Getting it on Paper
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.
Getting It Made
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.