Behind-The-Scenes Stories From 'Dead Poets Society'

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Vote up the most compelling tales from the making of the 1989 prep-school favorite.

Dead Poets Society was a hit from the moment it opened on June 2, 1989. The movie earned a domestic gross of $95 million - an impressive sum at that time, especially given it was competing against Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Ghostbusters II, and Batman. It was also nominated for four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (for Robin Williams), and Best Director (for Peter Weir). It won Best Original Screenplay for Tom Schulman's script. Critics raved as well. The film has an 85% "Tomatometer" rating and 92% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, where it is "certified fresh."

Just as important as any of those attributes is the fact that Dead Poets Society touched the hearts of millions. Even now, more than 30 years after its initial release, it's still a picture people come back to. That's due in part to Williams's touching performance as Professor John Keating, the English teacher who inspires a group of prep school students played by Robert Sean Leonard, Ethan Hawke, Josh Charles, and Gale Hansen, among others. Much care and consideration went into making the film, which the following behind-the-scenes stories demonstrate. From Williams pushing aside some serious personal problems, to young Hawke's first transcendent acting experience, these production tales will help you understand how this modern classic came to be. 

  • 1
    161 VOTES

    After The Shoot, Robin Williams Helped Ethan Hawke Get An Agent

    Dead Poets Society was only Ethan Hawke's second film. He'd made Joe Dante's sci-fi comedy Explorers a few years earlier, but was still in the process of trying to make a name for himself in show business. His initial belief that Robin Williams didn't like him was disproved when the established star took Hawke under his wing and helped him get an agent

    Hawke said he got a phone call out of the blue from an agent, who told him, "Robin Williams says you are going to do really well." The agent signed him, and Hawke went on to appear in a string of increasingly bigger movie roles as varied as White Fang, A Midnight Clear, and Reality Bites

    161 votes
  • One of the keys to directing a livewire like Robin Williams was to create a structure for him to follow, but also to allow enough room for him to bring in his specific kind of magic. That approach worked beautifully for Barry Levinson on Good Morning, Vietnam, and it worked for Peter Weir, too. Although Dead Poets Society is largely a serious film, he scheduled a half-day for Williams to abandon the script and "do his thing." And he made sure the other actors were prepared:

    We set up three cameras in the corners of the room, and I told the boys, "Robin’s coming in after lunch to do a scene that isn’t in the script. Just remember: he’s still your teacher, Mr. Keating, and you’ll wreck the scene if you laugh like you’re watching a standup comic. So act amused, but don’t overdo it."

    The director hid this unscripted half-day from the executives at Disney. In the end, it worked. Williams's impersonations of John Wayne and Marlon Brando made it into the final cut. 

    142 votes
  • 3
    138 VOTES

    Peter Weir Consulted With A Psychologist To Avoid Glamorizing Suicide

    Of all the issues the movie deals with, teen suicide is the most sensitive. In the third act, popular student Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard) takes his own life. The revelation hits the audience like a punch. Peter Weir was aware the potential existed to accidentally glamorize suicide, which he did not want to do. To avoid the problem, he consulted with a psychiatrist about the scene. 

    Weir asked "how I could shoot it in a way that made it clear that Neil wasn’t making a heroic choice by shooting himself." The psychiatrist suggested providing Neil with "a moment where he has the opportunity to speak up - where he should speak up to his father, but he can’t find the courage."

    That worked, and Weir said he accentuated the effect by keeping the camera angled high above Leonard, to make him look diminished.

    138 votes
  • 4
    125 VOTES

    Ethan Hawke Has Been ‘Chasing That Feeling’ Of Making The Film Ever Since

    In one of Dead Poets Society's signature scenes, the shy and introverted Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is asked by Professor Keating to come to the front of the class, ostensibly to talk about writer Walt Whitman. In reality, Keating is doing some impromptu therapy. He puts his hands over Anderson's eyes, encouraging the student to block everything else out and unleash his "barbaric yawp." It works, with Anderson spewing out a free-association of ideas that reveal what a deep thinker he is.

    If the scene is powerful to watch, shooting it was equally so. Most was accomplished in a single shot, with the camera swirling around Williams and Hawke as they created this moment of revelation. Hawke was particularly impacted by the authentic work they did, saying he's been "chasing that feeling" ever since: 

    It was the first time I really felt the experience of being an actor, where I could lose myself inside a story, and lose myself inside a collective imagination.

    125 votes
  • 5
    122 VOTES

    The Young Men Called Peter Weir ‘O Captain! My Captain!’

    Peter Weir had an unusual challenge in directing Dead Poets Society, as he was working with many young actors. Although talented across the board, most of them were largely inexperienced, having only a few credits on their resumes. To help whip them into shape, he had the performers live together during filming. He also shot chronologically, to capture the way their relationships developed over time. 

    The actors responded positively to being guided by the Oscar-nominated director. And just as their characters do to Professor Keating, the cast members called Weir "Oh Captain! My Captain!" According to Josh Charles, who portrayed Knox Overstreet:

    Everything that Robin's character is to us in the film is everything that Peter was to us as actors in the film.

    122 votes
  • 6
    118 VOTES

    Robin Williams Was Going Through A Painful Divorce During Filming

    Despite the character's positivity toward his students and embrace of the "seize the day" ethic, there's a detectable melancholic quality to Professor Keating. We can tell he's a guy who has some heavy thoughts going on inside. That's something Robin Williams could relate to. The zany comedian had previously battled drug addiction, and during the filming of Dead Poets Society, he was going through a painful divorce from his first wife, Valerie Velardi.

    By all accounts, the actor maintained complete professionalism on the set. Nevertheless, his coworkers knew he was troubled. Ethan Hawke said, "It was obvious he was in a tremendous amount of pain. Anybody who was watching knew."

    Norman Lloyd, who portrayed Headmaster Gale Nolan, added: 

    [Williams] masked the whole thing very carefully. It was never evident in the work. It was all kept under control.

    118 votes