Bill and Ted’s creators on ‘Face the Music’ and tikkun olam
The world changed in 1991. At the San Dimas Battle of the Bands, William S. Preston, Esq. and Theodore Logan, backed by Death on upright bass, two aliens on bongos and robot back-up-dancer doppelgangers united the world in song and changed the course of history forever. Or so we thought.
For Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, the creators of the characters of Bill and Ted and screenwriters behind “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” and “Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey,” that was meant to be the final word. After all, as the credits to 1991’s “Bogus Journey” show, in a cascade of laudatory cover stories, Bill and Ted’s music boosted Midwestern crop yields, peace in the Middle East and their pioneering work in the field of air guitar was even found to eliminate smog. The duo of dudes was on track to inspire the future they were promised.
But then sometime in the mid-2000s, Keanu Reeves, the uber-action star who originated Ted, and Alex Winter, a prolific documentarian who played Bill, started being asked if there was a third film in the works. The question kept cropping up until, at one point in the mid-2000s, at a red carpet event, Reeves said he’d be open to it. Winter said he wouldn’t rule it out either.
In 2008, Solomon and Matheson had dinner at Winter’s house and proposed something radical: What if things fell apart for Bill and Ted and their destiny was put on hold? In other words, what if Bill and Ted, after solving the world’s biggest problems and powering their amps with the world’s nuclear arsenal, were now middle-aged has-beens playing for a crowd of 40 at a $2 Taco Night? What if to save reality they still had to write one great song — and steal it from their future selves? This is where we find our heroes in “Bill & Ted Face the Music,” out in theaters and on-demand August 28.
The Forward spoke with Matheson and Solomon about their own time playing Bill and Ted, the controversy surrounding Bill and Ted’s daughters and what — if any — time travel paradigm they subscribe to. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PJ Grisar: These characters have been with you for decades, of course, but I’m not sure many people realize that you once performed as them — well before they were part of a time-travel comedy.
Chris Matheson: We performed them once in front of an audience — so kind of. We were just six months out of college and we would do improv for fun, not in front of an audience. One time, Ed was doing comedy at the time, and he did drag me up on the stage and we did do Bill and Ted.
Ed Solomon: I recall you being game.
Matheson: I think that’s probably right. I mean, I love Bill and Ted so much that I was like, “All right, what the hell. I don’t wanna do this, this is scary, but OK.”
Were they based on people you knew?
Matheson: I think we would have said in the ‘80s that they were based on guys we knew in high school and it was only as the years went by that we kind of understood “Huh, y’know I think they’re kind of based on us actually.”
Solomon: They were based on, certainly, aspirational versions of us. Who would we like to be able to be. As far as I know we never once, until we started writing it — in fact, even when we were writing it as a movie — never chose one character for one of us to play. We always did just random back and forth.
Matheson: We’re both Bill and Ted simultaneously. Cause they’re sort of the same. It’s not like Ted’s this way and Bill’s that way, we’re just both doing Bill and Ted.
Solomon: Once Alex and Keanu were cast it started to of course create a natural differentiation for the characters and by the time we were writing “Face the Music” we had a pretty good sense of whose voice was whose by now. Bill is really carrying the torch and essentially denying the reality and Ted is much more connected to what’s going on in the world around them and what’s going on in his own inner life — the torment of having been Ted his whole life is starting to weigh on him and it plays itself out as he goes forward into the future and deals with other iterations of himself. We enjoyed both of the guys’ performances because they are their most textured and layered performances yet — to the sense that any Bill and Ted movie has anything textured or layered in it.
I’m sure you saw the online complaining (from Men’s Rights Activist-types) that this includes their daughters, Billie and Thea, and not sons – “Bogus Journey” calls the babies “Little Bill and “Little Ted,” which is something you explain in the film. Do you have anything to say to those fans?
Matheson: There’s a line in “Full Metal Jacket” just before Vincent D’Onofrio kills R. Lee Ermey and R. Lee Ermey looks at him and he goes, “What is your major malfunction?” That’s what I would say. What is your problem, dude? You have a problem with the idea of a kid? Well I guess you don’t have kids, because you’re stunted, or do you specifically have a problem with them being girls? Like, grow up, y’know?
Solomon: It’s not that we intended them to be girls. We wrote them when we were essentially adolescent boys. The world changed — we changed along with it and we tried to write them as boys and it was no good. We’ve seen Bill and Ted as young boys, they were called Bill and Ted. It was a few years into the writing process [when] we reached the decision to make them girls. It opened the whole movie up in a very positive way to us as writers. The part that frustrates me is not that people care enough about so-called “Canon” that they would want to maintain that continuity. The part that frustrates me, is when somebody accuses us of doing it because of some “agenda.”
