Dead Poets Society Retrospective with Tom Schulman, Peter Weir, and Ethan Hawke

Andrew Bloomenthal looks back at the 30-year-old iconic film, Dead Poet’s Society, interviewing screenwriter Tom Schulman, director Peter Weir, and co-star Ethan Hawke.
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Andrew Bloomenthal looks back at the 30-year-old iconic film, Dead Poet’s Society, interviewing screenwriter Tom Schulman, director Peter Weir, and co-star Ethan Hawke.

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“We didn’t just read poetry. We let it drip from our tongues, like honey. Spirits soared. Women swooned, and gods were created.” – Robin Williams, as Welton Academy English teacher John Keating.

Andrew Bloomenthal looks back at the 30-year-old iconic film, Dead Poet's Society, with interviews of screenwriter Tom Schulman, director Peter Weir, and co-star Ethan Hawke.

Tom Schulman, Peter Weir, and Ethan Hawke

1989 was a banner year for cinema. After all, it introduced us to enduring favorites like Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Crimes and Misdemeanors, When Harry Met Sally, and Do the Right Thing. But only one film won Oscar gold for Best Original Screenplay, and that honor went to Dead Poets Society, penned by acclaimed screenwriter Tom Schulman.

Helmed by five-time Oscar-nominated Aussie director Peter Weir (TheTrumanShow, Witness), Poets launched the acting careers of fresh-faced unknowns Josh Charles, Robert Sean Leonard and Ethan Hawke, the last of whom went on to collect four Oscar nods of his own. But the film is best known for the Academy Award-nominated turn of the late, great Robin Williams, for his electric portrayal of a 1959 boarding school English teacher, who injects a much-needed shot of adrenaline into his buttoned-up alma-mater, by inspiring creativity through poetry. Why this particular form of expression?

Keating said it best. “We don't read and write poetry because it's cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering—these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love—these are what we stay alive for.”

But Keating wasn’t just walking the iambic walk. In fact, back in the day, he was a founding member of the “Dead Poets Society,” a group of students who clandestinely congressed in an old Indian cave to celebrate the works of Shelley, Thoreau and other greats. Keating cautions that the current administration would surely frown on such activity—all but daring the students to resurrect the decades-old tradition for themselves. And in one of the film’s most visually compelling moments, the boys sprint cave-ward through the woods, primed for a literary adventure that would forever change their lives—one of them, tragically.

We first meet Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) on drop-off day. The parents have left the campus, freeing the students to bust out the smokes and the dirty jokes, when Neil’s father (Kurtwood Smith) suddenly appears, to explicitly forbid his son from joining the yearbook committee. After all, such frivolity has no place in Neil’s pre-ordained med-school track. Is it any wonder that he sublimates his true ambition to become an actor?

Only after meeting Keating, does Neil collect the nerve to audition for the role of Puck in a local production of A Midsummer Night's Dream—albeit by forging his dad’s signature on the permission slip. And when Papa Perry discovers this unsanctioned extracurricular activity, he makes it crystal clear that Neil’s stage debut would also be his swan song. This no-way-out edict proves too much for the boy, who swallows the barrel of a gun later that night.

 The cast of Dead Poets Society. Left to right: Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks), Robin Williams (John Keating), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), James Waterston (Gerard Pitts), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet)

The cast of Dead Poets Society. Left to right: Gale Hansen (Charlie Dalton), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks), Robin Williams (John Keating), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), James Waterston (Gerard Pitts), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet)

While Neil is sadly silenced forever, Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) experiences a reverse journey. Shy to the point of reticence, Todd can barely speak above a whisper. That is, until the famous “Yawp!” scene, where Keating brings him before the class for some good old-fashioned scream therapy. What happens next is the cinematic equivalent of catching lightning in a bottle. Keating points to a picture of Walt Whitman on the wall and challenges Todd to describe him in his own poetic terms. At first, Todd stammers. Then Keating places his hand over the boy’s eyes and spins them both in place, as if attempting to coax the words out through centrifugal force alone. As cinematographer John Seale whips a Steadicam 360° around them, Todd finally unleashes a frenzy of stream-of-conscious free verse, that builds up to a cathartic crescendo. And at that moment, we know Todd will be okay.

Hawke vividly remembers that day: “Filming that scene was like being part of a powerful collective dream, like we were poking through to some alternate universe. I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.”

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While any film would be lucky to boast one such tentpole moment, Poets’ final scene is equally riveting. Keating has been fired—scapegoated by school administrators, who blame him for Neil’s suicide. As Keating skulks toward the exit, he stops in his tracks when one by one, the students climb on their desks to declare their solidarity, as they repeat the refrain: “O Captain! My Captain!”—perfect words for the perfect cut-to-credits moment.

