HEAT VISION

Why Alex Winter Isn't Convinced 'John Wick' Made Ultimate Difference in Getting 'Bill & Ted Face the Music' the Green Light

Bill and Ted Face the Music-Publicity still- H 2020
Patti Perret / Orion Pictures
The star looks back at the film's long journey, his friendship with Keanu Reeves and finding a positive message for 2020.

[The following story contains spoilers for Bill & Ted Face the Music.]

Bill & Ted Face the Music not only marks the return of Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted "Theodore" Logan, but it also signals Alex Winter’s return to acting, something he intends to keep doing beyond Bill & Ted. Before landing the role of Bill in 1989’s Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Winter was already establishing himself as a director, and once he wrapped his commitment to Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, the sequel to Excellent Adventure, Winter directed and starred in 1993’s Freaked for 20th Century Fox. From there, he took a much-needed break from acting, which he’d been doing since he was a child on Broadway, and became a full-time director, receiving considerable acclaim in the documentary space (2020’s Showbiz Kids, 2018’s The Panama Papers).

In 2007, Bill & Ted co-screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon, along with Keanu Reeves and Winter, began discussing Face the Music over dinner, but little did they know, they’d be embarking on a 13-year odyssey to the screen. Knowing that he hadn’t acted professionally in years, Winter wasted no time getting back in acting shape as he made sure he was ready for whenever the Bill & Ted creative team landed financing. (It took a decade.)

Once the film was officially greenlit in May 2018, many assumed that Reeves’ eponymous role in the John Wick franchise made the ultimate difference, but Winter isn’t so sure.

“It would make sense that that’s the case, but it wasn’t the view from inside. A lot of the false starts and a lot of the troubles we were having with financing were well after John Wick 1 had come out and become a huge hit,” Winter tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And, in a way, I was a little apprehensive that it would hurt us because Ted could not be further from John Wick. So anyone thinking, ‘We want more of that thing Keanu’s doing that’s so successful,’ that’s not us at all — in spades. It’s just not. We are the opposite of that. Honestly, from inside, it really felt like it came from the fan base, and I think Keanu feels similarly because we’ve discussed it a lot.”

With the film garnering an 81 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, matching Excellent Adventure, the common refrain from critics and audiences is that Face the Music’s greatest strength is its optimistic and uplifting message. Even though the film was shot well before the current public health crisis and anti-racism protests roiling cities nationwide, Winter is proud of the film’s timeless message.

“The film was written originally 10 years ago, well before the political climate we’re in now, much less this incredible pandemic that we find ourselves in. So it’s always a good message,” Winter explains. “That’s really at the heart of Bill & Ted, and Keanu and I feel grateful to be able to be a part of something that conveys that message. I do think that it’s a terrible time, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I wish we weren’t releasing a movie in the middle of a pandemic, but if you’re going to have to do that, I do think that the underlying theme of the film — that we’re all part of the fabric of one thing and we should operate with that in mind and compassion for each other — isn’t the worst message to get out at the moment.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Winter also reflects on the long road to Bill and Ted Face the Music, The Beatles’ influence on the third act and his three decades of friendship with Reeves.

So when did the effort toward a third film begin in earnest?

Keanu and I were having dinner with [co-screenwriters] Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. I actually think it was all the way back in 2007. I think everyone’s been really fuzzy on this because the memory is probably too painful with how long it took to get made from that moment. (Laughs.) We were having dinner at my house, and they pitched Keanu and I this idea for a third movie. We’ve all been friends for a long time, but none of us had ever thought seriously about revisiting these guys. But it was a really good idea, and it felt like something that would be worth trying to get made. Keanu and I thought it was playable. We could see how we could be Bill and Ted in this narrative, and Chris and Ed had some really funny ideas for how to make it work. So, they went out and spec’d it. They worked on the script for a while, and then we got back together with Scott Kroopf, the producer of the original two, and then we brought on [director] Dean Parisot. We were lucky that we got interest from him, and that was still a good six or seven years ago. And then, we began a very long and painful process to find the money. (Laughs.)

