Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista" Source: A24

EDGE Interview: Julio Torres on the Surreal Comic Magic of 'Problemista'

Frank J. Avella READ TIME: 11 MIN.

"Problemista" is a hilarious, singular, surreal new film, written by, directed by, and starring Julio Torres, that faced a serious problem when scheduled for release last August. With the SAG-AFTRA strike in full swing, A24 decided to push its opening back, and the film opened in limited release earlier this month. It goes into wide release on March 22.

In his film, the out artist plays Alejandro, an immigrant from El Salvador who dreams of being a toy designer for Hasbro. Alejandro has some bold ideas, but has yet to get his foot in the door. In the opening moments, he finds himself in a crisis: He has been fired from his cryogenic job (having accidentally knocking out the plug of one of the bodies lying in cryosleep) and must find work in order to stay in the U.S.

In a bizarre twist (of which there are many in the film), he becomes entangled with the wife of the frozen man he almost killed, Elizabeth, brilliantly embodied by the amazing Tilda Swinton. Elizabeth is an outrageous, tempestuous, sometimes unbearable New York art critic who sort-of hires Alejandro... and true insanity ensues.

Born in El Salvador, Torres came to New York to pursue a career in comedy. He attended The New School, graduating with a degree in Literary Studies. Five years later he was hired to write for "Saturday Night Live" (2016-2019), where he was nominated for four Emmys as a member of the SNL writing team. Torres was tapped to co-write a Spanish-language series, "Los Espookys," via former "SNL" cast member Fred Armisen. He became co-showrunner and starred as one of the four leads. The show aired for two seasons on HBO.

"Problemista" is his first feature film.

EDGE spoke with the multi-talented filmmaker about his film and career.

Julio Torres in "Problemista"
Source: A24

EDGE: "Don't scream at me!" Do you know what you've done? Me and my husband quote that line so frequently.

Julio Torres: [Cracks up] It's the perfect couples' line.

EDGE: It truly is. I love how singular this film is. It's something that really fucks with narrative expectation, like "Los Espookys" did.

Julio Torres: Thank you for watching it and enjoying it. I really don't take that for granted.

EDGE: Can you tell me a little bit about the writing process, from concept to first draft?

Julio Torres: Yeah, I sort of knew on paper and intellectually understood that my experience of attempting to obtain a work visa would make for a movie. But to be honest, I was not super excited by that, because I felt burdened by the reality, and it felt indulgent and boring to write something that was semi-autobiographical. It wasn't until I started playing with it a little bit more that I realized that I actually could tell this story in a sort of fantastical Los Espookys-like way... this felt more joyous and more interesting taking this approach.

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"
Source: A24

EDGE: Was the film difficult to get financed?

Julio Torres: No. I feel very lucky about that. Well, you know what? I say no, but I am not the money person who made it happen. So, if you ask the right people, they probably be like, 'Oh, boy, was it!' [Laughs]

But no, I feel so lucky that I have keep encountering people who believe in in my work and believe in my promise. I feel I have never been able to [go] about doing something the conventional way. I think a lot of the things that I do are unpitchable, so I'm so grateful for everyone who have opened the door for me.

EDGE: Did you have any trepidation directing for the first time?

Julio Torres: I did, but – I had already been on so many sets, including "Los Espookys" and "Saturday Night Live." And I was always very present on set, and very involved. There were always moments during the day where I was like, "I care about this a little less," so then you unplug your brain a little bit and you take a long walk and then you come back. So, it's like, "Oh, I'm not gonna be able to have that if I direct. I'm not gonna be able to just zone out and stare into a wall," which is so important for me to do. To be in silence. So, that felt a little daunting, but I had an incredibly supportive team, including the producers and Tilda. And that really made it feel easy. That is not a testament to me as a director, that is a testament to how lucky I am.

Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"
Source: A24

EDGE: Were you always going to play Alejandro?

Julio Torres: Yes and no. It was a sort of silent understanding. But when I decided that I wanted to direct it, I thought, "Should I not play it?" And then this felt easier. Let me just do it.

EDGE: Let's discuss you and Tilda. What great chemistry. Tell me about collaborating with her.

