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Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure: The time-travelling sleeper hit that almost didn't see the light of day

No one really thought Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure would become a classic. The film’s fate is as sweetly improbable as that of its protagonists, a pair of good-natured metalheads who, by providence, save humanity with the simple philosophy: “Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.” A modest film created on a modest budget, Bill & Ted faced near-annihilation when its distributor collapsed, only to emerge from the wreckage as 1989’s sleeper hit, complete with a $40m gross at the US box office.

“It was a happy accident that it is now bouncing its way through the circuits of time,” Stephen Herek, the film’s director, tells me. Its plot, by his own admission, is “f***ing ridiculous”: Bill S Preston, Esq (Alex Winter) and Ted “Theodore” Logan (Keanu Reeves) are two dunderheaded So-Cal teens about to flunk their history class – the last straw for Ted’s father, who’s threatened to pack him off to a military academy in Alaska, tearing apart the duo’s (air guitar) band the Wyld Stallyns.

Suddenly, an emissary from the future (comedian extraordinaire George Carlin) turns up in a time-travelling phone booth and informs them that their band will one day be responsible for creating a global utopia. And so Bill and Ted take an educational jaunt into the past, picking up titans like Socrates, Napoleon, and Beethoven along the way. It all ends in a spotlight-heavy, electric guitar-scored presentation that inexplicably earns them a passing grade. The world is safe once more.

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It might sound “f***ing ridiculous”, but it works. Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure has a euphorically unguarded quality to it – one Herek can only accurately describe as the cinematic equivalent of a “warm hug”. The “bodacious” catchphrases, air guitar, and perpetually quizzical expressions of Winter and Reeves all swiftly embedded themselves in pop culture. When something was good, it was now “most triumphant”. Crop tops and Van Halen tees possessed a new-found allure. You could go to the supermarket and pick up a box of Bill & Ted’s Excellent Cereal, which promised to be “A Most Awesome Breakfast Adventure”. A sequel, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, arrived in 1991, alongside both an animated series and a live-action one (the former featured some of the original cast, the latter none).

This month, the film receives the kind of official canonisation that comes with a 4K release, out on 10 August, with a new sequel set to arrive in UK cinemas at a currently unspecified date. Bill & Ted Face the Music sees Winter and Reeves reunited, alongside original screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. Caught up in the responsibilities of middle age – including their respective daughters, Thea (Samara Weaving) and Billie (Brigette Lundy-Paine) – the Wyld Stallyns realise they’ve yet to write the song that unites mankind. And time is running out.

Bill and Ted have come a long way since the UCLA improv group where Solomon and Matheson first brought them to life, back in 1982. A gentle riff on the surfers and slackers of Venice Beach and Malibu, the characters would clumsily discuss history and world affairs – their declarations confident, but hysterically reductive. The film version of Bill, for example, calls George Washington “the dollar-bill guy”.

Over time, Solomon and Matheson grew attached to (and increasingly familiar with) their creations. When the pair finally sat down to write something concrete, they knocked out a script in less than a week. They approached Warner Bros, who balked at the proposed $10m budget, declaring that teen comedies had come and gone. The film was instead picked up by the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG), responsible for Blue Velvet (1986) and Evil Dead II (1987). Soon after, Herek came on board as director, fresh off his gloriously schlocky debut, 1986’s Critters.

Hundreds of young actors may have auditioned for the roles of Bill and Ted – Sean Penn, River Phoenix, Pauly Shore, and Brendan Fraser included – but, as Herek explains, “it was right away with Keanu. There was just something so f***ing magnetic about the guy.” There was a time when the actor worried his epitaph would read: “Here lies Keanu Reeves. He played Ted.” But Neo, the wide-eyed naïf turned cybertech prophet of The Matrix, eventually helped bridge the actor between the “woah, dude” era of Bill & Ted and the steely cool of John Wick – to Herek’s surprise, as he’d always thought Reeves would end up “more on the drama side of things”.

Herek then found an ideal Bill in Winter, who approached the role with the same goofy sincerity as his co-lead. He, too, would later take his career in a different direction, becoming the prolific documentarian behind 2018’s The Panama Papers. For the role of Rufus, Bill and Ted’s guide from the future, the filmmakers reached out to music veterans Eddie Van Halen and Ringo Starr, alongside Sean Connery and Charlie Sheen, before they landed on Carlin. People on set were surprised by the comic’s studiousness – he didn’t improvise much, and never without the director’s permission.

The “Three Most Important People in the World”, who Bill and Ted meet in the future, were originally meant to be ZZ Top. Clarence Clemons of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, Fee Waybill of the Tubes, and Martha Davis of the Motels appear in the final film. Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos was cast as the sword-wielding, aerobic class-leading Joan of Arc.

Diane Franklin arrived at her audition thinking she’d try out for the part of Joan of Arc – she had, after all, just played Monique Junet, the French exchange student in 1985’s Better Off Dead. When she discovered the character didn’t have any lines, her focus shifted to Princess Elizabeth, one of two “historical babes” Bill and Ted rescue from medieval England. The other, Princess Joanna, was played by gymnast Kimberley Kates, making her film debut. “I was so shy and just stood behind Diane,” she says. “She thought that was a character choice, but it was really how I felt.”

