Filmmakers on Making of “The House That Jack Built” at LAFF

Latin Heat’s Conversation With Director Henry Barrial and Producer Michael Lieber

Competes in LAFF “Best Narrative” Category

The House That Jack Built

The House That Jack Built Screens Sunday, June 16th 4:50PM at LA Live/Regal Cinemas 10 

By Elia Esparza

Indie film The House That Jack Built, written by acclaimed screenwriter and filmmaker Joseph Vasquez, will be in competition at the 2013 Los Angeles Film Festival, will be screening on Sunday, June 16th, at 4:50PM at LA Live’s Regal Cinema 10. A second showing is scheduled for Tuesday, June 18th at 9:50PM at DirectTV/Regal 9, located at 1000 W Olympic Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90015. The film stars a dynamic Caribbean-Latino ensemble led by E.J. Bonilla (winner of 2012 LAFF “Best Performance in a Narrative”), Melissa Fumero, Leo Minaya, Saundra Santiago, John Herrera, Flor De Liz Perez, and Rosal Colon.

Screenwriter/filmmaker, Joseph Vasquez wrote the script nearly 20 years ago. He tragically passed away shortly after his 1991 indie hit Hangin’ With the Homeboys. Jack, tells the story of the hot-blooded, ambitious and nostalgic, Jack who buys a single Bronx apartment complex for his extended family. His parents still bicker non-stop, his brother can barely keep it together and his sister continues to entertain lady lovers. Tensions rise and his dream unravels into an uncontrollable hot mess.

We interviewed director Henry Barrial and producer Michael Lieber about making and casting their award-winning film.

Latin Heat: Joe Vasquez, the screenwriter was a talented and complicated man. How did working with him and getting to know him personally impact your life?

Michael Lieber: I can’t say that knowing Joe importantly impacted my life, aside from getting to know a talented screenwriter who was a compelling personality, and he was one of many I’ve met over the years. Actually knowing Joe did impact my outlook, as it showed me what serious bipolar illness (manic-depressive) was all about.  From this I learned many things. I learned how devastating this illness could be and how hard to treat. And on the positive side, I learned it was not merely an ‘illness’ but a type of personality. And that ‘type’ had its upside too. While manic, but not too manic, (what the docs call hypomanic, I believe) Joe had the creative energy and incredible zest that so called ‘normal’ people struggle to achieve when in creative phases and efforts. The only real ‘work’ I did with Joe was on the ‘Jack’ project, helping him shape the script and story. After he died, I had to take that wonderful but sometimes unwieldy script, and make it a little less unwieldy. But by this time I understood the script well and had a very good feel for Joe’s ‘voice’. So I felt I could make changes, which were compatible with Joe’s intentions and of which he would have approved.

LH:  On the producing side, what hurdles did you face in the process leading to Henry Barrial signing on as director?

ML: There were no hurdles. I saw Henry’s first film, met with him, gave him the script to read, heard his reaction, talked to him about the script, about films, etc.  Got to know each other. And from that moment he was my first choice. The only ‘hurdle’ was when this was temporarily a Labyrinth project and John Ortiz, who headed Labyrinth along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, wanted to direct it himself. That did not come to pass, obviously.

LH: Can you talk about the kind of budget you had to make your film? On your quest to raise the funds needed, I understand friends and family rallied behind you… can you tell us about how you finally secured the money needed to shoot the film?

ML: Henry’s [Barrial] first film cost around $50k. Years later he made Pig and that also cost about $50k.  So I asked him if he felt we could make Jack cheaply and still have quality filmmaking. He felt we could. Of course Jack is a film with a considerably bigger canvas, and so the $50K would be unrealistic. But we finally settled on a $130,000 budget and that did the trick. We knew we’d need to be careful in our planning, choice of talent and crew and locations, equipment, etc. But we were able to accomplish all of that within the constraints of this very limited budget. I’ve had a fair amount of experience in filmmaking, from relatively low-budget indies (this means low millions) to studio films, so I think ours was a truly extraordinary accomplishment.

The money was secured from family members of two of the producers. Hitesh Patel’s wife, Delilah, brought in the first half and a physician cousin of mine, Renee Lantner, with her husband, brought in the second half. And that is the very simple story of how the film was financed.

LH: You have a stellar cast, tell us about your casting process, going SAG low-budget and still being able to attract a group of outstanding thespians?

Henry Barrial: Well thanks to Sig de Miguel and Steve Vincent, our wonderful casting directors. These amazing New York actors came in and auditioned for us. My only stipulation was that they be of Caribbean-Latino descent and that they be New Yorkers. Sig, being Puerto Rican and a New Yorker, got it and was the perfect fit for the film.  And, about the cast, I can’t say enough. I wish I could begin a revolution of stories powered by Latino actors. I just feel there’s so much under-used talent out there. If you don’t believe me, come see the film.

LH: Do you think Joe Vasquez would have approved of your finished product?

