Julio Torres Talks Problemista and the American Dream

Julio Torres in Problemista. Courtesy of A24

It takes a special kind of mind to take a font and turn it into one of Saturday Night Live‘s best skits. Of course, I’m referring to the infamous Papyrus sketch starring Ryan Gosling about the font used for the Avatar films. The mind behind that hilarious sketch is Julio Torres who is bringing his fantastical mind to the big screen in Problemista. The film follows Ale (Torres), an aspiring toy maker, who loses his visa sponsorship to stay in the United States. He starts helping an art-world outcast (Oscar winner Tilda Swinton) in the hopes that she will be the answer to his problems.

Film Obsessive sat down with Torres who wrote, directed, and starred in Problemista and our site’s full review. He talks about his magical realism tendencies, the myth of the American Dream, and making art that speaks truth.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Film Obsessive: My first question is about this kind of blend of magical realism and reality that you have going on in Problemista. What do you think it is about fantasy that allows you to kind of get to the heart of reality?

Julio Torres: Well, I think it’s a personal instinct thing that just happens. It’s not like something that you put on. For whatever reason, it is the way that I am currently capable of conveying how things feel. The intention of it is always rooted in a feeling. It’s not like image first or costume first or set first and then like idea later. It’s like, how can I best showcase the way that these things feel and the way that it feels specifically to this protagonist? And that’s just sort of how it comes out.

The center of the story is about Ale and his visa sponsorship, but also trying to pursue his dreams. It made me think of the myth of the American dream. Do you feel like the American dream is either a hero of the story or the villain of the story?

I don’t know about hero or villain, but it’s definitely the trap of the story. The story examines that and questions this idea that like if only he tried hard enough that everything could be his. The caveat is that you have to, or at least in the case of this protagonist, is break some of the rules that they tell you are in place for the pursuit of this “dream.” It’s sort of a catch-22. Like, here’s this dream of yours that you can pursue, but also we are putting in place rules for this game that make it impossible for you to achieve it. So it’s a board game with flawed rules and then you’re made to feel like you’re supposed to win the board game while following their rules.

Ale and Elizabeth stand in a gallery looking shocked in Problemista
(L-R) Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton in Problemista. Courtesy of A24

The scene that I feel like is going to be the, the talk of the whole movie is the Bank of America scene. Just because so many of us have had that terrible conversation that is kind of funny laugh at the way that you presented it. It’s also kind of terrible to have to be like, treat me like a human. The whole film has this blend of stark honesty, but also comedy. Is that something that comes naturally for you in terms of your own writing and your own work?

I think humor is how my truth comes out, it’s how I’m better equipped to to say these things that I’m feeling. The surprise then for me is that these feelings are shared with people because I’m not like reverse engineering. It’s not like, what is an experience that a lot of people have that will be relatable to see in a movie? It’s just an experience I had. I like to think, I hope, that even people who have never been in that position in any way, like the ones in the movie, leave with an understanding of something different or can apply that feeling to whatever they have it they have lived through.

Problemista is your first feature as a director, but it feels like there is a lot going on in terms of like production, things to juggle, with the different realities that you created. Was there a sigh of relief when filming was over or were you kind of thrilled by the challenge of it all?

I was so excited. It was a very joyful, very exciting production. I really, really enjoyed the process of it and in retrospect, when I’m like, trying to be objective and look back on it, it’s like, yeah, it’s a very ambitious first movie. It’s not a a simple dramedy. It’s what was in me at the time. I’m glad that I didn’t that I don’t feel a sense of regret for putting as much of me as I could because you sort of never know. Like everyone says, first movie, first movie, first movie, but someone’s first movie could be their only movie. I don’t take anything for granted. I think that now I’m starting to get into the confident MySpace (laughs) headspace that there could be more. At the time it was like don’t waste this on like a very simple thing that you are only doing because it is simple and easy. I felt like I needed to pour so much of myself in there.

Craigslist tempts Ale
A scene from Problemista. Courtesy of A24

Since you accidentally said MySpace…I have to ask because Larry [Owens], as Craigslist was one of my favorite parts of the film. If you personified MySpace for Problemista, what is it going to look like?

Oh my God, what is it? Well, that one’s tough because it ostensibly had a mascot, right? I think it would be like an emo little teen maybe.

I mean, that was all of us on MySpace. One of the themes in the movie is this idea of art as remembrance, but also in elongating life beyond the natural life that we know of. Is that something that’s front of mind in your career and something that you are concerned about? How you’ll be remembered?

I would I wouldn’t say front of mind, but definitely somewhere in there. I always care more about cultural significance and making something that is lasting. I am more interested in that than immediate success. I think that there’s a lot of movies right now that gain immediate success, but I don’t know whether or not ten years from now, 20 years from now, people would revisit them or they’re just like a spike in the timeline. I really aspire to be more of an echo and that’s always the kinds of movies that that I have loved. I have no idea what their first release week was, how many people saw it, what the critics of their time said. I think ultimately, that’s not where my mind is. I just want to make work that speaks truth regardless of the amount of people that that speaks truth to.

Problemista opens in theaters Friday March 1, 2024 (Limited), Friday March 22, 2024 (Nationwide).

Written by Tina Kakadelis

News Editor for Film Obsessive. Movie and pop culture writer. Seen a lot of movies, got a lot of opinions. Let's get Carey Mulligan her Oscar.

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