Tilda Swinton Wasn’t Prepared for ‘Problemista’ Horror Stories from Audiences Who Recognize Her Toxic Art World Character

FileMaker Pro is the root of all evil in Julio Torres’ idiosyncratic immigrant comedy “Problemista,” in which the writer/director and comedian stars as an El Salvadoran toy designer trying to secure a visa before he’s kicked out of the U.S.

The computer database engine, used by the creative community for filing and data tracking, is a software Torres’ Alejandro is woefully unfamiliar with. And when he accepts the demoralizing gig of organizing a show of egg paintings bequeathed by a now-cryogenically frozen artist (RZA) to his wife, former art critic and current art world castaway Elizabeth (Tilda Swinton), it’s one facet of the job description Alejandro just can’t hack. Yet, for Elizabeth, working knowledge of the program is the be-all and end-all for employment.

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Swinton, who spoke with IndieWire from a hotel bed in New York City over Zoom after the film’s hometown premiere, said she was not prepared for the legions of millennial audiences who shared not only their own frustrations with FileMaker Pro since “Problemista” debuted at SXSW (the festival also uses the software), but also shared terrible tales of their own “Elizabeth” — a tyrannical, toxic boss ever in a whirl of grandiose delusion who demeans waiters, gaslight her employees, and makes you feel like you’ve failed at every turn.

“Not only do I not [know FileMaker Pro], but one of the great pleasures of the last year since our first screening at SXSW is we had no idea what a therapeutic service this film was going to be doing for people, and how widespread the abuse story is across our audience base in SXSW,” Swinton said. “The software this festival runs on is FileMaker Pro, and yesterday they sent this really beautiful present to me and Julio. … They sent us both this frame of the page of FileMaker Pro from SXSW about ‘Problemista.’ We’re so proud of it and going to hang it on the walls.”

Anyone who’s worked in media or any creative field knows someone like Elizabeth, and Swinton’s version is a purple-haired dinosaur of the art world with a west country English accent who yaks at the pace of a machine gun, spewing vitriol and disdain to anyone who will listen (or won’t, even).

PROBLEMISTA, from left: Julio Torres, Tilda Swinton, 2023. ph: Jon Pack / © A24 / Courtesy Everett Collection
“Problemista”Courtesy Everett Collection

“I had no idea how widespread this infection had become and how traumatic for everybody it was,” said Swinton, who as a rarified actor has probably been sheltered from the lower-totem tales of toxic workplaces such as Elizabeth’s.

“We have yet to meet anybody who has said to us, ‘What’s the problem?’ Everybody is covered in wounds and bruises and scars from FileMaker Pro experiences. And also, pretty much everybody we talk to has had an Elizabeth in their lives, and that’s a big surprise to me. I didn’t realize. I thought we were making something so rare and arcane and out there, but no, no, she is a phenomenon that’s cropped up in many people’s lives,” said Swinton, who received the script from Torres in 2020 and immediately encouraged him to direct himself.

“People live with their Elizabeth phantoms in a state of deep shame because she makes you feel like you’ve failed all the time, and so nobody really wears her on their sleeve and says, ‘Oh, yeah, my Elizabeth.’ There’s something so sophisticated about the way in which Julio, by writing Alejandro’s attraction to her, so delicately and in such a mature way, people are drawn, there’s something masochistic about the Elizabeth/Alejandro paradigm, and people get drawn in and somehow attach themselves. Yes, they say, ‘It was the only job I could get,’ but really? There’s something that kind of energy attracts, particularly those of us who like observing.”

Swinton said that’s because Elizabeth is “like a wild animal. It’s like a David Attenborough documentary being around her. She’s in the wild, everywhere, and when she says to him in the cave” — a fantasy space in the movie into which Alejandro retreats in moments of crisis — “You love difficuly, you can’t get enough of it, you seek it out,’ she’s really on the money there. That’s really smart.”

That’s because Elizabeth and Alejandro grow so co-dependent on each other. Elizabeth does become a sort of warped mother figure for Alejandro, though he has a close relationship with his mom back in El Salvador (she’s played by Chilean actress Catalina Saavedra).

