It’s weird to think about life paralleling art in Bill & Ted Face the Music, given that the movie about time travel, alternate realities, and a single song that can keep the universe from imploding. But it turns out that some of what went on behind the scenes of the third film in the Bill & Ted trilogy does mirror the story it’s telling. For one thing, the entire movie is about long-delayed art. In the original slacker comedy classic Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, surfer-bro dimwits Bill and Ted (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) learn they need to pass high-school history so in the future, their garage-rock band, Wyld Stallyns, can record a song that will unite the universe. But in Bill & Ted Face the Music, decades have passed, the high-schoolers are middle-aged dads, and they still haven’t gotten around to writing that song. So they tried to steal it from the future.
Bill & Ted 3 director Dean Parisot, who also directed Galaxy Quest and the Jim Carrey / Téa Leoni action-comedy Fun With Dick and Jane, recently talked to Polygon about how the film followed a similar course — it also was delayed for more than a decade, as Winter and Reeves tried to find a studio that wanted to fund a goofy comedy about slacker dads. But even when the film finally found funding and was ready to go, Parisot was in the same boat as Bill and Ted — he didn’t have a groundbreaking, universe-changing song on hand. In a phone interview, Parisot told us how he used The Beatles to solve the problem, how Alex Winter almost muscled himself unconscious on the set, and what Parisot considers the key to cinematic comedy.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity.
How do you take a couple of men in their 50s and get them to move like they did in their 20s? How did you approach re-creating the past with Keanu and Alex on this film?
I just stood back and watched. Those guys are gifted, talented, brilliant actors and filmmakers. And we were all developing this thing for many years. I was attached for seven, and they were on it for 11 years. They just worked on it. It’s them. It’s absolutely them. They’re both brilliant at it.
They came at it very seriously, and rehearsed it substantially every day. They were rehearsing everything from the physicality of it to how the scenes worked. They worked incredibly hard at it. That doesn’t mean there weren’t light moments — once you’ve gotten your scene, you can often open it up to improv, and some things come out of that, as well. It’s really about hard work for them, and they took it seriously. But on top of that, they have such a great friendship. That’s part of that performance. They were great pals for years, since the original, and it shows. They hang out together, they joke around so much. They’re both great filmmakers, they understand the process, which is fun to watch.
We worked on the script a lot together over the years. It was set up a couple of times at different studios in the seven years I was on it. I’ve known [Bill & Ted co-writer] Ed Solomon for a long time, at least 25 years. We didn’t have to talk about it. It’s all in our psyche. It was an odd and delightful experience, this movie, because we really were in the same boat for so long, drifting along, talking about it, reworking it. When we finally got to make it, we didn’t really have to discuss that much. It was mostly a logistical discussion by that point, because we had to shoot it in 37 days, and it was a lot of work, logistically.
How much did the script evolve over that seven years?
The core of it did not change. I mean, it was always about Bill and Ted knowing that they have this destiny, and not being successful at it. It was always about their relationship with their wives and their daughters. It was always a time-travel movie. All the structure was exactly the same. We just worked on changing scenes, there were scenes that got dropped. There was a great scene at Circle K, which we just couldn’t afford to do. Things like that. It got restructured a little bit in post. But for the most part, it stayed intact. We were just honing the characters and working on the adventure, because it’s a ticking-clock adventure, 77 minutes and 25 seconds.
Why did it take so long to get the film made, especially in a such an era of reboots and nostalgia projects?
It’s uncommon to make a sequel 29 years later, so, there was a lot of, “Well, can’t you bring us the young Bill and Ted?” Also, the originals were theatrical comedies, and those are disappearing. They’re difficult to monetize, because they aren’t like big Marvel movies, which can play huge in China. Comedy is often specific to a culture, so it’s harder to get them to play worldwide. I think we’re discovering that’s actually not true with Bill & Ted, which is interesting. But it’s hard to get funded. The studios are all asking that same question, “Why make it a theatrical movie? Why can it be on television?”
In planning this film, then, were you thinking about how to make it more universal, how to make an international comedy?
