'Bill & Ted' at 30: Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter on How 'Excellent Adventure' Nearly Fell Apart
by David Weiner
From courting Eddie Van Halen and Sean Connery to reshooting the ending and having the film shelved, the stars and director Stephen Herek recall their crazy adventures shooting the comedy classic.
Whoa, dude! Can you believe it’s been three decades since Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure first rocked audiences with their most triumphant time-traveling phone booth journey on the big screen? Well then, this may just blow your mind: if you think about it, we’re like in the future now, even though people call it the present. Right? Mind time travel. Bodacious. “Time goes by quickly,” Keanu Reeves, aka Ted, tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Over the years it's been really nice to connect with people who love those characters and those films, and it's been fun to hear from fans who have become parents who have shown it to their kids. The ebullient spirit of [Bill and Ted], and the humor of the characters in the film, and the adventure they go on — I think it's still funny.”
The film survived the bankruptcy of its production company, a major role remaining uncast with just weeks left in shooting, and an original ending that was so inadequate that it had to be totally changed. But when Excellent Adventure opened on Feb. 17, 1989, it went on to earn more than $40 million (about $81 million today) and became a cultural touchstone, thanks to the chemistry between Reeves and Alex Winter (aka Bill).
“We went through a very tumultuous time, actually, even getting it on the screen," says director Stephen Herek. "There was a period of time where it wasn't even going to be released. And then it's even more gratifying that when it got released, it actually did well. And then the cherry on top is having a conversation with you 30 years later about it.”
Prior to principal production in the spring of 1987, writing duo Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon penned a comedy screenplay featuring two upbeat yet dim characters on a time-traveling adventure that they workshopped in college doing stand-up. Bill S. Preston, Esq., and Ted Theodore Logan must ace their history report or risk failing the course — and changing history. To solve their dilemma, they’re presented with a time-hopping phone booth in front of the local Circle K (where “strange things are afoot”) and proceed to round up the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon Bonaparte, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, and Joan of Arc — plus a pair of historical babes for girlfriends, while they’re at it — to help with their presentation.
“The story was incredibly laugh-out-loud,” says Herek, commending Matheson and Solomon’s sense of comic timing. “They wrote such lovable characters, and their jokes are always a little off-center. I remember a couple times just belly laughs, although after reading the script I'm going, ‘Wow, this is either going to be a huge hit or a huge flop.’ There was going to be nothing in between, because it was very acute in its jokes and [for] a very specific audience.”
Coming off the success of the low-budget Sci-Fi comedy Critters, Herek says he auditioned anywhere from 200 to 300 actors for the title roles. “When Keanu came in, he was one of the first. It really was kind of like, ‘Wow, he’s Ted,’ and there was a sort of lovable goofiness to him. And then we were trying to find the partner to him."
The team called back 24 hopefuls and mixed and matched different actors. At the end of the day, Reeves and Winter had the best rapport together.
“Everyone was auditioning for both roles,” remembers Reeves. “When I arrived at the location for the rehearsal, I just met Alex — there was no one else there yet. We had some stuff in common — we both played bass — and just started to talk. We hit it off. We have kind of similar humor and interests, and then when we were working together there was something else there that was cool.”
The duo developed a shorthand almost immediately.
"We realized we saw the characters the same way, and we could kind of riff as a symbiotic unit,” says Winter. "Keanu and I [agreed], they have to be human beings that we can play. It can't just be caricatures and they can't have a kind of a comedic aloofness to them. They have to genuinely care about the things that are happening to them. The way that Keanu and I played the characters was sort of a mix of hyper-real and totally sincere.”
Reeves recalls them discussing it as "being kind of commedia dell’arte."
"We were playing these clowns, fools, but in an epic sense that they’re confronting tragedy with ebullience,” explains Reeves. “They never say die, they never quit.”
Herek had a particular mind-set about how he wanted to portray the likable lead characters, keeping their comedy grounded within the fantastical elements.
“He was great — very collaborative,” says Reeves. “He knew what he wanted working with the frame and through the edit. I think he really got Chris and Ed, and got the characters, and got the world, and got the tone, and I thought he did a wonderful job.”
