Dead Poets Society has just received a Blu-ray release in the US, giving me the opportunity to speak to its screenwriter, Tom Schulman. Some technical issues have resulted in a pretty poor recording of our call, so why I’m working on the full interview piece, here’s something more particular.
We see people win Oscars and other big awards quite regularly, and by now, I’m pretty sure it can be a tremendously emotional moment for them, if not life changing. But I’ve never seen that story told from the inside.
So, picking up with the first hints that his screenplay for Dead Poets might be a real awards contender, I had Schulman talk me through the experience. Here’s what he told me.
I remember having a couple of meetings with producers where they said “Your script may get nominated” but I thought that would be lucky – the film came out early in the Summer and traditional wisdom is that movies that get released early don’t get remembered.
So I don’t think I knew that people were talking about my screenplay seriously in that way until I got nominated for a Writer’s Guild Award. The Awards Season was different back then. At least if those kinds of campaigns they have now were happening, I wasn’t aware of it.
Those were still the days when it was considered a little crass to actually try to get nominated. So the studios, I think, tended to chill until the nominations came out and then it was okay to take out ads and so forth.
I remember waking up and not being aware that the WGA nominations were coming out that day, and suddenly coming in and noticing, after I’d been away for the morning, that I had 40 calls on my machine. It was people calling to congratulate me and so forth, my agents and everybody else. Quite exciting.
They had a luncheon for Academy Awarad nominees, I think, the week before the Oscars. It was great to get to meet all of the actors and directors, editors, cinematographers. You really get a sense of cameraderie in that lunch.
And they warned us all to make sure we had a short speech prepared for the night, in case we won.
Now, I’m more pre-disposed to be like Todd, the shy kid in Dead Poets Society, with public speaking and so forth, so on the night I was just sat there saying to myself over and over “Don’t let it be me.” I didn’t want to have to go up there and speak in front a hundred million people that they claim watch the show.
But when my name was called that sort of disappeared.
As I was walking up the stage, somebody was calling my name from the orchestra pit. I looked down and it was the wife of a friend of mine who i had no idea was a singer in the Academy orchestra. The person escorting me up said “You can’t keep talking to her, you’ve got to go up.” So I went up there…
I forgot to mention somebody who was very important to me, and as I was walking away, Jane Fonda, who was my presenter, ushered me off stage and we were waiting by these doors for an elevator to go down. She said to me “What’s wrong? You’ve just won an Oscar” and I said “I forgot to name so-and-so”, so she said “You can do it next time.” Right!
We got on the elevator and went down into the bowels of the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion, and walked into this room. They have this little stage with these large plastic Oscars, life size, all next to you and there’s an array of bleachers in front of you with thirty or forty members of the press. Jane Fonda said “I’d like to present to you Tom Schulman who has just won” and so on.
Jane had just come back from a hiatus during which she had met Ted Turner so when she asked “Do you have any questions?” immediately the press were calling out “Jane! Jane! What’s it like with Ted.”
She said “Wait a minute – this isn’t about me, this is about Tom, please direct your questions to Tom.”
So somebody shouted out “Tom, what’s it like to get an Oscar from Jane?”
She said “That’s it, we’re done” and we walked off the stage. I sneaked back to my seat and I realised, in Hollywood, in their hierarchy of things, the actors will always be over the writers.
Well, for what it’s worth, I can honestly say that the opposite is true here at Bleeding Cool.
Dead Poets Society is available on Region Free Blu-ray now. More on that, and more from Tom, tomorrow.