Julio Torres on the Rocky Relationship That Drives “Problemista”

[guitar strumming music] I’m Julio Torres

and welcome to The Director’s Commentary.

Problemista is ultimately a movie

about a young man from El Salvador struggling to find

a sponsor for his work visa,

and he finds it in this temperamental art-world lady

played by Tilda Swinton.

Oh, El Salvador. Pupusas. Yes.

And those, ah, nuns they killed in the ’80s, yes.

Right.

[Julio] And it’s all seen

through a surrealist, comedic tone.

This is an early scene

between Elizabeth, Tilda’s character, and my character.

Tilda likes to think of this movie as a love story.

So seeing it through that lens,

this scene would be like a courting scene.

[Server] Ah, great.

Yes. Well, I, I’ve just been held up.

Other people holding me up all day.

Oh no. Obstacles. Obstacles.

I went to the upholster, you know,

for the little bench under the window.

The, the nook.

The nook. The nook, yeah, exactly.

It was actually the very first scene that we shot.

Even though there’s so many lush and fantastical scenes,

this one gets to what the heart of the movie is,

which is like two very different people

seeing the same thing

from two very different points of view.

Actually in this scene,

we found a voice that Elizabeth puts on

when she wants to sound important,

which Tilda and I nicknamed the grand lady.

So I would tell her like, Oh no, she needs to,

like, when she’s cursing at this person,

she needs to sound like the grand lady.

And I went to pick ’em up and they’re horrible.

Oh no.

They’re awful. They’re red velvet, if you can imagine.

Excuse me. Excuse me.

I’ve been waiting for a very long time.

Ah, is something going on? Are you closed?

Oh, I’m, I’m, I’m sorry.

Do you, do you know what you’d like or-

I’d like this charged.

Her grand lady voice is sort of like her way

of saying like, No, I belong here.

I am a high class society lady and I am mean to waiters.

Which, because the voice is so put on

is actually kind of tragic.

Oh, this menu, what is it with walnuts?

Walnuts, walnuts, walnuts. It’s like a cafe for squirrels.

Well, the, the walnuts,

they go very nicely with the salad.

Do I look like I need educating on fine cuisine?

Oh, no, no, no. I wasn’t saying that.

You’re screaming at me.

I, I wasn’t.

Her look is a series of things gone wrong.

Her hair style is that shade of red

that we see out in the wild a lot,

but never really in movies,

’cause it’s a shade of red you get by accident.

We really wanted the hair texture

to be at odds with the haircut.

And the little backstory we made for her

is that she went to the hair salon salon

and pointed at a magazine and demanded that haircut.

And then the woman at the hair salon was like,

No, this, your hair texture

is actually not going to take well to this haircut.

But she got it anyway

and then was given like a bag of products

that she was supposed to use every day,

but did it once and then never again.

I’ll, I’ll have the goat cheese salad,

but is it possible to do it with no cheese?

Yeah. Awesome.

Um, oh, well, all right.

I’ll have the same thing, but I have it with cheese

and, and a, an iced tea,

please.

Awesome.

They like it when you say please.

It’s like giving them a little morsel for them to nibble on.

Don’t you like goats cheese?

Oh no, I’m, I’m, I’m vegan.

Oh.

Who else is vegan?

Um, I don’t know. A lot of people.

Bill Gates? Someone awful.

My character is highly adaptable to a fault.

Because he is not from the U.S.,

he’s very, very scared of rocking the boat

and he has that sort of,

that burden of exceptionalism, I think.

I wanted to play him like he was

like a little robot from space,

just sort of like very quietly

collecting data of people around him.

And the, I think that’s where the backpack came.

It looks sort of like he’s like collecting information

and putting it on his backpack.

And the little cowlick became like his little antenna.

Another really exciting variable to the movie is the waiter.

And I mean that because this movie is populated

by so many of my friends

and the actor who plays this waiter, Jack,

is also a friend of mine.

And so this scene encapsulates

what the rest of the movie was gonna be,

which is me, writer-director,

Tilda, the legendary performer,

Julio’s friends.

And this young gentleman cannot eat cheese.

It, it’s, it’s, it’s fine.

You tell him.

I, I’m, I’m vegan.

He’s allergic.

To goat cheese or-

Everything.

Oh, I apologize.

Well, we’ll refund the salad.

Well, that’s not what we want.

Ah, oh, okay. I, I just don’t know what else I could do.

I, I can’t go back in time. Fetch somebody else

and say something different. I’m sorry.

I’ll get my supervisor.

Oh, you’re gonna hold us hostage now.

Okay. So get my supervisor or don’t,

those are the choices.

Either get him or, or I don’t get him.

It was fun finding ways of how to tie in

how heightened the movie is in such a grounded scene.

So we came up with the waiter’s manic clicking of the pen

that then I knew that Rob was going to score that moment

and make it like very intir and cacophonous.

[intense music] [pen clicking]

So Elizabeth, you, you, you were mentioning

pitching the show around?

[Julio] Also in this scene,

I gave an extra, someone sitting in the back, a Rubik’s cube

because I wanted to set the table for like,

Oh no, the world I’m showing is one where

people go out to lunch by themselves and a Rubik’s cube.

I’ll sponsor you.

[intense music]

Finally, you get your visa.

[clinking music]

That sounds, that sounds great.

Alejandro hears the promise of a work visa

if they curate a show for her late husband’s paintings.

And also it’s a window into her temperament.

Even though it’s just a scene of two people at a cafe,

just emotionally and thematically

I think it’s heavier than it might seem.

[guitar strumming music]

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