Christos Nikou: “In ‘Apples’ we focused more on the body language than on the dialogue”

“Apples,” the stunning debut feature from Greek writer-director Christos Nikou (b. 1984), is set amidst a pandemic that causes sudden amnesia; everyone loses their memory. The film follows Aris, a middle-aged man, who goes into rehab and finds himself enrolled in a recovery program to help unclaimed patients build new identities. His treatment: performing daily tasks prescribed by his doctors on cassette tape and capturing these new memories with a Polaroid camera. These old-fashioned devices are no longer in our memories since the film is set in a world where technology is not that advanced; there’s certainly a nostalgic feeling to “Apples.”

The film was conceived and shot before the Coronavirus pandemic; Mr. Nikou started writing the screenplay in 2014; it was inspired by the allegorical novels “Blindness” and “1984,” and the movies of Charlie Kaufman, as well as his own personal loss, when developing this timely project. His reflection on memory and loss, which is basically an account of Aris’s efforts to reprogram himself in a society affected by viral amnesia, may leave its audience with more questions than answers but, most importantly, it makes you think.

In many territories, “Apples” is being released in theaters now, or is available on digital platforms.

At the 2021 Film Fest Ghent, where “Apples” was screened, I sat down for a phone interview with Mr. Nikou to talk about his film, his work, and his life as a filmmaker after “Apples.”

Mr. Nikou, how did the screenplay of “Apples” come about?

I always love to watch movies that create worlds, different from ours, and that’s basically what I tried to do with “Apples.” We created a world where amnesia spreads like a virus, and it is an allegory about how easily we forget, how easily society forgets. I believe that we can’t erase our memories—we have to continue remembering, we have to face them, and as a result, we become stronger. That’s the only way to restart our lives and feel optimistic. That is what we tried to do with the movie, have an optimistic ending. When I was writing the screenplay, I was dealing with the loss of my father, and I tried to understand how selective a memory can be, how we can erase something on the surface—and if we erase it, are we going to lose our existence? In a way, we are the things we don’t forget. So all these questions were in my mind; I tried to transport them to this story, and create this world where amnesia spreads like a virus.

So “Apples” was a very personal and emotional project for you.

Yes. This is not only an allegorical film but also a very personal story; I was dealing with the loss of my father at the time. I was thinking about how we erase things that hurt us. Through this whole process, I tried to understand how to deal with this loss. But at the same time, I also wanted to make it more than a personal story, create a universal story and make sure it is accessible for an audience. There are themes of loss and isolation in the film that I feel audiences can relate to more during a pandemic because a lot of us are dealing with those issues right now.

The film begins and ends with apples. Is there any particular reason for that?

Apples play an essential role in history, from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve to Newton when he discovered gravity. I wanted to include it for three reasons. First, apples can improve your memory. The second reason, and that’s a very personal one, my father used to eat around seven to eight apples each day, and he had a solid memory; in my mind, I always have this image of him eating apples. The third reason has to do with my belief that because of using too much technology today, our brains tend to become a bit lazier. We don’t need to save anything in our minds anymore since we store our data on devices, and most of the time, those devices are made by a company called Apple.

With Aris Servetalis, you have an incredible leading actor; he reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis, in a way. Did you write the script with Aris in mind?

Exactly. I had worked with him on a short I had made earlier [“Km,” 2012], and we had decided to work together again. I know pretty well what he can do with his body—he has a very strong body language—so everything you see in the film is what we had written in the screenplay. Every move was in our minds, and we knew he would be perfect for this role. He used to work as a dancer, and I loved his body language. I asked him to watch movies of French film director Jacques Tati, and two movies with Jim Carrey—“The Truman Show” [1998] and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” [2004]—because the logic of those movies was quite similar to what we were trying to do. I asked him to combine these two different approaches and create something new. And it’s funny that you mention Daniel Day-Lewis, because that’s his favorite actor; Aris always follows what Daniel Day-Lewis does.

Aris Servetalis in “Apples”

There are several powerful scenes in the film with very little dialogue. I suppose that your collaboration with your cinematographer in those scenes is crucial. How did you work together?

