Interview with the director of Secret Cinema, Fabien Riggall

Taking cinema out of the safe confines of the movie theatre has long been a catalyst of excitement and wonder. From the humble drive-in to the invention of the VHS, which catapulted film in to the domestic sphere, interpreting and living with film in the individual’s context of choice inspires, informs and challenges differently from a prescribed outing to the cinema. The sense of pride that is received from owning an experience of film is tangible, and it seems to mean just a bit more. Hauling this feeling one step further, and recreating the world of fiction and fantasy imprinted previously only on reel, has long been of interest. From the high-octane popularity of Universal Studios, where a mechanical Jaws oh-so nearly bites the screaming revellers, it was only a matter of time, and wherewithal, until a directorial Dr Frankenstein of cinema concocted a living, theatrical, experiential masterpiece elaborated from our favourite films.

This has come in the form of Secret Cinema. 2013 sees the company providing a dazzling, boundary-pushing venture for five fruitful years, which fully immerses the audience into the world of a film. Actors portray the various key roles, and the happily paying customers are encouraged to join in willingly at every curious activity. People are carefully assigned a dress code, job title, roles and provided clues to whet the imagination before they arrive. All just enough information to incite drooling, and yet not enough to reveal the identity of the actual film. The rest is left clandestine. To be hidden and guessed upon in discussion online, and once the run starts, and in the name of good fun – the choice of film continues to remain secret as to not ruin the surprise for others. It is a bold idea, yet one that honours the concept that cinema should be a mouth watering experience, not overwhelmed with pre-established expectations, or hindered by reading reviews that taint opinions before viewers have even entered the auditorium.

Founder and Director Fabien Riggall has meticulously cornered this market, perfectly crafting a mixture of a well orchestrated event with a masterful cloak of mystery. All built within the confines of an extremely specialist, however wildly popular world that changes with each curated event. Secret Cinema has essentially prepared a giant, filmicly inspired playground for the painfully adventurous, and dangled the carrot of mystery in front of those who had previously raised an eyebrow at something that involves this much interaction within an evening’s experience. Originally setting up the Future Shorts company in 2003, Riggall had his initial inspiration to create a club night to showcase short films and boundary pushing music videos in a climate which he felt there were limited avenues to do so. Held in Ginglik, the Shepherd’s Bush dive of an underground club that was formally a public lavatory, its popularity flourished, and the idea of taking cinema out of its natural habitat was taken to another level. In 2005 Riggall created Secret Cinema, aiming at its very heart, as he says to “bring a film to life and build a world around it”. This ethos survives until this day, with the extremely successful venture boasting attendees across their events in the tens of thousands. Fabian explains: “Staging Secret Cinema is really about the idea of mystery, the idea of discovery. It makes everything more exciting.” Due to the completely surreptitious nature of the choice of film, audiences take a massive leap of faith, parting with their cash for tickets to a film they may or may not have seen, may or may not actually like, to a location which is unknown. This intriguing and electrically desirable arcane prospect makes for an apprehensive, positively charged spectator ready for an all round experiential evening.

Starting from the beginning, Fabian and his team of course found the experience of piecing it all together no mean feat. Choosing Gus Van Sant’s 2007 skate ode meets treacherous crime drama, Paranoid Park, the Secret Cinema team transformed a series of tunnels in London Bridge into an indulgent interactive space inspired by the film itself. Fabian elaborates: “Staging that was pretty out there, really. There were quite a few challenges in terms of environment, but we were quite surprised by how quickly the audience got in to the idea and became part of this skate world we made.” Conceived initially through a relationship with Tartan Films, Fabian was drawn to the concept of film, and its “dreamy idea about a secret which a group of skaters keep”, he explains. “It’s quite a dislocated film, non-linear in its structure. It has an interesting sound and it felt like the right film to start with.”

But how do the filmmakers themselves feel about their creations being brought to life? As Fabian explains, it has primarily been extremely encouraging: “It has always been positive. We have a relationship with Ridley Scott, and we’ve now done three films with him. When we did Alien (1979) he did an introduction to it, in character, talking to the audience as “Captain Scott”. He was really interested in the concept and allowed us to do Blade Runner (01982) and Prometheus (2012) as well. We’re as truthful to the films as possible, and hopefully we create a world that’s interpreted in an interesting and different way.’

