In 1989 actor Alex Winter starred as the dim-witted teenage metalhead Bill S. Preston, Esq. in the beloved time-travel comedy Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure. It made him a star and he returned two years later for the sequel Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey. However, Winter would only act in a handful of films after this, and he disappeared from our screens for several reasons – one of which was particularly heartbreaking.
We’ll return to why Winter decided to walk away from Hollywood later, but first let’s discover a little more about the hugely popular Bill & Ted franchise. As many of us know, Winter’s collaboration with co-star Keanu Reeves turned out to be one of the most enduring Hollywood duos for fans of a certain generation. And the movie, which was directed by Stephen Herek and written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, presented two naive California teenagers on the most bizarre of missions.
Reeves, for his part, played Bill’s best friend Ted “Theodore” Logan in the film series. The two buddies are in a heavy metal band named Wyld Stallyns and attend San Dimas High School, California. At the start of the first instalment, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, the boys find out they’re failing history class and must get an A+ on an upcoming report in order to be awarded a passing grade.
While Bill and Ted are standing outside a Circle K convenience store, a mysterious phone booth rides a wave of electricity out of the clouds and lands in front of them. A man named Rufus, played by comedian George Carlin, gets out and says he can help with their history report. He does this by taking them on an adventure throughout history in the phone booth, which is actually a time machine.
The first film, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, was a hit at the box office and made $40.5 million on a budget of only $6.5 million. Over the years it has become a cult classic – even though the movie was largely slammed by critics at the time. Nevertheless, the movie led to an animated spinoff in 1990 that aired on CBS, and then a live-action sequel was released a year later.
The second instalment, Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey, wasn’t as sizeable a hit as its predecessor. The flick grossed $38 million from a higher production budget of $20 million. Another short-lived animated series followed in 1992 – as well as comic books published by both DC and Marvel Comics.
According to director Stephen Herek, Winter and Reeves secured the roles despite auditioning against up to 300 other actors. He told The Hollywood Reporter in February 2019, “When [Reeves] came in, he was one of the first. It really was kind of like, ‘Wow, he’s Ted,’ and there was a sort of lovable goofiness to him. And then we were trying to find the partner to him.”
The film team apparently gave call-backs to 24 actors, who all tested their chemistry with Reeves. However, it was obvious that he and Winter shared an instant connection. Reeves told the publication, “When I arrived at the location for the rehearsal, I just met [Winter] – there was no one else there yet. We had some stuff in common – we both played bass – and just started to talk.”
Reeves continued, “We hit it off. We have kind of similar humor and interests, and then when we were working together there was something else there that was cool.” In The Hollywood Reporter article, Winter then chimed in, adding, “We realized we saw the characters the same way, and we could kind of riff as a symbiotic unit.”
Winter explained, “[Reeves] and I [agreed], they have to be human beings that we can play. [They] can’t just be caricatures and they can’t have a kind of a comedic aloofness to them. They have to genuinely care about the things that are happening to them. The way that [Reeves] and I played the characters was sort of a mix of hyper-real and totally sincere.”
Herek added that pushed for what he called “the puppy factor” in Reeves’ and Winter’s performances. He would tell them that he wanted “more Labrador retriever,” because, he added, “I felt that these guys were sort of like lovable Labs.” Thankfully, both actors understood his meaning and imbued Bill and Ted with a wide-eyed innocence.
Winter revealed that when production was finished, he soon became distracted by his own short film projects as a director. But then everything changed. He told The Hollywood Reporter, “Next thing I knew there was an ad in the trades, the picture of me and [Reeves], a double-fold in the center, with us sitting on piles of cash. And that was when it first hit me that the movie was doing something.”
“It was just really nice to get positive feedback,” said Reeves. “You know, to be on the street and people saying, ‘Excellent!’ – all of that was fun.” Winter, meanwhile, was very proud of the movie, adding, “The merchandising reinforces for you that the film is adhering to the culture in a way, and that’s flattering.”
Soon enough, Bill & Ted had successfully been adopted by the pop culture landscape at large. Winter added, “We all worked really hard on that movie. The idea that we had infiltrated so many minds with some of that stuff made me happy. I felt really proud of it.”
Reeves, of course, went on to become a massively successful movie star after starring in Bill & Ted. His roles in the likes of 1990s hits Point Break, Speed and The Matrix are legendary. Then, in 2014 he began playing the part that cemented him as an action icon to a whole new generation of movie fans: the eponymous assassin in the John Wick film franchise.
Winter’s path, meanwhile, was very different. Before being cast in the role that would define him, he had featured in some small film roles, and the most well-known of these was 1987’s vampire comedy thriller The Lost Boys. However, he was also writing and directing his own material at the time – and this is what he would return to following Bill & Ted.
Winter and his creative partners Tom Stern and Tim Burns made a sketch comedy show entitled The Idiot Box for MTV. It ran for six episodes in the 1990/91 season, but the trio then put a stop to the show and took a new deal with 20th Century Fox to produce a feature film. The result of this was 1993’s Freaked – which brought the same style of absurdist humor as the former TV show.
Freaked was originally expected to be a conventional comedy hit, and 20th Century Fox had apparently even prepared a line of action figures to go along with the release. However, according to IndieWire, they essentially discarded the movie after Joe Roth, who had signed off on the project, quit the studio.
In the end, the film was shown in a very small number of U.S. theatres and only received wide distribution in Australia and Japan. The movie, which was originally titled Hideous Mutant Freekz, is about a fertilizer which causes human beings to mutate. Incredibly, it was unavailable to buy until Anchor Bay released it on DVD in 2005.
Winter, meanwhile, told IndieWire what had inspired him to make Freaked in 2012. He said that the movie was formulated as a response to the “surreal and not entirely enjoyable” experience he’d had as a child actor who had suddenly became extremely famous. At that point in his life, Winter was a celebrity and he’d struggled with that status.
