He’s not wrong. To fully understand the inner-workings of time-traveling chosen ones Bill S. Preston Esq (Alex Winter) and his Wyld Stallyns bandmate Ted Theodore Logan (Keanu Reeves), you first have to understand the deeply ingrained relationship they share with their creators Matheson and Solomon. Having met in their early 20s, the pair’s sympatico humour made them fast friends, with Bill and Ted emerging somewhere between improv class and chuckle-filled downtime. Their fascination with the idea of two airhead teens with hot takes on big issues (usually ‘excellent’ or ‘bogus’) birthed a boundary-blurring relationship that spanned stand-up stages, in-character letter writing and long-distance phone calls, and eventually two feature films, starting with Director Stephen Herek’s Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.
These days Herek’s franchise-starter may be considered a cult classic but back in 1989, critics weren’t so kind. Thankfully, audiences were - so much so that a sequel was fast-tracked just months after Excellent Adventure’s debut. For Matheson and Solomon, this was great news. Overjoyed their characters had resonated with viewers, the duo now had the chance to extend their universe with another big-screen journey through time. Little did they know, the powers-that-be had their own ideas for the future of their treasured alter-egos. “When Excellent Adventure came out, nobody took it seriously on a critical level,” remembers Solomon. “Critics just pounded us like we were glorifying stupidity - or we ourselves were idiots - which, by the way, we are idiots but there was no way of knowing that from the movie,” he says with a smile, “but then audiences took to it and that was incredibly reaffirming and rewarding.”
“That seemed really funny to us,” laughs Matheson. “To have them go to heaven and deal with God and play games with Death and have Ted possess his dad - suddenly a bunch of scenes started occurring but there was resistance on the part of the studio. They were much more favourable towards the English report.” This wasn’t surprising. After all, why mess with a winning formula? Throw in the film’s working title Bill and Ted Go To Hell and Nelson Entertainment’s foolproof follow-up was quickly becoming much darker than they anticipated. Thankfully, Matheson and Solomon had the film’s stars in their corner. “Alex and Keanu got behind us. They wanted to do our version where they die and play their dark selves,” reveals Solomon. “They really liked the idea of hell and death,” adds Matheson. “The guys wanted to do this version, so we got to do it.”
True to their word, Matheson and Solomon doubled-down on the weirdness. Directed by Peter Hewitt, Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey saw the duo swiftly off-ed by a pair of evil robot Bill and Teds created by their nemesis and disgruntled ex-gym teacher Chuck DeNomolos (Joss Ackland). From there they faced their greatest fears in Hell, met their maker in Heaven and worked with Death (William Sadler) and a super-smart martian named Station to fix future history, realise their world-saving destiny and ride Kiss anthem God Gave Rock And Roll To You right into the credits. Weird? Undoubtedly.
“We had the opportunity to write something which was a little bit radical for people to accept,” reflects Matheson. “To have evil robots who kill Bill and Ted, spit on their dead bodies and go out of their way to run over cats? It’s pretty dark,” he laughs. However according to Matheson, this darkness was a key factor for the film’s leading men. “Alex and Keanu are delightful guys and both have a lightness of spirit to them but they also have a dark, heavier side to them too. That’s what makes them interesting and why they’re so good as Bill and Ted. They’re not trivial,” he reasons. “I think they loved playing evil guys.”
Jokes aside, the process of creating Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey remains a bittersweet experience for Matheson and Solomon, marking a crucial moment in their friendship. “I think the push and pull on Bogus Journey led to an imperfect script,” admits Solomon. “In particular we never solved the third act. We didn’t put Bill and Ted at the centre, we just threw in all these other elements and didn’t quite get it to congeal. Part of it too was the fact that it was a giant rush,” he continues. “We started filming in January and it was released in June so we didn’t have time to hone and refine it.” Matheson has similar thoughts: “I’d say it gets pretty slipshot from the time they get back into their own bodies. Pete Hewitt really nailed it with that Kiss song but that final chunk... Ed and I are still a little uneasy with it. We stumbled there for a while.
“It’s an interesting one for Ed and myself, because we wrote the first one at a very peak moment of our friendship,” continues Matheson. “Pretty quickly we found we were comically-speaking kindred spirits and there was a lot of joy in the creation of Excellent Adventure. We’d been best friends who just laughed together and then we became ‘professional writing partners’ and that’s a very difficult transition. Bogus Journey is much darker, partly because mine and Ed’s friendship was in a different place. We could still write our weird alter-egos but with a darker colour to them,” he reasons. “It’s always fun inhabiting these characters,” says Solomon. “It was harder having studios give us marching orders and people who we didn’t feel understood the internal human element of Bill and Ted tell us how to do it - but being inside the characters is always really fun.”
As Matheson and Solomon prepare to embark on trilogy closer Bill and Ted Face The Music (rumoured to shoot in early ‘19), their air-guitar-loving alter-egos continue to be a force for good for these long-standing best friends. “We never expected that thirty years later they would’ve grown in cultural fondness,” smiles Solomon. “Wherever I go, Bill and Ted is the one thing people care about on the deepest level. It’s the one that has the most meaning for people and to be honest, it’s the one that has the most meaning for Chris and me. I feel so grateful people have embraced these characters because they were such a joy to embody.” For Matheson, the feeling’s mutual: “Bill and Ted has been a wonderful thing to experience and share with Ed,” he says candidly. “We built them from the inside out. We know them and we feel them and we have always felt these guys. That’s been very meaningful.”
This feature originally appeared in the May 2019 issue of SFX Magazine.