In an exclusive interview with Villain Media, actor/writer/director Eli Batalion talks about his hilarious and quirky buddy comedy, Appiness. Find out how this coming-of-age take on adulthood and the tech industry really came about!.
When Eric Newman (Ei Batalion), a shy corporate professional on the cusp of his 30’s, gets laid off out of the blue, a chance meeting with long-lost techie buddy Raj Patel (Varun Saranga) leads to scheming on startup billionaire dreams. With the help of a grassroots team led by the multi-talented Jeanine Genet (Amber Goldfarb), Eric and Raj may just be on the road to riches, freedom and finding their true calling. But what starts off promising soon turns into a slippery slope of growing sacrifices, leading them to not just question what they should really be doing with their lives, but also, like, how long they have left to live.
With Appiness now available on VOD, Eli Batalion talks about how the project came about, his collaborations with co-stars Varun Saranga and Amber Goldfarb, and directing himself. Check out our review as we head on over to the director’s studio to discuss the craft of comedy.
Villain Media: How did the concept for Appiness come about?
Ei Batalion: There was a stint of my life where I found myself working in and around digital media and startups. Being a comedy writer, as I observed the subculture of people in this world, I felt there was a lot of fodder to tell a comedic story around the themes, personalities and lingo I came across, because it’s, well, a lot. I believe Mike Judge had based Office Space on some of his own working experiences, finding the comedy in the corporate work subculture. And I felt I’d try to do the same in my time and place, in this case many years later, and thousands of miles from Silicon Valley.
VM: Eric attempts to find purpose in his life after losing his job. Tell me about creating the character arc for Eric.
EB: Well, I’d be lying if I said that there weren’t large elements of myself in the indecision on the choices to do with one’s life. I mostly still haven’t figured that out — and I’m sprouting new beautiful greys every day — The film is fairly meta in that part of my voyage was deciding at a certain point I just wasn’t going to live a more conventional professional life, and was going to do this weird film-ish “lifestyle.”
And to do so, at least in my own journey, took some degree of balls, and decisiveness. So for Eric, I wanted to start with the idea that he gets laid off and that’s the catalyst for having to start afresh — note that Eric doesn’t quit, but it has to happen to him to get him to a point where he can make decisions and not let life happen to him.
And in meeting his old long long high school friend, he gets back in touch with some of his older self where things were less complicated. In some ways, I’ve felt that connecting with the things that made me excited back in high school, in a time before certain adult responsibilities were top of mind, are those same references from which I draw inspiration and energy to do new things in my actual life. And in fact, one of those things is music, another meta point of the film!
VM: Tell me about the challenges of directing yourself as well as an ensemble cast.
EB: It’s definitely a triage, and so what happens in a triage is that a lot of the burden ends up falling on other people. Without having 1st AD Joseph-Antoine Clavet, EP Philip Kalin-Hajdu and script super Julie Janssens overseeing things, checking things out, and in video village as they’re happening, you’re leaving it up to chance — and on top of that, I had a lot of faith in my cast and particularly my fellow leads to pull it off in a remarkably small amount of takes.
There’s no way that direction of performance doesn’t suffer from the fact that you’re in the scenes. And in this case, I think I was in 95% of the scenes. Even your own performance will naturally suffer. But, as a director, it’s a choice you make for the overall creative vision of the film. And you evaluate the pros and cons, and go with what you think is going to work out best. While we didn’t have a ton of time to rehearse, which we did was critical, I think many filmmakers who come from a theatre or performance background find it peculiar how little rehearsal is expected in films when doing that can make things so much easier on the day.
VM: I loved the bond between Eric and Raj, because they’re always getting on each other’s nerves like brothers. Tell me about developing the chemistry between you and Varun Saranga.
EB: I saw a lot of talented people for Raj. A handful of which it was anti-climactic to have to turn down because they brought great talents to the table. But Varun instantly had me and my producing team dropping our pencils, so to speak. Since Varun himself writes and directs, I think he instantly got what I was going for with the Raj character and I felt validated that as a fellow creator, he could understand the character. As though he himself had grown up around someone like that, and was able to channel it based on that.
Another key choice of Varun in this role is that he’s just naturally lovable. And the thing about Raj that’s important, is that while he is meant to be annoying and at times grossly irresponsible, he has to remain lovable throughout all that for the relationship to work inside the film, and subsequently for the audience to believe in the relationship from outside the film.
VM: Tell me about working with Amber Goldfarb. The relationship between Jeanine and Eric goes through many levels from sweet, awkward, and quirky.
EB: Like Varun, Amber really got the character quite quickly and I feel was able to cover the range between someone who is both very confident and not really confident at the same time. And someone who is serious and on-the-ball, but at the same time has a geeky and silly side too. It takes a certain degree of range to do that. I feel very fortunate to have come across Amber for the role because I think she instantly got all these aspects of the range. And like Varun, also brought elements of her own personality to the table which naturally jived with the character.
VM: How did Appiness change you as an artist?
EB: My entire artistic career I’ve worked in partnerships — and the Eric and Raj dynamic is a major caricaturization of elements of work partner “marriages.” But Appiness was very much a lot just me. True, in some ways with this film I was never surrounded by more people but particularly, that happened in the super brief 11 days in which this film was shot and people are running around all over the place.
As any director/creator is likely to admit, most of it is the script or blueprint you spend in isolation on in advance, and the cuts you work on in near isolation for ages afterwards. And to do so alone as an artist is just a different experience, with its own pros and cons. You’re calling all the shots.
Sometimes it’s a good thing. Sometimes it’s not a good thing. Or at least, you would prefer to share the responsibility with someone else. One thing is for sure, this was really a challenge put to myself, like someone who decides they’re going to run a marathon, when they’re not even much of a walker to begin with. And seeing what’s possible when you thrust yourself into a challenge is an important experience as an artist, and really, just as a person.
VM: How can the readers of Villain Media find your movie?
EB: If you’re in the US, the film is available on a whole buncha sites:
Vimeo OnDemand: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/appiness
If you’re in my native Canada, you can buy it/rent it through:
or through the NFB: https://www.nfb.ca/film/appiness/
If you’re elsewhere, I guess hold on!
VM: What are you working on now?
EB: I continue to do a lot with my YidLife Crisis project with partner Jamie Elman (yidlifecrisis.com). We grew a unique web series paying tribute to the Yiddish language and theYiddish comedy and theatre performing tradition growing up here in Montreal, and started from that touring around the world screening our work and doing live shows. On top of this, we ended up getting into documentary work and actually ended up putting out a documentary feature all about the Jewish history of Montreal through its incredible Jewish food culture, called “CHEWDAISM: A Taste of Jewish Montreal.” It’s sort of a comedic foodiesque romp in and around the bagel and much more.
All the while, I’m developing my next comedy, and this time, I’m going dark…
Readers can find out more about Appiness here:
[Writer’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Links are highlighted in bold.]