Julio Torres: So joyous. And I keep repeating this over and over again: She really feels like a friend. She likes making things in community. I like making things in community. And I like working with the same people over and over again. And I like writing for friends. And I like playing around with friends creatively. I don't compartmentalize who my work-friends are and who my friend-friends are. It's sort of like all a mush. And she has fallen so perfectly in that world. I know, it's Tilda Swinton, but it felt like I was onstage in the back of a bar just making something funny with one of my friends.

EDGE: I love that Alejandro just happens to be a gay character, but the movie has nothing to do with his being gay. That helps change the landscape.

Julio Torres: Yeah, that is what felt most true. That will certainly be a significant part of his life. But it's not the first on the list, currently. [Laughs] It felt true to the experience.

EDGE: Was there ever a point where you thought about giving him a love interest?

Julio Torres: In earlier versions of the script, we saw a boyfriend at the end of the movie, like a new character. Or we saw him go on a date for the first time, or something like that. There were so many versions of the script. But that's not where his focus was at that point.

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in "Problemista"
Source: A24

EDGE: One of the themes in the film is the insane immigration process. But I think it's more indicative of the red tape that so many people go through for almost anything they want or need. I've been through my own bureaucratic nightmares.

Julio Torres: Yeah, I completely agree with that. I think that when you're very specific with a story, that unlocks a certain universality – and what is to Alejandra the experience of attempting to get a work visa... It's really, ultimately, about man versus bureaucracy. There's so many movies and stories that I have consumed where the problem at hand has absolutely nothing to do with me, but I am able to connect with it emotionally. I have never been stood up on an altar with a wedding dress, but I have experienced heartbreak, you know what I mean? I hope that people feel seen and not alone in their moments of hopelessness against systems that don't really care about the humans that they're supposedly protecting.

EDGE: I wanted to ask you about your inspirations as a stand-up comic and as a filmmaker.

Julio Torres: I'm a very visual person, which is why filmmaking made sense for me, because with stand-up I kept trying to make it more visual. I have explored that, and I will continue to explore that. But this feels like a really great, more obvious fit. And I think paintings ended up being such a motivator here, particularly the painter Leonora Carrington and how she informed the costumes and a lot of the sets. And it's a little bit fairy tales. It's a little bit the proposed short propulsion and momentum of anime.

And also, it sounds so corny, but the city of New York, in wanting to see it not as like a perfect place, but as a completely flawed place. But seeing it with a lot of love. The mounds of glittery trash are so important to me in the movie, because no, we're not pretending the city's not shitty. But we are saying, "I like it anyway."

Watch the trailer to "Problemista"

EDGE: Would you speak a little bit about getting the "SNL" gig and getting the job on the writing staff and how all that changed your life for you?

Julio Torres: Yeah, I mean, it certainly did. I think that it is one of those incredibly rare jobs in that medium where, if you are lucky, you get to present an uncompromised vision that doesn't necessarily have to fall into the voice of anyone else. By that, I mean that that show is, at its best, a mosaic of all the different voices that work in it. And you get to really, really own your little tile of that mosaic.

And as a sort of "niche," "other" kind of creator, it didn't escape me the immense privilege that I had, being able to speak to such a massive audience, which is huge for someone like me, who otherwise would be labeled as a coastal writer-performer.

But in terms of getting the job, it was it was like getting everything else that I've gotten. By that, I mean I almost got it one time, and then I didn't. And then years went by. And then I was asked to do something else. And then they gave me a chance to be a guest writer. Then I did three weeks of that. And then they finally were like, "Okay, we'll hire you." So, it was never A to B. And that's always been the case with me.

I wanted to come to New York. I couldn't. I waited years. Then I came. Then I wanted to be a writer, but then I couldn't. it's never a straight line. And that's completely okay.

This interview has been edited for clarity, content, and length.

"Problemista" is currently in select theaters and goes into wide release on March 22, 2024.

by Frank J. Avella

Frank J. Avella is a proud EDGE and Awards Daily contributor. He serves as the GALECA Industry Liaison and is a Member of the New York Film Critics Online. His award-winning short film, FIG JAM, has shown in Festivals worldwide (figjamfilm.com). Frank's screenplays have won numerous awards in 17 countries. Recently produced plays include LURED & VATICAL FALLS, both O'Neill semifinalists. He is currently working on a highly personal project, FROCI, about the queer Italian/Italian-American experience. He is a proud member of the Dramatists Guild. https://filmfreeway.com/FrankAvella https://muckrack.com/fjaklute

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