It’s not every director who gets to turn Cate Blanchett down. Rarer still for a first-time filmmaker from Europe whose arty, offbeat debut — a poetic, surreal, soulful meditation on memory and grief — might have easily escaped the attention of Hollywood royalty.
But “Apples,” by Greek director Christos Nikou, charmed audiences after its 2020 premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where Blanchett presided over the main competition jury. After being wowed by a film that would go on to complete the fall-festival trifecta at Telluride and Toronto, Blanchett reached out to the filmmaker for a sit-down on the Lido.
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When he read the text, Nikou couldn’t believe his eyes.
“‘No, that’s a joke,’” he recalls thinking at the time, adding with an embarrassed laugh that he considered skipping the meeting altogether. But Nikou’s better judgment got the best of him, and when Blanchett did indeed turn up for their breakfast tête-à-tête, the two hardly put a dent in their croissants.
“We met and we talked for an hour, two hours,” says Nikou, speaking to Variety from his home in Athens. “We realized how much we share exactly the same passion about cinema.” During their conversation, Blanchett asked point-blank if she could play a part in the director’s next film. Nikou balked. “There’s not exactly a part for you in this movie,” he was forced to admit. But Blanchett, he says, insisted, “Can I produce it?”
Three years later, after the actress signed on to executive produce “Apples” and steer its release and subsequent Oscar campaign in the international feature film race, Nikou’s sophomore effort, “Fingernails,” produced by Blanchett, husband Andrew Upton and Coco Francini through their Dirty Films banner, along with FilmNation Entertainment’s Lucas Wiesendanger, is ready to make its debut. Premiering at Telluride before screening at the Toronto Film Festival, the star-studded feature will hit theaters and drop on Apple TV+ on Nov. 3.
With an ensemble cast led by red-hot talents Jessie Buckley, Riz Ahmed and Jeremy Allen White, “Fingernails” imagines an alternate reality set in a not-too-distant, analog past where a cutting-edge machine can accurately determine whether a couple is in love. Resembling a first-gen microwave more than a sophisticated piece of advanced technology, the machine spits out results after studying the composition of the subjects’ fingernails, which have been pried off by researchers at the Love Institute where much of the film takes place.
At turns warm, wry, deadpan, tender and utterly sincere, “Fingernails” is Nikou’s attempt to unpack “how difficult it is to fall in love, how love has changed…[and] how we experience love in a different way” in an era of cell phones and dating apps. Swayed by the assurances of the machine’s inventor and the institute’s founder, played by Luke Wilson, the couples who take the test are no less willing to submit to its scientific certitudes than the heartsick hopefuls who put their faith in the opaque algorithms that seem to set the parameters for love in our modern world.
“Fingernails” features some of the same preoccupations of Nikou’s arresting, surprising debut. “Apples,” presciently and eerily released during the first coronavirus summer, is also set in a world not unlike our own — sans cell phones and other modern gadgets — and takes place during a mysterious pandemic that causes widespread amnesia. It, too, was an attempt by Nikou to grapple with the impact of technology on how we live, love and grieve, as the director probed at the question of what essential qualities that make us human are lost in the digital age.
Co-written by Nikou, Sam Steiner and Stavros Raptis and lensed by “Euphoria” cinematographer Marcell Rév, “Fingernails” pulls off a tricky high-wire act as it attempts to portray “an alternate reality [that] at the same time…feels grounded,” says Nikou.
The director — who cites Charlie Kaufman as a major influence and describes “The Truman Show” as “the best movie ever made” — says he’s drawn to films that “create a parallel world, but without trying to do it in a very futuristic…[and] distant way.” Instead, he wants his cinematic universe to be “grounded and warm,” to feel not unlike our own, allowing him to “comment about our society and talk about our reality” in offbeat and unexpected ways.
“Fingernails” marks the director’s English-language debut, and his first time working with A-list celebrities. Yet he insists the feeling was “exactly the same” when he stepped on set with Buckley, Ahmed, White and the rest of the star-packed cast. “We immediately understood that we were talking the same language,” he says. “We’re all there with the same passion, making a movie.”
That’s not to suggest there wasn’t one sizeable difference for Nikou: Backed by tech giant Apple, “Fingernails” had a budget that dwarfed his scrappy, low-fi, Greek debut. Whereas “Apples” had a crew of two dozen — most of whom were the director’s long-time collaborators and friends — production in Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, where most of “Fingernails” was filmed, boasted a hundred-strong crew. That meant Nikou was able “to do things that I couldn’t do” in his first feature. “‘Apples’ had a lot of still shots because we couldn’t move the camera,” he says, laughing. “We didn’t have a grip. We didn’t have equipment. It was much more guerrilla style.”
The director is tight-lipped about upcoming projects, although he confirms he has two scripts in development: a ’90s-set film about movie extras and a musical. “Fingernails” screens Sept. 12 as a Special Presentation at the Toronto Film Festival ahead of a limited theatrical release on Oct. 27.
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