With Secret Cinema presents Casino Royale taking over the movie landscape of London this summer, this bullet catcher was fortunate to chat and listen to two of the creatives tasked with being Q, M, the Chief of Staff and artistic ambassadors to a cinematic legend. They discuss the collaborative processes with working with the House of Bond – EON Productions – and the creative challenges and minefields of bringing such universally known and loved movie properties to theatrical life.
After eight years at The Young Vic and then nine years at the RSC where he was lead producer, Kevin Fitzmaurice now joins Secret Cinema as Group Creative Producer. He [quite rightly] cites the Roger Moore era as those Bond bullets that he remembered first – not just for their sense of matinee adventure, but also what it meant to memories of family, of going to the movies and having that globe-strutting, cinematic world brought to the flea pit cinemas and TV screens of many generation’s youth. Casino Royale is Kevin’s first production for Secret Cinema. Tom Maller is Secret Cinema‘s Associate Creative Director working with Angus Jackson, the Creative Director of Casino Royale. He is also the performance director tasked with casting, rehearsing and directing the actors and elements. With a background in the UK immersive theatre scene, Maller has been with Secret Cinema for seven years and helped nurture their famed productions of Romeo + Juliet, Blade Runner, 28 Days Later, Miller’s Crossing, Star Wars and Dr Strangelove. A co-founder of the Immersive Ensemble group, Maller also works outside of Secret Cinema and is currently responsible for London’s The Great Gatsby which is proud to be the UK’s longest running immersive show. Casino Royale will be his 007th show.
“There is a huge buzz in London about immersive theatre”, beams Maller. “Audiences want to do. They don’t want to see. They want to be active. They don’t want to be passive”. Yet, unlike Secret Cinema‘s other famed productions so far, Bond and Casino Royale are what he describes as ‘live franchises’. Dr. Strangelove, Back to the Future and Romeo + Juliet are not currently shooting sequels or on their sixth leading man in sixty years. There are more considerations to get right as the Bond franchise is still out there. No Time to Die is shooting across the world and Casino Royale is certainly part of its DNA and heritage. Ultimately, it was Secret Cinema who went to Bond for this project. They are looking for worlds “which interest and excite us” says Fitzmaurice before explaining how they pitched to the studio how they could and would set about doing that, yet at all the time “doing it with love and doing it with care”. Other Bond films were mooted and discussed. The logistics of building a lifesize volcano did indeed come up. Ultimately, the plan to take up the Casino Royale baton was decided by Fabien Riggall – the founding father of Secret Cinema who nurtured and realised a 2007 dream which has now grown into a globally recognised brand, cinematic movement and cultural mainstay. Maller adds how “Casino Royale is interesting for us. Traditionally we like to create a prequel to the film, allowing the audience to step into the heart of the narrative and stitching perfectly to the start of the film. So you can see these characters that you love and you know moments or days or weeks before the start of the film. So this is the creation of Bond. This takes Bond right back to the beginning of Casino Royale. This is the creation of the legend, James Bond. For us this is a perfect opportunity for us to use our Secret Cinema games of allowing the prequel to marry the film and allow the audience to go on that journey with him.”
Fitzmaurice and Maller have worked closely with Bond’s creative house EON Productions, its rights holders Danjaq and other vested experienced creatives and minds who just want everyone to get it right. Maller admits a title like Royale and Bond has been a “huge challenge for us, but also a great experience” as Secret Cinema learnt – and is continuing to learn – just how to open up a Bond film and let audiences inside the narrative. For Maller, Fitzmaurice and Creative Director Angus Jackson it was less about ideas being vetoed or having their creative parameters facing greater scrutiny by the House of Bond. It was about “boundaries”. “We wanted to create a truthful representation of Casino Royale,” Maller explains. “We wanted to take the key themes of money and power, of international financial terrorism, and we wanted the audience to step into the heart of the narrative.”. But cinema is not always theatre. The needs of theatre to create single spectacles the whole audience can experience differ from movies playing blindly to seated punters in the same way every time.