Winter believed that there was a misconception about the movie only becoming a cult hit over time. Rather, he said it was embraced by those who saw it during its limited release, adding, “The movie was a cult hit immediately. That’s the thing that people don’t seem to get. We had instant affirmation, it was a huge hit at Toronto [International Film Festival], we got fantastic reviews and at that point every repertory house all over the world wanted to show it.”
Winter continued, “[Stern] and I released it by ourselves and self-distributed it all over the world by ourselves with one poster and one print.” The issue, Winter claimed, was that “it wasn’t the age of DVDs yet, so it was hard to sustain it.”
After Freaked, Winter then quit acting almost entirely. Aside from small roles in 1997’s The Borrowers, Grand Piano 16 years later and 2015’s Smosh: The Movie, Winter stopped being a working actor for a while. But he hadn’t left the business entirely; he simply focused his efforts elsewhere.
Winter continued his passion for directing and made the 1999 thriller Fever – which starred future Desperate Housewives actress Teri Hatcher. He also directed two live-action TV movies based on the Cartoon Network animated show Ben 10 in 2007 and 2009. Following that, Winter then tried his hand at documentary filmmaking.
Winter was specifically interested in making documentaries about something he had felt strongly about since the late 1980s: the internet. He told IndieWire in 2018 that he first logged on during that period and started using Usenet forums. Here, he could talk anonymously, and it gave him an outlet to express his feelings about a terrible childhood trauma.
Winter had originally revealed that he was the victim of childhood sexual abuse in 2018. He told Adrian Chiles on BBC 5 Live that he was molested by an older man when he was 13 while he was working on Broadway. Furthermore, he said he didn’t come forward at the time because he’d believed that it was a “potentially dangerous secret.”
However, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the “Me Too” movement, Winter saw there were changes happening in Hollywood and the world at large. The actor said, “I figured I would die with it within the circles of people that understood it, which I thought was wrong – it was wrong.” He added that the impact was “hellish” at the time, and that he suffered from what “turned out to be post-traumatic stress disorder.”
In the IndieWire interview, Winter elaborated on how important the internet was to him in terms of dealing with his emotional wounds. He said, “I found it very, very liberating. I really found solace on [the] internet. I found this sort of post-trauma community before I started dealing with stuff in therapy in a hard-and-fast way.”
It seems that Winter’s fervent interest in technology and the internet is tied in very deeply with the help he found there in the late 1980s. He said, “Technical stuff is largely misunderstood. This world is filled with really interesting people. Some of them are legitimate, and some of them are really bat**** crazy, and I was really interested in trying to put my arms around all of that.”
Winter’s documentary film Downloaded premiered in 2013, and it focuses on the controversial file-sharing platform Napster. He followed that with Deep Web in 2015, which explores the online black market, Bitcoin and the dark web’s murky politics.
Winter then released two documentaries in 2018. Trust Machine: The Story of Blockchain is about the impact of cryptocurrencies and the technology which underpins them. The Panama Papers, meanwhile, details the efforts of 400 journalists who pored over millions of leaked documents to reveal worldwide tax fraud committed by numerous individuals and companies. They were narrated by Rosario Dawson and Elijah Wood respectively.
Speaking of the purpose behind his documentaries, Winter told IndieWire, “I want to make movies about people in this crazy, compelling, polarizing moment we’re in.” And of course, the subject matters behind his most recent efforts would certainly suggest he is doing just that.
Another project Winter is currently working on was funded on Kickstarter in 2016, from which he raised over $1.1 million. Incredibly, this was enough to make it the top-funded documentary project in Kickstarter’s history. The production, Who the F*@% is Frank Zappa, is a biography of the eponymous maverick singer-songwriter.
As Winter forged a career for himself as a filmmaker, his compatriot Reeves built a career as a Hollywood leading man. Fittingly, though, for two men who started their careers playing best friends, they have remained close over the years. Indeed, Reeves even provided the voiceover narration for Deep Web in 2015.
“[Reeves] and I are very, very close friends,” Winter told IndieWire. Their maintained friendship helped lead to something that Bill & Ted fans have been waiting decades for. Many of the original gang – including writers Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon – are reuniting for a third film, which is expected to be released in August 2020.
Bill & Ted Face the Music finds the guys in middle age – struggling with the fact that they still haven’t fulfilled their destiny of writing a song that unites the world. A stranger from the future tells them that only their song can save humanity and the wider universe and that they must immediately get to work. Aided by their family, the men then embark upon this new adventure.
“We’re talking all the time regardless, so it all felt like a creative endeavor for a group of friends,” Winter told IndieWire. “The idea is really just to make a sweet, enduring, and legitimately funny movie. We genuinely believe these are timeless comic characters, not because they’re brilliant or anything, but just in terms of their cartoonish, clownish essence.”
Winter revealed that he is looking forward to jumping back into the role of Bill. Playing the character enables him to utilize an entirely different set of skills from those used in documentary filmmaking. He added, “I really just need to turn that entire side of my brain off and be the dumbass that Bill is for three months.”
Winter told IndieWire that he has a number of documentaries planned in the future. Elsewhere, he also talked about several wider projects which he’d ended up dropping. When he had initially interviewed Napster founder Shaun Fanning, for example, Winter said he’d had the intention of making a conventional narrative movie about the computer programmer. But he soon realized that the truth he was getting from simply asking questions and getting answers was better than any story he could write.
So though Winter might be excited to goof around with Reeves for a few months on the Bill & Ted set, he has every intention of going straight back to documentaries. He told IndieWire, “I was hooked by these levels of truth and untruths. I was so totally smitten with the process that I didn’t ever want to stop making them.”