Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure was never supposed to be the beginning of a franchise. The comedy, released in 1989, was written almost on a lark by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson. The two never even dreamed that their screenplay would someday become a movie. “It was just this fun burst of energy and laughter,” Solomon recalled when I spoke to him on the New Orleans set of Bill and Ted Face the Music last summer. But become a movie it did – and then some. The goofy and affable time-travel comedy struck a chord with audiences, as folks endeared themselves to Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter’s charming performances and the story’s lack of cynicism. The studio demanded a sequel immediately, which resulted in 1991’s Hell-set Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey, but despite that film’s somewhat lackluster box office performance, Bill and Ted endured for years to come.
Talk of a third Bill and Ted movie began over a decade ago, and almost immediately the fans were extremely into the idea. And yet, it took years for Bill and Ted 3 to get off the ground. While on the set of Bill and Ted Face the Music last summer, I got the inside story on why it took so long for this new sequel to get made, and how the timing ended up being serendipitous for the project as a whole.
Bill and Ted Face the Music – which will be released in select theaters and on demand on August 28th – finds the titular Bill and Ted racing against a ticking clock to save the world once more. You see, they’re now middle-aged and have yet to write the song that will unite the universe. On a tight deadline, they decide to steal a phone booth and travel to the future when they have written the song to steal it from themselves.
Co-writer Ed Solomon likens the premise to A Christmas Carol as Bill and Ted get visions of how their lives unfold, but during the writing process he and Matheson tried to root the story in an emotional truth:
“I mean we laughed a ton writing it, but we tried to make a story that was really true to who would they be, where they are in their life. What is their emotional truth? And can we make a Bill and Ted comedy with all that that means to us but also be rooted in emotional truth, rooted in the disappointments that happen when you haven’t lived your adolescent dream? What does it mean to be facing an adult reality?”
Solomon stressed that while they’re still Bill and Ted, the story embraces the passage of time:
“We were certainly adolescent boys when we created Bill and Ted when we were just post-college and very immature. Excellent Adventure and even Bogus Journey are adolescent boy fantasies. We’re adults in our 50s now, we’ve had losses and successes and loves and loves lost and dreams that were dashed. This movie is really starting from that place, and we’re trying to be really true to the truth of that… We’re not trying to stuff Alex and Keanu into teenage boy characters and have them replay them, we’re trying to go, ‘What would happen if they were men?’ They’re still them, I mean they’re still Bill and Ted.”
This organic inception of Face the Music is similar to how all the Bill and Ted movies were created. The idea for Excellent Adventure was simply something that made Solomon and Matheson laugh, and went on to become a box office hit. Shortly thereafter, the two writers were enlisted by the studio to fast-track a sequel, but the executives wanted “more of the same.” Indeed, reflecting on Bogus Journey now, Solomon says it wasn’t “written for the right reasons.”
But when Solomon and Matheson pitched two ideas to the studio for a Bill and Ted 2, a kinship was fortified between the writers and Reeves and Winter:
“The second one was a studio saying, ‘Well that was a surprise success. Make another one now!’ We did resist the temptation to make another movie that was a rehash of the first movie, like Bill and Ted go into fiction, which would’ve been exactly the same. The other thing they were trying to get us to do was, ‘Bill and Ted have had a big fall out’. No! They would never, never, ever. It’s not in their character. So then we had the idea of what if we kill them and send them to Hell? We had to go to the studio and tell them both ideas, and Alex and Keanu to their credit said, ‘We’re not gonna do the Bill and Ted go into fiction to pass some other test [idea], because that’s the exact same movie basically. We’re gonna do Bill and Ted die and go to Hell.’ The original title was Bill and Ted Go to Hell.”
Solomon says he’s proud of Bogus Journey in a lot of ways, but feels it’s “uneven” and he believes the flaws of the movie are flaws of the screenplay. “It was rushed,” he admitted flatly. And after Bogus Journey failed to make the same box office mark as Excellent Journey, all involved pretty much felt like Bill and Ted was done.
But the funny thing about movies that connect with people on a human level is they endure for generations. In the ensuing years, thanks to cable TV and Blockbuster rentals, the Bill and Ted movies continued to find new fans. And as Reeves’ star continued to rise, he started being asked by journalists if Bill and Ted 3 might happen. “I think it really annoyed the hell out of him,” Solomon admitted with a laugh, but a little over a decade ago Reeves was asked about another sequel and said, “I wouldn’t rule it out.”
Solomon was sent the video of Reeves’ response and connected with Matheson and Winter, and they began talking about Bill and Ted 3 for the first time – culminating in a BBQ at Winter’s house where Reeves came up with the idea that got the ball rolling:
“We called Alex and we were like, ‘Do you think we should even think about it? Do you think it’s worth it?’ And then he called Keanu and we went to Alex’s for BBQ, the four of us, and we just started talking like, ‘Is it worth it?’ and ‘What would make it worth it?’ and ‘What do we definitely not want to do?’ First of all we don’t want to make it cynical. It was more like, ‘Is there a story worth telling that we really wanna tell that makes it worth doing again?’ This was like 12 years ago. We started talking, ‘Well what would it be about?’ and I’m pretty sure in that meeting Keanu said something like, ‘The stress, the pressure of having been told your music’s gonna save the world and what that must actually feel like, and maybe relieving that pressure’.”
