Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter almost didn't Face the Music: The quest to make a third Bill & Ted movie
There are a lot of people who would think being trapped in a tent with Keanu Reeves was something pretty close to heaven. But on this sweltering New Orleans day in July 2019, few of the people sheltering from a thunderstorm under canvas are overly thrilled about the way things are going. The 50-odd folks present should be shooting an early scene from Bill & Ted Face the Music, the third film in the Reeves- and Alex Winter-starring science fiction-comedy franchise and the first since 1991’s Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. In the sequence, we find our two heroes middle-aged and a little bit desperate, performing an unsettlingly avant-garde instrumental at a wedding in the hope that they have finally come up with the song which — as was originally foretold in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure — will inspire the creation of a Utopian society. In the film, the pressure on the duo will increase when an emissary from the future arrives to inform them that they now have less than two hours to complete their mission or reality itself will cease to exist. “Bill and Ted are still trying to write the song that will unite the world — and failing," says Reeves. "Then, in typical Bill & Ted fashion, at their lowest point, the future comes back and says, ‘Okay, now you have to unite the world but also save time and reality as we know it, with a song!’ So, the pressure gets even more. Bill and Ted, in order to find the song, end up going into the future."
Director Dean Parisot had shot some of the wedding sequence earlier in the day, but then the rain began and now we are all stuck, in the tent being used to film the scene, as a crew member periodically warns us not to touch the tentpoles for fear of being electrocuted.
As developments go, this one is most un-excellent.
Still, the mood is cheery, in large part thanks to Winter, who is clearly delighting to reprise the role of William S. Preston Esq., despite admitting to some thespian rustiness in the early days of the shoot. “I knew I would be terrible,” says Winter, who effectively stepped away from acting two decades ago. “I told them, in advance, I’m going to be really terrible. If I was going right back into doing frickin’ King Lear or something, then I would have been wetting my nappies. But I wasn’t worried about that so much, because of the chemistry we have, our friendship has grown more. We’ve known each other for [so long] now, Keanu and I.”
Today’s thunderstorm is not the first obstacle which has been placed in front of a project whose gestation period stretches back to the end of the aughts. Nor will it be the last. The film was originally set to be released in theaters Aug. 21. Then, the coronavirus pandemic scattered the release schedule to the four winds. Bill & Ted Face the Music is now being released Friday in both cinemas and on VOD. “It’s a bittersweet feeling knowing that within a few days the movie goes from being something that has belonged to our little group to something that belongs to everyone — and to know that there’s nothing else that we can do,” one of the film’s cowriters, Ed Solomon, wrote in an email to EW last week. “It’s finished, which means it’s no longer the dream of what it might be, but, rather, it’s simply what it is: a sweet, absurd, silly comedy about two guys I’ve now spent my entire adult life with. I know the whole point was for us to finish it so it could go out there into the world, but, weirdly, I feel like I’m some kind of empty-nester now."
Solomon, 59, isn't joking about his association with Bill & Ted having lasted his entire adult life. He actually dreamed up the characters with fellow UCLA graduate Chris Matheson during the first Reagan administration when both were still in their early 20s.
“Ed and I and a few other friends, we were young guys who liked comedy, so we would just get together and kind of play,” says Matheson. “This was at a little theatre that we rented out on Sunday nights for like, $40. There was no audience. We would just improvise and play and throw ideas out. The suggestion that night was ‘Two teenage boys who know nothing about anything, but were talking about world affairs.’ Ed and I played the two boys and we just started talking to each other. ‘How’s it going, Bill?’ ‘How’s it going, Ted?’ They were very comfortable to us early on.”
The pair continued to improvise as Bill and Ted when they visited a coffee shop later that night.
“We went out and and for quite a while, I think at least a couple of hours, we just stayed in character,” says Matheson. "It was kind of uncanny. I've never had an experience like it. And we loved them. We just instantly loved these guys, we loved the voice, and just being them, their world view. They were really fun. They were delightful. We had no idea we were going to put them in a movie.”
Solomon and Matheson parted ways when the former got a job as staff writer on the sitcom Laverne and Shirley and the latter went off to grad school. But they never forgot about Bill and Ted.
“We would write letters back and forth and we would talk on the phone,” says Matheson. “At a certain point, we thought, Well, could we put these guys in a movie, somehow? The first story was, Well, we’re going to have them be responsible for everything bad. But we couldn’t do that, because that means they’re responsible for the Holocaust. We didn’t want that obviously. It’s not very comedic. So, then, we just sent them through history.”
