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Julio Torres discusses making Problemista & parallels with Barbie

Julio Torres discusses making 'Problemista' & parallels with 'Barbie'

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista
A24

In an interview with PRIDE, Julio Torres reveals his process for making Problemista, how Tilda Swinton was cast, and what he thinks of this post-Barbie state of pop culture.

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Editor’s note: the following story contains light spoilers for Problemista.

Julio Torres loves toys.

From his 2019 comedy special My Favorite Shapes to the sketches he wrote for Saturday Night Live to the lead character in Problemista, toys have been an integral part of Torres’ storytelling. But in this A24 feature film that Torres wrote, directed, and starred in as the lead character of Alejandro, that fun reverence for toys is elevated to new heights.

The peculiar quirks and add-ons that he’s attached onto objects are translated into hilarious problem-solving methods. The metaphorical playground that he seems to inhabit becomes a surrealistic New York City. And the hidden meanings he’s identified in shapes are applied to actual paintings, monuments, and even personas.

“Idea for a monument: a series of oversized puzzle pieces spread throughout town. Like Ale’s little fort, but disassembled,” the marvelous Catalina Saavedra, who plays Dolores in the movie, says in a monologue. “Most will only see roadblocks. Some will see stairs or benches. But some will see a challenge and will learn that the puzzle has no instructions… that it’ll look different for everyone. Just when they think they’re done, another piece appears.”

She concludes, "A monument to the artist. A monument to doing what scares you and assembling yourself in the chaos. To trial and error. To doing it your way. A monument to waiting it all along and finding it in all the problems along the day.”

Catalina Saavedra in Problemista

A24

On paper, a 2024 surrealist comedy exploring the humanization of toys and the gamification of society would carefully consider the similarities of a very recent predecessor known as Greta Gerwig’s Barbie. Y’know, that tiny little movie that not too many people watched last year.

Thankfully, Torres’ work remains radically original and beautifully specific in Problemista. The film centers on a Salvadoran immigrant named Alejandro, who is living in the U.S. under a work visa and pursuing his lifelong dream of getting a job at Hasbro to become a toy designer. Still, it’s amusing to think of the ironic coincidence had the script taken Alejandro to dream of working at Mattel.

“Well, now I’m grateful that I didn’t go for Mattel because [the film] would just feel like commentary on a very small entity that came out last year by the name of Barbie,” Torres tells PRIDE in an interview. “But I don’t know why I chose Hasbro. I think that it felt very specific and a little off center. It’s like, ‘Yeah, why that one?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, because that’s the one with this talent incubator program thing that I made up.’”

He continues, “I don’t know… like, if I were to be writing something about someone dying to go to a college, I wouldn’t want it to be Harvard, because that’s so cliche. I would find the one that’s just [he motions to the left].”

Larry Owens and Julio Torres in Problemista

A24

When asked the totally unserious question about whether he feels slighted that Hollywood A-listers like Greta Gerwig and Margot Robbie are coming for his gig as it relates to giving background stories to toys and finding some humorous truth in them, Torres stays true to the universal mantra of a playground: everyone’s welcome to join in.

“That is what a toy is supposed to be,” he explains. “No one owns a toy. Everyone gets to play with a toy. And I’m glad that they got to play with that toy. Like, what a fun gig! What an absolutely fun gig.”

Torres is also not worried about whether Problemista got clearance from Hasbro to mention the company — and throw some lighthearted shade at it — so many times in the film. “I left that up to the lawyers,” he waves it away, “the entity that is ‘The Lawyers of A24.’ They did not have a problem with it. I choose to be uninvolved in that and I’m hoping for the best. I hope that I don’t hurt anyone’s feelings, but I don’t think anyone’s feelings will be hurt. Corporations don’t have feelings.”

Though I highlight that corporations are legally considered “persons” in the United States, I agree with Torres that they indeed must not have feelings. “Yeah,” he muses, “remember the documentary that diagnosed what kind of person a corporation would be, and the answer was a sociopath?”

Miles G. Jackson in Problemista

A24

Laughing about the personhood and personalities of corporations is a hilarious transition to talk about the inhumanity of the immigration system in the U.S., which both Torres and I had dealt with in real life.

Both Torres and I moved to this country with a student visa to attend college. As our lives and careers progressed, we navigated the truly insane process of obtaining work visas — a throughline explored in Problemista that is, ironically, the least surrealistic element in the entire film. But at the same time that Torres’ writing underscores the challenges of this legal process, he also finds plenty of comic relief.

