Contractors who'll soon be hired to renovate the 112-year-old Ambassador Hotel are strongly advised to brace themselves before they open the closets. They might find charred human remains or a foot-long prosthetic penis.
For three weeks beginning mid-March, the hotel's carpeted hallways were showered with blood from cannons being fired at well-known actors. In one of the rooms, decorated with framed Christian sayings about faith and charity, a small but highly trained special effects crew created gruesome facial appliqués and stunt corpses.
The hotel, last owned by a Christian organization called the Institute for Basic Life Principles, is being redeveloped as apartments, but before Jim Lake guts the interior, he allowed a local film producer to use it as home base for a blood-soaked killer puppet movie.
Cinestate is a new media company led by Dallas Sonnier, a Dallas native and Highland Park grad who attended USC film school and became a successful movie producer in Hollywood. His biggest project was the 2015 western Bone Tomahawk, written by S. Craig Zahler and starring Kurt Russell.
With Cinestate, Sonnier intends to reinvent Dallas as a city where movies get made. The campy horror movie Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is his first step.
The company's vision also encompasses other forms of media. Cinestate will publish books that will be turned into films, novelizations of their film projects and audio-narratives called "audiostates" that will be produced like movies. Sonnier’s partner on the book side is publisher Will Evans of Deep Vellum.
Puppet Master, their second movie, is a re-imagining of a long-running franchise of the same name, in which anthropomorphic puppets go around power-drilling and slicing unlucky people to death.
If you’re skeptical about the potential for killer puppets to put Dallas on the map, consider that Cinestate has already shot a film with Vince Vaughn, and he will co-star with Mel Gibson in another Cinestate project this summer.
Puppet Master gained a cult following in the late '80s, which is when a young Sonnier persuaded his aunt to let him rent the first movie in the series from a video store. When he was living in Los Angeles many years later, he found out the rights were coming available, courted creator Charles Band and bought them.
The franchise is a perfect fit for Cinestate’s vision of producing genre films. Sonnier and Evans have concluded that they’re more likely to succeed if they avoid swimming in the overpopulated comedy and drama pools.
“Action-thriller, horror, sci-fi, adventure, crime – we’ll make those kinds of movies,” Sonnier says. “It’s very hard for us to make a comedy, because they don’t translate incredibly well overseas. And we probably won’t do too much in the important drama space. Because the competition is so brutal … if you don’t get released by an A24 or Fox Searchlight, you’re kind of one of a thousand that just never gets seen.”
When Evans agreed to meet Sonnier at Drugstore Cowboy for coffee a year ago, he assumed he'd be the one doing the selling. The meeting had come about because Evans was looking for investors in his bookstore, and Sonnier had heard about Deep Vellum Books from friends who knew that he was back in Dallas and looking to invest in a creative venture.
As one meeting turned to three, and the conversation veered to other topics – British radio dramas, movies – it became clear that the tables were turned. More so than the bookstore, Sonnier was interested in Evans, his ability to navigate the artistic and the financial worlds with equal ease, his international connections and, most important, his eye for writers with "singular vision."
Singular vision is a term Sonnier is obsessed with; he uses it to refer to artists who have unique ideas and a clear concept of how they should be executed. It's what attracted him to Zahler, with whom Sonnier has had a proprietary relationship for several years.
Zahler came to Sonnier’s attention in 2006 when he wrote a script called The Brigands of Rattleborge, which ended up ranking first that year on a list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.
At the time, Zahler was an unknown writer, but soon dozens of people in Los Angeles were calling his representative at United Talent Agency asking to manage him, including Sonnier.
For two years, Zahler said he didn’t need a manager, but at that point, according to Sonnier, he acquiesced and asked his agent to set up back-to-back calls with everyone who had ever expressed interest.
“I just went and read everything he’d ever written. I got on the phone and barely introduced myself and just started telling him all the things we should do with every script: ‘We should get this to this actor; we should get this script to this director; we should go and try to find financing for this script, and you should direct it,’” Sonnier says. “I just went into a project meeting and acted like I was already his manager.”
