Looking back at Bill & Ted

Feature Seb Patrick 5 Mar 2014 - 05:55

As Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure turns 25, Seb takes a look back at the duo's outings...

There’s an urban legend that posits that the execrable 1996 Pauly Shore vehicle Bio-Dome was originally written as a third Bill & Ted film, before being turned down by Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter and so repurposed with new characters. The rumour has been heavily debunked by many, including Winter himself; but frankly, it says a lot about a person if they believe it ever might have been true in the first place. Specifically, what it says is that that person hasn’t watched, or paid attention to, either of the Bill & Ted films.

What the rumour does play to is a range of assumptions about Bill and Ted: that they’re stoners, or slackers, or surfer dudes. That they’re completely lame-brained idiots who fail to understand anything about the world around them, or that they’re lazy drop-outs with no interest in bettering themselves. It’s feasible that that impression might arise from seeing a photo of the pair, reading a very brief plot summary, or learning of their use of certain slang words like “bodacious”. But these assumptions, frankly, are as lazy as Bio-Dome’s hapless lead pair Bud and Doyle – because they ignore just how much nuance there is to the characters of Bill and Ted, and to the (so far) two films in which they star.

Bill and Ted were first conceived in the early 1980s, when college friends Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson (the latter the son of the late, great Richard Matheson) were attending an improv workshop in Hollywood. Matheson had conceived the loose idea of three characters sitting around attempting to study – as he put it, they were “really, really ignorant teenage boys who know nothing about anything trying to talk about world affairs”. The three characters, named Bill, Ted and Bob, would react to any given topic by declaring it either “Excellent” or “Bogus”.

The trio became a duo when the actor playing Bob lost interest in the conceit – but Solomon and Matheson were hooked on performing as their Bill and Ted characters (respectively), and gained popularity on the local improv circuit doing so. They continued to develop the pair, even going so far as to write letters to one-another in character, and fleshed out their backstories and backgrounds. It was becoming clear to them that they wanted to develop something bigger based around the characters – but until they could find a hook, they were unsure exactly what.

That hook, when it eventually came, would involve Bill and Ted interacting with the past. Initially, Chris and Ed planned to write a sketch film, in which one sketch featured Bill and Ted bumbling through history accidentally causing just about “everything bad that had ever happened to mankind”; but Matheson Sr, who knew a thing or two about good sci-fi, suggested that the time travel plot could support a movie in its own right. While eventually considering the implications of the original plot a little too dark for a comedy, the pair got enough of “a big kick out of sending Bill and Ted back into history” that the plot about the two metalheads trying to successfully complete their history report was crafted instead.

After attracting the interest of Critters director Stephen Herek, the project bounced around Hollywood for much of the mid 1980s – at one point it was in the hands of Warner Bros, who were prompted by the success of Back to the Future to request that the original mode of time travel, a Chevrolet fan, be changed to avoid accusations of plagiarism – but eventually went into production under the eye of Dino De Laurentiis in 1987.

The characters of Bill and Ted had become slightly less skinny and nerdy than the writers had intended with the casting of Reeves and Winter (and although they were clearly still outsiders at high school, a couple of scenes that showed them as being actively unpopular with the jocks and cheerleaders were ultimately cut) but Herek was convinced that the pair were perfect for the roles. Comedian George Carlin, meanwhile, was brought in for the role of time-travelling guardian Rufus – although according to Winter, “they were going after serious people first, like Sean Connery”, and Carlin was only cast after shooting had begun. The supporting cast of historical figures were mainly played by little-known character actors, although it’s worth remarking on the presence of former Go-Gos guitarist (and solo singer of the hit single Rush Hour) Jane Wiedlin as Joan of Arc.

Although completed in time for a 1988 release, the bankruptcy of De Laurentiis Entertainment meant that Excellent Adventure’s future was uncertain until Orion Pictures picked it up, eventually getting it out to US cinemas in February 1989. As time travel comedies go, it certainly wasn’t a hit of BTTF-esque proportions – but a $40million gross from a $10million budget wasn’t bad going in the slightest, and critical reaction was solid, to boot.

