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A Conversation with Christos Nikou (FINGERNAILS)

Christos Nikou Is a Greek writer and director who has worked in the industry for over a decade. Before his amazing debut feature Apples He served as an assistant director on many films including Dogtooth for Yorgos Lanthimos and Before Midnight For Richard Linklater. His debut was a smashing success which saw the film bouncing from the top film festivals in the world including Venice, Hong Kong, and Zurich. Since Apples, Christos began work on his latest film Fingernails. This film, which releases on Apple TV November 3, features Christos at the height of his powers. He also finds himself working with one of the best casts of the year including Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed, Jeremy Allen White and Luke Wilson. Christos does an incredible job writing a script that plays to all their strengths. Fingernails featured at London, San Sebastian and Sao Paulo’s international film festivals. The following conversation was edited for length and clarity.

Hammer To Nail: Hello. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really enjoyed the film.

Christos Nikou: Thank you! I love that the publication has the word “Nail” in it. Very fitting

HTN: Haha, Yes we have “Nail” in our name so it works out. Anyway, the film features an incredible cast, including Riz Ahmed, Jessie Buckley, Jeremy, Allan White and Luke Wilson. I’m just wondering how this amazing cast came together?

CN: I really love their performances from the past. Jessie always surprises me, and Riz is completely a chameleon. The way that he adapts from comedy to something dramatic, but I had never seen both of them in something romantic.  I always thought that Riz and Jesse would have great chemistry together.  I really wanted them to play these roles.  And then when we cast the two of them, we were thinking, okay, now we need the third person in this triangle that will make sense and make it not an easy decision for the audience.  I then watched the first season of The Bear and immediately thought Jeremy Allen White was perfect. I met him and it went great. He’s an amazing actor. I call him,” the one take actor.” Everything is perfect from the first take. I think that he brought a lot to this role. And then for Luke Wilson, I have always been a fan. And the last two years I haven’t seen a lot of things from him. I hope that this movie will be like a rediscovery for what he has done on so many films from the beginning of his career.  It was really great working with him because he also brought something really melancholic and funny to the character.

HTN: Yes. Well, all the performances were great and I thought that you wrote great characters for them. So it was really awesome. And speaking of that script, the film has a great [one], but I wonder, with so much star power in the film, do you allow room for improv or is everything said here written?

CN: I mean, we followed the script. Of course, I was letting the actors change lines to suit them, But also without losing the tone, the comedic tone, the melancholic tone, and without losing what we had on the script, I mean, we stayed very close to the script, actually.

HTN: Got it. Well, you served as an assistant director for Yorgos Lanthimos in the past and just perusing around online, it seems that many people have been quick to compare this film to his work. And I’m wondering, do you take inspiration from Yorgos for this film? And if not, what is inspiring you here?

CN: I don’t think that there is any similarity to the work of Yorgos and our film. People make the comparison generally sometimes because we are both from Greece. Okay. Alexander Payne is also from Greece. Why are they not comparing this movie to The Holdovers. I don’t know. I mean, I feel that for me it’s a little bit strange to hear it. Of course we are both making conceptual stories and we’re making stories that are a little bit different. But I think that there is a big  difference in the tone and the approach. Our approach I feel is more humanistic. I will say our approach and a general inspiration is certainly Charlie Kaufmann with Eternal Sunshine. I was referencing more, let’s say, conceptual stories that are grounded, but really go there and make comments about our society.

HTN: Yes, Eternal Sunshine is definitely one that I saw. Well, you also served as an assistant director to Richard Linklater on Before Midnight. I’m just wondering if you took anything from him that you then applied to your first few features. He’s a great director, obviously.

Luke Wilson in FINGERNAILS

CN: I love his films so much, I mean, Before Sunset , it’s one of the best films ever.. But I don’t know if I do. I mean, I don’t think that I have taken anything from the directors that I have worked with. The only thing that I have taken is actually I was learning how to behave on set. I was the assistant director and that entails doing something completely different on set. I do not think that I gained anything from their extensive experience.

HTN: An early sequence I love in this film is when the younger couple are blindfolded and the male is asked to find his girlfriend via sniffing. So I’m just wondering, what was your thinking behind this moment?

CN: That’s my favorite task to be honest, from all of them. And that’s something that, if I ever was to do any of these tasks, I would 100% do this one because I think that it is very surprising that we are next to a person, to our partners, 24/7, but we do not know exactly how our partner smells .We all get into this routine and we start forgetting about small details.  They are really important. you should remember exactly how your partner smells and I think it’s also a funny moment in the movie.

HTN: It is very funny. It’s a good moment. I enjoyed it a lot and there’s actually another funny moment early on where the older couple who’s desperate for a positive test are trying to make their love work. Riz asks the male what it is he loves about Maria that makes her the ideal partner for him. And all he can really think of is the smell of her hair. So I thought that was very funny as well. I’m just wondering what you’re thinking behind that moment.

CN: I love this first interview. His facial expression is perfect in this moment. He was so, so good. His name was Albert Song and he’s so talented. The whole sequence is about how this institute is trying to ask all these questions because they are trying to turn love into science. It’s like when you go to a doctor and he’s asking you questions and you’re like, “What the fuck I have to answer that right now?” If you ever go to a therapist, they will ask you questions that will make you feel very uncomfortable. And for me, that’s how they have designed this institute. having all these uncomfortable questions at the beginning. That is why Jessie reacts and asks why that is the first question? This whole scene is really about how there can often be a clinical approach to more emotional things when there should not be.

