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Foolish People – the Strange Factories Project

Foolish People – the Strange Factories Project


As the intersections between cinema, live performance and social media grow increasingly blurred Sound On Sight catches up with John Harrigan of the innovative Foolish People collective to discuss their new interactive media project Strange Factories;

Well, I guess the first question is why ‘Foolish People’?

When I first started producing my own work in 1989, I wanted to create a name for my work and those I collaborated with, which would signify the intent and focus of the art. FoolishPeople takes its name from the Fool major arcana of the tarot.

The Fool is the spirit in search of experience. He represents the mystical cleverness bereft of reason within us, the childlike ability to tune into the inner workings of the world. The sun shining behind. The Fool is both the beginning and the end, neither and otherwise, betwixt and between, liminal.

Interactive Events such as Secret Cinema seem to have been gaining traction recently, certainly in tandem with the web and rise of on-line cinephilia, yet I see you’ve been running events for over twenty years. Why do you think that cinema has really been seized upon recently for this kind of associated screening / interactive hybrids?

Once upon a time, cinema was the only way you could achieve mass transmission of a spectacle. You’d go to the cinema, to this specific environment to see the wider world in a way you could never understand before. The whole aesthetic experience lent a gravity to it – you’d make a kind of pilgrimage to the cinema because it was an experience you couldn’t get anywhere else. There was always this ‘larger than life’ aspect to it, even newsreels often showed bigger events in the wider world which were, in some sense apart from everyone’s ordinary lives.

Then of course, television meant that everyone had access to what was going on in the wider world – the spectacle was slotted into everyday life, a portal in in the corner of the living room – a receiver for magical visions, if you like. With the advent of the Internet, we could finally interact with the spectacle and in some sense feel like we were becoming part of the wider world. We could leave comments and opinions, we could find people like us irrespective of time and location.

And these days with social media like Twitter & Facebook, we’re contributing our own content to the mix – think of how many photos or statuses people put up over day. It’s mind-blowing, really.So we’re used to interactivity now, used to being able to contribute. We do it without thinking – one could argue that there’s really no difference between our everyday lives and the spectacle.

If that’s the case, what happens to the larger than life aspect of cinema? That stepping out of the ordinary into the extraordinary?

FoolishPeople have always been interested in that extraordinary otherworldliness because part of being human wants to experience that sense of difference. To be able to contribute to big stories, and be part of them.

So in a sense, cinema has been seized upon because of that original gravity, that urge to connect with and revisit that ‘sacred’ or set-apart-from-ordinariness and immerse oneself within it for a time.

There are clearly questions of authorship and artistic intent arising from the audience being invited to contribute to projects  – “subscription of experiences” which enables audience members to contribute to the story and ‘claim ownership’ – how do you manage this interactivity without the project suffering the ‘too many cooks’ curse?’

Although our audience has subscribed to a ‘subscription of experiences’, that pertains to areas and ideas within the narrative that have already been written. The story and structure remain intact, but the audience can interact with it on a personal level as they like.

With Strange Factories, we have a clear vision of the world people will inhabit. The film is, if  you like, both a window onto the world, and a method of drawing you into that world. We have a team working behind the scenes to make sure that any interactions can be folded easily into that story.

The film itself is merely one part of a whole – there is a live aspect to the world which people can connect to during the showings, where they can directly interact with the film’s characters and also an online story world for our audience to explore. There’s also an ongoing story called The Necessary Fine Print which leads up to the film, wherein audience members can receive letters from a mysterious individual known simply as ‘M’ who serves as guide to the world at large.

He’s already left posters and phone numbers in various places about the globe – from London to the North of England even Germany.  People can choose to interact with him as much or as little as they like, and the team will fold the results of those interactions into the narrative.

Our goal is to create the impression of a living, vibrant world, filled with strangeness, and even those who choose to watch online have a chance to join in the whole aesthetic by performing certain actions detailed to them when they purchase the film.

Because part of the ethos of the project is allowing the audience to explore the world as much or as little as they want, it’s pretty much impossible for the audience to ‘spoil’ anything for anyone but themselves!

Your ethos and operations also remind me of tales of interactive role playing games such as killer being played on college campuses in the US back in the Seventies – were they an influence?

Multiple members of FP cut their teeth on role playing games of the pen and paper variety, as well as live action role playing – to the extent that full character immersion really isn’t a stranger to any of us, even those who are not actors or performers. Certain members often vanish off to isolated country houses several times a year to be scared witless by horrors from beyond space and time, fully in character for over 48hrs straight!

So yes, that’s one strand of influence – another is the study of ritual, theatre, and even esoterica and magic in ancient and modern cultures. FoolishPeople are completely dedicated to creating experiences which aim to leave an indelible mark on the spectator, and we’ve over 20 years of experience of working out how to do that in any way we possibly can.

Does the growth in alternate marketing / interactive consumer relations spring organically from a increasingly bloated marketplace do you think? I read in Sight & Sound this month that the number of films screened in the UK last year rose to 650 from (I’m paraphrasing so forgive me) about 480 – 500, so the pressure is on to really differentiate the product from its peers?

As an independent project the pressure is on, because in today’s world, attention is paramount, whether that be mentions on social media, or numbers of visitors to the websites associated with Strange Factories. It’s these things that can make or break a project, as we found with crowdfunding our campaign through Indiegogo. At the same time, not being bound by the old restrictions of studios etc means that we can develop a more interactive relationship with our fans and funders. Without them, Strange Factories would never have come to be.

People want authenticity. They want to know that their money and attention is going towards something made for and by people like them, rather than some faceless corporation who only cares about the opening weekend at the box office.

Again it’s that increasing feeling of disorientation and sameness within society – the sense of looking for meaningful interaction that drives people to look for new and honest work, even if that work is not easily consumed, or polished to Hollywood effects or marketing standards.

