Stacey Berman could not believe her eyes.
It was April 2014, and she was days into filming Condemned, an indie horror film about a jaded rich girl (Dylan Penn, daughter of Sean Penn and Robin Wright) warding off bloodthirsty neighbors in a grimy Lower East Side tenement. Though it was only her fourth film, a number of things had already made the 27-year-old costume designer feel uncomfortable on set, from the closet-sized costume-fitting room to the rancid bathroom.
“The wardrobe room was 8×10 with no windows or ventilation, and every actor would have to change in there,” said Samantha Hawkins, an assistant costume designer on Condemned. “There was one bathroom for the whole crew that nobody ever cleaned, and at one point, someone found used needles in there. Plus, we worked 16-hour days pretty regularly. We took turns taking naps in a work van, because it actually had heat.”
Things went from bad to worse when Johnny Messner arrived on set. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, and covered in muscle, the then 44-year-old character actor—known for tough-guy parts in films like Tears of the Sun, Hostage, and Running Scared—cut an imposing figure. He was set to play Gault, one half of a gay S&M couple that terrorizes Penn’s character.
According to another costume designer on the film, Messner immediately zeroed in on Berman, and demanded his costume fitting a day early.
“We were supposed to have a costume fitting with him the next day, and he said, ‘I just want to do my costume fitting today,’” Berman recalled. “And I was the only one that was going to be there—which was not common—because he wanted to do this a day early.”
“We came into this [fitting] room, which was small, and he flipped through this clothing rack,” she continued. “Then he walked out of the room, and as he walked out he put his hand on my back. I don’t remember if it was, ‘You’re beautiful’ or, ‘You’re very pretty,’ but it was very gross. It put me a little on edge.”
Messner soon returned to the room and began trying on outfits, Berman said. “What I remember very clearly is that I had a pair of navy blue deadstock sailor pants that had a button front,” she said. “He put them on and told me that he couldn’t button them, and he kept trying to get me to button them for him, and I kept refusing. I said, ‘If I can’t button them for you, then it’s a useless costume. Let’s just not use them.’”
Then, she said, he tried on a butcher apron—and began pestering Berman with questions about whether his character would be wearing underwear, which was not in the script. “And just to be clear: In no fitting ever does an actor not have underwear on,” she said. “That’s just a rule. It’s vulnerable to be in a fitting for an actor and a costume designer. So it became very clear to me that we had a problem.”
Berman desperately wanted to wrap up the fitting, she said, so she suggested Messner try on a trench coat, both since it was the last item his character needed and because it would leave him fully covered.
“I turned around to look at the clothing rack to get this trench coat out, and then I turned around and he was fully naked,” said Berman. “It was like he was posed. There was no dialogue, but he was affirming that he was naked in a room with me right now. I don’t need to be in a room with someone exposing their penis to me without consent. He clearly created an environment where sexuality was on the table and in the room. He hit on me, was asking me to come button his pants for him, and it was beyond innuendo—it was aggressive. It felt like he had been waiting for this opportunity to be naked in a room with me. He had been working towards it in this fitting.” (Messner did not respond to requests for comment.)
“I’m done,” she thought, and immediately left to find the film’s lead producer, Dallas Sonnier, since he “was the highest person in charge on set.”
By 2014, Dallas Sonnier was a rising genre-film producer. He had earned a reputation for keeping production costs low to maintain profits. For green crew members, that meant no union protections, long hours, poor conditions, and nary a hint of overtime pay.
“If you make non-union films that are tiny, you’re inevitably going to hire young and eager people who are willing to work for no money, and so then the film is posited on putting people in compromising situations, and the power dynamic between a producer and an inexperienced crew is surreal,” said Berman.
Sonnier would go on to found Cinestate, a movie studio based in his native Dallas that specialized in films catering to the Trump voters Hollywood left behind. Among them are Vince Vaughn-starrer Brawl in Cell Block 99, which proved wildly popular among the alt-right set on social platform Gab, and Dragged Across Concrete, featuring real-life racist Mel Gibson as a cop who brutalizes Black civilians yet is somehow the real victim. The studio has since segued into genre pictures, including the recent horror-comedy Satanic Panic and grindhouse actioner VFW. The latter two films were produced by Adam Donaghey, a close Sonnier associate who was arrested in April on suspicion of the sexual assault of a minor.
Earlier this month, The Daily Beast published an extensive investigation into Donaghey’s abuse of power, including a tape of him sexually harassing a young female crew member that had made the rounds within the Dallas film community for years. In the article, multiple crew members on Sonnier projects accused the powerful producer of downplaying on-set abuses, including veteran actor Fred Williamson’s alleged attempt to grope an assistant costume designer during a fitting. At the time, Sonnier and fellow Cinestate exec Amanda Presmyk held a meeting with concerned crew members on set, with Sonnier arguing that even though Williamson had not yet begun filming his scenes, he was too costly to replace, and crew members should abide by a “buddy system” when dealing with him from then on.
“I read the article talking about the incident on VFW, and it was insane. Dallas had learned absolutely nothing,” said Berman. “He used the same argument with them that he did with me, so many years later.”
The Daily Beast spoke to over a dozen crew members on Condemned who paint a disturbing picture of the working environment Sonnier fostered.
“I really don’t have much love for that guy,” said Eli Morgan Gesner, the director of Condemned. “As far as his treatment of the crew, and how he has a bad reputation, I can confirm that. At every twist and turn of this crazy experience, anything that we could have done to make things better for people, it was, ‘What’s the cheapest possible thing?’”
Sonnier was the principal financier on Condemned, putting up most of the film’s $500,000 budget. He was also in charge of managing any problems that arose among the cast and crew.
Following Messner’s alleged sexual harassment, Berman said she immediately reported the incident to Gesner, Sonnier, and producer Jack Heller, who also partnered with Sonnier on the films Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99, and Dragged Across Concrete, and is executive producer of the upcoming Hollywood drama The Forgiven starring Jessica Chastain and Ralph Fiennes.
According to Berman, when she brought up the episode, “[Sonnier] made a comment like, ‘If that happened to my daughter I don’t know what I would do,’ which I remember because it enraged me. He said that he had spent money flying Johnny out and putting him up, so firing him wasn’t on the table, and he asked if it would ‘leave a bad taste in my mouth’ if he didn’t fire him, and I said yes.”
She added: “Dallas suggested a ‘buddy system’ where no one would ever be alone with Johnny, which I also rejected. Ultimately, I insisted that if I were to stay on the job I wouldn’t work with him, and the two women I’d hired [Samantha Hawkins and Karen Boyer] wouldn’t work with him.” (Sonnier told The Daily Beast that he and Berman “were in lock-step to her approval and satisfaction on all decisions regarding her arrangements with the actors on set,” adding, “We have been working for weeks with some of the best human resource advocates and employment counselors on a new set of standards and procedures for our productions. I recognize now that I cannot handle sensitive issues directly in-house, and need to rely on unaffiliated experts to help assist me.”)
Six crew members with knowledge of the situation dispute this characterization by Sonnier, insisting that Sonnier refused to fire Messner, citing cost; he suggested a “buddy system” when dealing with him; and ultimately hired two additional costumers to work with Messner, with the original trio of costume designers—Berman, Hawkins, and Boyer—working off-site those days. Three crew members maintain that Heller, one of the film’s other producers, said Messner should be fired from the film—a decision that Sonnier overruled.
“I think Stacey acted extremely professionally for what she had just been through. She could have just quit. She didn’t deserve for that to happen, and the guy should have been fired—obviously,” said Kristen Alimena, who led the film’s hair and makeup team.
“Can you not find another actor to play this part who didn’t present their penis to me in a fitting?”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Heller wrote: “When this incident was brought to my attention, it was in the context of it being respectfully resolved to the satisfaction and safety of the victim. I am now learning that was not in fact the case. While I recommended to remove the offender from the film, this was not the decision ultimately made. I deeply regret and apologize for not advocating harder and for any role I played in minimizing the victim’s experience. I will continue to learn from this mistake so that those working with me, my team and across our industry always feel safe, respected and heard.”
Berman said she still doesn’t understand why Messner was allowed to remain in the film, given the danger he posed to crew members. “He wasn’t working yet. And we were in New York City. Can you not find another actor to play this part who didn’t present their penis to me in a fitting?” she said. “It was strange, self-serving, and generally offensive. Why do I have to go to a place of work and be sexually harassed, and deal with it for money?”
Five crew members on Condemned also allege that Sonnier forced the actress Dylan Penn, who was 23 and appearing in her first film, to remove her bra before shooting a sequence in the film—a request that made her “uncomfortable.”
“Dallas told Stacey at one point to make sure all the girls looked really ‘sexy’ in their costumes, and the day Dylan shot with Messner, where she runs into him in the stairwell, [Dallas] insisted she do that scene without a bra on, which just felt really gross to me,” said Hawkins. “It seemed to be done to make her personally uncomfortable, and I remember her being uncomfortable and being talked into it.” (Penn could not be reached for comment; Sonnier said the scene was shot “as scripted”.)
Multiple crew members who spoke with The Daily Beast say the experience making Condemned was not only the worst of their careers but also left a lasting impression.
“It’s part of why I left the industry,” said Rayna Savrosa, the film’s production designer. “I will never forget going around the block and smoking cigarettes with Stacey after Messner exposed himself to her. Me and my husband were like, ‘You need to tell Dallas.’ And she did tell Dallas, and he didn’t do anything about it. I remember Dallas not giving a shit. He didn’t care. He was not an open ear.”
“I’ve looked back on Condemned many times with the regret of not being more outspoken about safety and inappropriateness on the set,” added Andrew Juhl, the film’s first assistant camera. “When I took the job I had recently moved up the ladder in the camera department, so I was a bit timid and didn’t want to be the ‘squeaky wheel.’ Sometime after Condemned, Jack Heller reached out to me about another feature that he was producing, but I didn’t even take an interview for it because Condemned had been such a bad experience.”
Thankfully, Berman’s career has not suffered. She’s since served as lead costume designer on a number of acclaimed indie films, including Brittany Runs a Marathon and The Miseducation of Cameron Post. She said she decided to come forward and share her story in the hopes that other young female crew members won’t be put in a similar position.
“It’s an open secret that this happens all the time and that the way to move forward is to cover these things up,” she said, “because that’s just how things are done.”
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