29 years after Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey , the first sequel to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure – – the creators bring Bill & Ted’s epic, emotional, decidedly non-heinous final chapter to life in Bill & Ted Face The Music.
When fans last saw Bill S. Preston and Ted ‘Theodore’ Logan, life was good. It was 1991 and, having triumphed at The Battle Of The Bands at the end of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, our last vision of them – until now – was them stood on stage. Their beloved, percussionist “historical babes” Princess Joanna & Princess Elizabeth were by their sides, their beautiful new babies “Little Bill & Little Ted” were strapped to their backs and their old pal Death – aka “The Duke of Spook, The Doc of Shock, The Man with No Tan” – was rocking it on cello bass.
Now three decades after their first Excellent Adventure saw them anointed by the us-es of the future as the Two Great Ones, the now middle-aged Bill & Ted still haven’t written the song that would fulfil their destiny and ensure Mankind’s survival. They may not know it yet, but time is running out.
Directed by Dean Parisot and written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. It is the third film in the Bill & Ted series, and the sequel to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, and William Sadler reprise their roles as Bill, Ted, and the Grim Reaper.
Bill & Ted Face The Music is a movie about the importance of unity, the power of friendship and what you can achieve when faced with insurmountable odds. Which is ironic because that’s exactly what the three-decade quest to get it made has been about, too. “It’s going to be incredibly emotional seeing this on screen,” says producer Scott Kroopf.
“For me and the entire original creative team, this has been something we’ve dreamed about and fought to get made. I’ve done a lot of movies, but this one gives me so much joy. Maybe it’s because the first Bill & Ted was my first movie, but it makes me so happy.”
This year marks the 36th anniversary of Kroopf’s relationship with Bill & Ted. In the ‘80s, as a production executive at Embassy Pictures, he’d read Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon’s script for Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and loved it so much that when he later went for a job interview at Interscope and was asked by its president, Robert Cort, what the best script he’d read lately was, there was only one answer. “You know, I think we’re involved with that,” replied Cort. “Well then,” said Kroopf, “I gotta work for you, because it’s the most excellent script ever.”
With writing partner Chris Matheson, Ed Solomon developed the characters Bill & Ted, first as an improve sketch and then in the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. The film put them on the map as studio feature screenwriters.
Excellent it may have been, but Bill & Ted’s road to the big screen was famously complicated from there.
Set up at Warner Brothers, the studio started to get cold feet when Back To The Future was released in ‘85, the suits concerned that its time-travelling plot shared too many similarities.
“Originally Bill & Ted time-travelled in a van,” remembers Kroopf. “So, we did a draft where we 86’d the van. It was [Excellent Adventure director] Steve Herek who came up with the idea of the phone booth, basically because of the old college gag about how many people you could stuff in one.” Despite the change, the studio put the project in turnaround. It might never have seen the light of day, says Kroopf, if Cort hadn’t “sweet-talked” Mark Canton into letting it go.
“I’ll be honest,” laughs Kroopf of then taking the property out to market.
“We didn’t get a lot of bites.” But one that they did was from Agostino ‘Dino’ De Laurentiis. Or, more specifically, his daughter, Raffaella, who was running production for her father’s company. Dad may not have quite understood the appeal – “He didn’t get it,” laughs Kroopf – but Raffaella’s smart call meant not only that the Wyld Stallyns would come to life, but that they’d even go on tour.
“Raffaella basically called in a bunch of favours which meant we were able to go and shoot in Italy for 10 days for virtually nothing,” says Kroopf. “And the movie was that much better for it and it was that much better an experience for the crew because of it. We got there, loved it, came back and thought we had the greatest movie ever. And then DEG [De Laurentiis Entertainment Group] went bankrupt. The movie was on the operating table, ready to die.”
But Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure didn’t just not die, it soared.
Saved from a straight-to-TV purgatory when Kroopf’s wrangling rescued it from a deal between the administrators and HBO, the movie eventually hit US theatres on February 17, 1989. (Hence the overdubbing in the movie when anyone mentions the originally intended ‘present day’ of 1987.)
And while American audiences fell for these unlikely leading men and their poetically exaggerated Californian dialect, what was most impressive was how much the world embraced them, delighting in just how different this all was from the teen movies of the time. “It was incredible how far it travelled,” laughs Kroopf. “Years later I was doing a movie called Terminal Velocity with Charlie Sheen and we did a little bit in Russia. I kept hearing people call each other ‘Dude’. I was like, ‘In Russia?!’”
“It was that language that drew me and Keanu in,” remembers Alex Winter. “It was so different from all the teen sex-comedies that were being made.”
Keanu Reeves nods. “Some of them were great,” he says, “like all those John Hughes movies. But this was just so different. That’s why the fans respond to them, I think. And that’s why it was crucial on Face The Music that the idea was perfect. We wouldn’t be doing this without the fans. It’s our way of saying thanks.”