In terms of money, there were numerous false starts along the way, right?

There were many closed doors. There was a lot of disinterest. There was a lot of work on the script. There were a couple of straight up false starts with studios that we were just down the line with — way down the line — and then it would fall apart at the very last minute. And eventually, what happened was while all of that was going on, the fans had caught wind that we were trying to get it made, and they became incredibly vocal and organized about their desire for another film. IIt really, really helped us push it over the edge, and ultimately, we were able to find the financing independently. We connected with a producer in Alex Lebovici, and we put all of the money together. Then, we went back to MGM; they hadn’t rebooted Orion yet, and they’ve always been great. They get the movies. We came to them with pretty much the whole thing wrapped up and ready to go, and that, along with the fan excitement, made the difference.

Given the rising number of streaming platforms out there, you’d think it’d be easier than ever to get a modestly priced franchise film made.

Yeah, I don’t think it’s ever easy. There are more buyers, but there’s also a lot more sellers. And at the end of the day, there are only so many slots to fill, and people are pretty risk-averse. I think that we had two things going on. One is just the Bill & Ted-ness of it all. Bill & Ted movies have never been slam dunk movies; we'll see how this one does. But the first two, they were looked upon very affectionately when they came out, but every step of convincing people to make them was difficult. They’re just strange, idiosyncratic things, and they don’t feel particularly that way to us. (Laughs.) But they feel that way to the marketplace, right? So that was one of them, and then, the other was convincing people that it’s worth revisiting a comedy with the original cast 25 years later. It took a bit of work.

Once the character of John Wick became a pop culture phenomenon, could you feel momentum picking up as far as Face the Music getting made?

I don’t know. It would make sense that that’s the case, but it wasn’t the view from inside. A lot of the false starts and a lot of the troubles we were having with financing were well after John Wick 1 had come out and become a huge hit. And, in a way, I was a little apprehensive that it would hurt us because Ted could not be further from John Wick. So anyone thinking, “We want more of that thing Keanu’s doing that’s so successful,” that’s not us at all — in spades. It’s just not. We are the opposite of that. Honestly, from inside, it really felt like it came from the fanbase, and I think Keanu feels similarly because we’ve discussed it a lot. There was a lot of noise from the press and from the fans themselves. And then, everywhere we went, people were asking us what we were doing and if we were going to make a third film. So that started to convince people that there was an actual audience for it.

I imagine you had a few requests that pertained to Bill in this film. What did you ask Chris and Ed to consider including as far as character details or story are concerned?

Gosh, I wish I’d thought of that. (Laughs.) I didn’t really. We’re really a double act, so I don’t really think of Bill as separate from Ted. When we were talking story along the way, we loved the idea that the weight of the destiny had really pressed upon us and how we were going to respond to that. So, we were both vocal about wanting to dig into the emotional arc and the interrelationship with our kids and our wives. The one thing I was very vocal about was the marriage counseling scene, which had come up early. There was a point at which it was possibly going to get cut, and it was really, really important to me that we anchor the movie in a grounded way in terms of who we were in our relationship to our wives and our kids before we embarked on this journey. We didn’t give that short shrift and just go into Bill & Ted land right away and bail out into the adventure. You know, I didn’t write it. The guys wrote it, and they did an amazing job. It’s one of my favorite scenes in the whole movie, but it was that kind of thing we really wanted to be able to play. The one thing Keanu and I did not want to do is create caricature-ish versions of ourselves that represented who people thought we were then. We wanted to play as much as possible into new shades of the guys.

So how long did it take to feel that old-school Bill and Ted chemistry between you and Keanu? Was there a specific moment where you felt that magic again for the first time in almost three decades?

