Exclusive: Behind the scenes of Secret Cinema

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We visit the mystery location of the 25-night Secret Cinema event which starts next week…

I’m walking around a half-finished set somewhere in the bowels of Waterloo – but I can’t tell you where. In one corner, a bunch of young actors are doing warm-up vocal exercises. In another, some decorators are putting the finishing touches to a Parisian-style café-bar. I think that one corner looks a bit like a mosque and, yes, that’s definitely a load of old washing hanging from the ceiling.

This impromptu theatre-cum-building-site is the location of the latest hush-hush enterprise from Secret Cinema, the organisation which pops up occasionally to show films across London. It demands that audiences dress for the occasion as carefully and committedly as they build entire environments for the event, even calling on hired actors to add a little spice. This latest enterprise will run for 25 nights from next Thursday, April 15. The hope is that roughly 500 people a day will flock to the event, around 12,000 in all, although Secret Cinema tends to do things down to the wire: the place stills looks like a construction village and there are thousands of tickets that need selling. All in good time…

The Secret Cinema organisers, led by Fabien Riggall of Future Shorts, the short film organisation, are old pros at this now. They began in 2007 by screening Gus Van Sant’s ‘Paranoid Park’ to 400 willing guinea pigs under London Bridge. Since then they have shown ‘The Red Shoes’ to 16,000 punters at Tobacco Dock in Wapping, where they recreated the world of 1940s ballet, and screened ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ to 14,000 folk at Alexandra Palace, where they built an entire Middle Eastern souk. A colleague described the latter event as ‘impressive, if you can put up with a load of Hooray Henrys running around dressed as Arabs with tea towels on their heads.’ You could say that Secret Cinema is an acquired taste for which a fair few Londoners have developed a liking.

If all you want to do is watch a movie, Secret Cinema probably isn’t for you. Its audiences like to act out the movies as much as watch them. One event saw film-goers undergoing therapy from Nurse Ratched before they settled down to watch ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. This time, I’m told, the interactive element will be just as strong. I’ve sworn not to reveal the film, but let’s just say that if you thought Londoners dressing up as Arabs was a mite insensitive, then this new event will press its nose right up against the barriers of taste and decency.

secret_cinema_people.jpg

Riggall is alive to how divisive his latest choice might be. ‘I think people will appreciate the experience, but, yes, the film might split the audience. Not everybody loved “The Red Shoes”. But then I could just show “Batman” and “Ghostbusters” – big, commercial films – and fill the place up. But that doesn’t interest me.’

He has chosen a film which he believes is right for the times – a film with a political bent which, by shedding light on a particular place and time, might cause people to think a little harder about the world today. ‘I decided this was the one chance to do a film that wakes people up,’ explains Riggall. ‘And we’re putting it in an environment that opens people’s eyes to it.’

If you’ve bought a ticket for the latest Secret Cinema shindig, you will already have been asked to fill in a ‘census’ and hand over personal details. Be prepared to have the information used against you – or even in your favour – on the night itself. The atmosphere, I’m told, will be heavily militarised. Don’t expect equality, or even a recognition of basic human rights. Perhaps because of the controversial choice of film, Secret Cinema is operating alone this time, without a sponsor. Previously, Microsoft dug deep to be associated with the assumed edginess of the events.

Maybe this latest Secret Cinema event will be a bit too edgy for the corporates. But will film-goers run with Riggall’s enthusiasm for the socio-political relevance of his movie choice? Or will they just want to don a sharp suit and silly hat and run around a crazy location for a couple of hours before settling down to a good movie?

Secret Cinema fans can rest assured that as much work is going into this new event as the previous one. There are people with paintbrushes in their hands everywhere. Photocopies are pinned all over the place as inspirations for the designers. In one room, old-school red velvet cinema seats are being screwed in place. In another, set-builders are following the advice of a religious expert which Riggall met in another part of London just the other day. Out of chaos, Riggall hopes, order will emerge.

'It’s always intense for a couple of weeks as we prepare for these events,’ he laughs, before jumping on his bike and dashing off to a meeting elsewhere in town. ‘But that’s what brings out the details and that, hopefully, is what people appreciate.’

For more information and tickets see Time Out's event listing or go to www.secretcinema.org . The next Secret Cinema runs from April 15 to May 8 2011.

Author: Dave Calhoun



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