Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure
Bumbling and tumbling through the circuits of time, two righteous dudes search for living lessons in ancient history.
by Kim Howard Johnson
Socrates strolls through the crowded high school auditorium in a bathrobe, nodding hello to Sigmund Freud, as Genghis Khan swings his battlestaff nearby. Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte and Billy the Kid sink back in the plush seats, while Joan of Arc plays with her dog. On stage, Beethoven faces a large array of synthesizers, with a computerized lighting system to introduce him to the MTV generation.
The center of attention, however, is two teenage boys who have brought these legendary figures to the present-day – to help them pass a history class.
It’s all part of the madness of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a high-spirited comedy-adventure ranging from the Dawn of Time to the 27th century. With the futuristic assistance of Rufus – played by George (Outrageous Fortune) Carlin – Bill and Ted travel the circuits of time to round up the ingredients for a successful history project. But are the likes of Billy the Kid and Napoleon Bonaparte ready for shopping malls and waterparks?
Chris & Napoleon
On location at a recently-closed Phoenix high school, the unit has packed the auditorium with hundreds of teenage extras to watch the time travelers present their final exam. Alexander (Lost Boys) Winter and Keanu (The River’s Edge) Reeves – as Bill and Ted – take their places on stage as the historical figures are gathered. Smoke is pumped in to diffuse the harsh light, and a special lighting system normally used for rock concerts – capable of changing aim, focus and color in rapid-fire time – is run through its program. Two cameras – one for master shots, the other stage right for close-ups – are ready to roll, and the student extras are quieted while director Stephen (Critters) Herek sets up the shot.
Screenwriter Chris Matheson sits in the back, watching his first produced script being brought to life. The son of Richard (Twilight Zone) Matheson (STARLOG #100), he explains that he and co-writer Ed Solomon first developed the characters through improvisation, while working with an improv group in Los Angeles.
"Our suggestion was ‘15 year-old boys talk about world affairs.’ We had them talking about the world trouble spots and trade problems, but their only impression of anything going on in the world was that it was ‘bogus!’ Ed and I went out after the show that night and played those guys for about three hours. We fleshed them out, and many things fell into place that are still there.
"After I went off to grad school," Matheson continues, "Ed and I were talking on the phone and cracking up about the idea that these guys had gone back into history, and through sheer bumbling, were responsible for everything bad that ever happened to mankind, including the Plague, world wars, the Titanic.
"The implications of that were a little dark, however – such as the Holocaust – but we got a big kick out of sending them back into history. We were going to write a sketch film, with this as one of the skits, but my dad said, ‘That sounds like a whole movie.’ And he was right!"
Bill and Ted’s script went through a great deal of re-writing in the two years it took to get it before the cameras. Numerous changes were made along the way. "Our initial take on it was wild, loose and unstructured – which gave it a crazy irreverence – but it has become much more structured," Matheson says.
"The device of time travel has also changed. Originally, Rufus drove them around through history in a ‘69 Chevy van, but there was a feeling that it was too much like Back to the Future. When Steve Herek came in, he suggested the phone booth and it works pretty well. But despite the changes – they originally picked up more historical characters – it’s more or less the same story."
Time travel movies have enjoyed a recent resurgence, producing Time Bandits, Peggy Sue Got Married and My Science Project among others. Matheson says there’s an important difference in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. "This is a character piece. It’s establishing these two goofy guys, and sending them back into time. I hope that it’s funnier than the others – I didn’t like any of them except for Time Bandits – it’s the only one that had any originality," he explains, but expresses an admiration for Jay Ward’s animated Sherman and Mr. Peabody.
Growing up in a science-fiction household initially caused Matheson to rebel against the genre. "I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away – but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad. He’s a great writer and craftsman, and always has suggestions.
"When I started to write, he was neither encouraging or discouraging. He said, ‘It’s tough, you’ve watched me suffer with this for years, but if you really want to write, you should do it.’ Once I started, he was very helpful in terms of reading, making suggestions, and offering input. Sometimes, our sensibilities are quite different, but he has a perfect eye for structure and storytelling, and he has helped me out of jams a number of times," Matheson explains.
As the music and lights are reset for Beethoven’s recital, director Herek sits back to reflect on filming his second feature, explaining that the special FX weren’t the reason he was attracted to the project.
"It’s the relationship between Bill and Ted," he says. "That’s what I really got caught up in, how symbiotic they were. They’re like right and left – we can’t have one without the other. It’s a nice friendship."