Solomon and Matheson had envisioned their leads as “skinny guys, with low-rider bell bottoms and heavy metal T-shirts”. The arrival of Winter and Reeves, inarguably charismatic, changed a few things. An opening scene featuring a full-blown dance routine – rehearsed for weeks in Stevie Nicks’s house in Phoenix, which had its own ballet studio – was shot and scrapped. It would have ended with the school bus crashing into frame, packed with jocks all laughing their heads off at poor, delusional Bill and Ted.

Herek didn’t think they suited the geek lifestyle. To him, they were more like “friends” or “little brothers”, neither aware of nor bothered by classroom politics. That made them stand out from the usual Eighties teen idols, like John Hughes’s embittered outcasts and the burnt-out popular girls of Heathers (1988). Excised, too, was the film’s original ending. It saw Bill and Ted deliver their history presentation in class and then escort the princesses to prom. “I would love to see that footage,” says Kates. But the scene lacked the scale and splendour of the stage show that now ends the film. All that exists are a handful of photos of the guys in their tuxedo shorts.

Herek and his team did their best to craft a history-spanning epic on a miniscule budget. “Any time you’re doing a low-budget film, you reach for the stars and hope to get to the moon,” Herek says. Working under an Italian production company made it possible for them to shoot in the 13th century Castle Orsini, outside of Rome – a stand-in for medieval England.

The princesses look back on their time as the most surreal and unexpected of European vacations. As Franklin notes, with a laugh: “It was an excellent adventure.” They had burrata and red wine for lunch. They toured the Vatican and the Coliseum with Carlin. At night, they’d go out dancing in Rome with Reeves and Winter. “I don’t want to say everybody was crushing on each other, but everyone was just in such a high state of affinity and adoration,” Kates says. The princesses have become best friends over the past three decades. They sign off their messages to each other with “HRH” and plan to launch a company together in the near future. Reeves and Winter are still close, too.

Lifelong friendships blossomed on the set of Bill & Ted, because it was a place where authenticity thrived. Herek, Solomon and Matheson were all in their twenties, not so far removed from the world of their characters. “In many ways, we felt like it was our life story – except for going around and picking up people like Abraham Lincoln,” Herek says. “We were just being honest.”

Kimberley Kates, Alex Winter, Keanu Reeves, and Diane Franklin filming the long-lost prom ending (Kimberley Kates)

Then disaster struck. Shortly after filming wrapped, the DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group went bankrupt. “I saw an underbelly of Hollywood that I’d heard about,” Herek says, “but never experienced the full force of.” The studios hated Bill & Ted and their surfer dude lingo. “All kinds of nasty and hateful things” were said. Kates was advised to take the film off her CV, since many were convinced the film would never be released. “There was just a lot of weird negativity in Hollywood about it,” she adds.

That is, until it was finally screened in front of test audiences. “The general public just ate it up and were very vocal about it in the theatre,” Herek says. “You felt in the audience, people were laughing and having a good time. It was infectious.” The reaction sparked a bidding war – Orion Pictures and Nelson Entertainment eventually bought the rights and the film opened a year later. “I left town when it opened. I didn’t want to read reviews, I didn’t want to hear about the box office,” Herek says. “I didn’t want people saying, ‘I told you so.’ So, I come back on a Sunday night, and I have like 70 messages on my answering machine. I’m dreading listening to it because I thought, ‘Oh s***. What fire happened?’ But they were all congratulatory messages. I was finally able to sleep.”

Herek would eventually turn down Bogus Journey – in his eyes, the script veered too far from its predecessor’s generous spirit. “The original title was Bill & Ted Go to Hell,” Herek notes. “And the way I read it in my mind was not that they go to hell. It’s, like, Bill & Ted – you go to hell. It felt like they were making fun of themselves, not in a warm-hearted way.” The film’s new director, Peter Hewitt, would cast new actors in the role of Princess Elizabeth and Princess Joanna. Herek admits he never saw the final product. But he’s right – to some degree, at least. Bogus Journey may have its ingenious moments (namely The Seventh Seal spoof, featuring Death playing Twister), but it’s a notably darker, more cynical take.

Bill & Ted’s true legacy is its central friendship, driven by what Herek calls “the puppy factor” – unconditional love for each other and the world, unbothered by the expectations of toxic masculinity (one startling, uncomfortable use of a homophobic slur aside). And it’s an openness that the comedy genre has seemed eager to adopt – take Wayne’s World (1992), Dumb and Dumber (1994), Dude, Where’s My Car? (2000), and I Love You, Man (2009).

Herek had always wanted people to walk out of the cinema sharing in that same unbridled love. “Why not take home that great phrase, ‘Be excellent to each other and party on’?”, the director notes. “Hopefully it rubs off on people.” If the film’s staying power is anything to go by, clearly it has.

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