Truth and Movies

An oral history of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure

The inside story of how a goofy script by two unknown screenwriters became a beloved cult hit.

Words and interviews

Simon Bland

@sitweetstoo

With bodacious threequel Bill & Ted Face The Music finally shredding its way into cinemas, we chronicle the creation of the film that started it all, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, with writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, director Stephen Herek, producer Scott Kroopf and star Alex Winter… *Air guitar*

January 1981. Students Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon meet at UCLA and form a fast friendship that quickly leads to the formation of Bill and Ted…

Ed Solomon (Screenwriter): Chris [Matheson] and I met in a playwriting class. We shared this unique, ridiculous sense of humour and became like pre-school children who just play in their own little fantasy world – much to the annoyance of people in our close vicinity.

Chris Matheson (Screenwriter): I realised Ed was a kindred spirit. We were similar in certain ways and different in certain ways but there was an overlap of what we thought was funny. We rented this little theatre in Hollywood so we could do improv and Bill and Ted emerged one night.

ES: It was Chris who suggested we do a couple of guys who were studying history but knew nothing about history. Originally it was three guys: Bill, Ted and a character named Bob who has long since gone away. Chris and I loved playing the characters so much we went to a coffee shop later that night and continued goofing around doing them.

CM: We liked them from the start. We stayed in character and got to know them, building their back stories: their dads, moms, siblings, and relationship with each other. They were alive to us. We wrote letters back and forth as Bill and Ted and had phone conversations as Bill and Ted. By the time we decided to put them in a movie, we knew them pretty well.

ES: It was actually Chris’ father, the famous science fiction writer Richard Matheson, who suggested these guys could have a whole movie to themselves. That began a process of trying to figure out what that’d be. We spent seven days in a cafe in Lake Tahoe doing a detailed, handwritten outline, then four days in an LA coffee shop doing a crazy rough draft.

CM: Once we put pen to paper we’d just go back and forth writing dialogue. Whenever my hand got tired, I’d hand the pen to Ed and he’d write for a while and when he got tired, he’d do the same. It was really fast because we knew them so well. Our original script featured Hitler – just take out Napoleon and put in Hitler. I don’t know where they picked him up, maybe the bunker. They called him the evil moustache dude. Of course, we couldn’t do that.

ES: [The first draft] was called ‘Bill & Ted’s Time Van’ and had most of what the movie has although there were some significant changes. Rufus was a 27-year-old high school sophomore and drove a van that travelled through time for no reason we cared to explain, probably because we didn’t know how. It seemed to blow a hole in the reality of the film, so to fix that we had an idea that made us laugh: What if 700 years from now their music literally saves the world? We then switched the title to Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

With the script finalised, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure enters pre-production backed by legendary Italian film producer Dino De Laurentiis…

Scott Kroopf (Producer): The script was on the Black List. Everyone around town knew it and loved it, not only for its incredibly goofy, funny quality but for the way Chris and Ed used language to create a whole ‘Bill & Ted’ speak and unique take on friendship. It was very infectious. We immediately started looking for a director and found Stephen Herek.

Stephen Herek (Director): I read it and was laughing out loud and falling off my chair. It’s the usual thing people say when a script is funny, but it was. I told my wife that this is either going to be the biggest flop in the world or a pretty big hit.

Alex Winter (Bill S Preston, Esq): Bill & Ted was just another audition. What struck me at the time was the language; it was very distinct for what was presented as a teen comedy. It wasn’t like other teen comedies – god knows you’d audition for a tonne of those. If it wasn’t a John Hughes movie it was a knock-off John Hughes movie and the language was always the same: teens acting like 40 year olds in therapy. [Bill and Ted] were very childlike and spoke in this ornate way. That stood out. It was more fun.

SH: For me, [casting] was a throwback to the straight man/funny man thing that goes back to Laurel and Hardy. Strangely enough, even though Keanu hasn’t done that many comedies, he had a handle on the comedy. It was born out of an honesty in his performance. He really became Ted. I needed a straight man and it was hard to find that chemistry.

AW: It was an exhaustive process. It didn’t get serious until the last audition. They’d call us in and have us read [with different actors]. I read with Keanu, I read with other people, he read with other people – then they started letting actors go who they didn’t want. Keanu and I became friends at the first audition. We hit it off and had lots of similarities. We both showed up with motorcycle helmets, both played bass, both liked the same theatre, literature and cinema… We would’ve been friends whether we got the part or not.

