The making of ‘Bone Tomahawk’ at all costs
by Dallas Sonnier
EXT. Blue Cloud Movie Ranch – Sunday, October 26th – Early Morning
My producing partner Jack Heller and I have been watching Kurt Russell and Patrick Wilson battle cannibalistic troglodytes for the past 12 hours on sets that were originally built for Iron Man. Heller gives me the brofist – our boyhood dreams becoming a reality. Alongside our writer/director S. Craig Zahler, we sacrificed our souls to get this movie produced. I can openly admit now that Bone Tomahawk became my Shangri-La.
Then it happened: our 1st Assistant Director Dave Halls screamed out “That’s a picture wrap on Bone Tomahawk!” I would have felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment and relief, but I was already gone.
An hour before, I was hightailing it to the Burbank airport to catch a flight. What almost no one knew was that I was heading to the great plains of West Texas to testify in a capital murder trial surrounding the violent death of my father, Dr. Joseph Sonnier. In less than 24 hours, I would go from the set of Bone Tomahawk to the 140th District Court of Lubbock County.
But let’s pause for moment and go back in time to the winter of 2011 to the genesis of our story. I am managing Zahler who had just sold yet another feature script, boosting his total unproduced spec sales to nearly 20 (now closer to 25). We decided to marry our company Caliber’s low budget production strategies with a new Zahler spec crafted specifically for him to direct on a tight budget. The ensuing product became the script known as Bone Tomahawk. It came in at a whopping 126 pages (138 if you don’t fudge the margins), a wildly unorthodox page count for a micro budget movie. Within days, we had an offer from a financier, but it fell apart when they insisted that Zahler compromise on the entirety of his vision. That is code for “cut pages.” Zahler said no, and the money went away.
At the time, I thought “no big deal, we will get another financier quickly.” Naïve on my part, but to Zahler’s credit, he never wavered, and insisted that we send the script to actors who he knew would be attracted to the material and protective of its prose.
The first agent to read the script was Michael Cooper of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) on June 5, 2012. My pal Craig Brody, also at CAA, emailed me a few days later saying “Cooper gave a glowing endorsement of the script in yesterday’s meetings. A lot of people took notice.” Cooper was relentless in his passion and pursuit of Bone Tomahawk. When I search in my saved Bone Tomahawk email folder for “Michael Cooper”, there are 813 total emails over the past 29 months either to him, from him or cc:ing him. That level of allegiance to getting Bone Tomahawk made is astounding. Thank you, Michael.
By June 14th of 2012, we had Kurt Russell and Peter Sarsgaard attached, and five days later, our friend Ben Kramer in CAA’s film finance and sales division wrote to me: “Love it. So dark, just my style. Do you guys have it financed? Would love to help.”
Soon after, Richard Jenkins came on board, and the script went out to the market with a great cast, a full budget, and creature design drawings by Mike Elizalde of Spectral Motion (Oscar-nominated for Hellboy 2 and currently getting applause for Michael Keaton’s costume in Birdman). Everyone loved the script, especially the fact that it was an extremely well written western infused with elements of a terrifying horror film. But no one (literally no one) felt we should or even could make this movie for less than $10 million.
And then my father was killed. On a July evening in 2012, he was returning home from work and was ambushed by an intruder in his home who shot and stabbed him multiple times. Respectful to the on-going criminal investigation and to the trial starting today, I will refrain from additional details at this point in time, but it is important to note one more thing. Only two years before losing my father, I lost my mother Becky Gallegos who was also murdered in a totally unrelated incident in Fredericksburg, Texas. In July of 2010, days after my first child (daughter Camilla) was born, my mother decided to divorce my stepfather Juan Gallegos and spend more time in California around our new baby. After a long weekend discussion, Juan murdered my mother by shooting her at point blank range while she was packing her bags to leave home the next morning. He then committed suicide.
For me, getting two nearly identical phone calls (“your mother/father has been shot and killed”) from the local police departments over the span of 24 months is something you never recover from. But I made a decision to stand up and fight through the pain. I had a family to take care of, a company to run, and as ridiculous as it sounds, a movie to produce.
After returning to work, we spent considerable time with one financier trying to make a deal and agree on a budget, but personality clashes got in the way. We lost Sarsgaard to scheduling conflicts and had to shut the movie down. I was dealing with the loss of both parents and the total ruination of my movie. I hid any depressed feelings from most, but I know I took it out on some friends and colleagues.
But Russell and Jenkins stayed on board and for over two years, they never even wavered. I’ve told both of them in person how much that meant to me, but honestly they will never fully understand the level of gratitude I feel towards them for their commitment.
Eventually Zahler, Heller and I knew that the only way to get Bone Tomahawk made was to make it ourselves. We did have some strong foreign sales via Celluloid Dreams, but they required we shoot by the end of the year. British author Alan Bennett said it best: “Sometimes there is no next time, no time-outs, no second chances. Sometimes it’s now or never.” This was it, and we needed the money fast.
Kramer hooked us up with a UK financier called The Fyzz, run in part by a savvy young guy named Wayne Marc Godfrey. Since Godfrey and his attorney Lee Stone were in London, we would be doing phone calls with them at midnight and then again at 8 am the next morning. Weeks before we started shooting, the paperwork was signed. Heller and I sacrificed our entire Los Angeles office in order to free up company bandwidth to focus on Bone. We consolidated our HQ to the NYC office. I reduced my client list to only a few. We parted ways with some bright in-house managers. And the rest of Caliber came to the Bone Tomahawk set to work 16-hour days. Like I said earlier, my Shangri-La.
Malcolm Gladwell was asked on 60 Minutes, how does one become completely indifferent to what everyone around you is saying? Gladwell responded that “you get to be that person if you have been through the absolute worst the world can throw at you and come out fine.”
It is a fact that the world has thrown its absolute worst at me over the past four years, but right now, I am fine. In fact, I’m more than fine. I am insanely in love with my wife who supports me without question and has given me three awesome children. I owe her many dinner dates at Pace for putting up with me during production. I have a strong extended family — we are all here in the Lubbock Courthouse braving this trial and its heartache together. I have honored my parents’ memories. And I have just produced arguably the most important film that Caliber has ever made and with the most fiercely talented cast including Russell, Wilson, Jenkins, and Matthew Fox.
Oh man, I love making movies.Tags: Becky Gallegos, Ben Kramer, Craig Brody, Dallas Sonnier, Dr. Joseph Sonnier, Hollywood, Independent filmmaking, Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, Michael Cooper, Mike Elizalde, Patrick Wilson, Producer, Richard Jenkins, S. Craig Zahler, Talent management, The Fyzz, Tragic loss of parents, Wayne Marc Godfrey