Sonnier won out and found himself with a very prolific writer on his hands. So prolific that a couple years ago, Sonnier was struck with the idea of creating a company around him that would understand how to cultivate talent in a way that major film studios and publishers often don't.
"What you don't want is book by committee or screenplay by committee, because that’s when people who don't know what they’re doing get involved and muck it up," Sonnier says. "We want to be a place where a really talented original voice can come in and feel supported, 'cause otherwise why are we publishing them? Why are we producing their movie?"
Sonnier sensed immediately that Evans was just the guy to help create this kind of company. At the end of their third meeting, he laid a check down on the table and told Evans he was welcome to cash it if he wasn't interested in the new company he had to propose. Evans never did cash that check.
Sonnier purchased and renovated two century-old brick buildings at the corner of Swiss and Haskell avenues to be Cinestate's headquarters. Their offices are upstairs, with a production studio downstairs. The exterior is quaint, but inside you’re hit with a surprising dose of glamour.
Sonnier may have given interior designers Tompkins and Lloyd the phrase “urban cabin with a Pendleton blanket” as inspiration when he hired them, but along with a farm table work space – and yes, Pendleton blanket-draped couch – are dramatic gold light fixtures that scream, “Hollywood has come to town.”
Zahler is at the center of almost all of the company’s first projects; he’s less a client and more like a producing partner in the company Sonnier and Evans have created, which is the first to simultaneously create books, films and audio-narratives set in the same story world.
“The way that Fargo continues to blow up the universe of that story, or Star Wars revisits stories and allows expansion of the universe – those are our big inspirations,” Evans says.
Beyond a straightforward audiobook, an audiostate has a narrator, actors reading parts, a professional film sound design and an original score. It's equivalent to a movie, only without the visuals. The story may also be a sequel, prequel or spin-off.
Their first audiostate will be released May 16 through Audible. The Narrow Caves is a horror script about two college students who discover a dark entity living in the woods. Zahler wrote it 10 years ago but it never got produced. Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket) and Wyatt Russell, Kurt’s son, have parts.
Cinestate also has its first slate of three books ready to send into production and release beginning next fall, and they're starting work on the novelization of Puppet Master.
"We think it's crazy that book publishers and filmmakers have never really teamed up before," Evans says. "We're going to make the company a really international brand from the start. We want to be in New York, LA, London, Shanghai and Dubai."
In November, Cinestate shot its first film in New York: Brawl in Cell Block 99, an action-thriller written by Zahler that stars Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson.
Vaughn plays a former boxer who ends up in prison for running drugs, where his enemies force him to commit acts of violence.
“Vince is completely bald in the film; he is unbelievable,” Sonnier says. “I told him the other day, it's my favorite performance he's ever done."
The role is a continuation of Vaughn’s move toward more dramatic roles, like the one he played in True Detective.
Vaughn had seen and liked Bone Tomahawk, so when Sonnier approached Vaughn’s agent with Brawl, his interest was piqued.
“A lot of it comes down to the execution of it,” Vaughn says of how he decides which scripts to take. “It’s not, to me, about the size of a company. I started out with independent companies doing things for $250,000 back in the day.”
Vaughn and Sonnier are kind of similar in that they’re both big, affable guys. When they met on the set of Brawl, which they spent two months filming in Staten Island, they instantly hit it off.
Sonnier characterizes their relationship as a “bromance,” and Vaughn says the same. They’d regularly meet at the Hilton’s bar to have a beer and tell stories.
“We've had that instant trust, and we talk very often,” Sonnier says.
During filming, Vaughn broached the idea of working together on another project. Mel Gibson had recently directed him in the WWII film Hacksaw Ridge, and Sonnier says Vaughn was looking for an opportunity to work with Gibson as an actor.
Cinestate presented them both with another Zahler action script, this one about two officers accused of police brutality. Gibson accepted the offer to co-star with Vaughn, and Dragged Across Concrete will be filmed in Vancouver this summer.
When Sonnier was a student at Highland Park High School, the idea of a film studio in Dallas that worked with artists of Vince Vaughn’s stature seemed unlikely at best.
Intent on pursuing his dreams of working in the film industry, he did what all Dallasites with those aspirations have done until now: He moved to Los Angeles and went to USC.
