San Sebastian 2023 interview: Christos Nikou (Fingernails)

After seeing Christos Nikou’s new film Fingernails, Cédric Succivalli sent a message to a friend declaring his love for the director. Somehow that message reached Nikou, and the director suggested the two of them meet up for a talk about the film, unpretentiousness, his lead actors Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed, music, and about finding the right tone.

CS: I was a big fan of your debut feature, Apples. A director’s sophomore effort always brings high expectations. I had them, and I must say you outdid yourself. Getting straight to the point, one of Fingernails‘ strengths is that it is rare to talk about themes like timelessness and romanticism in a way that makes it accessible to a large mainstream audience. It’s one of the most unpretentious films I’ve seen that deals with those themes. Yet at the same time it deals with such emotionally charged themes in a way that makes us directly connect to the film.

CN: That is why we are making films. We’re making films for audiences, we are making films in the hope of making people love them and feel their emotions. After Apples I wanted to make something that still has my tone, my sensibilities and about things that I think about, but then to try and make it, not necessarily more mainstream, but more accessible. And for that it helps to have actors that are bigger stars and are really great in the film.

CS: The chemistry between Jessie Buckley and Riz Ahmed is palpable for the audience, so I would like to know how you directed them, especially when it comes to the non-verbal communication conveyed through your camera and your gaze as a director. How did you direct them to have this much chemistry?

CN: First of all, I love Jessie in general. She was the only option for this role, as was Riz for his part. I really wanted to work with both of them, and I always believed in them. When my producers asked if I thought they would have good chemistry, I said, “One hundred percent.” Of course I didn’t know that for sure, but I just felt that they would. For me, that was the only sure thing about this film. So when we sold it to Apple in Cannes, I met the two of them for a celebration dinner and when they were sitting next to each other I thought, “We have the film“. We knew the chemistry, which is important for the film, would be an easy thing. It is crazy how well they adapted to the tone of the film and how easily they understood what the film needed, and how much warmth they brought to the film. You just feel that they are both nice and tender people. We talked a lot about films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or The Truman Show, which has always been one of my favourites. Or Mike Mills’ Beginners. All of these films have a certain warmth and I feel are underrated, because they have such a great tone. Before shooting a scene I always played a song that would make them connect to and feel something for that scene through the music. When you shoot, everything is always a bit more clinical, so this was my way to make everyone connect on set, and the whole crew was listening to these songs; after a while they even started singing them and getting excited about each new song.

CS: And then you have the scene where Riz Ahmed is dancing, and Jessie Buckley’s character realizes that she is falling in love with him as she watches him through the window. She accepts it and acknowledges it to herself, which is an emotionally powerful moment even if it’s pretty simple narratively. Speaking of music, how was your cooperation with Christopher Stracey? You have a lot of original songs in the film, a lot of classics from the ’80s and ’90s. How did you coalesce all those different elements musically with him?

CN: We tried to create the perfect tone. I also did it in Apples a bit, mixing famous songs with more melancholic music. Christopher is one of the biggest talents right now; he already did some great stuff, he did War Pony for instance, but he will only get better. He understood perfectly the balance that we needed between the pop songs and even the more comedic side, and then the melancholic side coming from his music. It was always about finding that perfect balance, and I think it came out great.

CS: Fingernails is to me a fountain of curiosity and creativity; it keeps on giving with so many ideas. It’s so rich. Have you seen Leos Carax’s Mauvais Sang with Juliette Binoche? The film reminded me of that. In Mauvais Sang there is a disease that is transmitted between people who make love without loving each other, which made me see a link with your film. Similarly, did you happen to catch Bertrand Bonello’s La bête when you were in Toronto? That film and Fingernails are the most desperately romantic films of the year, and I think there is a clear parallel between the two. Do you see that too?

CN: Mauvais Sang is one of my favourites! The scene with the parachute in my film is a clear reference to Carax’s work. That scene is the only direct reference to another film that we did. Of course it’s done differently, but it is still a direct reference. That parachute scene is the best scene of Mauvais Sang, so I wanted to use that, also because Leos Carax is my favourite director. Well, him and Bresson. He’s not an easy guy though. I met him once and tried to talk to him, and it was… difficult (laughs).

Sadly, I did not manage to see La bête. I wanted to, but at the screening I attended the projector broke down, and then the next day I had a lot of interviews so I missed my opportunity. It’s also playing in Athens, so maybe I’ll have a chance there. Because I’m dying to see it.

CS: There’s a lot of talk about the Greek New Wave, but what about people like Jacqueline Lentzou or Zacharias Mavroeidis, who brought The Summer with Carmen to Venice just a few weeks ago. Do you have a connection to these young, new directors, of which you are one too?

CN: The Summer with Carmen is a very funny film, isn’t it? Anyway, some of them are friends, others I’m not familiar with. But that’s life. There is definitely a lot of talent in Greece right now, and I think in Greece we try to tell unique stories. We are lacking auteurs in cinema at the moment, especially in the US. I don’t know if it is the studios who try to push for more generic and basic works. But in this environment, how will we find the new Leos Carax? People who have their own vision and their own tone.

CS: You were three writers altogether; how did you collaborate?

CN: I had the premise, the starting point. We went to the south of Greece, on the Mediterranean coast. Half the day we were writing, half the day swimming. With a story like that of Fingernails, you tend to keep throwing up ideas, but the tricky thing was to create something coherent from them. I knew in my mind what I wanted to make, even if I’m always telling actors when they ask me for clarification, “I don’t know, let’s just try it“. Because I don’t have all the answers, but I trust my instincts. My instincts tell me something about the tone, about how to create something, and my instincts are always there. And then I just hope it works.

CS: How about the Cronenbergian influences? Were you consciously inspired by his work?

CN: Funnily enough, I’m not really a fan of Cronenberg. The only film of his that I like is A History of Violence, which is a great allegory about people looking for love through their fingers. We are not doing a lot of close-ups on blood or organs or anything, but on that level there is certainly a connection.

CS: Where are you going next in terms of your creative direction, now that you went from a small European indie to a bigger American production?

CN: I’m making a Marvel film (laughs). But seriously, I hope to keep making films like this, films that are accessible to a larger audience but also still have a lot of layers. I’m always fascinated by topics like memory or love, things that are a constant in our lives, that are timeless, and how modern society experiences them and changes them a little bit. My next film will be about extras in famous films from 1984, and it is going to be about how we try to be the protagonist of our own lives, but are extras in this world.

It’s funny, now that we are talking about my film it’s interesting to notice the dichotomy between European and American critics. Half of the critics in Telluride thought there was no chemistry between the leads. The chemistry is 100% there! Maybe they went in with expectations to see something like Lanthimos. I read one review that said, “It’s not as cynical and weird as Lanthimos“. But that’s not the film I wanted to make! This is exactly the film I had in my mind. I liked what you said about the film being unpretentious, because that is what films should be. Film festivals are often pushing the pretentious stuff, but there needs to be a place for unpretentious films too.