SH: I started seeing Alex and Keanu drift off together. They’d be in the corner talking or getting lunch. They seemed to bond pretty quickly and became friends, and that’s how I wanted to portray [Bill and Ted] on screen. That clinched it for me.

AW: I was very into music. I was quite close with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at the time and the Butthole Surfers and The Meat Puppets. I was intrigued by the idiosyncratic way this Bill & Ted project seemed to be coming at music, because they’re not headbangers, stoners, surfers or metal kids. It’s not an immediate get.

CM: Just a few days before production started, Ed and I went to this McDonalds across the street from the production office and there were a couple of young guys in line ahead of us. The way they were talking, interacting and laughing… Ed and I literally said, ‘Damn, could you imagine if those two guys played Bill and Ted?’ and it was Alex and Keanu, which makes us sound pretty dumb.

SH: When we started out, I dubbed [Alex and Keanu’s style] the puppy factor. It was unconditional love. They just have an excitement for life and an exuberance like puppies. We distilled direction down to ‘this scene needs more puppy factor’ and they got it immediately. It affected the way they moved, walked and turned their head. They clued into it quick.

ES: [Alex and Keanu] are really charming, smart and good looking guys. When Chris and I initially wrote the characters we pictured spotty guys with low rider jeans with their boxers sticking out, heavy metal t-shirts and long hair. What Alex and Keanu brought was a more winning and charming personality, and what they embody that’s crucial to who Bill and Ted are is a benevolence of spirit and positivity. As soon as it was them, it was them. There was no looking back.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure begins filming in early 1987, with two weeks on location in Italy – but not before another ’80s movie forces a few last minute tweaks…

SK: Everyone was excited – and then Back to the Future came out and that really threw us for a loop because it was a time travel movie also featuring a car. It was one of those moments where everyone went, ‘Hang on, this might be derivative’. Steve Herek came up with the very fun idea of the phone booth.

SH: [Originally] it was a van but visually all I could come up with was an image of Scooby Doo. I tried to put a certain believability to it. The idea that there’s these phone lines – the circuits of time – and you can dial a number, connect to a circuit, go through these wires and then boom! You’re spit out into this phone number in time. It felt like it could be a lot of fun but also had a certain logic to it.

ES: Being California boys with no internet, we had no idea of Dr Who.

SH: I hadn’t seen Dr Who at that point. Unfortunately a lot of good ideas are used before. We just threw caution to the wind and ran with it.

AW: [The production] was tiny. It was mostly young people. Roy Forge Smith was our Production Designer who had done Holy Grail and was like a titan, we all followed him around like children asking him Monty Python questions. Everyone was at the beginning of their career and there was no expectation. It was like my film school experience: a bunch of scrappy people who really wanted to make movies coming together to figure it out. It was liberating because there was freedom to play and experiment, and we had so much faith in Steve Herek.

SH: Roy built our phone booths a little larger so we could accommodate [more people]. The more historical figures Bill and Ted brought back, it started to get a little more cramped. The cast were stuck in there for a little bit [during shooting] but they all liked each other and there was no COVID-19 so they weren’t too worried about it. It was more about costume smells. Even though we washed them every day, unfortunately things started to get a little stinky.

SK: We kicked around a bunch of people [for Rufus]. The studio thought we should go for Charlie Sheen which would’ve been a whole different way of going. We didn’t cast George Carlin until we were well into shooting.

CM: We talked about David Lee Roth, the lead singer from Van Halen and I loved the idea of Ringo Starr. Carlin brought this very sophisticated comedic elegance. Our original concept of Rufus was basically a homeless 27-year-old who lived in a van with his dog who he’d named Dog Rufus – that’s very different from George Carlin in his cool suit and sunglasses.

AW: Dino De Laurentiis had unbelievable access in Italy. We were shooting in buildings that no one had stepped in for 100 years. The Medieval Castle we shot in was a real castle. It was fun days. It was a big part of my youth and I have really fond memories of that whole shoot.

SH: We were all kids just having a good time. We didn’t really give a shit whether the movie made money or not. It was fun to wake up in the morning because we knew we were going to laugh.

