Julio Torres Problemista

For Julio Torres, the writer-director-star of the A24 comedy Problemista, the word problemista represents an entanglement of one’s aspirations and problems. One pushes the other forward, until both grow bigger, sometimes putting dreams and nightmares into a repetitive loop.

In the film, he plays Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador, struggling to get a job at Hasbro in New York City. Torres says the problemista of Problemista was writing, acting, and directing his debut feature film. 

“It’s a very ambitious movie for a first-time director. It seems like the path is usually to make a more grounded, simple movie for your first time,” says Torres. “And this is not that.”

He co-stars with Tilda Swinton, who plays Elizabeth, an esoteric art-world outcast who will stop at nothing to make a name for her deceased husband Bobby (played by RZA) and his egg paintings. She hires Alejandro to bring her dream to life — in exchange for sponsoring his soon-to-expire work visa. 

We talked with Torres, a former Saturday Night Live writer and co-creator of HBO’s Los Espookys, about making problems to fix problems.

Joshua Encinias: You create surreal environments in your HBO series Los Espookys and Problemista using theatrical, handmade techniques.

Julio Torres: These are very broad strokes, because obviously, I have seen digital special effects that are completely breathtaking that I love when they’re inventive. When it’s like a once-in-a-decade thing like The Matrix that comes out and invents their own visual language. 

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But for the most part, I feel like we’ve been oversaturated with CG to the point where sometimes you see these huge superhero movies, and because they have all the money in the world and they can make anything happen, then the human stakes no longer feel like they matter. They live in a world where a car can disintegrate in front of your very eyes, so… nothing matters. I think that in reaction to that, I felt very keen to explore the tactile and having very theatrical, very human-made sets that feel like you can actually touch them and be in them. 

Julio Torres on Being a Problemista to Fix a Problemista

Joshua Encinias: Your most fantastical character creation in the movie is Larry Owens playing a visual and living manifestation of Craigslist. Will you talk about selecting the products that you built into his character?

Julio Torres: It feels like his costume and the set are all melded into one thing. And I think that is because Craigslist as a website is so confusing and it’s so chaotic. It’s like this stream of junk is thrown at you at the same time — at least that’s how it felt to me.

To abstract that, we use the combination of real props and then 2D flat versions of props. So like a real lamp next to like a painting of an air conditioner. And then it’s making you feel like you don’t know where one thing starts and the other one ends. Larry is at the center of it, wearing this holographic garment we designed. 

Joshua Encinias: Is there an inspiration or art trend that inspired Bobby’s egg paintings in the movie? They look like something I would see at a thrift store — or at the Museum of Modern Art.

Julio Torres: Katie Byron, our production designer, got them made and they look exactly like I imagined. What I like about Bobby’s character is that I don’t think he’s attuned to the trend. I think that for some reason this is the one thing that he wants to create. And really, the inspiration was that question: “Is this bad, or is it good?” I can’t tell. 

I feel like the answer to so many of those questions is like context. It’s like who is making them and where are they? So I wanted the artistry of the eggs to be of ambiguous quality and to feel like Bobby is an other — he’s pushed aside and treated like he’s not important. I want you to question why, and have it live in this ambiguous state.

Joshua Encinias: What does Alejandro see in Elizabeth — aside from her being able to fix his immigration status? Her behavior toward him and everyone around her is quite nasty. 

Julio Torres: I think that because she is a challenge and he feels like he’s never had a challenge. He’s been so treasured by his mom and I think that in her, he sees an opportunity to prove himself. And also, I think he’s a very empathetic person and a very curious person. 

Tilda Swinton and RZA in Problemista. A24

Joshua Encinias: Tilda’s character is terrible with technology. Is Tilda good with it in real life? 

Julio Torres: I would say she has a pretty… I would call her average in terms of her technology abilities. I would say I am below average. Anything that requires a password, I’m like, “I don’t know my password.” I lose my debit cards once every three months. Then every streamer cancels my subscription and then I have to start all over again. So I feel like in that regard, Elizabeth is closer to me in the technology aspect.

Joshua Encinias: I feel like one of the takeaways from the movie is that you have to be a problem to fix a problem. Will you elaborate on what that means? 

Julio Torres: I don’t think the takeaway is to become a nightmare for someone else, it’s more an appeal to humanity and appeal to empathy. 

I can think of an example from college. I was given the maximum amount of financial aid that an international student could get, for which I’m very grateful. But then come the second semester, I needed more money. And they were like, “We can’t give you more money.”

So then I just went ahead and wrote to the president of the school. I was like, “Do you really want one of the few international students you have to go away ’cause he can’t pay for it?” And then they ended up giving me more money. That was a case of finding someone and becoming a problem for them.

Problemista is now in theaters.