Herek’s approach to shooting a scene was to do a couple takes to get the choreography and the delivery down, and then to play with the space and see what else they could find. Maintaining consistency of tone for the characters of Bill and Ted came down to what he calls “the puppy factor.” The director explains with a chuckle, “I ended up distilling it to one phrase that I used to tell both Alex and Keanu: ‘I need more Labrador retriever.’ Because I felt that these guys were sort of like lovable Labs. And weirdly enough, they understood what I was talking about.”
Winter recalls pinpoint opportunities to be spontaneous that made the final cut thanks to Herek’s encouragement to play: “That whole Star Wars lightsaber fight that Keanu and I have, that happened spontaneously, because we were in these extremely heavy, real, not-prop suits of armor that were incredibly painful and hot and heavy, and so we just started riffing.”
Herek chose what would stay in the film this way: “If something came up that was improvisation and we laughed — and a lot of times the crew would laugh too — we liked it."
The production had a brisk schedule, and as the company moved from Phoenix and Tempe, Arizona, locations to various spots in Italy, the role of Rufus the time traveler/mentor remained unfilled, despite the best efforts of the producers.
“We reached out to all sorts of people, Eddie Van Halen included, but we were a movie that was not on anybody's radar,” recalls Herek. “We wanted Eddie to be involved in some way, because we're constantly talking about Van Halen in the movie, and then we say, ‘Well, why not Rufus?’ With the whole rock motif, we were trying to find people that had some acting experience, or their cachet at the time was large enough to take the chance that they wouldn't be totally stiff. We went through 20 or 25 people — Ringo Starr included, probably Roger Daltrey.”
Herek adds, “The original Three Most Important People in the World were supposed to be ZZ Top.”
Bill & Ted screenwriter Solomon knew Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, as well as Fee Waybill of the Tubes, and recruited them alongside Martha Davis of the Motels for the roles. Continuing with the whole rocker vibe, Herek cast Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s as Joan of Arc.
“Based on a lot of paintings, she actually looked a lot like some of the renditions of her,” the director says. “And just having this pixie kind of girl in chain mail I thought was kind of sexy. [The Go-Go’s] were very popular at the time. She was a lot of fun to work with.”
But with only a few weeks left to film, still no Rufus.
“They just couldn't find anybody,” says Winter. “Imagine that opening monologue with Charlie Sheen, Sean Connery, Ringo Starr — these are the names that were being bandied about. And funnily enough none of them are really comedians. It seemed fairly logical to land on a comedian for that role, and I’m very glad that they did. There’s Time Bandits allusions for Connery, [but] I feel like he would have been too much of a nod.”
Then the idea of George Carlin came up. “[Producers] Scott Kroopf and Bob Cort had worked with George in Outrageous Fortune,” says Herek. “They pitched the idea to me and Chris and Ed, saying, ‘Hey, I know this is what you were thinking, but we're kind of getting to the 11th hour.’ And of course George is a legend, so it's like, ‘Well, shit yeah.’”
“I went to the library as a kid to listen to George Carlin comedy albums, and seeing his work on television, I was a fan of his from my teens, so to meet him was extraordinary,” says Reeves.
“Carlin was like a cool glass of water,” adds Winter. “He was shy, he was reserved, just a very gentle guy, very respectful, not the public persona at all. Keanu and I are pretty politically engaged people, and Carlin's a very politically engaged person. We spent a lot of time talking politics.”
Defying expectations that he’d riff through every scene he was in, Carlin proved to be a very controlled and subdued actor. “George took all this very seriously when he came in, and he was totally prepared,” remembers Herek. “He didn't really even like to improvise that much, which I thought was kind of interesting. I thought he would be a little more off-the-cuff, but he actually stayed pretty tight on the script. Occasionally he would have some sort of witticism, and of course he wouldn't do it until he had permission to do it. Which, again, amazed me.”
Winter points out that the ending for Bill & Ted that was originally shot was “completely different and really bad: it's me and Keanu sitting on Bernie Casey's desk, literally presenting a really boring history lesson to a small, ugly suburban classroom. So it’s visually really ugly. It had no scale at all. It was an audience of, like, nine, and there wasn't much room for interplay. And then we go to the prom with our princesses. There are shots on the internet of us from that scene where we’re wearing tuxedos with shorts. But it just didn't play. We knew while we were filming that ending that it was a dud.”