That’s funny. We did a lot of work in prep, we did a lot of work separately and we did a lot of work together. And then, we did a lot of work with the writers and with Dean, obviously. We also rehearsed with the cast. The very first shot we did was in the phone booth. I think it’s when we leave the marriage counseling scene for the second time, and everything’s really gone to hell in a handbasket. It was fun to be in the booth. It was fun to reconnect physically with something that was so tangibly part of the original movies; that was helpful. But I don’t think it was until day two or three. We had finished the marriage counseling scene, and I think we had done one other little piece. We were sitting off-set together, and we kind of looked at each other and were like, “I’m feeling like we’re Bill and Ted again. You feeling that?” Like, “Yeah, yeah.” (Laughs.) It took a few days, but it was very joyful. They’re very joyful characters to play, and it’s a joyful place for me to be, performing with Keanu. Of all the different things I’ve done, I get a lot of joy out of the physicality and the language interplay of playing Bill and him playing Ted. And that really kicked in after the middle or backend of week one.

Did you get your “whoas” in sync rather quickly as well?

That’s the part we don’t really think about, you know? It’s kind of the way we’re like a band that plays together. We do a lot of prep work. We do a lot of work on the emotional arc and a lot of work on the story logic together. And we did that everyday, including on the weekends, all the way through leading up to the shoot and all the way through the shoot, and even a little bit after the shoot. Even when we first started auditioning, way back in the day, we’ve always just kind of fallen into a rhythm together, sort of like playing in a band with someone who you just grew with. And it used to blow Dean Parisot’s mind, but it doesn’t seem amazing to us, or anything. So, don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s something that’s particularly incredible. I grew up doing improv and theater, and every once in a while, you’d get an improv partner and you guys would just go off. It was just like you were in sync; it just happens. But Dean and the editor would laugh at how in sync we were in post. We would finish each other’s sentences or one of us would say half of an idea and the other one would say, “Oh yeah, I totally know what you mean.” And then, we’d go do something seemingly complex without talking about it. We just are in sync that way, so we don’t really put a lot of thought into it.

Is Keanu still the same guy for the most part?

He’s been one of my very best friends for 30 years, so I see him all the time. So, yes and no. All the things that I liked about him when I first met him are still there. His intelligence, his wit and his very engaged passion for his craft and for life. And the things that interest him are a lot of the things that interest me. Absolutely. So he has not markedly changed into a different person over the years. But, thankfully, he’s not the veritable child he was when I met him. (Laughs.) And neither am I. We’ve both lived a lot of life. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, and we’ve been there for each other and around each other through a lot of stuff at this point.

Which future Bill did you enjoy playing the most?

I really enjoyed playing all of them, and they were fun for different reasons. I was really grateful that the guys write really fun dialogue and characters. I had stopped acting professionally a long time ago and had been wanting to do more acting, and so it was really, really fun to have something to do that has so much meat on the bone with all these different versions of ourselves. So I really enjoyed all of them. I think the convicts were the most just straight-up fun. I like working in makeup, and we had [special makeup effects artist] Kevin Yagher, who worked on Bogus Journey, and Bill Corso, who worked with me on Freaked. Those are people I’ve known a long time, and they’re incredibly talented. And so, it was really fun to work in the makeup, but I also enjoyed some of the stuff that wasn’t so makeup-heavy that were alternate versions of me. I liked Bill looking at different versions of Bill and Ted, and how they’ve processed their lives. I like the rocker versions because they’re just so evil. The most sinister versions of us we’ve ever played. (Laughs.) So that was a lot of fun.

The old age makeup the two of you wore was really well done.

Yeah, those guys don’t mess around. Yagher’s really, really talented, and so is Bill; they’ve done incredible work over the years. I mean, Bill’s an Oscar winner, so, yeah, we were really lucky. And the Bill & Ted movies, for the people who do like them, they tend to like them a lot. So we were able to attract an incredibly high-level crew for what was nominally a medium-to-lower budget movie.

Was there a lot of discussion regarding the proper way to pay tribute to Rufus and the great George Carlin?