Speaking of continuity, there’s a moment In this with where you get into the logic of the time travel in a theoretical way for the first time Do you guys give that stuff a lot of thought?
Matheson: I was just today out hiking with my wife and I was like “I still don’t even understand how the people 700 years in the future don’t know how this all turned out.” I don’t even get that. From my standpoint no, there’s not a very rigorous understanding of the logic of time travel. But Ed is actually a quantum physicist on the side.
Solomon: I mean, I dabbled in it in that — no I can’t even take that joke further on the off-chance you’ll think we’re even remotely serious. One of our first notes on our first draft that we ever wrote, handwritten in a yellow pad, we wanted to start the movie with a caption that just said “This movie makes no sense.” By the way, we love when people criticize this movie for its inaccuracies. Like “Did you know the iron maiden wasn’t actually invented until after Bill and Ted were in medieval England?” And I’m like “This is a movie about two teenagers who A. Time travel, and then B. land next to famous people every single time they land. Yes, you’re probably right, the iron maiden was probably 100 years after they were in Medieval England. OK, thank you.
Did the Wyld Stalynns’ music change the world as much as Bill and Ted’s travels through time? I’d imagine bringing Napoleon, Joan of Arc and that whole crew to the 1980s might be part of why Bill and Ted are revered as kinds of deities in the 28th century.
Matheson: Realistically those characters would go back and go “Holy shit! I’ve seen a vision.” Everything would be different. Talk about a Butterfly Effect, that’s like a 747 Effect. A Fleet of 747s Effect. I think Ed and I were both very inspired by Python and we were really inspired by Mel Brooks and there’s a kind of a deep silliness and absurdity and playfulness to the way these guys made comedy and I felt like that’s what we were striving for.
Solomon: Chris was pecking around for a lot of the quantum mechanics stuff that [Cameo redacted] talks about in the movie. We did vet it with an extremely accomplished quantum physicist who changed a couple of words for us but basically said. “Yeah, this is kinda where our heads are at with this kinda thing right now.” That said, this is hardly the definitive statement on anything.
How did “Be excellent to each other” come about? That seems like it’s the whole of “Bill & Ted” and, per Hillel, Torah.
Solomon: We had decided that our original take on the time travel, which was Rufus, their friend, was a 27-year-old high school sophomore who drove a van that happened to go through time, didn’t make sense in the real world of San Dimas. We came up with an idea — as a joke — that their band not forming puts the entire future of the planet in jeopardy, so it’s the future sending a time traveler back as opposed to their high school friend. That necessitated a few scenes where they go to the future. And when they go to the future we’re like “OK, what do they say?” And it came out quickly and without much thought and we didn’t linger on it. We did not stop and look at each other and say “This is gonna mean something.” We though “This seems funny” and kept going.
If you could go back in time — via phone booth or other means of time travel conveyance — and meet any historical figure, who would it be?
Matheson: I think I would say Sigmund Freud. Very interesting guy, very smart guy, very deep guy, very weird guy. A mix of brilliant theories and kind of insane theories, a deep take on comedy and a great writer. I’d pick him.
Solomon: I’d probably pick Jesus, just because I wanna kinda see if they got anything right at all in the New Testament.
Matheson: You run the risk of going back and wandering around and people are like “Yeah, there is no such guy,” cause there is that possibility.
Solomon: That’s what I was about to say. I have no idea whether he lived or didn’t live but that’s why I’d like to go and find out.
Clearly the pandemic couldn’t have been anticipated, but I don’t think it’s revealing too much to say this film ends with a message of unity across space and time through music. How do you see that hitting with so many people in lockdown?
Matheson: I think that the ultimate takeaway message of the movie is we’re in trouble and things are bad. There’s big problems, but if we all can find a way to play together it’s gonna be all right.
There’s a way in which this one — with saving reality as we know it — feels very tikkun olam-y to me, Ed. Do you ever think of it in those terms?
Solomon: This is a movie where Bill and Ted are literally trying to unite a very fractured world through something sublingual, which is music. I remember going to Naomi Levy’s Nashuva services. Those were the first Friday night services that I was ever involved with that had everybody singing and up on their feet most of the night and engaged collectively in a kind of group harmony and group play. In a way that’s what “Face the Music” is about. It’s not about one song “being so good that it unites the world.” It’s about the act of making a song happen in the way that everyone plays together that does it. Now, let’s be clear, this is a comedy — let’s not let it get too weighted down.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.