Peter Weir’s ‘Dead Poets Society’: An Awe-Inspiring Celebration of the Human Spirit


March 17, 2023


I’ve tried, to some extent, to disassemble my style, to fight against my own signature. Because I’ve observed that the great postwar directors from Europe, the great stylists—eventually, their horizons began to narrow. And I found myself tuning out their films because the subject became less and less important. So I decided I would try to be unpredictable and just look for good stories.Peter Weir

By Koraljka Suton

In 1985, Tom Schulman, a screenwriter with four screenplays under his belt, wrote a spec script and based its main character on a mischievous and inspiring teacher who had taught his sophomore year English class. Although his agent loved it and even proclaimed it Schulman’s best work to date, he knew he wouldn’t be able to sell it and told his client that if he wanted the movie made, he needed to find another agent. Because who would want to see a film that takes place in an all-boys school in the 1950s and has ‘the three worst possible words I could think of in a title.’ Those three words were ‘dead,’ ‘poets’ and ‘society.’ But as it turned out, a lot of people wanted to see such a picture. Not only did it become a cult classic that generations of film lovers enjoy discovering time and time again, but it also earned four Academy Award nominations in 1990 (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay–Written Directly for the Screen). The only one who received the golden statue was none other than Schulman.

When producer Steven Haft eventually got his hands on it, he couldn’t get the script out of his head and decided to option it. As if by providence, Haft happened to have attended preparatory school with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was chairman of Walt Disney Studios at the time—and Katzenberg ended up buying it that very same night. Director Jeff Kanew (Revenge of the Nerds) was supposed to helm the film and wanted Liam Neeson to portray John Keating, an English teacher who turns the lives of his students upside down. Unfortunately for Kanew, the studio wanted another actor. And according to Schulman, the two didn’t quite see eye to eye: “The studio wanted Robin Williams, and Robin wouldn’t say no, but he wouldn’t say yes, to working with that director. In fact, we prepped the movie, built the sets—it was going to be shot outside of Atlanta—and Robin just didn’t show up for the first day of shooting. He never said he would, but Disney kept trying to pressure him by moving forward. After the first day he didn’t show up, they canceled the production and burned the sets. We actually have dailies of the sets burning.”


In came Australian director Peter Weir who was given the script by Katzenberg. Intrigued by the title, Weir read it while flying back to Sydney and was instantaneously sold on it. Schulman had nothing but high praise for Weir and his approach to the entire moviemaking process, recalling, among other things, how Weir wanted Schulman to get rid of a crucial scene, one which the latter was very adamant about keeping. The scene in question was that of the students visiting John Keating in the hospital upon finding out that he has lymphoma. The director told the screenwriter that he wouldn’t make the movie if Schulman didn’t agree that the scene should get cut. And Schulman was prepared to fight him on that. But Weir’s convincing argument ultimately won him over. In Schulman’s own words: “So I said, well, I don’t agree. And he said, ‘I know you don’t and I don’t expect you to… if you told me right now that you agree, I wouldn’t have any respect for you. I know that you believe in this, so I’m coming over to the States in about two weeks and we’ll get together and talk about it.’ So, I went home and went through a thousand reasons why he was wrong. I was going to win the argument. And he got there and for two or three days we were arguing about it (…) and his first argument was, ‘This movie will just be reviewed as a disease of the week kind of movie. It’ll be kind of weepy. This one notion will swallow everything else that you’ve done in the movie. It will be about a teacher who’s dying. And that’s different. And I don’t think that’s what you want.’ But he finally said, ‘Look, it’s easy for a bunch of boys to stand up, it’s easy for anybody to stand up for someone who’s dying, you know? That’s a courtesy almost.’ He said, ‘But if he’s not dying, then we know they’re standing up for what he’s taught them, for what he believes in.’ So, you know… that’s right. That was it.”

Apart from collaborating with Schulman in such a genuinely respectful and productive way, Weir also invited him to the set, knowing very well that most screenwriters want to try directing on for size. Schulman was encouraged to give suggestions and try things out (“What if I screw it up?,” Schulman asked; “I’ll fix it,” Weir answered). But Weir’s generosity wasn’t reserved only for Schulman. On the first day of shooting, the director told the cast and crew that if anyone had any thoughts or ideas, they shouldn’t hesitate to come with them to either himself or the screenwriter. He only asked people not to get offended if their idea wasn’t used. A fantastic example of such artistic openness paying off can be found in the scene where Williams’ Keating talks to a fellow teacher over lunch and recites a line of poetry he himself had written. A week before shooting the dialogue in question, Williams’ stand-in approached Schulman with his own little poem that he thought was a perfect fit (“But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”) And those were the lines that ended up in the film, instead of what was originally in the script.

