Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure director Stephen Herek says someone in the film industry told him the 1989 classic would go straight to video as it was “not even worth the cost of the videotape”.
The comments were made while the teen comedy was being unsuccessfully screened for industry executives when the filmmakers were hunting for a new distributor. Its original partners De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (DEG) folded after the film was finished.
“Everybody hates the movie. Hates it,” Herek tells Yahoo Movies UK. “Somebody wanted to say that it was going to go straight to video and it’s not even worth the cost of the videotape. There were really hateful and nasty things being tossed around.”
The industry saw sense though, and the film ended up at Orion where it was a surprise hit, grossing around four times its production budget. A sequel was fast-tracked into production.
Herek, however, declined to return for Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey due to his concerns over the “mean-spirited” script.
Herek was replaced by feature debutant Pete Hewitt for the 1991 follow-up, but the director tells Yahoo Movies UK he was originally approached to helm what was then called Bill & Ted Go to Hell.
Original scriptwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon had returned to pen the new screenplay.
“I wanted a lot of script changes, because I thought that script was sort of mean-spirited,” he said.
Herek said that he decided not to return for Bogus Journey entirely due to the script, despite his love for the first film and its stars Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves.
The 61-year-old added: “It seemed to be almost a parody of a parody, at least in the original form of it.
“They didn’t want to change the script much, so we parted ways.
“I just didn’t think it would survive, the way it was written.”
Herek said he wished his replacement well and that it was up to viewers to decide whether the script was ultimately successful.
Excellent Adventure, which is now getting a 4K re-release (jn cinemas now and on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital download from 10 August), was only Herek’s second directorial credit, with just the low-budget creature feature Critters under his belt when he took on the high-concept comedy.
He said: “When we made the movie, we were just kids in our twenties and we were just having a good old time.
“We were hoping it would do okay but, when I say that, we just figured for the immediate time.
“Who knew that I’d be having a conversation about it, I dunno, a hundred years later?”
Read the full interview with Stephen Herek, in which he discusses Keanu Reeves’ comic energy, his favourite moment that didn’t make the final cut and his hopes for Bill & Ted Face the Music...
Yahoo Movies UK: First of all, are you surprised at all by how well this film has endured over the years?
Stephen Herek: Oh God, yes. When we made the movie, we were just kids in our twenties and we were just having a good old time. We were hoping it would do okay but, when I say that, we just figured for the immediate time. Who knew that I’d be having a conversation about it, I dunno, a hundred years later?
Something like that, give or take.
Believe me it’s one of those happy accidents and, by the grace of God, I feel very fortunate that it happened.
Like so many of those happy accidents, Bill & Ted has the story behind it of it being a difficult job to get it distributed?
In the initial part of post, it was all fantastic. We screened it for [legendary Hollywood producer] Dino De Laurentiis. I moved up a director’s cut screening because I had heard rumblings that he was going bankrupt, so he wanted to see it. They said “can you release this in two weeks?”, but there was no way. The effects were still months away from being done.
But later is where things really get dark. Everybody hates the movie. Hates it. Somebody wanted to say that it was going to go straight to video and it’s not even worth the cost of the videotape. There were really hateful and nasty things being tossed around. I was like: “Are you kidding me? This is one of the most benevolent films.” I just didn’t understand. It was my second movie and I was about 27 or 28. Now I had seen a side of Hollywood that I had heard about, but I never wanted to see.
Cut to a few months later — seriously months. It turns out the people at DEG that were let go are now running Nelson Entertainment. Because they loved the movie, they were able to purchase the movie for their company. They gave us money to finish the movie and then what we have to do is preview the movie. We hadn’t really seen it for ourselves in front of an audience. The audience went crazy. Being in the audience was such a pleasurable experience. People were laughing and screaming and yelling and just cheered at the end of the movie.
Robert Cort, who was running Interscope at the time, said that no one can watch this movie unless they’re seeing it with an audience. So we had like 15 previews. It starts with a junior executive, who sees it and people go nuts for it, they now have to convince the senior people to watch the movie. So then we have to have another preview for the same group, but now with their bosses. The audience reaction is exactly the same for every single one of them and now it turns into a bidding war between studios, who want to distribute the movie. So it’s gone overnight from not being worth the videotape it’s printed on to now, all of a sudden, being worth zillions of dollars to release it.
Anyway, Orion wins this little war and it goes out. What I do is, because of all the nasty s*** that has been going on, I leave town when the movie opens. I don’t want to hear from anybody or go through the craziness. I literally go off the grid. I come back Sunday night. Again, this is in the old days of phone machines, and it’s blinking with the red light in the dark. I go up there and see like 70 messages and I’m like “oh crap, what the f*** happened?”
But I listen to the messages and they’re all congratulatory messages for this weekend. It did well and then it became the little engine that could and kept doing the same thing, weekend after weekend after weekend. Then it became this hit and they were talking about a sequel. This took probably a year and a half to two years once we were done shooting. We had gone through some of the post, but it took a long time.
There were a lot of people that said seriously hateful things about the film and now they were literally in Hollywood eating crow. That was kind of a nice position to be in too. Then some of the same people that were saying this nasty crap were, cut to five years later, saying they were a big fan of Bill & Ted. Who knew it was going to be part of the DNA of our culture? How could anybody predict that? That’s just something that is astonishing to me. I defy anybody to come up with a real reason. It’s just a happy accident. But I’ll take it.
