Dallas Sonnier received the call notifying him that his mother’s estate was finally settled almost two years to the day after she had been shot and killed by her second husband in their Fredericksburg home. His mother, Becky Gallegos, had told her husband that she planned to leave him. So he drank an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, shot the family dog, executed his wife, and called 911 to confess. While on the phone with the dispatcher, he put a bullet in his own brain.
The whole ordeal read like the script for a tawdry melodrama. But for the previous two years, Dallas, a Highland Park-raised, Los Angeles-based movie producer, had been tangled up in the prosaic details of death that no procedural would ever bother to include: endless calls with lawyers, months spent chasing down the estranged children and grandchildren of the killer who had broken up Dallas’ seemingly perfect family.
So when his lawyer called that hot summer morning, July 16, 2012, it should have brought some sense of closure. The lawyer told Dallas they had finally tracked down all the children. The paperwork was signed, money wired. Dallas, who was 32 at the time, had weathered the most intense storm of his life. It was all over. Fade to credits.
Only in Dallas Sonnier’s life, things are never that easy.
“Guess where I am,” Dallas said to his lawyer. “I’m standing outside the funeral home right now, about to walk into my dad’s funeral. My father has been murdered.”
If you were a screenwriter pitching the script of Dallas’ life, no one would buy it. The circumstances are too far-fetched. Two parents, both murdered in separate romance-gone-bad storylines nearly two years apart to the day. Dallas would try—and fail—to wrap his mind around the awful improbability of his fate. He would also watch as his once picture-perfect family devolved into something out of a dark Coen Brothers film, becoming the subject of police investigations, two murder trials, international headlines, and TV documentaries.
When life returned to a version of normal, Dallas Sonnier found himself in the midst of a professional gambit whose success would be every bit as improbable as the circumstances that drove him to that point. In 2015, he returned to his hometown to launch a media company that may change the way the entertainment industry thinks about Dallas—the city and the man.
Becky and Dr. Joseph Sonnier moved from Shreveport to Dallas just before their first son, Joseph Albert Sonnier IV, was born, in 1980. They called him “the Dallas baby,” and the name stuck. The young family settled in Highland Park, and Joseph, a pathologist, worked at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Dallas and his little brother James, born two years later, enjoyed childhoods as idyllic as they were unremarkable, filled with sports, schoolwork, and movies.
Dallas and James watched a lot of movies, and when they weren’t watching movies, they were acting out their favorite parts on the lawns of Highland Park, usually with their friend Phillip, who lived up the street. Top Gun was a favorite, and the older Dallas always cast himself as Maverick. After they saw Legends of the Fall, James and Phillip had their revenge, forcing Dallas to play the role of Alfred, “the asshole older brother,” as Dallas remembers it.
At home, Joseph had one main rule for his boys. Grades lower than A required a detailed explanation. Games of pickup basketball with Dad were bitterly contested.
“He was just very intense. I liked that about him,” Dallas says. “But he was not a warm dad. Not a warm guy.”
Still, the Sonniers’ was a warm and welcoming home. When Dallas was a freshman in high school, he asked his parents if Phillip could come live with them. Phillip’s own father had left when he was very young, and his mother had her hands full holding down a job and raising Phillip’s two older sisters. To Dallas’ surprise, his parents said yes, and from then on they treated Phillip like a son, offering him an allowance, helping him buy a car, and helping to pay his way through college.
While he was still in high school, Dallas knew he wanted to make movies. He took continuing education classes in screenwriting at SMU, and the summer before his senior year at Highland Park High School, he attended film classes at the University of Southern California. He loved that USC was so unlike the cultural bubble of the Park Cities, and he became one of five students to inaugurate the school’s joint business-film program, which introduced him to studio executives, entertainment attorneys, agents, talent managers. He learned that there was more to making movies than writing and directing, and the business side of the industry excited him.
In his junior year, Dallas’ mother called to tell him she was divorcing his father. He didn’t know how to make sense of it. His whole life, he’d thought his family was anchored by two happy parents. Now, that life, that family, looked alien. Dallas asked his mother if another man was involved, and she said no. When he later found out she was lying, that his mother had been carrying on an affair with a Peruvian man named Fermin “Juan” Gallegos, he was devastated.
