Film and TV

Dallas Attorney Takes a Sabbatical in the Film Business

Attorney turned film producer Sally Helppie

This week, Dallas film producer Sally Helppie has been shooting footage for her second film, a supernatural thriller called The Beacon, at locations around Dallas and Waxahachie. Those dreaming of a life in Hollywood, take note: Helppie's also a Carrollton mom with five kids and a demanding legal practice.

And she's on her second film in 18 months, no less: Last June, with a cast featuring familiar faces from Back to the Future and The Right Stuff, Helppie shot her first film, the action-packed Exit Speed, on a budget she describes only as “less than $5 million” despite the pyrotechnics, crashed cars and gun battles. That’s cheap, cheap, cheap for a blow-'em-up flick. “We had a lot of stunts," she says. "We set people on fire. We shot people.” Principal photography took about six weeks. “And a good chunk of that crew is back on this shoot.”

Two films in 18 months—not a bad track record for a partner at Bell Nunnally and Martin with a successful career in commercial litigation who was once dubbed a “super lawyer” by Texas Monthly. “I am now only practicing law part time,” Helppie says. “Last year I was still doing both, and you can’t.”

It seems that most of the time, lawyers are the ones who screw up movie deals. But when this attorney turned producer, she found that the skills needed to make a movie were the same she used in preparing for a big trial. Lining up expert witnesses isn’t much different from hiring the right actors and set designers.

Exit Speed stars Lea Thompson, Fred Ward and David Rees-Snell from the TV series The Shield. It’s the story of passengers on a bus traveling across desolate West Texas who encounter a psycho biker hopped up on meth. Much violence ensues, but of course.

Helppie backed into the production business. For years, about 20 percent of her practice had been entertainment law, representing a few writers and producers.

“Then a longtime client who had been invited to invest in a film asked me to look at the deal,” Helppie says. Though the discussions led to the client deciding not to invest, Helppie saw an opportunity to do what she’d dreamed of since putting herself through UCLA law school as an extra.

She resigned her partnership at Bell Nunnally and Martin and set up Sabbatical Pictures. Though Helppie still does entertainment law at the firm, she won’t take anything that requires a trial.

For her first effort, she needed a smart script. So Helppie turned to the casting couch -- the guy next to her in bed, husband Michael Stokes, a freelance screenwriter for about 18 years. He had Exit Speed ready to go.

Stokes also wrote The Beacon, which Helppie describes as a “smart ghost story” in the vein of The Sixth Sense. Stokes is also directing the film, which stars Teri Polo (West Wing, Meet the Parents) and The White Shadow himself, Ken Howard (most recently seen in Michael Clayton). It also features local actors Kevin Keating and Johnny Cruz.

Still, though, why give up a lucrative legal practice to make indie films?

“Because making films is really fun,” Helppie says. “It is giving up a lucrative career for possibly another very lucrative career. Most indie films are passion projects. We’re trying to be smart about what we choose, more detached. The film has to be marketable. I have no question that Exit Speed will make money.” --Glenna Whitley

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky