London’s favourite pop-up cinema hits town this weekend with a Grease Extravaganza. One of our intrepid film writers Cath Clarke donned her pink bomber jacket and took a peek behind the scenes.
When Fabien Riggall was a kid, he’d watch films wishing he could climb into the screen. Today, his company, Future Cinema, brings that dream to life, plunging audiences directly into the movies. If you’ve been to one of its screenings, you’ll know the drill. This is the anti-multiplex experience: you arrive at what looks like a set from the film with actors dressed up as characters. If it’s a Secret Cinema event, you won’t even know what you’ll be watching until the night. Oh, and it’s massive. In June, 25,000 people coughed up £35 to see Secret Cinema’s staging of ‘Prometheus’ (though everyone I’ve spoken to guessed the film beforehand). For this weekend, 9,000 have enrolled in Rydell High on Barnes Common in South London.
It’s ten days before opening night, and in a storage unit in Hackney the crew are pulling together props and costumes. To the untrained eye this looks like a crammed-to the-gills vintage shop (and passers-by do stop and try to buy things). There are clues: satin Pink Ladies bombers, a pool table, bad-boy leather jackets. But it’s hard to believe that in a little over a week these props will be transformed into the corridors of Rydell High. Not that you’d question the ability of this lot to pull off an extravaganza. The meticulous detail in a Future Cinema event is what makes it special: the ‘Prometheus’ set occupied a 190,000-square-foot space complete with cockpit, loading bay, actual vehicles from the film, a restaurant, a medical lab and an android production line.
Costume designer Susan Kulkarni looks surprisingly un-frazzled for a woman who’s got two weeks to rustle up 100 costumes (her team will scour car boot sales and vintage outlets, as well as making outfits). ‘It starts off with a finite number. So we’ve got 25 actors and 12 dancers. You think that’s it. Then someone has the brilliant idea of getting 25 cheerleaders.’ She also likes to dress the crew and security. ‘Sometimes even the cleaners – it’s nice to get everyone involved.’ In the past, she’s even found herself costuming camels. ‘The most fun we had was with “Blade Runner”, ’ she says. ‘When we did our research, we found out the costume designer on the film didn’t have a massive budget, so he did things like putting upside-down baskets on people’s heads.’
Production designer Ollie Tiong has had a couple of months to work on ‘Grease’. Right now, he’s drawing up plans for where his props will go when they arrive on the location – his team of 60 will have five days to get ready for opening night. ‘The only thing I’m worrying about is the weather,’ he says (we assume it’ll be outdoors, then…).
Until recently, these events have had a reputation for being a hip night out. That’s surely changing. ‘Grease’ is strictly a Saturday night film – and it’s unlikely to pull in the crowd that were wowed by, say, ‘The Battle of Algiers’ or ‘The Red Shoes’. It’s all part of the masterplan, says Riggall: ‘Every year I want to do a feelgood film.’ The aim is to balance crowd pleasers like ‘Grease’ with getting artier films in front of a big audience. Riggall says the proudest he’s been is of the community screening of ‘La Haine’ in Tottenham, where the riots started in summer 2011.
And the film industry is taking notice. Secret Cinema’s ‘Prometheus’ made more money than the film did at the BFI Imax. Screening a new release was a Secret Cinema first, and Riggall says he’d like to open six or seven films a year. ‘You have 2D, 3D and now you have live cinema – where you can be in the film.’ And the audience is always encouraged to dress up (you might feel like a plum on the tube in a boiler suit, but it’s better than looking like a spare part inside).
What does Riggall think is the secret of Future Cinema’s success? ‘People are striving for real experiences, whether that’s bicycling or supper clubs. Why I think this works is that people dress up, they feel relaxed, they talk to people they might not have met at a cinema. It’s a social experience.’ Being in the crossfire of a splurge-gun fight is pretty fun too.
Riggall has plans to extend the Future Cinema empire into travel. But his latest brainchild is Secret Swimming – a club for midnight bathers. He got the idea when after having a swim one day, he created a Facebook page and within an hour 200 people liked it. ‘Future Cinema is a community. Sometimes in the film world there’s an arrogance – “It’s cinema, darling”. But people who love cinema love other things – music, theatre… swimming!’
‘Grease’ is showing at Barnes Common in South London, Sept 7-9. For more info, see timeout.com/film.