7 Screenwriting Lessons from DEAD POETS SOCIETY Screenwriter Tom Schulman

By Anna Klassen · May 9, 2018

One of the most memorable dramas of the late ‘80s, Dead Poets Society, starring Robin Williams, is a movie about a group of young men who stand up for their unconventional but profound and lovable teacher. Though the film was acclaimed by audiences and critics alike, Tom Schulman, who wrote the script nearly 20 years ago, struggled to get the movie made. During a time of big blockbusters and over-the-top ‘80s villains, a story about students finding themselves with the help of poetry and a sensitive teacher seemed impossible to make — let alone succeed. And yet, against all odds, it did.

During a conversation at Austin Film Festival in 2015, Schulman deconstructed the story’s journey from script to screen, and shares memories of working with the legend himself, Robin Williams, along with director Peter Weir. Here are the seven biggest pearls of wisdom from the conversation.

1. Write What You Love — If It’s Good, It’ll Get Made

When Schulman turned in his first draft of Dead Poets Society to his agent, he thought his client was crazy. “‘Why would you write something like this on spec when no one will make this movie?’” He recalls his agent saying. Though both Schulman and his agent agreed it was the best thing he had ever written, Schulman was told it would never, ever, get made. “‘It’s one of the best scripts I ever read,’” his agent said. “’But why would you write it?’”

Schulman’s representation was both frustrated and impressed. He loved the script, but worried his client had wasted his time. It was a movie that would be quiet, introspective, without any explosions or eye-catching set pieces, and yet, in the end, it did get made. And not only was it made, it was embraced by mass audiences, proving movies beyond Die Hard, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones could be a hit with ‘80s audiences.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Up On Set

After Schulman’s script was greenlit, he was afforded the rare opportunity to be on set of the film to offer notes. While many writers are present on set of their films being made, it’s rare to have a director who wants your opinion and values it during shooting. Weir told Schulman that if he had any suggestions for the actors in any given scene he could give them notes, and so he did.

He gave Robin Williams a note, and Williams took it. Though both Schulman and the director decided the note didn’t actually work in the end, it was a valuable learning experience. Schulman stresses the importance of taking advantage of this opportunity as a writer: Utilize every experience you are offered and don’t be afraid to fail.

3. Realize That Your Ideas Aren’t Always The Best Ideas

Schulman wrote a piece of poetry for Williams to quote in one scene where he’s having lunch with a fellow teacher. “I had written something, but Robin’s stand-in came up to me and said, ‘I wrote a little poem I think would be perfect for that moment.’” And because filmmaking is a collaboration, Schulman read what the stand-in had written for the scene.

“It was great, wonderful, it’s in the movie. It was that kind of set… very open,” he says.

Schulman stresses that even if you are the writer of the film, it doesn’t necessarily mean your ideas are the best ideas. As the old adage goes: the best idea wins.

4. Don’t Be Married To Your Dialogue

In one scene they were shooting in the classroom, Robin Williams sounded robotic and tense when reciting the exact dialogue from the script. To remedy this, the director asked Robin to perform an improv sequence. They filmed it, and the scene made it into the final cut of the film. Writing good dialogue is important, but if for whatever reason what you wrote on the page isn’t working, don’t be precious with your words. As Schulman discovered, allowing the actors to improv is what made the difference between an unwatchable scene and a memorable one.

5. Trust The Director

When Weir was contemplating coming on board to direct the film, he had one big problem with the script: “His only problem was the ending,” Schulman says, and explains: “On about page 80 or so the boys show up for class and the teacher isn’t there, turns out he’s in the hospital.”

Schulman gave Williams’ character cancer, using the illness as a way to justify the character’s unconventional outlook and philosophy on life. But the director said this was no good. “’I’m not going to make the movie unless you agree that this is the right thing to do,’” Schulman recalls him saying. “’It’s easy for anybody to stand up for someone who is dying, but if he’s not dying, then we know they’re standing up for what he’s taught them, what they believe,’” the director said.

In the end, Schulman decided the director was right and scrapped the cancer storyline.

6. Levity Is Key

Schulman’s original script was heavily dramatic. Though the movie is, of course, a drama, it relies on moments of levity, especially moments in which the students can have fun. The director wanted to ensure that it felt like real kids being kids. That they didn’t just “go into the woods and read poetry to each other,” they also goofed around. As well as being more truthful, these playful moments gave audiences a moment to exhale in an otherwise intense film.

7. You Don’t Have To Have Everything Figured Out

Lastly, Tom did something that every screenwriter has been told a million times not to do: He started writing the film before he knew what would happen at the end. Though he wouldn’t necessarily recommend this method, sometimes the ending will come to you once you dive into the characters and their arcs. In the case of Dead Poets Society, this risky approach to writing a risky script worked.

Watch the full video below.

Anna is an editor and screenwriter. She previously worked at Bustle as an Entertainment Editor, as well as Newsweek, The Daily Beast, and BuzzFeed.

Photo credit: Touchstone Pictures

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