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'Dead Poets' Surviving Amid Summer Fluff

June 23, 1989|SHAUNA SNOW

It figured to be dwarfed by the summer sequoias--"Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade," "Star Trek V" and "Ghostbusters II"--but so far Disney/Touchstone's smart and small "Dead Poets Society" is hanging up there with the leaders on Hollywood's seasonal box office chart.

Top-billed Robin Williams undoubtedly helped the film when it opened on June 2, but his role as an eccentric prep school English teacher lasts no more than 20 minutes and is clearly secondary to those of the unknown teen-age actors playing his students. And still "Dead Poets" continues to benefit from good word-of-mouth.

In its first four weeks in release, the movie has grossed more than $25 million.

The fact that Disney executives sent "Dead Poets" out at the start of the summer has already been chalked up as one of the great gambles of the decade. Even screenwriter Tom Schulman was surprised.

"It scared me to death, the thought of going up against all these summer movies," Schulman said. "I had always heard that when you're in bermuda shorts and it's hot outside, you want to see a comedy. . . . Certainly that's the conventional wisdom--and I bought into it."

But even if the film had been released in the fall or winter (the usual release time for dramas), Schulman admits, the story would still have been far from the standard formulas for on-screen success.

"Standing up for what you believe in, self-expression, creativity, poetry--those kind of values (depicted in the film) are not necessarily commercial," said Schulman. "(Those working on the film) definitely felt they were taking chances."

So what happened? Why are audiences flocking to see the movie, even with those bermudas on?

"I just hope that people are moved by it," Schulman said.

When writing "Dead Poets," Schulman said he simply looked for elements familiar to him. Despite the film's serious themes, he said he wasn't using his story to make a specific point.

"The biggest thing it's about is creativity, sense of self-expression and standing up for what you believe in--finding what it is about yourself that you have to say and having the courage to say it.

"I have friends, people I grew up with, who . . . abandoned their dreams. And they aren't happy. And I thought it was sad. Had they pursued them, they would have found success, happiness, or both."

The story of "Dead Poets" came not only from Schulman's regret for his friends, he said, but also from the inspiration of a very few of his teachers who, like John Keating, instilled in him concepts that gave direction in his life. He then placed all this against the backdrop of 1959--the "cusp year (before progressive change) in which the conservatism of the country and the educational system was still intact"--and a setting reminiscent of his own days as a private school boy two decades ago at the conservative Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville.

"It was not as strict or traditional (as the fictional Welton Academy depicted in the film), but it had once been that way, and the vestiges were still there. I could sense some of the tensions," Schulman said, "and that was a good starting point for the story." That, he said, and his long-held interest in poetry.

"My father was always quoting poetry to me and I read a lot," said Schulman, who majored in philosophy and minored in English at Vanderbilt University. He said he couldn't remember when carpe diem , the Latin term for "seize the day" that serves as the motto of the Dead Poets Society, first had meaning for him.

"It was just there," he said. "It's part of the whole Romantic tradition--stating the idea that life is fragile and you may not be here tomorrow."

The "Dead Poets" story probably could have been built around a discipline other than poetry, Schulman admitted, but for the writer, integral themes such as celebrating what's inside one's own soul are best symbolized through poetry. In addition, he said, the rhythms, rhymes and meter of the words of Shakespeare, Whitman, Keats et al. lend the added attraction of musicality.

But despite the poetry that is so predominant in the film, the screenwriter (who also writes comedy and did the rewrite of the just-released Disney film, "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids") said he does not think of "Dead Poets" as a "literary" work necessarily.

"I've just always felt that if it's a good story, people will want to go see it. . . . I write about things that are important to me, that involve and excite me. And I hope that readers or viewers will find that it involves and excites them too."

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