Another great example would be the story of Williams’ artistic process. According to Schulman, his acting was a little wooden in the beginning because he was sticking so much to the script. But then Weir planned an unscheduled shoot (and hid it from Disney) that lasted half a day where he just let the actor improvise. Williams was given the note to talk to the students as if he were teaching them anything he wanted to. He chose Shakespeare and thus, the phenomenal scene where Keating impersonates Brando and Wayne doing snippets from the Bard’s monologues came to be. It was smooth sailing after that. The producers claimed that nearly fifteen percent of the actor’s dialogue was in fact ad-libbed. And Williams was not the only one who had that privilege. Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard got to come up with the entire “flying desk set” part, thereby infusing humor into an otherwise morose scene, as well as enabling the two characters to establish an even deeper connection through their shared defiance.


And if you asked Schulman, Ethan Hawke’s character Todd was, in fact, the film’s protagonist. He based the soft-spoken boy largely on himself, since the screenwriter was very shy and had a fear of public speaking as a teenager (ironically enough, Schulman had to ultimately get up in front of millions of viewers to deliver his acceptance speech at the Academy Awards and secretly hoped he wouldn’t win so he wouldn’t have to do it). A young Hawke, having read Stanislavski (the originator of a pivotal approach to acting called Stanislavski’s system) and wanting to be “a serious actor,” took on the part of Todd with a lot of intensity and didn’t care much for Williams cracking jokes on set. But the more Hawke tried not to laugh, the more Williams poked fun at him. And even though this made Hawke think that his co-star hated him, Williams told his agent that he should sign Hawke, saying he was going to “be somebody”—and so Hawke got his first agent. Ultimately, the actor went on to say the following about his experience with Williams while they were in character, shooting the cult “YAWP!” scene together in which Todd Anderson finally takes center stage: “That was the scene where I was supposed to read a poem in front of the class and it was the first time in my life that I ever experienced the thrill of acting and the thrill of losing yourself. You know, there’s this whole thing in the public that acting is this huge celebration of the personality and the ego, of course, and the irony is that whenever it’s any good, it’s devoid of ego. It’s a high that I’ve chased my whole life since that day with Robin. It’s this way of losing yourself, where you lose yourself inside a story, a story that’s in service of something way beyond you. And I felt that in Dead Poets Society.”

It is especially touching to observe how Dead Poets Society was made under circumstances that very much reflect some of the motifs that permeate the film itself, such as openness, curiosity, the imperative of creativity and the will to experiment.

O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you’re slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.
—John Keating


In the year 1959, freethinker John Keating (Williams) returns to his alma mater as a substitute English teacher. And while the elite all-boys preparatory school Welton (or as its students like to call it: Hellton) stands on the four pillars of ‘tradition, honor, discipline and excellence,’ Keating has other values in mind when trying to help a group of teenagers read, understand and eventually write poetry. Although Keating’s unorthodox teaching methods initially leave his students feeling confused and baffled, the majority of them welcome his unconventional approach as a much-needed breath of fresh air. By fostering their individuality and encouraging them to think and feel for themselves, Keating creates a ripple effect that influences the ways in which these boys decide to show up—for themselves, for other people and in the world at large. After looking up Keating in Welton’s old yearbook and finding out that he was in something called the “Dead Poets Society,” a tight-knit group of friends (including newcomer Todd Anderson) wants to know more. Their beloved substitute teacher lets them in on a little secret: he and his fellow classmates would meet up during nighttime in an old Indian cave beyond the stream and read verses aloud.

Knox Overstreet: ‘You mean, it was a bunch of guys sitting around reading poetry?’
John Keating: ‘No, Mr Overstreet, it wasn’t just guys. We weren’t a Greek organization. We were Romantics. We didn’t just read poetry, we let it drip from our tongues like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned… and gods were created, gentlemen. Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?’

One of the reasons behind Weir’s Dead Poets Society being such a magnificent, life-affirming and awe-inspiring film is the vibrant energy and zest for life that the character of John Keating so seamlessly radiates. By virtue of doing so, he presents young people indoctrinated into taking the road more often traveled with information, experiences and ideas they are ready, willing and able to take in during this formative stage of their lives. Information, experiences and ideas that will enable them to “carpe diem” i.e., breathe actual life into a phrase that most people see as nothing more than meaningless words in a dead language.

Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.
—John Keating


Since they now have this need to turn the phrase carpe diem into inspired action, slowly realizing that viewing life as a challenge they are capable of rising to sparks proactivity, the boys discover a completely new way of being—one where being passive onlookers while life passes them by and accepting the status quo out of inertia cease to be acceptable options. The well-known safety of windless waters is suddenly replaced by a powerful knowing that only by making waves can the human spirit be ignited, along with all our potential lying dormant beneath the layers of sand.

Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!
—John Keating

Thanks to this new-found refusal to conform, our characters start the process of uncovering their personal core and authenticity, whereby all of them take a step onto the road less traveled. And both the steps and the roads are as specific and unique as the boys themselves. For the shy and timid Todd Anderson (Hawke) who is expected to fill the big shoes of his golden child of a brother, this means coming out of his shell and having the embodied experience of his internal world, which he believes to be shameful and worthless, holding inherent infinite value after all. For the already extroverted and daring Charlie Dalton (Gale Hansen), taking the road less traveled implies letting his free-spirited and unrestrained personality completely off the leash and riding that wave of creativity and spontaneity without fearing where or how it will crash. Dalton momentarily welcomes this opportunity with arms wide open, eagerly reclaiming his untamed nature. And thus, “Nuwanda” is born.

For Knox Overstreet (Josh Charles), the step includes finding the bravery to follow his impulses and emotions when trying to win over a girl he falls head over heels for. He does that even at the cost of failure, gradually coming to the realization that the freedom he feels while engaging in the act of doing (i.e., openly expressing what he wants and yearns for), is worth a potentially disappointing outcome. Lastly, for Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), who is both sensitive and loyal to a fault, the road he is dead set on taking entails him owning up to a passion that has always been lurking in the shadows of his conscious mind, but has never dared show its true face. And understandably so, because Neil was too busy adapting to the expectations of his strict father, who had already decided his path for him. After Neil finally gets a taste of his creative nature and the flavor of genuine fulfillment that accompanies it, the prospect of being forced back into a cage feels like being sentenced to a slow and excruciating death of the human spirit. Between a rock and a hard place—that is exactly where he finds himself. And witnessing it is both painful and shattering.


I find it heartbreaking that we live in a world where the notion of living one’s authentic self still has to go hand in hand with bravery. That our inherent gifts, inclinations and needs, our unique life currents, are not accepted by default and gently nurtured into blossoming, but that we have to fight tooth and nail instead, so as to uncover the truth of who we are and then be brave enough to show it to the world, knowing that we absolutely will face scrutiny. We still live in a society where complying and conforming to everything that is unaligned with human health, be it physical or emotional, is considered the norm, whereas our inherently sensitive natures that yearn for connection, recognition and genuine belonging are something we need heaps of courage to own up to. And Dead Poets Society, a film made in 1989 about a collective experience in 1959, manages to be as relevant as ever, brilliantly showcasing this very polarity. A polarity that changes its outward appearance with the progression of human awareness, sure. But one that is still very much alive and kicking, no matter how many different manifestations it takes on.

I sound my barbaric YAWP over the rooftops of the world.
—John Keating (quoting Walt Whitman)

And so, what Keating does surpasses his socially acceptable role as an English teacher. He proposes that reading and experiencing poetry (and dare I say art in general? Yes, I certainly dare!) shouldn’t be fertile ground for lifeless analyses and intellectual masturbation. No, it should be taken in, as well as created, in alignment with what it truly is—a reflection of everything that is alive, vibrant and passionate in us as a species. A reflection of all the things that are beautiful, painful, real and true about the human experience. In doing so, Keating presents his students with the opportunity to view art from multiple perspectives and through various lenses, thereby challenging their imaginations, current viewpoints and ultimately, the beliefs they hold about themselves and their predetermined life trajectories. In doing so, Keating also offers his students a chance to view life itself as art. And themselves as the creators of their own little art pieces, provided they decide to engage with life mindfully by walking the road less taken and seizing the day.


We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. To quote from Whitman: ‘Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring, / Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the fools… What good amid these, O me, O life? / Answer. That you are here—that life exists and identity, / That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.’ What will your verse be?
—John Keating

Therein lies the infinite value of Dead Poets Society, a movie that manages to be the very thing it advocates for—art as a reflection of the fact that life is discovered by living, not by theorizing. And that’s why talking about John Keating as a carrier of said message also means talking about the legendary Robin Williams. The influence that the fictional English teacher, with his very presence and deep understanding of life, had on students is equivalent to the ways in which Williams inspired millions of us moviegoers with his film and character choices over the years, touching our very cores by making us laugh, cry and everything in between. Staying consistent in that respect and using his talents as an actor to affirm life and the wonders of human creativity time and time again is a considerable contribution to our capitalistic world where a plethora of uninspired and inauthentic material is trying to pass as art, but rarely does it manage to ignite our fire. Or remind us of our shared humanness. Which is something the late actor never failed to do.

And for that, Mr. Williams, I salute you. O Captain, my Captain!

