Starburst No. 163, Vol. 14, #7 (UK), March 1992
Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey
by Alan Jones
Last issue, director Peter Hewitt talked about landing the job, how the film was originally much darker and how the plot differed, and the success of Bill and Ted.
There were no problems directing Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter said Hewitt. "They do have their Bill and Ted characters well locked down by now. Most of the time all I did was sit back, watch, and laugh out loud. Both are so good at playing those characters they’d mess around as Bill and Ted off camera also. The whole point of Bogus Journey was it was 5 years after their Excellent Adventure and they had to be allowed to grow up. They don’t live at home, they’re not at high school and they’re talking seriously about getting married. My major worry was this; could it work with those adult differences or should they have remained as teenagers. Truthfully, I’m still not sure it does work."
Another perspective Hewitt had to keep uppermost in his mind was that Bogus Journey was primarily a comedy and not a special effects showcase. "My credo was, if it was remotely funny, do it. I’d like to think I went for the funnier take rather than the one that looked prettier effects-wise. Keanu and Alex were consistent throughout the filmmaking process and when they did have to take a back seat to all the wires and rubber, they did fully understand why I had to accent it". A good example of Hewitt’s subliminal comedy approach is the Star Trek gag, as the avid ‘Trekker’ explained. "When the Evil Us’s take Bill and Ted out to Death Valley and throw them off the cliff, I first wanted it shot in Utah with a red sand background. We couldn’t afford that so we went to Vasquez Rock in the California desert to look around for a suitable location. We came across this jagged rock and I thought it looked familiar. I turned to my first assistant director and said, ‘Isn’t this the alien planet in every Star Trek episode?’ And it was. So I rented a videotape of the Arena episode, played it in my trailer, froze the shot, looked out of the window and worked out the exact place the TV crew had pitched their camera. That was fun to do."
There was a lot more instant improvisation along those lines too. "I encouraged the scriptwriters, Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, to be around the set as much as possible should sudden gag inspiration strike. They dashed off the Benjamin and Aretha Franklin line in seconds to give George Carlin something extra to say. Another of my flashes was the Butch and Sundance: The Early Years gag in Heaven when everyone’s playing Charades. It never got a single laugh in any test screenings! Again, too British. Also Kevin Yagher’s Stations creatures were originally supposed to bounce around and jump in the air. That proved to be an impossibility because the actors had 16 lbs. of equipment to carry." With regards to the Stations, Hewitt agrees the creatures are a running gag non-starter. "They were originally one little green alien. But my idea was to have two monsters that combined and formed a really smart guy. I saw them as martian versions of Bill and Ted. There were the real ones, the Evil Us’s, the good robots, the ghosts, and baby Bill and Teds. Why not have an alien duo whose language comprises of one word, stations, said with different inflections so it could mean anything? Ed and Chris probably cracked up over that when writing the script, but it doesn’t really translate well on screen’.
Bill And Ted Army
Even more Bill and Ted incarnations would have made it had the original ending been kept. Hewitt elaborated, "Bill and Ted brought themselves back from the Future every minute for ten years so we could show whole armies of them. Then the concert audience pulled off masks to reveal they were Bills and Teds too! This concept was axed when it became clear the entire ending would have to be reshot because it didn’t gell and, anyway, preview audiences didn’t like it. We went back into the studio for ten days to shoot the new ending you see. That’s why it now relies heavily on the Time travel idea used briefly and effectively in the first picture."
Along with most critics, Hewitt agrees that William Sadler’s Death steals the Bogus Journey show. "Once I conceptualized Death as a Bergmanesque cartoon, William threw himself into the role. He was unstoppable and came up with my favourite stuff in the picture. At first I thought he was too small at 5' 8" in height to play the part as I definitely wanted Death to be very tall. Once I made him stagger around in foot high clogs and enormous shoulder pads, he was perfect. Bogus Journey ended with Bill and Ted playing guitar over the credits, but I didn’t think it was enough and wanted Death in there somewhere hence the reason why Ed and Chris came up with all those headlines showing how the ‘Wild Stallyns’ finally do become world famous."
Heaven and Hell
Look closely at the production design for Heaven in Bogus Journey and you may notice many sight gags revealing Hewitt’s personal idols. "Heaven was modelled after the celestial stairway in Michael Powell’s A Matter of Life and Death, one of my favourite filmmakers. There’s a statue of Powell and the film’s star, David Niven, situated among the others when Bill and Ted enter the pearly gates. And Elvis, and Laurel and Hardy too! I’ll forgive you for not noticing though as the scene is so brightly lit you can’t really make anything out. Perhaps that’s me just being picky." Hewitt conceptualized Heaven as civilizations on large discs floating around for eternity because, "That was in keeping with the overall style of the movie. Hell is this huge fiery rock with circular rocks chained around it. The future is depicted in a series of large domes. I chose a through-line of curves and circles in a desperate need to tie it all up stylistically. Each place is instantly recognizable, but not sterotypically otherworldly. Otherwise Bill and Ted would have had to have said at some stage, ‘Where are we?’, as they aren’t the smartest guys in the world."
Hewitt admits he prefers sleight of hand, mirrors and string rather than using the more accepted special effects methods. "Only when there’s no other way will I ever use expensive equipment. It was more fun to have Alex and Keanu act with doubles than use motion control cameras. There’s only one motion control sequence in the whole movie. The rest were simple split screens. I took a lot of time auditioning doubles who were actors than just mere stand-ins so they could move the way Alex and Keanu did to give them both something to act opposite. Whip pans, chewing gum and sticky back plastic wins every time! We computer generated all the Hell backgrounds and the shot when Bill dives into his father’s ear. The technology is now so sophisticated we were able to achieve smoky backgrounds with a rough and ready look that didn’t retain the smooth, obviously computer generated, surfaces. One of the more complex shots was the opening in Heaven which was a computer generated background, plus matte-work, with a live-action section placed in at the bottom."
That’s why Hewitt would do it all again despite the Bogus Journey schedule being a nightmare. "As a learning tool, I couldn’t have had a better one. I worked for 18 months on a picture containing every single known film technique. I learnt more during this period than 6 years in film school!" And does he think he achieved his much quoted aim of setting out to make the most absurdist film ever? "I came close. It is ridiculous. Everyone involved refused to make the standard sequel. But how do you really do that? You’re either accused of cashing in the first one too much or not remaining true to the original! Once I became determined to take Bill and Ted off into strange tangents, it got weirder and weirder. Having them cope with God and the Devil, as opposed to Freud and Joan of Arc, I made everything they came up against fairly serious. The Devil could easily have deteriorated into a jokey figure rather than the scary one we have. Let’s face it, Hell to Bill and Ted could have been being locked in a shopping mall! Instead it really is Hell and the movie works strongly when they’re pitted against universal adversaries. The major trick I pulled off was to make all the disparate elements come together so it didn’t resemble one huge mess. That could have easily happened."
But it didn’t. And Hewitt found himself being hailed as a cross between Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton in the more positive American reviews. What is his honest opinion of the finished product though? "Well, it’s definitely a broader picture than the first. Everyone was interested in a wider appeal. My thoughts on Excellent Adventure were it was inadvertent and charming. It’s hard to define what charm Bill and Ted have, but it’s there in the first picture. Some say it’s missing in the second. I made a colourful pop art comic book, Bogus Journey was my take on Bill and Ted’s zany universe. Love it or hate it, I don’t think you can forget it. The best review I could get would be one that said something along the lines of ‘It’s like being slapped around the face with a wet fish for 96 minutes’. The more people who come out of the cinema saying ‘What the hell was all that about?’, the better!"