‘Inkwell’s’ mystery pen

Who is Tom Ricostranza?

That’s a question many at the Sundance Film Festival will be asking when Matty Rich’s second film, “The Inkwell,” has its world premiere Tuesday. Ricostranza, one of two screenwriters credited on the film, is actually a pseudonym for black novelist and screenwriter Trey Ellis, who pulled his name from the credits.

Scribe won’t say why

Ellis would not discuss his decision. He would only say, “Tom Ricostranza sounds like the name of a kid I went to high school with.” Sources close to Ellis suggest the scribe hoped an Italian name attached to a black film would be an inside joke. Several industry execs thought it was curious that he would use the words “Tom” and “Ricostranza” when “stranzo” is Italian slang relating to bodily waste.

Indeed, sources say Ellis and Rich had a serious falling-out during the making of the film, a coming-of-age story set in a black enclave of WASPy Martha’s Vineyard. The film was produced by Giant Pictures for distribution by Touchstone and marks Rich’s return to Sundance after his triumphant 1991 debut, “Straight Out of Brooklyn.”

Everybody’s mum

Neither Matty Rich’s rep at the William Morris Agency nor Ellis’ agent at International Creative Management would comment. Disney was also mum.

But people familiar with the production say the 21-year-old director was less interested in Ellis’ highly personal story than in the broader narrative possibilities when urban, lower-class family members confront their wealthy, patrician in-laws. One factor that contributed to Ellis’ bailout was a script change in one draft that turned a schoolteacher based on his own father into a garbage man.

The decision to change his credit must have been difficult for the 31-year-old screenwriter, because it would have been his first produced screenwriting credit. Ellis has two scripts kicking around town: One, about the Tuskegee Airmen, is in development at HBO Pictures; the other, a beatnik love story, is making the rounds.

Dispute waiting to happen

Some who worked on the film believe that the contretemps was unavoidable given the disparate backgrounds of the two men. Ellis comes from a middle-class family that summers on Martha’s Vineyard. He graduated from Stanford University before publishing two novels: 1988’s “Platitudes” and 1992’s “Home Repairs.” Rich, on the other hand, grew up in the tough Red Hook and Fort Greene sections of Brooklyn.

“The Inkwell” began as a roman a clef that Ellis penned about summers spent in Oak Bluffs on the Vineyard. Ellis envisioned the film as a “Summer of ’42 “-type story with an affectionate feel for the ’70s. The scribe also hoped the studio would allow him to direct the $ 5 million film. But the producers instead chose Rich, who had already made a feature.

After Ellis departed, the producers brought in Paris Qualles, whose credits include episodes of TV’s “China Beach” and “Amen,” to rewrite the script for Rich.

Differences notwithstanding, the production team and the screenwriter are in agreement about one aspect of the movie. They are both pleased the film portrays a black family without the stereotypes of inner-city violence, intra-family violence or drug abuse. In that sense, “The Inkwell” could be a significant step toward a new wave in black filmmaking that gets out of the street and into the summer house.

The backstage turmoil will probably mean little to the average moviegoer. If the low-budget movie, which features an audience-friendly ’70s soundtrack, approaches the “House Party III” box office, it will certainly put Giant Pictures on the map. “Inkwell” is its first major release.

Many in the creative community will forget that Ellis even pulled his name from the film. How many remember that Robert Towne used the pseudonym P.H. Vazak — his dog’s name — on “Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan”?

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