Cinestate's reach must still extend beyond Dallas if it is to succeed in film. Texas offers less attractive financial incentive programs than other states – even other states in the South, like Louisiana and Georgia.
That’s why higher-budget projects like Brawl and Dragged Across Concrete are being shot out of state.
“I’m losing money on [Puppet Master] from a tax credit perspective, because I wanted to sleep in my own bed at night, and because I’m raising my family in Dallas,” he says.
Then why do film crews come here at all? Director Bryan Singer, best known for X-Men, has also been here this spring filming a TV pilot.
“Sometimes, it's good to go to a place that's a little quieter, so you can get all the good crew, and be the big fish in a small pond,” Sonnier says.
Puppet Master proved to be a good candidate for filming in Dallas, largely because of the Ambassador. Sonnier struck a good deal with its new owner, Jim Lake, and in its untouched, current state the hotel looks like it was expressly designed for a horror movie.
Every mauve wingback chair and brass light fixture is still in place at the hotel, which once hosted presidents William Taft, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. It has the eerie feeling of having been abandoned during an air raid. Add to that demonic puppets, lifelike corpses and blood cannons, and even in the daylight, when the cameras aren’t rolling, it’s enough to give you chills.
“Our producing partner on the movie, Adam Donaghey, had scouted this location in the past, for something else,” Sonnier says. “And so he brought it up, and when we saw it, we knew we could make the movie here. So this was a big cost-saving measure.”
That allowed Cinestate to put real money – significantly more than the $100,000-$200,000 of the original Puppet Master films – and talent behind the project, not to mention equipment. They shelled out for a 6K lens package, the best that money can buy. Puppet Master may not have the gravitas of a Kubrick film, but this isn’t Sharknado either.
“We want a theatrical release,” Sonnier says. One of his main concerns with his Cinestate films is making sure they’re available through all of the various distribution portals people use today. “We want Netflix to really get behind this; we want Amazon Prime.”
Zahler took Band’s mythology and characters and gave them a more sophisticated world to live in. Part of the deal Sonnier negotiated for the rights was that Band’s franchise, still going at 10 films and counting, can coexist with Cinestate’s.
“They're different enough that there's not a market confusion issue, for me,” Sonnier says.
The premise for the new film has its roots in a true phenomenon of Jewish people collecting Nazi paraphernalia as a means of denying its power. In Cinestate's reboot, a hotel is holding an auction of some of these items when a set of WWII-era puppets designed for human destruction become reanimated.
Amanda Presmyk, a recent SMU film grad who’s co-producing the film, says there’s real value underneath all the blood and guts.
“If you look at horror films over time … they represent the zeitgeist [of the time when they were made],” she says. “I think that, 10 years down the road, it’s going to be interesting to look back even at Puppet Master, to see what we were talking about.
“There’s a lot of stuff in this film about religion and race,” she continues. “Horror is interesting to me in the sense that, you have this really gory, bloody, over-the-top space to explore social questions, if you do it right.”
The cast and crew seem prepared to do it right. They boast several recognizable names in comedy such as Thomas Lennon (The State, Reno 911) and Charlyne Yi (Paper Heart). The special effects guy worked on The Amazing Spider-Man. Two-foot-tall puppets? He’s got this.
“They’ve all flown in from LA. They’re all hanging out at the Residence Inn, on Central Expressway,” Sonnier said during filming. “They go to Denny’s together every night.”
There was a lot of goofing around on set during the three-week shoot. Much of it involved the crew using props to embarrass or scare each other.
“There’s a scene where one of the actors dies while he's peeing,” Presmyk says. “In order to do that, you're not going to use the real guy's anatomy. We ordered a 12-inch-long, flesh-colored, porn-star dildo. They had it mounted on the window the other day.”
But not all of the goofing was intentional.
“I don't know if I should say this or not, but we had a blood cannon that basically exploded all over everybody,” Donaghey said, quickly refocusing on what’s most important: “Everybody was fine with it. We got the shot.”
