Inside Julio Torres and Tilda Swinton’s Wild, Weird, and Beautiful Friendship

Torres’ film gives tangible, albeit fantastical and metaphorical, weight to the struggles that many immigrants like Ale face everyday, including jumping through hoops just to make ends meet. His comedy has always had emotional heft beneath the veneer of abstraction, but in Problemista, laughs and sentiment sing together in perfect harmony. “I always hope that movies, or what I do, awakens empathy in people,” he says. “There are so many people who feel trapped within systems that no one can really defend, but everyone is enforcing.”

The punch of Problemista is only heightened by the ongoing migrant crisis in New York City, where the film is set. Though Torres wrote the film several years ago, it feels particularly suited for our current moment, in which asylum seekers fleeing unstable political realities back home must navigate a cruel and unwelcoming system in the U.S. Instead of finding safety across the border, they have been treated as pawns in a callous political game: Texas has bused tens of thousands of migrants to Democratic-governed metropolises over the last two years, chiefly to New York, where many seek housing in emergency shelters only to face time limits and evictions that threaten them with homelessness. And yet, despite the size and scope of this problem, many people of means in Manhattan are oblivious to it. “In New York,” Torres observes, “most people are trained to see people going through problems and to pixelate them, to not really think about them, to render them invisible.” The movie also reflects job scarcity in our sour economic times; Alejandro navigates the same “gig economy” that so many have become familiar with as Americans struggle with an untenable cost of living. He hocks coupons for a salon to unsuspecting passersby and even, through Craigslist, washes windows in his underwear.

Though Torres had created Problemista’s world on the page, he was not originally attached to direct. He always figured he would take on that responsibility one day, but on a slightly different timeline; first, he would direct a half-hour episode of Los Espookys, then work his way up to a feature. But the COVID-19 pandemic jumbled that trajectory by delaying the HBO show’s second season.

Swinton was among the chorus who nudged him to sit in the big chair for Problemista. “I was concerned that you might mind not directing it,” she says, looking affectionately into her friend’s eyes before turning back to me. “With his writing, he makes worlds. When we were trying to find someone to direct his world, it just felt like the wrong-arced question.” As Swinton explains that predicament, it doesn’t feel like she is speaking for Torres so much as she understands and respects the machinations of his brain so intuitively that their thought processes are intertwined in the first place. Bringing an outside director into the equation, she feared, would have required a constant process of de facto translation, with Torres interpreting his world for someone else, who would then ultimately have control over how that world was displayed. Having Torres direct, as Swinton puts it, “cut out one middleman.”