From USC to USA: Writer’s Block (1991)

Dave chats to Schlock Pit icon Fred Gallo and learns how his Master’s Thesis became a TV movie, albeit without his involvement.

Magenta Hart (Morgan Fairchild) is a writer of female-friendly mystery books that are penned for an audience of, until now, avid readers. When the publication of her new tome, ‘Ribbon of Death’, leads to a sparsely populated signing session, and her publisher to suggest that it might be time to pull the plug on her previously most enduring character – a nameless serial killer who has a habit of getting away with murder. As Magenta ponders this change of tack, there’s a spate of homicides in the local area and the victims are being strangled with the very same weapon used in her book – a red ribbon. Initially the police are keen to utilise her assistance. But as the slayings continue, the fatalities all seem to have a connection to the bestselling author, and the cops begin to question if the line between fact and fiction has been crossed…

Airing on The USA Network on 9th October 1991 and directed by legendary cinematographer/TVM veteran Charles Correll, there’s every reason to motion a satisfied nod of the head towards this acceptable slice of a small screen spectacle. However, if you dig a little deeper, it turns out that the genesis of WRITER’S BLOCK‘s script was actually the gateway for Schlock Pit hall-of-famer Fred Gallo (Dead Space (1991), The Finishing Touch (1992)) to get his break with Roger Corman. It’s a story that stems back to the end of the ‘80s, as Gallo explains:

“I was a student at USC film school and was looking for a something to do as my Master’s Thesis.  My friend and DP at the time, Mark Parry (along with his camera operator Harry Zimmerman), worked with me on Peter Gould’s (Breaking Bad) student project.  Harry’s girlfriend was Elisa Bell; she was in the writer’s program at USC.  I asked if she had any scripts, she said she had some ideas that she had submitted to the Twilight Zone reboot that they did in the late ’80s and I could see if I like any of those.  I read the outline for Writer’s Block, and told her if she’ll write the script I’ll make it as my thesis.”

“We shot on Kodak 35mm film, and virtually all the cameras (Panavision), lighting, grip etc. were donated to us.  I was able to ADR at Fox studios between recording sessions for The Simpsons and did the mix on the dubbing stage at Warner-Hollywood. USC did not have any 35mm facilities. We premiered it at a USC student showcase at the DGA in June 1990.  All the other films were small format 16mm/video; Writer’s Block was the last to show and when it was time to start the curtains opened wider and the screen mattes expanded to the 1:85 format, and you could feel the rush of excitement and anticipation that went through the room.  The screening went well and within a couple days I had an agent and a meeting with Roger Corman, as well as lots of other folks around town.” 

One of those ‘other folks’ that Gallo talked about was a fellow by the name of Matthew Gross at Wilshere Court Productions, a company that was in its third year of cranking out product like Nightmare on the 13th Floor (1990) and Deadly Desire (1991) for The USA Network. He was keen on Bell’s script – but alas, not so much on Gallo.

“Gross said to me, “We love your student film and want to make it into a longer cable movie. Can we get the rights to it?”,” recalls Gallo. “I said, “You need to talk to Elisa Bell. She’s the one who wrote it, and it was her original idea.” That was the deal I had worked out with her; in that she kept the rights to the story/script. But no, I was never offered the directing gig.”

If he had, who knows if Dracula Rising (1993), Starquest II (1996), and other films we hold so dear would have seen the light of day. Similarly, if Gallo had landed the job of making Writer’s Block, you wonder just how more ambitious and edgy it might have been. Nevertheless, in the secure hands of Corell it turned out fine. Pleasingly middling, if you will. The director’s lurid flights of fancy into the fictional flashbacks of Hart’s novels are a deft touch, and he makes good use of the broad skillset of Tobias E. Schliessler, a cinematographer who would go on to work so closely with Peter Berg.

For a cable TV movie, though, you can’t help but sense that it’s been played a little safe. Morgan Fairchild portrays the novelist with an overdose of Jessica Fletcher, and Michael Praed is a tad cliched as the ponytailed painter who becomes the PG-13 object of desire. Still, Bell’s teleplay contains enough chicanery to keep you hooked until its calculable climax.

USA ● 1991 ● Thriller, TVM ● 90mins

Morgan Fairchild, Michael Praed, Mary Ann Pascal, Cheryl Anderson ● Dir. Charles Correll ● Wri. Elisa Bell, from a story by Elisa Bell, Tracy Barrone

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