As an unpredictable, sweeping pandemic causes people in Apples, the Greek nomination for the Oscars, to develop sudden amnesia, a man finds himself enrolled in a recovery program designed to help him build a new life. His treatment consists of performing daily tasks prescribed by his doctors on audiocassette and capturing these new memories with a Polaroid camera.
Greek writer-director Christos Nikou’s debut feature is a surreal enigma about love, memory, and loss, a beguiling exploration of identity and reality.
Mr Nikou was born in Athens in 1984. His short film KM participated in over 40 international film festivals. For the past ten years, he has worked as an assistant director on the feature films Dogtooth (Yorgos Lanthimos) and Before Midnight (Richard Linklater), as well as 4 Black Suits, Nobody, Christmas Tango, A Greek Type of Problem, 7 Kinds of Wrath and Approach. In 2014 he was selected by the Rotterdam Film Festival to deliver a directing masterclass to 30 young film students at the annual masterclass We are next, organised by the festival and the University of Amsterdam. Apples production team was recently joined by Cate Blanchett who characterised Apples as “a unique and beautiful fable about memory and loss which resonates deeply with the unrecognisable terrain in which we currently find ourselves”. The film was profiled by Hollywood Reporter as a likely Oscars contender, while The Playlist included Apples in the best films of 2021.
Christos Nikou talks about the roads he took and the ones he didn’t in film-making and the difficulties of funding
The film is timely in stressing, as the Hollywood Reporter review noted, “the obsession with documenting our lives on Instagram or Facebook” to a point that “virtually eclipses the importance of the actual experience”. Are we our memories, our feelings and the imprint of the most important events in our life or are we manic collectors and creators of memories in search of likes on social media?
I think that we are our memories. This is something we wanted to underline through this film. We are everything we haven’t forgotten. The things we forgot are things that never existed, in a way. The things we have forgotten may have also formed us in one sense, but it’s not clear in what sense. I feel that it is very important to keep our memories as a foundation so as to be able to move ahead in the future. Social media have immensely influenced our memory and that goes for technology too. By following the program he is prescribed, the film protagonist strives to imitate an experience in an artificial manner because he follows orders to create it and then photograph it as evidence. He’s neither following his instincts nor experiencing real sentiment. He creates an experience which he depicts with a selfie taken through an analogue photographic machine and then he places this photograph in a photo album. This is a comment on how people depict experiences in social media: whether it’s TikTok or Facebook or Instagram, we imitate things, we create artificial experiences in order to take a staged photo with a Polaroid filter that we place in a digital album so that all of our friends can see it and judge it. I think this has influenced us to a very large extent. We live in an ephemeral age where we ditch our privacy in the quest for likes. In the film, the doctors enter the patient’s house in his absence to check his progress and they browse through his photo album.
The doctors’ clinical approach reminds me of Lanthimos. They dissect a psychological experience in such a cold way that renders it dehumanised and ridiculous.
The doctors are treating amnesiacs, patients who have a lot of difficulties understanding many things, so they do these things unintentionally. I prefer seeing the funny side of things I consider important. The way doctors enter and manage the protagonist’s life in the same way that it happens with social media. The doctors unconsciously create people with the same memories, replicas of the same person, in the same way, we have lost our personality.
The doctors’ list of tasks brings in memory the lifestyle magazines of the ’90s that were full of lists, such as “30 things to do before turning 30”, suggesting numbers of sexual partners, sexual experiences, etc.
We referred to many instances of pop/ mass culture in compiling the tasks the doctors prescribed. Some of them come from my own personal experience, others are memories shared by most of us. Moreover, in the case of the memory tests that the protagonist undergoes, there is a clear reference to a TV game of the nineties. I’m always inspired by things I’ve seen, like funny YouTube videos, trying to give them a different twist.
You have been associated in interviews and reviews with Charlie Kaufman and Yorgos Lanthimos. There is faith in love and humanity that differentiates your film from the Greek weird wave. Would you like to elaborate?
There are many comic elements in the film, although it revolves around a tragic subject. I approach my characters with tenderness. I have faith in humanity and love, which is why I don’t think I could make an outright cynical, cruel, and sarcastic film.
As far as the weird wave is concerned, I haven’t got a clear idea as to what exactly that is, to be honest. I am trying to find out because I am often asked about it. For me, the weird wave revolves around Efthimis Filippou who, together with Yorgos Lanthimos, created some films that have a distinct, weird approach. I think that what we are talking about is the “Efthimis Filippou wave”, if we have in mind the scripts that Filippou wrote for Athina Rachel Tsagari and Babis Makridis, or the “Efthimis Filippou / Lanthimos wave” and not the Greek new weird wave. With the exception of a few, I can’t say that Greek films follow that wave. The fact is that Greek films don’t have the success that Dogtooth had. There are still fans of the weird wave of course, but over the last four years, Greek cinema is not as popular as it used to. Big International Film Festivals used to be very interested in Greek film.
I think that contemporary Greek Cinema is greatly indebted to Yorgos Lanthimos because his films boosted the visibility of Greek cinematic production. I’m indebted to Lanthimos. I had previously made a short film, KM in 2012, which began screening at International Film Festivals, and there was the constant reference to the fact that I had worked as an assistant director to Lanthimos in Dogtooth, something that is still happening with Apples. We may have some common references, such as Roy Anderson, whose deadpan humour we both appreciate. I think that Apples is closer to a European approach of Charlie Kauffman or of one of my favourite films which had a deep impact on me and led me into film making, The Truman Show, and my favourite books, Orwell’s 1984 and Blindness by José Saramago.
