BILL AND TED GO TO HELL
The excellent duo are back in a big-budget summer sequel.
by Steve Biodrowski
Across the freeway from Magic Mountain Amusement park in Valencia, California, an hour north of Hollywood, is a large tract of fairly new, ordinary-looking warehouses that comprise the Santa Clarita Studios Production Center. Sprawling across all six of the studio’s stages and most of its parking lot last January was the production of BILL AND TED GO TO HELL, the sequel to BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, which reunites Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves in a script by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, the writing team responsible for the 1989 Orion sleeper hit. Also returning is George Carlin as Rufus, their mentor from the future. The sequel is directed by Peter Hewitt, a 28-year-old British filmmaker in his feature film debut.
With a budget of $20 million, and a ten-week shooting schedule which began January 7, BILL AND TED GO TO HELL was a production racing to be ready for opening July 19, a potentially lucrative summer release date selected by Orion. Looming in the crush of production was a possible title change to BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE II (to avoid problems with television advertising) and the rumored sale of the film to another distributor because cash-strapped Orion had insufficient funds for prints and advertising needed to mount its wide summer blitz.
New faces in the cast include former blax-ploitation star Pam Grier as a rock promoter who books Bill and Ted’s group for a Battle of the Bands contest; Joss Ackland (LETHAL WEAPON II) as the villainous Denomolous (sic), who sends robot duplicates from the future to kill and replace Bill and Ted; William Saddler (sic) (the noirish executioner of Walter Hill’s episode of TALES FROM THE CRYPT), as the Grim Reaper; and Faith No More guitarist Jim Martin, as himself.
On the set, Winters and Reeves were seen filming one of the weirder makeup gags required by the script: as a sick joke, the evil robot duplicates unzip the artificial skin from their foreheads; rather than revealing a robotic interior, the edited scene will surprise audiences by showing the evil Ted robot has disguised himself as Bill and vice versa. With a two-camera set up, Hewitt filmed each actor in separate close-ups, performing simultaneously. Viewed live, the skin-peeling effect, devised by Kevin Yagher, who worked on the original, is gruesome in a bizarre kind of way. "It could look a little gross," admitted Yagher. "But it all happens so fast I don’t think it will - we’ll see when it’s cut together."
For a film with such an ambitious schedule, the atmosphere on set was surprisingly relaxed. While Hewitt directed the crew, setting up the next shot, producer Scott Kroopf explained the sequel’s genesis. Working for Interscope Communications, Kroopf had produced the original for Dino DeLaurentis’ D.E.G. Company, which went bankrupt and sold it to Orion. "All the arrangements for a sequel had been made with D.E.G. on the first film, and they had all lapsed," said Kroopf. "It was not the easiest deal to put together, for any number of reasons. The most significant was our insistence that we have the same writers, that we have Alex and Keanu, and that Nelson Entertainment and Orion, our financing partners, agree to let us open up the movie - to make a movie not just for kids but a movie that works for everyone. That meant that the storyline was going to be a bit more sophisticated, and the scope was going to be bigger. The first was a non-union, low- budget film; this one is a union film with a really good budget.
"Nelson and Orion supported us," said Kroopf. "We got Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon to write the screenplay, which I thought was the key to putting the whole thing together. With them and a really good story idea, we then got Alex and Keanu. Their careers have moved on, and they’ve grown up, so they were concerned they not be locked into playing these two teenage characters. We said, ‘Bill and Ted can grow five years older, because the comic spark between them is not a particularly youth-oriented thing. They’re classic clowns, like Abbott and Costello or Laurel and Hardy, and they should go on having adventures until they’re senior citizens."
According to Kroopf, Stephen Herek, who directed the original, was approached with the sequel but was unavailable. The producers chose to go for a first-time director as opposed to a more seasoned, safer choice, because, said Kroopf, "We wanted to find someone for whom this was going to be the most important film they’ve ever done. I went through fifty directors, looking at everyone’s reels." Kroopf was impressed by THE CANDY SHOW, Hewitt’s short film which won the British equivalent of the Academy Award. "It reminded me slightly of a Terry Gilliam film," said Kroopf. "It looked like he had not compromised a single thing in it. He’d done it on a feature-film scale, and the budget was only £18,000, which is between $30 - $40 thousand."
