Dead Poets Society: why it works and how it happened
Perhaps the most beloved of Robin Williams' films. we look back at Dead Poets Society, and how it nearly fell apart.
This piece contains spoilers for Dead Poets Society.
“A profane and unauthorised article”
The late Roger Ebert was never much of a fan of Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film that picked up a BAFTA for Best Picture, and also earned Robin Williams his second Best Actor Oscar nomination. In fact, a few other high profile critics also confessed to not being bowled over. Yet in the aftermath of Williams’ tragic death in 2014, it was the infamous “O Captain, my Captain” line from Dead Poets that many turned to. And it’s a film that – for many reasons – is the most fondly remembered of Williams’ career.
Dead Poets Society, after all, is a film that means a lot to a lot of people. That considered, though, it’d be remiss to not see some of what Ebert had to say. There’s something steadfastly straightforward about the narrative drive of the film, for example. Furthermore, Williams’ performance does veer between the kind of improvisational comedy he’d won acclaim for previously in Good Morning, Vietnam, and the quiet restraint that he’d tune to near perfection in the likes of One Hour Photo. There’s a debate there about whether he breaks character with the former, or whether that’s part of Keating.
But you know what? The film gets people, and that in itself is no small achievement. What’s more, I think it works. I for one have always been fond of the film. I think there are deserved reasons why it’s stood the test of time, and why it still manages to move as many people as it does.
And I think much of that has to do with director Peter Weir, and his wrangling of an excellent ensemble cast.
Before we get there far, though, it’d be remiss not to acknowledge that Dead Poets Society didn’t easily slip into production.
Tom Schulman penned the screenplay for the movie, basing the story loosely around his experience at a Tennessee-based prep school. He created the character of John Keating, the role Williams would take, as a mix of two of his own teachers (when Williams took the part, he saw Keating as the kind of teacher he wished he’d had). And it would go on to be the first screenplay he sold, eventually winning him an Oscar for his troubles.
Furthermore, the version of the script that he eventually sent off was his very first. As he revealed in the commentary on the disc release, he wrote further revisions, but elected to send off draft zero. It would prove a wise choice.
That said, getting the film to the screen wasn’t straightforward. Disney, through its Touchstone arm, bought the project, and toyed at one stage with making it into a musical(!). But eventually, it hired Jeff Kanew – the director of Revenge Of The Nerds – to helm the movie. If you’re thinking he sounds like an odd choice, then you might just be right.
Kanew – not unreasonably – had his own casting ideas. He wanted Liam Neeson for the role of Keating (and Mel Gibson had also turned the part down by this stage), but Disney was keen to re-employ Williams.
Williams himself never actually turned the part of Keating down, but it was little secret that he wasn’t keen on the choice of Kanew to direct Dead Poets Society. Thus, Disney tried a hardball tactic to try and get everything moving. It elected to build the sets, to basically get everything ready, and hope that Williams would turn up to the first day of shooting.
But he didn’t.
That’s why, as this Mental Floss article notes, the sets to Dead Poets Society were promptly burned down a day into production. Not metaphorically. Literally. The film’s future didn’t look too clever, and the project was put on hold, and it would be a number of months before it came back to life. For even then, after Kanew departed the film, Dustin Hoffman was next in line. He in fact signed on both to play John Keating, and to helm the project. Yet scheduling difficulties meant that he too ultimately had to pass.
Eventually, then, the film landed on the desk of eventual director Peter Weir. He, in turn, was able to take on Dead Poets due to a delay to his planned then-current project, Green Card (that he would make immediately after he’d done with Dead Poets Society, casting Gerard Depardieu and Andie MacDowell). Then-Disney chief Jeffrey Katzenberg asked him if he’d fill in the 12 month gap by making another film, and Weir duly read the screenplay on a long haul flight. He soon signed on the dotted line.
With Weir on board, things came together. Several months after the first attempt to start production, cameras started rolling, but not before the new director had assembled his young cast for two weeks of rehearsals (they also stayed in the same place together for the duration of the shoot).
I think, on screen, the ensemble that Dead Poets manages to assemble is what helps makes it so special. Notwithstanding the careers the film launched – Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard for a start – there’s a believability to the pupils of Welton.
Take the character of Cameron as an example. He’s easy to write off as one of the antagonists, but – thanks in no small part to the work of actor Dylan Kussman – you understand why he makes the choices he makes. Originally, for instance, Cameron was set to join the bunch of students standing on their desks come the end of the movie, yet Kussman objected. Cameron wouldn’t do that, he argued. And he was right – that goes against the moment where he implores his colleagues to “do exactly what I did”. The moving final scene is thus all the more authentic because there are a number of boys still seated, contrasted with those who stand defiantly on their desks.
Ethan Hawke, for one, has spoken of the camaraderie that Weir encouraged amongst his young cast, and the lengths he’d go to in order to get them to bond together. They rehearsed together, lived together, and by the time shooting began, the young ensemble had a familiarity that comes across on screen. It was an approach reminiscent to the one Francis Ford Coppola employed with The Outsiders.
In fact, the only person who wasn’t really ready come day one of shooting was Robin Williams.
It’s hard to think now, given the diverse body of work Williams left us with, that this was a first real venture into outright drama for him. As such, in the early days, his performance wasn’t quite clicking. The moment it did fall into place was the first scene where he got to improvise the teaching of a lesson to his young students. Then, he found his feet. As it turned out, unusually, Dead Poets Society was shot sequentially, and so the early nervousness of being a new teacher at Welton, I’d argue, added to the character.
