It’s a Tuesday evening in south London and dozens of adults in medical scrubs are running screaming through the corridors of a former newspaper factory. A vast site near Surrey Quays shopping centre, the building has been transformed to resemble an abandoned hospital. Staff in military uniforms patrol the gates while upstairs, a group of actors dressed as the undead wait to hurl themselves at cages as a terrified audience sprints past under flickering strobe lights.
This is Secret Cinema’s latest production, a nightmarish and brilliantly designed immersive event culminating in a screening of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. The film tells the story of Jim, who wakes up from a coma to find himself in a post-apocalyptic London. Most of the population has been wiped out by a virus that can turn healthy humans into red-eyed bloodthirsty monsters in just a few seconds.
Secret Cinema’s event recreates some of the film’s most memorable scenes and introduces a new narrative: audiences have been selected to receive a vaccination from a virus that is rapidly spreading through the country, with the health service unable to contain it in the wake of funding cuts. It begins with a trip to hospital but things quickly go south, leading to a terrifying dash through darkly lit corridors littered with corpses and discarded belongings.
“The initial idea was to make people feel like they were inside a horror film,” says Secret Cinema founder and creative director Fabien Riggall. “The concept I came up with originally was, ‘how can we have the audience become Jim? How can we have this audience that has woken up in a post apocalyptic world and has to move through this abandoned hospital to find Balfron Tower?’
“A lot of people think we simply recreate the film but we don’t really. We take inspiration from it in the same way you might with a newspaper article or any story and we create a new story around it,” he adds. “We’ll create a storyline which is inspired by the film, but is different as it were, and then we punctuate it with these sequences which are iconic moments [from the film].”
Riggall says the choice of film was in part inspired by its location – Secret Cinema acquired the site last year (it was once home to the Evening Standard) and staged screenings of Star Wars and Dr Strangelove in different parts of the same building. “It’s an old factory where thousands of people used to work every day and now it’s just empty. It’s almost 11 acres, so it’s got this feeling of an abandoned city and it seemed like the perfect place to have people running around being chased by zombies,” he explains. As a film with a cult following and some evocative sets, Boyle’s film was a perfect candidate for the Secret Cinema treatment – “and it has a kind of British eccentricity to it that I love,” adds Riggall.
28 Days Later is Secret Cinema’s first attempt at horror: it has staged immersive screenings of Ridley Scott’s Prometheus and prison thriller Shawshank Redemption but recent productions such as The Empire Strikes Back and Back to the Future, where audiences could roam freely around Hill Valley, have been more light-hearted.
The experience is more choreographed than other Secret Cinema nights and every moment is carefully timed.”The idea was to have people thrown into the unknown. It had to be terrifying … I think when the audience really reacts is when they feel that sense of fear, when they think, ‘is this supposed to be happening?'” says Riggall. “We’ve done these sorts of performances before, like with Shawshank Redemption [where audiences were treated like prison inmates]. That was very controlled – it had to be for it to work.”
Ushering hundreds of people through a building at high speed is no easy feat, so a custom soundtrack was created to help the experience run smoothly. Composer Danny Nolan created a score in just two weeks which is used to time each moment of the event.
“We also worked with Matt Daw, who’s an amazing lighting designer, and the entire thing is really controlled by light and sound,” explains Riggall. “The music cues the whole experience, including the actors’ performance…. They had to almost learn the soundtrack to understand how to move – for example, a certain beat would kick in and a zombie might have to attack. Our sound designer worked on the Olympics and he said this is the most complicated job he’s done since,” he adds.
To design the event, Riggall worked with a creative team made up of people from theatre, film and live events backgrounds. Secret Cinema has a core creative team which works on projects year-round, but it also brings in specialists to work on particular events.
“Initially, we have lots of creative meetings, I put in an initial concept, we write a storyline about how it will be experienced and then different heads of different departments might go away and think about how it can be done in that space,” he adds.
