Bill & Ted's Excellent Interview
Alex Winter & Keanu Reeves, the two most important dudes in the universe, tell all
by Bill Warren
What's the plot of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey? Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves are ready for the question. "You do it," Winter says to Reeves. "You do it so well."
Reeves takes a deep breath, and very rapidly, but not breathlessly, launches into a well-rehearsed speech that sounds vaguely like rap. Both are clearly enjoying this.
"There's a Battle of the Bands going on, and [Wyld Stallyns, Bill & Ted's band] want to get into the Battle of the Bands. That's our next goal, because if you win the Battle of the Bands, you get $25,000, and we can finally marry the babes [the princesses from the past]. The babes (who are also in the band] won't marry us because we don't have enough money. We're working hand to mouth, working at Pretzels 'n' Cheese.
"So! Everything's heading for the Battle of the Bands, and in comes this really bad guy from the future named De Nomolos. He hates the world he lives in because the world of the future is what Rufus [George Carlin] talked about [in the first movie] - we're gods. The whole society is peaceful and harmonic. De Nomolos wants to be the star fascist, he's all in black. He feels there's a moment in time - at the Battle of the Bands - if we give this certain speech and do this certain thing, that future is going to manifest.
"In order to change the future, his present, he sends back two evil Bill & Ted robots to kill us, take over our lives, so that in the Battle of the Bands, he can create an alternative future, his present, and De Nomolos will be the ruler."
This means, presumably, that Bill & Ted won't be the two most important dudes in the universe, right?
"No. We won't be anything. So, what happens is these evil Bill & Ted robots come back, and they wreak havoc. They kill us! Our odyssey is Heaven and Hell, Purgatory and Death, trying to get back and save the babes and do the Battle of the Bands. And to stop Evil Bill & Evil Ted.
"So! There's this whole intermeshing thing" - Reeves speeds up - "dealing with Beelzebub and God and Heaven. Plus, on the way, we get this alien scientist [named Station] to make good robot usses, and all this happens," Reeves winds up with a small gesture.
Obviously, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey is totally non-non-non-heinous. dudes and dudettes, and Winter and Reeves are the non-bogus actors who....
Hold it. By this point, you're tired of articles about Bill & Ted that try to imitate their vaguely Val patois, though probably not nearly as much as Alex Winter & Keanu Reeves are. So, in the interest of peace and harmony, and party on, dudes, let's skip all that malarkey.
This conversation with Alex Winter (Bill) & Keanu Reeves (Ted) is taking place in Winter's trailer at the Valencia studio location for the sequel to Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, just as production is winding down. It is a windy Los Angeles evening, with snowy mountains standing out against the pale blue Eastern sky, and rolling hills in the distance.
In the trailer, it's quiet and warm. Winter and Reeves are ready to be interviewed, though throughout, Reeves - who seems much more like Ted than Winter does like Bill - responds in short sentences or even single words. Perhaps it's because he's primarily an actor, while in addition to acting, Winter is a writer and director. And maybe it's simply that Winter has always been more inclined to talk.
They're both friendly enough, accommodating and open, though Reeves remains on his feet a bit nervously throughout the talk, while Winter relaxes in a chair, playing with doodads on the table in front of him.
Winter & Reeves are accustomed to playing Bill & Ted. Not only did they play the two sweet-natured airheads in the first feature, but they provided the voices for the cartoon series as well, and are now playing them again for Peter Hewitt's sequel.
The two actors are happy with the script. "It's really interesting," asserts Winter. "The first one, giving credit where it's due, did a good job, but I think everyone looked at it and realized what needed to be changed. This movie is different in that I think the characters are different. We're not quite as youthful. We're older, and that takes a different eye."
In addition to playing Bill & Ted, Winter and Reeves also play Evil Bill and Evil Ted, the robots from the future, who, Winter admits, have a different goal. "That is to kill Bill & Ted. That's going to make them different [from Bill & Ted], since all that fills Bill & Ted's heads is being rock 'n' roll guys, being able to play great music." But they aren't great musicians yet, and "that's why they're so frustrated. And why they're a little less youthful than in the first one."
Reeves nods. "The whole reality of their existence is coming down."
When the question is raised as to who knows the characters of Bill & Ted better, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, the writers of both films, or Winter and Reeves themselves, Reeves suggests that the writers do, but Winter says that he definitely thinks he and Reeves know them better. Reeves allows that "I know them in different ways."