Initially, Secret Cinema had early meetings with producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson. Here, the pair set possible directions the production could travel towards. The scenic consultant Mary MacKenzie was soon bringing to the Secret team her sense of production standards, production history and production reality. With an art department background, MacKenzie has worked on Rogue One, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. She also worked on Skyfall and, more importantly, Casino Royale. It was one of her tasks to underline how and when Secret Cinema`s levels of production and quality had to match those that EON bring to their Bond films. Fitzmaurice suggests realising that was actually “a joy – because it was exactly what we would be doing anyway”. That “close partnership” with EON and Danjaq became great weekly meetings that evolved and helped rehearsals, set design and character development. However, the story world of Casino Royale is – like the 1953 Fleming novel – very contained. A wider cast of characters would have to be created and realised, and the creative team and EON worked hard to make those newer, necessary elements work. “There is a balance of working closely with EON – “, Maller explains, ” – and finding out what’s truthful to the show and truthful to the film.” Maller is proud to remind how Secret Cinema “takes a film and we explode it off the screen.” “New characters live and breathe within the boundaries of that specific world”, he continues, ” – and the audiences then come to work in tandem with these new characters, as well as the film characters.”
The House of Bond is known for its firm and experienced way of doing things. Was that hard for the team to work with? Fitzmaurice suggests not at all. “In the end – “, he explains, ” – it is about relationships and about talking. There were weekly meetings and you get to feel the trust. Every week we would go in and say ‘we’ve been thinking about this particular element of the show and we want to move it down this way’ and then EON were very receptive where they felt they could be and to honour the franchise and would just say no if they felt something didn’t honour the franchise.” Maller knows full well it is EON’s franchise and that sometimes just a friendly nudge or welcome suggestion could steer them in the right direction they hadn’t thought of yet or “in the right direction but with a slightly different tone, or a different colour, or a different set-up. It has actually been great for us.” Twelve years in, Secret Cinema are already well versed in working with different producers and property holders with all their different pulls and different ways of avoiding the pitfalls.
Office party Bond
However, one of the real dangers in doing Bond for a wider, non-fan populace is what I call ‘Office Party Bond’. We have all been there. The invite comes through to someone’s fortieth birthday party which has a James Bond theme. ‘Dress to impress’ is always code for ‘dress to depress’ and the whole night is sound-tracked by the Leipzig Philharmonic’s ‘Sounds of James Bond’, everyone is doing that finger gun thing, off-the-rail tuxedos soon get covered in cheap buffet coleslaw and that bloke in the corner hates Pierce Brosnan and the one with the car. Maller, Fitzmaurice and their team know this production of Casino Royale is about rolling the dice on a whole franchise, repurposing the drama and beats of Craig’s debut and finding the contemporary tone of Bond. This can never be a safari-suit medley and golden girl bikini parade. This has to be a quest, a mystery, a contemporary dive into the mind of 007, and awareness of the canvas of Bond – specifically Casino Royale. I ask the pair just how they bridge the more wider facets of Bond with the perhaps less-forgiving tastes of the harder minded Bond fans (although, to be fair, the Secret Cinema audiences are often very cine-minded and versed in the classics). Maller points out how the prep and ritual for the audience starts before they leave their homes. A carefully structured cyber Bond world is already in active service for ticket holders. He continues, “we’ve pre-prepped the audience ready to have the state of mind to play. The whole thing about immersive theatre is about allowing audiences to connect. Day-to-day we have these cameras, we have phones. We don’t look up. We’re not really communicating. Immersive theatre will take that all away – especially Secret Cinema. We bag your phones and we ask you to connect with each other through a character, through a narrative and through a game. We believe in that and every member of staff on site – two hundred people – from security to front-of-house and to the bars – go and talk to them. They’ll be able to help you. They know what’s going on. They’re all part of that world.” Maller’s passions for immersive stage culture is addictively notable and the pride he imparts for the whole Secret Cinema project is rightfully strong. “We have to really believe in the integrity of what we are trying to create”, he affirms. “For us to move away from that easy slip into Office Party Bond we have to really believe in the integrity of what we’re trying to create.” Yep, this is not the debut night for that Primark white toy cat stowed in the back of the wardrobe.
Fitzmaurice notes how it is indeed a precarious balance between playtime and what he calls “the real life issues” at the heart of Royale. The world is not a happy place right now. The team felt the show had to partly reflect the reality of that. At which point the lightness and spoof brevity of the 1967 Casino Royale springs to mind and I wonder if they were tempted to slip in any nods to that mod-odyssey and curio? “We weren’t tempted at all!” is the very correct, but grinning answer.
