Fabien Riggall Interview: The Man Behind the Success of Secret Cinema
Secret Cinema has grown from its ‘Tell No One’ origins to a ‘tell everyone!’ extravaganza that is now one of the the leading names in interactive entertainment. We spoke to Fabien Riggall, the man behind the ever-expanding brand, about his latest project and why he thinks he’s already tapping into the future of cinema.
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Originally started in 2007, and an evolution of Riggall’s Future Shorts series, Secret Cinema is now a huge operation that is supported by some of the biggest names in the industry. There have been challenges along the way, something that Riggall is fully aware of, but there is also no denying that the elaborate screenings complete with detailed set designs of classic films are now one of the highlights of every cinema lover’s year.
We spoke to Riggall soon after the announcement of his biggest project yet, a spectacular presentation of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), and found out more about his plans for the future.
‘We chose Blade Runner for multiple reasons,” Riggall told us when we spoke to him close to his office in Hackney. “It’s a seminal piece of cinema and has influenced different artists as well as architects and town planners. It’s such an inspirational film for creative people and it resonates so much now as well when you look at the news. It feels like we are getting closer and closer to [author] Philip K. Dick’s vision. It’s obviously ambitious and risky too. The story of Blade Runner is quite well known and it has something of a cursed history. It’s a challenge because it is so epic.’
If Blade Runner and Secret Cinema sound like a project that should have happened already, then you’re not alone. In fact, it already has!
‘In 2010, where Secret Cinema really grew, we did Blade Runner. We had just done Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire (1987) in the old Hammersmith Theatre, which is now a hotel, and there were 3,000 people who attended that. I was very proud of it, but it was just in two rooms. We then did Blade Runner in partnership with Canary Wharf and asked them if we could borrow it. The audience arrived there and the scale was just huge. It was a pop-up travel agency and we went to a far out disused yard. It switched on the audience and I think it was the point where people said “Ah, I get Secret Cinema now”.’
The making of Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic has gone into filmmaking folklore. The set was apparently rife with issues and star Harrison Ford has previously spoken of his dislike of the project. This appears to have changed in recent years with the actor returning for the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, which was released last year. Riggall explains how Secret Cinema’s project compares:
‘We have a team that has grown to about 300 people on this production. It’s a mid-level film production all of its own. With a film you have a set frame, but with this there is no frame. We’re building the whole world. We have an empty canvas and the team of designers and amazing creative directors working with me are going to build the impossible. It is tough, but the way we go about it is to watch the film intensely and take references from what it meant at the time and to what it means today. We come up with a maze of scenes and worlds and then develop it. It’s a hybrid way of designing the show and is quite instinctive. We play with lights, projection and performance. The pre-narrative is very important so from the moment you buy a ticket you are given a character. The beauty of the film is that it’s now, so the world has been built for us.’
We’ve experienced several Secret Cinema productions ourselves in recent years, with one of our favourites being the 28 Days Later event in 2016. The pre-narrative on that occasion was one of the main attractions, and certainly involved a fair amount of effort on the part of the attendees. Riggall told us how he was especially happy with this event.
‘I was very proud of [our] 28 Days Later. We took a building, where we had previously done Star Wars [Empire Strikes Back] and Dr. Strangelove, and realised we had a factory and 18 acres to play with. It was incredibly challenging, but now it’s a nightclub. We had to reconfigure it and so I am really proud of that. It was also a tough production; just how do you put an audience to sleep and have zombies run at them?”
So, just how big can Secret Cinema go? We’ve seen the productions expand considerably over the last few years, but the passionate Riggall has even bigger plans for the future.
‘I’ve got this idea for West Side Story (1961). The idea is to persuade the mayor of New York to allow us to transform the city into the film setting; a sort of festival. Different neighbourhoods would play out different sequences, so you’d get the Lower East Side all singing “Maria” at the same time. Doing Once Upon a Time in America (1964) under Brooklyn Bridge would be a dream with an orchestra.’
Taking over New York for a production would obviously be a huge undertaking. It was at this stage that we wondered how the ideas for these events came about, and if there is ever any doubt when Riggall first dreams up a vision that he can pull it off, or even if audiences will be interested.
‘We essentially have a team looking at films so its never really my decision. Well, I guess it is in terms of getting a sense of it, but we all come together to see how it works commercially, socially and culturally. It has been my life for 10 years now so I really do look at audiences. I think of them and have them in mind. We also do push audiences with films you might consider more challenging, such as Battle of Algiers (1966), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), as part of our ‘Tell No One’ series. I like the idea of pushing people to discover things they might not otherwise discover. It’s like taking a friend to the cinema and not telling them what it is they are about to watch and then seeing them get blown away. That feeling, when you might not be in your comfort zone, but end up seeing something you might not otherwise see, that’s what I hope Secret Cinema is to society. Otherwise you’re talking about a world obsessed with Bruno Mars… not that there is anything wrong with that!’
Secret Cinema has become a huge event and now runs for several months at a time. How much responsibility is there on delivering just what the audience wants given how much time and effort the paying customers invest in attending?
‘There is that [responsibility] for sure,’ Riggall tells us. ‘It’s pressure, stress and anxiety and you can tell [that this is the case] when things have been difficult in the past. People feel like they own it, and they do in many ways, so having taken the risk and done things like become prostitutes to ride the Jubilee Line [to play characters in Moulin Rouge] for us they have also invested. It’s a big ask. The audience are stepping into the unknown, so we have to show that and move them gently where we can. The team are meticulous and think carefully about every part of the experience.’