Shortly after production wrapped, Dino De Laurentiis went bankrupt, leaving the film without distribution and temporarily shelved before Nelson Entertainment stepped in…

SH: When it came out and the public finally saw it, it became this little train that kept on moving but the hardest part for me was the process of actually getting it out there because of the bankruptcy. The studios hated it. They thought it was the worst movie ever made. At the time we didn’t have the opportunity of special effects temps. I think they might have been under the misunderstanding that this was a finished product.

CM: We wrapped production in April of ’87 and it didn’t come out until February of ’89 – almost two years. For about a year it just languished and was going to go straight to video. We’d go to meetings in Hollywood and they’d be like, ‘Too bad about Bill & Ted, that was a good script…’

ES: The movie sat on a shelf unfinished for a year before Nelson Entertainment picked it up, put some more money in and got it finished. It got a release by Orion but critics just pummelled the crap out of it, yet weirdly, audiences responded well.

SH: When the film was released, I left town. I didn’t want to read reviews or have anything to do with the release of this film anymore because it was a very hard year. I came back home in the middle of the night and there’s like 70 messages on my machine. I’m like, ‘Oh shit, what’s happened?’ But they were all congratulatory. The movie was a hit.

SK: I went to a theatre in Pasadena and the movie played so unbelievably well. Kids loved it and surprisingly older folks thought it was pretty funny too. The day was saved which was great.

CM: The first time Ed and I [saw it in a theatre] was opening night. We went to see it in Westwood which is where UCLA is and the audience liked it. They laughed. It ended and I remember one of our friends turned to us and said ‘the audience has spoken’. People genuinely liked it.

Three decades on, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure remains a firm favourite for fans old and young. Not bad for in-joke that started between friends…

AW: I deal with Bill & Ted fans every single day and have since the movie first came out. For both Keanu and myself, it had a huge impact on our lives and how we’re viewed. There’s no way [Face The Music] would’ve happened if there wasn’t a large enough fan base that felt a connection to this world and these characters and like they’d grown up with them. It’s very sweet. Today I get approached by people from my generation but just as many, if not more, young people. From toddlers to people in their 20s, it had a huge impact.

CM: We just bumped into [Be Excellent to Each Other]. To us, it was a joke. The pressure was on Bill and Ted and they better say something deep so: ‘Be Excellent To Each Other’. We thought it was funny and still think it’s funny – but it’s actually kinda true too. You could definitely put a worse phrase out into the world. I’m glad that’s out there.

ES: Bill and Ted were created 100 per cent out of the spirit of play. We did not expect anything from this film to endure; we didn’t even expect it to get made. I’ve had a long career with a lot of things that’ve worked and a lot more that haven’t but if I had to go to the grave having left one thing on the planet, I think ‘Be Excellent To Each Other’ is not a bad thing to have left.

SH: I’m so genuinely grateful for the ride this thing has taken. I could sit and get all intellectual as to why it did what it did, but I don’t fucking know. I don’t think anybody knows. It just hit a chord at the time and people remember it fondly – maybe more fondly than it really is – but that’s okay. Even though I’m a bit of a cynic, I do believe in magic and there was something magic caught there. It’s still riding the circuits of time.

Bill & Ted Face The Music is released in cinemas on 16 September. Both the 4K restoration of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Chris Matheson’s book ‘The Buddha Story’s Story’ are available now.

Published 12 Sep 2020

Tags: Alex Winter Bill & Ted Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure Chris Matheson Ed Solomon Keanu Reeves Stephen Herek

Suggested For You

Bill & Ted Face the Music

By Charles Bramesco

The Wyld Stallyns return after nearly three decades out of the saddle. The result could hardly be more excellent.

review LWLies Recommends

Work still sucks – Remembering Office Space at 20

By Gem Wheeler

Mike Judge’s 1999 comedy brilliantly captured the dingy, coffee-ringed mundanity of the workplace.

River’s Edge and the troubling psychosis of ’80s youth

By Christina Newland

This Keanu Reeves-starring drama is a poignant tale of teenage apathy.

Little White Lies Logo

About Little White Lies

Little White Lies was established in 2005 as a bi-monthly print magazine committed to championing great movies and the talented people who make them. Combining cutting-edge design, illustration and journalism, we’ve been described as being “at the vanguard of the independent publishing movement.” Our reviews feature a unique tripartite ranking system that captures the different aspects of the movie-going experience. We believe in Truth & Movies.

Editorial

Design