Star Wars is a pretty big thing in England. So it comes as no surprise that there’s a place somewhere in London where hundreds of stormtroopers scour for runaway droids and Rebel pilots plot to blow up the Death Star. A place crawling with Jawas and womprats and slugs. A place where the law is archaic and criminals openly brag about death-sentence convictions.
This mirror universe created by the minds over at Secret Cinema is a little different than what you see at movie-rich theme parks. It’s fun taking selfies with characters from some of your favorite films and watching live reenactments with cool explosions and sound effects. But what if you were battling the bad guys or saving the world yourself? That’s how we used to watch movies when we were barely old enough to understand them, back to that magical time when the imaginary line between fantasy and reality didn’t exist.
We can’t move objects with our mind. We can’t travel at lightspeed. But that didn’t stop us from staring wide-eyed at something so wondrous and unbelievable. It’s certainly how Fabien Riggall, the founder and director of Secret Cinema, felt when he watched The Empire Strikes Back during its theatrical run.
“For me what Secret Cinema represents is that feeling of going to the cinema as a child,” says Riggall. “It’s where the relationship you have between your seat and the screen is very different to you than the one you have when you’re an adult, and the experience of going to the movies as a child is a much larger than life experience.”
The project, much like Star Wars, is extravagant and ambitious — and a little risky. Actors portray different figures in the film, and participants are required to dress up and continually stay in character as events play out. It’s never clear who the actors are among the fans in attendance, and there are several surprises designed to keep the audience on the edge, though not to the point of paranoia. This is still a fictional world after all, but one where some of the rules of real life still apply.
Interactive theater and cosplay isn’t anything that hasn’t been seen before, but few have ever asked to be taken seriously. And none have tried to build a city. Last year Secret Cinema constructed the town of Hill Valley from Back to the Future, a masterpiece that included 30 shops, a movie theater, four musical venues, and the beloved Lou’s Café. In 2007, the company transformed an underground railroad tunnel into a rundown skate park from the film, Paranoid Park.
Recreating those films was definitely a mountain to climb, but not an impossible one considering they took place in 20th century America. Star Wars presented several daunting new challenges, one of them trying to bring to life a story narrative spread through many worlds with completely different surroundings and inhabitants. This kind of undertaking required meticulous planning and preparation, and Rigall – well into his comfort zone — approached the task like a dean’s list college student.
“When we looked at doing Star Wars, we pretty much devoured every single book that has ever been written on the movie,” says Riggall. “Every single description, every costume, every character, we had a huge research department going through absolutely everything.”
The biggest obstacle in creating any Star Wars-themed event is nailing the look. Think of the guys wearing the funny costumes at the cantina. Or Yoda schooling Luke before he lifted his X-wing out of a marsh. There was something mystical about those scenes even though they look primitive compared to the elaborate effects used in movies today.
Even with a Galactic Empire of his own that has been steadily growing over the last six years, Riggall understood the cerebral approach that was needed in meeting some big expectations. “We were looking to create an emotive feeling of the experience. And if we could get the feeling right, then the world would be right. That’s the beauty of Star Wars. There is this sort of sense that it is its own universe, and it has this real blur between what’s real and what’s not and if somehow you believe it, you really believe it. And I think the reason why is the feeling that’s evoked in it. That’s was what I worked really hard on, creating an environment that felt real, and if I could get the audience to believe it, then our job was done. If you believe in anything with conviction, then anything becomes real.”
That was the philosophy adopted by J.J. Abrams during production for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At the Star Wars panel last weekend at San Diego Comic-Con, Abrams unveiled a new behind-the-scenes video which gave fans a closer look at the locations and sets where filming took place. He stressed the importance of practical visual effects integrated with real-life environments and sticking with what made the original films so great.
It’s similar to why Secret Cinema chooses to keep its locations clandestine. If you were to take out your cell phone, switch on the GPS function, and learn that you were but five blocks away from your neighborhood Trader Joe’s, then the illusion would be shattered. Beyond repair.
