Lessons Learned from Tom Schulman About His Oscar-Winning Script 'Dead Poets Society'
A few days ago at the 21st Austin Film Festival, I had the pleasure of moderating the Script-to-Screen: Dead Poets Society panel with the film's screenwriter, Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for this screenplay. Dead Poets Society is one of my all-time favorite films, and after 25 years, the movie still makes me tear up during the final scene when Todd stands on top of his desk, finds his voice and calls out "Oh Captain, My Captain" to Mr. Keating. During our 90-minute conversation, Schulman shared some great behind-the-scenes stories about writing the script and getting it to the big screen. I sincerely hope Austin Film Festival eventually shares portions of our conversation in a future podcast, but in the meantime, here are just a few lessons I learned from Schulman about his journey as a screenwriter on Dead Poets Society.
Thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dead Poets Society did not become the dance movie Sultans of Swing.
Disney acquired Schulman's script for Dead Poets Society in 1987, about two years after he wrote the original draft. As soon as they bought the script, they sent Schulman a stack of notes about how they would like to change the script. Most notably, they thought Schulman could rework it as a period piece about dancing teenagers. They even had a title picked out: Sultans of Swing. Naturally, this sent Schulman into a panic. When he arrived for his first face-to-face meeting with Disney studio executives, he didn't know what to expect. Before the meeting began, Jeffrey Katzenberg, then head of the studio, read through the notes while everyone else waited. Katzenberg eventually looked up from the notes and said to his team of executives, "Guys, don't you think you're throwing the baby out with the bathwater?" Then Katzenberg tossed the notes, told everybody in the room that they were going to make the script Schulman had written, and started to talk about casting ideas.
Less is more.
Screenwriters hear this imperative constantly: less is more. Schulman kindly shared a very specific example about how "less is more" was key to translating an early scene of Dead Poets Society from the page to the screen. In the scene when the boys attend their first class with Mr. Keating, the screenplay originally had Mr. Keating walk up and down the aisle of the classroom, sizing up the boys. Then, Keating suddenly jumps up on top of his desk and introduces himself with the Walt Whitman line, "Oh Captain, My Captain." After this dramatic introduction, he jumps down from the desk and heads out of the classroom to the honor room to give his "Carpe Diem" lesson.
Schulman explained that director Peter Weir shot the classroom scene as written, but both he and Schulman agreed at the end of the day that the scene was too much. Naturally, the studio loved the dramatic dailies with Robin Williams standing above the students, but Schulman and Weir realized they were hitting that note too strongly and too many times since Keating would jump back up onto his desk for a later scene, and then of course for the finale with the boys. So, Schulman and Weir decided it would be more effective to have Keating simply walk through the classroom quietly and out into the honor room, leaving the boys to wonder who this new teacher is. The studio executives were adamant that they could not reshoot the scene because of scheduling and budget, but with the help of the AD department, they fit it into schedule despite the studio's protests. The result is a excellent example of how "less is more" not only made a better scene, but also gave Keating a more dynamic arc by holding back the moment he jumps on top of the desk until later in the film.
Listening to your talent can lead to you to moments of truth.
For the Script-to-Screen panel, Schulman specifically chose the scene when Todd receives a desk set from his parents for his birthday again and Neil notices the aerodynamic qualities of the desk set as an example of how the talent contributed to the storytelling process. As originally written, the scene begins the same way, but then turns into a heavy moment when Todd reveals that his father used to call him "Five Ninety-Eight", a reference to what all the chemicals of the human body would be worth if they were bottled up and sold: $5.98. According to his father, that's all Todd was worth unless he made something of himself. Unlike his golden child older brother, Todd tells Neil that his parents never loved him unconditionally. Neil doesn't know what to say to Todd as Todd eventually walks off, leaving the desk set behind.
Schulman explained that he and Weir had always put a pin in the $5.98 scene because it felt like it was a bit too much, but they had not figured out the answer. A day or two before shooting the scene, Weir told Schulman that Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard had come up with an idea they wanted to try. Schulman trusted Weir's instincts. As a result, what was once a heavy emotional scene showing the audience the reason for Todd's loneliness became a wonderful scene of bonding between two boys finding a moment of common rebellion against their authoritative parents.
After we watched the scene together, Schulman pointed out his delight when watching Todd's smile as he pops up into frame as Neil encourages him to launch "the world's first, unmanned flying desk set." The tone of the scene is completely different from the page, but this moment of solidarity between Todd and Neil ripples through the rest of the film, making the final act so much more powerful.
I want to thank the Austin Film Festival for once again giving me the opportunity to moderate panels at this year's festival, as well as Tom Schulman for his candor about the writing and production of his Oscar-winning screenplay for Dead Poets Society. If you didn't have a chance to attend this year's Austin Film Festival, make sure you check out their On Story podcasts and television episodes all year long.
What are your favorite moments from Dead Poets Society that still resonate with you today? Share your thoughts with us in the comments.