One of the joys of the film is the various historical figures that pop up. Were there any other different ones who were originally involved or might have been there?
Being as it was so music-orientated, we were trying to stunt cast it with people from the music industry, whether it might be Eddie Van Halen or Elvis Costello or anybody. But we were a movie that was so below the radar and nobody knew what it was. We didn’t have any money to entice people with dollars. Anybody from the music industry who was anybody was going to lose money to do the film. We were nobody.
With the “Three Most Important People”, we wanted it to be ZZ Top. We tried until the very last minute to scramble. Through relationships Ed Solomon had with Clarence Clemons, Fee Waybill, and Martha Davis, they signed up, based on their relationship with Ed, because they wanted to have some fun. We were able to minimise the time to just a couple of days, so they just flew in and flew out in a heartbeat.
And with George Carlin, we thought: “If we can’t get a music legend, how about just a legend?” George’s name popped up because [producer] Scott Kroopf and Bob Cort had worked with him on a movie prior and had a very good relationship with him. They called him and we sent him the script and the next day he said “I’m in”. He was fantastic. What an honour to be with that man. He was funny, smart and just an incredible man.
As someone who worked with Keanu Reeves before he really took off, what do you think about the way he is seen now, with this cult popularity nobody can matched?
I thought he was going to be a huge star, no matter what. I never thought about it being as the iconic action man that he is. But he, at that age, had this incredible comedic timing. I feel the best comedy comes out of character and there’s a genuineness to the way he delivers lines. He’s not going for a laugh. He ends up turning a phrase in a certain way and it’s amazing to me.
A lot of times he’d come up to me and he’d say “Steve, how do you want this line read?”, then he’d reel off honestly 10 different ways and they were all incredibly funny. So I would just say “errmm... number three!” and then he would go do it.
So I assumed, out of the gate, that he was going to be this big star. He’s just a magnetic guy, so it was imminent. I thought he would be more dramatic, however I think Ted became a part of his DNA so much that some of the roles had a feeling of Ted, like Dangerous Liaisons and stuff. I couldn’t tell whether it was just in my head or whether it was happening that way. I always assumed he would be a star, but it was just in a different genre than I thought.
Was there ever any talk of you coming back to do Bogus Journey after this one?
Yes, they came to me. It was actually called Bill & Ted Go To Hell, prior to Bogus Journey. I wanted a lot of script changes, because I thought that script was sort of mean-spirited and it seemed to be almost a parody of a parody, at least in the original form of it. They didn’t want to change the script much, so we parted ways. I just didn’t think it would survive, the way it was written. But whatever, everybody else can talk about whether it survived or not. I wish them well.
What are your hopes and expectations for the new movie?
I want it to do well. Maybe for selfish reasons, I don’t know. I hope it all works out. I love Keanu and I love all of the people that are involved in it. Who knew that they’d want to make a third one, especially given that everybody is in their fifties now? Although I understand that some of it deals more with their kids than it does with them. I don’t know very much about it, so rather than say anything about something I don’t know about, I won’t say anything other than that I wish them well.
One of the things that sticks out about Excellent Adventure is how ambitious the effects are given the low-budget? How did you go about achieving that stuff?
I always believe that if you reach for the stars, you might get to the moon. We pushed it as far as we could. Here’s another instance of bankruptcy. We had a company that started the visual effects that was a computer animated thing and, at the time, it was literally the beginnings of that. It didn’t catch on, so they weren’t able to get enough business on their own and they went bankrupt in the middle of doing our stuff. We had to go to a totally different house and we did everything in a way that I guess we’ll call old-fashioned with composites and so on. But they did have some stuff to work with in terms of the circuits of time, so they took that and we started reimagining stuff we could do in the composite world.
Read more: New trailer for Bill & Ted Face the Music
We just pushed as hard as we could. I wish I could say something really pithy, but you just start with a certain vision and you do whatever to keep pushing people. Hopefully you communicate your vision well enough that it goes from their mind to film and then, if it’s not quite, you keep changing it as long as the budget will stretch until one day they say that you don’t have any more money and you stop. I wish there was something in one sentence that I could say, but it’s just hard work.
Just as a final question, you mentioned Keanu coming to you with all of these ideas. I’m sure Alex was similar. Were there any moments you loved that unfortunately didn’t make the edit?
There’s one scene that leaps to mind. It’s in there slightly, as part of a little bit of a music montage. They’re bouncing around the circuits of time, going from place to place to place. It’s a prehistoric thing and how they deal with cavemen. There was a longer sequence that was odd and bizarre, but bizarre in a good way. However, the movie was — when I first started showing it to our producers — about two hours and 10 minutes. A comedy doesn’t survive at that length usually, so we cut it down.
But there was other reasons why. We shot it in Arizona in this kind of weird place. Part of the reason it sticks out in my mind is that we had two bald eagles, both days that we spent there, that just sat on a tree watching us. It’s kind of unique and you’re like “holy s***, what are they doing?”. They just hung out, quite a distance away but close enough to see what they were. They sat in a tree and just watched us film. Eventually they’d fly away, but they were back the next day. Anyway, that stuck in my mind. I know it has nothing to do with anything, but to me it was sort of spiritual.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure releases on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray™, DVD, Steelbook and digital download from 10 August.