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Sets, flicks and a licence to thrill: backstage at Secret Cinema’s latest immersive theatre mission

Secret Cinema's Moulin Rouge!. Photo: Luke Dyson

Since its launch in 2007, Secret Cinema has hosted movie-inspired immersive events including Moulin Rouge!, Blade Runner, Star Wars and Casino Royale – and later this year, its first TV show: Netflix’s Stranger Things. Producer Andrea Moccia tells Fergus Morgan about the creative process and why the company refuses to compromise

Immersive producer Secret Cinema has come a long way since it started. The first screening in 2007 hosted 450 people. This summer, more than 120,000 will go to the company’s James Bond-themed showing of Casino Royale and, later this year, Secret Cinema is creating its first ever TV event – a Stranger Things show – in collaboration with streaming giant Netflix.

Italian-born and London-based, Andrea Moccia started going to Secret Cinema while he was studying for a degree in business management, and it left an impression.

“I remember The Shawshank Redemption in particular,” he says. “You were called in front of a judge and sentenced for a crime you didn’t commit, thrown into a blacked-out van, taken to a prison, put in uniform, then locked in a cell. I was absolutely blown away, and at that point I thought: ‘I need to work for these people.’ ”

Moccia started work at Secret Cinema as an intern. He and founder Fabien Riggall hit it off, and he gradually worked his way up, event by event, to become senior producer, overseeing the development and delivery of enormous immersive events like Moulin Rouge! and Blade Runner. He’s currently busy organising Casino Royale, which opened at an undisclosed east London venue on June 5.

“I put the team together,” explains Moccia. “I work with the creatives on the stories of the show, I manage the budget and the schedule, and then I’m on site for the build, the technical rehearsals, the dress rehearsals, the previews and the shows themselves.”

For Casino Royale, the team is led by creative director Angus Jackson, who recently directed Don Quixote, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Alongside him are experts from the worlds of film, theatre and events management, specialist designers, and an improvising cast whittled down from thousands of applicants.

‘We try to reflect a cultural or social thing that’s going on in the world – with Bond, it’s all about capitalism and money’ – Andrea Moccia, Secret Cinema

The creative process starts with selecting a film, a decision usually influenced by current affairs. “We try to reflect a cultural or social thing that’s going on in the world,” says Moccia. “So we chose Moulin Rouge! straight after Brexit and Trump, when we wanted to create a society of love. With Bond, it’s all about capitalism and money.”

Then, it’s a question of finding an appropriate space for the show. Every Secret Cinema event takes place somewhere new, at a secret location revealed only to ticket-holders
in the lead-up to the event.

“William Ma, our location manager, is in charge of finding these buildings for us,” says Moccia. “We work closely with borough councils, and we’ve done them in all sorts of places, from listed buildings such as Hornsey Town Hall for Miller’s Crossing, to disused factories like Printworks for 28 Days Later and Star Wars.”

He continues: “It’s actually getting harder and harder to find places in London, because lots of sites are just being knocked down and turned into luxury flats that no one can afford. We are living in a golden age of immersive entertainment right now, but if we want to stay at the forefront of this movement, then we need to protect these spaces.”

It’s one thing finding a space, though, and another thing entirely turning it into a venue. “We’ll put fire exits in,” explains Moccia. “We’ll put sprinklers in. We’ll put lighting and power and toilets in. In the venue we’re in now, there wasn’t even a floor, so we had to put one in. It’s a massive investment.” Then, says Moccia, it’s all about recreating the world of the film in that space.

“We watch the film over and over and over again,” says Moccia. “We’ll buy and read all the books, listen to all the podcasts and interviews. We have a team of researchers and creative associates who create this bible of research. Not just of the film, but of the historical context the film is set in as well.”

Detail, says Moccia, is essential, because Secret Cinema shows are often attended by fanatical devotees of the film, and they expect a certain authenticity to the event. “The detail has to be perfect. Particularly with Bond, because I don’t think there’s a single person in England who hasn’t seen a Bond film, or doesn’t have some sort of emotional connection with them.”

Recreating films authentically can prove tough, says Moccia. It’s not as if the iconic props used in blockbuster movies can be bought from any regular supplier. For Secret Cinema’s immersive Back to the Future event, the team had to get hold of not one, but several different versions of the iconic car used in the film: the DeLorean.

“There’s a big community of fans with those cars, who take them to weddings and parties, so we reached out to them,” says Moccia. “It was hard. At one point, we were going to have to ship some over from the US.”

He continues: “We reuse stuff when we can, but a lot of the props we have to build from scratch, because there’s no other way. For Blade Runner, for example, we had to recreate exactly the machine that determines whether someone is human or a replicant. It had a special camera that pointed into your eyes, which would then appear on these big screens.
You simply can’t find things like that.”

‘We’ll put fire exits in. We’ll put sprinklers in. We’ll put lighting and power and toilets in. It’s a massive investment’

It’s the same story with Casino Royale. Secret Cinema famously keeps information about its upcoming events close to its chest – hence the name – but Moccia reveals that the poker chips used will be exactly the same as those used in the film.

“They’ll be identical,” he says. “And the difference between props that we use and film props is that film props only need to work on screen. Our audience needs to touch our props and feel them and use them. It’s quite magical really.”

It’s the same with costume, he continues: “The costume department works so hard, and manages to replicate clothes down to the individual stitch. I always start by telling them we’ll need a hundred costumes, but by the end of the show they’ll have made thousands and thousands, because on top of the actors, all the bar staff, security staff and front-of-house staff need to look the part too.”
Secret Cinema refuses to compromise. If there’s a famous element of a film, the team has to replicate it, and sometimes that means going to truly extraordinary lengths. For Blade Runner, the team was determined to find a way to recreate the movie’s iconic acid rain indoors.

“It was not simple,” says Moccia. “We had a big tank beneath the floor, underneath a grate. Then we would pump the water up to a sprinkler system in the ceiling. It took us 13 days to fill that tank with enough water.”

Projects like that aren’t cheap. Every large-scale Secret Cinema project, says Moccia, has a budget “comparable to a big West End production” and employs “500 to 600 people”, including 150 running staff for each and every show. There have been more than 60 actors on recent productions.

Moccia refuses to say what that money has been spent on for Casino Royale. “I’m not going to spoil what we’ve got in store,” he says. “But there are some real Easter eggs, some real treats that will make people cry with joy.”

Secret Cinema’s Casino Royale is at a secret London venue until September 22; Stranger Things opens on November 13

Romeo + Juliet review at Secret Cinema – ‘worthy tribute to a great film’

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