Key to this brave new world of Bill & Ted is Face The Music director Dean Parisot.
A student of absurdist comedy and an expert in juggling tone, of his 40 credits, the one that most obviously sums up his unique skillset is Galaxy Quest, the sci-fi comedy that’s become a cult classic thanks to its seamless blend of the hilarious and the heartfelt.
“The world of Bill & Ted has a really unique tone,” says Winter. “Not everyone ‘gets’ it.” Not just that, but how on Earth do you go about directing the final part in a trilogy, 29 years after its second instalment – the gloriously insane Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, directed by Peter Hewitt – was last in theatres?
“There are loads of challenges to the period of time in between these movies,” says Parisot. “But I felt like this was also the perfect time. On the one hand, Bill & Ted aren’t teenagers anymore. And it’s not 1989. Everything, from the film language to the design of the movie to the broadness of it; all of it, to some extent, has changed. So, the challenge was to absolutely hold onto the core of these characters, but also to contemporise it. And what makes it so perfect for now is that it’s about remembering what it’s like to be a group of people trying to accomplish something, together. Rather than beating each other up all day long.”
Two of the people it particularly fell upon to hold onto, as Parisot has it, the “core” of Bill & Ted, while also moving them forward, were Nancy St. John and Mark Isham.
The former is an acclaimed visual effects producer, the latter an Oscar-nominated composer. Both were big Bill & Ted fans before the call came in to work on this movie. Both are even bigger ones now.
“When you’re dealing with an entity as precious as Bill & Ted, people know every frame,” says St. John. “In terms of the first two movies, you want to establish what was utilised then, but you have to upgrade it.”
Charged with creating a stunning digital canvas for our heroes’ quest – specifically three locations in Hell that they find themselves relegated to at one point, a vision of the future inspired by Santiago Calatrava’s “city of light” in Spain, and a cameo, of sorts, for George Carlin’s Rufus – St. John was determined to never deviate too far from the Bill & Ted palette, while always improving it.
“Take the ‘circuits of time,’” she says of the way in which Bill & Ted travel in the movies. “It’s a very fine line. We couldn’t take [those effects] too far away from the original conceptual thought and process. But technology has advanced in such an incredible way in between these movies, so you also want it to not look like the clunky old version they did with optical cameras in ’89!”
From a musical standpoint, Isham’s take at his first meeting with Parisot perfectly chimed with the director’s. “At that meeting, Dean said to me, ‘I just think we should take this seriously,’” remembers Isham. “I said to him, ‘Thank God, because that’s what I thought too!’ I wanted to score this as if I was Bill & Ted’s composer. Not the audience’s composer, but Bill & Ted’s. It’s their adventure and the music is their story. It meant I could find all these emotions within them, give them some heart. And that also turned out to be so much funnier than trying to make ‘funny’ music. It felt like it fit.”
For Parisot, from a narrative perspective, Face The Music represented three unmissable creative opportunities.
- First, there was the upping of the stakes. In Excellent Adventure, Bill & Ted’s mission was to not flunk their history report. In Bogus Journey, it was to win The Battle Of The Bands. “And in this one, the stakes are that all of space and time is going to be destroyed,” laughs Parisot. “We sort of skipped over all the other possible stakes.”
- Second was to oversee the evolution of two of the most iconic comedy creations of all time. “What’s really interesting,” Parisot observes, “is that in this movie Bill starts off more optimistic than Ted and then they kind of switch places in the middle.”
- And, third, there was the chance to introduce the world to Bill & Ted’s daughters, Thea & Billie.
“A lot of us [on the production] have daughters,” says Parisot. “So that father-daughter relationship was a really interesting avenue to explore. And when I told my daughter I was doing this movie she was really excited. Then she’d say, ‘Dad, it’s unlikely that they would say ‘Dude’ this much. And I’d always call her on it. I’d point out, ‘You just said to your boyfriend, “Dude, what the hell…?” You’re using the phrase! You’re just not aware of it!’”
The casting of Billie & Thea was crucial, not least given the legendary chemistry of their on-screen fathers.
“Back when we were casting the roles of Bill & Ted, for Excellent Adventure, we had all the best young actors of the moment [in to audition],” remembers Kroopf. “It was basically a big bake-off, and we did our due diligence. But it became impossible to not cast Keanu and Alex. And that was because every time we’d go out into the waiting room to get the next set [of actors] in, there they’d be, talking. They didn’t know each other, but there was this connection between them. Then you’d go out for lunch and there they were, having lunch. Then you’d walk to your car at the end of the day and there they were, on their motorcycles, driving off into the sunset together.