There was, and there were several iterations of it. It was always the intention to have him in as tasteful a way as possible and to have him engage with the story in a meaningful way. That took time. Some of the earlier iterations were full scenes. There was a chunk in the middle of the movie where we actually go to ourselves at 18 years old in the Circle K parking lot and have a whole conversation with Rufus off to the side. It was written. It was a really good scene, but we were really, really worried about it feeling ghoulish and disrespectful to force George into a scene that he never acted in. And so, we cut it. So the guys came up with the watch and the message of the watch, which is really the anchor of the entire movie. So you really do feel his presence throughout the whole film. The funny thing is he was not even really in Bogus Journey. He only shows up at the beginning and the very end. But I think they had a very clever way of doing it that felt respectful and heartfelt.

As far as the song that saves reality and unites humanity across all time, were a bunch of songs written before production started? Did everybody vote to narrow them down to the most impactful one to use during filming?

No, actually. Dean comes from a pedigree music family and takes music very, very seriously. (Laughs.) He did not want to be put in a position during production, which I completely agree with, where we had to define what the song was. He wanted to worry about that from the safety of post, once he had a better sense of what the movie was. The rhythm of it, how it was coming together and everything. So we played to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” by The Beatles. He knew he wanted that tempo, and so we needed a beats per minute (BPM) that would actually be the beats per minute of the final song. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have synced, obviously; it wouldn’t have worked. So he did not make any attempt at all to try and narrow down the song until post. And then, he had a fully-cut concert with us playing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” that he could then use to find a song. He could build a song from scratch that would work. What I love about Dean is that, considering how far out the movie is, and I think you could kind of say the same thing for Galaxy Quest, he’s really good at finding comedy in grounded natural moments. He wanted the emotion and the performance to carry the song. He didn’t want to try to pretend that whatever the notes were were somehow the greatest song of all time. He just wanted something that would support the performance.

The most important aspect of the film, in my mind, is its positive and uplifting message. Bill and Ted’s inherent optimism is something that many of us need right now. So, besides “be excellent to each other” and “party on, dudes,” the film reinforces something we should be applying right now: in order to save reality, we must act in harmony. Do you have a similar takeaway even though the film wrapped shooting prior to 2020?

Yeah, especially right now. The film was written originally ten years ago, well before the political climate we’re in now, much less this incredible pandemic that we find ourselves in. So it’s always a good message. We made Bill & Ted 2 during the Gulf War, and there’s always things going on in the world. There’s always suffering in the world. So this idea of friendship and community, and then fanning out to the broader community of humans, is always a good message, I think. That’s really at the heart of Bill & Ted, and Keanu and I feel grateful to be able to be a part of something that conveys that message. I do think that it’s a terrible time, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. I wish we weren’t releasing a movie in the middle of a pandemic, but if you’re going to have to do that, I do think that the underlying theme of the film — that we’re all part of the fabric of one thing and we should operate with that in mind and compassion for each — isn’t the worst message to get out at the moment.

Did you and Samara Weaving, who plays Bill's daughter, Thea, test together, or was the priority to test Samara and Brigette’s (Lundy-Paine) chemistry?

Exactly. Yeah, the priority was to test the daughters together and to make sure they had chemistry. And also, to get actors of enough of a caliber that they felt comfortable that they would groove with us and get what they needed from us. It was very important to Keanu, myself and the writers — even when we very first started talking about this idea — that the daughters were their own characters and not knockoffs of us at all. And that’s how they were written, and that’s how they auditioned them. Thankfully, Brigette and Samara watched the movies and would kind of watch our mannerisms. We would also talk about who we were when we were young. But they really wanted to just create their own characters with their own identities and not feel like they were imitating us, which we were very, very grateful for. (Laughs.)

Since these films take place over a short amount of time, wardrobe choices become all the more important. Did you and your costume designer try a bunch of looks until one felt right? Did you and Keanu do your fittings together to ensure each look complements the other?