In general, I love films with hardly any dialogue. In “Apples” we focused more on the body language than on the dialogue, and with the cinematographer, we wanted to audience to follow the motions of the main character. First of all, we selected this 4:3 portrait aspect ratio because it’s related to the images from a Polaroid camera; it’s also the ratio that was used in films for many years, and it’s perfect if you want to capture tender emotions and move the audience. It gave us the chance to concentrate more on human beings than on the environment. So as we were following the main character, we tried to capture all these moments when Aris Servetalis created his character.

Was it necessary to prepare or rehearse many scenes with your cinematographer?

We did, but we also tried to reinvent things on set, adapting to the circumstances. We had a minimal budget—around €250,000—so we constantly needed to find solutions as we were adjusting to new situations. We did a lot of preparations, but we were also very focused and concentrated when we were shooting, to make sure we got the most out of the leading character.

Despite the serious matters you’re dealing with in your film, I also like the humor. It’s very subtle, but it’s definitely there; the humor is undeniable. Was that by choice?

I think we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. And since our lives are mixed with comedic and tragic moments, we thought it would be interesting to start with a little bit of mystery, then the film takes a turn and becomes comedic, and it ends with a more dramatic approach.

Aris Servetalis, central, in “Apples”

The Polaroid camera and the cassette tape recorder are crucial for the character of Aris. Today everything is digital; it’s even hard to imagine we ever used those devices. Are you nostalgic at heart?

We certainly tried to create a nostalgic approach in general, because we are talking about the past, we are talking about memories, about things that are almost forgotten—or at least we’re not using them as a frame of reference anymore—while at the same time it is a timeless story.

There are no car chases in the film, no violence, no profanity; you only focus on your actors. That makes you an actor’s director, doesn’t it?

I hope so. Also, with the success that the film now has… I get a lot of messages from famous actors who want to work with me in the future because they love the way I work with my actors and how I try to capture these moments. I think it’s easy to provoke through violence, for example, but it’s always more challenging to provoke through humanity or tenderness. That comes from inside, from my soul; I believe in human beings, in humanity, in whatever makes us good or better. That’s why I chose this tender approach. Our goal from the beginning was to create this world, and even if it sounds a bit surrealistic, you’re still trying to tell a human story.

Cate Blanchett is credited as an executive producer of the film. How did she get involved in your film, and what did she do?

“Apples” was screened at the Venice Film Festival [in 2020]; she was the President of the Jury, so she saw the film the first day. Then I received a message, ‘Cate Blanchett wants to have breakfast with you.’ I thought, ‘Okay, that’s not bad.’ So we had breakfast and talked for two hours. She told me “Apples” was her favorite film of the year; she wanted to promote it and get involved in my future projects. She will produce my next film, so that’s great; I’m very happy about that collaboration.

Aris Servetalis

Are the doors now wide open for an international career?

My next film will be in English [“Fingernails,” co-written with the British playwright Sam Steiner, and featuring Carey Mulligan]. Cate Blanchett will produce it, and we plan to start shooting in the summer or autumn of 2022.

What’s your secret? I mean, you began your career as a second assistant director, then a first assistant director, and now you’re making your own films. Is that the most logical progression if you want to become a good film director?

[Laughs] To be honest, I don’t know. I always loved movies, and I always wanted to become a film director, but I didn’t know how to make them, so I began working as an assistant director. That gave me a chance to watch and learn. The best learning school is being on a film set every day. And now, with “Apples,” I don’t know if I’m on the right track, but to me, it feels like home.

You just said that you always loved movies. Are there any films that inspired you when you were growing up?

When I was about thirteen, I went to the video store almost every day, and I saw three films a day. That was my passion. I remember when I saw “The Truman Show”; I loved that film so much, I loved the concept and how they created this world. That movie triggered me to become a filmmaker. That’s how it started for me.

Phone interview, Film Fest Ghent
October 17, 2021

“Apples” (2020, trailer)

FILMS

KYNODONTAS, a.k.a. DOGTOOTH (2009) DIR Yorgos Lanthimos SECOND ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Yorgos Tsourgiannis SCR Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou SCRIPT SUPERVISOR Christos Nikou CAM Thimios Bakatakis ED Yorgos Mavropsaridis CAST Christos Stergioglou, Michele Valley, Angeliki Papoulia, Christos Passalis, Mary Tsoni, Anna Kalaitzidou

