Talking trash with ‘Problemista’s Tilda Swinton and Julio Torres from Mashable

With the critically heralded comedy Problemista, writer/helmer/star Julio Torres not only made his audacious directorial debut, but also placed his unique version of New York City onto the cinema landscape. Alongside a radiant and ruthless Tilda Swinton, Torres unfurls a tale of immigrants and outsiders who make the city their home, while acknowledging the iconic metropolis’s heady blend of high art and heaping garbage. 

As I wrote in my review of the film, “From the moment I saw the trash piles in Problemista, I understood Torres’s New York. Like Scorsese’s of the ’70s, it’s a metropolis covered in mountains of trash, making the sidewalks an obstacle course for humans and an all-you-can-eat buffet for rats. However, in Problemista, these piles of garbage are peppered with whimsy. Beautiful paintings casually rest amid white trash bags. A glittering hula hoop or a rainbow umbrella, open and reaching high, protrudes from another pile. Unspoken but clearly presented is the New York City culture of trash-picking, where the haves will pitch their goods to curb, where the have-nots will gratefully carry items home (probably awkwardly on the subway), literally making another person’s trash their treasure.” 

When Mashable sat down with Torres and Swinton via Zoom to discuss Problemista, naturally, I asked about the trash. This led to a thoughtful exploration of the film’s production and costume design, ranging from empty water bottles to tapestry and unexpected influences, both medieval and modern.

Julio Torres on the trash in Problemista. 

Credit: A24

Problemista stars Torres as Alejandro, an aspiring toy designer from El Salvador who not only struggles to break into that industry but also to stay in the States, where the American immigration process is depicted as a literal labyrinth of mind-snapping obstacles. While Torres’s film takes flights of fantasy in laying out these difficulties — including hourglasses that make immigrants vanish when the sand runs out and a particularly explosive conversation with a Bank of America phone operator — he uses literal trash to defy the image of a glittering metropolis favored by so many studio movies about New York. 

“I had been raised on a certain kind of New York movie,” Torres explained, “Which was always very, very skyscraper-forward, pristine, pretty idealized New York. Then when I first came here, I was just like, ‘Oh, there’s just garbage everywhere.’ Then I just sort of like fell in love with the garbage, and started noticing all these like very natural still lives of garbage throughout the city.” 

When choosing a production designer, Torres was determined to capture that mix of wonder and revulsion. So he was elated to work with Katie Byron, the production designer of Janicza Bravo’s Zola, a willfully seedy comedy based on the famous Twitter thread. “Something that I loved about her production design in Zola,” Torres explained, “Is that there’s plastic bags in every room. There’s just so many plastic bags everywhere. And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s what it’s like to live there.’ So I just really wanted to like celebrate that in the movie.”

Tilda Swinton relishes the trashy aesthetic of Problemista

Craigslist personified by Larry Owens in “Problemista.”
Credit: A24

In Problemista, Swinton plays Elizabeth, an art critic who can push anyone to do her bidding with — as Swinton puts it — “the mighty sword of complaint.” Crossing paths with Alejandro at a cryogenic facility, the pair form a tumultuous friendship as he helps her mount a gallery show for her frozen husband (RZA), and she holds the carrot of sponsoring his immigration. But there’s more to her snarling New Yorker than meets the eye.

For Swinton, the details of the production design — down to the trash piles — connected to her own appreciation of the sour yet sensational city. “I feel very similarly to Julio,” the British actress began. “Coming to New York for the first time. and coming from the countryside it felt like — you know, you’re in the jungle. Literally, you’re in a jungle. You’re in a natural environment not just because of the trash but also because of the rats! You know, you are out there in the wilds when you’re in New York, and I happen to love it for that reason.” 

Swinton continued, “I always get a little discomforted when I come back to New York and someone’s tidied a corner up. And then you come back a few years later, and someone’s like, messed it up again, you go, ‘Phew! Got it back.’ But the movie is about wild animals to a certain extent and being in the jungle. And I was playing a dragon. And it felt very comforting to be in what Katie and Julio made. That environment felt very sort of harmonious.”

To this Torres added, “Elizabeth also just carries trash with her at all times.”

“Always,” Swinton agreed, “Why would you put it down? It’s useful.”

How trash and tapestry informed Problemista‘s Hydra. 

Credit: A24

Torres’s brand of clever whimsy shapes Problemista as a modern fairy tale in which Alejandro is a valiant knight on a noble quest to make oddball toys. And in this scenario, Elizabeth is a dragon, breathing metaphorical fire and — in some more fantastical sequences — literally transforming to look like her cruel nickname from the New York art scene: the Hydra. 

As any dragon worth her scales, Elizabeth has a tendency to hold onto trash and treasures. So, she walks around constantly with an empty plastic water bottle in her claws and is fixated on her inventory of paintings (specifically inventoried in the nightmarish software FileMaker Pro). Swinton spoke of how she and Torres came up with some of Elizabeth’s eccentricities. “I remember the moment when we were talking about purses and, you know, it was a matter of no note between the two of us that she would be carrying always, at least two.”

Torres laughed in apparent agreement, as Swinton continued, “We all know we all do [in New York]. It’s only people who want to look like some strange, fictional kind of human who manage to walk around with one.” 

Tilda Swinton and Julio Torres discuss Elizabeth’s distinctive aesthetic. 

Tilda Swinton and RZA play a married couple in “Problemista.”
Credit: A24

With hair dyed flaming red and outfits as outrageous as they are undeniably chic, Elizabeth manages to be fantastical and recognizably New York. But Torres does something more crafty with costuming, layering in dragon-like elements to hint to Elizabeth’s most ferocious side.

“That was just a wonderful triangular collaboration between Tilda, myself, and Catherine George, our costume designer,” Torres explained. “We really wanted to imbue Elizabeth with this sort of hunched-over, like breathing dragon, silhouette. So everything that she wore hinted at [her dragon side]. And there was something sort of medieval tapestry about the way that she dresses. It’s a lot of deep greens. It’s a lot of maroons. It’s like she has an armor in a way. It’s almost like she’s constantly protected by these scales. And yeah, there’s something like very fairy-tale like about the way that she dresses.” 

Swinton added, “It’s really it was a such a beautiful process with Catherine who is a dear friend of mine. I’ve worked with her many times before, particularly with Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja), Jim Jarmusch (The Dead Don’t Die, Paterson), and Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk about Kevin). This challenge — we know we’re going to end up with the Hydra. But we have to kind of lay down this trail of breadcrumbs throughout the film. And the thing that’s so genius, I think about what Catherine and Julio did with this costume, is that it also is completely authentically downtown New York art world.” 

Turning to Torres, she said, “I mean, when you talk about medieval tapestry, yeah, but downtown New York art world, medieval tapestry. It’s all kind of the same thing. It’s the same vernacular language. Catherine was so up for that — as you say — triangulation. None of us ever walk past — let alone go into a downtown New York art scene party — [without seeing] Elizabeths everywhere. And that hunched, potbellied, kind-of-caught bent hand sort of thing? It’s all the rage.” 

Problemista is now in theaters nationwide.

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