On movie screens, stories of triumph over adversity are commonplace. But few of the stories that Dallas Sonnier tries to bring to the big screen can match the obstacles in his real-life effort to make it in Hollywood.
The 1998 Highland Park High School graduate spent several years trying to build enough money and connections to launch his own production studio. Along the way he was forced to deal with the death of both of his parents, who were each murdered in separate incidents two years apart.
Now his professional outlook is brightening as Sonnier recently wrapped production on his studio’s highest profile film thus far. And with a trial underway for his father’s suspected killer, he’s able to bring some closure to his personal tragedies, as well.
Producing a career
When he was growing up, Sonnier became a fan of the annual USA Film Festival in Dallas. His parents routinely bought him tickets and took him to see foreign and independent films.
“I just walked up to producers and actors and directors and just introduced myself and asked them questions,” he said.
He acknowledges that few people believe his story of teenage inspiration, about peeking at a Playboy magazine when he was at a friend’s house and reading an article about Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producing duo behind Beverly Hills Cop and Top Gun.
“I always wanted to be a producer,” Sonnier said. “I was just fascinated by the lifestyle. At that stage I started to investigate what college would be like in Los Angeles. It was a new thing that I had to discover on my own.”
Sonnier eventually went to USC film school, where he applied before his senior year at HPHS. He worked as an intern for Oscar-winning producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old Men), which allowed him to read unproduced screenplays.
He graduated from USC in 2002 with dual degrees in business and film, and became an assistant at United Talent Agency, which allowed him plenty of networking opportunities.
Starting a studio
In 2008, Sonnier and Jack Heller, a USC classmate, started Caliber Media. He was 28 and Heller was 25, and neither had enough money, so they took out a $25,000 loan from Heller’s father and secured an office in a storage closet behind the tattoo parlor from the reality show “L.A. Ink.”
The duo went to Comic-Con in San Diego where they met former wrestler “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, and wound up collaborating on nine low-budget action movies that were sold to more established distributors, and premiered on DVD and video-on-demand. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was a start.
“With those Steve Austin movies, we learned how to make films, and not just raising money, but also the physical production and the legal side of the business,” Sonnier said. “We’ll always look back fondly on our time making movies with him.”
Caliber segued into other independent projects before raising funds for two years to shoot Bone Tomahawk, a Western that finished filming in October on sets
originally built for Iron Man.
The company hopes to debut the film — which stars Kurt Russell, Matthew Fox, David Arquette, and Richard Jenkins — at film festivals next year to secure a distribution deal.
“We were off the radar of Hollywood, and we liked that in a way. But it got to a point where we needed to up the stakes a little bit,” Sonnier said. “This is definitely the highest profile project so far. Getting this movie made has been a career-defining event.”
As he reviews potential scripts for Caliber’s next project, Sonnier lives in a gated community in upscale Calabasas, Calif., where he is neighbors with several celebrities, including two of the Kardashian sisters.
He works primarily from home as Caliber’s offices relocated in early November from Los Angeles to New York, as the company transitions away from client management and more toward production.
Sonnier was still in college when his parents divorced in 2001.
They sold their Park Cities home a couple of years later.
Flash forward to 2010, just days after Sonnier and his wife gave birth to a daughter, and he received the news that his mother was the victim of a murder-suicide near Fredericksburg, following a dispute with her second husband.
Almost two years later to the day, Sonnier’s father, a prominent Lubbock pathologist, was brutally killed, allegedly by a hitman hired by a plastic surgeon over a mutual romantic interest.
“The death of my parents fueled my desire to finish this film and get it produced. It became a symbol of something I needed to accomplish in my life,” Sonnier said. “I couldn’t stop what happened to them, but being so far away, it became a personal mission of mine to get this movie made as a way to prove to myself that I could honor my parents’ memories.”
On the same day that production on Bone Tomahawk wrapped, Sonnier flew to Lubbock to testify in the trial for his father’s accused murderer.
It’s an example of how he has refused to allow his tragedy to overshadow his triumphs, even under the most difficult of circumstances.
“I made a decision that I was not going to lose myself in depression or agony,” Sonnier said. “I wanted to honor my parents and protect my family. I just feel so lucky. My parents were very instrumental in me becoming who I am today.”
December 16, 2014
The siblings are competing together this season for the first time — with Jasper as a junior and Felix a freshman — and are leading a resurgence in boys swimming on the Blue Wave roster that saw HP win a regional team title last year and could result in several milestones being set in the next few seasons.
“The two of them are very determined swimmers and want to break those records so bad,” said HP assistant coach Hannah Ferrin. “They definitely push each other.”
Jasper already holds a school record in the backstroke and as part of the medley relay. He placed fifth in the 200-yard individual medley last year at the Class 4A state meet, where he also competed on two relays.
