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?"