"I think there are Bill & Teds that they know and know well," Winter adds, "and there are Bill & Teds that we know and know well. People who do different things in a film have to bring their own art to life, you know. The writers have brought the characters to life in their heads the same way that we brought the characters to life [on screen]. As an actor, you definitely have to work out past lives or whatever for your character [in a way] that I think Chris and Ed never thought twice about."
For the first film, Winter feels they "had a lot of input into the characters. We had more input into the whole story this time. We didn't work just with Matheson and Solomon, we had a lot of story conferences and we all talked about what we wanted to do, and they made sure it was going in a direction we were all happy with. We all had ideas about what we wanted to be in the script. But they really wrote the script."
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was a hit, surprising both Winter & Reeves, who both believe that kids, who made up the majority of the audience for the first one, "tapped into the sweetness of the characters and the fun ride of the movie," as Winter describes it. "They're wholesome characters. They believe wholeheartedly in what they're doing, and kids relate to that."
On the other hand, they aren't entirely thrilled with the idea that most filmgoers get confused over just which one is Bill and which is Ted. "That's why I'm wearing this hat in this one," Winter says with a wry grin and a wave at the red nylon baseball cap he's wearing. "I figure that when I take it off and go out in the street, no one will recognize me. 'That's not Bill. Bill has a hat.'"
"If I wear the hat," Reeves interjects, "will everyone call me Bill?"
But more seriously, Winter admits that while "there are obvious similarities" between their characters, "there are some differences you can glean off the screen. The goals of Bill & Ted are very similar, they're buddies, but they have different backgrounds - their family lives are very different."
Reeves asks, "I don't think Bill & Ted go, 'Dude, like how do you feel? do they?"
"No, they don't," Winter replies. "The differences are that they, er, uh..."
"Who plays lead?" Reeves interjects.
Winter laughs, "That's the main thing. But there really are radical differences. The thing is that we've grown up together, and we've been friends so long that it's a gag on how friends become very much alike by spending so much time together and having the same ambitions. The differences come down to what their upbringings were like; they both had lousy upbringings in different ways. Many of Bill's dreams have been shattered because his family is so completely ridiculous. I think Ted is much more forgiving of his family situation. Wouldn't you say that's true?" Winter asks Reeves.
"Yeah," Reeves replies, then adds, "Bill is more distrustful; well, not distrustful, more..."
"Skeptical. Credulous," Winter puts in. "Bill is more bitter than Ted. I don't think Bill thinks he's smarter than Ted. He might be more aggressive and then frustrated when things don't go right. Bill gets so frustrated he just shuts down. We look at each other like we're being stupid."
Bill & Ted are comedic creations that grew out of improvisation and letters between Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson; most of the characters' background in the first film is pretty thinly conceived, all things considered. Ted's father (played by the returning Hal Landon Jr.) is a cop who keeps threatening to send his son to military school; Bill's father married a sexy young dish, Missy (again played by Amy Stock-Poynton), closer to Bill & Ted's age than his own. It has been five or so years since the events of the first film, and now Missy is married to Ted's father. All this is pretty funny, but it's hardly deep. It's the work of Winter and Reeves that deepens these characters; they've clearly thought about elements such as the childhoods of Bill & Ted that are only touched upon in either film.
Reeves particularly has already portrayed an especially wide range of roles for someone his age. In I Love You to Death, he played a vaguely Teddish would-be hit man, but was different in Ron Howard's Parenthood, and very different in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons. This year, he'll be seen as a surfing, sky-diving FBI agent opposite Patrick Swayze in Point Break, and as a street hustler in Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho, a daring reworking of Shakespeare's Henry IV plays.
Winter's performances have also been varied. but he is moving away from acting toward a more active life behind the camera. Born in London, Winter grew up mostly in St. Louis, where he appeared opposite Vincent Price in a production of Oliver! He began working in commercials, toured in the 1977 revival of The King and I and continued in theater for a while. Winter moved over to mostly film work when he played one of The Lost Boys; he has also appeared in Rosalie Goes Shopping and Haunted Summer. Winter and his partner Tom Stern have a comedy show on MTV (The Idiot Box), and later in 1991, "hopefully, I'm making a movie, directing with a partner of mine. It's a whacked-out tale about an actor who goes to South America and turns into a freak. It involves a lot of special FX makeup."
To get their most famous roles in the first place, they went through "auditions. pretty intense ones," Reeves points out. "Grueling. By the end of it, though, there were like 10 guys. We would alternate with each other, and go into this room and read scenes," as the producers tried to come up with the right Bill/Ted match.
