Secret Cinema has turned the experience of watching films into a social event, by transporting viewers into the worlds of cult-classic movies like Blade Runner and Moulin Rouge. In this exclusive interview, founder Fabien Riggall explains how he curates a unique setting for every screening.
Riggall told Dezeen he sees Secret Cinema as "a new form of art that reimagines the way we use buildings and spaces for films".
For each event, audiences of up to 5,000 people per night are invited into a constructed, immersive world, complete with scenes and actors that match the movie that is being screened.
"The nature of putting cinema into environments other than cinemas naturally creates this new environment; it makes it more social and it makes it more of an event," he explained.
"In the early 20th century you would go to the theatre or the opera as a social event – that's what we wanted to take forward into Secret Cinema."
Secret Cinema is a "new format"
Riggall founded Secret Cinema in 2007, having been a movie enthusiast since childhood. Over the past 11 years, he has put together 46 different productions across London.
In the early days, details about the performances were kept secret and they were hosted in highly unusual venues. The first production, featuring horror movie Nosferatu, took place inside an old nightclub beneath the railway arches of London Bridge.
Today, things are much grander in scale. The latest show, called Romeo + Juliet: Truce of Two Houses, was a live-action event in the form of a festival, held in the depths of a west London park.
"People don't really know how to box-up Secret Cinema," explained Riggall. "It's not a film screening, it's not an event – it's something that's a new format."
"When you've got 5,000 people living in the film's world, it becomes something else. It's taking down the boundaries of the medium and blurring them all together."
Architecture used to create mood
Aesthetics play a key role in the movie selection process – the film needs to have a particular style that sets it apart.
"The core decision comes from wanting to curate a different experience each time," said Riggall. "For example we went from Blade Runner, which has a dark, dystopian, eerie mood, to something that's very joyful and celebratory in Romeo + Juliet."
For each event, a team of artists and designers is charged with recreating the mood of the film. Architecture becomes key – the choice of venue usually lays the foundations for the entire production design.
For a screening of Miloš Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, in which Jack Nicholson's character Randle Patrick McMurphy gets sent to a mental institution, an old hospital provided the setting.
For Shawshank Redemption, two locations were used: Bethnal Green Library was converted into a courtroom, while an old school became the Ohio State Reformatory. Audience members were charged with a crime in the court, before being driven to the prison in a blacked-out bus.
And for Back To The Future, which Riggall describes as "the first one where we really went big", they constructed the fictional town of Hill Valley in London's Olympic Park.
"The design is very much the main part of the experience – it provokes the environment," said Riggall. "We either find an existing building which has a direct relationship to the story, or we find something that's different and convert it, or we just take a warehouse and build out the set."
Romeo + Juliet staged in London park
The most recent Secret Cinema production saw Gunnersbury Park in west London transformed into Verona Beach – the setting for Romeo + Juliet: The Truce of Two Houses.
Like in the film, the set was divided into the territories of two mafia families: a lavish mansion was home to the Capulets, while the Montagues' quarters featured a beach-bar nightclub, a caravan park and a petrol station.
Audience members were assigned to either the house of Capulet or Montague.
"The Montague area and the Capulet mansion feel very much like the scenes from the film," Riggall said. "The set design provides a narrative that allows the actors to bring those scenes to life, so each of the designs are very performance-led."
Experience offers people "a sense of unity"
Riggall believes Secret Cinema's success lies in its ability to offer people "a sense of unity", by coming together in experiences that relate to real-world issues. He sees it as a reaction against the rise of digital communication.
"There's a disenchantment in the world and people are lonely because of technology. We're facing a mental health epidemic and people really like to connect with each other," he said.
"That doesn't mean that traditional cinema doesn't do that," he added. "It's just unlikely that you're going to meet other people there. There's nothing wrong with that. But we've created something where you can just let go and lose yourself."
Read on for the full, edited version of the interview:
Alice Morby: What is Secret Cinema?
Fabien Riggall: There's often a misunderstanding of what Secret Cinema is, people just think it's the screening of films. It's an enormous team of artists, designers and creatives who come together to make a new form of art that reimagines the way we use buildings and spaces for films.
Alice Morby: Can you tell me a bit about your background and what made you come up with this idea?