I have depicted doctors in Apples in a satirical way, but there are so many things that differentiate Apples from the weird wave. It’s filmed differently. The frame is different. Yorgos has a very distinctive framing. We, however, keep the human face in the centre at all times. I understand that Apples and Dogtooth are both Greek and having an actor who played in Lanthimos films can easily lead to granting Apples as a weird wave film.
Analogue devices and the achronic interior design bring to mind the iconography of the eighties. What is its function in the film?
In general, we tried to make a film with no particular reference to a specific time period. But the truth is that as I grew up at the end of the eighties and during the nineties, I have a thing for those decades, a nostalgic feeling. But I didn’t opt for this achronic background out of nostalgia alone. Indeed Apples is a nostalgic film, it talks about the past. It was a given fact there would be a nostalgic approach, in music, etc. Even the film ratio was 4:3, the Academy ratio, which was used in the Classic Cinema. As I said earlier, technology has influenced our memory. We don’t remember telephone numbers, we use Google Maps everywhere, and as a consequence people tend to forget more and more. We have stored all our data in an Apple device and there is an ironic allure to that in the title Apples. The reason we opted for this achronic design was that we wanted to place the film in a time period when the technology that has influenced us so much wasn’t yet that widespread.
What were the challenges in filming and location scouting?
I wanted to make a film that doesn’t take place at a specific time or place. But this wasn’t easy, because Athens has a very specific identity and it’s very busy and noisy. I did the location scouting myself. My experience as an assistant director was very useful and it was easy to find venues where Athens looks different. The initial thought was to partly shoot abroad and partly shoot in Athens so as to create a fictional city, but the cost was prohibitive.
What does the Oscars candidacy mean for you?
It’s a very strange year for the Oscars. The COVID-19 crisis has made the campaign even more difficult. The members of the voting committee don’t gather for screenings but view the films on their laptops. On a personal level, it made me very happy and I hope that Apples will be viewed by as many people as possible. If the film comes to be shortlisted, it would be a tremendous boost to Greek cinema.
Co-production seems to become the norm for many Greek films, but you took it to another level. Cate Blanchett, Andrew Upton, and Coco Francini have joined the team of the film’s executive producers. What does that mean for the film?
It certainly changes the status of the film, making it more recognizable. The film sales and Festival selections were all concluded before Cate Blanchett joined the team and they already were satisfying. But we never thought that Blanchett would join. It was totally unexpected. She saw the film in Venice, her agents approached me and during our first meetings, we saw that we were on the same page and that we would very much like to work together. She told me that she deeply appreciated the film and that she wanted to promote it and share it with as many people as possible, and this is why she joined the film production team. It’s a huge honour to see an exceptional actress like her who is totally devoted to cinema, who has seen an infinite number of films, and who is on a constant search for new filmmakers to be an executive producer of the film. We feel extremely lucky to have her along with Andrew Upton, and Coco Francini.
Would you like to say a few things about the funding of the film?
The film was supported by Boo Productions, Iraklis Mavroidis, Angelos Venetis, and Aris Dayios. I have worked with Boo Productions since the beginning of my career. It’s the company who made “Dogtooth”; I started with them as assistant director and they produced my short film ”KM”. They supported me immensely in those difficult conditions in which Apples was realized. It was difficult finding co-producers and the closing of the Greek Film Center for two years was also a problem. Funding took very long, but we managed to make ends meet.
Is it easy for a Greek film to find European coproduction?
I think that if your film is interesting for a European audience or has a universal theme, it can attract European funding. I think that European coproduction is the only way. Many Greek producers have turned to co-producing because the amounts allocated by the GFC and the Public Broadcaster (ERT) are not enough. So they join networks such as EAVE and ACE and attend seminars and workshops, and that’s a good thing because European co-productions can only bring better conditions for film making in Greece.
What was the pandemic impact?
It’s scary of course, but people in the industry are so passionate. Maybe filmmakers have to wait till it’s over in order to work under less pressure because right now shooting scenes with big crowds, for example, poses many difficulties. I hope this will all come to an end, I hope that viewers will return to cinemas because films are made for screening at cinemas.
What are your future plans?
We are working on our new film Fingernails with my co-scriptwriter Stavros Raptis, with whom we also wrote Apples and a young English writer, Sam Steiner. We are writing in English and I’m also working on other projects.
You started working with notable directors at a very young age, which formed your background in making your first feature with great self-confidence. Other filmmakers experiment with short films before their debut feature.
I’m self-taught. I studied Economics, not cinema. When I was eighteen, I wanted to study filmmaking, because I used to watch at least three films a day, ever since I was a child, and I was writing scripts and wanted to make films. However, after finding out that all my favourite filmmakers were self-taught, I decided to follow their path. After four years, I started working for Dogtooth. I had seen the announcement that the film was approved by the Greek Film Centre, I read the plot and I felt that I wanted to work for it and I asked for an appointment with the producer, Iraklis Mavroidis. I was very lucky to land this job with Lanthimos.
The short format is not my cup of tea. What I look for in a film is the sincerity of the filmmaker and I’m afraid that the short format cannot easily give me a moving story, because you don’t have enough time to develop a character or a story. I know that it was a huge risk to go straight into a feature, but I wasn’t intimidated. I don’t consider short films as a test before features. I think that you shoot a film when you have something to say, and not as an exercise. I wanted to tell my story in a feature format. The fact that I hadn’t taken part in many Festivals with my short films posed some limits in finding funds, but what can I say? It was a different road and I took it.
Source: Greek News Agenda, with special thanks to the Public Diplomacy Office of the General Consulate of Greece to Los Angeles