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Sylvia Nobel Goes Hollywood


Uptown Magazine September, 2014 Author Sylvia Nobel Goes Hollywood

From the written page to the spoken word, Nobel’s books are transformed to the big screen

By Lynette Carrington • Photos by Carl Schultz • Hair and makeup by Tamara Bickley

Meet Sylvia Nobel, Phoenix resident and bestselling author. Most of her books follow the adventures of investigative reporter and imperfect heroine, Kendall O’Dell, and the O’Dell series of mystery novels also showcases the unique features and beauty of Arizona. Nobel’s novels incorporate snippets of high profile crimes and events from Arizona’s past. And the books are so intriguing that it was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would eventually take notice. Her first Kendall O’Dell novel, Deadly Sanctuary, was recently adapted to film, and was shot entirely in Arizona. Currently in post-production, it’s due to debut in May 2015. The journey from character inception to seeing O’Dell as a living incarnation on the big screen has been as adventurous as one of O’Dell’s books, she says.

Creating Kendall O’Dell

Nobel hails from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and made her way to Arizona when her family moved here for health reasons. They settled in Cave Creek during a time when the small town was a quaint western destination. While living there, Nobel fell in love with the desert.

“When we moved to Cave Creek we were the only house on the road. We were literally in the middle of nowhere, and I had to call upon those memories when I brought my character Kendall from Pennsylvania to the middle of the Arizona desert,” she says. “I had to conjure up memories of what it was like that first summer here with the bugs, dust, heat, and the monsoons.”

“I wanted to be a journalist and it never happened. When I was trying to find a character, I decided to have one do what I wanted to do, and I’ve always been fascinated by mystery novels ever since I was a small child.”

Nobel was also influenced by the intriguing stories of the Nancy Drew series of novels. In fact, many of the fan letters that the author has received in response to her Kendall O’Dell novels say that the fiery- haired investigative reporter reminds them of an adult Nancy Drew.

Nobel continues, “I wanted to create an interesting, multi-dimensional character, not one that was Ms. Goody-two-shoes or just a tough woman. She has some vulnerabilities. She’s a fallible human being and does make mistakes. I love to take the reader down that road with her because they know she’s going down the wrong road and they’re going right along with her.”

As with all of Nobel’s O’Dell novels, Deadly Sanctuary is rooted in actual Arizona events. “Each of the stories that I choose, I usually fold 10 to 12 newspaper articles into each of them. It’s not based on just one story,” she explains. “I sit down and study the articles and then I work on the plot line. I’m pulling certain aspects of each one of these cases. I tried to choose a cold case and then I have Kendall solve it, but there are other aspects. Deadly Sanctuary was based on a tragic story of runaway teens and the bodies of two runaway girls found in the desert near a psychiatric hospital.”

From Page to Screen

The development of Deadly Sanctuary from book to film was a hurry-up-then-wait journey that took 16 years. “It started with the fan mail that was coming in and they would say, ’P.S. – this would make a great movie.’” Nobel says.

She had written the book in a manner that could easily be adapted into a screenplay.

While in Prescott doing a book signing, Nobel met the mother of legendary Hollywood stunt coordinator Walter Scott (who subsequently wound up doing stunt coordination on Deadly Sanctuary). “Through her, I met Walter. We started on the road to get Deadly Sanctuary made into a movie. There were lots of dead ends and then I wound up getting an agent in Hollywood and I had her for three years and it never went anywhere.

“I set out with a deliberate goal when I started the Kendall O’Dell series that I was going to use judicious language that wasn’t filled with the F- bomb all the way through the book. I wanted it to be fine for teens to read and fine for older people to read, and made the decision not to use sex scenes.”

“Here’s what you learn in Hollywood – when you turn over the rights of your property they have the right to do anything they want with it. A lot of the big writers like Clive Cussler and Stephen King have their films adapted and as they got bigger, they retained creative control. But when you’re a new writer, you have no creative control and they don’t want you anywhere around. It’s usually a buyout and then you’re done. The way they wanted to take the character and change her – I didn’t like it. I set out with a deliberate goal when I started the Kendall O’Dell series that I was going to use judicious language that wasn’t filled with the F-bomb all the way through the book. I wanted it to be fine for teens to read and fine for older people to read, and made the decision not to use sex scenes.”

Nobel saw a unique opportunity for Kendall O’Dell to appeal to audiences that are sick of the typical formula Hollywood film. “Everything old is new again,” remarks Nobel with a knowing smile.

