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Tom Schulman won an Oscar® for Best Screenplay for Dead Poets' Society (1989), his first script to be produced as a feature film. The movie, starring Robin Williams as a brilliant, unconventional English teacher at a boys' prep school, is a sensitive study of the value - and the price - of nonconformity. The year is 1959; the setting is Welton Academy, a tradition-bound boarding school where the unorthodox teaching methods of Professor Keating (Williams) inspire his students as much as they alarm the conservative school administration. Keating, who inspires the young men to revive a secret society of poetry readers to which he belonged when he was a student at Welton, tells them, "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys - make your lives extraordinary!" His philosophy proves both liberating and dangerous, leading one of the students to a drastic decision.
Interviewed in the Jurgen Wolff/Kerry Cox book Top Secrets: Screenwriting, Schulman said he never attended prep school but was inspired to write Dead Poets Society after hearing a lecture by the "unbelievably dynamic and inspiring" Broadway director Harold Clurman, who could "light a fire under you that was incredible." Other influences were Schulman's own English teachers and a father who was "always quoting poetry to me, little kernels of wisdom."
After director Peter Weir was assigned to direct Dead Poets Society, he persuaded Schulman to make one major change in the screenplay. In the original version, the Williams character is dying of leukemia. Schulman said that Weir "pointed out that a dying general leading his men into battle isn't a very courageous man - after all, he has nothing to lose." The revised screenplay allowed the focus to remain on the struggles of the students, who include aspiring writer Todd (Ethan Hawke), would-be actor Neil (Sean Robert Leonard), intellectual Steven (Allelon Ruggiero) and romantic Knox (Josh Charles).
Produced by Disney's Touchstone Pictures and filmed at St. Andrews, a private boarding school in Delaware, Dead Poets Society was shot in chronological order because Weir felt that was the best way to capture the growing rapport between Williams and the young actors cast as his students.
The film marked a breakthrough for Williams, moving him in a more disciplined and humanistic direction as an actor and winning him a second Best Actor Oscar nomination. (The first was for Good Morning, Vietnam (1987), which gave free reign to his brilliance at comic improvisation.) He would continue to show his sensitive side in The Fisher King (1991), which earned him a third Best Actor nomination; and Good Will Hunting (1997), which brought the award itself as Best Supporting Actor. Dead Poets Society, which set Leonard and Hawke on the road to stardom, also won Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Director (Weir).
Despite its overall seriousness, Williams' performance as Keaton contains flashes of his comic persona, including impersonations of John Wayne and - in an amusing goof in chronology -- Marlon Brando in The Godfather. (While Dead Poets Society is set in the late 50s, the Brando movie wasn't released until 1972.)
Producers: Steven Haft, Paul Junger Witt, Tony Thomas, Duncan Henderson (associate)
Director: Peter Weir
Screenplay: Tom Schulman
Production Design: Wendy Stites
Cinematography: John Seale
Costume Design: Marilyn Matthews
Editing: William M. Anderson, Lee Smith
Original Music: Maurice Jarre, David Hykes
Principal Cast: Robin Williams (John Keating), Robert Sean Leonard (Neil Perry), Ethan Hawke (Todd Anderson), Josh Charles (Knox Overstreet), Gale Hansen (Charles Dalton), Dylan Kussman (Richard Cameron), Allelon Ruggiero (Steven Meeks).
C-129m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe