Fall 2017

Coming Attraction

A dentist’s detective novel makes its way to the big screen with stars Andy Garcia, Sofia Vergara and Karl Urban.

By Julie Flaherty

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Illustration: Charlie Powell

Joseph O’Donnell’s first two detective novels didn’t sell many copies. Still, he enjoyed writing about Gallagher, a dogged private eye, while getting set to retire from his pediatric dentistry practice and to spend more time at his home in Florida. Plus, O’Donnell’s circle of friends seemed to like the books enough to recommend them. What happened next even Hollywood couldn’t make up. O’Donnell’s wife’s cousin gave the books to a friend, who gave them to a friend in L.A. Eventually, they ended up in the hands of Bobby Moresco—as in the Bobby Moresco who won a screenwriting Oscar for Crash and was a coproducer on Best Picture winner Million Dollar Baby. In 2010, O’Donnell, DG74, found himself taking a call from Moresco, who wanted to turn Deadly Codes:A Gallagher Novel—with its mysterious car bombing, hints of espionage and femme fatale—into a film noir. “It’s a long shot,” Moresco warned, but O’Donnell signed on. It’s taken seven years and several false starts, but the finished film, Bent, is headed for theaters in the spring of 2018.

The first production company O’Donnell and Moresco worked with was enthusiastic, but couldn’t put together the funding. Same with the second. They got further with the third company before things fell apart. O’Donnell discovered something about the movie biz: “Lots of talk, but no action.” So O’Donnell and his cousin took it upon themselves to put together a team of investors, including six friends from Tufts dental school, and raised $1 million, enough to get the ball really rolling. Then, in 2016, a breakthrough: Moresco brought the idea to an Italian production company, Ambi Films, that not only wanted the project, but had the money to shoot it outside Rome. O’Donnell was still unwilling to believe it until he visited the set in March. Moresco paused the filming, offered him a chair in front of the monitor and introduced him to the 50 cast and crew members: “Without this guy, none of you people would be here.”

He met Sofia Vergara, the glamourous star of Modern Family, who he found surprisingly down-to-earth, even as she was tailed by paparazzi. She told him
she went to dental school in Colombia before becoming an actress, and asked to see photos of O’Donnell’s daughter, who was born in Colombia, and his granddaughters. He met Andy Garcia (Ocean’s 11) and Grace Byers (Empire). Leading man Karl Urban (Star Trek) asked if he was playing Gallagher right. O’Donnell assured him he embodied him. “The feeling I had when I realized my characters were coming to life right in front of my eyes, I can’t describe it,” O’Donnell said. “It was just too emotional. I almost lost it.” John Finn (Cold Case), who played the bad guy, paid the author homage when he ad-libbed a line in a pivotal scene set on a yacht. “You like this boat?” he asks an undercover cop. “I bought it from a retired dentist in Florida.”

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