‘The worlds I make intertwine’: Problemista’s Julio Torres on working with Tilda Swinton and building a universe

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista (Image: A24)
Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton behind the scenes while filming Problemista (Image: A24)

What do you get when you mix the surrealism of David Lynch with the turbocharged soap opera (and opera-opera!) of The Real Housewives – and the person doing the mixing is a queer 30-something who grew up through the Disney Renaissance and went on to be a writer for Saturday Night Life? The magical gay fever dream that is Problemista, directed, written and produced by Julio Torres, that’s what.

Also starring Torres, the inexplicably charming film follows Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador struggling to navigate the US immigration system, in need of a sponsor to stay in the country. Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton plays Elizabeth, the furious pink-haired dragon of an art critic (and titular ‘problemista’) Alejandro (played by Julio) finds himself working for in NYC – and, for his sins, growing to adore.

Elizabeth is terrifying, hilarious and absurd. For this cinema-lover’s money, she’s Tilda’s best role ever.

“I’m very interested in outsiders,” Julio said of the two main characters in an exclusive interview with Attitude last month. “They’re often, to me, either shy people, or so the opposite of shy that they are unbearable, and you don’t want to see much of them – like Elizabeth! And I’m interested in unconventional protagonists.”

Here, Julio discusses the idea of ‘incidental queerness’ in art, Tilda’s West Country twang, and casting his boyfriend as Alejandro’s nemesis: Elizabeth’s secondary assistant, Bingham…

Hi Julio. How did you land on Tilda having that accent? Have you been to the West Country?

No, I have not! The character was originally written as an American. Or, at least, that was the assumption. Then, when Tilda felt she had a hard time relating to that, she kept playing around. Also, just the way Elizabeth’s dialogue is so dense. She speaks so much, and so quickly, in contrast to the way Tilda naturally speaks, which is very precise. She was trying to find a way of voicing her in a way that would allow her to be this machine gun of a voice. Then, she found this accent. And what we liked about it was, it made her an outsider in many realms. It’s not just that she’s British, because you get the sense that she wouldn’t fit in in London either.

Julio Torres in character as Alejandro sitting at a desk
“I have a lot of fantastical conflict resolution in my work” Julio tells Attitude (Image: A24)

I read that you and Tilda first connected over Zoom, but how did that come about? Did you reach out and send a script?

A24 has already agreed to make the movie. And I think through that the script got to the agency and her agent got a hold of it and sent it to her. She, unbeknownst to me, was already familiar with my work, and liked the idea of doing something with me. So, we set up a Zoom and it went from there.

The apology letter that Alejandro writes for Elizabeth to the character of Dalia absolutely destroyed me. Do you think people underestimate the power of words, and of writing, to heal conflict?

Conflict makes me very sad and very upset. Seeing two people feel so deeply in their own experience and in those shoes and being unable to see each other, is something that has always really gotten to me. To the point where sometimes, when there’s conflict in a TV show – I found myself doing it a lot with Big Little Lies! Where I would talk to the show and just say what I wished one of them would say to the other. And explain her feelings in a way that acknowledged the other person’s feelings and bridged the gap between the two. I have a lot of fantastical conflict resolution in my work, I think.

Julio and Tilda filming their new film Problemista on the street in New York City (Image
Problemista is mostly set in New York City (Image: A24)

Would you do a sequel to Problemista, set in the future? Or a prequel exploring Elizabeth’s love triangle?

I don’t think a proper sequel or a proper prequel. But the worlds I make intertwine sometimes. So maybe you’ll see an egg painting hanging in a gallery in a different film!

‘World-building’ is too dominated by superhero movies. It would be nice to see someone like you doing that.

Yeah, and I’m not preoccupied with ‘the rules.’ These worlds – to me, it’s about metaphor and artistic expression, rather than fantasy for the sake of fantasy. But that’s something I’m very interested in.

A close up of Julio on set
In the film, Julio’s character Alejandro takes a job assisting art critic Elizabeth (Image: A24)

I liked how Alejandro’s queerness was less important to the story than his financial struggle, his immigrant experience, his central non-romantic relationship with a woman. I feel like I’m really starting to ‘get’ incidental queerness now, in films like this one and Cynthia Erivo’s Drift. Do you think this is the future of queer storytelling?

I think audiences are now at a baseline, aware enough and understanding of queerness enough that less explaining needs to happen. So now, those of us who are queer and who are interested in telling other kinds of stories, or that incorporates other kinds of motifs, are unburdened by having to do all that explaining. Which makes me feel very fortunate. But yeah, I think there will always be room for very queer cinema, in the way we understand it. But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it’s nice to not feel like we’re in that box.

I thought maybe Alejandro and Bingham were going to get together and was relieved when they didn’t, because Bingham struck me as a lowkey problemista. Was it fun acting out that dynamic with James Scully, when you are real-life partners? Was it like experiencing a parallel universe?

It was, completely! James says he played Bingham like he thought Alejandro was cute. Alejandro does not feel any sort of positive feelings towards Bingham. He sees him as a threat. Alejandro’s jealous of Bingham. He’s sort of the Fourth Horseman of Alejandro’s apocalypse!

Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista (Image: A24)
Julio and Tilda behind the scenes while filming Problemista (Image: A24)

What was really wonderful about working with a partner, which is the same thing that’s wonderful about working with friends, is that they know me very well, and my intentions. So that really allows him to unlock different shades of the character that would maybe take longer if people weren’t as familiar with me, my work and my personhood. There’s this little thing that Bingham does, where he’s sort of fixing Elizabeth’s blouse. He’s touching her. That’s something James found which I thought was so brilliant. Because James the actor understood how Alejandro would never be so comfortable as to touch Elizabeth. The fact this guy just comes out of nowhere and is so comfortable doing those things added a beautiful layer to it.

I similarly liked how, in the future, it’s hinted at that Alejandro has a partner. That really got me. I was so happy for him. Was it nice to give him that little romantic storyline after choosing not to go there through the film?

It’s so interesting that you bring that up. Not many people have remarked on that. But at one point, I had very much written a scene which very much hinted at Alejandro having a partner in the future. And then the script was so long, and budget – maybe it even just got lost in the shuffle of rewrites. We went into that day shooting without having that be a part of it at all. But that day was very difficult – party scenes are very difficult – and a party scene with people who would mostly rather sit than stand is extra difficult! This gentleman next to the Alejandro character was an extra. I needed a quick line from someone, so I just took a gamble. “Could you just say this? It would really help us. I need someone to help direct our attention over to this corner.” He opened his mouth, and I was like “Oh my god – he [the character] is gay! Good!” It was a really wonderful coincidence.

Problemista is available on digital platforms from 8 July

The post ‘The worlds I make intertwine’: Problemista’s Julio Torres on working with Tilda Swinton and building a universe appeared first on Attitude.