Aside from doing everything to meet the improbable task of creating a perfect space port and covertly filling it with thousands of frenetic fans — which included employing Imperial guards to confiscate cell phones at blaster point — Riggall also needed to sprinkle some hotels and houses around that port.
The Star Wars universe is a big place. But we don’t see a lot of it. The Death Star, for example, was likely made up of thousands of rooms and a maze of passageways, but we only saw about 10 rooms, a couple of cramped hallways, and a sewage chamber that might have housed a kraken. Seedy denizens and urban alleyways leave just as much to the imagination…perhaps a group of cardplayers huddled together in a smoke-filled suite in Cloud City, or a den filled with mysterious crates labeled “Ewoks” buried beneath Jabba’s palace.
It was something Riggall may have had on his mind when he was staring at the space in front of him. “Essentially, we build using inspiration from the story, and because the films are shot from a very specific angle, there’s a huge other story that isn’t seen. It has to work as a narrative where you have 1,500 audience members becoming characters in 10 acres of empty factory space. It’s important for both the show as well as the integrity behind the film. So we take liberties in creating stuff that’s not necessarily in a specific film but is part of the bigger story.”
One look at the event’s main theme might make you think of places like Bespin and Hoth. But you won’t see either one. That’s because the audience has to survive through its obstacles in order to get to the events of The Empire Strikes Back. So where does it take place? The answer may shock you: Earth.
It’s actually not that hard to buy into. Lightspeed usually took about 20 minutes in the films, so how long could it take to get here? Consequentially, Earth is home to 100,000 Rebels that have fled the galaxy in hijacked Imperial ships following the Clone Wars. Operating out of their main base in London, the
audience Rebels begin rallying refugees living in the shadows after hearing whispers of an uprising against the Galactic Empire.
Unexplained signs and symbols appear on abandoned building around the world, and the mysterious hashtag Rebel X is blipping at almost every corner of London, its message powerful and indelible.
This is the story narrative that Secret Cinema has created. There are several surprises and plot twists (which won’t be revealed here) that might flummox a few die-hard fans, but belief persists that all of this could have actually happened while Han and Chewie were snuffing out stormtroopers and Obi-Wan was disabling the tractor beam holding the Millennium Falcon.
Riggall’s unorthodox method of storytelling could also be considered brilliant because of its simplicity. “I liked the idea that the audience would essentially live through A New Hope, live through that story of Luke getting taken from his existence to joining this adventure and having a quest. So I thought the audience becoming Luke Skywalker, that they themselves would be woken up and taken to the Rebellion…and live to see Hoth in the summer.”
A lot of fans probably wouldn’t mind seeing Hoth in the winter, and that’s a possibility since it does snow a little bit in England that time of the year. While Riggall currently has no definite plans of retelling the events of The Empire Strikes Back, it’s ideal given the darker tone and complexity of the characters, something Secret Cinema has already explored with screenings that include The Shawshank Redemption and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Spoilers aside, don’t forget that the Rebels won in A New Hope. In Empire, Luke gets his hand cut off, Han Solo gets tortured, and the body count just piles and piles.
It’s something that fans in the US would also like to be a part of, and Riggall hasn’t ruled out the possibility of creating an extended universe for his Star Wars screenings.
“We’re excited about where we can take this next, so I’m hopeful we can bring this to the US. It’s a nice balance between the Comic-Con experience, which is much to be applauded, but it’s slightly different in that you’re sort of admiring that world. I like the idea of audience being a part of that world and being able to interact as an equal with the characters who are in it.”
With 180 days to go until Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the world is already starting to buzz. Tents will pop up outside of multiplexes, lines will form, multiply, and snake their way around sidewalk curbs and cars will honk their horns loudly as they drive by. When the film opens, those same people will wave their plastic lightsabers, scream, and keep screaming until the lights dim and they return to that galaxy far, far away. But somewhere in London, thousands are already screaming because they’ve defeated the evil Empire. As Luke Skywalker knows, there isn’t any greater feeling.
Sean Galusha is a content writer with Lucasfilm. Check out all of his latest posts at @seanmgalusha, where you can chronicle his wisdom about sports, Hot Pockets, and all things geeky. Follow at your own risk.