But it was the anthemic line: “Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary!” that ranked among the American Film Institute’s 100 greatest movie quotes. And while Schulman didn’t invent the Latin adage, no one can deny that he mainstreamed it, with a little help from Keating, who simply wants to give his boys a fighting chance in life. And while Neil couldn’t be saved, many others will continue to thrive under Keating’s influence—just as Dead Poets Society continues to resonate with us, 30 years after its theatrical release.

In separate interviews, Schulman, Weir, and Hawke spoke to Script’s Andrew Bloomenthal about creating this extraordinary film.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

 A Poets fan seizes the day.

A Poets fan seizes the day.

Tom Schulman, tell us about your inspiration for this script.

Tom Schulman: I went to an all-boys high school, and I had an antic sophomore English teacher, who was charming, and he loved his students, but he was an iconoclast. When we came back for our junior year, he wasn’t there anymore. Rumors spread that he had an affair with the headmaster’s daughter and the headmaster’s wife, but we were all too scared to ask what really happened. Had we done so, we would have learned that he simply got a better job. But because we never knew that, it left an opening in my imagination to write a whole other story around an eccentric teacher, and what happened to him. The idea of resistance to traditional thinking bubbled up, as part of that.

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Why did you make Keating teach poetry, rather than English literature or another field of study?

TS: That was the influence of my father, who had read a lot of poetry and was always quoting it to me. He was a big Alfred Tennyson fan, and he would quote Ulysses. “Come, my friends. Tis not too late to seek a newer world.” From my father’s perspective, poetry suggested better ways to live, and I think there's a lot of truth to that. The examples I thought Keating would use in educating these students, came from those poets.

Were you surprised to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for this film?

TS: I was surprised, because it didn’t win the WGA award, and it didn’t win the BAFTA for best screenplay, so I really didn’t think it would win the Oscar. But I had such a fear of public speaking that I hoped it wouldn’t win. I was terrified of getting up on stage and talking in front of the millions of people they say watch the show. I had shortsighted thoughts of terror, just like the Ethan Hawke character, Todd, who’s modeled after me in high school. So, in a way, this movie brought me out of my shell, just like the way Todd had to be cajoled out of his repressed introversion.

Ethan Hawke, was it challenging to play such an emotionally withheld character, when you’re personally so gregarious?

Ethan Hawke: I remember Peter Weir telling me how he always tries to “cast for the final color,” and I had to ask him what he meant by that, because Robert Sean Leonard is naturally very shy and introverted, while I’m the extreme opposite. If you’re watching a movie where the shy kid ultimately stands on the desk and stands up for himself, while the outgoing kid contrarily takes his own life, both of these moments have to ultimately ring true. So it’s almost as if you’re initially putting a façade over the truth, and then the authentic nature of the characters become unmasked over time. That’s casting for the final color.

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What are your memories of filming the iconic “Yawp!” scene?

EH: It remains one of the most significant days of my life—professionally for sure. It was the first time I really felt the experience of being an actor, where I could lose myself inside a story, and lose myself inside a collective imagination. At that moment in time, the Steadicam was a very new camera tool, and I didn’t have a lot of experience with that thing, so it was exciting to play long, massive takes. And Robin is such an inventive, alive, and awake human being to be near, that you never knew what to expect. And Peter Weir is just a card-carrying brilliant man. Since this was my first movie, I just thought all directors were brilliant, you know? I didn’t realize the privileged position I was in, but I did know that it was a magical day. This was a true ensemble movie, but on that day, the Todd character took center stage, so I got to take the spotlight. It’s like being part of a great team, and knowing it’s your chance to carry the baton.

 Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) finds his voice, with help from John Keating (Robin Williams)

Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) finds his voice, with help from John Keating (Robin Williams)

Peter Weir, how did you prepare the actors for the shoot?

Peter Weir: The boys were all very young. I was determined to cast them at the true age of the characters they were playing, because high school films generally cast older actors to play younger characters. When they arrived, they were very nervous and excited. You could feel the edge of competition amongst them, because this was their chance to act in a big Hollywood film, and I wanted to break that down and relax them. So, once we first started filming, I wouldn’t yell “Action,” because that tended to stiffen up their performance. Instead, once the camera was rolling, I would throw a balled-up piece of paper at the head of the person who was supposed to speak first, and I instructed them to say their line when they felt that paper hit the back of their necks. And instead of yelling “Cut,” I rapped the side of my coffee cup with a teaspoon, which helped eliminate the sanctity of the situation and reduce that historical weight of making a movie. It was kind of silly, but I was prepared to make a fool of myself.

 Clan of the Cavemen

Clan of the Cavemen

Prior to this film, Robin Williams was mostly known for his bombastic performances in films like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and Good Morning, Vietnam. What discussions did you have with him about reining in his mania?

