AN EXCELLENT INTERVIEW WITH STEPHEN HEREK
The Most Triumphant Bill and Ted Director
by Alan Jones
Those Valley-speaking Time bandits are here at last. Last spring in America Bill and Ted became the hottest double act in Time travel movie history.
YOU couldn’t walk through a shopping mall without seeing clones of the dude duo everywhere or hearing their hilarious Valley vocabulary imitated at each fast food stand. Their awesome Excellent Adventure became the unprecedented surprise sleeper Fantasy hot of the year. And their goofy guide through the Yellow pages of Time in a four-dimensional telephone booth was so successful, a sequel will soon be made to further expand the zany universe of these two bogus Doctor Who teens on steroids.
But getting Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure into American multiplexes was a long haul for director Stephen Herek, a result of producer Dino de Laurentiis’s financial problems. He explained it all when I spoke to him recently at his home in Hollywood.
Like so many before him, 31 year-old Herek got his career break in movies thanks to mini-epic Horror genius Roger Corman. Herek said, ‘I was Roger’s assistant director back in the old New World days. I cut Space Raiders and Slumber Party Massacre - classic titles, you’ll agree! I cut trailers for television spots and worked my way up through the ranks. During that whole period I learnt what made a movie work, what didn’t and why it was a waste of time filming a scene you would never need if only you’d thought about it first. Editors can often make the best directors because of this knowledge. After so long I felt I could make a movie as well as anybody - or just as bad judging by most of what I worked on. So I wrote a script with Dominic Muir, a friend of mine."
That script became Critters, an engaging little Science Fiction / Horror Comedy, about criminal aliens being pursued on Earth by bounty hunters with shape-changing powers. Herek continued, "I really don’t like Horror films. They scare me. I wanted to make a homage, a genre parody I would feel comfortable directing. Critters was conceived in low budget terms. I made it on the tightest of schedules and learned a lot through mistakes. Despite my editing experience I still overcompensated for cover footage early on, but quickly changed my shooting approach when I realised I didn’t need it."
Although he’d never dealt with actors before, Herek had studied film-making at the University of Austin in Texas. His teacher was the veteran director Edward Dmytryk, the man responsible for such classics as The Caine Mutiny and Murder My Sweet. Herek didn’t like the experience much, though. He admitted, "I felt closed off from the real movie making world. Being at film school is an ivory tower situation. You have to get out there and do it to really learn anything constructive."
Critters gained the fledgling director good reviews and a great deal of industry credibility. He said, "I never expected it to do as well as it did. I was proud and pleased I’d pulled it off, yet I never saw it as anything more than a fun little movie. I was offered the sequel by New Line, but they only wanted to spend the same amount of money. I had a whole different idea of where the story should go too, but New Line couldn’t agree. I wasn’t sure I wanted to repeat myself anyway." Critters 2 was finally directed by Mick Garris.
Based on Critters box-office performance, Herek started getting offers from numerous studios for more comedy horror pictures. Out of all the scripts he read only one fired his enthusiasm - Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. He continued, "Warner Brothers were developing the project at this stage. They initially approached me because they thought I could make it on the cheap. After reading the script I realised it would be impossible to make a picture of any quality for less than a medium budget and that’s where the difficulties began. It was mid-1986 when they finally decided to drop the project altogether. Six months later Dino De Laurentiis’s DEG company picked up the option and we finally entered pre-production."
The reason why Warner Brothers were so loathe to increase the budget became the one major controversy Herek had to face right up until the long delayed release date of Bill and Ted. He revealed, "I was familiar with the sort of characters Bill and Ted were. I knew where they were coming from. My brothers were archetypal and I even roomed with a similar couple. But no-one believed they existed! They couldn’t see the vast audience for the completed film. I kept telling people to walk through the country’s shopping malls and see the characters first hand with the dialogue rap they have - ‘No way, Hey, dude, Way to go’. I did this research and knew the script was spot on. Everyone else felt the film would be of limited interest."
Bill and Ted was written by Chris Matheson and Ed Soloman (sic). The pair met on campus at UCLA in 1983 and became involved in an improvisational group where the original Bill and Ted came to life. Neither had written a script before despite Matheson being the son of famous Science Fiction author Richard and Soloman (sic) being a gag writer for comedian Gary Shandling and the series Laverne and Shirley. Both writers (spot them as the waiters stuffing Napoleon with ice-cream!) and Herek agreed the pivotal casting of Bill and Ted of utmost importance to the success of the movie. Herek continues, "We saw hundreds of guys at extensive casting calls and zeroed it down to twenty-four finalists. Then we spent an entire day mixing and matching couples to see if any chemistry sparked. Keanu (pronounced Key-an-ooh) Reeves and Alex Winter had never met each other until that day, but we could tell immediately they were exactly right."
