It’s often been the dream of many cinephiles to live out some of their favourite moments from their big screen favourites, and Ned Loach and Robert Gontier are here to oblige those feelings. Inspired by a series of screenings they witnessed while living in the UK that allowed for films to be a completely immersive, multisensory experience with actors and interactive exhibits based around the film for viewers to interact with, they brought 360 Screenings to Canada.
Following a successful debut with a screening of Ghost in May at the Burroughes Building on Queen Street West and one of Fight Club in August in the Distillery District, Toronto based film buffs Loach and Gontier plan months in advance the spectacle and scope of their events. For Ghost, they included a full sized recreation of being in a dingy subway and offered tarot card readings among other things, and Fight Club included a cast of dozens of actors each playing members of Project Mayhem. Below are recaps of the past two screenings so potential attendees know what to expect.
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Taking place constantly in a Toronto Heritage Building and including a cocktail party style atmosphere as part of the 19+ show, the only caveat to these screenings is that theatre goers won’t know the location of the event until 24 hours before it happens and the secret identity of the film will remain a secret until guests arrive. With the next secret screening coming this Wednesday, October 24th at 7:00pm ($60 general admission/$40 for students and culture seekers, with tickets 90% sold out, but still available here) – naturally, one that’s Halloween themed – we talked to Loach and Gontier about the effort that they put into their events, the challenges of remounting some pretty classic and well loved films, some funny stories, and some cryptic hints behind the mystery of this screening and another one in the future.
Dork Shelf: I know this is based on a previously existing concept, so what made you want to bring it here to Toronto?
Ned Loach: I first heard about it while Rob was doing his Masters in London, and we were living together, and I always had a strong passion for film. I was always sort of on the lookout for interesting things that people were doing with film. While we were living in London, I was reading a local blog and they mentioned something about this company, Secret Cinema, that was doing this. I immediately checked it out and I loved it. We went to the first one, and the second one, and do you want to talk about how we adapted it?
Robert Gontier: Yeah, because the process was really exciting when we were in London, so when we came back to our hometown of Toronto, we were really interested in evolving the experience to Canadian audiences and cater particularly to the Toronto film-slash-theatre scene, so we knew that here we have a lot of lovely architecture and that Toronto has a surplus of underused, but really beautiful heritage buildings. So we thought “How can we repurpose these spaces not only to host our events, but to give a different spin?” How could these places become the actual set of a film and how could we explore them in that sort of capacity.
DS: What was the experience like when you were first in London and what was one of the experiences that stood out to you the most? I assume you aren’t going to replicate the same experience.
NL: No! Actually we haven’t done and don’t plan to do anything that they did in London. Blade Runner was one of the ones that we saw that was really neat. It was just a total sort of escape from reality and from what you could possibly imagine from a night out in a theatre or going out to see a movie. You feel like you’re transported to another world or another universe, and that’s what’s interesting about the concept. You are invited into a different place where some of these characters that you might have grown up loving and that you watched are interacting and reacting as if you were an extra in the film.
DS: What is the decision making process in terms of finding what movies you want to show like and how hard is it for you guys when you sit down and you realize that something might not work in a live setting? Is that at all heartbreaking when you can’t do something?
RG: That happens ALL the time with us. (laughs) As the company continues to sort of expand and grow, we’re always looking into options on how we can do these huge, spectacular films even within intimate settings. We love Jurassic Park and Jaws, and hopefully one day in our five year plan we can take a look at those larger films, but for now we will just do baby steps to get there.
One of the things that we loved in London and one of the things we prided ourselves on here is about immersing the audience as soon as they come on site. We always have to explore and expand on that because we have to make sure that they feel like they are a part of the action.
NL: About that point about immersing people in the event, for Fight Club we had all of these extras dressed in black and we had people there doing make-up for the event, and at the end of the first part of the evening and after the participatory part of the event, everyone was dressed in all black and everyone had scrapes and bruises and cuts on their faces, and they were all suddenly part of Project Mayhem, that secret society, and it was great to see that Torontonians were all for that sort of immersion and to dig deeper into what they are experiencing. They want to involve themselves in the film.