Fabien Riggall: The original idea came from the innocence you have as a child when you first discover cinema. Now, parents give screens to children in order to appease them, but when I was growing up I fell in love with the whole journey of going to the cinema, the experience of sitting in a dark room and being presented with all these images, and not being able to differentiate what's fiction and what's reality.
As a child, you're constantly imagining, everything is adventure and play, and the cinema felt like you were inside the film. I still think of it like that – you relate to film as a sense of truth, between what you believe to be true in terms of your own experience and how it takes you out of yourself and your own life too.
I was always a dreamer. When I was in Morocco, as an 11-year-old, I actually went to a cinema that was a mile away from where we were. I left without telling anyone and went to buy a ticket to see Once Upon A Time in America, which is a three-and-a-half-hour-long epic gangster film. The protagonist is called Noodles and he was about my age, and I just became that character. I was transported into the lower-east side and felt like I was in the film. I guess that was my first Secret Cinema experience.
After that, I was always passionate about film. And as I grew up, I would go to the cinema all the time. But I would always translate it to other experiences I was having, such as going to music festivals like Glastonbury, where it felt like there were no rules. I loved the link between music, art and theatre – it was like a different world.
I then went on to study film, and worked in film production companies, before setting up this film night named Future Shorts in 2003. We purposefully showed films in non-traditional environments, such as night clubs, bars and music festivals. The nature of putting cinema into environments other than cinemas naturally creates this new environment; it makes it more social and it makes it more of an event.
Alice Morby: How did that idea develop into what Secret Cinema is now?
Fabien Riggall: Future Shorts grew to 50 different cities worldwide – it was like a pop-up film festival where people all over the world would host these screenings. I then started to think about whether you could take the concept of Future Shorts and turn it into something where we would bring films to live.
We took the film and turned it into this multi-layered, immersive world, and the numbers just went up each time
We first did a show called Nosferatu in a huge nightclub in London Bridge called Club UK. We took the film and turned it into this multi-layered, immersive world, and the numbers just went up each time.
Then we decided to make it secret, and didn't reveal the film or location. We wanted to bring to life the film, and allow the audience to dress up in character. The first one of these we did was Paranoid Park in 2007.
Alice Morby: And how has it changed from that point?
Fabien Riggall: The format has gone from being these two-night events, to bigger nights that last between 20 and 60 nights. To begin with, it was taking the film and then looking for the building that felt it had the same mood and feeling.
For One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we found an old hospital that we converted into Oregon State Hospital. When we did IF, we turned Dulwich College into the school from the movie. So we would use existing buildings that had an emotional context which was similar to the film.
But sometimes you can't find things that work like that and you have to improvise. For example, with Shawshank Redemption, we turned an old school into a prison. It's an interesting blur depending on different films.
We either find an existing building which has a direct relationship to the story, or we find something that's different and convert it, or we just take a warehouse and build out the set – like we did with Moulin Rouge and Blade Runner.
We also look at the area and the environment. For Blade Runner, we chose Canning Town, which has a slightly dystopian feel to it. When we did Star Wars, we used a 12-acre factory in Canada Water, which felt very alien in a way, and was such an extraordinary building that it felt like it could be from a Star Wars world.
Over the space of 46 productions, Secret Cinema has built a new format, which can be translated into multiple worlds. It takes inspiration from the old days of gigantic picture palaces, radio halls and music halls, but blurs them all together. It is essentially creating a new mode of auditorium.
Alice Morby: How do you choose the film you're going to focus on?
Fabien Riggall: The core decision comes from wanting to curate a different experience each time. For example we went from Blade Runner, which has a dark, dystopian, eerie mood, to something that's very joyful and celebratory in Romeo + Juliet. Creating and curating that difference between the two is really important.
Alice Morby: Tell me more about the latest production, featuring Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.
Fabien Riggall: I spent a lot of time pursuing Baz Luhrmann when we were planning to do Moulin Rouge. I went to meet him in New York and he was really impressed by what we'd done, and wanted to see how we would take his world and transform it.
The film had a kind of relevance to what's going on with gang culture in London at the moment, but also has this summery aspect to it that made it right for this time of year.
Alice Morby: What does the team look like?