PW: Robin and I had several good talks about how to go about this, because he wanted to play more straight parts and open up his career. As you said, he’d already conquered the comedy world. But I didn’t want to completely bury his gift, because that’s what the public loved about him, so it was really a case of a scale—sort of like turning down a volume control. How low can you go, where people will see Robin inside the character? We decided to set the tone when we first meet him in the assembly hall, when the headmaster introduces him as the replacement English teacher. I had Robin simply raise an eyebrow, to symbolize that he could do small things that would still get laughs. And when we sat through the first previews with audiences, we knew we were right.

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But there are moments when Robin busted out the comedy in full force.

PW: There was a feeling that he wasn’t going to be able to hide his ability to make you chuckle, so just in case, I planned a half-day unscheduled shoot where I let Robin do his thing. We completely concealed this from Disney’s front office—and you could never get away with this today, with the cost of filming being so high. But on that afternoon, we set up three cameras in the corners of the room, and I told the boys, “Robin’s coming in after lunch to do a scene that isn’t in the script. Just remember: he’s still your teacher, Mr. Keating, and you’ll wreck the scene if you laugh like you’re watching a standup comic. So act amused, but don’t overdo it.” That was the day when Robin impersonated John Wayne and Marlon Brando, which made it into the film. When Robin’s improvising, he gives off an electric charge you can feel. You just suggest an odd phrase or an evocative word, and you trigger a litany of Tourettes-like associations and ideas from him.

 Robin Williams (John Keating)

Robin Williams (John Keating)

Ethan, I read that you were so committed to your method-acting training, that when Robin was being zany, you resisted the urge to laugh along with the other actors.

EH: Which drove Robin absolutely insane. When Robin sees a person not laughing, it becomes his mission to make them laugh. But I was really trying hard to be in Todd’s skin, and I really didn’t think Todd would think any of this shit was funny. This just made Robin nuts—so much so, that I thought he really didn’t like me. But now I know that wasn’t the truth. And later, after the movie was over, Robin helped me get my first agent.

Peter, in that stunning moment when the students are running through the woods towards the cave, their silhouettes resemble the Dance of Death scene in The Seventh Seal. Was this a deliberate homage or an unconscious influence?

PW: It was absolutely an homage. I wanted to capture a moment as if the boys were running through the ages—a kind of pagan, pre-Christian mythology, where they were crossing into another zone, in which lies the mystery of art. This couldn’t have happened in the basement of a building, or in the horse stables—it really had to be a cave, which was Tom’s idea. It was my job to illustrate that. [Costume designer] Wendy Stites suggested dressing the boys in submariner jackets with hoods, as if they were like primitive monks, engaged in some sort of ancient rite of passage. The story was so pregnant with metaphors, you didn’t have to try hard to unearth them. They just sprang to life.

 The Seventh Seal (left), Dead Poets Society (right)

The Seventh Seal (left), Dead Poets Society (right)

One particularly chilling moment occurred when Neil Perry’s father materializes, and when Neil says “Father? I thought you’d gone!”, his voice cracks with fear.

PW: Oh yes, I remember that well.

Did you direct Robert Sean Leonard to affect that voice crack, or was that an unconscious mannerism that he filtered through his character?

PW: It’s definitely the latter. A lot of directing is knowing when to use somebody else’s contribution—deliberate or accidental. That was take seven, and I remember thinking, “That’s the one!” I can hear still that little crack in the voice right now, but it was never discussed before or after. We just used it. He was in the zone.

 Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry); Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry)

Kurtwood Smith (Mr. Perry); Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry)

Tom, in an early version of the script, Keating had leukemia. Why did you ultimately jettison that idea?

TS: When I got to a later stage of the screenplay—around page 70 or 80, I started to feel a need to explain why Keating had this ���Carpe Diem” philosophy that was so important to him, so I decided he’d have a fatal disease, but one like Hodgkin’s lymphoma, where you can live 20 or 30 years, but it’ll ultimately shorten your life, and you will die prematurely. So, I wrote a scene where the boys come to class and Keating isn’t there, and then they find out he’s in the hospital. They go see him, and that’s when they learn about his disease. Then the next day, he’s back in class, after surviving his latest acute attack, and back to his old self. Well, when Peter Weir got the script, I heard from the studio that he had a problem with the ending, and I was thinking, “What’s his issue?” And the studio heads said, “You’ll have to talk to Peter.”