Koraljka Suton is a member of the Croatian Society of Film Critics and has a master’s degree in German and English. For her thesis, she did a comparative analysis of Spielberg’s ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘The Pacific’. Koraljka trained at a Zagreb-based acting studio for six years and fell in love with Michael Chekhov and Lee Strasberg’s acting techniques. She is also a contemporary dancer and a Reiki master who believes in the transformative quality of art. Read more »


It’s my favorite film, because it’s closest to my life, in that so many of the characters were plucked from people I knew growing up. And working with Peter, and that whole class, was a pleasure.Tom Schulman

Screenwriter must-read: Tom Schulman’s screenplay for Dead Poets Society [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

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Tom Schulman, writer of Dead Poets Society, deconstructs the story’s journey from script to screen, along with his unique working relationships on set with Robin Williams and director Peter Weir.


Screenwriter Tom Schulman talks about writing the script and inspires all of the screenwriters to pursue their own dreams.



This article was written by Nancy Griffin for the July 1989 issue of Premiere magazine to coincide with the release of Dead Poets Society.

~ ~ ~

On the last afternoon of 1988, Robin Williams is being much too funny. It is not the first time this has happened on the set of Dead Poets Society. Wholesome as you please in a retro tweed jacket and tie, he is sitting behind a table in the dining hall of St. Andrew’s School near Wilmington, Delaware. Williams plays John Keating, an eccentric and inspiring teacher at the Welton Academy for boys, circa 1959. Standing quietly by is director Peter Weir, who has been thumbing through a volume of Shakespeare in search of a verse with which to supplement Williams’s scripted lines in the upcoming scene. Someone has just suggested a soliloquy from “Hamlet”—and Williams, who until this moment has behaved like a choirboy, cannot resist the opportunity to lighten things up.

“To sleep—perchance to cream?” he wonders aloud. Then he rips into a monologue, mimicking everyone from a patient at the Betty Ford Center who loves her Folger’s crystals to an Aussie film director, mate. As crew members prepping the shot place plates of mashed potatoes, meat and gravy in front of him, Williams’s eyes go wide. “Oooh, that will look great 30 feet high. ‘I was enjoying the movie until that giant piece of chipped beef ruined my evening!'” By now the set is paralyzed with laughter, and when Williams wraps it up with a Shakespearean-death-scene kicker, pretending to stab himself in the neck with a fork, the cast and crew is gasping for breath and holding onto chairs.

Five minutes later, Williams is sitting calmly again with hands folded, his expression the picture of innocence. As entertained as everyone else by Williams’s outburst, Weir has restored equilibrium on the set—but hasn’t yet found the verse he needs. Then a stand-in hands him a couple of lines of poetry that he has scrawled on a brown paper bag. Weir loves them. As the cameras roll, Keating passes a bowl of potatoes to his straitlaced colleague, McAllister (Leon Pownall), who criticizes him for encouraging freethinking in his classroom. “Only in his dreams can man be truly free,” says Keating. “‘Twas always thus and always thus will be.” McAllister asks if Tennyson is the author of those lines. “No, Keating,” is the reply. “Print!” cries Weir.

It is hardly the norm for a stand-in to make a creative contribution on a film set. But it is far more extraordinary to ask a star who gets paid around $4 million a picture for being one of the funniest people in the world to recite poetry instead of crack jokes.

But there is very little that isn’t unusual about Dead Poets Society, the wild card in this summer’s shuffle of films. A two-hour-plus drama, it is a maverick for Walt Disney Studios’ Touchstone Pictures, defying two commandments of the studio’s development catechism: no rural settings and no snow. The title scarcely conjures up the sort of escapist entertainment that generally means hot-weather box-office bucks. (Weir’s two-time collaborator Harrison Ford jokes darkly that the film would be harder to sell only if it were called “Dead Poets Society in Winter.”) Using a strategy that has Williams and others on the “Poets” team more than a little bit nervous, Touchstone chose to release this hard-to-summarize film in June. “I can’t describe it in fifteen words or less,” says Williams. “It would be like saying the Bible is about a young boy.”

Then again, if Disney had wanted high concept, it wouldn’t have hired Peter Weir. The man who made Gallipoli, The Year of Living Dangerously, and Witness is a master of strong, multi-layered dramatic narrative. His style combines the visual lyricism and mysticism of an art-film maker with a commercial sensibility. “Dead Poets Society is accessible,” he insists. “It’s a popular Hollywood entertainment. I’ve always seen myself as a commercial filmmaker, a Hollywood filmmaker—if one takes Hollywood to mean large audiences, not a syndrome.”