Herek agrees that ending felt "underwhelming."
“It did feel like it needed to be a more operatic," says Herek. "When you put it in the classroom, it just made everything feel really small.”
Reeves also felt that the ending didn’t work, and he’s appreciative that they got another swing at it, ultimately placing Bill and Ted in a more dramatic, concert-like stage setting with an awesome light show much more fitting to their rock ’n’ roll dreams. “It was cool that resources were made available to shoot the ending that's in the [final cut] to give it some more scale, to tie in all the characters. Some good funnies in that,” he says.
And then there was the reality of filming in that now-iconic phone booth that travels through space and time.
Reeves remembers a can-do spirit in trying to make the tight spacial elements work on set: “I think what was great was there was a real cooperation with everyone, with the historical figures, and everyone was just like, ‘How can we literally fit together, and where's the humor? How can we figure this puzzle out?’ For me it was just rolling up the sleeves and let's figure this thing out. And then playing it was a lot of fun for me.”
But the novelty of stuffing upwards of ten characters into the contraption quickly disappeared as the days ran longer and the gimble-mounted effects shots required lots of trial and error — at least according to Winter.
“We’re all in a regular phone booth with our boiling-hot costumes and varying degrees of body odors intermingling, you know?” Winter says with a laugh. “Anything that involved the Circuits of Time did not go as planned, because it was a rickety piece of crap; there were nine or ten of us teetering on this thing, duct-taped to a hydraulic unit against a green screen in a studio in outer Tempe, Arizona, like a death ride canoe from the worst carny ride you’ve ever been on.”
The initial rough cut of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was “a lumbering two hours and 25 minutes” before scenes and moments began to get trimmed, says Herek. That included a big opening dance number that Winter remembers vividly, Reeves has no memory of, and Herek doesn’t really like to discuss.
“We’re at a bus stop waiting for the bus to go to school, and we break into this air-guitar dance number — this whole elaborate, choreographed thing,” recalls Winter. “We’re just like in our heads, with our music and our passion, and then we get in the bus and they make fun of us. And there’s this whole scene in the bus on our way to school that day, and that's how the movie opens. All that went the way of the dodo.”
Anyone who has seen that promo shot of Bill and Ted “doing really aggressive air guitars” at a bus stop can only imagine what happened next for the characters. “That's not in the film anywhere because that's the opening dance number,” explains Winter, adding, “Stevie Nicks had a dance studio in her house in Phoenix, so Keanu and I rehearsed for weeks with some great choreographer for it.”
Many are unaware that Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure almost never saw the light of day because its production company, De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. “The film got shelved,” says Winter. “DEG went under, and the movie was dead as a doornail. We really didn't think it was going to come out. I completely wrote it off and just went back to work on my film stuff.”
Herek notes that a couple of executives from DEG moved over to Nelson Entertainment, “and so they got the negative rights for basically nothing, and then they were able to finish it through Nelson. And then eventually it landed at Orion for release.”
Winter first saw the film at a test screening in the San Fernando Valley, recalling, "It went over like gangbusters."
“Then I got really busy with my [own filmmaking] and I got swept up in that," says Winter. "Next thing I knew there was an ad in the trades, the picture of me and Keanu, a double-fold in the center, with us sitting on piles of cash. And that was when it first hit me that the movie was doing something.”
The film opened and the duo's lives changed; they were a part of pop culture history.
“It was just really nice to get positive feedback,” recalls Reeves. “You know, to be on the street and people saying, ‘Excellent!’ — all of that was fun.”
Then it was Bill & Ted mania amid the pop culture landscape for the next couple years: a two-season animated series that Reeves and Winter voiced in 1990-1991, a 1992 live-action TV series featuring a pair of Reeves and Winter clones, and of course 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey sequel, directed by Peter Hewitt. And let’s not forget the merchandising, including video games, playing cards, a novelization, action figures and Bill & Ted cereal.