Matheson can clearly remember coming up with the pair's upbeat catchphrase: "Be excellent to each other..." "...and party on, dudes!"
“Chris and I have often said, if the only thing we ever did in our career was put that out in the world, it wouldn’t be such a bad thing,” says Solomon. “Honestly, I remember the moment we wrote it. We were in a coffee shop in Westwood, and we were doing a rewrite. We had done a draft of what was then called Bill & Ted’s Time Van. [The] guys went through time with their friend Rufus, who was a 27-year-old sophomore who had a van that inexplicably drove through time. I just remember we were like, ‘What do they say when they get to the future?’ And we were just like, ‘Be excellent to each other and party on! It was just, of course, this is what they would say.”
Directed by Stephen Herek (The Mighty Ducks), Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was released in February 1989 with Winter and Reeves in the titular roles and standup legend George Carlin playing Rufus, reimagined by Solomon and Matheson as the pair's from-the-future mentor. To put it politely, the movie received mixed reviews — New York Times critic Vincent Canby described the film as "painfully inept" — but the film was a sleeper hit, earning $40 million. Rushed into production, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey grossed $38 million when it came out in July 1991. The film also introduced the iconic franchise character of Death, played by William Sadler.
And then, everyone went their separate ways. Reeves, of course, became Neo while Winter became a director of admired documentaries, such as 2015's Deep Web and this year's Showbiz Kids. Matheson's subsequent credits included 1995's A Goofy Movie and 2013's Anna Kendrick-starring Rapture-Palooza while Solomon co-wrote the 1997 blockbuster Men in Black and 2013's Now You See Me.
Around a dozen years ago, Solomon and Matheson met Reeves and Winter at the latter’s house for a barbecue. It was there that the writers suggested the quartet reteam for a new Bill & Ted movie.
“They pitched Keanu and I this Dickensian, Christmas Carol-y look through [our characters’] lives past and future,” says Winter. “We thought it was a really great idea and the guys went off to write."
Solomon and Matheson were insistent that the script fully reflect the fact that the two main characters had aged.
“We didn’t want to do any kind of rehash or retread and we didn’t want to play to the gags,” says Solomon. “We wanted to play to the truth of where they really would be in life. Chris and I both had changed a lot, and so had Alex and Keanu. What would these characters be like if they were approaching fifty and their lives hadn’t worked out?”
“They’ve grown up,” says Matheson. “As much as I love the Marx Brothers or Laurel and Hardy, they don’t change, they’re not supposed to, you don’t want them to. I love Austin Powers and I love Zoolander, I love Ron Burgundy. I don’t know how much you can grow those characters up. We wanted [Bill and Ted] to grow up, because they’re our weird alter-egos in some way. We wanted them to have been married, and been dads of adult kids, dealt with the incredible burden of being a teenager and being told, ‘You’re the saviors of all reality,’ and how amazing that would be, and then how heavy that would be. That was the starting point.”
Solomon and Matheson spent a year batting around ideas with the two actors and then wrote a first draft.
“We wrote it on spec, which was kind of silly in certain ways, because we didn’t own any of the underlying material,” says Solomon. “But we wanted to get it right on a creative level. We didn’t want to craft it for executives. We wanted it to be coming from the heart and internally from the four of us. I think that was 2010, when we wrote the first draft, And then we gave it to the guys, and got notes, and revised.”
At the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the two characters reveal that they have infant children, Little Bill and Little Ted, the clear implication being that the babies are boys. In Bill & Ted Face the Music we discover the pair have grown daughters, played by Samara Weaving and Brigitte Lundy-Paine. Why the switch?
“This is a complicated question,” says Matheson. “This is something that Ed and I thought long and hard about. We both have daughters and, at a certain point in the process, I think it felt more meaningful to us. The idea that there was any outward pressure to be, like, PC, is ridiculous. That’s absolutely not true. Between us, we thought it was more interesting. As guys in their '20s, who hadn’t really lived very much, we just naturally assumed, ‘Oh, of course, sons.’ But as time went by, I think we both wanted it to be daughters and I’m glad we did it. By the way, the two little babies who played little Bill and little Ted, were girls. So, it’s fun.”