“We walk through the building in various routes and react to places – for example, we might go through an underpass where we think, ‘this could make an abandoned Tube station’…. Each different department from lighting to sound to make-up and costumes then have to think ‘what is that area going to feel like?'” explains Riggall.
“[Planning the audience journey] involves a huge amount of walking through the space with our core creative team, imagining and reimagining, and then there are huge logistical and production teams. It’s quite a feat to move 1,000 people through a dark space with filled with smoke and loud noises and it’s quite full on, so we work closely with a health and safety team,” he says.
The attention to detail in every set is impressive – each space is filled with props and designs, from treatment areas where health and safety videos play on repeat to more homely interiors which audiences will recognise from the film.
“You have to think about all those potential things people are going to catch in their corner of their eye … that’s all part of the experience,” says Riggall. “It’s like a puzzle putting them all together so you see certain things and you move through the space. You might witness one thing and your friend might witness something different, it’s not prescribed, so were all going to react differently,” he adds.
Graphics are also an important part of the production, from teaser images and NHS-style registration forms posted online to safety notices pinned up around the warehouse. These were created by Secret Cinema’s in-house graphics team, led by Fraser Gillespie. 28 Days Later producer Andrew McDonald also provided some of the graphics from the original film including a rage virus warning poster.
Ahead of the event, Secret Cinema set up a fake news channel on Twitter and posted footage documenting the spread of the virus. Videos were created using a mix of original footage and scenes of panic and disruption from coverage of the 2011 riots. It has also been posting regular health and safety warnings in the style of NHS communications on its Twitter page and set up a website, nsh-england.org.uk, where audiences can register their details and gauge their susceptibility to the virus.
The performance is made not just by the clever sound, lighting and set design, but the impressive performances put in by actors. “It’s tough and my hat really goes off to the performance team. For them, it’s a five-hour, intense experience and they have to work so hard,” says Riggall. “This whole immersive thing is a new craft – as an actor, you’re used to being on stage or in front of the camera and when the audience suddenly step into your world and come right up to you, and they’re talking to you in character, and you have to react,” he adds. Riggall and the team do test runs before performances with friends and family, but how exactly audiences will react remains a mystery until the opening night.
In the few years since it was founded, Secret Cinema’s screenings have grown from small-scale, niche events to massive productions. Around 450 people worked on 28 Days Later and as a result, ticket prices have increased. (A full price evening ticket for 28 Days Later costs £64.50). These prices are often criticised in reviews but as Riggall points out, seeing a concert at the o2 or a play in London’s West End can cost considerably more.
Still, it’s a lot of money, and paying extra for food and drink in the middle of an otherwise immersive experience can be frustrating. Riggall acknowledges this, and says it is something he is keen to address. “It is expensive and we are going to find ways to look at that,” he says. “When we’ve done smaller shows they’ve been cheaper,” he adds, citing a screening of Amy Winehouse documentary Amy, which took place in Koko nightclub in Camden and cost just £28.
The price of tickets, and the success of previous productions, has also increased audience expectations – Riggall says the team are under constant pressure to deliver something spectacular. But if the reviews from excited fans on twitter are anything to go by, audiences haven’t been left disappointed with the latest event. “There is a lot of expectation and that’s tough in many respects but that’s what makes it good, we’re pushing ourselves every single time,” says Riggall. “There is a lot of expectation but its just lovely and reassuring when we do these productions and people seem to really love it and get what we’re trying to do.”
Secret Cinema: 28 Days Later is on until May 29. Tickets cost from £40. For details, secretcinema.org
Artistic Director & Creative Producer: Fabien Riggall
Producer: Andrea Moccia
Production Designer: Tim Mc Quillen
Projection Designer: Duncan Mc Lean
Lighting Designer: Matt Daw
Sound Designer: Emmet O’Donnell
Graphic Designer: Fraser Gillespie
Sound Designer: Luke Swafflield
Composer: Danny Nolan
Costume Designers: Martina Trottman & Susan Kulkarni