Physics Easter Eggs In Bill & Ted Face The Music
It might come as a surprise to fans of the goofy comedy series BILL & TED that there is some serious science in the newest film BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC. It turns out that members of the cast and crew are physics geeks—in particular, Keanu Reeves. We spoke with the film’s co-writer Ed Solomon and his friend Spiros Michalakis, a quantum physicist based at Caltech who served as the film’s science advisor, to get the details. BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC is available on VOD and in select theaters and drive-ins.
Science & Film: How did you two first meet?
Ed Solomon: Spiros and I became friends a few years ago—we met through a mutual friend named Hunter Maats.
Spiros Michalakis: You were thinking about NOW YOU SEE ME 2.
ES: I had a quantum computing question. We became friends after that, so much so that in fact Spiros was looking for a filmmaker to make a short film about quantum chess [called ANYONE CAN QUANTUM.]
SM: Ed made magic happen: I needed a narrator for the action between Steven Hawking and Paul Rudd, who had agreed to play a scripted game of quantum chess and trash talk each other. Ed pulled this insane trick where he was like, how would you like to have Alex Winter direct the short and Keanu Reeves narrate it? I was like, what is happening, this is all my dreams coming true! It was to premiere at a big Caltech celebration of quantum computing and Richard Feynman. Ed put it together and I was like Ed, if you ever need anything whatsoever, let me know.
ES: I knew that Alex and Keanu were gigantic physics geeks. I thought that the guys might really enjoy working with Spiros and Steven Hawking and they did—they had a blast doing. Then, when we were writing FACE THE MUSIC we had this time travel setup and were experimenting with the idea of entanglement and how our futures and pasts entangle; can you move forward and backwards along a time axis and will that change things, and if so how?
Initially Chris Matheson, my co-writer, went onto Wikipedia and hunted down some basic ideas and wrote up a pretty impressive draft of what we needed. Then I said, why don’t we check in with my buddy Spiros because he can vet this? We gave what we had done to Spiros to make sure we had the science right and he came back with a few tweaks and suggestions, and we incorporated them. We thought it would be really fun, in a very weird way, if this silly, ridiculous, goofy comedy would at least line up certain physics ideas in a way that makes sense to physicists.
SM: The irony in all of this is that they didn’t even think, let me check in with Spiros because he introduced time travel in AVENGERS: ENDGAME. They thought, maybe we should reach out because we had fun at a dinner! It’s funny how the worlds collided.
S&F: Spiros, how did you first get connected to Hollywood?
SM: I was connected to Hollywood through what is called the Science & Entertainment Exchange. In 2014, Marvel needed a science consultant for ANT-MAN. I didn’t know what they expected from me, and they didn’t know what they were about to get exposed to. They just wanted to know if in the microverse, where all the superheroes are tiny versions of themselves, if they get super strong. I was like, I don’t know much about that, but I do know that what happens if you shrink further and go subatomic: all the quantum stuff starts appearing. That’s when they got excited. That’s probably the source code of all the superpowers, I said. I told them, call it the quantum realm, and then they changed the script.
S&F: Did you also travel to set for BILL & TED?
SM: Yes. I flew to New Orleans a year and two weeks ago [in August 2019]. It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life, reconnecting with Ed within his natural environment and to see Alex not as a director but as an actor again. It was so much fun. They’re all such freaking wonderful human beings. Alex and Keanu were having a lot of fun on set, the rest of the cast and crew were too, and then there was some real nerding out about physics with almost every member of the cast.
READ MORE: About The Science & Entertainment Exchange
ES: Yes, we were talking about quantum mechanics in the downtime with Keanu and Alex. We had a get together at a place my girlfriend and I were staying where we had dinner and drinks and just talked about physics all night.
S&F: I don’t think of physics as a particularly easy subject to nerd out about unless you have some sort of baseline understanding.
ES: Keanu actually reads that stuff for fun. He had enough of a wellspring of knowledge that he went head-to-head with Spiros a few times, challenging him on things, which we all found really fun. But honestly, what I was most thrilled about was that the initial research that Chris did just pecking around on the internet actually lined up pretty well, so that was really cool.
We used to have a line in the film about Hugh Everett and the multiverse theory that ended up getting cut but Hugh Everett’s son, Mark Oliver Everett, is the lead singer “E” of the band Eels and he has a tiny cameo at the end of the movie during the credits.
For us, what we always try to do with the “physics” in this movie is not worry about what’s real and not real, but about what makes sense for the comedy of the movie, the emotional truth of the characters, and then the rules of the movie itself; as long as the time travel doesn’t strike a wrong note with the key signature of the film, we’re fine with it, and as long as it makes a kind of intuitive sense and we don’t break our rules, then we’re okay. The cherry on top was getting someone like Spiros who is literally a world expert on the subject to vet it for us. It means that when the trolls come after us we can say well, we happen to have Spiros right here. We had a fun exchange with a Twitter person who was like, that’s not possible, and I got to say, as a matter of fact, it is.
S&F: It seems like as more and more filmmakers collaborate with scientists that the ways of collaborating have become more nuanced, where scientists aren’t just filling in dialogue but the collaboration makes its way into the writing process in a way that’s true to the film, as you’re saying.
READ MORE: The Science Behind ANT-MAN
SM: What I love about working with Ed is that I was part of this film because of our friendship. The fact that Ed even knew to contact me is because we’re friends for many different reasons.
ES: The reason I like working with Spiros is that when I’m working on something and there’s some science element or magic or you name it, I’ll call him and go, I don’t know what the story is yet but I’m heading in this direction and looking for something that could apply if this were the case or that were the case, and he’ll go, that doesn’t really work. It’s fun to have somebody from a different field altogether to throw ideas around with because it opens your mind in ways you couldn’t have known.
The other thing that’s been interesting is that we talk about creativity in and of itself and one would think that physics and screenwriting may be antithetical forms and the approaches would therefore be incredibly different, but what’s amazing is how similar our creative processes actually are when trying to figure something out. Whether it’s an answer to a mathematical question or an interesting plot element, the creative processes are very similar. You mull around, you use your intuition and have faith it might lead somewhere, you vet it, get some other ideas, start to question your own assumptions, based on the answers to those questions you go deeper, there are periods where you’re just exploring in darkness with nothing but faith, then some patterns start to form then you ask the same questions you were asking earlier, and gradually you start to have an understand of what you’re doing. We realized that the creative process is very similar—it’s probably more similar across disciplines than anyone would imagine and I found that to be really interesting.
BILL & TED FACE THE MUSIC is written by Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson, directed by Dean Parisot, and stars Keanu Reeves, Alex Winter, Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, and Erinn Hayes. Ed Solomon also wrote BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, BILL & TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY, the TV series BILL & TED’S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE, as well as MEN IN BLACK, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, and more.
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