It’s not hard to see why. While Excellent Adventure is a little slight and even silly in places, it’s a thoroughly entertaining romp with a handful of utterly excellent comic set pieces (particularly the mall scene). It never takes itself too seriously, but also never lampoons its characters or strays into out-and-out genre parody. It’s true that some of the time travel conceits don’t quite hang together (why is it that “the clock in San Dimas is always running” when they’re on their original quest, but they can later cross their personal timelines with enough precision to go back set up the keys and tape recorder? And hey, where and when do they find out Rufus’ name?) but there’s a lot of thought and consideration given to building the characters and their world, much of which undoubtedly comes from those early post-improv development sessions.

Consider, for example, Bill and Ted’s respective family dynamics. It’s hard to figure out exactly where the idea of Bill’s step-mother being an old high school contemporary of theirs comes from – but it’s mined for some great running gags. In fact, it’s possible to speculate that the reason for Bill and Ted’s friendship in the first place is the common element of their absent mothers (although this one falls down a shade when you know that Ted’s mother was present in earlier drafts). The point is, there’s clearly a story to both characters, and the people around them, before we even meet them – they don’t feel one-dimensional, or conjured from thin air.

The other carefully-developed element of Bill and Ted’s characters, and the one that’s perhaps the most open to misinterpretation, is their way of speaking. It’s easy to assume that the pair just fall into standard California surfer or “Valley” speak, primarily because of their use of the word “dude”. But in fact, their speech patterns are unique to themselves, and say much about their characters. Their use of words like “heinous” and “resplendent”, as well as the way they often eschew contractions, paint a picture of two guys who might not be especially smart, but who are keen to better themselves – or at the very least, to sound better, especially when speaking to elders or people in authority.

This is why the suggestion that they’re “slackers” rankles: it’s true that when we meet them they’re on the verge of flunking out of school, but this isn’t necessarily out of laziness. They’re a little dim, but they’re keen to learn, and they also just happen to be hugely preoccupied with their dream of becoming rock stars, to the detriment of paying attention to anything else in the world around them. They have clearly-defined goals in life, even if they could perhaps spend a bit more time working to achieve them (such as, you know, learning to play). And they do learn things, when given the chance – it’s highly amusing to hear them mispronounce Socrates’ name early in the film, but it’s notable that by the time they come to do their presentation, they get it right.

In fact, Bill and Ted are an extremely likeable and charming pair, and are almost completely without guile – indeed, they had sharper edges in earlier drafts of the script (including a couple of lines that border on uncomfortably homophobic in that annoyingly prevalent 1980s way), but by the time of the finished film they’ve been softened significantly, and there’s nothing cynical or mean about them. This is entirely appropriate, given the reason for their future importance to the world. The eventual success of Wyld Stallyns and the influence of their philosophy is not arbitrary, but is based on their simple and honest message: “Be excellent to each other.”

The success of Excellent Adventure made a sequel an unsurprising prospect – but the fact that 1991’s Bogus Journey exists might be the only unsurprising thing about it. It would have been easy for Matheson and Solomon to turn out another light-hearted comedy in which Bill and Ted bumped into a fresh array of historical figures, but their intent to take a markedly different approach is summed up by the sequel’s original working title: Bill & Ted Go To Hell.

Having started from the idea that Bill and Ted would be murdered by evil robot versions of themselves, and wind up in Hell as well as playing the Grim Reaper at board games in an elaborate Seventh Seal parody, Solomon and Matheson developed the concept further to take in as much bizarrely-conceived weirdness as they could throw at the screen: from a visit to heaven (in another bit of classic film pastiche, the stairway from A Matter of Life and Death was an obvious influence here), to the future setting of “Bill and Ted University”, to the greatest scientific minds in the universe, the Martians known only as “Station”.

Herek was unavailable – although approached – to shoot the sequel, and so what was now known as Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey was helmed by first-time director (and Brighton-born) Peter Hewitt. Hewett seemed to click perfectly with the far-out vision that Solomon and Matheson had for Bill and Ted’s expanded universe, and stretched a budget that was double the first film, but still a relatively modest $20 million, to bring it to the screen. Of particular note is the excellent use of prosthetics, body doubles and split-screen to pull off several scenes featuring Bill and Ted alongside their robot duplicates – not to mention the brilliant design and practical realisation of the cobbled-together-from-household-goods “good robot us’s” from the film’s final act.

