How I Work: Secret Cinema founder, Fabien Riggall

By Emma Tucker

For the last ten years, Secret Cinema has been reinventing live entertainment by blending film screenings with theatre, dance, music and performance. Its shows draw tens of thousands of fans each year, and offer immersive recreations of cult pieces of cinema including Star Wars, Back to the Future and Blade Runner, which it’s showing for the second time in London this year.

To date, the company has racked up over 40 events across its different production strands, which include major films that are announced in advance for Secret Cinema Presents, as well as screenings that are kept secret until the day of the show for Secret Cinema Tell No One. It’s a big jump for founder Fabien Riggall, whose original idea to create a night where people could watch short films has metamorphosed into a company that employs 45 full-time members of staff, and sells more tickets every year than Glastonbury.

We spoke with Riggall to find out about the “magic and madness” that keeps the company ticking, how it makes imaginary worlds real, and what traditional entertainment is getting wrong.

Why Secret Cinema works It’s an unusual medium, in that it’s taking cinema as the inspiration and turning it into something that doesn’t quite have a place in the current landscape. The basic premise is that as a child you watch films, and you feel like you’re inside them. Every film you see, you relate to the stories and characters and dive in, but when you’re a kid you can’t see the difference between what’s real and what’s fiction, and that’s the premise.

How long it takes We go into an intense stage every three months, and the entire creative process is about six months long. Right now we’re developing what’s happening next year, and putting together all the ingredients and how we’re going to bring it to life. We work super fast, and we’ve done three or four productions a year for the past ten years – and each of them is quite unusual and risky, so it’s a big task.

On making fictional worlds real The secrecy aspect of what we do is about being drawn into something you’re alien to. Going to a city for the first time and walking around is exciting and overwhelming. The other side of it is living inside worlds you’ve been dreaming about. Something like Star Wars or Back to the Future are things people have a very specific vision of. That’s part of the craft – understanding you aren’t going to please everyone with your idea of that vision, but understanding the spirit and ethos behind it, and adding other creative elements or stories.

Secret Cinema Presents Dr Strangelove, 2016

The process We decide on the film, and I write an overall creative plan, then we have pre-narrative where we build the whole world as you buy a ticket and the gameplay around that, and our website designer Johnny Walker comes up with the concept. We work with freelance writers and copywriters, for example making a newspaper and shooting fake adverts, and I’ve worked with the same costume designer for ten years, Susan Kulkarni. We don’t mimic or replicate costumes, we take the style and the feeling of it and update it, and create our own version of it – and that all gets approval. It’s deconstructing filmmaking, theatre-making, event-making, night club-making and digital app-making, and bringing them all together as one world. It’s super stressful and fun.

The role of the creative director The overall creative director of the show has to have insight into how we communicate in marketing, social media, the websites we create, the digital experiences, the food, what music’s on in the loos, the lighting, the smells. The entire thing is one immersive world, and that person has to have eyes on all of it – and that’s the challenge. You need lots of creative heads, and they all need to be brilliant.

On what immersive means I think there’s a lot of theatre productions taking this site-specific and immersive form, but it’s been there a long time. Immersive for me is a strange term, because it describes TV and books. Immersive is life. It’s being focused on one thing and losing yourself in a world that goes beyond checking Instagram every minute. Secret Cinema is purely playing on that lost mystery, perhaps, of the ability to lose yourself. I think it’s an exploration of how we can embolden an audience to become participants not spectators. How we create a world which is theirs too, and they can change the story.

Secret Cinema Presents Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 2015

How Secret Cinema chooses films We have a slate of films that we feel are exciting and have a place in the world today. Moulin Rouge was a fun, exciting, escapist world, but also down to the gloom that took part in Trump being elected. It was this idea that you could bring lots of different communities together in a celebration of creativity and love, rather than hate and division. An element of choosing Blade Runner was connected to the resurgence of the new film, but also that it’s the most relevant film for now. The fact that we are becoming gradually more and more robotic, and it explores themes around conservation, environment, our addiction to smartphones, loneliness and dysfunctional relationships.

How commercial partnerships play a role Our ambitions are huge. In Blade Runner we’ve built a subway train, and it was a partnership that allowed us to do that. The way of advertising in the future will be experiential, and more about creating an environment around the brand rather than directly selling a brand. I think advertising can be done right, when it’s with integrity, and with good timing you can make beautiful partnerships.

On traditional live entertainment I feel big time disillusionment, and that inspires me. I feel there’s still a place for traditional concerts, cinema and art galleries, but I feel there’s an opportunity to reimagine the way people experience things, and I think audiences are looking for that. Everything gets boxed up and put into different sections of culture like film, theatre, music, art. The audience is the creative – they’re listening, they’re dreaming. I think sometimes they get shoved in a grandstand and told to watch Coldplay. No, they want to be powerful.

Virtual reality as a tool VR has been heralded as the future of cinema, but when it comes to entertainment I don’t think it’s there yet. It’s a fascinating area, and I’m looking to do a lot more work in that field, but it’s always going to be something that’s part of the story or experience, and not the story.

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