Dallas Sonnier Doesn’t Run From a Fight
The Texas-based filmmaker discusses being on the frontlines of the culture war and what you can do with your personal politics
(Writer’s Note: Prior to this interview, I was aware of the accusations regarding Sonnier where he is accused of protecting a dangerous employee. An earlier version of this article declined to mention the accusations surrounding Adam Donaghey. You can read about that situation here.)
UPDATE, 4/29: When reached by SPIN regarding the accusations on his productions, Sonnier directed us to an interview conducted by the Dallas Morning News, which you can read here.
A few years ago, my wife and I plopped ourselves on the couch to watch a movie entitled Dragged Across Concrete. The picture, starring a weary-eyed Mel Gibson and an unusually restrained Vince Vaughn, follows two recently suspended police officers who decide to tail, and eventually steal from, a band of ultra-violent bank robbers. It’s the sorta hard pulp big studios don’t make anymore. Masterfully directed by S. Craig Zahler, the film is funny, bloody, and has perhaps the greatest scene ever involving a character simply eating a sandwich.
There is, however, a section in the movie where we stop following the buddy cops and instead are focused on a new mother and her first day back to work from maternity leave. Her job? She’s a teller at a bank that is about to be hit by said ultra-violent robbers. Spoiler alert: her character meets an end that is so shocking and upsetting that I had to pause the film and walk around the block for 15 minutes before I could think of finishing the movie. This is a compliment to the filmmakers, by the way.
Being a big proponent of cold-emailing, I decided to look up the producer of this flick, a Texas-based filmmaker named Dallas Sonnier. I had to let somebody involved know how much I loved this picture. Sonnier has produced all three of Zahler’s films, each a masterpiece. There’s the horror-western Bone Tomahawk, featuring one of Kurt Russell’s strongest performances. The middle film is another Vince Vaughn-vehicle entitled Brawl in Cell Block 99, which this writer considers great, but totally understands it won’t be for everybody. Hey, I hear WandaVision is real groovy…
Sonnier responded immediately — and enthusiastically — to my fan letter. Since that initial email back in 2019, Sonnier and I have enjoyed a cordial back-and-forth, most of which entailed each other’s viewing habits during 2020’s pandemic: for me, I rewatched Seinfeld for the umpteenth time, while Sonnier’s kids made him sit through all the Harry Potter films. Again. For the producer, it was a relatively quiet year.
That all changed with the turning of the calendar. Like a one-two combination, Sonnier made headlines twice in the span of a couple of weeks. First, in January, there was the release of his Die Hard-during-a-school-shooting action film, Run Hide Fight, directed by Kyle Rankin and featuring a winning performance by Isabel May. The film, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, was bought and distributed by the conservative website the Daily Wire, owned by political commentator Ben Shapiro. I’ll leave it to you to surmise the reaction to a polarizing figure like Ben jumping into the content pool. The film, which finds a young high school student, played with true grit by Isabel May, taking on a band of school shooters, doesn’t pussyfoot around its subject matter. It is a violent, at times horrifying experience, but one with a human heart beating at its center. It’s also a subject close to the heart of its producer. Sonnier has had to endure the loss of both of his parents due to gun violence only a couple of years apart: his mother was killed by his stepfather in a murder-suicide in 2010 then his father was murdered by a hitman two years later.
According to the director of Run Hide Fight, Kyle Rankin, choosing to make the movie with Sonnier was a no-brainer. “When I pitched him the movie, he told me, ‘You’d think I’d be the worst person to produce this movie,’” Rankin told me over the phone. “But then he said, ‘I think I might be the best to do it. I have a healthy respect for this type of material.’”
The second headline came in February. Sonnier made what was perhaps a controversial move coming to the aid of actress Gina Carano after her forced exit from The Mandalorian by the higher-ups at Disney over a series of tweets. They ranged in topic from questioning the official death of Jeffery Epstein to mocking the use of pronouns. Less than two days after her firing, Sonnier and The Daily Wire announced that they would be producing a movie to star Carano, signaling that Shapiro & Co., were all-in in creating content for their side of the aisle. Not that you should expect a Red State Netflix. “I never let my personal politics inform the movie I’m making,” Sonnier, an open conservative, said during a Zoom interview with SPIN.
To Sonnier, 41, the move to work with The Daily Wire or Gina Carano isn’t politically motivated. It’s about making movies outside an industry that has become zealous about identity politics, far-left agendas, and shutting out anyone who disagrees. When I mentioned how comedian Bill Burr, who starred in an episode of season two of The Mandalorian, recently came to the defense of Carano, and how that might mark the beginning of his own end on the flagship Disney+ show, Sonnier quickly agreed. “[Cancel culture] is coming for all of us,” he said. “To quote Winston Churchill, ‘An appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile — hoping it will eat him last.’”
SPIN: I want to first ask you about Bone Tomahawk. This is the film that sort of made you. But, in a way, it almost ended you, too: you mortgaged your house to finance the film. It had to be nerve-wracking.