With all the difficulties that one can face bringing celluloid to life, the hard-working unit of organisers don’t actually get to fully enjoy the fantasy world they have conceived until much later on. Riggall only enjoys it “once its really working and has become the show we want it to be. We had some problems on the last one; it was derailed due to objections from the council that we were working with.” This caused the breaking of character and narrative, which Fabian describes as the most “heartbreaking” and “tragic” thing that could happen during their preparations. “We try and stay in character at all times, and it’s sad when we have to break that.”

The focused Fabian can typically be found walking around the venues of varying size, taking notes, seeing what’s working or failing, but consistently in character. The complicated nature of the events mean that they are constantly evolving and adapting around the experience of the consumers that are walking around them; a far cry from the rigidity of the immersive film that mimics surroundings of Hollywood theme parks. Fabian continues: “We’re trying to challenge the audience and to experience something different. We don’t know how they’re going to behave.”

The interactive theatre of Secret Cinema consistently questions ideas of conformity with the willing audience’s invitation to participate. Each person is instructed or lightly nudged to move or behave in accordance with the actor’s requests, and through the years this has afforded some very interesting observations about human behaviour and their compliance in varying situations, in the name of entertainment. Riggall explains: “I’m surprised all the time. For example, with the Shawshank Redemption (1994) event, the idea of stripping people, locking them up and treating them badly might be something the average person doesn’t want to experience on a night out. It was surprising that the level people enjoyed the truth of what it would be like inside a prison, and how they could then disrupt the system within that prison. It also shocks me how much the audience actually want to participate and create.”

The exploratory nature of wading through dressed and manufactured scenes inspires a very childlike experience. A sandpit for adults, that when applied to children can provide a once in a lifetime, educational scenario. Fabian comments: “We actually did a Bugsy Malone (1976) Secret Cinema with kids and we have plans to create a strand for children. We wanted to do Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and I’m really interested in what we do as a form of education, and the opportunity for young people to learn through this immersion.”

The next stage, inevitably, is world domination. “We’re developing Secret Cinema to travel to New York, Berlin and Paris. We want to turn it into a global project. Where the audience can share the event and their experience it simultaneously. The idea that six cities across Europe are connecting with a cross-cultural exchange of ideas before and after the event itself is exciting.”

Now the reaching the grand anniversary of Secret Cinema’s five unbelievably successful years, how has the entity and process evolved and have the initial intentions of it changed? Fabian ponders: “I think the principles of bringing films to life and allowing audiences to step inside, live and become the film are still there. However we’re moving it into new areas and it’s becoming more detailed and more ambitious with each project. The audience is getting to be more creative and interact on various levels. There’s a levelling between the “them and us”. This is really something I worked hard to remove as part of the experience. I love going to see traditional theatre, but with Secret Cinema it’s about the level. The balance and the blur between the audience and performance. It needs to be one fluid world. It is real life, but shown through the narrative of the film. That’s where I want us to go. It’s always challenging. It’s a hugely complex experience. We have fantastic actors who create in their own way. I’m interested in this network of people who want to do things differently. It’s not just a performance; it’s a world. The performance is not just the acting.”

The performance is also deep rooted in the locations, which are pivotal to the screening itself. The transformation of already interesting spaces capture the imagination, and force a knee-jerk out of a participant’s comfort zone the moment that they step through the door.

Despite having had the opportunity to explore some of his favourite films, there were some that escaped the director’s creative engulfment. “There are several films that we are interested in working with. The way a film is selected is through the mood of how can we take the audience on another journey that’s different from the last, and how does it related to what’s going on in the world. The audience suggest films all the time on social media but it’s something that I think very carefully about. Sometimes it’s the building we find that sets the atmosphere and the tone of what it will be. Other times it just feels like the right time to do something.’ And with their latest venture [which cannot be mentioned due to adhering to the highly secretive embargo on mentioning the film before its run has completed], the right time is one of tense political bureaucracy.

And speaking of the latest Secret Cinema outing, artistically, it takes an even further sidestep. To some on the collective’s Facebook fanpage, this has been a source of contention. Fabian remains undeterred: “It’s difficult when you push new things out, and some people expect Shawshank or the same thing every time.” But such is the very nature of this unique, mysterious, wonderful experience, that nothing is the same every time, or it just wouldn’t be a secret. Five years deep in to perfecting the craft of bewildering and dazzling through a childlike wonder of experiential cinema, and rest assured, they know what they are doing.

Corin Douieb

All images courtesy of the Secret Cinema
1. Alien
2. The Warriors
3. Shawshank Redemption