Ten years of immersive film screenings must wear a person down. Secret Cinema’s founder, Fabien Riggall, is struggling to speak. “I sound about a hundred,” he apologises, his voice crackling with exhaustion.
When he’s excited, the voice disappears altogether, so it sounds like static on the line. As he busies himself with his latest screening, Blade Runner, his head seems to be spinning. “It’s been quite a journey — I turned around the other day and suddenly I was 40.”
The other day must have flown by too, as Riggall is actually 42, but he can be forgiven for losing track of the little things. Years since this was a childhood dream — “I sneaked into Once Upon A Time In America, literally lost myself in it and thought ‘what if you could live inside a movie?’” — Secret Cinema has done 46 productions over 10 years, and racked up some impressive credentials.
Last year, the screening of Moulin Rouge! put the film back into the British box office top 10 for seven weeks and grossed around a third of the film’s original UK takings. There were similar successes with The Handmaiden, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Star Wars.
“People try to define Secret Cinema’s success in all sorts of ways,” Riggall says. “But really it’s just a question of saying: why are 80,000 people dressing up like it’s 19th-century France?” Does he have any idea? “It’s about people wanting to get away from the repetitive, restrictive way we experience culture. We’re offering a place people can really lose themselves, a night where you can actually have an adventure.”
It’s not been a clean run of success. Four years ago, the premiere of Back To The Future was cancelled just 90 minutes before it began, and further cancellations rocked the run. Even then, crowds of 84,000 came, breaking audience records for live cinema.
“I learned a hell of a lot from what was an incredibly big turmoil for the audience and also for us,” he says. “We’d never worked on such a big show, we’d never driven DeLoreans around the audience. I hope those who were let down give us another chance.”
The team bounced back with Star Wars — which was an enormous hit, even as Riggall strongly denied allegations of using unpaid actors, something he doesn’t comment on now. Star Wars is the production that he’s proudest of. “In many ways, it really opened us up to a global audience.”
For now, there’s Blade Runner to be getting on with. Demand is so high that the announcement crashed its website, postponing the release of tickets. At £45, they are cheaper than in recent years. “I’m not going to lie, these productions are incredibly expensive, but we’ve looked at making things cheaper.”
Secret Cinema is about wanting to get away from the repetitive, restrictive way we experience culture
Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi thriller is important film to Riggall and his team, who first staged it in 2010, but couldn’t its sexual politics, brought to the fore with Blade Runner 2049, be a target for criticism in the time of #MeToo?
“The film is a dystopian world that we don’t necessarily endorse. We don’t endorse Philip K Dick’s ethics or say: ‘This is the way we want the world to be’. We’re sort of saying that the film is a warning of how the world could be.
“We can create more interesting and more creative experiences if it’s not just looking from a male gaze. One of our leading characters is female, a character whom you wouldn’t normally imagine to be. We want to show the world can be completely different to the dystopia shown.”
It’s not the first time Secret Cinema has attempted to make a point with a production. “We did Dr Strangelove as a warning against Trump, sadly no-one listened to us”.
Riggall has plenty up his sleeve: travelling across the world, plans to get into music, and keeping Secret Cinema going without him. There’s more, but he can’t tell me the details, obviously — they’re secret.
Secret Cinema's Blade Runner launches on March 21, running until June. For more information and tickets, visit secretcinema.org.