“I thought my parents had the best marriage ever,” he says. “That may be another product of growing up in the Bubble. I thought my parents had a perfect marriage, and, in fact, they had a very strained marriage.”
After the divorce, Dallas didn’t speak to his mother for four years. He was young and alone in Los Angeles, far away from his father and brothers, embarking on a new career in an impossible industry in a strange city. After graduating from USC, he got a job with United Talent Agency, starting in the mailroom and working his way up. After a couple of years, he left the agency to join a start-up management firm run by the experienced A-list talent rep David Schiff. At 25, Dallas was a talent manager, in on the ground floor of a new company, signing writers and directors. But his life was a blur of grueling work hours and drug-fueled weekends.
“I had an 8-ball at 7 pm Friday, ready to go,” he says. “I’d pick it up, stay up all Friday night partying, and sleep all day Saturday. Then I’d stay up all Saturday night partying and sleep all day Sunday. And then I would go back to work. I was too busy to do anything during the weeknights, but I was strung out. I was in bad shape. I didn’t have a drinking problem, and I didn’t have a traditional drug problem. I had a mom problem.”
After the divorce, Dallas’ father changed, too. The stern, no-nonsense facade dissolved to reveal a gentler and more sensitive Joseph Sonnier. Joseph moved to Lubbock, relearned how to date, traveled often, and seemed to enjoy his new life. When Dallas told him about his drug problem, Joseph found him doctors and recovering addicts he could talk to in Los Angeles. When Dallas met a woman named Shannon at a party in Malibu and decided after 15 minutes that he was going to marry her, he called his father to share the news.
“He worked a lot on himself in the postdivorce. He became my best friend,” Dallas says. “He was a great shepherd for me and was always telling me, ‘Call your mom, call your mom.’ ”
By 2006, Dallas was off drugs, dating his future wife, and had started his own company, Caliber Media, with a partner named Jack Heller. After meeting Stone Cold Steve Austin at a Comic Con convention, Dallas and Heller signed the wrestler-turned-actor to a production deal. They made nine movies in four years, borrowing a direct-to-video production model that was perfected in the 1990s by action stars Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. With small budgets and tight production schedules, Sonnier and Heller’s movies made money as the duo learned how to make movies in the process.
“I look back on those years fondly,” Dallas says. “I’m still proud of most of those movies. Some of those movies. Some were really terrible.”
Also around 2006, Dallas reconnected with his mother. By that time, Becky had moved to Fredericksburg and married Juan Gallegos. Dallas married Shannon in 2008, and two years later, when she gave birth to their first daughter, Becky flew to Los Angeles to meet her new granddaughter.
“We could just tell my mom was meant to be a grandma,” Dallas says. “That was going to be her great redemption, a way to make up for all the mistakes she made in her marriage. She was going to be the world’s greatest grandma. And we knew it. And we were so excited for her.”
A few days after Becky left Los Angeles, Dallas received an email from her. She wanted to come back. Dallas was elated. What he didn’t know was that his mother had also told her husband that she planned to make the move permanent. She was leaving Gallegos to live closer to her son. As Becky packed her bags, she heard a gunshot. She ran out to the living room and found their dog lying in a bloody heap. Gallegos stood over the animal, holding a loaded Smith & Wesson.
Joseph had moved from Dallas to Lubbock in 2007 with the hopes of a fresh start. He became a well-respected physician in the community and a not-uncommon sight in the bars and restaurants of the West Texas town. In the aftermath of his murder, local media portrayed him as a wealthy and charming middle-aged bachelor playboy. Dallas says much of this was overblown, but his dad did come to learn how to enjoy life.
“A single guy in his 50s who is dating women, who enjoys having sex, like, come on. That is nothing,” he says.
“We’re the underdog,” Dallas says. “Will started a literary publishing house in Dallas, Texas, where he published foreign Pulitzer Prize winners into English. I mean, that’s crazy. I wanted to start a movie studio here in Dallas. That’s crazy.”
In 2011, Joseph started to date a pretty 47-year-old blonde named Richelle Shetina. The two had met in a dance class. At first they seemed to make the perfect pair, but, unbeknownst to Joseph, Shetina had brought some baggage to the relationship. The previous year, she had dated a married plastic surgeon named Mike Dixon. Dixon was infatuated with his mistress, whom he had met at a day spa he owned in Amarillo. But after Dixon left his wife for Shetina, she left Dixon.