To direct the film, Solomon recruited Dean Parisot, a friend of the writer whose credits include 1999’s Galaxy Quest, another movie which melded comedy and science-fiction. “I’ve known Ed Solomon since the early ‘90s,” says Parisot. “Ed has always talked about doing a third one. He called me up one day and said he’d done one on spec, which meant he really wanted to do it, and asked if I was interested, and I said, ‘Yes.’ I think that was about six years ago, seven years ago. Obviously, we had to raise capital to do it.”
That proved difficult to do. By the end of the aughts, Reeves was in the midst of a career slump thanks to a string of commercially underperforming films including the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still and 2013’s Man of Tai Chi. Solomon and Matheson found that some studio executives were interested in making a new Bill & Ted movie, but only if they could recast the two lead characters with younger actors. "People were very interested in doing reboots of Bill & Ted [with] new, young kids,” says Solomon. “The idea of doing middle-aged Bill and Ted was not something they had thought of. There was no precedent for taking comedic characters that you’ve last seen as teenagers and [revisiting] them as full-on adults, and not trying to just rehash but rather explore where are they now. I think it took a while for people to get their heads around that.”
Two words which helped change those minds? "John" and "Wick." The 2014 action-thriller was a sleeper hit which re-established Reeves’ box office credentials and inspired a pair of also successful sequels. “I’m sure that helped us in terms of raising the money,” says Solomon.
The quartet’s quest was also assisted by a lil ol’ magazine called Entertainment Weekly which reunited Reeves, Winter, Solomon, and Matheson for an article published in 2018. “We’ve been to the altar a few times,” Solomon told EW writer Darren Franich, referring to the then-still-being-shopped-around third movie. “We get rejected right about the ‘now you may kiss the bride’ part of it.”
“The response to what you did was staggering even to the biggest cynics of the movie,” says Solomon. “The first movie didn’t have big numbers to support a sequel, if you’re just making the decision based on numbers. But what the numbers didn’t reflect was the way it kind of lived in the culture and for some reason grew in ways we didn’t expect. What you guys did, and other social media outlets when they picked up your [article], I think it made people go, ‘Oh, we were wrong.’ That was great news for us.”
Solomon found the EW reunion to be a surprisingly emotional experience.
“Alex and Keanu, even when we were talking about the movie, they never did Bill and Ted,” says the writer. "It was talking about Bill and Ted. In fact, that shoot that we did with you guys [in 2018], it was the first time I heard Alex and Keanu say 'Be excellent to each other, and 'Party on, dudes!' in 30 years. It was very meaningful to me, very moving.”
Just two months later, it was announced that Bill & Ted Face the Music was a go-project, with MGM set to release the film in the U.S. under its Orion Pictures banner. Over the next year, the cast expanded with William Sadler agreeing to reprise his role as the Grim Reaper alongside other returning franchise veterans and newbies Weaving, Lundy-Paine, Kristen Schaal, Anthony Carrigan, Holland Taylor, and a playing-himself Kid Cudi.
Despite having to orchestrate a science fiction extravaganza on a comparatively limited budget, director Parisot recalls the shoot as an efficient affair and dismisses Winter's claims of rustiness at the start of production.
“He’s such a big liar,” says the filmmaker. “He was fantastic. The two of them were fantastic. They spent all of their time rehearsing together and they worked incredibly hard. I thought they were hysterically funny. Both Keanu and Alex are so committed and professional that we came in two-and-a-half days under schedule. They’re phenomenal. And they’re sweethearts on top of that. They’re good guys. So, no, right out of the gate, Alex was phenomenal.”
Reeves hopes the film's ultimately hopeful message will connect with fans of the original movies.
"People who come up to us — I think Alex has had the same experience — when when they speak about the films, it’s not 'these are two goofy guys,'" says the actor. "It's the humor, the spirit of them, the never-give up, and the sentiment of 'Be excellent to each other and party on.' It’s such a positive kind of message. And it feels like older people have started to communicate that to their kids. That’s certainly something when we never expected and it's certainly a wonderful gift to have."
Speaking to EW on the set of Bill & Ted Face the Music last year, Solomon insisted he was happy that the film took so long to get off the ground given the movie's message of love and positivity.
“I actually think maybe we were lucky that we didn’t get this movie made six years ago,” said the writer. “In a way, I think it’s better for now, honestly. The climate is so poisonous and people are so cynical and people are so angry. Maybe the message of the movie is actually more appropriate now. Maybe in a way we’re lucky. I don’t know.”
Anyone want to take a phonebooth back in time and tell him how much more appropriate that message is now?