Lights, Camera, Action

Local actress and model Bobbi Jeen Olson was also instrumental in connecting some of the professional dots that made Deadly Sanctuary a reality. “She contacted me on Linked-In about a year ago. She said my book sounded interesting and she’s an Arizona cowgirl who liked that my books were set in Arizona. I explained to her that one of the characters in my book is the state of Arizona,” states Nobel. “I took great pains to do the descriptions of Arizona – the sun rises, sunsets, the deserts, whether… everything.”

Olson has a role in Deadly Sanctuary, and the actress also has a role in director Nancy Criss’s recent award-winning film A Horse For Summer.

Nobel and Olson had corresponded, and then finally met. “We just clicked and she asked if I wanted to come down and watch her shoot scenes for A Horse For Summer. I thought it would be fun and I drove out to Nancy’s ranch in San Tan Valley,says Nobel. The author brought a book along with her to present to Criss. Nobel was impressed with how organized and well run the set for A Horse For Summer was run, and she was hopeful that Criss would be interested in the book.

“A couple weeks later she called me and said she had just started reading Deadly Sanctuary and loved it.”

After several false starts and a previous attempt at raising funds several years ago that were ultimately stolen, the film secured Criss as director.

From there, East Valley director Nancy Criss was brought on board along with several producers and executive producers. Executive producers included Nobel and her husband, Jerry Williams, as well as six other Phoenix residents who are longtime fans of Nobel’s book series. Veteran Hollywood producer Harvey Lowry, whose various film credits include A Beautiful Mind, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, Collateral and the upcoming television series, The Sparrows (also directed by Nancy Criss) were brought to the team. Criss is also a producer on the film. Together, the executive producers and producers insured the financial help of the film.

And, as a nod to their first foray into film, Nobel and Williams named their production company Starfire Productions after the fictional ranch in Deadly Sanctuary.

The film stars Dean Cain, Daniel Baldwin, Eric Roberts, and Marco Dapper, as well as Rebecca Kochan as O’Dell. It was shot this past summer at various locations across Arizona. Remarkably, the film came in with a modest budget of $500,000. When distributors see the final film post-production, they’ll decide where it will be distributed – and there will be a premier in the Valley.

“They’ll decide whether to do a limited release in theaters and test it or whether they’re going to sell it to one of the big cable stations. I’m certain there will be a DVD release, online streaming, and this distributor has a large presence in Europe where westerns are very popular,” states Nobel.

Casting and Filming, Starring Arizona

“I got to be in on choosing some of the cast. Nancy chose some cast and some of the people she knew. She had worked with Dean Cain and Rebecca Kochan before, and she knew Eric Roberts,” Nobel explains. “She also thought of Daniel Baldwin for the role of Dr. Price. We went through hundreds of head shots trying to find the right hunky cowboy and love interest for O’Dell, and we chose Marco Dapper. All in all, we’ve got a fantastic cast and they have great chemistry.”

Nobel further showcased Arizona by serving as a location scout, something that is vital to the telling of the story. ”It was like Nancy Criss said, ‘Nobody knows the material like you do’,” says Nobel.

Some locations Nobel found in the Valley and beyond include Bumblebee Ranch, Colossal Studios in the West Valley, New River, most notably at Wrangler’s Roost, and Black Canyon City, which doubles for fictitious Castle Valley. Bumblebee Ranch served for a variety of scenes and backgrounds that enhance the film and showcased Arizona’s beauty.

“The book I’m currently finishing is the fifth in the Kendall O’Dell series. It’s called Forbidden Entry and is based on a real unset solved case near Bumblebee Ranch. That started me researching that area and I had already been out to that ranch,” explains Nobel.

It dawned on her that Bumblebee Ranch offered a wealth of shooting locales, and the cast wouldn’t have to travel much. It provided the shooting locations for the fictitious Sheriff’s office, Serenity House, and the Desert Harbor Girl’s Shelter that were all mentioned in the novel. “The Bumblebee Ranch was a Godsend. The day we discovered that, everything we needed was right there, was an forgettable day,” Nobel says.

So what will the silver screen possibilities be for Kendall O’Dell’s other novel adventures? “It’s our hope that Deadly Sanctuary will be very successful so that we can make plans to film the rest of the Kendall O’Dell series, as all my enthusiastic fans are begging me to do,” Nobel says.