“The cereal was particularly tragic, I must say,” Winter says with a smile. “It was made by Purina, which makes dog food. Not a good start. Not the most nutritious food item. And it was weird. To walk into a supermarket when you're basically a regular schmo living in Venice in a shitty apartment — we weren’t making the kind of money that actors make today for that kind of stuff — and there you are on a cereal box. You disassociate, like, ‘There’s that weird rendition of me on there.’”
Adds Reeves with a laugh: “It was just kind of funny. It's like, ‘Oh, here's a lunch box with Bill and Ted! And here's a cereal! And here’s a cartoon!' It was an example of going vertical.”
Still, Winter is philosophical about all the tie-ins: “The merchandising reinforces for you that the film is adhering to the culture in a way, and that’s flattering. We all worked really hard on that movie. The idea that we had infiltrated so many minds with some of that stuff made me happy. I felt really proud of it.”
And 30 years later, those infiltrated minds still approach the actors on a daily basis to share their love for Bill & Ted — and their hope for yet another sequel, now finally in the works (the official Twitter handle declared Feb. 6, "We’re totally verified, dude! *Air Guitar Shred*").
“We all hatched an idea together some years ago that we thought was worth pursuing,” reports Winter of Bill & Ted Face the Music, with a premise that finds the guys facing the dilemma that they still have yet to write the music that will help put an end to war and poverty and align the planets into universal harmony. No pressure…
“The four of us — primarily Keanu, myself and the two writers — came up with the idea. Chris and Ed wrote it. We were goofing off one night and hit on something that we thought had legitimate potential," says Winter. "And we then set about the very long road to try to get a sequel made to a major movie that was made a quarter of a century ago, which is not common. We're all very busy doing other things, and in a way that really helped us, because we didn't really have this idea of, ‘Oh, it has to be done.’ Our attitude was, if it's not creatively exactly what we want to do, we're perfectly happy continuing on with our lives.”
Reeves says the time is right for a third film.
“The writers came up with a real great story for the characters that makes a lot of sense to tell now,” says Reeves. “And so it's been a journey of getting the script right, and then dealing with the business part of show business with rights and deals. The film's always had a kind of complicated show-business past. We've arrived at a script that we think would be great to start to move forward on, and hopefully we can sort everything out and make a great film.”
Galaxy Quest filmmaker Dean Parisot is attached to direct, with Bill & Ted veteran Scott Kroopf producing.
"We have Bill Corso coming in to help work on makeup ideas, Kevin Yagher would be leading the makeup charge — a pretty extraordinary group of talent,” says Winter. “It’s being put together in some ways like the other ones were, which is independently, and that takes time. And it's bumpy.”
One tidbit Reeves does allow about the storyline concerns the fifty-something Bill and Ted’s kids: “They were introduced in the second film, and they've grown up a spell, and I'm sure they can't help but have a bit of their mothers and fathers in them. So we'll see how that expresses itself.”
So why, after all these years, do fans still have a healthy appetite for two goofy guys who daydreamed of jamming with Eddie Van Halen and thought that Julius Caesar was “a salad dressing dude”?
“At the end of the day, these two people save the world,” says Herek, admittedly at a loss as to why the film endures so strongly. “I’m not the most religious man in the world, but I do have a certain amount of faith, and it’s sort of the meek shall inherit the earth. I wanted to create the most benevolent, lovable characters, and it's somehow because of their spirit, what shines through them, is what influences people. They may not be the smartest, book-smart guys, yet they're guided by something — themselves, their love of life. Somehow they're going to end up making the right move, even though it might appear to be the wrong move.”
As for Winter?
“The film is legitimately idiosyncratic in ways that worked in its favor in terms of lasting the test of time,” he says. “I don't think anybody really knows when you make a movie why it sticks around long term. We're not Casablanca. We’re not The Godfather, right? … When you watch the movie, you are watching two friends who genuinely care about each other and genuinely care about other people trying to navigate a world that to them is very strange and difficult, which is obviously very relatable. And it doesn't do it in a very heavy-handed way, and it doesn't do it in a preachy or sanctimonious way. And I think that’s a big part of why it lasts.”
“Thank you for helping to celebrate our 30th!” chimes in an upbeat Reeves.
Most excellent. Just remember, dude, all we are is dust in the wind.