A few days before the release of “Bill and Ted Face the Music,” Steven Soderbergh was on a Zoom call with Alex Winter, and decided to turn it into a job interview. The filmmaker served as an executive producer on “Bill and Ted Face the Music,” the long-awaited third entry in the cult saga of two hard-rocking pals who travel through history to unite the world through music. The project took over a decade to get off the ground, and resulted in Winter — who left acting for documentary filmmaking years ago — returning to play the iconic doofus opposite Keanu Reeves that launched both of their careers 30 years ago. Winter even resumed acting classes to get back in the groove, and Soderbergh took note.
“Alex,” the filmmaker said, looking into his screen. “Are you available to me?” Winter chuckled. “Steven,” he said, “I will always be available to you.”
For all his dexterity behind the camera over the years, Soderbergh has maintained a foothold in the industry by supporting other projects that jibe with his sensibilities, building out his network as he moves along. The surreal antics of “Bill and Ted” might seem a bit broader than most of Soderbergh’s work, but that’s also why the filmmaker chose to help push the project along, rather than directing it himself.
Though the movie ultimately found financial support from producer Alex Lebovici and distribution from Orion executive John Hegeman — both avowed “Bill and Ted” fans going back to the ’80s — Soderbergh was the one who got excited about screenwriters Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon’s fresh take on the characters entering middle-age. He was also the one who picked up the phone, eventually finding director Dean Parisot (“Galaxy Quest”) to guide the project to completion.
“I just volunteered to be a sort of glorified cheerleader for the project and make calls to the studios that had the rights to say, ‘I don’t understand why you aren’t doing this?'” said Soderbergh, speaking over Zoom with Winter and Solomon, who first told Soderbergh about the project when the pair worked together on “Mosaic” for HBO. Soderbergh delighted at the way the project juggled zaniness with genuine depth. “The script’s great and everybody wants to play again,” he recalled telling executives. “What’s the problem? I was just trying to help this logjam get unstuck. At the beginning it was kind of vague, and then we all made it clear how much we wanted to see this done.”
Soderbergh has plenty of experience pushing along unlikely projects, including some of his own trickier undertakings. For years, he has talked about plans to reedit his oft-maligned sophomore effort “Kafka” as a “hardcore art movie” now that the rights have reverted to him. Quarantine has played into his favor, as Soderbergh revealed this week that he not only finished “Kafka” but also revisited “Schizopolis” and “Full Frontal.”
With “Kafka,” he said, “it’s pretty radically different, something else entirely.” As for the other two movies, his surreal 1996 suburban satire and the 2002 digital video drama: “They’re just shorter.” These efforts follow recent reports that Soderbergh started writing a sequel to his 1989 debut “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” in addition to other screenplays. “I’ve gotten a lot of stuff off my plate that would’ve have been completed if it were not for the pandemic,” he said.
He was also on the verge of shooting the crime thriller “Kill Switch,” from a script by Solomon, which was set to start production on April 1. Two weeks beforehand, the project was shut down, but Soderbergh said he hoped to resume production in September. It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker better equipped to return to work, as Soderbergh has been heading the DGA committee designed to assess safe production standards.
In June, the DGA issued a joint report with SAG-AFTRA and IATSE called “The Safe Way Forward” with initial guidelines. However, the unions and the studios have yet to agree on universal Covid safety measures. “Look, while that deal is being negotiated, this is not a bad document to work from,” Soderbergh said. “Everybody is wondering how successful we will all be in scaling up so quickly. All I can tell is that there are a lot of very bright, capable people trying to figure this out and have us get back to work safely. The question now is how quickly we can scale because of the availability of resources and personnel to have the Covid aspect of your project taken care of. It’s a moving target.”
Then there’s the issue of movie theaters. Originally slated to open theatrically in August, “Bill and Ted” is now coming out in over 600 theaters and hitting VOD on August 28. “Because of the complicated nature of most studios’ output deals, the only theaters showing this movie in America are independent ones,” Solomon said. “If anyone does want to go to the theater, they should know that they’re supporting independent theaters by doing so.”
No filmmaker has experimented with unconventional distribution strategies more than Soderbergh, but he admitted that “Bill and Ted” would have been a good fit for a traditional approach. “We were really looking forward to a wide theatrical release,” he said. “I certainly felt like we had a very commercial movie on our hands.” But Soderbergh is as realistic as anybody these days. “It’s also a movie that the whole family can sit down at home, watch, and enjoy that way,” he said. “I’m pretty agnostic about this stuff, but I’m sure I shared some sense of disappointment when it became blatantly obvious that a wide release of the kind we were imagining just was just not possible. Literally.”
The filmmaker knows a thing or two about how to behave in a pandemic. Since March, his hit thriller “Contagion” has been a de facto cinematic bible for people grappling with the terrors of a virus-inflicted world. Soderbergh, who has remained in New York City with his wife for the entire time, said the one aspect that has baffled him is the extent to which people have shown disinterest in safety measures. “It’s been amazing to see how cavalier people are about their health and other people’s health,” he said. “When I see somebody walking around without a mask, I think, ‘Oh, they don’t care about other people.’”
That frustration has been widespread, but “Bill and Ted Face the Music” provides some measure of catharsis for anyone troubled by these divided times. “I don’t want to say we got lucky that the world is in this strange disunited place that we’re in,” Solomon said, “but it was fortuitous that the movie is a counterbalance to the deep cynicism in the world today.”
Winter agreed. “I didn’t need to do a sequel and originally I didn’t want to do a sequel,” he said. “How do you go back to these guys all these years later and not completely fuck it up?” It was only when Matheson and Solomon came to his house and pitched the idea over dinner that he decided to sign on. “Keanu and I thought it about it and realized we could see how to play it,” he said. “It was really important to bring the gravitas of these guys into today.”
Indeed, the surprise of “Face the Music” stems from the sheer conviction that both actors bring to the characters as they contend with fatherhood and marriage as well as the existential fear that they could ruin a pretty solid lifestyle with bad decisions. “From a fundamental character standpoint, we wanted to explore how you retain hope when you wake up to reality,” Winter said, and paused to consider the ramifications of the sentiment. “That has turned out to be a pretty important idea at the moment, but we didn’t know that when we got into this.”
Needless to say, Soderbergh was impressed. “Alex is on another path now,” he said, “but I’d like to have him in my repertory.”
“Bill and Ted Face the Music” opens in select theaters and VOD on Friday, August 28.
As new movies open in theaters during the COVID-19 pandemic, IndieWire will continue to review them whenever possible. We encourage readers to follow the safety precautions provided by CDC and health authorities. Additionally, our coverage will provide alternative viewing options whenever they are available.