Clearly there have been challenges over the last few years, something that is inevitable for anyone that has experienced a business undergoing rapid growth. Now that the brand itself has become firmly established, and is looking to go global, we wondered what some of the biggest issues that arose on previous productions were. Riggall addresses one of the biggest criticisms Secret Cinema has faced, which arose during the production of Back to the Future (1985) in 2014.
‘We couldn’t open for our first weekend. It was heartbreaking for the audience and the team, but we did learn a hell of a lot from that. It’s the challenge of growing and doing something new… .’
The production of Back to the Future missed its planned opening weekend and preview dates due to the fact that local authorities did not give notice that they weren’t satisfied with the production on time. One would have thought that this would have been the moment to take a step back and perhaps scale back, but it was quite the opposite as the team continued with not only the production of the time-travel blockbuster, but also a couple of other films in the same year.
‘Madness! The thing was that we had some champions in the industry. I’d already spent a year getting the rights to Star Wars and had actually given up, there were so many people involved in that, in the year that Force Awakens was coming out. Then Kathleen Kennedy, the biggest, most powerful person in Hollywood – and the smartest – just took a gamble on us. She knew about Back to the Future not opening on time, but she actually produced the film! She saw what we did, and said “these guys are doing something interesting for the future of cinema” and she gave us the rights [to Star Wars]. We then worked with Disney, who are also amazing to deal with, and hats off to all of them. We knew we had to keep going and then built a galaxy in an old newspaper factory.’
The question of working with studios has always fascinated outside observers. On one hand there is the obvious boon of seeing return interest (and financial revenue) on classic titles, but then there is also the idea of potentially losing ticket sales for new productions with people spending money on old films.
‘We have built great relationships with the studios, and now we get much more interest. I think it’s partly because we do get the films back in the box-office, so if you think about Empire Strikes Back (1980), our production was about the same as the original take of the movie, allowing for inflation obviously. Pretty much every film now gets back in the top ten. We also do new films, so last year we did The Handmaiden (2016) and I, Daniel Blake (2016) to give Jeremy Corbyn an extra push. Traditional cinema is, of course, valid, but people aren’t going in the same numbers. We’ve also done a few films for kids and it is something we are keen to do, having already done Bugsy Malone (1976). I like the idea of experiencing films like when you were a child, it’s basically what Secret Cinema is. Being in a film and not being able to tell the difference between what’s on screen and what’s happening around you.’
The idea of using recent or even current releases as opposed to classics is something that has been trialled before by Secret Cinema. Another Ridley Scott movie, Prometheus (2012), the quasi-prequel to Alien (1979), was one such presentation, but this posed problems too. Riggall told us why it wasn’t all plain sailing.
‘It was a missed opportunity. I haven’t really spoken about this, so I’ll give you a bit of an inside scoop. We spoke with Fox [the studio releasing the film] and got Ridley Scott’s endorsement, having done a couple of his films previously. I wanted to do it as a Secret Cinema Presents, or Future Cinema in this case, and it was creating a new format. We have 2D, 3D and now this new one, “Secret”. We wanted to partner and have their investment, but we had to do it as a secret event, which is insane given that it was one of the biggest titles of that year. It was convincing them of the value of it, and I think we are now at that stage as we have a great relationship with Fox thanks to Grand Budapest Hotel and Brazil. We had proven we could do it by that point, but some people in the industry were still questioning what we were doing. They thought we just did parties as opposed to theatrical experiences. I firmly believe the future isn’t 500 people sitting in a cinema wearing virtual reality headsets. The future is allowing people to come together in these places and communicating. The format is new, but we have been doing it and moving into the next generation. It is a reinvention for dealing with new releases, it’s giving people the choice of how to watch these movies. All the multiplexes are upping their game too, you’ve seen what they are doing. Vue, in Leicester Square, have done a great job with it. They might not admit it, but I think our ballsy-ness with what we did really counts.’
Heading back to the future, so to speak, Riggall obviously has mentioned his ideas about expanding. The core team has grown to its largest size and the plan is to scale around the world.
‘The New York times did a piece on us and said we were the “Fightback Against Facebook”, that was a nice mention. We’ve done testers, like we did one in Berlin. We don’t want to do it in a shallow way, we want to take the core learnings from the team here with big plans. We have some big launches planned. The model has quite a few facets to it at the moment, so we have Secret Cinema Presents as we’ve spoken about. Then we have Tell No One, which has been things like Dr. Strangelove and Battle of Algiers, beautiful, cult films that are slightly more provocative. Then Secret Cinema X are smaller productions that allow access to folks that might not go to the other presentations. It’s a playground, in some ways, to try new things. The “Secret” brand is going in other fields too, so music is really exciting.’
Finally, we had to ask the question that everyone asks Riggall when they have some time with him. Which film do people ask him to do next more than any other?
‘The one that keeps coming back, which I love but I find it strange. It’s The Goonies (1985), which must be a generational thing but is a challenge on what we could do with it. The other obvious one is Harry Potter, the idea of building Hogwarts and getting people to stay there would be amazing… but it would have to be for a whole term!’ Riggall jokes. We think.
Secret Cinema Presents Blade Runner runs from March 21 – June 10 from a yet-to-be-announced London location.