Between set-ups, Hewitt said he was given the BILL AND TED GO TO HELL script to read after he’d made a deal with Interscope and Nelson to turn THE CANDY SHOW, into a feature film. Hewitt had never seen BILL AND TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE. "It was weird to read because they talk in a particular way, which is more recognizable to Americans," said the British director. "There was dialogue set in a university 700 years from now where students are talking about the language of Bill and Ted ‘Excellent means really good, right?’ - and I thought, ‘This makes no sense!’"
Despite the language barrier, Hewitt said he managed to connect with the chemistry of Bill and Ted. "It’s interesting that an English person is directing this. The fact that it’s about two valley guys is not what’s important. I don’t think that’s why it was so popular; it was because it was two guys who got on so well with each other. Everybody at some point has had a friend they’re so in tune with they almost don’t even need to speak. Bill and Ted are the ultimate version of that - one person in two bodies."
Helping to visualize the Bill and Ted concept on a grander scale is production designer David L. Snyder and visual effects superviser (sic) Richard Yuricich (both Oscar nominated for BLADE RUNNER). Amazingly, despite the bigger scope and budget, the sequel’s schedule is only three days longer than the original’s. "We’re on a sprint," said Kroopf. "Because of the actors’ availability, we couldn’t start until January 7th. While we’re shooting first unit, Richard Yuricich is directing the second unit / effects unit. We’ve got a two ring circus going at all times here - actually, a three-ring circus if you count all the guys at Video Image who are churning out the opticals."
Kroopf would have preferred holding off on the effects until post-production, but that wouldn’t have allowed time to test the film with audiences. "Because this is a comedy we didn’t want to fall into the same trap as a lot of movies that race to a release date, which is not getting an opportunity to preview the movie," said Kroopf. "We had many lessons from the first movie about why previewing is important. One thing that we know is that when we preview there’s got to be enough to look at so the audience can follow the story and get at least a flavor of what the final product will look like. So we’re shooting effects elements simultaneously with the live action - we’ll see the initial test runs halfway through the shoot. That’s the other reason for hiring a young, eager director: we needed someone inexhaustible, to keep up with this pace."
Writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon arrived on the set separately to observe the filming as welcome visitors. The action of the evil Bill and Ted robots unzipping their foreheads is one of their favorite gags - representing the kind of bizarre humor which they said was toned down in the first film. The success of the original gave Matheson and Solomon a little more leeway on the sequel, but it remained an uphill battle to write the screenplay their way. In particular, Orion failed to see the wisdom of killing off the main characters and sending them to Hell. Orion asked them to develop an alternate idea in which Bill and Ted enter famous works of literature in order to pass their English exam.
"The literature idea sounds different from time travel," said Solomon, "but it ends up being the same thing: Bill and Ted go into historical settings and meet famous characters, except now the characters are fictional."
After a frustrating attempt to develop Orion’s idea, Matheson and Solomon were convinced there was no mileage in it, so they decided to form an alliance with Winter and Reeves, "We knew Alex and Keanu didn’t want to do the same thing over again, so we pitched our idea to them," recalled Matheson. "They really liked it and told Orion that’s the one they wanted to do."
Said Solomon, "To be honest, Orion didn’t really care whether they had us or not. But they wanted Alex and Keanu; if they hadn’t, we probably wouldn’t be here now. We got to do things our way, so if it doesn’t work it’s our fault."
Matheson and Solomon’s script is set five years after the events of the first film. Bill and Ted have graduated high school and moved into an apartment together, but their music ability has not improved dramatically. Robot duplicates kill them and take their place, in order to sabotage their appearance at a Battle of the Bands contest - presumably the event that launches them on their way to the legendary status they enjoy in the future.
