From across a schoolyard I can see my friend pointing a gun at the person kneeling before her, who’s in handcuffs.
As an actress, she’s used to getting into character. For the rest of us pretending to be FBI agents at Underground Cinema, it’s a more challenging task. Fun, sure, but a little daunting at first.
“Ross!” the Senior Special Agent barks at me, bringing me back to the task at hand.
“Is that how you hold a gun? You want to shoot yourself in the face, Ross?!” I shouldn’t laugh, but I can’t help it.
In the weeks leading up to the event we are assigned tasks to complete, and we’re told, via Underground Cinema’s Facebook page, to dress according to the theme. The secret location is revealed a couple of days before the screening.
Underground Cinema’s creative director, Tamasein Holyman, admits she was inspired by the original Secret Cinema events in London, but had never been to one when she started to stage her own events in Melbourne in 2009.
“When we started, we were the first of our kind, no one was really doing secret events in Australia, let alone secret-immersive events,” she says. “People thought we were mad.
“But we want to engage with arts and culture in different ways all the time, that’s our very nature as humans.”
In 2009, Underground Cinema was a monthly event; the first film screened was Generation Yamakasi, a French documentary about parkour. It now does three series a year in Melbourne and Sydney.
Parts of the school have been impressively decked out to look like Quantico headquarters. Newspaper clippings describing gruesome murders are tacked to the walls, as are signs directing us to our “behavioural science” and “investigative forensics” classes.
In behavioural science, we’re given a lecture on how to get inside the mind of a psychopath. In investigative forensics, we learn the best method for gathering evidence.
During behavioural science I’m asked to leave the class with a few others. We go down to what looks like the principal’s office, where SAC (Special Agent in Charge) Pike asks for our help. He wants us to interview a patient – known as the “Seahorse Killer” – at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. In particular, he wants information about his relationship with his family.
I can’t help but giggle as an agent takes us to the “facility” and the Seahorse Killer leers at us menacingly through his cell window, backlit by pink fluorescent light.
Seahorse Killer is convincingly unhinged, and is wearing handcuffs and ankle restraints. He relays his disturbing relationship with his late, abusive father, and cackles maniacally.
When we report back to Agent Pike he seems pleased, and tells us we’ll be rewarded with fieldwork. Then we all assemble in the school’s auditorium for our graduation ceremony.
The curtains are pulled back and the film begins – as many of us suspected, it’s Silence of the Lambs (the theme was a pretty big clue, but the song playing in the cafeteria, Goodbye Horses from the film’s soundtrack, was the clincher).
It’s clues like this that make Underground Cinema so appealing. “We’re very detail-oriented, that’s our thing.” says Holyman.
A big team is required to pull the events off; Holyman says they have a crew of approximately 200 volunteers across production, admin, set design, costume, actors and operations/logistics in Melbourne and Sydney.
“We start designing the set three months out, the production team starts work two months out, and we go into rehearsal six weeks before the show,” says Holyman.
At a time when the cinema is struggling to hold its own against Netflix, the elaborate worlds created for each Underground Cinema series set it apart. The five-hour-long events are like the best movies: something you’ll be talking about long after the credits roll.