Weir was open to improvisation beyond Williams, it should be noted, and generous with his cast. As John Badham notes in his excellent books on film directing, the best directors listen. The memorable moment, where Todd (Ethan Hawke) throws his deskset off the top of the roof? That came from Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard just trying things to make the scene work. They went away, worked on it together, and came up with the answer.
Furthermore, Melora Walters recalled Peter Weir taking her aside on her first day (and on her first big film, remember), and encouraging her to speak up if something wasn’t working. Given that she’d just come from a tough shoot for an NYU project, and noting her relative infancy in the profession at that stage, that came as something as a surprise to her. Yet the best directors treat people right.
On rewatching Dead Poets Society, one thing that quickly struck me is how good Weir is at world-building. When we talk about this, we’re usually in the realms of a fantasy film, or a comic book movie. Yet go across most of Weir’s work – The Truman Show is another great example – and he’s exemplary at letting us know where we stand, quickly. In this case, one school assembly and we pretty much know the rules here. This frees him up to spend quality time with the film’s characters.
Still, there are many reasons I think why Dead Poets Society resonates with so many people. The academia backing is obviously something unifying to an extent, but there’s a real sense that work’s been put in to give characters some meat to them.
Kurtwood Smith, then.
Most people cite him as the film’s villain, and Smith himself has subsequently admitted that he made no effort to make the character of Mr Perry likeable. But he did make him understandable. At heart, he’s a man with one son, who he wants to have the very best. Sure, he’s strict, harsh, and that bloke who tried to take down RoboCop. But Kurtwood Smith’s outstanding performance makes sure that Mr Perry is also a human being.
Look at his reaction – although I never liked the slo-mo – when he discovers his son’s body. A two dimensional bastard? Far from it, even with relatively little screen time.
The film also makes an appreciated and generally successful effort to explore many of his characters, without feeling packed. It affords room for Josh Charles’ Knox to get on the wrong side of Chet Danburry, for instance, by wooing Alexandra Powers’ Chris Noel. Gale Hansen’s Charlie, meanwhile, undergoes a transformation of his own into Nuwanda, giving him the crowd-pleasing moment at the end when he lands one on Dylan Kussman’s Cameron. I like that bit a lot. Shame he got expelled, though.
In all, there are effectively four narratives at work: Nuwanda’s transformation, Knox attempting to date Chris, Todd overcoming his nervousness and shyness to stand on his desk, and Neil’s tragic tale. The unifying link between them all is Keating, and I think Williams’ performance – and he’s not on screen anywhere near as much as you may remember – is really very generous. It feels like he’s constantly front and centre of the film, but he really isn’t.
As with most films, there’s a lot of Dead Poets Society that we ultimately didn’t see. The assorted disc releases of Dead Poets Society have given a glimpse as to material that was shot, but never made the final cut of the movie. Going through the extra scenes, it’s hard to quarrel with Weir’s decision to cut them out. At the discovery of Neil’s body, for instance, the original plan was to intercut the build up and aftermath of the suicide with a joyous impromptu meeting of the Dead Poets Society.
Neil Perry wasn’t the only character death in the original plan for the movie, either. By Schulman’s original script for the film, John Keating is said to be dying of cancer. At one stage, the boys discover this. It was Peter Weir who removed that moment, but the implication remains that Keating is battling a terminal illness in Dead Poets Society (after all, the cast didn’t know the scene would be cut while they were filming the movie). One reason why teh character of Keating needed the “Captain, my Captain” moment at the end, Weir explained, was simply to help him keep going. This was a dying man, devastated by the loss of Neil.
It’s hinted too, again on one of the disc commentaries, that a further scene in the cave would see Nuwanda, erm, engaging in more physical poetry with one of the girls they brought back. And a sequence was shot too that would see Keating attend a meeting of the Dead Poets Society. By deleting the latter, Keating still had some distance from his students.
A compilation of some of the deleted scenes was actually included on the Laserdisc release of the film (and these are ones that haven’t popped up on DVD or Blu-ray since), and they’re available to view online. Right here, in fact…
There is one further inclusion in the film that’s never been given a full airing, too, and that’s Maurice Jarre’s wonderful score. For some reason, it’s never appeared in its entirety, instead appearing on a release where it was packed together with other Jarre music, included The Year Of Living Dangerously. Terrific music, but a fuller release of the Dead Poets score would still be appreciated.
I think most of us, though, are satisfied with what we ultimately did get with Dead Poets Society. It’s a movie that doesn’t need gimmicks, and doesn’t overforce its drama. Instead, it’s one of the best of the inspirational teacher films we got in the 80s and 90s (do check out Lean On Me if you haven’t, though. Best skip Dangerous Minds, though). It gets through a lot in two hours, and invests you enough in the characters and the world that
And like most popular films of its ilk, it was a mix of things going right. If Gerard Depardieu hadn’t had a year-long wait for his services, Peter Weir would have made Green Card instead. If Disney had stuck with its original director, then Robin Williams more than likely wouldn’t have been in the lead role. And if the sets hadn’t been burned down, and the whole thing put on hold, it might well be a very different film.
But that’s the movies for you, right? Continue to rest in peace, Captain.
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