The script’s most noticeable departure from its predecessor is its broader scope. A walk around some of the sound stages at Santa Clarita, filled with $1 million worth of sets in various stages of completion, was evidence of how lavishly the script is being translated to the screen. A huge wooden frame formed the skeleton for what will eventually be the head of a giant gargoyle statue. Across the stage is what appeared to be a meteor. In the film, the full-scale prop, with Bill and Ted perched atop, will be drawn by a chain toward the flaming mouth of the gargoyle. The rest of the stage is networked with a maze of low corridors through which Bill and Ted try to find a way out of Hell; in the film, behind each door will lurk a private hell, based upon some guilty incident in the character’s past.
Outside, a large area of the studio’s parking lot is covered with white Mylar, providing the background for a high-angle live-action plate to be composited later with a matte painting of Heaven.
Effects supervisor Richard Yuricich, perched atop one of the studio buildings, trained his camera down on doubles for Winter and Reeves’ standing on a rusty-red, metallic platform. The shot provides an over-the-shoulder view from behind a towering demonic figure as he peers down at Bill and Ted. The problem for Yuricich, besides time and geometry, is getting a steady image which will register seamlessly with the optical elements to be added later.
"Every time we’re about to shoot, we have to tell the guys in the editing department not to walk down the corridors, because we get vibrations on the roof," said Yuricich. "You know the old story about Disney studios? The bank wouldn’t loan Walt Disney the money to build it unless the buildings were designed so they could be used for something else, in case the studio failed and the bank had to foreclose; so if you’re ever walking through, you’ll notice that all the corridors are laid out like a hospital. It’s the same thing here: these buildings are not really studios; they’re warehouses."
The bigger scale of BILL AND TED GO TO HELL results in part from the need to depict Matheson and Solomon’s fanciful settings, which include Heaven as well as Hell, a lure for Hewitt on the project. "A lot of my favorite films involve Heaven and Hell, ghosts and angels," said the director, citing Frank Capra’s IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE and Michael Powell’s STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN. "When Bill and Ted meet God, the staircase is straight out of that film," said Hewitt, "We’re going to include statues of [director] Michael Powell and [its star] David Niven."
Hewitt spent six months of pre-production planning how to portray Heaven and Hell in a way that would be instantly recognizable but not completely stereotypical. "We started off with lots of drawings," he said. "We had two or three conceptual artists and I did a load of drawings myself. The initial conceptual drawings became key storyboards; then we had four or five storyboard guys come in, and it was a matter of doing the inbetweening, thinking about how to get Bill and Ted from this drawing to that drawing."
"It’s a big film, but it’s not that big a budget, so it had to be planned well," said Hewitt. "We storyboarded pretty much the whole film; I can’t think of any other way of doing it. I was anxious that the storyboards not be a bible. We’re going by them a lot, but if we stuck with them so religiously that the actors only had to step in line with each drawing, the whole thing would be stiff.
"One major concern was that the scale of the whole thing not eclipse Bill and Ted, which would defeat the whole purpose of the film," said the director. "I kept my eye on that very carefully. For that reason, the film is not ‘jokey’ or ‘gaggy’ - it’s going to be incredibly funny, but it’s very straight-faced. All the sets are serious - the humor comes from Bill and Ted goofing off in a ‘real’ Heaven and a ‘real’ Hell. There’s far more mileage in that approach. Doing it that way, you can be much bigger and not eclipse the two guys, because you’ve got this huge raging vista that is Hell and into it come these two bright, colorful dots that are Bill and Ted. Whereas if you have a bright, colorful Bill-and-Ted- type Hell, you’d never notice them.