Scorned and heartbroken, Dixon hired an out-of-work bar buddy named David Shepard to tail Shetina’s new boyfriend. It looked at first like Dixon was just trying to embarrass Joseph, maybe prove that he was cheating on Shetina and force the couple to break up. But on July 10, 2012, the amateur stakeout took a horrific turn. Shepard waited in the backyard of Joseph’s home. When the physician arrived, the 6-foot-5, 380-pound Shepard smashed through a dining room window, shot Joseph five times, stabbed him 11 times, and left the mutilated body lying in the garage.
As Shepard returned to Amarillo to pick up three silver bars that Dixon had promised him as payment for the murder, Dallas received a call from the Lubbock Police Department. Having just settled his mother’s affairs, Dallas found himself back at the bottom of a mountain he had just summited. And now, not only was there another difficult funeral to deal with and a second estate to settle, but the next two years of Dallas’ life would become consumed with a lengthy police investigation and two murder trials.
The murder also came just as Dallas’ movie career had hit an impasse. Caliber’s deal with Stone Cold Steve Austin had run out, and Dallas was having trouble making his next film. He wanted to take what he had learned from making the direct-to-video action flicks and put it to use making movies of substance. In particular, he felt that one of his clients, the writer S. Craig Zahler, was long overdue for a breakout. Zahler was a prolific writer who sold dozens of screenplays to major studios, only to watch them get stuck in production limbo. At one point, one of Zahler’s scripts topped the prestigious Black List, which ranks the best, never-produced Hollywood scripts. Zahler had written a western called Bone Tomahawk that Dallas was trying to get made. They had name actors attached to it—Kurt Russell, Richard Jenkins—but Sonnier couldn’t raise the money.
After Joseph’s murder, Bone Tomahawk began to take on new meaning in the pressure cooker of Dallas’ mind. It was more than just a film he wanted to get made; it felt like a test. The gruesome, hard-edged western about a wounded man traipsing through a harsh landscape in search of his abducted wife—that became the film Dallas had to make.
“It was my own internal demon, my Shangri-La, my Fitzcarraldo,” Dallas says. “If I couldn’t get that movie made, I was done. I would have had to quit. I would have left the movie business.”
When Kurt Russell’s agents told Dallas that the star would detach himself from the project if it wasn’t made soon, he took drastic measures. He liquidated assets, signed a personal loan using his house as collateral, and plowed everything he had into the making of Bone Tomahawk. Dallas’ wife didn’t know at the time just how much he had risked. If the movie failed, it meant starting over. When production began, in the summer of 2014, Dallas’ life was on the line, wagered on the success of a single movie.
“The world throws everything it can at you, and you have a choice,” he says. “You can go run for the hills and hide and accept your fate and cry about it. Or you can pull up your pants and put on your boots and get to work.”
The day the film wrapped at the Paramount Ranch in California, Dallas flew to Lubbock, where the first of two trials for the man who’d orchestrated his father’s murder began. The trial would take a year. During the first trial, Shepard, who had already pleaded guilty and was serving life in prison, rescinded his confession to try to get his friend Dixon off the hook. There was a hung jury and mistrial. After a second trial, which ended in November 2015, with Dallas, James, and Phillip sitting in the courtroom, a jury convicted Dixon on two counts of capital murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
“Once the second trial in Lubbock happened, and Dixon was convicted, and I realized that that five-year window of dealing with my mom’s death, my mom’s estate, all the issues of my stepfather’s family trying to come after the estate, my dad’s death, the conviction, the plea bargain with the hitman, the hung jury at the first trial—and it all culminates in the second trial and we get that guilty verdict and I had the closure—it all sank in,” Dallas says. “All the challenges of making Bone Tomahawk, all the risk I had put into that movie. All my family members coming there. All that stuff was on my shoulders and was so personal for me. So once the guilty verdict was read, I was finally able to let it all out. And I’ve never even seen people cry that hard in movies before. I lost it. I could barely breathe.”
A month after Dixon’s trial ended, Bone Tomahawk was released to financial and critical success. Zahler received a nomination for best screenplay at the Independent Spirit Awards, and Dallas made his money back and then some.
