How The Success Of ‘John Wick’ Saved ‘Bill And Ted’

Maybe, just maybe, the final line of the first John Wick movie should have been, “I’m thinking I’m back … and I’m bringing Bill and Ted with me.”

So it all started a decade ago… actually, scratch that. It actually all started in the late 1980s when Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson wrote Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. A movie about two earnest, spaced-out high school students traveling through time that cost next to nothing, starred two actors (Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves) who certainly wouldn’t be described as “famous” at the time – that went on to gross over $40 million dollars, which seemed kind of impossible. (Also, if you happened to be a kid at the time, this movie seemed like the biggest thing in the world.) A sequel would follow in 1991 that would do about the same type of numbers, followed by an animated series, then that was it.

Now let’s go back 10 years, right when everyone started realizing IP was king at the box office, so Solomon and Matheson wrote a script on spec and it was flatly rejected by the studio because they had their own idea for Bill and Ted – and it didn’t involve Reeves or Winter, both at one point were being replaced by Instagram stars. But then John Wick happened, which reasserted Reeves as an international box office action star and all of a sudden Reeves returning as Ted seemed like a pretty good idea. Plus, an online campaign for a third movie – which finds Bill and Ted battling their future selves over the song that will unite the world – caught fire and, now, 29 years since the last movie, Bill and Ted are back. Ahead, Solomon and Matheson explain just how that happened.

When I spoke to Alex Winter a couple of weeks ago, I asked if there was a moment he thought this would never happen and he said, “Oh, yeah.”

Ed Solomon: Yeah, we’re both laughing out loud. There was only one moment where I actually thought, “This is actually happening,” and that was when Dean said action on the first day of production. I swear to you, I did not believe it until then because we kept getting so close. It’s like we kept coming to the altar and they’d say, “You may now kiss the bride,” and you pull up the veil, and it’s just a skeleton that dissolves into dust and we’re back to square one. We had a couple of days a couple of weeks before we started shooting where we lost financing, and we had to scramble. We lost our third investor, who was the biggest investor. And our two other investors, who were individuals, stepped up and really helped us out. If it wasn’t for them, there would be no movie. But yeah, we fought, and fought, and fought, and fought to get this thing made. It was very stressful.

I guess my follow-up to that is, why? Alex Winter, a renowned director, and you’ve got one of the biggest action stars in the world wanting to make a third movie for this popular piece of IP.

Chris Matheson: Yeah, they were kind of culty movies. They weren’t gigantic yet. They both did well, but they weren’t enormously successful. And I think internationally, they weren’t particularly successful because comedy typically doesn’t travel that well. So, there was that. They just didn’t look at it as being super valuable. Also, we were wanting to deal with themes that pertain to failure and loss and mortality. And that’s a heavy lift for a comedy.

Alex also said a studio wanted to replace he and Keanu with Instagram stars.

Matheson: I believe that was true for a while, yeah.

Wait. Really? Actually Instagram stars?!

Solomon: Yeah, teenagers.

Matheson: Go back and reboot it, get a couple of young guys to restart it was the idea.

Solomon: When we first wrote this, we wrote it on spec with Alex and Keanu as our partners. And I would say there was a certain amount of, I guess in hindsight, hubris because we thought it’s a no-brainer. But when we turned it into the studio that actually owned the underlying material, it was met with kind of a resounding silence, partly because they had another movie in mind that they’d already had written. But we were, of course, not aware of it, that I believe involved young Bill and Ted. It was like a reboot of new Bill and Ted who time traveled with a cell phone. I didn’t read the script, so I don’t know anything about it. That was our initial hurdle. The second hurdle was what Chris said: Because the first movie, it was a culty hit. It wasn’t a giant mega-hit and it didn’t have a big foreign release, so there weren’t numbers to support it. So, it took the power of social media and the voices of the fans to rise up enough to let the powers that be know, “Oh wait, maybe there are people interested in seeing this, and maybe people have discovered this movie over the last three decades, so maybe there is a market.” Thank God, because we fought forever to get it made.

So you were fighting against another script you never read. Did you guys have power to stop that? Because how do you fight against a studio that’s already got this reboot in mind?

Solomon: You don’t. We couldn’t. They could do whatever they want.

So you had no veto in this?

Solomon: We didn’t. Yeah, our very first deal was for a movie that we’d ever made. I think if there was a chance for them to extract our own children from us to give to them during that deal, we probably gave it to them. Honestly, it was the worst deal you could ever make, and we had no power going forward in any way. The only power we had was the power of persuasion, and that didn’t work for a long time. Then, finally, it did work, but it took forever.

Matheson: To the degree that we had power, it was our relationship with Alex and Keanu because I think that they felt that if there was going to be another Bill & Ted, they wanted it to be written by us, so that did give us a little bit.

They’ve got another script ready. They’re ready with their Instagram stars. It’s just remarkable that you got that turned around and now this version exists…

Solomon: That is where the power of the fans came in. And that’s also where, thankfully, John Wick and Keanu’s international presence grew and the fans spoke to such a level that the powers that be, the people who finance this stuff, finally heard it and went, “Oh, maybe we should do it this way.”

So, John Wick is, at least partially, a reason for this?

Matheson: I think it’s a big reason. Yeah, the playing field changed after that came out because at that point, given the Keanuaissance, it’s called, and this not being a very expensive movie, why would you not want to have Keanu play Ted again? Just from a business standpoint, it seemed kind of obvious.

It’s interesting each movie has a different director. Do you two have any say in that?

Solomon: We didn’t have anything to do with the director change in Bogus Journey. It wasn’t in our power. I don’t know why they replaced Stephen Herek. We thought Stephen did a great job and he was a lovely guy to work with, so I have no idea why he didn’t do the second movie, but he was replaced. Again, out of our control. In hindsight, you know what? I think it’s kind of cool that each movie has a slightly different signature, partially due to where Chris and I were as writers at the time they were written, and also partially due to the directors. This movie, we put Dean Parisot on before we got it made. I had known Dean for a long time, and Chris and I both felt like Dean is the perfect guy for this. Not just his absurd sense of humor, but also, he’s lived life and he is like Bill and Ted. He’s had ups and downs on professional and personal level, and he’s a really nice guy and a big-hearted guy. And he knows a lot about music, so on this one, we brought Dean on.

Matheson: I accept that it’s possible that Steve wasn’t replaced, that Steve stepped off.

Solomon: He might’ve. I actually don’t know. That’d be a good question to ask him.

‘Bill and Ted Face the Music’ will be available via VOD on August 28th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.