Upon the Los Angeles Film Festival announcing their 2013 roster I was excited to see a title familiar to me that would be having its world premiere there. That film is 'The House That Jack Built' – from a screenplay written by Joseph B. Vasquez (Hangin' With The Homeboys) that I'd read close to 15 years earlier as an intern and it was rumored that it would be a Spike Lee/John Leguizamo collaboration. The film itself is a 20 year old journey in the making for the producers. The story revolves around Jack, a Puerto Rican drug dealer who yearns for those long gone memories of what was once a happy, united family where he remembers everything as ethereal-like. So he decides to buy a tenement where they can all be under the same roof in hopes of re-creating that joy, when in reality it will never be the same again as his well intentioned gesture tests the families bond to the point of irreparable dysfunction.
The joy for me at the time was reading the last screenplay written by Joe before he passed away in 1995. My friends and I used to quote the hell out of 'Hangin' With The Homeboys' and laugh at the way he wrote these richly drawn urban characters that could walk a very fine line and he was never afraid to push a few buttons when it came to sex, race and class. He knew the comedy in tragedy. The melancholy in reading his last screenplay was that it was his last screenplay.
Born to drug addicted parents in the South Bronx, Joseph started making movies on a Super 8mm camera at the age of 12. Eventually this would lead him to study film at City College in New York where he honed his craft and would later make a low budget, gritty, if not unwatchable film called 'Street Story' (later barely released as 'Street Hitz') where according to Joe, he was writer, director, cinematographer, editor, sound editor, gaffer, negative cutter and music editor. Working with a slightly larger budget and a little more experience his next film would be 'The Bronx War' (which I own on DVD courtesy of a spot on 125th st). It was another film with a story line firmly cemented in the street life that he was familiar and comfortable with. 'The Bronx War' would be the one to catch the attention of New Line Cinema. After all, there weren't many Puerto Rican/Black filmmakers coming out of the Bronx, especially ones that spoke to the surging urban market like he did. They would decide to finance a semi-autobiographical screenplay he wrote in about three days called 'Hangin' With The Homeboys' about an epic, odyssey-like guys night out in New York City with four friends. Each of the four characters represented a different part of Vasquez. He was now making a film for a studio and not paying for it out of his own pocket. But Joseph's life played out much like one of his screenplays. During the shoot, he was slashed down the middle of his forehead to his nose by a homeless man as he took the subway to the set, ending what he believed could have been another career as an actor. The tension on the set was unbearable according to his leads. Still, the film was completed and premiered at the '91 Sundance Film Festival to great success and even walked away with a best screenwriting award. Joseph, suffering from severe Bi-polar disorder started to grow wary of studios like New Line Cinema, the very studio that helped him achieve the success he had enjoyed and started turning down projects such as 'House Party 2', citing that the films had gotten too big and were slipping away from his creative and artistic grasp. Instead he opted to do things his own way as before. A result was 'Manhattan Merengue'. This film, understandably failed to move his career to the next level and Joseph began suffering from manic depression when the offers that once presented themselves to him stopped coming in. Once thought to be the next Spike Lee (a comparison he didn't care for), he alienated those around him and at some later point claimed to be Jesus. His behavior became increasingly erratic and drew great concern from those around him as his health deteriorated. At the time no one knew he had AIDS, to which he would succumb to far from the South Bronx he loved and wrote about. At aged 33 he passed away in San Diego, CA. penniless but with his mother, who got clean, by his side.
Producer Mike Lieber, who had known Joe for many years including during his tumultuous times, held on to the script of 'The House That Jack Built', hoping that one day he could finally get it made. It was something he promised Joseph on his death bed that he would do. After attaching Cuban-American, Henry Barrial (Pig) to direct, they raised a budget that was enough to cover a shoot on HD and raised the rest on Kickstarter to bring it home. Casting was primarily done in the Bronx with E.J Bonilla (FOUR, Mamitas) cast to play 'Jack' and joined by an all Latino cast that includes Melissa Fumero, Leo Minaya, Saundra Santiago, John Herrera, Flor De Liz Perez and Rosal Colon.
Mike Lieber fulfilled his promise and Joseph Benjamin Vasquez' new film will premiere at The Los Angeles Film Festival which runs June 13-23. Tickets can be bought at http://www.lafilmfest.com . Give them a “Like”: https://www.facebook.com/thehousethatjackbuiltmovie.
Written by Juan Caceres and Vanessa Erazo, LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.