By then, though, Dallas was finished with the Hollywood way of life. The entire ordeal of the last five years—the murders, the trials, the film—left him with an urge to start over. So he sold his house in a tony neighborhood in Calabasas to reality TV star Kylie Jenner and moved his family to Highland Park. He spent most of 2015 not thinking about movies. Instead, he managed the inheritance his mother and father had left him, invested much of it in 23 residential and commercial properties, mostly in and around Dallas, and set up trusts with his brothers and for his children. By the end of 2015, he had all but officially left Caliber Media, which had shuttered its Los Angeles management office. His film career consisted of a few hundred notes he had emailed himself, sometimes at 2 in the morning, fragments of an idea of what to do next.
In the meantime, Dallas began to reacquaint himself with his hometown. While he had been away, the city had changed. The cultural scene appeared more vibrant. Dallas began to buy work from local painters, and he joined the board of the Dallas Film Commission. There were real filmmakers in Dallas, too. Recently departed Shane Carruth was a Sundance winner, and David Lowery was a hot, young independent filmmaker working on the Disney reboot of Pete’s Dragon. Dallas also befriended the filmmakers who run the Texas Theatre and helped finance one of their short films.
In spring 2016, the guys at the Texas Theatre forwarded to Dallas an email from a young local publisher who was trying to open a bookstore. Will Evans had moved to Dallas from North Carolina in 2013 and in three years had built Deep Vellum, a nonprofit publisher of literary works in translation, into an internationally recognized imprint. His books are regularly reviewed in the New York Times and other international press, and his titles often outsell the most established independent book publishers. Now Evans wanted to translate that vision into a bricks-and-mortar store.
When Dallas and Evans first met for coffee at Drugstore Cowboy, in Deep Ellum, Evans thought he was pitching a potential investor on his bookstore plan. Within a few seconds of meeting Evans, though, Dallas was thinking bigger. He asked Evans what he would do if Deep Vellum had unlimited resources. The company Evans described sounded a lot like a summation of all those notes Dallas had been sending himself over the past year. He saw in Evans a familiar ambition, as well as a temperament that could complement his own. He saw a partner.
“Will is more thoughtful. He is more connected to his emotions, a guy where there is a real vetting process in his mind,” Dallas says. “Five seconds into the meeting, I thought, ‘Sure, I can invest in this guy’s bookstore. But what I really want to do is convince him to come and partner with me.’ I’m an extremely instinctual person. I make decisions based on instinct.”
By their second meeting, Dallas and Evans had hammered out an idea and given it a name, Cinestate. Over the summer, they moved into one of Dallas’ renovated properties on Swiss Avenue and began to hire staff to prep for a launch of a new kind of media company.
Put most simply, Cinestate isn’t merely a movie production company or a book publisher. Rather, it is a media company that is looking for stories that can be developed to ever-expanding worlds, with ongoing plot-
lines, recurring characters, and spinoff scenarios that are explored through movies, books, and audio content. Taking inspiration from models as seemingly divergent as Marvel comics, Star Wars, the Coen Brothers film-turned-TV series Fargo, and the Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul, Dallas and Evans imagine a future form of genre-based media in which stories aren’t confined to the traditional 90-minute film or 200-page novel but can continue well on, beyond their usual shelf life.
When the company launched in October, its initial slate of projects began to suggest what this all might mean in concrete form. First up was a new film written by S. Craig Zahler called Brawl in Cell Block 99, a prison thriller starring Vince Vaughn and Don Johnson that was shot in New York this fall. At the Frankfurt Book festival, Evans announced the publication of a novel by Zahler titled Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child. There was also another Zahler project in the works called The Narrow Caves. Based on one of those scripts Zahler wrote that was never produced, Cinestate will adapt The Narrow Caves as an audio play and distribute it through an exclusive partnership with audiobook giant Audible. Evans has also struck a book distribution deal with his Deep Vellum distributor, Consortium, a company based in Minneapolis.
There are other projects also floating out there, such as a reboot of the direct-to-video cult classic Puppet Master, which the duo wants to shoot in Dallas. But what sets Cinestate’s vision apart is not just projects produced for a wide variety of media, but the hope that if any one of these projects takes off, new content could be created and sold in any number of media. For example, if Bone Tomahawk had been a Cinestate production, Dallas says, they may have developed a sequel as a book or an audio program.