"The whole film is incredibly extreme. With so many different settings, another concern was that it would look like seven or eight different films, a mess, cutting from one weird set to another, that it wouldn’t hold together. To combat that, there’s this very rigid stylistic theme running through the designs. We’re basing everything architecturally on domes, spheres, and circles. I don’t know whether it’s going to ‘read’ on screen, but it makes me feel better knowing it’s there. Hell is a spherical planet with smaller round objects going around it. Heaven is a large disc, with the skies full of discs on which cities are propped. The future is all domes. Heaven is one color - white with a shade of lilac blue - and Hell is deep red, so Bill and Ted will ping right off the screen. By using these techniques, I hope to link it all together visually. It has to look like one film from the ground up - not only in the way it’s lit, not only in the way the camera moves, but in every single thing that’s built."
Interviewed midway through the film’s ten-week shoot, the film’s tight schedule did not appear to be wearing Hewitt down. In fact, the director maintained that he regarded some of the schedule’s necessities, such as editing the film while it’s still in production, as luxuries. "That’s something which, because I’ve never done it before, doesn’t really bother me," said Hewitt. "Everybody was saying, ‘You can’t shoot a film and cut it at the same time.’ We’re cutting as we go along; we shoot five days a week and edit on Saturday. That seems sensible to me: you shoot something; it’s fresh in your mind; you go in, check it out, and put it all together; and if you find you need something, the set is still there.
"This is my first film, so I’ve been lucky. I had no idea of some of the things that could go wrong, so I just plowed on, oblivious. No one told me I couldn’t do this, so we’ve done it."
Also taking the production crunch in stride is makeup supervisor Kevin Yagher, whose shop was simultaneously overseeing the effects for two other productions - RADIO FLYER and CHILD’S PLAY 3. Said Yagher, "On the first one they called me and said, ‘What can you put together in a week?’ This time I had about four months to create all kinds of characters. I’m still making new things - every time I turn around they’re asking me for something else."
Yagher’s shop is providing the film with a devil, a toy Easter bunny that transforms into a giant, evil monster, and prosthetic makeup for Alex Winter to play Bill’s own grandmother - one of his nightmares. " Alex has been a prince about wearing the makeup," said Yagher.
Yagher is also supplying the effects for a sequence where the robots take off their heads and play basketball. And then there’s Colonel Oates, one of Ted’s nightmares from Hell - Yagher takes the drill sergeant, played by Chelcie Ross, and exaggerates his features into a visage of cartoon evil. Yagher is also supplying background aliens for a sequence he likened to "the cantina sequence in STAR WARS - we’re going to slop together whatever we can find."
One of Yagher’s more prominent contributions to the sequel is "Station," a Martian ally Bill and Ted find in Heaven and bring to Earth to help defeat their robot duplicates. Named after the only word the character speaks (although the meaning, apparently is always different), Station is actually two identical small characters, a sort of Tweedle-Dee-Tweed-Dum, who fuse together. "They’re full-body, foam rubber suits with little actors inside," said Yagher. "When they fuse we have a tall actor inside a suit with a sleeker - looking design."
Yagher summed up his work on the film this way, "The stuff is done in a funny way, like in BEETLEJUICE. Peter’s approach to the characters is sort of cartoony, which is fun for me because I usually end up making a guy burned from head to toe or a devil doll like Chucky. They’re real quick gags; we’re not going to stop the movie for a major effects scene. It’s a fun picture."
The sequel’s rushed schedule is indicative of the extent to which the filmmakers believe a following for Bill and Ted has grown since the first film. Said producer Scott Kroopf, "The original came out on President’s Day, which was terrific for us. I don’t know if we could have competed in summer. There is no question this time, given the level of interest, that Bill and Ted have worked their way into the mass consciousness, so Orion is determined to get it out in summer. Starting in January, they knew June was totally impossible. They would have liked us to go out July 4th, because it’s a four-day weekend, but we picked the 19th as the earliest viable date. We have a shot at that. It all depends on the crucial point when we preview the movie. If we have to make a big adjustment, we could punt back a couple of weeks into August."
Like everyone else involved with the project, Alex Winter believes that Bill and Ted will expand their appeal beyond the original’s core audience of young fans. "I think we’re doing what Sam Raimi did with EVIL DEAD II, where the sequel improved on the original; the first film was small but successful, so on the second film we have the budget to make the film we wanted to make the first time."