The brothers were born in the United States but also have citizenship in Belgium, where their father, Jeroen, was a soccer player and swimmer before moving to the U.S.
Jasper and Felix also tried both sports when they were young, but found themselves gravitating toward the pool in elementary school.
“We happened to be better at swimming, so we just stuck with it,” Jasper said.
The Van Cauwelaerts have been active in the prestigious Dallas Mustangs club program for several years, but rarely have swam together because of the two-year age gap. For both, their work ethic is a primary contributor to their success, with a typical weekday consisting of an hourlong practice at 7 a.m. at HPHS, and an after-school workout with the Mustangs that doesn’t bring them home until about 8 p.m.
This season, they’re both swimming on the Blue Wave’s powerful freestyle relay and medley relay quartets. Because of their different specialties, they don’t match up individually often, except in the middle-distance IM, and both look forward to such opportunities.
“It makes it more interesting because we always want to be each other,” Felix said. “Whoever wins gets bragging rights.”
While they achieve similar results, their styles are different. At 6-foot-3, Felix is more of a power swimmer, while the shorter Jasper relies on technique. That contrast proves valuable when they team up on relays for HP.
“I’m able to critique his stroke more because I’m more familiar with it than anybody else,” Jasper said. “I’m able to pick apart his stroke.”
Indeed, Ferrin said their relationship on the pool deck is more about constructive criticism than sibling rivalry.
“They’re competitive with each other, but not in a negative way,” Ferrin said. “They definitely complement each other.”
December 15, 2014
As an addition to the full slate of holiday music offerings, Orchestra of New Spain is holding its annual celebration at Christ the King Catholic Church on Sunday.
Trumpeter Adam Gordon, a lecturer on baroque trumpet at the University of North Texas, will be the featured soloist during the concert, which will include Spanish cantatas as well as works from Mexico and Spain’s Renaissance Valencia.
The festivities begin at 6 p.m. Admission is free, although donations will be accepted. For more information, call 214-750-1492.
December 13, 2014
After competing at the state cross country meet last month, Highland Park High School standouts Rico Lara and Hope McLaughlin will participate in the annual Elite High School Relay Challenge on Sunday as part of the Dallas Marathon.
Both Lara and McLaughlin will be part of a team of 16 of the top distance runners in the Dallas area, in which the boys will run two-mile segments on the 26.2-mile course while the girls will run one mile each. Lara is slated to run miles 4-6, followed by McLaughlin. That happens to be the section of the course that passes through Highland Park.
Other runners who will take part in the relay include: J.T. Graass (St. Mark’s), Reese Walters (Shelton), Daniel Cope (St. Mark’s), Avery Culpepper (North Crowley), Trevor Montgomery (Whitney), Connor O’Neill (Jesuit), Mayleen Cantu (Bishop Dunne), Lili Clark (ESD), Fred and Sam Vincent (Ovilla Christian), Emma Pfundheller (Woodrow Wilson), Luca Chatham (Woodrow Wilson), and Alexandria and Matthew Arndorfer (Prince of Peace).
MESQUITE — The script couldn’t have been written much better for Highland Park’s debut in Class 6A girls basketball.
The Lady Scots secured a big early lead and cruised to a 51-34 victory over North Mesquite in the District 10-6A opener on Friday.
HP showed its progress in the up-tempo system of head coach Nicole Villarreal by controlling the pace and forcing a flurry of first-quarter turnovers. The Lady Scots (7-6, 1-0) opened up a 20-point lead midway through the second quarter and were never threatened.
“They’ve absorbed it and have really bought in,” Villarreal said about the new style of play. “They’re doing a good job so far.”
HP controlled the boards while the Lady Stallions (6-6, 0-1) struggled to find the basket before halftime.
Although the implementation of the new system has led to some inconsistency early in the season, Villarreal said HP gained some confidence with its play last weekend at the Curtis Culwell Invitational tournament in Garland, where the Lady Scots took fourth place and were competitive against strong opponents such as Mesquite Horn and Sachse.
“The momentum from that tournament really carried over to this first district game,” she said. “We talked about getting our focus and coming out in the first quarter. We jumped out scrappy.”
HP will return to action on Dec. 19 when it hosts Richardson Pearce.
December 12, 2014
The city of University Park won a legal battle this week when the Texas Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower-court ruling in the case of a 2011 dispute involving attempts by Legacy Hillcrest Investments to build a parking garage just south of Snider Plaza.
The appeals court ruled that the city’s Board of Adjustment has the power to interpret and apply the city’s zoning ordinance, and therefore had the right to deny the permit to build a garage on four lots in the 3400 block of Haynie Street.
Legacy Hillcrest has tried multiple times since 2001 to develop that property through rezoning efforts. The developer and the city have argued over building density and economic feasibility for various projects.