The only true auteur among his generation of Australian directors, Weir has only once before agreed to take on a studio assignment, Witness. Both times, it was Jeffrey Katzenberg who dangled the offer he couldn’t refuse. Last year, Weir met with the Disney boss. As the director was on his way out the door, Katzenberg said, “I’ve got just the film for you,” and slipped him a copy of “Poets.” Weir was hooked at once by Tom Schulman’s script: “It’s the finest piece of writing I’ve worked with,” he says. And he thought Robin Williams, already attached to the project, would be superb as Keating.

Just as his work is renowned for its depth of penetration into a milieu, so does Weir himself become immersed in a film’s culture. This was readily apparent on the “Poets” set, where the director strode about like some Scottish poet of another era in jodhpurs, riding boots, and tweed cap. “I don’t know if it was symbiotic,” says Williams, “but when we were picking out clothes, he picked out one school scarf for me and one for himself. He would wear the scarf like I wore it.”

Gracious and soft spoken, Weir reigns by exhilaration rather than intimidation; he is not one for macho displays or barked orders. “Peter operates creatively from his female self,” says Nancy Ellison, a special photographer on The Mosquito Coast. “The subliminal message is one of yielding: ‘Seduce me with your performance.'” During “Poets” dailies, Weir practically flew out of his seat and cried “Yes!” when pleased by the footage. “Robin would be the first to admit that he is not the star of the film,” says Robert Sean Leonard, who plays Neil, one of the students. “Peter is the star.”

The tragic—although ultimately uplifting—story line made the film a crucible for intense emotions. John Keating startles his students into an expanded awareness of life’s possibilities through the joys of great literature, challenging them to heed Thoreau’s call to “suck the marrow out of life.” At his provocation, the boys resurrect the secret Dead Poets Society—a club whose members include the spirits of Whitman, Shelley, and other greats. They begin meeting surreptitiously in a cave, where they read verse in a state of newly inflamed passion. Weir filmed in sequence, so that feelings on the set were running high by the time the moving denouement was played out. “You kind of get a clue that something is working when you see Teamsters crying,” says Williams.

Weir uncorked the improvisational volcano that is Robin Williams—then remained vigilant so that he didn’t erupt beyond the boundaries of the character. “Keating’s humor had to be part of the personality,” says Weir. “Robin and I agreed at the start that he was not going to be an entertainer in the classroom. That would have been wrong for the film as a whole. It would have been so easy for him to have the kids rolling on the floor, doubled up with laughter. So he had to put the brakes on at times.” As a guide, says the actor, “Peter came up with the name ‘Robin Keating'” to define what he wanted: the scripted character, shaded with an additional 15 percent of Williams’s own off-the-cuff dialogue.

The star knew as soon as he saw the dailies when he had gone over the top: “It was like clown makeup on a Kabuki dancer. It didn’t fit.” Weir did cut Williams loose for what he calls Keating’s “creative radiation bombardment” lectures. For the first time Keating faces the seven young poets in the classroom, Weir asked Williams to read a bit of Shakespeare aloud and wing it from there. “I had two cameras going, obviously, and I just said, ‘Boys, this is not a scripted scene. Treat Robin as your teacher and react accordingly, and don’t forget that it’s 1959.'”

Although Weir admits that at times Williams’s impromptu performances caused shooting delays of precious minutes—as in the dining hall—he let the comic fly. “When he’s inspired, it would be a terrible thing to interrupt him,” he says. “And he did keep everybody in a very good frame of mind.”

Williams finds it as difficult to verbalize Weir’s special charisma as he does the film they shaped together. “I rank him up there with the best of people I’ve worked with,” he says. He praises Weir’s intuition and “incredible sensitivity about how far to push someone.” All in all, he found Weir an inspiration. “He was, in essence, Keating,” says Williams, “for all of us.”

Had Peter Weir’s own scholastic career been more auspicious, he would not have braved Delaware in December. “I hate school,” he says. “That’s why I could do this film. I would have been a member of the poets club.” The son of a real estate agent, Weir was born in 1944 and raised in Vaucluse, a harbor-side suburb of Sydney. By his late teens, Weir felt increasingly uncomfortable in his constricted world. “You know, I used to see the ships on their way to Europe,” he says, “going out through the harbor. I knew I’d be on one one day, somehow. And so I was, at twenty.”

It was a fateful five-week voyage. On the high seas, Weir met both his life’s vocation and his wife of 23 years, Wendy (who worked as Poets’ production designer). To chase boredom, he and a couple of mates wrote and performed satirical revues for the ship’s passengers. “I felt a tremendous excitement about what I was doing,” he says. “Suddenly, this was very natural to me.” After hitching around Europe, he rejoined his friends in London. In Hyde Park, they performed a sketch about American evangelists. “The cockney regulars in Hyde Park were so clever,” recalls Weir, “that we could only survive about ten minutes.”

