Christos Nikou on Cutting to the Core in “Apples”

Although “Apples” very clearly is only the start of a great filmmaker’s career, Christos Nikou knew that leaving an impression with his debut feature could only happen if he thought he’d never have the opportunity to make another.

“I thought of it as maybe my last film, so I’m trying to give everything that I have on the inside,” says Nikou. “My limit is always the sky, so I’m trying to think of the best and then we will see.”

As it would happen, Nikou would look to the end for a beginning as well in the charmingly offbeat comedy about an unnamed man (Aris Servetalis) who is coming to terms with an amnesia that is sweeping across the world, hitting different people at different times and leaving some with a greater memory of the past than others. Inspired by his own experience of losing his father and suddenly being confronted with what stood out about him in his mind and the things he had discarded, Nikou and co-writer Stavros Raptis imagine what it’s like to rebuild consciousness when there is no common consensus and cultural touchstones are no longer the bedrocks they once were in society as the man begins to undergo therapy in the national Disturbed Memory Program where he is obliged to listen to tapes instructing him on how he could regain some semblance of his old life and feel comfortable once again in society.

Memories take a back seat to emotions when he comes into contact with someone (Sofia Georgovasili) similarly lost, who at least has a name to cling onto in Anna, but with nothing to compare it to, the two stumble towards a romance having less of an idea about who they are individually than what they are together. Their initial meeting in a movie theater doesn’t seem coincidental and Nikou takes full advantage of the medium to step inside a place that is at once foreign and close to home, making sense of times where collective memory is fading as a result of technology and increasing tribalism and locating what we still share as human beings. Since “Apples” premiered at the Venice Film Festival, Nikou has already grabbed international attention and is at work on a second feature “Fingernails,” set to be produced by Cate Blanchett who came aboard “Apples” as an executive producer, and as the film rolls out into a world that looks a lot more like the one he envisioned after a global pandemic than the one he began writing it in, the director spoke about what went into crafting a story that could endure, casting such expressive actors in the leads and how the film could reference social media in a universe where it doesn’t exist.

It was surprising to hear the first draft of this might’ve been more comedic and evolved into something more dramatic when I knew this was born out of your father’s death. How did it evolve as a script?

That was our way, with my co-writer, to find the right balance because the topic is something tragic. We are dealing with memory loss and grief and these topics are always really sad. When you’re dealing with something sad, you have to go to the edge to write exactly the opposite, and then somehow to find the balance in between where you can mix all this different approaches and emotions and create a movie that is our life. Our life is a mix of different moments and emotions and we tried to give this cocktail of emotions in the film.

It’s one of my favorite things when you can pull off a big idea like this on an intimate scale – was it difficult to keep it to the right size?

That was our intention from the beginning. That’s why, for example, we used the portrait 4:3 aspect ratio in the film. We shot it in that way because I didn’t want actually to focus so much on the world, but to create a character study and through the character study to understand the world around him. In all the movies that I love, they are creating character studies rather than world creation movies or dystopian films.

For yourself, when you’re trying to create this place that’s abstract in time and space, were there specifics that you could build on for a foundation?

We were trying for sure to create a city that doesn’t exist in reality and it’s the way that we also selected all the locations in Athens and we were trying to create something that looks more timeless. The last element we have in the script is a reference to “Titanic,” which is shot in 1997 and we were trying to have elements from all the previous centuries. That’s why we are using a lot of the analog technology, a lot of items that are almost forgotten to have this almost nostalgic approach to the film.

Yet as I understand it, the tasks that Aris has to do in the film were shaped by social media. How did you come to think of that?

Yes, it is a comment on social media, [his] whole treatment with the doctors. As a society, I think we care right now a little bit more about proving we’re living by posting something [to social media] than to actually live in the moments, so we tried to do that with his tasks, and in general, the selection of these tasks were made in a way as we were trying to find and create different emotions for the amnesiacs and also create different memories [from] another person.

My favorite scene in the film may be when he remembers the song and Anna doesn’t. What was it like to figure out these places where there was no collective memory?

There are some songs that even if we have amnesia, we will never forget and in the script, that scene, the initial song was “Can’t Help Falling in Love” by Elvis Presley because I think that Elvis is somebody that all the amnesiacs in the world can remember. But we couldn’t afford the rights to that song because it was even more than the budget to the film, so then we decided to go with a key that still helps a lot with the tone of the film.

What was it like to find your cast?

Aris is an actor that I have admired from the first moment I saw him in something and I’ve directed a short film and after making the short film, we decided to make another film together, so we wrote the whole script with him in our mind. [Aris and I] had some discussions about how we can create this character and I asked him to watch Jacques Tati and two movies with Jim Carrey, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “The Truman Show” to combine these totally different approaches. It’s funny because many people believe that he looks more like Buster Keaton, so I think if you put in the blender Jacques Tati and Jim Carrey, the result is probably Buster Keaton. [laughs]

For Anna, we made a whole casting process because we already had Aris and we had 10, 12 actresses from Greece and we decided to go with [Sofia Georgovasili] because she was really good on the tape that we created and she was also much more close to the character that we wanted. But most of the actors in Greece are from theater because they are not doing so many movies here, and their performance is always more theatrical. But she never did theater. She was only doing movies, so that was something that I loved about her.

Is it true your co-writer is a casting director? I imagine that may help you figure things out.

Yes, he started also in directing, but he became a casting director and he’s my best friend, so that’s why I’m writing with him. We’re always discussing the casting and he always has great ideas.

Once it’s cast, did anything change once you see the dynamic between your leads?

It’s lovely to see what actors are bringing. Actually, the way that I was working with with Aris mainly, was that we built something in the rehearsals, but then when we were on set, I was always trusting him to do the first take on his own without giving him a direction. I was doing that because either I was keeping nothing from what he was doing [in the final cut] because it wasn’t exactly what I had in mind [laughs] or maybe I was keeping something very small or he was bringing something that I haven’t thought of, but I was always trying to be very open-minded in finding new things together with him.

What was it like to get the film to Venice for its premiere?

It was a great, great moment actually because this whole festival, especially this edition, was something very unique. It was the first time a festival took place that year after the pandemic started and all of us were so excited being there and watching movies again on the big screen. It couldn’t be better, really. And I realized the audience understands and feels the main hero and his emotions — that was the most important for me – that the movie worked for the audience.

“Apples” opens on June 24th in New York at the Quad Cinema and in Los Angeles at the Playhouse 7 and the Monica Film Center.