Fingernails, which arrives on Apple TV+ this Friday, is one of the most unique romantic comedies of the year. We spoke to its director, Christos Nikou, about smell tests, Yazoo’s Only You and the Hugh Grant that got away…
Would you sacrifice a fingernail to find the love of your life?
That’s the question posed by Apples director Christos Nikou’s new film, which takes a Black Mirror-style concept (romantic compatibility can be measured by putting a couple’s fingernails in fancy microwave) and makes something a whole lot lovelier than Charlie Brooker normally aims for.
Where did the idea for Fingernails come from?
It started a few years ago when I was trying to understand “what is love?”. And I’m still trying to understand what love is, I don’t know what is love, actually. Because love is the most elusive thing, it’s not something that we can analyse, but we need to feel it. And sometimes we’re projecting things onto other people because we need to feel it. Or we’re just creating this fake emotional need in order to believe that we feel it. But it’s something that we all need in our life.
And at the same time, I was seeing so many people, and especially from the younger generation around me using all these dating apps; swiping right or left with their finger and their name in order to find the perfect match. And I understand that that’s a different way of doing it, but at the same time, I feel that we cannot just expect an algorithm to suggest people to us. We need to look at something more instinctive.
That’s a huge part of the film’s message, I suppose it’s that contrast between an algorithm or a scientific explanation for love…
Yeah, and it’s that idea that we’ve created this test machine to find true love. That’s why we’re trying to completely remove all other kinds of technology in the film. We’re letting only one technological device give all the answers to people. It’s like how we’re all using technology in order to meet people right now, to find love. For me, it’s very crazy when I’m seeing people texting for two weeks, if they’re connecting through a dating app, and then they are meeting in person and the same chemistry isn’t there. That’s what is more important, to meet people in real life and not through a screen.
That really comes across in the film, it’s so physical and tactile. It’s all shot on 35mm, and obviously there’s the very visceral pulling out of the fingernails. Was that sort of physicality something that you were really trying to get out of the script?
Yeah, everything. Even if we don’t have, let’s say, the physical connection through sex scenes in the movie, we are having all this… I mean, I don’t know how many times Jessie and Riz are looking each other in the eyes in the movie – I might need to count. But we tried to access it in that way. Because it’s always missing in our life. We’re not looking at each other. You’re going to a restaurant and you’re seeing a couple sitting next to each other, and most of the time… Yeah.
You mentioned chemistry as well. In terms of casting Riz Ahmed and Jessie Buckley, they’ve got fantastic chemistry on screen, but is that quite a scary prospect going into a film like this, which really lives and dies on whether the audience believes in that connection?
We were very lucky. I love both of them, and I think that they’re amazing actors, but I hadn’t seen them on something romantic before. But I felt that they’ve always given such warm performances. I thought they’d be nice people, and they’d bring that to the set and on screen.
But also, to maintain that chemistry on set, I was always playing a different song the whole time before shooting each scene to convey the feeling that I wanted the scene to create. And because they were both listening the same song all the time before shooting every scene, so this was connecting them even more and more and more and more and I think that it worked very well.
I was going to ask about the soundtrack as well, because there’s a lot of really great needle drops in there. I think ‘Only You’ comes up a few times…
Yes, three times: there’s a French version, an acapella version, and one at the end.
Was that one of the songs that you were playing on set? Or was that something that came in later?
No, we mostly used songs that are not in the movie, actually. As I was writing I had songs in mind for the film, we had to change a few of them for budget reasons, but I couldn’t tell you that I chose the songs to create something very specific; I just chose them because I loved them.
And then Christopher Stracey’s score is absolutely beautiful. What was that collaboration like, if music’s so integral to the writing process?
He’s an amazing, amazing composer, I think within the future, he will win a lot of Oscars. He’s very young, he just started composing for films, and I think that he has a lot of talent. I mean, what I loved about working with him is that how he created the perfect balance between all these folk songs, with the piano cradle to bring the more melancholic side in sometimes. And he was great with the comedy that the movie has to bring as well, because we were trying all the time to create this sort of “melancholic smile” tone. And I think that he really understood that. I love the score so much.
You’ve mentioned that ‘melancholic smile’ tone in interviews before, what do you mean by that? Is that where you find that balance between the comedy and the drama?
Yes, because life is like that. And to be honest, it’s how I am as a person. I know that sometimes I’m in a very melancholic mood, but at the same time I’m trying always to be funny or to take everything in an optimistic way and with a smile. So I think that that’s what we tried to do. And in my previous movie, Apples, and in this one we tried to make that tone that feels more like a balance between comedy and drama. But I will say Fingernails is more comedic with some melancholic moments in the film, and I think that the movie has that balance.
In terms of defining Fingernails, then, your film straddles a lot of different genres – it’s part rom-com, part sci-fi, all that sort of stuff. Is that anything you’re thinking about in terms of inspirations and things?
No, to be honest. I’m not a big fan of genre films that’re only doing one thing because I prefer when films can do many things. Those are always my favourite films, like The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, they are doing so many different things.
But at the same time, I love romcoms. I think that it’s my guilty pleasure. I was saying yesterday that actually, because you mentioned rom-coms and science fiction, I think that Notting Hill is more of a science fiction or a fantasy than a rom-com. I mean, owning a bookstore and having the most successful actors in the world come in and tell you she’s standing in front of you? It’s definitely science fiction.
There’s a lovely moment in the film where you say “No one understands love better” than Hugh Grant.
We tried to cast him! He was going to have Luke Wilson’s role [the owner of the love company]. We were thinking that it would be nice for the creator of the test to be the only guy who always gets the girl at the end. But he couldn’t do it. We were already doing a retrospective on romantic movies, so I decided that since we don’t have him, we’ll put his name on the marquee.
So that love of rom-coms that you’re talking about is present throughout the film: would you describe yourself as a romantic in that way?
More than I should be, I think. We were having so much fun actually, coming up with all these different tasks and different activities. Somehow people believe that they can connect through different things, but also it’s interesting that they can believe romance only works in the rain or through French language or whatever. The only one I would ever consider doing one day is the blindfolded smell test: I would love to try to find my partner in between other people. Because it’s crazy! We’re living with a person 24/7 and maybe we don’t remember how this person smells, you know?
That would scare the hell out of me. But one of the things that I really liked about Fingernails is it’s almost as much about the end of one relationship as it is the start of another. There’s a lot of focus on Ryan, who I think is a really interesting character. Where did he come from?
I think that all the all the characters are coming from different places. With Ryan, we were trying to create the character who doesn’t try so much in the relationship, who’s getting into a routine. And he’s just leaving himself there and doesn’t try to work on it. Yeah. And while Jessie and Riz are trying to find something real, he’s the guy who has already proved it. He doesn’t want to prove it again.
What’s up next for you?
I’m trying to make a movie following a group of background actors in famous movies from the 1980s.
Brilliant. Thank you so much!
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