Eighteen months later Weir returned with Wendy to Australia, where they were married in 1966. In 1971, the couple traveled back to London and considered settling there. But Weir discovered that Europe’s rich cultural soil dried up his own creative instincts. When he walked down his Hampstead street, he couldn’t bear the sound of clacking typewriters that seemed to drift from every window. “I couldn’t get back to Australia quick enough,” he says, “to a more barren cultural environment. It had become part of the process of making something: I will make something in this barrenness. Scripts and films would be my way of reinventing the escape that the ship was in ’65.”

Weir became a bright light in the Aussie cinema’s New Wave. He wrote and directed his first feature in 1973, The Cars That Ate Paris, a macabre comedy about an outback town with a high incidence of car accidents. The following year he traced the disappearance of three Victorian schoolgirls and their teacher in Picnic at Hanging Rock. And in The Last Wave (1977), he immersed Richard Chamberlain in the netherworld of aboriginal culture.

Picnic and Wave established Weir as a true spellbinder. Both contain passages of pure imagery, often shot at a slower-than-normal speed (the camera operator was John Seale) and heightened with mesmerizing music. Weir now says that his signature style evolved out of adversity. In his early films “the scripts, including my own, were often so poor that you had to tell the story through the camera. It was a great way to learn about movies. We went through a self-imposed silent-film era in the ’60s and ’70s.”

Despite the political overtones of Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously, Weir says he is more concerned with probing human behavior than with making specific statements about contemporary society, “That’s what I always loved about movies,” he says. “They didn’t belong to anybody. They were a separate country.” When overseas opportunities beckoned, he had no qualms about crossing the Pacific.

Witness, his first American feature, was an Academy Award nominee for Best Picture in 1985 and a solid box-office winner as well. John Seale, this time serving as director of photography, says that during filming, Weir was determined to make even a murder a lovely thing to watch. “He drowned someone in wheat,” says Seale. “Peter walked around the farm looking for a way to kill someone beautifully.”

Weir’s most recent picture, The Mosquito Coast, was less successful critically and commercially. He guided Harrison Ford through a bold performance as Allie Fox, the fatally obsessed father. Ford now says of the 1986 film, “I’m not sure we cracked it.” But Weir concedes no artistic regrets. “What intrigued me was the very thing that turned the audience off—to take a figure of heroic proportions for whom the story opens up a weakness.” He believes that viewers could not stomach the tragic ending. “The tradition of the American narrative is the reverse.” He could feel, in the first preview, “the audience hoping for Allie Fox to survive and become president of the United States.”

After The Mosquito Coast, Weir retreated to his rustic home overlooking Pitt Water Sound in Australia’s Palm Beach, north of Sydney. One hot summer day in 1987 he was lying on the sand with Wendy when he spotted a familiar figure emerging from the waves with a surfboard under his arm. “I went over and said, ‘Robin Williams?’ And he said, ‘Hi, good wave on today.'” Weir invited him to his house for coffee. “Little did I realize,” says Weir, “that we’d be working very intensely a little over twelve months later.”

One week before the film’s November start date, Weir installed his seven young actors—handpicked for dramatic talent and classic Anglo-Saxon looks—in rooms along one corridor of a Wilmington hotel. “The infamous floor seven at the Radisson,” he says, laughing. “Go there at your own peril. I don’t think they ever slept.” His strategy for working with his ensemble was basic: “To create an atmosphere where there was no real difference between off-camera and on-camera—that they were those people.

Before principal photography began, the boys played soccer together and ran through simple acting exercises, which allowed them to form a group identity naturally. Once shooting started, they were not permitted to see dailies, “so that they would live it rather than make a movie.” Utterly dedicated to Weir, the young actors vied for his attention like a litter of pups. “Sometimes he had to enforce just a little bit of discipline,” says Williams, “but he never snapped at them.”

A veteran of seven Weir films, cinematographer John Seale communicates with the director through osmosis. Seale and his crew averaged 22 setups a day, maximizing the speed and spontaneity that Weir loves. For the classroom scenes Seale lit the whole room so that Williams could roam about, leap onto a desk, and play with props. Weir, Seale maintains, “is the only [director] I’ve worked with who can think solidly on a set. One of his favorite sayings is ‘Where is the audience? Are they out buying popcorn, or are they floating six inches above their seats?'”

One typically impetuous script change occurred in a scene in which Todd (Ethan Hawke) learns of the death of Neil (Leonard). As written, the scene was an interior shot of Todd running into the dormitory bathroom and throwing up. When the appointed day arrived, a blizzard enveloped St. Andrew’s. Weir goaded the actor to run out into the school yard in grief and sent the rest of the poets after him. On film, the boys are shivering in the snow in their pajamas, heightening the scene’s pathos.