Maller reiterates how a title like Bond has been a “huge challenge”. How a Bond film is opened up to allow an audience to walk into those gunbarrel dots and step into the world of Bond is at the heart of Secret Cinema‘s narrative – but is also the creative team’s biggest volcano to climb. “This has been a super hard show to create”, he reminds. Part of that is because in previous Secret Cinema events they have had the fantasy worlds of Star Wars or Blade Runner to “hide behind”. The challenge with Royale is to create a “real world and feel the high stakes”. The fact this is a British production of a British film for a British audience means there are no Back to the Future ’50s accents to hide behind serves yet another challenge. The team took six weeks of rehearsal time just to find the tone, to find that point of credibility. If the cast and production believes in it then so will the audience. I ponder whether they went back to Fleming and did that help? Maller proudly replies “we did” and that some of the actors lines and improv bag of verbal tricks were very much based in Ian Fleming’s 1953 original novel. “We have a two hour immersive show to create so these little nuggets are spread throughout the whole show”, he explains. And it is not just Fleming. Other details and tics of the other Bond films are threaded into the narrative. You won’t notice all of them as there are multiple strands, multiple plot points and multiple performers, but they are there. Maller calls them “tracks” and suggests at least two weeks of early rehearsals with the principal cast of at least fifty is spent finding those story grooves for the visiting audiences to engage with.
This bullet catcher then wonders how the team bridge that performance and improv rollercoaster without brakes that doesn’t know where it will go each and every night (although the production hides the real structure and steerage tricks it has to use in order to shepherd and engage 1500 guests every night). Some high-end vodka-Martinis are on the menu at this casino. It may not take much for guests to get distracted. To Maller it is about knowing what the “beat before the beat is”. There are no theatre interval bells here telling audiences to take their seats. Having experienced it all, one of the cool tricks of the night is you don’t even know where those seats will be. Maller coyly explains it is all framed by pieces of action or story that “pull you out of where you are and into the main arena”. How they do this almost sleight of hand is still a mystery to this visitor. Maller calls it “organised chaos”. It may feel raw, but “we’re always in control. If someone captures someone, it is because we wanted you to”. Fitzmaurice has found his debut production with Secret Cinema “fascinating”. He has realised how “Secret Cinema has its own vocabulary. It has its own language. Theatre has its own language as well, but Secret Cinema has had to create its own because there wasn’t one before. Secret Cinema engineers situations to get people to behave in the way we want you to behave to get you through your journey to witness the right thing at the right time. It is a real skill.”
We are regularly told ‘James Bond Will Return’ so I ask the pair will Secret Cinema return to Bond? “It’s been a really interesting one” replies Fitzmaurice just as I wishfully add, “please do Octopussy – I dare you!” Polite and genuine laughter ensues until Fitzmaurice reminds about that ‘jumping the shark’ danger (jumping the tuk-tuk, surely?). How that is quite a ‘no’ is a mystery to this big Octopussy fan to which Fitzmaurice wonders “why not” return to our man James sometime down the line. Maller soon adds with a kind wink “we will not be doing Octopussy“. This current collaboration certainly feels to Maller “like the most ambitious show we’ve done”. “As I say in the past we’ve had this fantasy to play with, but this is a real challenge. And it’s been a great challenge,” he smiles. And nothing has been more challenging than how Daniel Craig is still in the role – and often shooting in the same town as these Casino Royale nights. Maller admits until Royale they had never had an actor in the audience who was actually in the film until parkour genius Sebastian Foucan was in for a gala night. He didn’t just sit in the audience, he was part of the production unfurling as the film itself does. “It was a special moment” for Maller, as was being able to go out and meet and incorporate existing actors known for the film.
Just like Casino Royale and its starting pistol for a new era of Bond, Secret Cinema has barely started. With big plans to now take Casino Royale to Shanghai and spread the global wings and movie immersions of Secret Cinema, a more international expansion is afoot – and who knows what other productions could take Secret Cinema‘s addictive sense of immersion into different territories, cities and movie worlds. However, it’s first global roll-out poster boy will be James Bond 007. Which makes all sorts of movie sense.
A big thanks to Tom Maller, Kevin Fitzmaurice, Angus Jackson and the whole Secret Cinema team, EON Productions, Joe Lamb, Visible PR and David Zaritsky / The Bond Experience.