“O Captain! My Captain!” is best shouted on a desk, as seen in the movie “Dead Poets Society.”
This verse from a Walt Whitman poem is one of the most memorable lines from the movie, which was screened at University of California Santa Barbara’s Pollock Theater on Thursday, Nov. 8, as part of the University of California Santa Barbara Carsey-Wolf Center’s “Script to Screen” series. Following the screening, there was a Q&A with screenwriter Tom Schulman, who won an Oscar for Best Writing/Best Original Screenplay for his work on “Dead Poets Society” and was the guest of honor at the event.
“Dead Poets Society” stars Robin Williams as English professor John Keating at a prestigious all-boys school called Welton. Todd Anderson (played by Ethan Hawke) is a painfully shy new student at Welton who becomes roommates with the charismatic and popular Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard). Under the tutelage of Professor Keating, Todd, Neil and their fellow classmates restart a club called “Dead Poets Society” where they read poetry and rebel against their carefully planned lives. “Carpe diem” is the name of the dangerous, but liberating game they play and once they start, their lives are irrevocably changed.
“Dead Poets Society” provoked both laughter and tears before Matt Ryan, the Pollock Theater Director, invited screenwriter Tom Schulman onstage to answer questions from the audience.
Katie Belden, a fourth-year English major in attendance, had seen “Dead Poets Society” numerous times before attending the movie to receive extra credit for a class.
“The most shocking thing was the fact that they [the studio executives] suggested he [Schulman] turn it [the screenplay] into a dancing movie,” said Belden.
Schulman explained that studio executives even offered him a tentative alternative title for the movie: ‘The Sultans of Strut.’
“’Dead Poets Society’ plus dancing and singing would be horrible, so I’m glad they didn’t do that,” said Belden.
Schulman explained that one of the struggles while pitching a script was fighting to keep the eventual movie true to the original screenplay. In a way, he was the true captain of “Dead Poets Society” and kept the dramatic script from sinking into comedic oblivion.
“You are fighting all the time,” said Schulman. “You’re going to have a thousand people read your script in the studio before they make it, and you are going to have to defend everything you did in there. They talk about the process being the ‘Death of a Thousand Cuts,’ which I think happens. Just take out this and that, and pretty soon, you don’t even remember why you wrote it or why you are making it.”
In his early days, Schulman said that others suggested to him that he pick his battles with the studio. However, Schulman advocated that writers defend everything in their scripts.
“It is better to go down fighting and let somebody else ruin the script than doing it yourself,” said Schulman.
Throughout the Q&A, Schulman maintained that the process from a blank page to a screenplay to a movie is long and difficult. Schulman starts his screenplays with a large document of notes that he cuts into strips. He lays out these strips into three piles representing three acts, and tapes the strips in the order he likes on paper.
At Pollock Theater, ushers gave those in attendance a few pages of a scene in “Dead Poets Society.” In the scene, Professor Keating writes, “I sound my barbaric YAWP to the world,” quoting poet Walt Whitman.
Schulman received a barbaric yawp of approval from those in attendance.
Ryan said that the “Script to Screen” series began when UCSB alumnus Scott Frank, the writer of “Minority Report” (2002), had donated some money and wanted to do a screenwriting series.
“We wanted a chance for students to learn about the writing process and break it down—that’s why we give out script pages so students can see,” said Ryan.
The series took off shortly after the hilarious duo of women who wrote “Legally Blonde” (Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith) filled Pollock Theater with raucous laughter. McCullah Lutz and Smith will return to Pollock Theater on Nov. 29 to talk about their script, “10 Things I Hate About You.”
For more information on the “Script to Screen” series and to watch events from last year, go to http://www.carseywolf.ucsb.edu/pollock/script-screen.