Blockbusters are all very well, but in that search for difference and meaning, for a section of the market they just don’t scratch that itch. To a certain extent, the level of competition in the indie market is a function of the new options. It does make it hard work, but the competition means the audience also has more choice.

With more ’interactivity’ allegedly supplied by the explosion in Social Media, do you think audiences are yearning for more of this tactile, ‘physical space’ experiences? Are you seeing more interest on a purely commercial scale in terms of the scale of the events and tickets sold?

There is an urge towards the physical and visceral which is contrasted with the instantaneous delivery of social media, as has been said above, however we find our audience numbers depend on a lot more factors than just this.

We are definitely finding our audience members are more passionate about the immersive experience within our work, and as they understand and have more exposure to this emerging and populist art form, they are hungry to push more boundaries and throw themselves into the world even more.

I think one of the reasons our audience are so immersed in our storyworlds in the first place is due to how FP uses social media. We hope FP brings a sense of integrity as we don’t view these kind of platforms as another way to merely market our projects, but as another portal into story world we’re creating for our audience to explore before or after they attend our events.

This vast storyworld allows free travel for our audience through different aspects of film, theatre, live events, online storytelling. We’re very much hoping to create a holistic whole- not just another transmedia project. At our heart, we use the concept of ritual and its component paths in the creation of our work. This enables our manifestation of our storyworld to be immersive, challenging and offer possibility of change via engagement of it. This, of course is a high ideal and depends on how receptive audience members are to journey on this type of experience- how deep they are willing to immerse themselves.

I believe it’s crucial that as an artist and team you have to be willing to aspire to offer a numinous moment. All the artists and filmmakers that have influenced me as an artist and filmmaker (David Lynch, Werner Herzog, Darren Aronofsky and Antoin Artaud) create works that I perceive offer this intense engagement with an idea.We can only hope to achieve something similar for our audience by total immersion in dreamlike worlds that are both horrifying and wondrous.

I’ve seen something of small backlash against Secret Cinema recently due to the mixture of the screening quality versus the interactive quality of the immersive experience – for example with the Brazil screening people praised the environment, but felt that the actual screening of the film shall we say left something to the imagination in terms of screen size, location, sound quality etc (All of this is second hand btw so if you were involved and wish to refute this then of course feel free) – so how do you think you can balance the need of cinephiles to see a sourced chemical print, projected as clearly and perfectly as possible against the requirements of interactivity with props, set dressing, actors and ambiance etc’.

We can’t comment on Secret Cinema’s last event as we never attended, or weren’t involved in any way- however for ‘Strange Factories’ we feel it is extremely important to screen in as clear a format as possible- because it is an original film that no-one would have seen before. For events like Secret Cinema you have a certain amount of leeway as the film is already a cult film that most are familiar with.

It’s always important to push boundaries as an artist, and in our immersive theatrical work we’ve experimented a lot to confound our audience’s expectations.

We are extremely lucky to be partnering with The Cinema Museum London for our London theatrical release, as they have the equipment available to screen a high quality version of ‘Strange Factories’ within an impressive building that used to be a victorian workhouse. The environment is a perfect playing ground for the immersive and interactive material that will support our film.

Because it is an original screenplay and idea, our audience will experience a deeper level of interactivity and immersion than similar cinematic experiences as our performers will be the same people in the flesh as on the screen- we are really interested to see how that will shape our audience’s experience of live cinema.

What’s the latest project you’re working on, and how does it differ from previous Foolishpeople collaborations? There seems to be more of a kickstarter influence to Strange Factories, which of course has been gaining media exposure and traction from certain projects in the states….

Currently we’re working on a number of scripts and screenplays, a couple of which will go into pre-production early in 2014 and it’s possible we’ll use a crowdsourcing platform again. One of the most important challenges for filmmakers right now is to remain prolific.

Are  you being approached or partnering on new productions, or is the majority still retrospective screenings which are looking for this interactive added value?

The only time we haven’t produced or participated in an event that was solely original was when we worked with ‘Secret Cinema’ for their screening of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Even then, I wrote and directed original content for ‘Ward 12- The Basement’ based upon the background and history of author Ken Kesey’s participation in CIA MKULTRA Mind Control experiments conducted at Stanford University on the use of psychoactive drugs such as LSD. FP examined how this in turn influenced the themes of institutionalization and mind control explored in the book and film.

Going forward, we are definitely looking to continue producing our own films and events.

I really like the idea of the ‘earliest traditions of cinematic phantasmagoria’ – how do you plan to achieve this?

For any of your readers who may not know, phantasmagoria was a form of theatre which used a modified magic lantern to project frightening images such as skeletons, demons, and ghosts onto walls, smoke, or semi-transparent screens, frequently using rear projection.

The shows were toured and shown in a manner of sites or locations, this vagabond and vagrant art form has very much inspired the live narrative of Strange Factories, and why the audience are attending.

I set out to examine the notion of the continuance of touring phantasmagoric film shows and where they might be today if they’d evolved. A lot of our practice is already steeped in theatric arcana so it wasn’t too much of a jump to embrace the familial relationships shared between theatre and the earliest cinema shows.

I feel that the cinema and theatre of today does not always pay dividends to the history of where these art forms began and how they relate to the history of storytelling, which is a sad thing. It’s very rich, incredibly prevalent and important right now to return to it. At its heart, this is what Strange Factories is about.

What would you like to see as a next potential collaboration with the ICA, or other cinema companies around London? So you have a wish list of favourite films / translations of films you’d love to help screen?

We’re moving in the direction of continuing to create our own content rather than looking to screen our favourite films of other directors. I am actually working on our next original screenplay at the moment.


You can vist and support the Strange Factories project here;