everyone in the movie is taking themselves seriously. The situations are totally bananas and absolutely absurd, disgusting and horrific but there’s no wink-wink to their performances. And that’s what makes the movie work in my opinion. Yes, there’s great special effects and amazing writing and great direction and yes there’s awesome set pieces but the fact that the actors are so committed, in my opinion is why the movie stands out and why it has done as well as it’s done. 

It’s a film with great characterisation. A lot of horror films skimp on that and then it doesn’t have the pay-off…

Right, right. Agreed. Agreed. 

So, are you guys doing to do another one?

Yeah, we’re talking about it. Zahler has a sequel in mind. It’s just a matter of when can we find time to have him write it, or at least put it into treatment form and have someone write it with his guidance. It’s not on the docket for the immediate future but we definitely plan to do it and we have the idea.  

Looking at other things, you must be thrilled at how well Dragged Across Concrete Has gone down recently. 

Yes. It was cathartic to get that movie out and into release. i’m so happy with the response and I really have enjoyed the thoughtful conversation around the movie. We can handle the heat from a movie like this. We can handle it. 

Does being away from Hollywood make it easier to do that?

I would say that for me, the benefits of being away from the proximity to Hollywood is less about other people feeling a certain away about a movie we make. To me the benefit of being away from Hollywood is that I don’t have to be surrounded by all the nonsense. I can get away from it all and I can have enough distance to be thoughtful and strategic and not get caught up in the rat-race with all the hysteria. 

Looking at a lot of reviews for that movie, you can see people missing the point of what it’s about. How do you feel about that?

Anytime you get a review that is perceived as negative, the easy reaction is to rebel against it – get angry, get mad. I’ve taken a different approach. I lean into it. I think it’s great when someone reviews our movie and says it’s great or says it’s bad for these reasons. it means they took the time to watch the movie – and that to me is the most important thing. That they took the time to watch and write a critique. Sure, I don’t like when personal politics get in the way of someone liking the movie or enjoying the movie. But when someone thinks the movie is too long or slow or boring, that’s fine. That doesn’t bother me at all. We have a rule – we try and post every single review on our social media outlets. If someone write a review no matter if they liked it or not, we’ll post it. I think it’s better to lean into the controversy of the situation and try to capture it in both directions. Releasing a movie is hard and getting people’s attention is hard, so sometimes a review that skews negative isn’t always a bad thing when you harness it. 

I always keep in mind two things: 

One: The headlines are never under control of the author of the piece – it’s usually the editors. The author might write a really thoughtful piece and the headline comes in a harps on some random phrase that came up in the piece that is more clickbait. You can’t always fault the author for the salacious headline. People are trying to get eyeballs. 

Two: If you’re making movies that have full and total creative control for your filmmaker like we have with our directors, you have to also respect and recognise that critics have full creative control over what they say. We would never want to rail against a bad review or say how dare you write that about our movie. We would want them to have the right to critique us and tell us our movie is shit. We would prefer it to be thoughtfully spoken or written but anyone can say anything, the same way we wouldn’t want anyone to tell us what we could make or produce. That’s why we lean into the discourse and debate. It’s way more interesting to me. Of course when we make these movies we know what we’re getting into. It’s not that we’re surprised by the reactions. We know what we’re doing. It’s all part of the experience and we’re pleased people taken the time to watch our movies and certainly for the most part people tend to like them and when they hate them, they hate them with a passion and we enjoy that.