HB: I can only hope Joe would have approved. I am a big fan of Hangin’ With the Homeboys and one of the elements that is special about that film was the incredibly unique character arcs.  In Hangin’, each of the four main characters begin as typical comedic characterizations but by the end of the film you are struck by where each character winds up.  All four characters follow a strangely nuanced and deep path, winding to a place that you couldn’t have predicted. These character arcs are what moved me. This is something I thought a lot about during my meetings with the actors for Jack.  And, I encouraged the actors to make the part their own, in hope that we could do something very similar. Aside from that, Joe wrote the script in a very particular style, which encouraged handoffs (between conversations/characters) and long takes. But in the end, I couldn’t possibly direct the film as Joe would have. I made it my film. And as the son of immigrant/exiled Cubans, I just thought this was my mom, my pop, my cousins, etc. In fact, I looked at it as an opportunity for me to tell ‘my’ story and relate ‘my’ experience. In doing that, my hope was, I could create something Joe would have been proud of.

LH: The movie is about a single Bronx apartment complex – how hard was it to secure the apartment complex to use in the film – which itself is an important component to the story?

HB: Finding the right building took a little time as it had to have an internal staircase conducive to conversations between apartments and floors. The internal part of the building was the key factor but I also thought it was important to shoot on location in the Bronx, and that the building be a walk-up (no elevator). The fear on a low budget film is that you’ll have to compromise in a big way. What saved us from this was reaching out to the Bronx community. The tenants were very supportive.  I loved filming in the Bronx.

LH: What are the obstacles you faced and how did you sustain your commitment to this project?

HB: Obstacles? Money is always an issue. I waited 10 years to direct this film because of money. The other BIG obstacle is time. On a low-budget film time is the crucial factor because you never have enough of it. We had 18 days to shoot a very ambitious script. Luckily, low-budget films is all I know and I have been refining my approach on these micro budgets.

Rule number one: Come very, very prepared. I planned like never before for this film. That included meeting with all the actors before the shoot so we could go through the script together and make any adjustments and answer any questions beforehand. Once we started shooting we wouldn’t be able to slow down. Slowing down meant losing scenes and would be a disaster. And as far as sustaining my commitment, that’s never an issue with me. Making films is what I love to do and I really wanted to make Jack.

LH: Tell us about the music used in the film score… what will we be listening to?

HB: The composers are the equally incredible Lili Hadyn and the half-Cuban Chris Westlake.  Lili is a pop star in her own right—a modern virtuoso violin player who has played with groups like Led Zeppelin and Parliament Funkadelic while also having a terrific solo career. Chris is a veteran composer, despite his youth, and the two of them worked together like arroz con frijoles.

Lili is the violin and Chris is the tres guitar. The tres comes from Cuba and Puerto Rico and really helps bring the Latin islands’ sound to the film. Lili added her own emotion-inducing twist on all that and, with her incredible writing. They forged a score that really moved me. Their approach was perfect because I was hoping the music would evoke something old, something Jack had lost. Jack, the hero of our story, is trying to recapture the happiness he felt as a child by moving his family into this building.  Once Lili and Chris found the right sound, everything seemed to fall into place for the story. Their music is integral to the final film. I can’t imagine anyone else’s score working as well for Jack.

LH: From film concept to screen, how long a process was it? During your timespan in the making of your film, was the finish product different than it would have been had you made the film at an earlier year?

HB: As I mentioned earlier, it was 10 years. The producers tried to make it with another director at one point and the project lay dormant for another few years until I came back on. Frankly, I’m actually glad it took that long. I don’t think I would have made as good of a film when I was first attached. I’ve developed a lot of respect for filmmaking. It’s a wonderfully difficult task. Telling a great story is extremely difficult and my original intention with Jack was very flawed. Back when this was a 40 Acres and a Mule project, I wanted to strip away the humor and go harder and darker in order to accentuate the tragedy. But, I know now that would have undermined the tragic elements by overloading the audience with one emotion. It’s like you can’t have a character constantly crying in a film. The audience will turn on that character. The same with stories—the laughter in Jack helps you feel the tragedy more deeply. I’m relieved the humor is still there, as Joe had intended it to be.

Thank you Michael Lieber and Henry Barrial. Congratulations on a job well done!

The House That Jack Built is a riveting story about the strength and limitations of family bonds. Crisp dialogue, sharp direction by Henry Barrial, and a dynamic Caribbean-Latino ensemble.

Los Angeles Film Festival, June 13th to 23rd

The Festival’s hub is downtown’s premier entertainment complex, L.A. LIVE. Most of the screenings are at the Regal Cinemas L.A. LIVE Stadium 14 with additional films and events at the LA County Museum of Art (LACMA), JW Marriot – ION Rooftop Bar, GRAMMY Museum, Grand Performances and Arts Brookfield at FIGat7th Plaza.

For full LAFF film screening schedule, visit: 

About Best Narrative Competition:

Comprised of films made by talented emerging filmmakers that compete for the Filmmaker Award. The winner is determined by a panel of jurors, and films in this section are also eligible for the Audience Award for Best Narrative Feature or Best International Feature. The Narrative Competition and Grand Jury Prize are sponsored by DIRECTV.

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Elia Esparza is a leading expert in communications and journalism targeting the burgeoning Hispanic market and has produced and written dozens of articles. President and CEO of Always Evolving PR and a Communications Specialist, Elia, incorporates her 18 years experience in the areas of entertainment and education public relations, and marketing. promotions, market research and translations (Eng/Span).

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