Italian Screenwriter Accuses JR and Robert De Niro of Artistic Theft

Stefania Grassi had tried to get De Niro on board for another Ellis Island project.

JR and Robert De Niro at the opening of the pop-up exhibition for Ellis on Orchard Street. Photo: Max Lakner, courtesy BFA.

Italian screenwriter Stefania Rossella Grassi is reportedly accusing French street artist JR and Academy Award-winning actor Robert De Niro of ripping off her script for their recent short film Ellis, a 14-minute-long reflection of the struggles of immigration set amid JR‘s art installation on Ellis Island in New York.

Representatives from both JR and De Niro have denied the allegations.

JR’s film, with a script from Oscar winner Eric Roth, was recently on view on New York’s Lower East Side at a pop-up show hosted by Galerie Perrotin. The movie was shot at JR’s “Unframed—Ellis Island” installation, in which he pasted archival images on the walls of its former hospital facilities. The on-going exhibition welcomes visitors to the abandoned complex for the first time since it was closed in 1954.

Grassi told the Italian online news site Lettera 43 that she sent a script her proposed film, L’uomo in frac, to De Niro in December 2014 through Danilo Mezzetti, an Italian actor and friend of De Niro’s. Mezzetti, who is known as Mattei, allegedly represented himself as De Niro’s Italian agent, and reportedly charged Grassi $6,000 to act as an intermediary.

Robert De Niro in JR's Ellis (still). Photo: JR, courtesy Gallerie Perrotin.

Robert De Niro in JR’s Ellis (still).
Photo: JR, courtesy Gallerie Perrotin.

Like Ellis, Grassi claims, her film would have starred De Niro, also wandering through the crumbling Ellis Island facilities. Both films also include a dramatic shot that pans up to reveal the Statue of Liberty. According to Grassi, De Niro’s character’s voice-over in the trailer for Ellis also includes a line about the sound of branches on windows that is quite similar to her own script. “I do not speak of plagiarism, but of theft and fraud,” she told Lettera 43, as translated by artnet News.

“I understand that Mrs Grassi believes that a few sentences of her script, when translated in English, have similarities with some sentences of our film,” JR’s studio director, Marc Azoulay, told artnet News in an e-mail. “We can only say that JR had no knowledge of Mrs Grassi’s activity and has never seen the script as of today. ”

JR in front of part of his installation, "Unframed—Ellis Island." Photo: Sarah Cascone.

JR in front of part of his installation, “Unframed—Ellis Island.”
Photo: Sarah Cascone.

Grassi spent five years developing her script, which would have starred De Niro as Joshua, an old man who lost his singing voice and became homeless. As in Ellis, his character is a nearly silent presence. The screenwriter claims to have emails from Mattei in which De Niro shares his thoughts on the script: “But who wants to come to the cinema to see me not speak?”

Eventually, after Grassi allegedly sent Mattei to the US for the purposes of getting a signed contract from De Niro, Mattei reportedly asked for more money, and stopped responding to Grassi. She claims she then reached out to the actor’s team directly, but was rebuffed.

Grass has not responded to further inquiries as of press time.

artnet News received the following statement from De Niro’s attorney, Tom Harvey, via e-mail:

The idea that two-time Oscar winner Robert De Niro provided Oscar winner Eric Roth with a script from an unknown Italian writer so that Mr. Roth could use it to write the 14-minute short film Ellis about Ellis Island and early immigrants experience is not only preposterous, it is libelous.

Mr. De Niro’s office does not accept scripts, and even if someone hands him a script directly or through a friend, the material is thereafter sent on to his agent. Mr. De Niro never read any script from this unknown writer and never passed any such script to Mr. Roth.

As far as Ellis is concerned, the French artist JR approached Mr. De Niro’s [Tribeca Film Festival] partner, Jane Rosenthal, about the project, who arranged for JR and Mr. Roth to collaborate on the film, and along the way Mr. De Niro volunteered his time because he believed strongly in the project and the work of JR.

I think it is safe to assume that neither Mr. De Niro nor Mr. Roth needs to lift a part of unknown Italian writer’s screenplay for a 14-minute short.

When asked by artnet News to clarify De Niro’s relationship with Mattei, Harvey provided the following statement: “Daniello is an Italian actor Robert De Niro has known for years. Everything goes through his agent of 30 years at CAA who exclusively represents him globally.”

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