“We knew with Samara [Weaving] and Brigette [Lundy-Paine] too,” Kroopf says of casting the brilliant Ready Or Not and Atypical actors. Samara has this incredible comic invention and is not what you think of because you’ve seen her in other things where she’s often the glamorous ingenue. She is so funny. And Brigette, when she walked in, you just went, ‘Is that Keanu’s daughter?’ This physicality she can uncork is jaw-dropping. And then we looked at a picture of Samara and Brigette, put it next to a picture of Alex and Keanu, from Excellent Adventure, and it was just, ‘Oh my god – this is uncanny!’” It wasn’t just their looks, either. “They brought a unique perspective that was really contemporary, which was super-important to us. They had the spirit of Alex and Keanu but are totally them.”
There, in a nutshell, is the double-threat of Bill & Ted Face The Music. At once a sincere thank you to the fans whose support over three decades has made it happen and a gateway trip into their world for a whole new generation, this is a movie that dances to the beat of its own drum. “That’s the beauty of it,” says Lundy-Paine. “It’s like this underground project that can’t be told what to do. It’s a big movie, but it hasn’t sold out. There’s a real honesty to it.”
They’ve come a long way, Bill & Ted. They were born on stage and started out grounded in reality, before Matheson and Solomon skewed their movie versions into the realm of sci-fi (“I try to consciously fight it, out of a desire to break away, but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad,” Matheson has said to Starlog Magazine, referring to his father, legendary science fiction author Richard Matheson). And though the concept for Excellent Adventure was a tough nut to crack – Matheson and Solomon’s initial idea had been to have Bill & Ted being accidentally responsible for everything bad that ever happened, like the sinking of the Titanic and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – once they’d settled on the idea, the script took just four days to hand-write.
And now, 29 years after their first sequel – originally titled Bill & Ted Go To Hell – they find themselves back to finish the journey.
“This is a three-part story,” says Matheson. “Excellent Adventure is the beginning, Bogus Journey is the middle. And this is the end.” Solomon agrees.
“The first movie, we wrote it as kind of a lark, because the characters really made us laugh. And then as it grew… it became much more meaningful,” he says. “This started as something that was part of the beginnings of our professional creative life, of trying to express ourselves. Getting a chance to revisit it now that we’re at a different end of our career, or a different part of our life, turns it into a life work, not just a lark. We really want people to love this movie, for it to be meaningful to them, because that’s meaningful to us. These guys mean too much to us for it to not be that.”
They’re far from alone. Bill & Ted have their famous fans – Steven Soderbergh was part of a group of creatives who read the Face The Music script, although he says,
“My role was more as a cheerleader than anything” – but more than that, they have legion fans in the real world too. “I have to give a huge amount of credit for this movie actually getting made to the fans,” says Kroopf. “Every time we’ve said, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ in some way or another, the chorus has been shocking in terms of its intensity, passion and the sheer size of people it touches in some way.”
That intensity, of course, also plays into the story of Face The Music itself, a story about the pressure to create something so compelling that it will bring people together in complete harmony.
In the movie, that’s a pressure that has led to Bill & Ted suffering from an epic creative block. Fortunately, for those behind the scenes, that pressure seems to have manifested itself in a far more productive manner.
“The stakes were high because the bar was high,” says St. John of the process. “But we’re so proud of the results. And we’ve had a lot of laughs along the way.” And even if Isham had to live up to not just the legacy of the first two movies (“which have,” he says, “their own little iconic place in the history of American filmmaking”) but the introduction in Face The Music of some of the greatest musicians who ever lived – from Jimi Hendrix to Louis Armstrong to Mozart – he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There were lots of challenges to this,” Isham says. “A lot of comedies step outside of the characters, looking in at them, saying, ‘Isn’t this hilarious!’ But that’s not what we wanted to do. You’ve got to score Bill, who is the optimist, and Ted, who is the pessimist. It’s like the angel and the devil on your shoulders. I don’t get creative blocks personally – I spent a large part of my life as a jazz musician, so I know how to improvise – but you do feel the weight of it. These are movies that touch on the thing that people who have dedicated their lives to music really believe: that music truly has the power to enrich and help people’s lives.”
For Reeves and Winter and Matheson and Solomon, Face The Music means the end of a question that has dogged them in the years in between, whether it’s on the set of John Wick or Men In Black, or in a restaurant or a store: “Are you doing another Bill & Ted?” It also gives them the chance to say thanks in the only way they know how.
“This has a real completeness to it,” says Kroopf. “Now, any producer will tell you that it’s a world. That there is a whole Bill & Ted world of time-travel where anything is possible…” Parisot smiles, confident in the closing chapter that he and his two leading men have delivered.
“How can I not be?” Parisot says. “The truth is, these guys love each other. In real-life, they love each other. And more than all the craziness – and, trust me, there is plenty of craziness in this movie! – that’s what comes off the screen. It’s what always has. You’re watching two guys who are best friends, working stuff out. These guys haven’t changed in their core. It’s about recapturing that, re-releasing that joy. This movie is from their heart, to yours.”