Island of Misfit Toys: Julio Torres on “Problemista”

Problemista (Julio Torres, 2024).

As a former Saturday Night Live writer, co-creator of the bilingual HBO cult favorite Los Espookys, and government-certified “alien of extraordinary ability,” Julio Torres has been preoccupied with the secret life of objects: the existential dilemmas that plague baubles and trinkets divorced from their original purpose. In Problemista (2024), Torres’s debut feature, the efficacy of form and function, as it applies to the predominant social order and the flimsy structures that reinforce it, is up for constant reconsideration. Through fabulist vignettes and an iridescent array of signs and symbols (the egg, the hourglass, the mythical hydra), the film offers a buoyant critique of institutional frameworks, especially the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of the American immigration system, but also the avarice of corporate banks and the innumerable hypocrisies of the art world. Contributing a singular perspective to the discourse surrounding “the queer art of failure,” Torres views conventional notions of utility with puckish skepticism and advocates for a deliberate misuse of the proverbial toolkit (or toybox) when addressing both genre and his overall design for living. 

Torres stars as the meek and aspirational toymaker Alejandro, who has moved to New York City from El Salvador in hopes of landing a job at Hasbro. His ideas for novelty playthings, like a slinky that refuses to descend the stairs, are Fisher-Price by way of Andy Kaufman, and they do not appear to generate much enthusiasm from his prospective employer. In order to secure a work visa, Alejandro must overcome endless logistical hurdles and navigate a prickly relationship with the high-strung art-world pariah Elizabeth (played with frenzied vitriol and motor-mouthed desperation by Tilda Swinton), whom he encounters while working as an archivist at the cryogenic facility where her husband, Bobby (an unsung painter played by RZA), is frozen. Narration by an unseen Isabella Rossellini provides an oracular, matriarchal ambience to what soon becomes an unlikely buddy comedy with lysergic bursts of social satire. 

With tableaux reminiscent of a cubicle-bound Remedios Varo and set design from Katie Byron that posits what the office sequence from Jean-Luc Godard’s Tout va bien (1972) would look like as an escape room by Michel Gondry, Alejandro’s journey to self-discovery is mediated and diffracted by the gig economy and the looming prospect of deportation. One of Problemistas most inspired creations is the personification of Craigslist, embodied by Larry Owens as a malevolent djinn spouting the titles of classified ads from within a swirling torrent of cyber-detritus. In scenes like this, Terry Gilliam comes to mind as a key progenitor: a sketch comedian with an outré sensibility turned surrealist auteur, concerned with the mechanics of broken systems and the narrative potential of the neo-mythological impulse. With Torres, the resulting conceptual sprawl and penchant for niche bits is bolstered by a fascination with the tradition of gay male diva worship, a winsome opposition to neoliberal complacency, and a revitalized approach to cinematic expressionism.

On the day of the limited US release of Problemista, I spoke to Torres about queer community, the epistemology of the “Karen,” labyrinths, astrology, and the joy of obstacles.

Problemista (Julio Torres, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: In both Los Espookys and Problemista, there’s a narrative emphasis on crafting, building, and designing in the most literal sense—as a means of self-actualization. How does the act of making inform your ethos as an artist?

JULIO TORRES: I was really raised with the motto «If it doesn’t exist, make it,» or «If it doesn’t exist, don’t settle for the things that do exist.» That is not only such a big part of the way that I operate visually, but also the core of this movie: if you are presented with options A, B, and C, but you want D, or some secret, unlisted option, make it. 

NOTEBOOK: You frequently collaborate with your mom and your sister; they’re both designers, and your mom’s an architect as well. 

TORRES: My mom, other than being the direct influence for Alejandro’s mother in the movie, designed the magical playhouse castle that we see in the opening scene. I asked her to draw something up, and we gave it to the production designer, who made it happen, and that was such a joyous moment.

NOTEBOOK: Did you have a particular transitional object or toy that you were sentimentally attached to as a child?

TORRES: I had a lot of them. I definitely had a revolving door of Barbies that I really cared about, which inspired the Esmeralda Barbie in the movie. I had a Cinderella and an Ariel Barbie. I loved anything that made me feel like a little storyteller. I was more into dolls and figurines than active objects, because to me I was not the one having fun—I was just a storyteller, and the stories were passing through me. A ball or a puzzle weren’t that interesting to me, but I did have these little wooden blocks that I would use to make labyrinths and mazes. I love making little mazes.

NOTEBOOK: For the Barbies to traverse? 

TORRES: No, the Barbies were too big for the mazes.

Problemista (Julio Torres, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: How did writing for sketch comedy inform your work? 

TORRES: You know, I never set out to be a sketch comedian, or a stand-up comic for that matter. I had a certain sensibility, and those were the vessels that were available to me. Now I have fallen in love with it, and I want to keep doing it. But I really don’t think of myself as a sketch comedian who has now made a movie. I think of myself as a creator who has found different avenues, and at that time it was that, and now it’s this, and tomorrow I don’t know.

NOTEBOOK: Problemista features many luminaries of queer New York City nightlife: your former roommate and classmate Spike Einbinder, performers like Charlene Incarnate and River Ramirez, who has my favorite line in the film, music by Macy Rodman, and a score composed by OHYUNG. How is making a film conducive to celebrating and maintaining that community?

TORRES: The only way that I know how to work is by making work with people that I like, know, respect, and admire. These are the people [who] are all those things. That brings me more joy than casting someone who was chosen by committee and then being with them on set and then never again. Not only am I grateful that these people are a part of this movie but I’m also so interested in their work outside of this movie: I want to see a Spike movie, I want to see an immersive River theatrical piece, I want to see Charlene in a music video.

