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Interview: A Conversation with Christos Nikou, Director of 'Fingernails'

After debuting at the Telluride Film Festival earlier this summer, "Fingernails" had its International Premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Though the SAG-AFTRA strike prevented the talented cast from promoting the film in Canada, including stars Jeremy Allen White, Jessie Buckley, and Riz Ahmed, the film saw an excellent showing by the press and the general public at the highly anticipated screening.

"Fingernails" is a science fiction romantic drama where couples choose to take a test to see if they are compatible. A fingernail must be removed and studied in a machine during this test. Anna (Buckley) secretly takes a job at The Institute, where these tests are performed without informing her boyfriend (White). This is also where she possibly finds love with her co-worker Amir (Ahmed).

I had the pleasure of speaking with the Greek "Fingernails" director Christos Nikou ahead of the Toronto launch about working with the film's song choices, working with the cast, and themes of loneliness and connection.

MC: Hi Christos! Today is the big premiere, how are you feeling?

CN: I'm feeling good. I'm going to go to the premiere in a few hours. I believe that it will be great. I'm always optimistic.

MC: I did get a chance to screen the film ahead of time. It's wonderful! Where did you come up with the concept for this movie?

CN: About five years ago when I had the idea, I was trying to understand what is love and I was trying to understand how love works. I was trying to understand why people and especially the younger generations are approaching love in a completely different way. Most of the people right now, they're using dating apps in order to find love. They're using their fingers to swipe right or left in order to find real love and the perfect match. Because I have never used these things in my life, I was always fascinated and I was trying to understand why people are doing it.

MC: I noticed that a lot of the technology that's in the film seems a little outdated, maybe kind of late 90s, especially for the test that they use to match with their romantic partners. Was that a purposeful choice? Is it supposed to be set in that era and this is just the technology that they have available to them?

CN: People are looking for answers through technology, through their cell phones, and through dating apps. We tried to create something that looks a little bit more analog and a little bit more timeless. So the movie probably takes place in the 70s, 80s, or 90s. We don't know exactly [when]. I mean the last reference in the movies is "Notting Hill.". We tried to avoid everything that came after the 2000s. It's the time that we started using more technology and the internet, and I tried to symbolize the whole technology by creating this test machine. It's the only technological device that people are always going into that small room to find the answers about love.

MC: Anna and Ryan already know that they are 100% match, a positive match at the beginning of the film, but something seems to be pulling her towards something else. She's kind of questioning everything: she leaves her chosen profession to go to this institute and work there. What do you think that says about our current dating culture?

CN: I think that about our dating culture, for sure. It says a lot about how we are trying to find something in a way that it is all for me. I mean, it is wrong for me, not the whole world, but going through dating apps to find the perfect match. Even in a little bit of a lucky way, because sometimes you are just letting an algorithm tell you who is the right person for you. Anna, in a world like that, is trying to find her own way to escape a little bit from this world, even if she's in that 100% relationship. I think that love is something that you have to work on every day and love is something that you need to pay attention to every day. You think that it's the only thing that you need and you don't need to work on it anymore. It feels a little bit like this [marriage] certificate and it's like the ring that we're putting on our fingers in order to be married and to feel that okay, we did it. So right now, we are secured into that and we need to do other things in our life. Somehow you have to work on it every day.

MC: Were you inspired by any other filmmakers or any other films? I seem to see a lot of Charlie Kaufman and maybe some kind of echoes of "Her" in this movie.

CN: Definitely. "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." It's always an inspiration for me. I mean, it's probably the best script ever written. Spike Jonze of course, even "The Truman Show" by Peter Weir, another unique film in the way that they created this prophecy about our lives. These are things that have inspired me a lot. In a way, I'm also trying to make films but I hope that we have created something that has its unique voice.

