This article is inspired by the release of Pixar's Finding Dory. You can buy tickets for the film here and purchase our special Pixar issue of Birth.Movies.Death.magazine here.
San Dimas, 1988: If Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted “Theodore” Logan don’t pass their history class, they can’t save the future. The Two Great Ones won’t end poverty or align the planets in universal harmony, allowing meaningful contact with all forms of life from extraterrestrial beings to common household pets. And Wyld Stallyns certainly won’t make music that’s “excellent for dancing.” Those are the ridiculous, beautiful, most unprecedented stakes of Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the brainchild of screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. There is magic in its weirdness, and in the way Matheson’s and Solomon’s friendship is reflected in Bill’s and Ted’s, and in the great lengths these doofuses will go to stay together. It’s hard to imagine this movie getting made now — it was a miracle that it got made then.
UCLA classmates Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson birthed Bill and Ted in 1983 during an improv workshop. “One day, we decided to do a couple of guys who knew nothing about history, talking about history,” Solomon recalled to Cinemafantastique in a 1991 interview. “The initial improv was them studying history, while Ted’s father kept coming up to ask them to turn their music down.” Matheson added, “Our suggestion was ‘15-year-old boys talk about world affairs.’ We had them talking about the world trouble spots and trade problems, but their only impression of anything going on in the world was that it was ‘bogus!’” Matheson and Solomon hung out after that show and stayed in character for hours, establishing the foundation of the magnificent dudes we know today.
Eventually Matheson left Los Angeles for grad school and Solomon remained to work on It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, but the two continued correspondence as Bill and Ted. Together they wrote a sketch called “Bill & Ted’s Time Van,” which became Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, a script written in just seven days. Hundreds of actors auditioned to play Bill and Ted, a number finally narrowed down to 24, who were then mixed and matched to find the pairing with the most chemistry. That pair was Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.
Winter and Reeves are iconic as Bill and Ted, but so is George Carlin as Rufus, their guide through the circuits of time. Before Rufus became an emissary of the future, he was written as a 28-year-old “waste case” sophomore at San Dimas High who drove the time van and had a dog named Dogrufus. The 1969 Chevy time van was dropped because the studio felt it was too much like Back to the Future, and evidently no one working on the film had heard of Doctor Who. Bill and Ted were originally nerds but that changed too when Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves were cast — they couldn’t convince an audience that Winter and Reeves weren’t cool.
“The film doesn’t engage, because its heroes don’t engage with the historical characters,” wrote critic Carrie Rickey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, who evidently didn’t realize she was watching a comedy and not a documentary. But the actors playing these historical characters certainly were engaged, most of them researching their roles with care. Legendary martial artist and stuntman Al Leong played Genghis Khan, and according to Alex Winter, Terry Camilleri actually had a Napoleon complex and got very into character, even improvising his own French dialogue. Rod Loomis learned about Sigmund Freud’s mannerisms, discovering Freud liked to play with his rings, and channeled the character during convincingly Freudian moments like eating a hot dog on a stick or sucking on a vacuum hose. Clifford David, an acting teacher and a method actor, “artificially lowered his hearing” to play Beethoven, and he believed the synthesizer should feel like an extension of his character. Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s played Joan of Arc and said, “I was fascinated to see if I could find the truth of the character without saying a line.”
Somehow Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’s almost went straight to video. Alex Winter explained during a Reddit AMA that it was “a happy accident. No one thought it would ever see the light of day.” Warner Bros. was interested in the film, but Solomon said Warner Bros. told them, “This is a summer teen movie comedy which will only appeal to kids, so we have to emphasize that.” So Solomon and Matheson embarked on a series of rewrites that they felt made the script worse. Then Warner Bros. refused to increase its budget, believing no one like Bill and Ted really existed. The filmmakers knew better — and so, probably, did any being who was sentient in the ‘80s. Warner Bros. finally passed on the film because they thought that the “teen comedy genre” was dead. And then DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (D.E.G.) picked it up, saw the film through production — and went bankrupt. A D.E.G. executive who had moved to Nelson Entertainment, Rick Finkelstein, saved the film, paying completion costs, acquiring the rights, and releasing it with Orion Pictures.
The film’s budget was a little under $10 million, and it made over $40 million. Its marketing included endorsements from Abraham Lincoln: “The most fun I’ve had in a theater in years!” and Joan of Arc: “Totally hot! — Teen Martyr Magazine.” And it was a particularly big hit with kids. As reported in the San Jose Mercury News in 1989, 13-year-old student at Cupertino’s Hyde Junior High Scott Cumine explained that everyone knew Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure was “kind of unrealistic, but everyone thinks it’s really funny. The kids go around saying ‘excellent’ and ‘bogus’ more than ever now.” Dan Robuck, who taught Film as Literature at Cupertino’s Homestead High, polled his students on the film’s best phrases. “Most triumphant” ranked #1. “Be excellent to each other,” they felt, was the “May the force be with you” of their day.
Chris Willman of the Los Angeles Times called the film “an unabashed glorification of dumbness.” But Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure wasn’t a glorification of idiocy, it championed kindness and innocence. In their world, Napoleon became a child again among the waterslides at a water park called Waterloo, and Joan of Arc escaped execution and jazzercised instead. “We considered Bill and Ted to be these innocents who would wander wide-eyed into any situation and treat everyone exactly the same — completely open, completely friendly,” said Ed Solomon. Keanu Reeves told Kim Howard Johnson of Starlog Magazine during filming: “I’m playing a guy who’s so insouciant, a naive child of the woods, that it’s fun and cleansing.” Reeves expressed to Johnson the challenges of portraying Ted, his energy and his honesty, and before heading back on stage, Reeves explained with a laugh: “It’s hard to be a child of the woods in these times!”
Chris Matheson told Starlog that he tried to resist writing science fiction because of his father Richard Matheson, “but maybe I have a predilection toward that because of my dad.” But Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure stood out from other time travel movies of the era — time travel was secondary to Bill and Ted and their friendship. Matheson’s and Solomon’s real-life friendship shines through here. In an interview with Pat Verducci, Ed Solomon said that their “friendship was more important” than their screenwriting careers, “a much purer thing.” As for Bill and Ted, their teacher is ready to fail them, Bill has “a minor Oedipal complex,” and Ted’s father wants to send him to military school in Alaska. But Bill and Ted weather these bogus situations together. Bill and Ted may seem like airheads to some, but their friendship is meaningful enough that it can change the future of the entire universe for the better. To paraphrase a line from Harvey, in this world, you must choose between being smart or being kind, and Bill and Ted made their choice — to be excellent to each other.