Rebuilding Joe Vasquez's 'House that Jack Built'
By Dana Ferguson
Nearly 20 years ago Michael Lieber promised his friend and colleague Joseph Vasquez that he would see his final project, "The House that Jack Built," come to fruition in a way Vasquez would be proud of. The filmmaker died of complications from AIDS shortly thereafter. Lieber hopes that Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival he'll show that he upheld that promise. “If Joe saw it, he’d say, ‘Damn, they nailed it,’” Lieber said.
The film tells the story of Jack, a young man dealing drugs in the Bronx in order to afford an apartment building in which he houses his extended family. Distracted by his goal of taking care of his family, Jack loses sight of his relationships and gets caught up in a utopian ideal of what it should mean to live in his house.
After nearly handing the screenplay off to directors Spike Lee, John Ortiz and others, Lieber said that potential directors either passed on the offer or didn’t seem like the right fit for capturing Vasquez’s vision. “We had a cat and they wanted a dog,” Lieber said. “In a sense they wanted to eviscerate it, to disembowel it.”
Lieber said he felt most comfortable with Henry Barrial, who comes from a Caribbean-Latino family much like Jack’s. Upon reading the script Barrial quickly drew connections between the family on paper and his own. “I could relate not just on a cultural level, but on a family level,” Barrial said. “Those were my cousins, I had crazy cousins in my family.”
After hearing stories from Lieber and others on set about Vasquez and watching his film "Hangin’ With the Homeboys," Barrial felt he understood Vasquez’s style, but chose not to imitate it. “If I had followed that tactic I would have over-thought things,” Barrial said. “I was afraid to do a disservice to Joe by trying to copy his style.”
Lieber felt that Barrial’s decision to work with only Caribbean-Latino actors in New York would fit with Vasquez’s vision for the film. Barrial said he was adamant about selecting actors from similar backgrounds to play the Puerto Rican New Yorkers. Barrial chose E.J. Bonilla to portray Jack because he grew up in a Caribbean family in Brooklyn and could relate to the gang scene. “I came from the hood, but I’m not hood,” Bonilla said. “I saw this sort of thing play out outside my window, but I was never part of it.”
Barrial also decided to film in the Bronx, near both Lieber and Vasquez’s childhood neighborhoods, in order to capture the Caribbean-inspired New York culture in Vasquez’s script. Lieber, within blocks of where he grew up, said Vasquez would have loved to have seen his Bronx story filmed in the neighborhood.
After helping Barrial update the script and giving him a better knowledge of Vasquez, Lieber said he had to let the director go forth and make the film. “I told him, ‘The screenwriter is no longer alive, he’s not by your side. Go freely,” Lieber said. “And I think he did a perfect job.”