The next step wasn’t to go to the studio to ask for permission to make another Bill and Ted sequel. Instead, Solomon says they decided to write the script on spec:
“Then we had a meeting at my house, this was early 2009 may have been 2008, Chris and I had some thoughts and we pitched them to the guys and they were receptive to them and we said, ‘Well what should we do?’ and we decided, ‘Well let’s write it on spec’. We didn’t even own it. It was kind of boneheaded in certain ways which is we owned none of the underlying material but we still wanted to do it right creatively. [So we wrote] it on spec, getting notes from the guys on a couple of different drafts, then finally around 2010 we started thinking, ‘Okay this is a no-brainer’.”
That’s when they hit their first road block. The studio that owned the rights to Bill and Ted not only had plans to reboot it with younger versions of the characters, but already had a script for that version. A script Solomon says he still to this day has not read.
The reboot didn’t move forward, but the studio was still apprehensive to greenlight a sequel to a decades-old franchise that – according to their numbers – didn’t make financial sense. The first movie never got an international release, so their accounting said Bill and Ted wouldn’t play well overseas. The studio was also concerned, Solomon says, about a middle-aged Bill and Ted movie.
The project had various fits and starts throughout the 2010s, getting set up with financing that would fall through at the last minute multiple times. But at long last it was the right combination of financiers and circumstances that made Bill and Ted Face the Music happen – with a heavy assist from Reeves’ resurgent popularity thanks to the John Wick franchise. “We also got very lucky with John Wick being so successful and Toy Story 4,” Solomon said. “It just put a wave of confidence under the investors as well.”
In a separate interview, producer Scott Kroopf – who’s been a producer on all three movies – said fan interest also went a long way towards convincing the studio that Bill and Ted 3 was worth making:
“Literally anytime Keanu or Alex or Chris or Ed would say anything about it there would just be this little explosion of interest on the internet, kind of culminating to the point where finally Orion and MGM decided, ‘Yeah we’re gonna do this’. We announced that it was possible and there was a huge explosion of interest, and I have to say that made [the studios] feel like, ‘Well, I guess we made a good decision here.’”
Both Solomon and Winter agree that the long road to getting Face the Music made actually worked to their benefit. “We had a lot of time to think about it. It took us a long time to put this together,” Winter said when I spoke to him in between takes on set along with a handful of other reporters. “We were just continually discussing it, breaking the script down, [Ed and Chris would] rewrite it. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh this is done’. It did take a while to get right.’”
But after such a long time away, how did it feel to get back in character as Bill and Ted? Winter says any sense of apprehension dissipated after the first week of filming:
“It wasn’t really a question of whether we could find the characters – I think we knew we could find them – it was more like no matter how much acting prep you do or no matter what, the moment you get on set it’s like, ‘Is this gonna work?’ But I think in the first week we all felt it was working. I know Keanu and I felt it was working, just riffing off each other.”
Guiding them on this journey was director Dean Parisot, who attached himself to the project five years before it got made. And while a number of young hotshot directors may have relished the chance to tackle a Bill and Ted movie, Solomon says it was important to them to have a director who had lived a life:
“We didn’t want some young hipster kid that was gonna be snarky and sort of superficial. We wanted somebody who had lived a complicated life and was still trying to make art and not trying to cash in. No choice Dean has made on this movie has been about anything other than trying to get the best thing on the screen. He’s great.”
Along for the ride are Bill and Ted’s daughters Billie and Thea, played by Brigette Lundy-Paine and Samara Weaving respectively. They play a substantial role in the film helping their fathers save the world, and while Solomon says Face the Music is the end of the road for Bill and Ted, he could conceivably see someone else carrying on the franchise with the daughters at the forefront:
“I think we’re done on Alex and Keanu as Bill and Ted. I think we’re done with Bill and Ted. But their daughters are lovely – Brigette and Sam are wonderful actresses and are great in the movie, so maybe if someone wants to do a movie with Billie and Thea they could do that if they wanted to. But that wasn’t the plan of this. This wasn’t to try to launch that. It was to tell the story of the arc of these guys’ lives.”
The film was intended to be a major summer release courtesy of Orion Pictures and MGM, and then of course the coronavirus pandemic hit. Kroopf revealed that they had just done their first audience test screening when COVID-19 hit, and they then had to figure out how to finish the movie remotely.
Ultimately the decision was made to release the film in select theaters and as an on demand release on the same day – August 28th. And while that’s obviously not the ideal release strategy, Kroopf says the film’s ultimate message will ring true now more than ever:
“It was gonna [be released] right between the Democratic and Republican conventions and we figured everyone could use a little Bill and Ted right now and then boom [the pandemic] happened. And it felt like more than ever we could use something where we could just spend 90 minutes with these incredible, enjoyable characters and go on this ride and deliver what is essentially a really positive message which is about how we’re all in this together, and we’ve all gotta pull together.”
Solomon summed up the enduring appeal of Bill and Ted nicely in a way that makes Face the Music kind of the perfect movie for 2020:
“The times that we live in right now are so cynical and so divided that having these guys who are not divided, who are not cynical, with a message that is not mean, with comedy that’s not mean. I don’t know whether it’ll be perceived as modern or not because there’s nothing snarky, there’s no swearing, but to us this has turned out to be a better time.”
Be excellent to each other indeed.
Adam Chitwood is the Managing Editor for Collider. You can follow him on Twitter @adamchitwood.