NOTEBOOK: We need the Macy Rodman rock opera, obviously.

TORRES: Yeah, we need the Macy Rodman Super Bowl halftime show. 

NOTEBOOK: I see a ritualistic aspect of your standup in terms of manifesting collaborations. Earlier iterations of your work seem to be conjuring collaborations with Tilda Swinton and Isabella Rossellini into existence. What are your formative memories of encountering each of these actresses’ work for the first time?

TORRES: It’s interesting because before meeting them, Tilda and Isabella were abstract concepts to me, in the same way that Spike, River, and all these other people are fully created worlds unto themselves to those who have never met them. None of these people are empty canvases for a director to impose meaning on. I feel a kinship with people like that, people that have an allure that precedes them. In terms of where I came across them for the first time, with Isabella it was definitely Blue Velvet [1986]. I think Lynch was one of those first gateways to cinema that I had. A fellow Aquarius director.

NOTEBOOK: You and Lynch are both palpably Aquarius in many ways.

TORRES: Spike has an incredible David Lynch impression if you haven’t seen it, so maybe Spike is manifesting a project with Lynch… We will see. 

With Tilda, I feel like she was directly downloaded into my consciousness from the get-go. It’s like if you asked me, «When was the first time you tried Coca-Cola?» I definitely know that Orlando [1992] had an early impact, and also randomly The Beach [2000]. She’s pretty sinister in it.

Problemista (Julio Torres, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: What other grande dames of international art cinema do you hope to work with?

TORRES: Okay, this is maybe a deep cut, but a woman who has stayed with me for the longest time who I really want to make something with—I don’t know what; I hope our paths cross at one point, if she’ll have me—is Alfre Woodard. Particularly for her arc on season two of Desperate Housewives. I love her. I’ve had an admiration for Anjelica Huston and Penélope Cruz from a distance forever. I recently had the immense privilege of working with Rosie Perez, and hopefully there’s more soon.

NOTEBOOK: There are certain archetypes, like the wicked stepmother or the eccentric widow, that you often engage with. Are there difficult women in the history of cinema that you gravitate toward? Or better yet, are there characters in the cinematic landscape that you consider Problemistas?

TORRES: I think that Adam Sandler’s character in Uncut Gems [2019] is a certified Problemista. He’s really addicted to, and thriving within, problems. Anna Faris in Smiley Face [2007] is a Problemista. Like, «Girl, what are you doing?»

NOTEBOOK: It’s funny hearing those two examples because the word Problemista for me evokes a glamor or perhaps an expertise in amassing problems.

TORRES: Oh no, for me it’s not an expert. It’s a person who gravitates toward problems, who creates problems, and who thrives within problems, within conundrums and catch-22s, and there’s a loneliness to it that I have a connection with… Lucille Bluth [of Arrested Development] is not a Problemista. She’s too in control.  

NOTEBOOK: That’s a great distinction. So there’s a haplessness that comes with being a Problemista? Is Tanya McQuoid [of The White Lotus] a Problemista?

TORRES: [After a moment of exuberant contemplation.] Nooooo, because she doesn’t like it, because she’s not thriving in it. She’s quite literally drowning in it. She’s not picking at a wound, she’s trying to heal.

NOTEBOOK: I feel like in Problemista there’s an empathetic deconstruction of what viewers might classify as «Karens» through various characters, including Elizabeth, but also the doctor at the cryogenic facility, and to an extent, River’s character at Bank of America. Do you identify these characters as «Karens”?

TORRES: I don’t, and the term wasn’t in my mind when I was writing it. I think it was actually at the tail end of writing the script that the term entered the collective consciousness. A distinction that I make is that, to me, a «Karen» is someone who weaponizes her status in an oppressive system to her advantage: [for example,] calling the cops on someone. But I don’t think that’s what Elizabeth is doing. I think that she’s just fighting for dear life. She’s a wounded animal, and she’s clawing at whatever she sees. She’s not interested in punishment. She’s interested in survival. A lot of it is rooted in trauma responses. When she’s being rude to the waiter, she’s being rude to the waiter in hopes that Alejandro will learn how to survive, or advocate for himself. It’s a very flawed, painful way of going through life, and it’s not prescriptive. I’m not saying, «Try this at home.» But I do think he manages to learn something from it.

Problemista (Julio Torres, 2024).

NOTEBOOK: The film has a tangible compassion for difficult characters backed into various corners.

TORRES: Everyone’s trapped in the movie, and River manages to convey that feeling so incredibly well for the 30 seconds they have on screen. You see the gears turning, and you see the calculation of  «No, it’s me or him.»

NOTEBOOK: This is mirrored in the overall production design. Were there any visual references that were particularly meaningful for you when developing the look of the film?

TORRES: I was very into New York City as labyrinth: endless staircases, hallways, noise, people always in motion, everyone struggling to fulfill their own quest, everyone on the verge of drowning, so they don’t have the time or the energy or the resources to keep the person next to them from drowning. A big game of snakes and ladders, which is what it feels like a lot of the time.

NOTEBOOK: In the past you’ve spoken about vacuous gestures of representation in contemporary queer cinema. I thought it was interesting that the first overtly queer moment of Problemista is when Alejandro has a transactional erotic exchange as a hired cleaning boy. I wanted to ask you about that decision.

TORRES: There’s a lot of people who will probably think, «Oh, poor thing! He had no choice,» but for me, it’s a moment of joy. The only way Alejandro can address his need for sex and intimacy is through this excuse of obtaining money. He’s so busy keeping his eye on the prize and trying to stay afloat that he hasn’t allowed himself to experience desire, and the only way he can is by making it part of the assignment. There’s worlds within Alejandro that we don’t get to see.