4 MAVRA KOSTOUMIA, a.k.a. 4 BLACK SUITS (2010) DIR – SCR – MUS Renos Haralambidis SECOND ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Angelos Venetis, Takis Nikolakopoulos, Iraklis Mavroidis, Aris Dagios CAM Kostas Gikas ED Yannis Sakaridis CAST Renos Haralambidis, Giannis Zouganelis, Takis Spyridakis, Alkis Panagiotidis, Dimitris Poulikakos, Dimitris Verykios

KANENAS, a.k.a. NOBODY (2010) DIR Hristos Nikoleris SECOND ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Yannis Exintaris [Giannis Exintaris] SCR Panagiotis Iosifelis CAM Dimitris Stabolis ED Lambis Haralambidis MUS The Prefabricated Quartet CAST Georgina Liossi, Antinoos Albanis, Nikolas Papagiannis, Giorgos Papegeorgiou, Dimitris Kapetanakos

TO TANGO TON HRISTOUGENNON, a.k.a. THE CHRISTMAS TANGO (2011) DIR Nikos Koutelidakis FIRST ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Yannis Exintaris [Giannis Exintaris] SCR Vagelis Nassis (novel by Giannis Xanthoulis) CAM Giannis Drakoularakos ED Lambis Haralambidis MUS Giannos Aiolou [Jannos Eolou] CAST Giannis Bezos, Giannis Stankogiou, Antinoos Albanis, Vicky Papadopoulou, Eleni Kokkidou

TU HONORERAS TA MÈRE ET TA MÈRE, a.k.a. A GREEK TYPE OF PROBLEM (2012) DIR Brigitte Roüan ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Patrick Sobelman, Angelos Venetis, Iraklis Mavroidis SCR Brigitte Roüan, Jean-François Goyet, Guy Zilberstein CAM Agnès Godard ED Laurent Roüan MUS Grigoris Vasilas CAST Nicole Garcia, Éric Caravaca, Patrick Mille, Michaël Abiteboul, Gaspard Ulliel, Elisa Tovati, Sandrine Dumas

BEFORE MIDNIGHT (2013) DIR Richard Linklater ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Richard Linklater, Sara Woodhatch, Christos V. Konstantakopoulos SCR Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy (characters created by Richard Linklater, Kim Krizan) CAM Christos Voudouris ED Sandra Adair MUS Graham Reynolds EXTRAS CASTING Christos Nikou CAST Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Jennifer Prior, Charlotte Prior, Xenia Kalogeropoulou, Walter Lassally

7 THYMOI, a.k.a. 7 KINDS OF WRATH (2014) DIR Christos Voupouras FIRST ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelos Venetis SCR Hristos Voupouras [Christos Voupouras], Giorgos Korras, Angeliki Iliopoulou (short stories by Hristos Voupouras [Christos Voupouras]) CAM Kostas Gikas ED Manolis A. Zeakis MUS Foivos Delivorias CAST Maximos Moumouris, Nikos Gelia, Sofia Kokkali, Haris Fragoulis, Kora Karvouni, Ieronymos Kaletsanos, Vasilis Xenikakis

EPAFI, a.k.a. APPROACH (2017) DIR Tonis Lykouresis FIRST ASST DIRECTOR Christos Nikou PROD Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelo Venetis SCR Tony Lycouressis [Tonis Lykouresis], Domniki Mitropoulou, Dimitris Emmanouilidis CAM Thodoris Mihopoulos ED Lambis Haralambidis MUS Thodoris Oikonomou CAST Nena Menti, Akis Sakellariou, Christos Loulis, Alexandra Aidini, Vasselis Koukalani, Yiorgos Christodoulou, Domniki Mitropoulou

APPLES (2020) DIR Christos Nikou PROD Christos Nikou, Iraklis Mavroidis, Aris Dagios, Mariusz Wlodarski, Angelos Venetis SCR Christos Nikou, Stavros Raptis CAM Bartosz Swiniarski ED Giorgos Zafeiris MUS Alexander Voulgaris CAST Aris Servetalis (Aris), Sofia Georgovassili (Ana), Anna Kalaitzidou (Program Manager), Argyris Bakirtzis (Program Manager), Kostas Laskos (Elder Patient), Costas Xikominos (Doctor)

FINGERNAILS (2022) DIR Christos Nikou PROD Christos Nikou, Cate Blanchett, Coco Francini, Andrew Upton SCR Christos Nikou, Sam Steiner, Stavros Raptis CAST Carey Mulligan

SHORTS

KM (2012), director, screenwriter
MAASAI (2014), assistant director