Ah yes; Peter Weir. The brains behind the Australian psychodrama Picnic At Hanging Rock (girls go on picnic, some go missing, people go nuts), the Australian mystical drama The Last Wave (murder occurs, dude becomes friends with a group of Aborigines, dude goes nuts) and the Australian war drama Gallipoli (dude goes and fights in a losing WWI battle; war makes people nuts) and…the heart-warming all-American prep school dramedy Dead Poets Society?
One of these is not like the others.
But it was a long road from film conception to asking Peter "Making Australia Seem Creepy Since 1970" Weir to sit his heiney in the director's chair.
Touchstone had several directors in mind for Dead Poets Society, all of whom had very different plans for the direction of the film. Jeff Kanew, director of the hits Revenge of the Nerds and Troop Beverly Hills, was initially given the gig.
Kanew had some pretty specific ideas about the film. He wanted Liam Neeson to play Mr. Keating, but Touchstone stood firm in their desire for Robin Williams to take the role. Unfortunately, Williams and Kanew just didn't see eye-to-eye. The first days of filming were disastrous.
So disastrous…that they even burned the sets when the project was eventually abandoned.
Yep. Burned 'em to the ground.
That's not the end of the story, though: there was also a brief interlude where Dustin Hoffman was slated to both direct and star in the film. This was nixed due to scheduling conflicts.
The studio kept searching. With the encouragement of writer Tom Schulman, they finally gave the gig to the Australian director Peter Weir, who had just directed Witness, a film about a boy who lives with the Amish as part of the witness protection program. It starred Harrison Ford and won two Oscars (and was nominated for plenty more), so he seemed like a safe bet.
It was. Weir was a natural fit for the script, which required sensitive, dramatic scenes as well as comedic timing. He and Schulman worked together during filming, a story that isn't often told in the world of prima-donna directors.
His relationship with the actors, too, wasn't the typical Hollywood story. He had the boys live together in a dorm to simulate their boarding-school experience. They bonded just like their characters would have at Welton. He also had them study the era, making them become familiar with 1950s music and movies.
His methods worked: the film received critical acclaim, and Weir himself was nominated for an Oscar in 1990. Doesn't get much better than that.
Nashville-born Tom Schulman didn't really have much experience with attending a private East Coast boys' school in the late 1950s, but that doesn't mean he didn't write a script that hit pretty close to home. Dead Poets Society was based on a college preparatory school just outside of Nashville that he attended…and some of the people are even based on his fellow students and teachers.
He also studied acting, and based some of the script on his experiences there:
"The roots of this film were in acting school. I wanted to write something about the experiences I had with a teacher named Harold Klerman, who was this grand old man of Broadway." (Source)
There were actually a couple teachers that inspired him the way Mr. Keating inspires the boys of the DPS, and so he made them into a composite character that had the energy, charisma, and insight of both. (See? We knew Mr. Keating was too good to be just one dude.)
And so Dead Poets Society—which he pitched as a boarding-school, coming-of-age comedic drama—was born. It wasn't his first script ever, but it was the first script that he sold…after a lengthy period of rejection. Studios turned the script down based on the title alone, but he refused to change it.
Way to be stubborn, Shuls.
Disney even wanted to rename it Sultans of Strut and make it into a Fame-style musical. (Yep, you heard Shmoop right. A musical.). But Schulman stood firm (phew), and the script finally found backing…despite the still-weak support for the title.
Schulman was given a lot of control over the film, which is actually pretty rare. But that doesn't mean it was all smooth sailing.
After cycling through a few directors until landing Peter Weir, they still needed a cast. Shulman felt that his script would only work with exactly the perfect ensemble, and he was right.
"Lots of people came and read, and I would think, "My script is terrible." Then someone would come along and make it come alive, and inevitably that was the person who was cast." (Source)
It took a while, but the film finally found its cast. Schulman, who was allowed on set throughout, could see his words brought to life in each of the actors…with a few changes here and there.
Originally, the character of Mr. Keating was supposed to be suffering from cancer. Peter Weir decided to cut this from the script midway through shooting, a decision that Schulman would later come to be thankful for.
And we're also guessing he was pretty thankful just in general: in 1990, Dead Poets Society would go on to win Schulman an Oscar for best original screenplay.
Guess his persistence paid off.
