Interview with Dead Poets Society’s Writer Tom Schulman
Production: DEAD POETS SOCIETY, 2016-2017 Season
Q: How did DEAD POETS SOCIETY come about? What inspired the story? Did you originally imagine it as a stage play or a screenplay?
A: I originally imagined it as a screenplay. I studied with a wonderful acting/directing/writing teacher named Jack Garfein in Los Angeles, and his teacher was Harold Clurman, who was a famous theater director and critic who started The Group Theater in New York. Harold would come to Los Angeles every few months to review Jack’s work, which was essentially the work of us, Jack’s students. Harold was an incredible speaker. He would stand on stage and start holding forth about life and the theater and movies and art and literature. He’d go on for 3 or 4 hours. You never wanted it to end. I was so inspired by this guy that I decided I wanted to write something about him. That was the first draft of DEAD POETS SOCIETY, except all the students in the story were acting students, so it sort of fell apart. I put it away for a year, and then I had the revelation that my sophomore high school English teacher would be a better mouthpiece for this story than Mr. Clurman. That guy had also been a very inspiring, antic, funny, charismatic teacher. We had him for a year, and then when I came back for my junior year, he was gone. There were all these rumors, like that he’d had an affair with the principal’s daughter, things like that, so we never really knew what happened to him. If we had ever had the courage to ask, we would have found out that he had simply gotten a better job. But because it was open-ended, it fed my imagination, and DEAD POETS was the story I came up with.
Q: Tell us about the process of DEAD POETS SOCIETY landing on the Classic Stage Company season. Why do you think CSC is a good fit? What excites you about having John Doyle direct?
A: The theatrical version of this play began with a producer named Adam Zotovich, who approached me 3 or 4 years ago about doing DEAD POETS as a play. He also approached Disney, and they were fine with us to do it. I wrote a draft of the play about 2 years ago. Adam presented me with the possibility of John Doyle, whose work I’d never seen but whom I’d heard amazing things about. People had begged me to go see his version of SWEENEY TODD. I saw a clip of it from the Tonys that year, and it was extraordinary. John was made Artistic Director of Classic Stage Company, and here we are.
Q: The film is so definitive and iconic. What do you think made it achieve this “classic” status? How do you feel about opening up your story to a new vision and new cast? What is most exciting to you about revisiting the world of DPS?
A: As far as it being a “classic,” I think that’s going to be for others to determine. I’m honored that this word would be attached to it. As a writer, you write what you know and what you believe and what you love, and you hope that others connect to it.
To me, it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays now. It’s 25 years old. I approached the adaptation with trepidation, worrying whether it would still be relevant for me as a writer or for what I perceive as the audience. But it felt to me like it’s still relevant. Particularly with John’s approach, where you’re very focused on the performances and the actors, it felt like there would be something magical about seeing it live, as opposed to on a screen. I know from what I’ve heard of John’s work and the time I’ve spent with him that he’s got an amazing ability to draw you in as an audience and make you feel like you’re watching a piece of life on stage, right there in front of you. That’s what theater brings that movies never can.
Q: What are some of the major differences between writing for stage and writing for film?
A: The movie had about 56 scenes, and the play has 20, and some of those are combined, so it’s actually fewer. Whereas in the movies we’re trying to write 2-3-minute scenes at most and then move the characters off, on the stage there’s actually the luxury of watching people for long periods of time. It feels like big ideas and character development are better suited for the stage, particularly nowadays, when movies are so much more action-oriented. It feels to me on the stage I want to take a deep breath and relax, as opposed to with a movie, which has a much faster pace.
Q: Do you have any favorite films that you think would make great plays? What about them is fundamentally theatrical?
A: One of my favorite movies was Kurosawa’s IKIRU, from the 50s. It’s a beautiful story of a man who learns he’s dying of stomach cancer. He actually learns about it in a comic way. He has a very boring job in a massive bureaucracy in Japan and has an opportunity to do something with his life that’s meaningful. It’s an amazing movie and would make a great play.
Q: What’s next for you as a writer?
A: I’m working on a limited television series, 8-10 parts, called MAN WITHOUT. I’m doing that with producer John Wells, who did THE WEST WING and ER. I’ve just finished writing a musical with Berton Averre and Rob Meurer, from the band The Knack. I’ve written a play called SACRILEGIOUS that New York producer/director Andy Sandberg is going to direct, and then I’ve written another play called DRIVING LESSONS—literally just finished it a week ago! I’m figuring out what to do with that.