A funny story about Fight Club, we had one of our very close friend of ours who unfortunately didn’t wear all black, so he separated and was immediately detached from the whole concept. (Robert laughs) So because of that, everyone thought he had to be an actor. We didn’t have our main actors wearing black so they didn’t have to wonder who they were. So everyone just kind of started following him, and at one point he was talking to a bunch of other friends and everyone that was following him was just so captivated by this story he was telling, but he was really just telling something from his day. It had NO relevance to Fight Club, and all these other strangers were sort of hanging on him and hovering around him and wondering what he was saying. Finally he just said “I’m not an actor. What are you doing?” But they were just so captivated by it.
DS: It sounds like he almost literally became Jack from Fight Club.
RG: That’s true!
NL: It was just such an interesting part of that concept that you can’t plan for. It was so neat to hear that story.
RG: One of the other things that happened at Fight Club that was funny was that we used our actual car as a part of the show. We brought it into the venue and we thought that people would be exploring around, but we never thought in our wildest dreams that they would actually open up the car doors! They were going through our glove compartment, looking through our receipts, because they thought they were all hints and clues. (laughs) That was something to see and something really special.
NL: (laughs) We’re learning our lessons. Like “lock the car doors”.
DS: With everything going on around recreating the film for a live audience, is there every any fear that the event would take away from the film itself?
RG: Well, our hope and our mandate is to always make the experience before the audience watches the film so interesting and so compelling and so attached to the action and beats of the film that their experience can only be heightened and deepened. That’s our main goal, and to this point I feel like we’ve accomplished that with the films that we’ve taken on.
DS: Which one of the two that you have done so far posed the bigger challenge for you so far? Was it Ghost because it was your first time doing this or Fight Club because it was done on a much larger scale?
NL: Each one poses its own set of challenges, especially with Fight Club because that’s a hard-R rated film. It’s really intense and the fights are graphic. We were really worried at first that it was going to have a negative impact on the way people would react. We’re very transparent about the film we’re going to choose. If it’s rated R we don’t want people to be scared or be surprised by what’s on screen. We made it really clear that it was a rated R film, and in the end it actually helped us. There was a lot of stuff on Twitter where people were excited about it and wondering if they were going to survive through the night.
But certainly with Ghost, it was really difficult because we wanted to come out and have the biggest impact possible. We wanted to come in with a bang…
RG: But then you have your next issue, which is, how do you make it bigger and better and more immersive?
DS: It definitely doesn’t seem like a concept where you can just rest on what you have done in the past and reproduce something that’s just as equally good as the last thing you did. The bigger it gets the more it seems you have to put into it. Which makes it great right now that you are doing one at Halloween. Was it always your intention to a Halloween screening and do you potentially see yourselves always doing one around this time of year?
RG: We’re going to see how this one goes, but Ned and I love watching how people react to some sort of fear and seeing what that means. We know there’s lots of great events out there that sort of explore this already, like funhouses and haunted houses, and we want to just take it to the next level. Ours isn’t really sort of a haunted house as much as it is people exploring and finding out what sort of psychological stories and fears are out there for the specific movie that we’ve chosen.
NL: And with horror films, everyone seems to have their own taste in them. Some people like the immediate shock of the Scream or Halloween movies, but there’s also a lot of really great environmental or psychological horrors that we’re looking into doing. It won’t be so much like a haunted house type of thing, but more like a moving sense of dread and trying to figure out when something is going to happen. That’s sort of what we’re going for here.
RG: And we hope that they enjoy the film, but we know that no matter what film we choose, people will already have feelings about it because it’s already been out in the world for at least a few years. Our main sort of focus is on how to make the first part with the experience of interacting with their surroundings deepen what they are feeling about something they already know.
NL: When we were in London, the first one that we saw together was Wings of Desire, which I wasn’t such a huge fan of the actual movie, but I was really impressed with the first half and that was ultimately the experience that I took away. I was really impressed with how they captured that film in a theatrical sense. We hope that even if they aren’t sold on the movie, they will at least take away something from the experiential part of it all.