When viewers think of Disney, they most likely picture Donald, Mickey, Mulan, or Ella.
But children's cartoons aren't the only forte of the massive company. Touchstone Pictures (originally Touchstone Films) was created in 1984 to cater to a more adult audience, creating movies that could go a little more serious (and darker) than the typical Disney fare.
Their first film, the mermaid-romcom Splash, was a giant success. It was followed by hits like Pretty Woman, Sister Act, and Armageddon among (many, many) others.
When they acquired the script for Dead Poets Society from Tom Schulman, they originally intended to make it into a musical (think High School Musical, only moodier). But ultimately, their formula of drama/comedies with hearts of gold proved too successful to change. Thank goodness (not that we don't love a good musical.)
That's not to say the film didn't face a few more potential changes before filming started. The studio was set on Robin Williams as Mr. Keating, but it took a couple of directors before they found someone who agreed. (Dustin Hoffman was initially set to direct and play Mr. Keating, and another director had Liam Neeson in mind for the role.)
The studio also initially planned to film in Georgia instead of Vermont, though they had to scrap that in order to get snow.
Just imagine: Dead Poets Society could've been set in the South, with some musical and dance numbers and an Irish-accented Mr. Keating.
When a film has a cinematographer famous for films dramas like Rain Man, Cold Mountain, and Witness, it might come as no surprise that the film is atmospheric without being too flashy. All of John Seale's films do their best to tell the story without overshadowing the writing and acting…though they do have some pretty sophisticated methods of storytelling.
For instance, take the scene where Charles wakes up Todd and tells him that Neil is dead. We have a closeup of Charles' face, but not Todd's. Then we cut to a snowscape, with figures walking toward a big white expanse. Todd runs ahead of them. When we close in on the boys, he throws up into the snow, and they comfort him before we zoom out and watch him fade into the white, alone.
Seale uses nature to tell the story of the boy's grief without resorting to much dialogue. Instead, he tells the story of Todd's disbelief and shock by incorporating the stillness and grimness of winter.
Despite setting much of the film inside Welton, the outdoors plays a huge role in establishing the locale (the East) and the seasonal changes. The film was originally slated to be shot in Georgia, but Weir wanted the snow scene to look believable, so they moved shooting to Delaware's St. Andrew's school.
One thing about the score that you might have noticed right away: you don't really notice much music. But that doesn't mean it doesn't play an important role in the film.
Sure, the (super emotional) story and the (super emotional) acting do most of the work in the film. And yes, the atmospheric setting helps, too. But music can establish atmosphere in a special way, and Peter Weir and composer Maurice Jarre use it to up the ante—emotionally—all the time.
For example, as the boys venture into the night for their first DPS meeting, Jarre underscores the scene with eerie, shimmery music. It matches the mist of the forest and sets a downright spooky tone.
Later, he allows for a touch of rock'n'roll to a backdrop of fencing and traditional Welton activities. This provides a contrast, rather than a distraction. While other young people are out dancing and relaxing, the Welton boys are engaged in more traditional activities. No rock'n'roll for them. And that's a shame, because by 1959, the style was just getting good.
But it isn't all light-hearted and whimsical. When Neil dies, the underscore is tragic and light; the boys' grief takes front stage. And when Mr. Keating leaves the classroom for the final time, the tone is one of victory. We hear bagpipes and are brought right back to the opening scene, before the drama even begins.
And once you notice that, we're betting you can't listen with dry eyes.
Jarre knew what he was doing. The composer has scored a number of big-hit films, like Lawrence of Arabia, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Ghost (among a ton of others). He's a pro at letting the music help tell the story, rather than distract from it.
If this film had too many distracting songs, we might not notice the subtle emotional changes that characters like Mr. Keating, Todd, or Neil experience. And that's part of the film's magic: we're too busy wiping our eyes to notice what's happening behind the scenes.
Carpe Diem. Seize The Day. Make Your Script Super-Quotable.
It's no surprise that a film so eminently quotable would inspire some fandom.
The American Film institute voted the quote "Carpe Diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary" as the 95th greatest movie quote of all time. While the character wasn't the first to coin the phrase "Carpe Diem" (Horace was, all the way back—and we mean way back—in his Odes), it's definitely one that, with the help of Dead Poets Society, has become pretty widely used.
Aw, shucks. Now we're getting misty-eyed.