The disparate themes of immigration, white privilege, the politics of art and art galleries, cryogenics and even corporate espionage are woven through Julio Torres’ upcoming feature directorial debut, “Problemista.” The film, which he also wrote and stars in, was a hit at SXSW in 2023 and screened at Outfest LA. Originally set for release last summer but delayed due to the strikes, the film hits select theaters March 1 and theaters everywhere March 22 via distrib A24.
Torres stars in a release date announcement clip very much in the spirit of the film:
Torres’ résumé includes the beloved but now canceled “Los Espookys,” which he co-created, co-wrote and starred in as Andrés, the stereotypical flamboyant gay diva; stand-up special “My Favorite Shapes”; and a stint in the “Saturday Night Live” writers’ room, among other projects.
As with “Los Espookys,” Torres’ singular view of the world and penchant for magical realism pepper “Problemista,” which also stars Tilda Swinton, RZA, Greta Lee, James Scully, Larry Owens, Catalina Saavedra and is narrated by Isabella Rossellini. In the film Torres dons a decidedly plainer persona as Alejandro, an imaginative immigrant trying to break into big-time toy design in New York City. Alejandro hits the walls of bureaucracy, encounters insensitive and exploitative employers and becomes a victim of the housing crisis — but all in a very funny way.
Why tackle such fraught issues in your first feature?
The movie attempts to portray a chapter in my life as I felt it. And a big part of it was brushing up against bureaucracy and about the heartlessness of bureaucracy. My father, who’s a very progressive thinker, was always very quick to point out injustices. In my household, we always questioned rules. My parents were never financially driven people. From a young age, I really learned how difficult it is to live a dignified life doing what you want without compromising or giving in to systems that you don’t believe in. I don’t have a credit card. I’ve never had a credit card. I aspired to never have credit, which means that I have a TV show and a movie under my belt, and who knows if I’ll ever be able to own a home?
That’s very radical in America.
It is very radical in America, but I was always raised on the rule, if you don’t have the money, don’t spend it.
The film is very funny and makes great use of flights of fantasy, something that comes out of the Latin American literary tradition.
I really don’t know if it’s an influence. It’s a sensibility thing. But you are right that it falls in that tradition. I can only say that this is the way that I currently know how to express myself — through metaphor, through these visual flourishes, and I like showing how things feel.
Is that why there are scenes involving an M.C. Escher-like office building, and a dragon and other fantastical elements?
The process of applying for a visa feels like being in a maze. Talking to someone that you’re really scared of on the phone feels like being trapped in a cave with them. So this is just how it comes out.
And when did Tilda Swinton come on board?
She came on board when the script was almost done. She was very excited to do it. She had seen “Los Espookys” and she loved it, and she had seen the “My Favorite Shapes” special and she had liked that. I think she has said that she gravitates towards people who build their own worlds, and also to people that feel like they are making a working community, and I think those are things that I am humbled that she detected in me, and those are certainly things that I aspired to do.
So what are some of your influences?
My dad loved Mr. Bean. And I discovered Buster Keaton. And the idea of saying a lot by saying very little is more in my vein. As a teenager, I started getting more into film, and my gateway to interesting film was Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman and Pedro Almodóvar. Then I got really into anime, which frankly informs a lot of the way that this movie is shot. It’s just a mix between real and magic and imaginative and funny and sad — it’s always been in my wheelhouse.