Julio Torres’ Fantastical ‘Fantasmas’ Found Joy in the Loneliness

The creator and star needed to find people on the “same frequency” for his dreamy HBO show

Fantasmas
Julio Torres in "Fantasmas" (Photo Credit: HBO)

Looking at the bright colors, elaborate costumes and lush sets of “Fantasmas,” you would be forgiven for thinking the inspiration for Julio Torres‘ latest HBO comedy is more joyful than it actually is.

“Thinking about the world and thinking about the kinds of people I wanted to have in the show, this common thread of feeling alienated and feeling a little lonely kept coming up,” Torres told TheWrap. “I wrote down all of the stories I wanted to tell, saw the common denominator and allowed that to inform the through-line of the story and the overarching world of it.”

Torres originally sold his latest comedy in 2020. However, thanks to the “bottleneck of the pandemic” and the creator’s work on other projects such as his film “Problemista” — which he wrote and directed — the series was delayed.

“I feel like doing work in this industry feels like a burst,” Torres said. “But this felt like a long simmering journey.”

Fantasmas
“Fantasmas” (Photo Credit: HBO)

Ostensibly, “Fantasmas” follows a fictionalized version of Torres as he explores New York City. After losing an earring that looks like an oyster, his search for the accessory leads him down a winding road where he meets a variety of larger-than-life characters. But in actuality, “Fantasmas” is so much more than its deceptively straightforward premise.

Visually inspired by Lars von Trier’s 2004 thriller “Dogville” and Paul Schrader’s 1985 drama “Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters,” the series often dives into Julio’s vibrant and esoteric daydreams as it pleasantly drifts between sketch after sketch. That looks like Julio bonding with a person who claims to be a one-man Uber replacement named Chester (Tomas Matos) one minute to arguing that a crayon company needs to make the color clear the next to reimagining the letter Q as a bitter aging rockstar played by Steve Buscemi.

“I’m just so interested in people who are obsessed with one thing. This is a show about people that are like that,” Torres said.

To bring this somewhat lonely vision to life, Torres embraced his sketch comedy roots. “After writing for ‘SNL,’ I never felt like I was properly writing sketch comedy. I felt like I was writing like humorous short stories. And I missed that, and I kept wanting to do that,” Torres said.

He also embraced one of his favorite elements that came from creating the HBO cult hit “Los Espookys”: “The joy of collaborating with people and the joy of allowing people to shine and bring their sensibilities to it,” Torres said.

Because Torres’ worlds are so specific, the creator, writer, director, executive producer and star made sure to only work with actors and crew members who understood his vibe and vision.

“A key part of this is just finding people who are in your same frequency, are excited by the same things and bring their own ideas,” Torres said. Though he had never previously worked with them, two of those stars who matched that frequency ended up being Julia Fox, who matched Torres’ assessment of her from a distance (“You just want to have fun and do work that’s interesting”), and “Pose” star Dominque Jackson, whom he described as a “delight.”

Fantasmas
“Fantasmas” (Photo Credit: HBO)

“I feel like everyone I worked with here was so excited to do these things. The wigs, the makeup, the hair, the sets — everyone just felt like they were playing with each other in ways that were very gratifying and very exciting,” Torres said.

When asked about the broader state of sketch comedy, Torres admitted that he doesn’t think about the comedic genre in those terms very often. But he did note that it’s “a very difficult time to get new and different kinds of things made.”

“Companies want safer bets, which is sad,” Torres said. The showrunner and comedy darling encouraged streamers and networks to “keep taking risks.”

“But at the same time, I think that it should be a bit of a wake up call for artists to remind ourselves why we’re in it and maybe have a return to true indie work, like indie cinema,” Torres said. “I think of the size of the movies that got made in like the ’90s, etc. At some point everything got so bought up. So I’m curious what would a scrappy indie TV show look like?”

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