Although George Carlin has the day off, Herek is full of praise for the stand-up comic-turned-actor, who has just begun to chart his path in film. "George has been great! This is his third film, and he’s really serious about trying to become an actor, rather than just a stand-up comedian.
"George works harder than anybody I’ve ever seen as an actor. He’s a consummate professional. We have talking about everything – delivery of his lines, his mannerisms – he has been a total joy. We’ve given him a new look – he’s not very hippy-dippy weatherman any more. This is the 1980's George Carlin and that’s what’s exciting."
Herek is called away, but Rod (Beastmaster) Loomis walks over in full Freud regalia. "Call me Siggy," he says in character. "His mother called him ‘Mein Goldener Siggy."
Loomis explains that he did extensive research on his character, including books and documentaries. "I wasn’t looking for his theories, but for the man himself – physical characteristics and attitudes that I would be able to transfer on film. Little things, like he was a ring-twister, he played with the rings on his hand.
"Freud was addicted to nicotine and smoked cigars constantly, which I’m going to suggest at the beginning of my scenes, but I didn’t want to have to carry it all the way through. When I’m picked up by the boys in Vienna, I come out of the office into the street, smoking a cigar.
"There’s also a scene at the mall where I get to eat a hot dog, which is kind of funny. Rather suggestive, too."
Loomis / Freud is called to his position, in the background of the stage with the other historical characters, as Bill and Ted continue their comments. As Reeves calls out, "The music of Ludwig van Beethoven!" – the cue for the pre-recorded tape of "Song of Joy" to roll – nothing is heard. Reeves repeats his announcement, to still more silence. In character, he calls out, "What’s happening, dude?" Finally Beethoven runs through his music on the banks of synthesizers for several tasks (sic - probably should be ‘takes’). Herek has the audience sit and applaud half the time, and also asks for some standing ovations – which the extras enthusiastically respond with. Finally, the shots are completed, and as the cameras are repositioned, Reeves sits back in his auditorium chair.
Ted & Ludwig
"This has been a great deal of fun. Ted really likes this," Reeves says. "This final exam scene is his fantasy, with all of these cool special lights – it’s the culmination of all of his and Bill’s efforts.
"All of the time travel is sideline to the people in the film. It’s not ‘And here’s a special effect!’ It’s like ILM, with blues and reds and brawkk!" he gestures wildly. "These are earthy, homey special effects, which I’m looking forward to seeing."
Reeves is a big SF and comic book fan. He says starring in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is a dream come true for a fantasy fan.
"Please!" he exclaims. "I’m having the best time! I’m playing a guy who’s so insouciant, a naive child of the woods, that it’s fun and cleansing. And then to meet all these cool people!"
The most important relationship in the film is the friendship between Bill and Ted. Reeves says he and Winter have also developed a strong friendship off the set.
"We work with each other all day and occasionally go out with the crew, but we basically only have each other to hang out with, and not go stir-crazy at night. It’s very fortunate we like each other – if we didn’t, filming would be hell. Spending time together has certainly helped the work."
Reeves is needed to set up the next shot, so he summons up his adrenalin and enthusiasm for Ted’s boundless energy.
"Ted is hard when I don’t have the energy," Reeves says, "and I sometimes find myself commenting, in my performance, on Ted. There are certain things Ted would do that almost become self-conscious. I don’t know if that translates well, but that bothers me.
"Being consistent can be difficult, and getting the energy to bring out Ted has been the challenge – keeping up the energy, honesty and that whole look – it’s hard to be a child of the woods in these times!" he laughs, and heads back on stage.
As the crew sets up, Clifford (Fort Apache - The Bronx) David takes a break from his turn in the spotlight as Beethoven, looking amazingly authentic even up close. The thoughtful, introspective actor chooses his words carefully as he muses over Beethoven as pop star.
"It fits in with the time. For me to be archaic and historical in this setting would destroy the scene’s intention. If Beethoven were alive today, he would be in the avant garde of this field. He would understand the synthesizer and go beyond that, because Beethoven, in his own time, was shocking," the actor remarks.
To help him get into character, David says he artificially lowered his hearing, which forced him to be more attentive to others, even to the point of reading lips. Yet another obstacle attracted him to the character: Beethoven – not knowing English – has no lines.
"I thought, ‘What an incredible challenge for me not to speak!’ In these scenes, the synthesizer was an extension of me – at least, I hope that’s how it comes across – speaking through the music and the behavior. I was fascinated to see if I could find the truth of the character without saying a line!"