Weir also uses music as a directing tool. On the set his big portable tape deck is always at his side. On Poets Weir played a lot of Irish music, which fit the Celtic-boarding-school atmosphere, during scene preparations and dailies. “I use the music mainly to psych myself into the company of the muse, really,” he explains, “as a weapon against the overwhelming ordinariness that surrounds the film set. And I’ve found over the years that music helps others.”

When Neil’s father forbids him to appear as Puck in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the boy defies him—and commits suicide later that evening. Leonard remembers that “it was terrifying to get up at 4:30 in the morning and face the cameras to do Shakespeare at 6.” As he was preparing to speak Puck’s “If we shadows have offended” epilogue, he heard the strains of an Irish tune called “Stray-Away Child” eminating from the boom box. Weir knew it was Leonard’s favorite. “I felt as if I could fly after that,” says Leonard.

The suicide scene got the classic Weir treatment: ethereal images, slowed-down camera, no dialogue. “It was very interesting to see the boy prepare himself for death,” says Weir. “You never see him shoot himself; I didn’t even want to hear the shot. But I had to see the preparations and then find the body. So it was one of those sequences that I love.”

The only disagreeable aspect of the shoot for Weir was pressure from Disney’s budgetary watchdogs. The notoriously thrifty studio had underscheduled the film, and Weir drove himself to exhaustion in a bootless effort to stay on time. “I got worried that he was going to burn out,” says Williams. Weir finally blew up and called Katzenberg. “Jeff says, ‘Why didn’t you call me sooner?’ Anyway, it was fixed up within 24 hours.” Weir says his relationship with Disney “adds up to a very good experience.”

As for the future, Weir says he has left behind any inclination to deal with overt mystical or spiritual themes in his films. “I’ve tried, to some extent, to disassemble my style, to fight against my own signature. Because I’ve observed that the great postwar directors from Europe, the great stylists—eventually, their horizons began to narrow. And I found myself tuning out their films because the subject became less and less important. So I decided I would try to be unpredictable and just look for good stories.”

Nevertheless, Weir expects that the mysterious undercurrents that make his films distinctive will continue to surface. On the Poets set, “there were a lot of different levels going on—without sounding like we’re gonna put the Windham Hill records,” Williams says. “It’s been powerful stuff, working with him. I’d go back again.”

It is eleven o’clock on New Year’s Eve in New Castle, and a Poets party is raging at production manager Duncan Henderson’s house. (Robin Williams is in Washington, D.C., but he has already phoned.) Peter Weir bounds in with a schoolboy grin. He is wearing a Welton blazer and carrying his boom box which he puts on top of the refrigerator. He slips a Beatles tape into the machine as the poets gather around. When the opening chords of “Twist and Shout” fill the room, he grabs a kitchen mop and strums it ecstatically. At midnight, Weir is holding a beer bottle as a microphone, into which he and his young friends sing a ragged version of “Please Please me” at the top of their lungs.

On New Year’s morning, John Seale wakes up, looks out his window, and sees that it is snowing heavily. He and Weir have been waiting for some white stuff to shoot a scene in which a bagpiper walks around the Welton campus. When the phone rings, Seale knows who it is before he picks up. “John, you probably know why I’m calling.” says the voice on the other end. “Did you have anything special planned for today?”

~ ~ ~



With a career spanning almost 50 years and with over 70 film credits to his name, more than 40 of them as Director of Photography, John Seale is among the finest cinematographers of his generation. Over the course of his career John has worked with some of the finest directors in the world, including Peter Weir, Michael Apted, Barry Levinson, George Miller, Ron Howard, Sydney Pollack, Rob Reiner, Anthony Minghella, Lawrence Kasdan and Mike Newell. He has received 35 international awards including an Oscar and BAFTA Award for THE ENGLISH PATIENT (1996). He also holds an AFI Award (CAREFUL, HE MIGHT HEAR YOU) and an AACTA Award (MAD MAX: FURY ROAD), and in February 2011 the American Society of Cinematographers honoured John as International Cinematographer of the Year.

John Seale, ACS, ASC conducts an intensive and inspirational lighting workshop in the studios of the Australian Film, Radio and Television School. The dormitory set from Dead Poets Society was painstakingly reconstructed for this workshop. Even more important than the technical knowledge it contains is the insight this program gives into Seale’s working philosophy.


80-minute conversation with legendary cinematographer John Seale, ACS, ASC, at NIFF 2016.