“I think, as a person, I look for the humor. I’m very easily humored, but I’m also a very anxious person. It was only natural that this came about in that way,” he explains. “Someone was saying that she found Problemista to be… she liked it, but she found it to be very stressful. And it’s like, ‘Oh, okay. Well, I felt very stressed during that part of my life, so maybe that’s why.’”

Julio Torres in Problemista at the immigration attorney office

A24

When your residence, career, education, relationships, friendships, and dreams all rely on a set of government-set guidelines determining your ability to stay where you are — an ability that is already layered with multiple conditions and time limits — it’s easy to find oneself in a constant state of panic and stress. The character of Alejandro finds and loses himself in many of these moments, making Problemista resonate on an emotional level for audiences who walked through similar paths.

Torres says, “I remember in college hanging out with some people late at night. My friends were peeing on the street, and I also wanted to pee, but I was like, ‘I’ve got to hold it because I don’t want peeing on the street to be the reason why I can’t achieve my dreams.’ It’s like, the stakes are so high. I told myself, ‘I’m going to have to hold it.’”

Problemista is undeniably specific, but somehow still manages to be a story about loving toys, growing up as an artistic kid, being Latino, immigrating to the United States, commenting on corporate America, living in New York City, and engaging in the gig economy. And then enters Elizabeth, a Karen-esque character played by Tilda Swinton, who adds even more texture and themes to the film.

Generally speaking, there is a lens through which a mob of Extremely Online “well, actually!” individuals could theoretically watch Problemista and find Elizabeth to be… well, rather problematic!

Tilda Swinton in Problemista

A24

In Problemista, Elizabeth is constantly gaslighting those who are in her way, mistreating servers, making unreasonable demands, throwing temper tantrums, and complaining to customer service. She ruins the career of a young artist as a result of jealousy, makes many selfish decisions that disregard people’s feelings, and regularly flip-flops on her promises to Alejandro.

At first, Elizabeth comes across as an epicFast and Furious car crash that you can’t look away from. It also seems like Alejandro is initially just putting up with her for the chance of finding a sponsor for his work visa. Between Swinton’s brilliant performance and Torres’ nuanced writing, however, you slowly realize that this so-called “hydra” really isn’t as dangerous as you may have assumed.

“[Swinton] became involved in the movie soon after I had a readable draft of it, so pretty early,” Torres notes. “She knew of my work and she actually loved My Favorite Shapes, and she loved Los Espookys. It goes without saying that I have loved her for a very long time. And then we met and we hit it off. We found a way forward for her to play the character that made sense to her and made even better sense with the movie. And now I have this collaborator that I’m so, so proud to call a friend.”

Even though this was Torres’ directorial debut for a feature film, working with Swinton felt like a “fun, easy, unintimidating, warm, welcoming” experience to him. He adds, “There was none of the, ‘Oh, rookie director is working with huge star. Uh-oh, uh-oh.’ No, it was just playing around with a friend. That’s how making this movie really felt, like playing around with so many of my friends.”

James Scully in Problemista

A24

James Scully, who plays Bingham in the movie, is another actor who absolutely stands out. Between his roles as JD in the Heathers TV series, Forty in You, Charlie in Fire Island, and Mary’s Teacher in the critically-acclaimed Cole Escola play Oh, Mary!, Scully is having a moment right now. I mean, talk about range!

Torres and Scully happen to be dating in real life. However, their relationship didn’t seem to affect the work.

“I like working with people that I enjoy, working with people that I love,” Torres says. “My parents work together all the time. I collaborate with my mom all the time. I collaborate with my sister all the time. My social friends become collaborators and people that I love in different ways become collaborators. That’s just how I operate, so it wasn’t strange in any way.”

Greta Lee in Problemista

A24

In the end, all roads lead to Greta Lee. The fan-favorite actress had a breakout performance in the Oscar-nominated film Past Lives. In Problemista, she is a scene-stealing performer who brings to life the character of Dalia.

When asked about Lee’s rising career in Hollywood, Torres says that he’s been observing it “with absolute joy, and awe, and not surprised in the slightest.”

There’s a sense of irrepressible wisdom that oozes out of Torres, even in moments when he appears to be doing a bit or telling a joke. Nonetheless, he doesn’t want to influence how audiences will experience this movie.

“I hope that you walk through it with curiosity,” he explains. “I hope that you just allow me to guide you through it and do with it what you may.”

But our verdict has been reached: Problemista is a hilarious, poignant, and stunning origin story for Julio Torres, a true superstar in the making.

Problemista is now in theaters.

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Bernardo Sim

Editor

Bernardo Sim experiences and explains queer multiverses. Born in Brazil, he currently lives in South Florida.

Bernardo Sim experiences and explains queer multiverses. Born in Brazil, he currently lives in South Florida.