He needs her, not only just for proof of employment to get his visa, as much as she needs him. She doesn’t have anybody else, because who would want to be in her chaotic orbit?

“Problemista”
“Problemista”

“Doctor, since we’re on the couch, [Elizabeth] makes him [Alejandro] her parent as well, which you sort of imagine is therapeutic for him and soothing,” Swinton said. “She needs looking after, and he looks after her in this incredibly brutal world that they both are in, and they’re both banging their heads against these walls, which are impenetrable, all the time.”

As an immigrant hustling in New York, Alejandro is “feeling so small, so invisible, potentially invisibilized, so to look around someone’s apartment and go, ‘Oh I could get untangle that cord from the heel of their shoe.’ … He wants to please her, he wants to heal her, he wants to learn to do FileMaker Pro.”

Swinton said that ultimately Alejandro and Elizabeth “do save each other, which I really love,” and that “Problemista” has an unlikely inspiration of its own: “[Julio and I] share a love of the great Hayao Miyazaki, and the way in which his protagonists are very often confronted by what feels like a villain, what feels like an obstacle, for example those twins in ‘Spirited Away,’ the Baba Yaga women, and they end up being so nurturing and maternal and save the protagonist. That’s a thing in Miyazaki’s work, that nobody is actually bad. Everybody has grown ways of surviving that might feel aggressive or might feel confronting, but actually no one’s bad. That’s such an amazing thing to put out there.”

Key to slipping into Elizabeth’s particular unhinged skin were the film’s costumes (by Swinton’s friend Catherine George) and wild, frizzy hair and makeup (Kay Georgiou and Jackie Risotto).

“We started with the hair,” Swinton said. “We knew that it had to be quite exotic and yet, of course, when we were shooting one day, we were standing on the steps of the brownstone we were shooting in, and we looked down the street, and we saw a woman who looked exactly like Elizabeth. I don’t know whether it was a wig or not, but she had gone for the same shade of puce.”

"Problemista"
“Problemista”A24

As for the costumes, Swinton said, “The first premise was that she is uncomfortable, everything is uncomfortable. Clothes are either too big or too tight in the wrong places. The fabrics are too scratchy. This was a whole evolution with Catherine, who is one of my closest friends — we worked very closely with Bong Joon Ho, Lynne Ramsay, and Jim Jarmusch. I introduced her to Julio because I knew she would really respond to this and, by gum, she does, she really gets it. We knew we were going to end up as the Hydra, and what an incredible Hydra she ends up in, that dress, and so we tracked via Pleats Please by Issey Miyake, which was so perfect, because it’s not only feeling like on the way to Hydra, it also is perfect downtown New York art world of her generation. Everything’s got a slightly dinosaur silhouette, her shoulder pads are massive, you can’t really see her body. She has this little tummy pad which occasionally gets revealed, so she’s kind of curled around her belly. Her boots with these slightly ectomorph profile heels and toes.”

Swinton said, “Julio thinks of Alejandro as a dormouse and Elizabeth is a hawk. We met on Zoom for the first time at the end of 2020 when he’d sent me the script. I started by saying, ‘I love you, I love this script, I want to see this film. I love Elizabeth but, really, is it me? You have to persuade me that it is and that I can work with you to bring her to what you want.’ Once he persuaded me, and it was to do with understanding that she didn’t have to be American, that was the really important point to me, that made the whole thing come to life. It appeared to me that she could be an immigrant, too.”

Next up, Swinton has Pedro Almodóvar’s “The Room Next Door,” shooting in Madrid this month with Julianne Moore and John Turturro, which the actress said “is going to be a real Pedro movie” (more on that in our conversation here.) She also stars in “The Act of Killing” director Joshua Oppenheimer’s narrative feature debut, “The End,” a 2022-shot apocalyptic musical co-starring Michael Shannon that’s being eyed for the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

“Problemista” is now in select theaters from A24.

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