When the company launched, the Hollywood Reporter noted that its idiosyncratic vision was made possible, in part, by the fact that Cinestate was based outside of the industry bubbles of New York or Los Angeles. “Why haven’t a book publisher and movie producer partnered like this before?” Dallas rhetorically asked the Reporter. “We’re in Dallas, we don’t have to play by the rules of New York or LA.”
The rules of New York and Los Angeles will, however, still pose some challenges for the young company. For example, to take writers’ work and produce it across a variety of media, Cinestate must secure a work’s visual media and publishing rights. Writers tend to be open to the idea, Dallas says, but agents, who are used to selling rights into different industry silos, are less eager.
Still, listening to Dallas and Evans explain their vision, you get the sense that this kind of opposition is precisely what drives them. They are trying to disrupt the traditional operational models of multiple media industries from a city that has traditionally not played a major role in either film or publishing. They talk about what could happen in Dallas if Cinestate can achieve even a portion of their grand vision. They want to build upon the voice acting talent that already exists in this city thanks to its healthy advertising industry and expand that into building a film and audio production hub. Publish 20 books a year? We can get there if we want to, Evans says. Produce movies in Dallas even though the state of Texas offers no film incentives? Dallas will produce movies on a micro budget.
They are men on a mission. There is something driving them that feels rooted beyond ambition, beyond charisma, something connected to that hunger that rises up within people who feel they have something to prove—to the world and to themselves.
“Everything we do has a chip on our shoulder,” Sonnier says. “That’s how we operate. We’re the underdog always. Will started a literary publishing house in Dallas, Texas, where he published foreign Pulitzer Prize winners into English. I mean, that’s crazy. I wanted to start a movie studio here in Dallas. That’s crazy.”
On a bright fall morning just weeks before the Cinestate launch, the staff is chattering about the company’s new office space. Since our first meeting, they have moved their operations to the second-floor unit of a historic building that still bears a resemblance to the apartment home it was. There are leather couches in what might be a living room, a wide conference table in the dining room, and movie posters on the wall. In the back bedroom, now an office, Dallas Sonnier sits behind a large oak desk that belonged to his father. He has gray eyes, a beard, and short-cut, speckled gray hair. He is wearing a blue button-down shirt over his broad-shouldered frame and laceless dress shoes with no socks. A Bone Tomahawk poster hangs behind him.
Even after all those years in Los Angeles, Dallas says he never stopped identifying as a Texan. These days he is thinking about how to raise a family in Highland Park without suffering the cultural isolation that the Bubble can create. It requires paying attention to the little things, he says, like signing his girls up for sports teams at rec centers outside of the Park Cities, or taking them to parks in different parts of Dallas.
I ask him if being back in Dallas haunts him at all, if it makes him think of his family when he was young and of the unfathomable chain of events that set in motion the trajectory of his life.
Not really, he says. He thinks about his own family now and about building a business. When he thinks about the past, he mostly feels relieved that he doesn’t have to think about Juan Gallegos or his children, or about Mike Dixon or David Shepard. “They are gone forever,” he says.
His phone rings, and it is Phillip. The two are going to a Rangers game that evening.
Dallas appears to have moved on, to have settled comfortably into the next stage of his life, away from the din of Hollywood, finished with the demons he has buried in the desert of the past. He jokes about getting frustrated over construction delays on his real estate projects and then suddenly remembering the stress and strain of his years of wrestling with estates and courts—and laughing off those construction delays.
But mostly Dallas thinks about his parents and what they would have thought about where he is today, back in Dallas, starting a media company, trying to make the kinds of movies that he and his brothers once acted out on the front lawn of their family home. “What would have my parents wanted me to do?” he asks. “They would have wanted me to come home. They would have loved the fact that I’m raising my family in Dallas. And they would have loved the fact that I’m trying to start a movie studio-slash-entertainment media company here in Dallas. They would have absolutely loved that. Because that means that I took to heart everything that they taught me when I was young, which was: work your ass off, don’t complain, and no one is going to give you anything.
“You have to go take it.”