MC: Thinking of a unique voice, I noticed the song "Only You" by Yazoo in this film is used pretty prominently. It's something that comes up a couple of times and it establishes a connection between Jessie Buckley's and Riz Ahmed's characters. That song is also featured in a pivotal scene in the movie "Can't Hardly Wait," which is also from the 90s. I don't know if you've ever seen it, but it's for whatever reason a song that always resonates with me and makes me think of "Can't Hardly Wait." Now I feel like it's the same with "Fingernails." Why that song? What drew you to that song and what do you think that song says about love in general?

CN: In general, I'm a huge fan of songs from the 80s and I love Yazoo. We also used "Don't Go by Yazoo, so we used two songs of theirs [in the film]. I don't know if that song sounds like the perfect romantic song, but every time I hear the beginning of the song, I feel something and I feel very connected. I didn't know that it was in "Can't Hardly Wait." I mean, I saw that movie around 20 years ago and I didn't remember that it was there. It's funny because when we were making the film, the Director of Photography told me that it is in one of his favorite movies, "Fallen Angels" by Kar-Wai Wong and I didn't even remember that it was in that film. I was thinking that we discovered this song for the film but it was already in other movies. It is a great song. I love it so much and I hope that it works for this film and I love the moment that Jessie sings that song in the film.

MC: I love that moment too! So the title of the movie is "Fingernails." It kind of references the act of pulling out fingernails in an attempt to find romance and one's perfect match. What's something that you've done to prove your love to somebody?

CN: I haven't pulled any fingernails out yet! I hope that there will be no need to do that. I don't know if I have done very stupid romantic tests in the past to be honest. Once, I traveled 20 hours to see a person for only 30 minutes. But maybe it's not enough. I don't know if I have lost something from my body for another yet. Maybe in the future.

MC: Some of the characters still feel loneliness even if they found love. Do you think that someone can find happiness and also still feel alone within themselves?

CN: We are alone 24/7 with ourselves. I mean we are living with ourselves 24/7, so definitely loneliness is a part of our life. At the same time, in order to fight this loneliness and in order to feel more full, we need humans around us. Even if humans are those that we are in love with, even if they are fantastic friends, even if they're just people that we need around us. I think that if you are in a relationship you will feel a little bit lonely, but the less lonely you will feel, the better for you.

MC: What was the experience like working with Riz Ahmed, Jessie Buckley, and Jeremy Allen White? Each of these actors have worked hard for years and are finally seeing their time in the sun just within the last couple of years. All three of them have really become A-list actors. What was that experience like? What was the casting process like and did you enjoy working with them?

CN: Of course! I will do it immediately, working with all of them all over again. The good thing is that when we approached them, they all said yes. They are amazing actors, all of them, but mostly they're amazing humans, so they made my life easier and my work easier. With Jessie, she always surprises me. Whatever she's doing. I think that's because of this melancholic smile that we needed for the film. Riz is a chameleon. Eeven from "Four Lions," comedic parts, to "Sound of Metal," he was amazing and he should have won the Oscar. I think that is a guy that I have never seen before in a romantic movie. We approached the two of them at the beginning and they said yes. Then we were trying to find who would be the third person and that was the most tricky thing. When you have Riz and Jessie, you know that Riz can give a very intense and powerful performance. You need somebody that can give an equal performance in order to make the whole story more complex. Not to make something very easy. Jeremy was just the perfect choice. I saw "The Bear," the first season, and I was like, "Okay, that's the guy, it cannot be somebody else." We're just very lucky that he also said yes immediately. They're perfect in the film, I think.

MC: I love all three of them in the film. I thought they were perfectly cast and did such a great job. What is one thing that you hope for the audience to take away once the credits start rolling?

CN: I really hope that they will question things about themselves, about their own experiences, about their own relationships. I really hope that they will try to understand if they did it right or wrong in the past. To really feel the emotions of this movie and the emotions that we tried to create in the film.

MC: Thank you so much Christos. Good luck with the film! It was nice meeting you.

CN: Nice meeting you too.

"Fingernails" will have a limited theatrical release on October 27, 2023, and will begin streaming on Apple TV+ on November 3rd.


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