While it’s a shame that Carlin has a smaller role second time out, the support cast here is generally stronger – and not just because of “Sir” James Martin’s cameo. It’s true that Joss Ackland is somewhat phoning it in as De Nomolos (he would later, rather unfairly, call the film an “embarrassing” experience), but this is more than balanced out by arguably the sequel’s strongest asset, William Sadler. He turns what initially seems like a straight man foil into a devastatingly funny turn as the Grim Reaper; and also gets a makeup-free cameo in the final scene, as the terribly British father watching the concert from his breakfast table. A word, too, for Hal Landon – having been stuck with the unforgiving role of Captain Logan in the first film, he gets a brilliant single-scene turn here, mimicking Keanu superbly after Ted possesses his father.

Overall the film has a darker visual tone than the first, but it’s one utterly bristling with imagination. At times there’s perhaps a little too much being thrown at the screen for absolutely everything to work, but you can never accuse it of a lack of ambition. And despite the shift in style, the characters remain their recognisable selves – a little older, a little more jaded, but still the same lovable Bill and Ted – in the hands of both Matheson and Solomon, and Reeves and Winter. There are also some neat structural parallels with the first film: both stories open in the future, but the optimism of Adventure’s Rufus-based intro is contrasted with the presence of De Nomolos (whose name, you may have noticed, is simply an anagram of “Ed Solomon”) in Journey; and both films end with a triumphant, auditorium-based climactic performance.

Bogus Journey’s box office fell just short of that of Excellent Adventure, but on twice the budget, it was seen as significantly less of a success. Reviews, too, were more lukewarm, which isn’t entirely unreasonable – the film draws upon a much more esoteric vision, and it’s one that was more difficult for many to buy into than the wider, mainstream appeal of the first. To those who get it, though, it remains an outstanding work – funny, daring and often deliciously clever, and it’s only a surprise that Hewitt has yet to follow it up with anything remotely resembling its freewheeling brilliance.

Despite the slow take-up on the sequel, however, Bill and Ted remain hugely beloved cult figures – and their appearances extended into other media, too. In the wake of the first film, there was an animated series (entertaining, but lightweight) and a short-lived live action show (utterly dreadful), as well as a selection of videogames and other merchandise. All of these tie-ins maintained the tone and style of Excellent Adventure – but Bogus Journey got its own spinoff courtesy of a superb, and similarly bizarre, Marvel Comics series by writer/artist Evan Dorkin.

There was also the long-running Bill and Ted’s Excellent Halloween Adventure live show at the Universal Studios parks – but given its sudden cancellation last year due to media-led accusations of homophobia, sexism and racism, it’s probably best if we ignore that one. Indeed, from the sound of it, the Halloween show seemed to be based on that erroneous “idiot stoners” perception of Bill and Ted, rather than their actual characters as seen in the films.

And then, of course, there’s the ever-present possibility of a third film. Bogus Journey seems to end on a fairly definitive note, setting up Wyld Stallyns’ long-term success and the closing montage that shows the world edging towards adopting their philosophy of peace and harmony. And yet it’s not final enough that there isn’t room for another story – so it’s perhaps not a surprise to learn that Solomon and Matheson have been working on a third script in recent years. And if what Keanu Reeves has said about the speculated plot is true, it sounds like the writers have actually come up with a good angle.

“One of the plot points,” Reeves explained in a 2012 interview, “is that these two people have been crushed by the responsibility of having to write the greatest song ever written and to change the world. And they haven't done it. So everybody is kind of like, 'Where is the song?' And we go on this expedition, go into the future to find out if we wrote the song, and one future 'us' refuses to tell us, and another future 'us' blames us for their lives because we didn't write the song, so they're living this terrible life.”

Having already seen the characters travel through history, and then the afterlife, the idea of their exploring possible alternate future timelines seems like a great way to expand the Bill and Ted story – and it sounds like a strong way of dealing with making a sequel with actors who are now two decades older (even if Winter, who has long-since devoted his career to working behind the camera, would essentially be coming out of acting retirement to do so). Certainly, when it comes to making belated sequels to beloved 1980s films, we can think of far worse possibilities.

Even if Bill & Ted 3 never happens, however, the two films that do exist are among the most inventive and entertaining sci-fi comedies going, and have ensured the characters’ popularity for the ages. And as Abraham Lincoln himself put it:

“Four score and... seven minutes ago, we your forefathers were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure, conceived by our new friends Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it's true today. Be excellent to each other. And... PARTY ON, DUDES!”

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: 25th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray goes on sale on March 17th.

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