Dallas Sonnier: I thought I was done. I thought I was gonna lose my house. We went 21 hours on the last day of shooting and, let me just say, most of the cast wasn’t happy. But we had to finish the movie. We then sent the film to the Toronto Film Festival and we’ve had many films play there in the past. The programmer called and said, “I hate this movie. Why did you send this to me?” I was stunned. Thankfully we had an invitation to Fantastic Fest in our back pocket. They went crazy for it. Actually, the first couple of tweets after the film played were bad, but then the next thousand were raves and I thought, “Thank God, I can keep my house.”
One movie they did love was Louis C.K.’s I Love You, Daddy. There used to be a video online where the programmers gushed over it and Louie for a solid hour. Weirdly, that video can no longer be found. As if it never happened.
The rewriting of history to remove us, the unwashed, is so funny. The divide in this country is going to get so much worse than it is right now. We’ll see if the country can survive, but it’s not getting better anytime soon.
You’ve been a film producer for over a decade. When did you first start noticing a shift in regards to the kinds of content that were being made? What was the impetus of leaving an industry town like Los Angeles? I was a manager in Hollywood for years. I was quintessential in the success of Greta Gerwig, a big part of the launching of Leslye Headland, of Jenny Lumet. I was repping strong, independent, amazingly talented women before it was en vogue. I wasn’t doing it to pat myself on the back or signal all my virtue. I was doing it because they deserved to be seen. Their work was literal art. It had nothing to do with politics or gender or any of this stuff.
What has happened since — and you can tie it directly to Obama’s second term, Benghazi and lying to the American people — the world shifted. Truth was upside down. Everything was about something else. I was looking at Hollywood thinking, “Something’s coming. This is weird.” I was having conversations with people and they’re talking in ways I don’t even recognize. I knew that I needed to go outside the system and build my own ecosystem. I sold my house to Kylie Jenner, of all people, and ended moving back to Texas, making movies, with one foot still in the system.
I’ve been asking this question to a lot of people: where do you watch stuff? Where do you find the content you love? I can’t remember the last time I opened up Netflix. My theory is that the future is with independent creators. Look at somebody like comedian Tim Dillon, who I think is making $100,000 a month on Patreon. Built entirely on what The New York Times has described as “unfettered talk.”
If you put two lists together, side-by-side, of all the people I no longer can work with due to politics and who I can work with due to politics, one list is full of losers and the other are a bunch of juggernauts. In my favor. For me, by connecting with The Daily Wire and having Ben Shapiro, who is trusted by millions of people, say, “we are backing this movie, you should watch it,” was extraordinary. I had never experienced anything like that ever before and you better believe I’m doubling down on it. And now, to be able to be the catalyst to the Gina Carano/Daily Wire project, 36 hours after Disney bullied her, stepping way out of bounds in their statement about her, the announcement we made was bigger news than the original story.
Well, let’s talk about your newest movie, Run Hide Fight. It’s an uncomfortable premise, but the movie strikes the right tone. How did this movie come to you and what was your original reaction?
Nine times out of 10, when a script hits my desk, it’s been passed on by the people who pay a lot more money than me. But if somebody is still pushing it after Paramount has passed or Universal has passed or A24 has passed, that means the agent really loves it. So when Run Hide Fight came to me, the agent was saying, “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”
What was surprising about that project was when I brought it to the people who have invested and made a lot of money off my movies, for the first time they balked. They all asked, “Why this movie? Let’s make a Bruce Willis action film.” My answer to them was that a great script deserves to be made. Also, this was a little personal to me, having lost both of my parents to domestic gun violence, on separate occasions, and I felt like it was a way to honor their legacy and not let their deaths go in vain. They didn’t have a chance to fight back. This was my opportunity to personify my own experience, my own wishes and dreams of having my parents still around. It was personal. I put the movie on my shoulders and put my reputation on the line with the agents and managers, telling them to do this movie with me, that it was going to be special.
And then the film premieres at the Venice International Film Festival…
We got slaughtered by the critics. Just slaughtered. They were critiquing the movie’s subject matter. The critiques were coming from a personal place. We weren’t trying to push any agenda. We simply wanted to start a conversation. But once the critics came after the movie, came after me and my personal politics, I was right back in that Bone Tomahawk mode. I thought we were screwed. So, I called Fox News and tried to get them to buy the movie. They all thought it was too violent.
I had had a coffee with Ben Shapiro a year prior. We talked about movies, talked about politics, lots of interesting stuff. At the end of the conversation I said, “Let’s make a movie together.” He said, “That sounds great, but if we make a movie together, you’ll have to leave my name off or you’ll get killed.” I told him, “Are you kidding me? We’re gonna put your name all over the movie!” Having remembered that conversation, I brought Run Hide Fight to them. I’ve never felt more internal support, for marketing, for cutting trailers, designing posters, etc. I cannot evangelize enough the greatness of working with the Daily Wire. Which is why we’re doing it again with Gina and probably a bunch of projects down the line. Everyone can take their personal politics and shove it straight up their ass.