A Secret Return to Hill Valley

Doc and Marty stand in front of the London crowd as the DeLorean carrying Einstein zooms by in time with the film. (Courtesy Secret Cinema)

Now that the "secret" is out and the final performance has sent Marty home, I wanted to recount my amazing Secret Cinema experience in London for their incredible Back to the Future screening. While the event seems to have gotten a lot of press for the troubles that it had in its first few weeks, it doesn't seem like many are talking about what an amazing and incredible experience the event actually was.

Built on the former Olympic Park site, a lovingly recreated Hill Valley Courthouse square contains some of the most iconic buildings from the films that you could walk around and explore. Lou's Diner offered spiked chocolate milkshakes and a "Tab" which was a coffee liquor, vodka and Coke based alcoholic beverage. The Enchantment Under the Sea dance was in full swing inside the Hill Valley High School facade.

Hill Valley High School lovingly recreated on the Olympic Park (courtesy of the Independent.co.uk)

But the best part of the experience were the cast actors that roamed around in-character. Principal Strickland yelled at me for walking outside of the school halls and not having a pass. Future Mayor Goldie Wilson came up to me and thanked me for the advice to take night school classes in political sciences, and didn't skip a beat when I started interacting with him about taking some public speaking as well. More about Goldie in a moment.

The entire evening begins around 5pm as ticket holders are allowed admittance in waves. A check-in area out front of the Olympic Park starts the world building, much like when you're entering a new area of Disneyland. Hay bails and a farmland motif of the Twin Pines Ranch surround you as security guards check your bags and make you turn in your cell phones and cameras (one of the better parts of the experience as nobody is desperately trying to Instagram the entire experience, while also adding to the atmosphere that nobody is hunched over looking at their devices every five minutes).

The people of Hill Valley bustle about their business as everyone waits for the sun to set. (Courtesy of The Guardian)

As you walk in, you're encouraged to explore all that Hill Valley has to offer. You can enter the homes of mainstay characters like Biff Tannen and see the life that he lives with his grandma (and hear a very familiar sounding football game playing on the radio, which Biff may or may not know the outcome). You can pop into the comic book shop where 1950s-era comics are on the racks and an enthusiastic actor is perched in the window wanting to regale you by reading every single panel of one of her favorite books. You can jump into Hill Valley High School and wander the halls, where they've meticulously created a row of lockers all adorned with love (or hate) notes. The pep squad is selling t-shirts and pennants to help you show your school spirit, while Marvin Berry (a DJ unfortunately) plays tunes from the 50s and 80s to the delight of swing dancers and others looking to feel the music. 

We stuck to Lou's Diner as it looked like it would provide the best view of the screening and the entire square - plus, it's where the beer was to be had. As the night goes on, moments from the film slowly unfold in chronological order around you. George McFly comes in to sit at the counter and sure enough, Biff and his goons walk in to torture the poor guy.

The Courthouse ready for the screening. (Courtesy of Daily Mail UK)

As the sun sets, a parade to celebrate the anniversary of Hill Valley's beloved clocktower is supposed to take place, with most of the reenact staff having recruited colorful ticketholders throughout the evening to help them on the parade route. Future Mayor Goldie Wilson had taken to my friend Abby, our gracious UK hosts and myself and had asked us to help him go outside to the parade and represent Lou's Diner. Unfortunately, with the London rain pouring down, he later came over and informed us that the parade was cancelled. We encouraged Goldie that if he's going to go into politics it's time to make a stand and parade cancellation be damned, we walked out and cheered and chanted with him to the front of the courthouse square. Goldie never broke character once as was good-natured enough to play along with us.

Once the sun is completely down, everyone begins to settle in for the outdoor screening of the original Back to the Future film, projected crisp and clear directly onto the five story life-sized courthouse and with giant rock concert worthy loudspeakers blaring the film's audio. But the surprises aren't over, as the film plays, the entire town of Hill Valley is still alive.

The giant-sized visage of your SPT curator in front of the closing moments of the (very rainy) screening.

I'm not that big of a fan of "live shadowcast performances" during films (it's no secret that I'm a grumpy old man when it comes to people miming in front of a perfectly good screen), but the performances that took place around the screening were incredible. Marty McFly first appeared on skateboard and jumped onto the back of a Jeep Wrangler for a tow around the circumference of the square, waving to the crowd as he passed by everyone. The DeLorean (a meticulous recreation of the car seen on-screen with exception of it being a European right-hand drive model - which required the blocking of all the live performance scenes to be a mirror image of what was being shown on screen) appears in a cloud of smoke in front of the Clocktower eliciting cheers from the crowd. The familiar blue VW van of the Libyans appears and chases the DeLorean all around you while the action unfolds on screen. And of course, the film's climax which takes place in front of the Courthouse is a highly choreographed pyrotechnics show where you're watching Doc Brown dangling from the dial of the Clocktower in real-life directly above the screen where he's dangling on the film... and you can imagine, he needs to zip-line down in both.

An aerial view of the Olympic Park and the recreated Hill Valley Courthouse Square. (Courtesy Huffington Post)

The whole evening felt like a once-in-a-lifetime experience that you most definitely had to be there to truly appreciate. It's such a great idea for a limited time event and to also to rejuvenate an area that might have vacant and unused space. The entire time, my friend Abby and I were lamenting that we wish that Los Angeles would do these types of events considering the resources available out here in terms of production design, costumes, actors, even the actual locations and sets... and funny enough, the LA Times just announced that Secret Cinema will be bringing the Back to the Future experience to LA some time soon. The crowds will most definitely be larger and the experience might not be the same, in fact I think that we lucked out quite a bit having attended a rainy day screening because we got more individualized attention and a little more breathing room than I'm sure many receive on the more crowded days.

But even if it's half the experience that it was the first time, it'll be one helluva ride.