HTN: Yeah. Which is why I like the idea of this love test that really,  turns it cold with that percentage. So I think it’s a nice metaphor. And you worked with Marcel Rev on this film. This is, I think, your first time working with him as cinematographer. What was your guy’s approach like? The film looks awesome.

CN: Thank you. First of all, we shot it on 35 MM because we tried to create something that looks  timeless. That’s why we also kept even all the scratches and dirt that is on the screen. We kept it and we tried to make it look like an old film. I believe that it’s like a movie that was shot probably at the end of the nineties and somebody put it in a time capsule and right now people are discovering it. So we tried to give that look to the film and also the way that we approach that whole story is that by being a little bit more distant or a little bit more static, when we were trying to show the routine or  the relationship of Jessie and Jeremy and how we were trying to be a little bit more active and more close and more hand-held  with Riz and Jessie. That was all to create this feeling that they felt more alive when they were together.

HTN: The decision to shoot in 35MM is definitely a strong one. I think it paid off. And one of my favorite moments, visually and sonically is this hilariously strange dance party that happens at around the 50 minute mark. Talk about your excellent song selection and just the overall execution of that moment.

CN: These are songs that I love, so I cannot tell you that we chose them because for that reason, or another, it’s just songs that I love. I love music and I love these synth 80s synth pop songs and we just needed them. I loved this scene. We were having a lot of fun because I love when characters are dancing. When they are dancing you also feel that they’re feeling more free.  They can express themselves with their body language. And I’m always fascinated by that. I’m always fascinated by dance scenes.

HTN: Yeah.  I really loved this dystopian dance moment! Well, for me, you never really get the sense that Riz Ahmed’s character believes in his own profession. I thought that he was a great character. I just wanted you to talk about your thinking behind this person that you wrote.

CN: We’re trying to create a character that is a little bit an outsider, a character that is coming from out of this world.  This character has tried many times to fall in love and hasn’t succeeded. And he’s trying to find a reason why he hasn’t succeeded. And so he’s trying to question things around Love and also to find answers in these longings. That’s why he’s faking that he is in a relationship. He is hiding a lot of his real emotions behind his sense of humor. He is very hurt from the past clearly. He says when they are in bed together “what’s wrong with me?” In my opinion, nothing is wrong with him.

Jesse Bucley and Riz Ahmed in FINGERNAILS

HTN: Yeah. I really loved his character. So I’m just wondering, practically, I won’t spoil anything that happens, but how were the fingernails achieved? I thought that what you did with them was disturbing and well-executed.

CN: We tried to do it in a gentle way, to be honest, because we didn’t try to make it look like a body horror film. Mainly we tried to make the audience feel their emotions through the faces of the characters at the moment they are doing it. We tried to make the audience feel how uncomfortable they were at that moment. They’re trying to sacrifice something for finding something real and for finding the truth. They believe that they will find the truth in that moment. We did not remove any nail of any actor haha. They all still have their nails  there.

HTN: Well, I just figured there has to be a lot of thought put into the fingernail if your movie is going to be called Fingernails. I’m just wondering about your screenwriting process, do you treat it like it’s a 9 to 5 or are you writing at erratic hours?

CN: When we were writing at the beginning, the first draft was with our two co-writers. I had to accommodate them so we wrote at times that they could write at. I wound up rewriting the whole first draft and when I write on my own…I do not have a  time. I usually write very late at night. My sweet spot is 12 to 5 AM. That is the best time of the day.

HTN: Yeah. I mean, I feel the same way when I write, but I wonder, do you feel like that is something that’s going to be sustainable for you?

CN: I mean, I’m still single and without family so I can do it. I believe that if I have kids it will be very difficult at 12 at night to write 5 hours. But yes, at the moment, I can still do it.

HTN: So the film is releasing on Apple TV, and I think it’s great to see a big company like Apple taking on something more obtuse like this film. I’m just wondering, what was your experience like with that?

CN: It was really great. I mean, they were very, very supportive from the beginning. They made us an offer last year in Cannes when we presented the film to the buyers, and it was actually by far the best offer we had because they said they would do a  theatrical release, which was very, very important for me because I think that I know that we are making a movie with them, but also I believe that at the beginning the movie should be, even for a bit, playing on the big screen. But then for sure, from the moment that the movie will be on their platform, it will be amazing because more and more and more people will discover it. So it’s just great. I mean, we are making movies for audiences and they have so much audience that they follow them. YeahI’m just excited for people who discover it.

HTN: Right. Well, I’m excited too because it’s an awesome film and yeah, I hope people check it out. Well, that’s all the questions that I have today. But thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me and joining in from London. We have quite the time difference, but it’s all right. We made it work.

CN: Thank you.

– Jack Schenker (@YUNGOCUPOTIS)

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Jack Schenker is based in Los Angeles, CA. He has worked in the film industry for 5 years at various companies including Mighty Engine, Film Hub, and Grandview. Jack continues to write for Hammer to Nail, conducting interviews with prominent industry members including Steve James, Riley Keough, Christian Petzold, and Ira Sachs. His dream is to one day write and direct a horror film based on the work of Nicolas Winding Refn and Dario Argento. He directed his first short film this year titled Profondo. Jack's favorite filmmakers include Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, Denis Villeneuve, Bong Joon Ho, David Lean, John Carpenter, Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, and Robert Altman to name a few. Look out for Jack on Twitter (aka X). You can see the extent of Jack's film knowledge on Letterboxd, where he has written over 1000 reviews and logged over 1600 films.

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