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Friday, November 6, 2009

Bill & Ted: 20 Years Later the Partying On Continues ...

Guest Shot
By Linda Kay

It was February 1989 and the movie industry and moviegoers alike were about to be caught off guard by an unexpected, oddball film that even one of its co-stars believed would end up as a straight-to-video affair. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s surprising box office success was a fitting triumph for a film that started its life as one of the most talked-about scripts ever to circulate amongst the Hollywood studios, that had been touted in previews for a full year and a half before its release and that had almost been shelved because of the collapse of a production company.

Writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson originally invented Bill & Ted as part of a comedy routine for an improv group at UCLA in 1983. The basic idea was for "really, really, really ignorant teenage boys who know nothing about anything trying to talk about world affairs." Good friends Ed and Chris enjoyed performing the characters so much they continued to be "Bill & Ted" in their correspondence and phone conversations, even after Matheson had moved further south to attend graduate school in San Diego. The friendship between the characters of Bill & Ted developed directly from the friendship between the two writers.

Over time they fleshed out the characters even more, giving them family backgrounds and eventually speculating about what would happen if Bill & Ted were to come face-to-face with some of the greatest people who had ever lived. The fantasy/science-fiction element of having them travel through time wasn’t really a conscious decision but seemed to be a natural progression considering that Chris’ father, Richard Matheson, was a noted science fiction author. With this basic plot line in mind and their tongues firmly in their cheeks, Ed and Chris journeyed to Lake Tahoe and completed the first draft of Excellent Adventure in only three days.

Eventually the script made its way to Interscope, which optioned it and asked for a rewrite. Buzz about this unusual, wacky script started to make the rounds of the studios, and eventually it became one of the most widely-read scripts in town. But it was also one of the most misunderstood scripts, as executives pondered the premise and questioned the mystical and unexplained ending indicating that Bill & Ted were going to somehow bring about peace, happiness and harmony throughout the universe.

Warner Bros. eventually took on the project, only to pass on making the movie in 1986 after requesting several changes (such as the dropping of the original time-traveling van, which they thought would be too much like Back to the Future). At the time, the studio was reported to have said that the teen-comedy genre was dead.

At last the movie was optioned by Dino De Laurentiis’ company, DEG, and the film was finally able to go into production. Director Stephen Herek, who had previously directed the comedy/horror hit Critters, had been brought in on the project when it had still been under Warner Bros. and was carried over to DEG. It was Herek who suggested the idea of using a phone booth as the time travel devise to help differentiate the film from the Back to the Future franchise.

Hundreds of kids auditioned for the roles of Bill & Ted but in the end Alex Winter (who had previously played Marko in The Lost Boys) and Keanu Reeves (who had already shown his young acting chops in The River’s Edge) were cast, although originally Alex was to play Ted and Keanu was to play Bill. The two were cast mostly because of their chemistry together. The two actors, who had never worked together before, hit it off right away. Because of the casting, Ed and Chris had to rethink their initial images of the characters, which were supposed to be "unpopular nerd-geeks." The casting of George Carlin as Rufus was inspired and a big plus for the production. Originally Stephen Herek wanted ZZ Top to play the Three Most Important People in the universe, but got the same "isn’t that . . . ?" feel using Clarence Clemons (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band), Martha Davis (of The Motels) and Fee Waybill (of The Tubes).

The movie was filmed in the course of three months in and around Scottsdale, Arizona. Unfortunately, DEG was facing serious financial problems and originally hoped the movie would rescue them from ruin. Amazingly, when a new head took over the production company, he viewed the film and decided to pass on it. So the film had been shot but the company that funded it wasn’t going to bother releasing it to theaters. It was said that DEG even tried to sell the film to HBO. At this point many were concerned Excellent Adventure would die an unreleased death. Alex Winter admitted in several later interviews that he was dismayed but resigned to the fact that the movie was likely going to be relegated to the 99 cent bins as a straight-to-video film no one had ever seen.

Previews for the film had been shown off and on in theaters long before the movie’s release. In fact, when the movie finally hit the big screens on February 17, 1989, I recall asking a friend, "Didn’t that already come out a long time ago?" A year and a half had passed between the film’s completion and its theatrical release, which might have never happened at all but for a co-operative deal between Nelson Entertainment and Orion Pictures. Orion took charge of the theatrical release while Nelson purchased the video rights and helped with advertising costs. The success of Bill & Ted surprised everyone since it was released during a time of the year when films for adults typically dominate the box office. No one really expected a teen comedy to strike gold in February. But word of mouth helped turn the unusual release into a must-see hit.

The appeal of Excellent Adventure lies squarely on the appeal of its main characters. People can relate to these two friends who seem to be two halves of the same person. Practically everyone either has a friend like this or knows two friends who totally embody the spirit of Bill & Ted. They are timeless comedy characters in the classic tradition of the Crosby/Hope Road movies. And most importantly, they were just plain funny. Who doesn’t chuckle when Ted innocently answers, "Noah’s wife?" to his history teacher’s question, "Who was Joan of Arc?"

Twenty years later, the love for Bill & Ted hasn’t diminished. New generations of fans are discovering this warm, friendly little film that, for a while, didn’t seem like it would amount to much in the big, scary world of Hollywood. The film spawned a much-darker sequel released two years later entitled Bill Ted’s Bogus Journey, plus an animated series and even a poorly executed live-action series.

There has been talk recently of a straight-to-DVD remake of the film, updated and modernized to be palatable to kids of today. I, for one, hope this doesn’t come to pass. Not because I’m a purist who doesn’t believe anything should ever be recreated in any way shape or form. But looking at the creation of Bill & Ted, one questions if anyone could adequately capture what made the original movie so special. It’s not just a matter of throwing two dumb guys together, sending them hurtling through time and hoping for the best. The heart of the move is its heart, something I am skeptical anyone trying to "re-invent" the characters would genuinely be able to recapture without Ed and Chris’ close background. Some ideas are born of moments in time which simply can’t be formulated in a test tube or rehashed by updating a few key elements. Bill & Ted are timeless and should remain so.

Animated series theme song

Live Action series theme song

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