Well, I was, but apparently no one who was investing was! [Laughs] I saw Sullivan’s Travels recently with my daughter. I’d forgotten about it. You know, at the end of Sullivan’s Travels, he’s been trying to make this very serious film, and he discovers that the thing that’s really helping people is dumb comedy. I think we need these films every now and again. The gloom of this moment in history is wearing us down a little bit, so hopefully this is a distraction. Hopefully.
Did you yourself go back to the original movies for design elements or anything in that vein?
I was on this for so many years. I think I knew the films pretty well. And I was trying to contemporize them, and probably bring more of my own taste to it. Everything we brought forward was necessary, but we also were trying to make it feel like an adventure that was made now. So between the past and the present, we kept trading off until I found an equilibrium that I thought worked.
A big challenge in this movie is knowing that the whole film is built around a universe-changing musical number. How do you approach staging something that has to be that significant for the audience?
From the beginning, for seven years, I kept saying, “We gotta get this song!” But as it as it evolved — for me, what’s wonderful about the movie is the last sentence, “It wasn’t so much the song as the fact that everyone played it together.” That really is the heart of the movie, thematically. So we didn’t have to make the best song ever written, that would be a dubious thing for anyone to try to attempt, especially an independent movie like this. But I think we were very successful at creating that song, eventually. We had a really great music supervisor, Jonathan Leahy, and we sort of Frankensteined it together. We didn’t have it yet when I was shooting that sequence. We shot that whole sequence to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
You literally had them playing The Beatles song?
Yeah, we used it as a reference track in playback as we were shooting. In the film, everybody’s attempting to play to that song. And then when we created the song, we kept the same tempo, and it worked perfectly. Go figure.
Why that particular song?
I was looking for something everybody knew, something celebratory, sort of joyous. And also that was in a time signature that we could recreate. And it worked because the audience of extras knew it. If you know the song, and you can immerse yourself in the spirit of it, it’s easier than if you play something no one’s ever heard before, where half the audience won’t be into it. That song was already in the cultural zeitgeist.
How did the big crowdsourcing credits sequence come about? Do you know how many people submitted air-guitar videos on request?
Ed and [Bill & Ted co-writer] Chris [Matheson] wanted to do that, and I thought it was great. We got thousands of them, and I think we were able to put almost every single one in there, when the videos start to shrink. You may not be able to blow it up big enough to see them. [Laughs] But I’m pretty sure every single performance we got is in there. And it was a global project. Of course, more came in after it was too late, but it was amazing. We were thinking we’d get a couple of hundred at best, and it was a lot more than that. So we had to make some significant choices during the sequence, but then we decided to try and fit them all in there somehow, in that montage.
What’s your best set story about Keanu and Alex?
We were shooting and a hurricane hit New Orleans, and we escaped across Lake Pontchartrain, and we were stuck in this hotel while everything was flooding. And Keanu and Alex decided to have a meal for all of us, and we all just kind of realized there was nothing else we could do. So we all had this big meal together, and just laughed and ate and drank for the entire day before we could go back to the shooting again. I’ve never had a break like that in the middle of a film. And they were so gracious.
It was fun, but it was interesting to shoot in that heat. I remember Alex coming up to me — for one sequence, he wears a muscle suit, and it weighed 40 pounds. It was right up around 100 degrees, and 100 percent humidity. And he’d been waltzing around — I looked at him and said, “Alex, are you okay?” He said, “I’m not okay. I think I’m gonna collapse.” I said, “Okay, get him inside!” It was hard. He wasn’t going to give up, though. And Keanu never broke a sweat! I don’t get it! Alex’s was heavier because he kept adding muscles behind his back. As we built the suit, he kept saying, “No, more muscles, more muscles!” Not realizing he was gonna wear 40 pounds and two inches of latex in 100 degrees. But we put him in ice water, and he was fine.
Do you have a comedy philosophy that leads you to projects like this and Galaxy Quest?
I think really, I’m attracted to characters who often fail, to ludicrous or damaged people, attempting to deal with a tragic circumstance. I think comedy comes from drama and comedy mixed together. That’s what I find myself drawn to. Who knows why? Too much tragicomedy in the ’70s, I guess.