BILL AND TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
Writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon on the birth of a phenomenon.
by Steve Biodrowski
It all started inconspicuously enough, with a simple little improv sketch. In 1983, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson were students at U.C.L.A., where Matheson directed Solomon’s one-act play, The Last Angel. Solomon had been on the writing staff of the situation comedy, LAVERNE AND SHIRLEY; Matheson, of course, is the son of noted fantasy author Richard Matheson. With a few fellow students, Matheson and Solomon formed an improvisation workshop in which they came up with the idea for Bill and Ted, playing the characters themselves. "One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history," said Solomon. "The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down."
After U.C.L.A., Matheson moved to a graduate school in San Diego to study theatre arts, while Solomon stayed in Los Angeles to become executive story editor on IT’S GARRY SHANDLING’S SHOW. They wrote letters to each other as Bill and Ted, and formulated the premise that would eventually lead them to write BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, during a long distance telephone call. "We considered Bill and Ted to be these innocents who would wander wide-eyed into any situation and treat everyone exactly the same - completely open, completely friendly," said Solomon. "They’d treat the guy sitting next to them in math class the same as Abraham Lincoln, with no sense of the context in which they lived." Aware of some of the criticism leveled at the first film, Solomon added, "It’s by no means a glorification of idiocy - it’s just ignoring the context."
Matheson and Solomon used the concept for BILL AND TED’S TIME VAN, a sketch for a comedy film along the lines of KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE, initially working with former improv group member Ryan Rowe. Later, Matheson and Solomon expanded the sketch into a feature-length script at the suggestion of Matheson’s father. Rufus, in the improv sketch, a 27-year-old waste case sophomore at San Dimas High School, was at first equipped with the van without explanation, later made an emissary from the future in rewrites. Matheson and Solomon originally wanted to make Bill and Ted responsible for historical disasters, but realized it was not a good idea for their heroes to be the catalyst for the loss of millions of innocent lives.
In polishing the script - written in seven days at Lake Tahoe - Matheson and Solomon refined Rufus by patterning him on former Van Halen rock musician David Lee Roth. "That was back when Roth was actually considered cool," said Solomon, "before he started looking like the old, Jewish man that he is." As a final, last minute joke, prior to sending the script out for consideration, Matheson and Solomon added the idea that Bill and Ted go on to become idolized by future generations as a result of passing their history test. The decision would come back to haunt them during rewrites when executives, missing the joke, continued to ask for some sort of logical justification. Noted Solomon, "We had to fight at every turn the thinking ‘Don’t we need to see how they’re going to become the greatest people who ever lived?’ No! The point is: they have no idea why that’s going to happen, and we have no idea why."
A producer friend of Matheson’s father gave the script to Robert W. Cort, an independent producer at Interscope Communications, which took an option. When Warner Bros also expressed an interest, the writers embarked on a year of development, attempting to tailor the script to the studio’s demands. "We did a series of rewrites, continuously making the script worse, in my opinion," said Solomon. "We didn’t know any better - it was our first deal. They kept saying, ‘This is a summer teen movie comedy which will only appeal to kids, so we have to emphasize that.’" Warner Bros eventually put the project into turn around after deciding that the teen-comedy genre was dead.
Interscope had little trouble finding a new financing partner, D.E.G., who signed Steve Herek to direct. "They wanted to change the van, because they thought it was too close to BACK TO THE FUTURE," said Solomon. "Of course, it ended up nothing like BACK TO THE FUTURE. Steve [Herek] came up with the idea of a phone booth. Nobody at the studio had heard of DR. WHO, but I have to honestly say that I actually didn’t know about it myself."
The casting of Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves resulted in a slight modification in the characters, who were originally to be unpopular nerd-geeks. "Bill and Ted were conceived in our minds as these fourteen-year-old skinny guys, with low-rider bellbottoms and heavy metal t-shirts," said Solomon. "We actually had a scene that was even shot, with Bill and Ted walking past a group of popular kids who hate them. But once you cast Alex and Keanu, who look like pretty cool guys, that was hard to believe."
D.E.G. went bankrupt before they could finish BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE and were in the process of selling the film directly to HBO for cable airing when it was rescued by Rick Finkelstein, a former D.E.G. executive who had moved to Nelson Entertainment. Nelson made D.E.G. an offer that was slightly better than what D.E.G. would have gotten from HBO, and put $1 million into the film to complete its effects and do some reshooting prompted by favorable audience previews. Nelson sold it to Orion for release and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though a hit with teenagers in theatres, the film eventually reached a broader audience on video, the audience for which Matheson and Solomon had intended it. Recalled Solomon, "I wanted to go to everyone who’s ever seen it and say, ‘I’m sorry - the movie could have been a lot better.’ A lot of the mall stuff we weren’t real happy with. Some of it is okay, but I found Joan of Arc doing aerobics excruciating to watch. Our idea was to put Lincoln and Freud in a room together and have them play foosball, as opposed to the continuing pressure, which was, ‘Lincoln should give a speech like his Gettysburg Address.’ We always tried to do the weirder, less obvious choice.
"I’m not saying that people who like it are idiots; I just wish they could have seen a version that really let loose."
Maybe, with BILL AND TED GO TO HELL, they can.