From Self-Published Novel to Hollywood Movie: Joe O’Donnell


Submitted 6 months ago
Created by
Darby Laine

The next time you see Joe O’Donnell around the Quechee Green, you should probably stop and shake his hand. If you know Joe, you were probably going to do that anyway, but this time around you should ask him about his self-published book, Deadly Codes: A Gallagher Novel, and the feature-length film Bent that’s based on his book. Joe’s gregarious and positive nature makes him truly enjoyable to interact with, and his excitement is contagious.

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Previous to attending the premiere of a movie based on his own novel, Joe had already worked a highly reputable career in pediatric dentistry. He went to school in his home state of Pennsylvania and then Boston, specializing in pediatric dentistry. In 1972, Joe was appointed to the faculty of Tufts University where he was an associate clinical professor of Pediatric Dentistry. In 1976, Joe founded the Tufts Dental Facilities for Special Needs Individuals, a statewide program that he considers the greatest accomplishment of his career. Before this program, special needs individuals found it difficult to obtain dental care from community dentists who often did not have the training or facilities to meet their special needs. With the help of a grant to Tufts from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Joe established a teaching program for dental students and post-graduate residents at Tufts as well as six clinics throughout Massachusetts, all of which had equipment and facilities specifically designed to expedite the delivery of dental care to persons with disabilities. Also, Joe opened his own pediatric dental practice in Winchester, Massachusetts, in 1974, and later expanded his practice to open a satellite office in Reading, Massachusetts, in the 1990s.

Settling in Quechee

It was in the ‘90s that Joe bought a condominium in Quechee before his wife, Ronney, had even visited: that’s how positive he felt about the place. After having golfed in Quechee with friends over several years, Joe always thought Quechee would make a great location for a second home – a weekend getaway with golf, skiing, swimming, and other activities. One weekend, while his wife, Ronney was in New York visiting her family, Joe drove up to Quechee somewhat spontaneously to look at real estate and get an idea of what type of properties were available.  After looking at six different places, Joe was preparing to leave when the realtor’s cell phone rang with news of a condo that had just come on the market. A few hours later, Joe had to make a somewhat uncomfortable call to Ronney and explain that he had just bought a property in a place she had never been or seen. Joe jokes that lunch at Simon Pearce helped seal the deal for Ronney, and she even discovered her own enjoyment of golf with the help of Andy Prosowski. Director of Instruction at The Quechee Club. The O’Donnells have taken lessons from Andy every summer since.

Joe and Ronney with granddaughters Alessandra, Shira, and Hasana

Beginning his writing career

In 2008 while lounging on a beach, Joe turned to Ronney and said that he was “thinking of trying something different” – he wanted to write a novel. During his years at Tufts, Joe did a lot of the usual writing expected of a faculty member:  case reports, journal articles, grant proposals, letters of recommendation, etc., but he had never attempted creative writing. The Dean asked him to write a eulogy for a deceased faculty member and liked it so much that it was published in the Tufts Journal, and urged Joe to consider doing more writing. Joe put together some thoughts for a fictitious story based on his five real estate partners who were in the process of dissolving their mutually beneficial partnership. Fatal Gamble, his first novel, is based on the premise that strange things began happening to the individual members 25 years after the dissolution of their partnership. The main character, a Boston private detective, named Gallagher, is hired to investigate a series of unsolved murders. And, if you’re the type who likes a book with an unexpected ending, Joe has written a second novel, Deadly Codes: A Gallagher Novel, which features Gallagher, the main character of Fatal Gamble.

Joe’s books are self-published, and he jokes about the reactions of the many literary agents that have turned him down citing that he’s a dentist, is too old, and has no creative writing credentials.

From novel to movie

By 2010, Joe had two self-published novels that relatively few people had read, and even fewer had bought. Ronney’s cousin gave Joe’s books as a Christmas present to a friend in New York. The friend, in turn, sent them to an acquaintance in Hollywood. Long story short, they ended up in the hands of Academy Award winner Bobby Moresco (best original screenplay for Crash – Best Picture 2004). He was so taken with the idea of the Gallagher character in a film noir style movie that he got in touch with Joe, and they met at Legal Sea Foods in Boston. “It was like being touched by a bit of magic and a huge stroke of good luck,” Joe says. The dream dinner ended with a reality check, Hollywood style: Moresco’s best advice was to tell Joe to go out and raise a million dollars for development money to get the project off the ground.

Raising one million dollars was a daunting task, but Ronney’s cousin and Joe found friends and business people who read the novels and were eager to partner in the project.  Over the next six months, Bobby Moresco wrote the screenplay based on Deadly Codes, and the search began to find a production company and a sales team to launch the screenplay to the screen. However, as Joe found out, movie projects, in particular, those that are independent films, are painstakingly slow with many ups and downs along the way. In 2016, nearly eight years after Joe published his first novel, and six years since he met Moresco, Joe received another unforgettable phone call. The production company AMBI Films, was in discussions with Moresco about another film, was interested in the Gallagher project, and a deal was made. The movie, Bent, was cast with Karl Urban as Gallagher, and Sofia Vergara and Andy Garcia in the other two prominent roles. Finally, but still unexpected overall, Joe got to travel to Italy to be on the set and watch his book being made into a movie in just 30 days. “For me, seeing the characters I created come to life on the screen was a thrill beyond description,” Joe says. Bent was released to select theaters in March 2018, and you can watch it online via video on demand through multiple websites.  The film has been released in Europe in more than thirteen countries including Spain, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, among others.

I’m not going to fill you in on the movie so that you have to watch it before the O’Donnells are in Quechee again this summer. Now retired from his career in dentistry, Joe and Ronney return to Quechee in June from their home in West Palm Beach, Florida. Their granddaughters: Alessandra, Shira, and Hasana, will be attending summer camps at The Quechee Club while grandparents, Joe and Ronney, work on their golf games with Andy. Joe is an exceedingly friendly and approachable person, plus he tells his story with more fun and more interesting anecdotes than I could fit here. The good fortune, magic, and hard work it took to turn a self-published book into a feature-length film (actually, the budget was only $5 million – so it’s considered a low-budget film) is a novel-worthy tale in itself, and Joe’s a great storyteller.

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