The short, set to premiere in the UK on Sky 3D and Sky Arts on Halloween night, is based upon May's personal collection of Diableries, a set of stereoscopic cards published in France from the early 1860s which feature visions of the underworld. Together with historians Paula Fleming and Denis Pellerin, May published a book titled Diableries: Stereoscopic Adventures in Hell in 2013, and One Night in Hell represents the guitarist's newest attempt to bring the devils, skeletons and demons depicted in the cards to life.
Classic Rock spoke with May ahead of the film's world premiere in London to hear more about this diabolical project...
The Diableries cards are clearly very close to your heart: would you care to explain the fascination the collection holds for you?
“Well, Diableries have been part of my life for nearly 50 years, since I first found one on a Portobello Road market stall, and I've continued to seek them out wherever I go in the world. When we put together the Diableries book last year we managed to track down 181 of the known 182 cards in existence, and they present this wonderful, satirical vision of Napoleon III's reign via these images of the underworld.”
And did you approach the animators with the idea of bringing the cards to life?
“No, the book did its work, in that it got people really fascinated with this world, and Paul Laikin from Unanico got in touch with me originally because he'd seen the book and found the visuals so inspiring. We immediately realised that we both spoke the same language, and both shared a passion for these things, and it all happened very quickly after that: it was only a year ago that we first spoke.”
Could you give us a short plot summary of One Night In Hell?
“I don't want to give too much away, but it's basically a day in the life of Satan in Hell. It's very tongue-in-cheek, because that's what the Diableries were – they started as a rather stern depiction of the religious teachings of the time, but evolved into a parody of those teachings, and into quite a hard and vicious satire on the regime of the day: it's amazing that they got away with it. In the film we've mainly concentrated on the personalities of the characters in the cards, and the thread through the film is this one little guy who arrives in Hell with a strange little suitcase under his arm, and it's about his journey through various rooms in Hell.”
Did you help storyboard the film?
“Well we spent quite a bit of time just looking at the original cards and discussing what could be done, and then they went off and story-boarded it based on some of these visuals. We've been very closely in touch all the way along, and it's been a very nice interaction. Watching things develop and evolve was quite amazing. The music then developed alongside the images. I had an idea of combining We Will Rock You with a section of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture, a piece of music that seemed incredibly appropriate since it was composed for the first Napoleon, and by the time we reached the regime of Napoleon III, the period in which the Diableries were produced, it would have been forbidden for that piece of music to be played in Paris. There's a rebel guitarist in the movie, and I've done a bit of guitar in my time, so I found myself on my way to Prague to perform the 1812 with the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in a slightly different way than it's ever been done before. I'm really happy with how it's all turned out.”
Is there a possibility that you might expand upon this idea to create a longer film?
“Yes, I think we're all keen on the idea of a feature film, and we already have a little bit of a masterplan. This film is very much kept in the format of a Victorian stereo card viewer – you're looking through a frame most of the time, until near the end when you're propelled into a bigger universe – so obviously if we attempt a feature film, we'll be able to expand into a bigger virtual space, and the possibilities are very exciting.”
Are the challenges of these sort of collaborations important to you as a musician and artist?
“Absolutely. I love being challenged in different scenarios. Obviously we've come a long way with Queen - and both Roger [Taylor] and I went through a period where we didn't really want to be associated with Queen, because it just didn't seem right without Freddie – but beyond our musical universe it's always interesting to stretch out. I've done a lot of projects outside Queen over the years: when people throw me a challenge it's always stimulating. I get asked to do all kinds of things, usually for charity, most recently for the BBC's recreation of the Beach Boys' God Only Knows. Everyone thinks they know that song from childhood, but actually you don't know it until you go in and play it, and you realise what a strange and wonderful piece of music it is. All through my career I've loved to step into new situations, whether playing with Black Sabbath years ago or a more recent session with Dappy, the rapper.”
Do you think that sometimes this very openness is sometimes held against you? Music critics who might venerate Sheer Heart Attack, say, might wonder what possessed you to do, say, The Stonk, with Hale and Pace...
“Yeah, they might hold it against me. But a challenge is a challenge, and music is music. I have no snobbery about my interest in how any music works, whether that be my work with Bad News to collaborations with the soul singer Jeffrey Osborne. I don't make any apology for having a Number 1 single with The Stonk, that raised a lot of money for Comic Relief. I never regret things I've done, I would only regret opportunities that might have passed me by. So, I mean, fuck those critics, fuck them if they can't take it!” [Laughs]
One Night in Hell, will premiere on Sky 3D & Sky Arts on October 31 at 7.40pm, and will be available from iTunes in early November, priced £1.99. The film’s soundtrack, composed by Brian May, is now available on iTunes, priced at 79p. A related App, Diableries, is now available from the App Store, for £1.99.