The Untold Truth Of Dead Poets Society

Following a challenging beginning, “Dead Poets Society” emerged as an unexpected triumph for Disney, garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success (via The Numbers). Notably, it marked the first Touchstone Pictures production to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (per Moviefone).

Set in 1959 at the fictional all-boys prep school, Welton Academy, situated in Vermont, the film follows a group of students whose lives are transformed by their charismatic English teacher, John Keating, portrayed by the talented Robin Williams. Keating, a former member of the Dead Poets Society during his own student days at Welton, encourages his pupils to embrace individuality, seize the essence of existence, and cultivate their passion for life, poetry, and the arts.

While “Dead Poets Society” is a work of fiction, it draws inspiration from the experiences of its screenwriter, Tom Schulman, who received an Oscar for his screenplay (via IMDb). Join us as we delve into the lesser-known aspects of “Dead Poets Society.”

Fictional Origins of Welton Academy

Although depicted as being located in Vermont, Welton Academy is inspired by screenwriter Tom Schulman’s time at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville, Tennessee (via Montgomery Bell Academy). The film loosely mirrors Schulman’s own life, with its characters bearing resemblance to individuals from his personal experiences. Schulman revealed in an interview with the University of California Television that Knox Overstreet (played by Josh Charles) was modeled after a college friend deeply enamored with a girl named Chris.

In a conversation between Schulman and the Headmaster of Montgomery Bell Academy, Schulman discussed how he initially conceived the script based on his involvement in acting and writing classes in Los Angeles. However, the narrative truly came into focus when he shifted the setting to a boys’ school, emphasizing the profound impact of an inspiring teacher on his students’ lives.

Founded in 1867, Montgomery Bell Academy stands as Nashville’s sole boys’ school, renowned for its dedication to history and tradition. Even today, in the 21st century, echoes of Welton Academy’s emphasis on heritage and legacy reverberate through MBA’s mission of molding its students into “Gentlemen, Scholars, Athletes” (via Montgomery Bell Academy). While MBA functions as a day school rather than a boarding institution, the influence Schulman drew from his alma mater remains unmistakable.

John Keating was based upon Schulman’s professors

John Keating’s character in “Dead Poets Society” was deeply influenced by Schulman’s own experiences with his professors.

During his time at the Actors and Directors Lab in Los Angeles, Schulman found inspiration from his teacher’s mentor, Harold Clurman, known for his impassioned speeches to students. Feeling his initial script lacked something vital, Schulman set it aside temporarily.

However, Schulman’s perspective changed when he reminisced with his girlfriend about Samuel F. Pickering Jr., his sophomore English teacher at Montgomery Bell Academy. Encouraged by his girlfriend’s suggestion, Schulman began reworking the script, now set in an all-boys school. This shift brought clarity to the project, giving rise to the characters we now recognize. Pickering’s unconventional teaching methods served as the basis for John Keating’s character, while Clurman’s inspiring speeches shaped Keating’s motivational rhetoric.

Reflecting on his portrayal in the film, Pickering humbly acknowledged the influence but emphasized the fictional nature of the character. Despite his brief tenure at MBA, Pickering’s distinctive teaching style, including lecturing from atop desks or wastebaskets, left a lasting impact. Following his time at MBA, Pickering pursued further education and became an esteemed English professor and essayist with several published works.

“Dead Poets Society” encountered several hurdles during its development, including changes in both directors and actors. Initially, Jeff Kanew was slated to direct, with Mel Gibson considered for the role of Keating. However, after a series of setbacks, including creative differences and scheduling conflicts, the project saw multiple shifts in direction and casting choices. Ultimately, Peter Weir assumed directorial duties, and Robin Williams solidified his place as the iconic John Keating, breathing life into the beloved character and ensuring the film’s eventual success.

Dead Poets Society was filmed in Delaware

“Dead Poets Society” may be set in the fictional backdrop of Vermont, but its real-life filming location was the state of Delaware. In a unique twist, the movie marked the first instance of an entire film being shot within the confines of Delaware’s borders. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the film, Delaware Online shared intriguing insights into the production’s local ties.

The crew, consisting of 70 members, made their temporary home at the Radisson hotel in Wilmington, Delaware. However, some crew and cast members found the quaintness of the town somewhat lacking in after-hours entertainment, given the limited options available once the day’s filming wrapped up.