Fabien Riggall: Secret Cinema is a huge creative team now. We're constantly thinking about different ideas, and everyone in the company contributes. There's always a development period where we put together ideas of different films, existing buildings that have inspired us and the big titles that we've always been looking to do. But my role has gradually become guiding the team and bringing in external creatives who are going to make those productions happen with me overseeing them.
Alice Morby: Once you've decided what film you're going to do, what happens next?
Fabien Riggall: We have a core team, but then we have a network of freelance creatives. We basically build the team each time, because each film needs different things.
We create an overall creative script, and then we write the world around it
Romeo + Juliet was the first production that I wasn't creative director on. It was Matt Bennet who we brought on board. He'd always worked on the music side of Secret Cinema, and his experience really lent itself to him translating the feeling of the film across the festival.
Alice Morby: Have you ever worked with people who were part of the original film crew?
Fabien Riggall: Yes, a few times. And we always get the blessing of the filmmakers and the creatives behind the original movie. But what we've created is a new format. It's a hybrid of film, music, art and theatre, so it's a real mash-up of skills.
Alice Morby: How long does the process take, from start to finish?
Fabien Riggall: It's always incredibly quick. Secret Cinema had a phenomenal response, and for 10 years we just drove it so hard. It would take between four to six months of preparation, if that, which is crazy!
Now, as things have got bigger, we say a minimum of eight to 12 months. But those are still very short timelines, because finding the building, getting the rights to the building, getting the rights of the film and finding the crew is a huge process.
Alice Morby: Every element of the set design and costumes must require huge attention to detail?
Fabien Riggall: Absolutely. The production designers were so detailed in their ability to look at all the different areas. We create an overall creative script, and then we write the world around it.
Romeo + Juliet was all based around a day of peace between the Montague and Capulet houses. The design is very much the main part of the experience – it provokes the environment. When you looked at the Montague area and then the Capulet mansion – it felt very much like the scenes from the film.
The set design provides a narrative that allows the actors to bring those scenes to life, so each of the designs are very performance-led.
Alice Morby: Of the 46 productions, which would you say were the most important in the development of Secret Cinema?
Fabien Riggall: Shawshank Redemption was really special. We took the idea of building a prison and a transformed Bethnal Green Library into a courthouse. The audience all went through the courtroom, were charged with a crime and then taken taken to a blacked-out bus and driven through London to a prison. It was like being incarcerated in America.
They arrived at a school that had been transformed into this prison, and for me that was one that really summed up Secret Cinema. It was an extraordinary experience that allowed the audience to feel like, what would it be like to be Andy Dufresne and understand slightly what being in prison feels like.
We worked with different charities to push the debate behind prison and the justice system, and whether it works today.
Back to the Future was the first one where we really went big with the idea and it allowed us to do something we'd never done before.
We built a living and breathing town, which allowed the audience to live there. We used shipping containers that we clad and turned into different shops. Each audience member's character had a different job, and we had cars circling around the town. There was a mechanics store where cars would be picked up if they broke down. It really felt real.
We've created something where you can just let go and lose yourself
Finally, Blade Runner was so important to me – as it was on the anniversary of 10 years of Secret Cinema. We built something that was highly complex. It was a world which had great relevance with what was going on today, with technology and robotics and the destruction of the environment. To have 1,000 people become part of this resistance movement against automation at the time that the Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal broke – it meant people really related to it.
Alice Morby: Has it changed the way you watch films?
Fabien Riggall: I always imagine when watching a film, what would it be like to live inside one.
People don't really know how to box-up Secret Cinema. It's not a film screening, it's not an event – it's something that's a new format. When you've got 5,000 people living in the film's world, it becomes something else. It's taking down the boundaries of the medium and blurring them all together.
It's not just about the film either, it's about the social aspects. People connect with each other very differently.
Alice Morby: So almost the opposite of a traditional cinema experience, where you sit in a dark room and don't talk to anyone?
Fabien Riggall: Absolutely. It creates a sense of unity. There's a disenchantment in the world and people are lonely because of technology. We're facing a mental health epidemic and people really like to connect with each other. That doesn't mean that traditional cinema doesn't do that. It's just unlikely that you're going to meet other people there. There's nothing wrong with that. But we've created something where you can just let go and lose yourself.
In the early 20th century you would go to the theatre or the opera as a social event – that's what we wanted to take forward into Secret Cinema.