DS: We’re you ever afraid with a Halloween or horror type theme that you might be taking it a bit too literally or that you were going to make something that might be too scary for people?
NL: I think that’s a great question. Obviously we hope that’s something that isn’t going to happen and not something we ever planed to do, but it’s obviously in the back of our minds. How can we bring the characters, sets, and props alive, but still leave the audience to have their own imagination in a way that doesn’t dampen the experience, but instead enhances it?
RG: Someone on Twitter did express on Twitter that they don’t love horror movies and that they will wait until the next one. (laughs)
DS: Then again, you might like with Fight Club, actually gain more attendees since no one else is really doing this with horror movies because people who like those movies like to have that primal sort of experience to begin with.
RG: It’s certainly our biggest one yet in terms of audience size. Our first one sold out a run of 100 tickets, and our second one was a little bit bigger and we sold out just under 200. We’ve upped this one from there as well, and we’re on course to sell it out again, which is really great.
DS: When you’re approaching one of these events do you start with the movie first or do you start with the location first?
NL: We always start with the movie and we hope we can find a match with one of the heritage buildings. That’s the number one thing that we look for. We normally narrow it down to two or three possible things, and with the Halloween theme we sort of found our genre and tried to match buildings up with potential fits from our short list of films. Then it finally came together.
RG: We have a list of about 50 movies right now that we would like to see in this sort of setting, and an even longer list of Toronto Heritage Buildings, so we have done a lot of research and done a lot of movies. There’s no shortage this time of year of really interesting, dark places.
It’s funny, because with Fight Club, if you’ve ever been to the Fermenting Cellar in the Distillery District where we did it, you would know it’s kind of a raw space, and it’s totally covered as a heritage space, so they really try to preserve everything that’s in the space as it is now. It went so far as them saying that if you put tape on the walls and some of the rust came off and peeled away they would have to charge us for that…
RG: It was so interesting that they were trying to preserve everything including the rust and how run down parts of it were.
NL: This time, instead of it taking place in sort of an open venue like the last two, we’re combining two kinds of spaces. There’s still going to be that open element to this one, but there’s also going to be different rooms that you can go into and explore. There will be a lot more exploring this time.
RG: It’s definitely going to open up a lot more creative ideas for the film we’ve chosen and the things we can do.
NL: There’s still that great social element where you can interact with the actors and with other people, but there are going to be a lot more ways to interact with individual elements and things that happen in the film.
DS: What sort of frequency do you guys see yourselves doing this on? Do you think if it becomes extremely successful that you would have to do it more than on a semi-monthly basis or do you think that success would make you guys want to take even more time between productions?
RG: We hope to ultimately do about 4 or 5 screenings over a week, every night, over and again, and just hope that people preserve the mystery element of it all. The location in that case would already be revealed, but the movie would still stay a mystery.
NL: Some of the companies in London and Australia that are doing similar things to us have gotten to that level already. It’s taken them three to five years to get the multiple viewings and showcasings.
RG: Yeah, they do it over the course of four weeks, for a totally of about 20 screenings.
DS: Do you guys plan multiple screenings at once? Right now are you looking ahead to the next one?
RG: We’re heavily looking into the one we are doing in February right now. The location and the movie are both completely booked and ready. The script is being written, and overall we are looking towards our five year plan and keeping our sights ahead and forward. We’re working towards those ambitious goals now.
NL: We always stay about a screening ahead. So we know that the Halloween one is coming up on the 24th, and we already know most of what’s going to happen in February, and a little about the next one after that.
DS: Do you have any hints as to what the one in February will end up being? Will it have a Valentines Day theme or a winter theme to it?
RG: (coyly) Possibly. It will be something a bit more spectacular overall. It will definitely be bigger than any of the three films we have done so far, but it’s no coincidence that it will be close to Valentines Day…
NL: There’s most likely some romance to it… Sure… (laughs)