A veteran of seven Weir films, cinematographer John Seale communicates with the director through osmosis. Seale and his crew averaged 22 setups a day, maximizing the speed and spontaneity that Weir loves. For the classroom scenes Seale lit the whole room so that Williams could roam about, leap onto a desk, and play with props. Weir, Seale maintains, “is the only [director] I’ve worked with who can think solidly on a set. One of his favorite sayings is ‘Where is the audience? Are they out buying popcorn, or are they floating six inches above their seats?'”



Alan Splet was a well-known and extremely admired sound designer who collaborated with David Lynch, Phil Kaufman, Peter Weir, Carroll Ballard, Frank Oz and numerous other filmmakers. Many Bay Area editors worked with Alan on Blue Velvet, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Henry & June, The Elephant Man, Rising Sun, The Black Stallion, Wind, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Dead Poets Society. He was a visionary who not only created a unique sound for each film, he also helped to establish the Bay Area as a highly regarded locale for post-production sound for film. —SoundWorks Collection

Peter Weir on sound designer Alan Splet.


David Lynch fans will recognise the name immediately as that of a man who contributed so vividly to the important sound design in many of Lynch’s key films. He also worked with Peter Weir on Dead Poets Society, and The Mosquito Coast. This ten-minute tribute takes a look at the work of a man who loved classical music, and thrilled those that worked with him.


This half-hour documentary looks back on a production that brought many new talents to the fore. The most notable of these was Ethan Hawke, who is not short of praise for the influence Peter Weir had on his career development. His first impression was only that, “he spoke funny,” especially as Hawke hadn’t met many Australians before, but he soon tapped into Weir’s ability to rouse passion and motivate the cast and crew around him.


“Raw Takes” shows some raw footage of a scene that wasn’t included in the final film. The footage shows Mr. Keating attending one of the meetings of the Dead Poets Society after the performance of Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Interview with the cast of the Dead Poets Society.


Ethan Hawke speaks about the cost of depression, and the influence Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman had in his life.


A brief summary couldn’t capture the emotions Ethan Hawke feels about two men who clearly left a profound impression. The episode was aired on PBS on February 6, 2015.


Robin Williams on The Late Show with David Letterman in 1989 talking about Dead Poet Society.



A director of distinction and finesse, Peter Weir discusses his filmmaking style and offers advice to first time directors. Event recorded on 6 December 2010.


“There’s some hook in it that’s drawn you in, a scene or a moment that resonated profoundly. That particular moment is generally impenetrable and mysterious, and it becomes critically important. I remember what it was in Fearless. There are two men flying on a plane that’s in trouble, that’s going to go down, and one of them, the Jeff Bridges character, says to his partner, ‘I’m going to go forward and sit with that kid up there.’ And then the script says, ‘He moves down the aisle and sits beside the boy.’ It’s maybe an eighth of a page. That was the line that struck me—not what he says to his partner, not even his sitting down with the boy. Just his moving through the aircraft. The moment’s gone now, because I actually thought it through intellectually and photographed it. When we came to schedule it, I told the AD I wanted half a day to shoot it, which I think was a bit of a surprise. It’s always hard to speak about what interested you in a piece, because it’s often something unknowable. It’s the nonintellectual, the unconscious that’s most important to me.” —Peter Weir


Peter Weir answers questions after delivering the 2010 David Lean Lecture at BAFTA.



“Peter Weir is an international filmmaker with universal appeal whose films have spanned six continents with their emotional sweep and haunting beauty. As part of the Australian New Wave that rose up in the 1970’s, Weir rose to international fame by making wonderfully hypnotic films like Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Last Wave. Like his fellow Aussie George Miller, he eventually helped establish Mel Gibson as an international star with his projects Gallipoli and The Year of Living Dangerously. Weir came to Hollywood and made films such as Witness and Dead Poets Society, which are the two films he’s most known for in the States. Unlike many filmmakers of his generation, he has never been a ‘flashy’ director who calls attention to his films with brash editing and clever camera tricks, and has frequently defended his simple directorial style that allows viewers to become absorbed in the story and not the filmmaker. My montage may call attention to his wonderful voice in a way his films never do. But I think it’s only fitting to heap praise to an underrated master of cinema who deserves to be lauded. Here is my tribute.” —Alejandro Villarreal



“There’s a curious Polish influence on this film. There’s a director who has just struck me and inspired me, Krzysztof Kieślowski. I saw The Decalogue on TV in Australia and The Double Life of Veronique. I found myself playing various Polish composers on the set, as I do, and at dailies. Most noticeably, Henryk Górecki.” —Peter Weir


Peter Weir receives an Honorary Oscar Award at the 13th Governors Awards.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society. Photographed by François Duhamel, Chuck McGowen © Touchstone Pictures, A Steven Haft Production. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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