"The first day I went in," Winter reminds Reeves, "you and I did our thing, then we were paired off with like 85 different guys - but we ended up together in the room at the end of the day, and we thought, 'All right!'"
"But I thought I was Bill," Reeves replies.
"And I thought I was Ted," admits Winter.
Playing comedy, Winter says, "is much harder than people think. You have to simplify things, you have to really restrain everything in certain details, and get right down to it. What's funny about comedy is the basics of what's going on, it comes down to a banana peel. It's such a visceral effect to laugh that you really have to filter things down to basics. That's one reason I think Bill & Ted are successful - they're very basic characters. They know what they want and there isn't much gobbledygook going on."
Reeves points out that some people claim Bill & Ted "glorify idiocy."
Winter interrupts a little heatedly, "I would like to go on record as saying that's the lamest argument I've ever heard. It's such a stupid argument. Comedy, playing with idiots, is as old as drama itself, and isn't saying that everyone should be an idiot and not read - it's just a way of making people laugh. It's valid. That's like saying Charlie Chaplin was instigating idiocy and walking funny."
The varied reactions, Winter & Reeves have encountered when recognized for Bill & Ted bear out his comment. "Some people are very tactful, some people are obnoxious. Most Bill & Ted fans are by nature pretty nice, unless you go into a frat bar on a Saturday night. This happened to me once or twice in Westwood," asserts Winter. He squints and shoves a fist into the air, bellowing. "Excellent!" He sighs, shaking his head.
Reeves likes it best, he says, "when moms and dads and their kids walk up. 'Wow, thank you for that movie. My kid loves it.' The kids are all staring wide-eyed like this," he says, demonstrating with his eyes bugged out. "'Thank you, that's such a sweet movie.' They say real nice things about it."
Winter and Reeves are faintly amazed at the marketing swirling around the Bill & Ted characters. First, there was the animated TV series, but now. there's talk about a live-action series (which definitely would not star Winter and Reeves). And though neither has heard of the comic book, and are very surprised to hear it mentioned, both Winter and Reeves have been comics fans - Winter still is - and they quickly suggest potential writers and artists for the book. "R. Crumb," says Winter. "R. Crumb and Frank Miller," Reeves adds. "Bill Gaines should do it," Winter corrects himself. "Don Martin. Will Elder would be great." (In fact, the Marvel Comics series will be written and drawn by Evan Dorkin).
One cultural artifact that Winter is not a fan of, however, is Star Trek. "I was a big Lost in Space fan. I could never understand the Star Trek thing. Sorry, I know it relates to your magazine and all, but I was always a turncoat Lost in Space fan." However, he does point out that "there is a Star Trek joke in this movie.
"Right after our girl friends leave us, right before the robots show up to kill us, we're drowning our souls in beer and watching Star Trek. It's one of the lamest, worst Treks ever, the one with the hissing toad creature that William Shatner ends up fighting on an asteroid. We're watching Shatner hoist that six-ounce styrofoam ball over the lip of the crevasse. Right as that scene is happening, the robots show up at the door" - Bill & Ted take them for their future selves, as in the first film - "and they say they're going to drive us to meet our girl friends, which is a ruse. They drive out to Vasquez Rocks and drop us off the exact same cliff that Shatner was on. Someone will have to see the movie about six times before they catch that allusion. It's pretty funny, I think."
Reeves smiles, "See, that's why this is richer comedy."
"Texturally, it is," Winter responds seriously. "Much of it comes down to money -" the sequel has a considerably higher budget than the first "- but Matheson and Solomon wrote a richer script, too. There's a bad guy, there are adversaries, obstacles, Hell, Heaven - much more dynamic.'
Asked about amusing on-set anecdotes, Winter slumps in his seat. "I have never once remembered one, not at any time anyone has ever asked me that. I know we've laughed, broken down, on the set a number of times." He and Reeves laugh, then Reeves whispers something to Winter. "Yeah," says the blond actor. "that's a good one, but that stuff doesn't translate to print."
"'Blood, Iago, Blood,'" laughs Reeves.
"That's a good one," Winter admits. "My life is a joke. The terrible lameness of being," and they crack up.
Back on the set, the same easy camaraderie continues, as Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves, comfortable in their roles as amiable airheads Bill & Ted, stand before the stairs to God, and shout to the Heavenly Presence, "We're Wyld Stallyns!"