Yeah, we did. We did wardrobe together. And Jen Starzyk, who did the wardrobe on this, is absolutely fantastic. When we started doing wardrobe for this, that was when we really first started working on the characters together. It wasn’t rigid in a sense, like, “I’m going to be blue, and you’re going to be red.” I kind of gravitated toward some of these colors, and Keanu kind of gravitated toward some of his. We’ve done this with all three films, but we fell into this idea of doing things that are complementary. We recognized that there’s kind of a clown aspect to the characters in a theatrical way — a Commedia dell'arte way — not in a literal way. So we always liked there to be a simplicity to their dress that speaks to that as well. Either primary colors or things that feel very simple in that way.

What’s interesting about Face the Music is that Bill and Ted don’t really travel to the past; their daughters go on the historical journey like they did in ’89. Instead, Bill and Ted travel to the future. Was there a lot of debate over this story point? I think it was the right call, but I can imagine a few executives wanting to pattern the first movie with an older Bill and Ted.

There was never really any debate. Chris and Ed’s first pass at the story had us going forward and the daughters going back. It seemed to fit the themes of the story and respective characters. It wasn’t a rigid plan; there were early scenes of us going back as well, but they didn’t end up working as well as this structure.

Was Dave Grohl the early choice for the rockstar/mansion owner cameo?

We always wanted to work with Grohl. I shot my scene with him, only in LA and not New Orleans. It was super fun.

Back in the day, when you’d encounter fans in public, could you see the gears turning in their heads as they reconciled your real-life intelligent self with your character of Bill?

(Laughs.) Yes, all the time. I find it amusing, I have to say; it’s fun. Both of us could not be more different from these characters in every way, including culturally. We’re both kind of East Coast, from kind of East Coast, artistic, quasi-intellectual families and upbringings. I don’t have a shred of Valley in me anywhere, but there is still a lot of Bill in my personality. I do relate to the kind of “roll up your sleeves and jump into the deep end of the pool and then figure out how to swim later” nature of his personality. There are aspects of Keanu and myself that are in Bill and Ted, and there’s a reason why we are playing them opposite each other. Some of our different qualities work well off each other and our personalities. But it's a fun cover in being assumed that you’re an imbecile. (Laughs.)

I recently revisited Bogus Journey for the first time in a long time, and I forgot how dark and trippy that movie is. It’s definitely in that club of darker sequels a la Temple of Doom. Were you guys fully aware that it was a big swing back in the day?

Yes. When Chris and Ed first approached Keanu and me about a sequel, they were already focused on sending the characters and story in a radical direction. That was our desire as well — to make a sequel that wasn’t a rehash of the first one. We like portraying these characters in wild and unexpected situations. That’s where a lot of the humor comes from. So the same idea was present in this third one, to go in new directions.

Were the air guitar and salute gestures scripted way back when? Or did the two of you develop those on your own?

As I recall, the air guitar was in the script, but the salute was something we came up with spontaneously on-set in Bill & Ted 1’s future scene. And it kind of stuck.

Despite your success as an actor, you transitioned to directing rather quickly. Was directing always your preference?

I started acting as a child, and then I went to film school after being on Broadway for a long time. And I came out of film school and started directing. I was directing commercials, music videos, a TV series and all kinds of stuff before I even got Bill & Ted I. I was doing everything at the same time, so it’s kind of not connected in a sense. I stopped acting just because I started as a child, and I’d been gunning it for so long. I needed a break, which is not uncommon for child actors. I just needed to be in the normal world as a normal person for a while and kind of adapt and develop that way. I’d grown up in show business, and I didn’t really want to continue to do that in that way and in the public eye. So that was more of a “preserve my headspace” move. And then, about ten years ago, I started acting and training again just because I missed it. I trained for a really long time, and then, this happened. So I’ll probably do a bit more acting now alongside the other work I’m doing.

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Bill & Ted Face the Music is now available in select theaters and on demand/digital HD.

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