As the unit goes through its paces for more close-ups and reverse angle shots, Barry (Dune) Nolan wanders into the auditorium. As director of special visual effects, he is overseeing all the phone booth FX and the flights through the circuits of time. He describes Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure as a "moderately heavy FX film" with a $500,000 FX budget.
"There are a few tricky shots, but most of it isn’t horribly difficult. We’re doing matching motion-control shots, to be matched later with film from the first unit, and we’ve done some interesting things with the circuits of time. It’s very dynamic – it’s motion and speed that the audience can hopefully feel in the seat of their pants!
"The circuits of time are transparent glass tubes, rather organic-looking – like an ocean of undulating worms. The oceans above and below are constantly moving as we fly in the criss-crossing tubes. The circuits of time themselves are being done digitally.
"The phone booth comes out of the sky. We have a 16-inch miniature with all of the characters in miniature. There’s a six-inch booth that will all be done motion-control. We do a few close-ups of the booth landing – it just drops into frame with real tight shots. All the other arrivals and departures will be done in miniature," he explains.
Nolan says he’s also working on the Dome set – a mysterious floating structure 700 years in the future that houses the Three Most Important People in the World; rock stars Martha Davies (of the Motels), Fee Waybill (of the Tubes) and Clarence Clemons (of Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band) in cameo appearances.
"The Dome will feature several large matte paintings," Nolan says. "There will be a great deal of effects work entering the Dome – the transformation of the phone booth as it arrives, and its departure. Part of the sequence will be done in miniature, which is being built back in L.A. The rest will be live-action, with a combination of miniatures, very heavily augmented with FX animation."
As the first unit breaks for lunch at the auditorium, there is activity at the sound-stages. Joan of Arc’s chapel and Genghis Khan’s tent – scenes already shot – await demolition, while the largest stage is nearly filled with the gigantic silver Dome. Reflective tiles line the inside of the huge, rounded structure, and workers in the background paint a series of arches to give it a forced perspective of extending into the distance. In the center, crew members cut out sheets of half-inch plexiglass to line the floor, with lights beneath it to be switched on as Rufus approaches his leaders.
Bill & Joan
After lunch, Alex Winter rehearses a swordfighting exhibition with Joan of Arc – played by Jane Wiedlin, formerly of the Go Gos. The petite Wiedlin manages to wield the large, clumsy weapon well enough to defeat Winter, but director Herek has a brief conference to decide whether she should win, or the conflict should end in a stalemate. The decision is delayed as the extras are brought in, and Winter gets a few minutes to catch his breath. He confirms that one of the most important aspects of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is that is truly is a character film.
"Everyone does have a very distinct character, whatever their traits – this movie really does focus on people as people. That’s what makes our parts so interesting. We had to develop these solid characters because they’re exposed at every angle.
"Bill lives in his own world. He’s pretty different from myself, but he’s fun to play. He’s someone who just lets loose completely, constantly escapes to his fantasyland – completely oblivious to the outside world," comments Winter.
"My favorite scene has been the Western town – we have a poker game with Billy the Kid and a group of old cowboys. We’re blatantly, openly cheating, and it erupts into a barroom brawl.
"I would walk through town, and there were cowboys all around – these guys are from Phoenix, they’ve all got guns, and they go home looking the same way they do on the set. When they cock and aim their guns, that fine line between fantasy and reality is broken. I definitely wasn’t thinking about what I had for breakfast that morning – it got me into character pretty fast!"
Not all of the scenes have been so eerily enjoyable, Winter points out, citing the times when Bill, Ted and the eight historical characters had to crowd into a phone booth.
"While we were doing all the blue-screen shots, I thought I was going to be thrown out of this giant, motorized phone booth. It was attached to a hydraulic shifting device – it’s hard to act in that kind of environment! I had to focus myself really hard and pull myself into where I am. I’m in a studio in front of a painted blue wall, with this metal hydraulic thing whining and groaning under my feet; I’m bucking like a bronco being tossed around. In the midst of all that, I have to act!?"
For now, the fantasy world of Bill and Ted still rules, and Winter prepares to join Napoleon on stage to watch him with his war maps – which resemble a Risk game board. As he turns to go, he shares one last thought.
"I’ve always wanted to shoot a Western scene strolling through town, walking through the bar doors, and having everyone stop and look at me as I order, ‘Two beers!’ It’s something I’ve always wanted to do," Alex Winter says, laughing. "It’s a shame I had to do it as a complete bonehead, but it was still fun. It’s rare to find a comedy that’s actually funny!"