If Reeves and Winter were the cool, hip, Laurel and Hardy team, Herek ensured the other major roles were cast quirkily, too. Look for ex-GoGo’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin as the aerobicised Joan of Arc, Strange Behaviour star Dan Shor as Billy the Kid, Coronation Street actor Tony Steedman as Socrates and Body Double’s Ron Loomis as Freud. Then there are the Three Most Important People in The World - Bruce Springsteen’s sax player Clarence Clemons, Fee Waybill from The Tubes and The Motel’s singer Martha Davis. Herek said, "I purposely wanted the ‘Hey, isn’t that . . . ‘ response. Obviously stars like Madonna would have tipped the balance and detracted from the story. Originally I wanted ZZ Top to be The Three Most Important People, but dealing with rock stars is always a huge problem. My main concern was to keep the story in focus at all times."
Shooting began March 1987 on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure around locations in Phoenix, Arizona. It ended ten weeks later in May after a couple of weeks filming castles and coliseums in Italy for the historical episodes. Herek said, "The budget was originally $8 million but ended nearer ten - exactly what I thought it would cost all along." According to Herek, filming went as planned, too. He said, "The hardest bit, surprisingly, turned out to be the ‘phone booth. It was a real prop and trying to squeeze all the actors in was funny at first but then it got really tiresome. ‘We’ve got to get in there again?’ they would moan!"
He added, "There have been a number of movies and TV series dealing with the same back to the future idea as Bill and Ted. But this was primarily about their unexpected fantasy coming true. We knew the special effects would cover us in key areas, but for the most part we had to rely on the actors and technicians to help the illusions come to life. Luckily, everything ran very smoothly."
DEG then started promoting the movie with the catchline, "Equal parts Mark Twain, Monty Python and rock ‘n’ roll." Herek thought this description didn’t do the movie justice. He continued, "But I am a huge Monty Python fan and so are Keanu and Alex. They would keep doing routines on the set and consistently crack us up. I hired production designer Roy Forge Smith solely because he worked on Jabberwocky and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I wanted the kind of strange historical feel he gave to those movies. Otherwise the tag-line was pure publicity hype."
Then disaster struck. DEG collapsed financially and every film in production, or post-production, like Bill and Ted, went shopping for an alternative distributor. MGM picked up Pumpkinhead, but there were no takers for Herek’s movie. It was back to the old problem, ‘The film is five years too late. These people don’t exist’ and word of mouth on the picture couldn’t have been worse. But the cavalry arrived for Herek in the shape of a co-deal with Orion and Nelson Entertainment. Orion would open the film theatrically if Nelson Entertainment bought the video rights and shared the advertising costs. To everyone’s surprise and delight, apart from Herek’s, Bill and Ted went on to gross a whopping $45 million Stateside. Herek commented, "Frankly I wasn’t surprised at all. I always knew the film would be a big success because there were people like Bill and Ted out there who would respond to the fun, roller coaster ride aspect. People have a good time watching it and that’s why I knew it would make money. Nelson and Orion happily saw that potential and reaped the benefits they so richly deserved because of their faith in the picture."
For the same reason Herek turned his back on Critters 2, he’s now done the same with regard to Bill and Ted 2. He commented, ‘The sequel is definitely happening, but no one knows when. I won’t have anything to do with it because I have no idea where the story could go. How can you expand on what is really a one-joke film? It was nice to do once, but I can do without further association."
On To The Real World
Instead, after developing (but dropping) the Horror roadshow Route 666, Herek starts work in May 1990 on a heightened reality fantasy for the Sex, Lies and Videotape producers. Provisionally titled Real World, Herek explained the concept, "A mother leaves her kids at home when she goes vacationing in Europe for a few months. She gives their elderly babysitter enough money for them to live on, then flies off. But that very night the babysitter dies and the children realise too late she had the money on her when she was taken to the mortuary. So they have to fend for themselves, get jobs, and learn about life alone because they don’t want to ruin their mother’s holiday. It’s Reality-based, but a Fantasy situation. It will be released by Home Box Office’s new theatrical arm, Cinema Plus." [Note: The title was eventually changed to Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead.]
So, is Stephen Herek one of those directors who only made Fantasy movies as a planned step towards the mainstream? He concluded, "I see my career as a combination of both. I don’t want to work for big studios. I’m not in the business for that. Nor do I see myself as a real director, like Woody Allen. My major talent, I think, is to keep all lines of communication open in my movies. I want to have fun doing this job and I try to put that across. Although I have the big picture in my mind, collaboration is what this industry is all about. If you are having a good time, it comes across on screen. You said that to me yourself. You said you liked the way you could see the actors smiling in the background of Bill and Ted. That’s basically what I’m in this for - everyone on set entering the spirit of fun adventure and transmitting it to the audience."