PW: I actually turned the film down, because of this. I was given the script by [then Walt Disney Studios chairman] Jeff Katzenberg, who said, “I’ve got just the thing for you,” and he handed me the script just before I was about to fly back to Sydney. I never read on planes, but because of this curious title—Dead Poets Society—I couldn’t resist. I really loved the story, until I came to the ending, and I was so disappointed. So, when Jeff rang a couple of weeks later, and asked, “What do you think?” I said, “Look, I’m going to pass.” And he said “Why?” And I said, “Because you go through the whole story, and it’s about seizing the day, and you have this wonderful, inspiring teacher, who I would have followed, and I would have definitely become part of the "Dead Poets Society," but then you come to the scene with Keating in the hospital, and you realize he’s got leukemia, and that’s why he was saying “seize the say”? Well, who wouldn’t say that under those circumstances? As I remember it, Jeff said to me, “What if you just cut the cancer out?” (laughs). He was like a medical script doctor. So, after that phone call, I ripped out those four pages, and the story still flowed. So, I said to Jeff “I’ll do it, but how will Tom take this?”

TS: I spent a good deal of time fretting when Peter told me he had a problem with the hospital scene, because people who read the script told me how affected they were by it. I was reluctant to take it out. Then Peter said, “Look, I won’t make you take that scene out, but if you don’t, I’m not directing the movie. And furthermore, if you don’t want to eliminate that scene out of your own volition, I’m still not directing the movie.” So I’m like, “Jesus, Peter, this is a high bar, here!” But then he said something I completely agreed with, when he explained that at the end of the movie, when the boys stand on their desks, it would be easy to make that gesture for somebody who’s dying. But if he’s not dying, then we know they’re standing up for the values he’s taught them, which is much more powerful. When I heard that, I thought, “Damn it, Peter, you’re right.” And that was the end of it.

But if Keating were in ill health, wouldn’t Robin Williams have had to calibrate his performance, to convey fatigue and lethargy?

TS: Actually, Dustin Hoffman was originally cast to play Keating, and he said to me, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds to play this character,” because he took the note about dying very seriously, and he was planning to extend it all the way backwards and forwards into his character. He was determined to provide breadcrumbs, through the way he looked. This really bothered me, because that’s not what I intended to define this character. But it was hard to fight Dustin, because I didn’t have that kind of ammo. But then Dustin was out, and Peter was in, so that was that.

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Contrarily, you and Peter both fervently agreed that Neil Perry had to die, as an essential plot point, correct?

TS: Which was a profound choice. Peter told me that Ingmar Bergman once said that if you kill off one of your lead characters, the audience will hate you. So, I asked him what we should do, and he said: “Hope Bergman is wrong!” (laughs). But I think suicide does turn off a lot of people. It’s a tough one.

PW: My biggest concern with Neil’s death was that if the film was successful—and I had no idea that it would be—there would be copycat suicides. So, I sent the death scene to a very good psychiatrist who dealt with youth suicide, and asked him how I could shoot it in a way that made it clear that Neil wasn’t making a heroic choice by shooting himself. The psychiatrist said, “You have to make him weak. Give him a moment where he has the opportunity to speak up—where he should speak up to his father, but he can’t find the courage." I also kept the camera angled high above him, to make him look diminished. So, right after Mr. Perry tells Neil he’s forcing him to go to military college, Neil looks utterly defeated. He could have said, “I don’t want the life you’re setting up for me. I want to be an actor.” But he can’t.

And the reveal of the suicide was handled delicately, by simply showing a waft of gun smoke rising from behind the desk.

PW: I almost wish you could smell that smoke. There are moments when you’re making a film, where you wish the audience could experience that missing sense.

Ethan, in the final scene, where the students stand on their desks, a practical lamp was hung from the ceiling, low above your head, and the gaffer offered to raise the lamp higher, because you were overexposed. However, everyone agreed that it was okay if half of your face was too hot, because your character changed the most, therefore it was logical to show both the light and dark sides of you. Were you aware of your special lighting treatment?

EH: What you’re talking about is my education. Just sitting and listening to John Seale and Peter Weir and their collaborators talk about cinematography, you see firsthand the way they studied paintings, and how they communicate the way light and colors make you feel. In that moment, I learned that it’s okay to be overexposed, because Peter was hell-bent on getting at something. That whole day was so exciting. The back wall was filled with speakers, cranking out the soundtrack to The Mission, and it was so emotional in that room. And when Robin said his “Goodbye, boys!” line, he had tears streaming down his face, but Peter was like, “No! You can’t cry! The audience will be crying—but not you. You don’t cry until after you leave, and you’re alone in your car. Right now, you want those boys to take care of themselves, so you keep it together, for them. Just say ‘Thank you’ and get out!’” And Robin was like, “Fuck, you’re right!” I learned so much that day.

Finally, Tom, you’ve written many other hit films like What About Bob, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and Welcome to Mooseport. Where does Poets personally rank for you?

TS: It’s my favorite film, because it’s closest to my life, in that so many of the characters were plucked from people I knew growing up. And working with Peter, and that whole class, was a pleasure.

Did you ever imagine that the “Carpe Diem” line would have such a lasting impact?

TS: I had hoped it would. Why write something, if you don’t think it’s powerful?

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