Unsurprisingly, Jim Lake’s one condition for providing the Ambassador Hotel as a shooting location is that Cinestate had to repaint the blood-spattered walls before they vacated. But both Sonnier and Donaghey promised there was a plan to leave behind a prank or two for whoever sets foot in the building next.
Joking aside, the cast put a lot of thought into Puppet Master, since it has a passionate cult fan base. It’s a tall order to reinvent the movie without alienating them. So far, Sonnier says he’s had a good response from the horror community and has even gotten some ideas for future movies from it.
“All the people on social media, they've been engaging with us, interacting, and we've been sharing photos with them.”
It has already been confirmed that several of the main puppets from the original films – Blade, Tunneler, Pinhead and Torch – will be returning, but special effects coordinator Tate Steinsiek also helped create new puppets. Some appear in this film, and some will hopefully appear in sequels.
The design of the puppets, which are operated both animatronically and with traditional poles, had been kept secret until last weekend, when horror fans got their first peek at one during Texas Frightmare Weekend.
Sonnier is proud of the team he’s managed to assemble for this project, including Swedish horror directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund. He admits it wasn’t easy to find people who intuitively understood what he and Cinestate are trying to do.
“When you say the title, Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich, about 80 percent of all directors and actors sort of say, ‘Nah, no thanks.’”
Perhaps what makes him proudest is that so much of the support he found came from Dallas: from people in the film industry, like fellow producers Presmyk and Donaghey, all the way down to local businesses they ended up collaborating with.
“We've been working with local vendors, local restaurants – we shot in the Red Pegasus comic book shop in Oak Cliff. We're shooting in the [Dallas] Woman's Forum. We're just happy to showcase them on film,” Sonnier says. “All of the local community has come out and supported us.”
Sonnier still encourages young people to spend some time in LA and New York learning the trade and networking, like he did, but now that Cinestate is off the ground, there are already more opportunities for filmmakers who want to build their lives in Texas.
Case in point, Amanda Presmyk. After graduating Southlake Carroll High School, she thought she would attend film school on one of the coasts. In the end she chose SMU because she got a scholarship.
At SMU, she began producing other students’ short films and discovered she fit well in that role, which entails overseeing a film and solving any problems that come up. She took on more producing gigs after graduating, first for commercials and later for the Dallas-based television show Queen of the South. Eventually her work took her to Atlanta for another TV show, Daytime Divas.
“I worked in Atlanta last year, and Atlanta has so much going on. I had plans to move there,” she says. “But because of Cinestate … I’m staying. I love Dallas, and there’s such a strong independent film community here. The only thing we don’t have is infrastructure, and people just doing the damn thing.”
While she was back in Dallas helping to coordinate the Oak Cliff Film Festival, she connected with Cinestate. The unlikely thing has happened, and now, at 25, she's producing her first feature film – in Dallas of all places.
What makes that achievement more remarkable is the film industry is still male-dominated. In 2015, the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film reported that women account for only 26 percent of producers.
Donaghey, who is a partner in the Texas Theatre and co-founder of the Oak Cliff Film Festival, is another person whose career has been affected by the launch of Cinestate. He makes his living producing films and freelancing as a production manager on commercials and music videos.
As line producer on Puppet Master, he’s basically a “glorified accountant,” he says, managing the crew and keeping up with the budget.
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It’s work he likes and enjoys traveling for, but he has no interest in relocating to the coasts.
“I really like being a Texas producer,” says Donaghey, who also produced Dallas director David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story. “There’s a lot of benefits to that. … It’s definitely easier for me to get involved in projects and things like that and not have so much competition with everybody trying to do the same thing. It’s a much more chill environment.”
Sonnier cites Donaghey, Presmyk and filmmakers Lowery and Shane Caruth (Upstream Color, Primer) as evidence that Dallas has all the talent it needs to support a thriving film industry. The only real obstacle he sees is a sharp divide between the city's artistic community and financial sector, and that's where he hopes he and Evans can come in.
"Dallas is a bifurcated city when it comes to the art world and the business world ... there’s all these phenomenal artists ... but [the artists are] not in daily conversations with the other side of Dallas, which has access to so much financing and really understands the concept of how to make money," he says. "We’re hoping to bridge that gap a little bit.”