Several notable locations in Delaware served as crucial settings for the film. The Everett Theater, for instance, doubled as the venue for the play “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” within the movie. To celebrate the film’s milestone anniversary, the theater hosted a special screening, underscoring its enduring connection to the iconic film.

Additionally, the Perry family home in the movie found its real-life counterpart in the residence of Delaware resident Roger Gordon. When Gordon decided to downsize and sell his home, its history as a filming location for “Dead Poets Society” added an extra layer of significance to the property.

The film’s production not only brought cinematic magic to Delaware but also infused economic vitality into local communities. Over 1,000 residents of Delaware participated as extras, actors, and crew members during the ten-week filming period. This influx of activity injected an estimated $8 million into the state’s economy, demonstrating the tangible benefits of hosting a major film production. As a unique gesture, part of the crew’s compensation was distributed in $2 bills, encouraging spending within the state and showcasing the film’s positive economic impact. Additionally, local artist Frank Schoonover’s contributions in creating the school’s paintings further cemented Delaware’s integral role in bringing “Dead Poets Society” to life on the silver screen.

Dead Poets Society was filmed at St. Andrews School

Before settling on St. Andrews as the filming location for Welton Academy, the production team scouted over 100 schools, searching for the perfect backdrop for “Dead Poets Society” (via Delaware Online). When director Peter Weir first laid eyes on St. Andrews School, his reaction was immediate and decisive. As producer Steven Haft recounted, Weir’s astonishment was evident as he exclaimed, “This is it,” signifying the school’s suitability for the film (via St. Andrew’s Magazine).

The majority of the filming took place at St. Andrews School in Middletown, Delaware, strategically scheduled during Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks to minimize disruption to the school’s regular classes (per D23). Notably, numerous St. Andrews students had the opportunity to participate as extras in the film, offering a unique blend of authenticity to the on-screen portrayal of Welton Academy.

Despite differences between St. Andrews and Welton, such as the former not being an all-boys school, several key scenes were shot on the St. Andrews campus. The picturesque pond where the Welton students row is a fixture on the St. Andrews grounds and continues to be utilized by the school’s crew teams. However, the cave where the Dead Poets gather is a fabricated set, showcasing the production team’s creativity in bringing the story to life (per Delaware Online). Director Peter Weir prioritized filming at St. Andrews to capture the school’s atmosphere, infusing the film with its distinct ambiance.

In a move to foster camaraderie among the young cast, Director Peter Weir arranged for them to room together during filming. This immersive experience likely contributed to the authentic on-screen chemistry displayed by the actors.

Director Peter Weir had the young cast room together
Since the students are at a boarding school, Weir had the young actors live together for a couple of weeks before and during filming to establish a bond between the cast. In the DVD commentary, Dylan Kussman, who played Richard Cameron, said “We really felt like by the time filming started we had been to school together.”  Weir also got the young cast together at St. Andrews before production and familiarize them with the time period they would create in the film with a week of workshops. Weir said “I banned all contemporary phrases … It’s remarkable how much intonations have changed over the years, if you listen and think about it” (via Los Angeles Times). He explained the workshops included, “exercises, improvisations, to loosen everybody up, and we had a lot of laughs.” Weir also filmed in chronological order to help the growing bond between the young men and their teacher seem more natural (via E!).

In an effort to cultivate a sense of camaraderie among the young actors portraying boarding school students, Director Peter Weir devised a strategy to immerse them in their roles. Prior to and during filming, Weir arranged for the actors to reside together for several weeks. Dylan Kussman, known for his portrayal of Richard Cameron, reflected on this experience in the DVD commentary, expressing how the shared living arrangement fostered a strong sense of familiarity among the cast. Kussman remarked, “By the time filming started, we really felt like we had been to school together.”

Additionally, Weir organized a series of workshops at St. Andrews to acquaint the young cast with the historical context of the film. During this preparatory period, Weir imposed strict guidelines to ensure authenticity, prohibiting the use of contemporary language. He highlighted the importance of this approach, noting, “It’s remarkable how much intonations have changed over the years, if you listen and think about it” (via Los Angeles Times). These workshops consisted of various exercises and improvisations aimed at loosening up the actors and fostering a relaxed atmosphere. Weir’s decision to film in chronological order further facilitated the natural development of camaraderie among the cast, particularly between the young men and their teacher (via E!).

Leave a Reply