The most recent effort involved a permit to build an above-ground, multi-level parking garage, which the city’s community development staff recommended for approval. However, the BOA denied the application, prompting Legacy to file a lawsuit in state district court. The 191st District Court in Dallas County ruled in favor of Legacy in 2013, which led to the city’s appeal.
You can see the appeals court ruling in its entirety after the jump.
Nick Jones, a senior at Highland Park High School, was born with Down Syndrome and struggles to articulate his words, said Katie Jones, Nick’s mom.
While “Team Nick,” as they call themselves, plan for the future, Nick is downstairs cleaning his all-time favorite car, the Ford Mustang.
In February, Nick joined the team at Park Cities Ford as an intern. He had worked at previous jobs before, but Ford was the dream. He wanted to be around the cars — particularly the Mustang.
The dream was achieved after applying and interviewing with Enright, the dealership’s communications director. Now he works from 1 to 3:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, cleaning cars, setting out magazines, and completing other tasks.
“Everything Nick does needs to be done,” Enright said.
It’s not a charity thing, Katie clarifies. Wilkes, an education consultant of D.R. Wilkes Consulting, said he’s an important part of the dealership’s daily functions.
“The rule of supporting a person with a disability on the job is to make sure that they’re an essential factor to the employment site,” Wilkes said. “We want them to get as much from Nick as any other quality employee, and so it’s what can he do.”
When Nick isn’t working, he’s hanging out with the guys. On his birthday this year, the other employees chipped in to give him cash and a surprise party. After the party, Nick and some others tossed around a football outside.
Katie said Nick feels like his work peers are his family.
“I’m so proud,” Katie said. “So very, very proud and I’m learning from him. He’s constantly teaching me new things about himself and that’s one of the things we were talking about in the meeting. I’m hearing all these things he’s doing here I didn’t know he could do, things he’s doing on the computer. He just keeps reminding me, ‘Don’t lower the ceiling. Keep raising it.’”
One area in which Nick is improving at is verbal communication, Katie said.
“He gets frustrated because if he knows he’s going to stumble and fumble a little bit, he will struggle, but he can show me with his phone or draw it or shorten his answer to two words,” she said. “But yeah, he’s definitely interacting with people around here and communicating.”
Several different Park Cities Ford workers help supervise Nick. To help with his tasks, he has a notebook full of the day’s checklists and pictures of different workers, as well as rooms within the dealership, labeled with names so he can better remember.
“He’s more of a visual learner we’ve figured out,” Enright said. “He’s a good reader. He can read and follow instructions.”
And there’s plenty Nick can do. The women of “Team Nick” are constantly learning how far they can push him and what’s the best route for him.
“The sky is the limit,” Wilkes said.
The Highland Belles drill team added 29 members to their 2015-16 squad during tryouts last weekend, bringing the squad’s total to 64 students.
The rigorous tryout included a week of training that culminated in a performance led by third-party judges. The new Belles will begin their workouts and off-season training in January alongside the current Belles. Their first performance will be in late spring.
Highland Park High School girls soccer players and coaches will host their annual clinic for Park Cities elementary school students at 10 a.m. Saturday at the HPHS Multi-Purpose Activities Center across from Highlander Stadium.
The Lady Scots Soccer Academy is free and will last about 90 minutes, including soccer activities and lessons, posters and autographs. You can RSVP with coach Stewart Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ebby Halliday’s Preston Center office has found a new home. After 38 years in the 4,100-square-foot office where it previously set up shop, the firm is expanding to a new chic space at 8333 Douglas Ave., across from the Park Cities Hilton and neighboring The Shelton high-rise.
Ground broke on the 10,000-square-foot project in August, and the new space opened its doors in early October, thanks to the completion of the initial phase. Architect Michael Twichell, whose work includes The Shops at Legacy in Plano and the Angelika Film Center in Dallas, is the engineer on the project. The new space will be in a more prominent location than the previous office.
“This high-visibility, contemporary office is built for the future,” said Ron Burgert, chief financial officer of the Ebby Halliday Companies, in a press release. “It offers an exceptional location and is a statement of our commitment to serving Dallas and the Park Cities for years to come.”
The expansion presented the chance to upgrade technology and create a sophisticated atmosphere for associates and clients, alike.
In addition to the 5,900 extra square feet of space, staff can look forward to commercial-grade Wi-Fi, Apple TVs in the conference rooms, a training room with new computers, private offices for top-producing agents, and a large sitting room with dining space, just to name a few of the amenities.
Designer Gary Owens created the modern feel of the office, which compliments the open concept of the office space and the natural light brought in by the windows on three sides.
Ginger Gill, sales manager of Ebby’s Preston Center office, believes that this expansion will build on its commitment to the community.
“Our vision for Ebby’s new Preston Center office was to create a modern, inviting space for our valued clients and the ideal working space for today’s high-tech real estate agents,” Gill said.
The second and final phase of the project is scheduled to open in mid-January.