For the past few years, Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights has been another creative outlet for musicians, with Slash, Black Sabbath and Rob Zombie among those who’ve seen their music used as the soundtrack and inspiration for horror mazes. This year, Queen guitarist Brian May is the de facto artist in residence with the annual Halloween event featuring the U.S. debut of his short film One Night in Hell.
Visitors to the Hollywood park will watch the six-minute short at various spots around Universal Studios as they wait for entry to mazes inspired by The Walking Dead and This Is the End, among others. For May, it’s a chance to share his passion for the Diableries cards, a French series from the 1860s to 1900 depicting a fantastical demonic world of skeletons.
The short film is just the beginning for May, who tells Billboard he will be turning the more than 40-year fascination with the cards into a full-length feature film, while balancing his work with Queen and singer Adam Lambert. We spoke with May right after he headlined Brazil’s Rock in Rio.
Previous musicians included in Universal Studios Halloween Horror Nights include Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Slash and Rob Zombie. So is this your way of showing people the more hard-rocking side of Queen?
[Chuckles] Well, I didn’t really do it as Queen, to be honest. I did it as me, and the interest that I had in the Diableries goes back a very long way. It’s not conventional hammer horror at all. It starts as a very church-inspired view of hell. It was very real to these people. It’s something a little different from what you would get from these other guys.
When did you begin work on the film?
It’s just kind of a life’s work, a labor of love for me, because I’ve been collecting those cards for 40 years. Finally we were able to put the main series of 72 together and offer them to people in the 21st century in 3-D in stereoscopic realism, exactly the same as they would have seen them in the 1860s. So this is something quite deep with me.
What was your first introduction to the cards?
If you see these cards in real life, they are absolutely stunning. I stumbled across a couple of them in [London’s] Portobello Road Market about 1970 probably, and Portobello Road operates very early in the morning, so I was there about 6 o’clock in the morning in the bitter cold. I find this guy who’s a street trader and he says, “Have a look at these, they’re called Diableries. I bet you’ve never seen anything like these before.” You look at them and they’re black and white, but you see these beautiful skeletons very beautifully carved and portrayed doing odd things. So these things are just amazing, and I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I said, “What are they? Where do they come from? What do they mean?” And nobody could tell me, so it became like a 40-year campaign, a kind of quest, to find out the truth about these cards.
Given your passion for these cards, would we ever see a feature-length version of this film?
We’re working on a full-length version right now. Yes, this is going to develop into a feature film and we’re pretty well on with it; we have a script and everything. Again, it’s a little bit to the side. It’s not a conventional horror film at all; it will be a story which relates to the way people saw hell in an earlier age, so it has a lot of mystery and imagination to it. It’s not out-and-out horror, it’s not out to shock you; it’s out to intrigue you.
Is there a film that would be an inspiration in the style and look?
There’s plenty of inspiration in the actual cards. There’s an absolute wealth of imagination in them they carved out. It is shocking, some of it, and some of it is quite disturbing, but there’s a lot of fun in there as well. There’s a lot of satire and a lot of just pure enjoyment, like skeletons doing weird stuff like skating on ice and having boating regattas. And some of the time they’re tearing each other apart, torturing each other, but basically they’re living life the way we do and that’s the mysterious part of it. Somehow this whole depiction of hell as was painted by the Diableries is something disturbingly close to the way we live our lives.
Will you be doing the full score and composing new music for this film?
Yes, I will be doing the score, and that’s a real challenge. I really enjoyed doing this one. I did it incredibly quickly. I had an orchestra session booked in Prague, so I took this with me, gave it to them and asked them to play [Tchaikovsky’s] “1812 Overture,” but with a subtle difference. So it happened quickly, and it was a huge amount of fun. And of course the “We Will Rock You” side to it is something I can claim ownership of. So the ownership is me and Tchaikovsky.
That is not a bad combination to be partnered with. Did you ever think you’d be collaborating with Tchaikovsky?
I count myself as very lucky so many of my dreams came true, and this is one of them. I’ve loved Tchaikovsky ever since I was a kid, and I remember being told by my music teacher that the “1812 Overture” was rubbish and I shouldn’t be enjoying it. And I thought, “No, I know what I like.” There’s so much passion in it and so much danger and excitement, so I’m a huge fan of romantic music, as it should properly be called, the era of Tchaikovsky and those Russian composers. Yeah, I’m very happy that I’m able to interact with all these great things. I’ve always said one of the great perks in being successful in what we do is you get to work with the best people. So alive or dead, you get to work with the crème de la crème.
Who would be the crème de la crème you’d like to work with on the film?
We already have our team together, so I can’t probably tell you that, sadly. But I have many heroes in the film business, for sure. Did you see Hugo? To me, the magic that was in that is pretty close to what I would love. So [Martin Scorese is] a hero of mine. I have a lot of heroes, I suppose, but in a sense, we’re doing this in a rather European way, because the source material is French; it’s not even English. It’s very much a French thing. I’ve become saturated in this period, in this way of looking at things.
Is there a timeline for when this will be released?
We hope 2017. It’s a big project, but that is the timeline. And if you’re asking if I have the time to take this on, no, I don’t. I’m ridiculously busy, but there’s an old saying in England: “If you want something done, ask a busy man.”
Does this mean you are also busy in 2016 with Queen-related projects?
No plans, but there’s a possibility we’ll do some in there as well. It’s going very well. I’m in Buenos Aires at the moment. We just headlined Rock In Rio 30 years after we originally did that to another 100,000 people who are kids, really. It’s wonderful that our music still appeals to a new generation. So you’ll probably see some Queen activity.
For the score, is it going to be all-new original music?
I have no idea, absolutely no idea. You have to plunge into these things knowing nothing, and I’m letting it flow. It’s going to be completely flying by the seat of my pants.