Saturday, December 27, 2014

Robin Williams remembered by 'Dead Poets Society' producer, screenwriter

According to a recent story in the Wall Street Journal, actor-comedian Robin Williams' suicide last summer prompted the largest number of Google searches during 2014. It was also one of the top-ten topics on Facebook.*

The tragic and untimely passing of Robin Williams in August made for the most Googled term of the year. The actor’s name ranked No. 1 on Google’s most searched list of 2014. Last week, Facebook released data around the most-talked about topics on the social-networking platform, and Williams ranked No. 4. Needless to say, this moment was one of the biggest of the year.
This year also marked the 25th anniversary of the release of Dead Poets Society, the 1989 film that brought Robin Williams his second Oscar nomination for best actor in a leading role. (He later won an Academy Award for best supporting actor for 1997's Good Will Hunting.)  Dead Poets Society also earned Williams a Golden Globe nomination for acting.

To commemorate the movie's quarter-century and to pay tribute to Williams, the Virginia Film Festival screened the film and brought its screenwriter, Tom Schulman, and one of its producers, Paul Junger Witt, to Charlottesville to participate in a conversation about the making of Dead Poets Society. The discussion was moderated by film and stage director Mitch Levine, president of the Film Festival Group.

In addition to Dead Poets Society, for which he received an Academy Award, Tom Schulman's screenplays include Honey I Shrunk the Kids (with Rick Moranis, 1989), Medicine Man (with Sean Connery, 1992), and Welcome to Mooseport (with Ray Romano and Gene Hackman, 2004). His producing credits include Indecent Proposal (with Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson, 1993) and Me, Myself, and Irene (with Jim Carrey, 2000), and he directed 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag (with Joe Pesci, 1997).

Paul Junger Witt has produced more than 60 movies and TV shows, ranging from 1960s TV series like Occasional Wife, The Second Hundred Years, and Here Come the Brides to The Partridge Family and Soap in the 1970s (a decade in which he also produced the award-winning TV movie, Brian's Song with James Caan and Billy Dee Williams) to Benson, The Golden Girls, Empty Nest, and Blossom in the 1980s.

Levine, Schulman, and Witt discussed Dead Poets Society and related topics on Sunday, November 9, the closing night of the 2014 Virginia Film Festival at the Culbreth Theater on the grounds of the University of Virginia.

Paul Junger Witt at the Virginia Film Festival
Asked by Levine whether Robin Williams was the first choice to play John Keating, the unconventional English teacher at a boys' boarding school in 1959 New England, both Schulman and Witt nodded their affirmation.

Director Peter Weir, Witt said, “got a performance from Robin that we hadn't seen before.” For the younger cast members (including Robert Sean Leonard, Josh Charles, and Ethan Hawke), “most of whom were green, were inexperienced, Robin actually became that figure [of an inspiring teacher] because he was so generous and so patient with the kids and kept them so loose and kept them laughing and inspired. They adored him, much the same way, as characters, they adored their teacher.”

Before Dead Poets Society, he noted, Williams “had done a couple of turns as a serious actor and he had an energy that we believed audiences would find believable in terms of a teacher who is inspiring.”

Schulman added that “we encouraged Robin to bring as much of himself as he could to the part. Dinging the bell and things like that, that's Robin, his comedy.”

Levine suggested that what he finds “remarkable” about Williams' performance as John Keating “is that he doesn't do – forgive me – the 'Robin Williams shtick,' with the performance. It's so subtle and so nuanced that even when he's imitating Marlon Brando, it's with reason and truth and intent and complete believability. For those who, at that moment, only knew him from the funny stuff, it's a remarkable tribute to him as part of this collaboration.”

Schulman agreed: “It seemed to me the essence of his character was to reach these boys and Robin gave of himself in that way. You can feel the connection.”

Witt agreed, as well: “And they adored him. If any of them could have made it this evening, they would have. Most of them are working, which speaks to how well it was cast. They just adored him.”

Recalling Williams' unexpected passing last August, Levine said that “one thing I was particularly struck with when we learned of his death was [the] outpouring of public and private mourning and grief for a man who was a public figure and not part people's lives in an immediate way, for most of us – yet people grieved as if they lost one of their own. I think, for me at any rate, he was so lacking in guile. That's so rare. There wasn't an evil molecule in him and for him to offer a performance like this” in Dead Poets Society, “it's for the ages, and we have it for the ages, which is a fact.”

Witt added that he had worked on a second film with Williams, the Christopher Nolan-directed Insomnia, which also featured Al Pacino.

“It was a tough shoot,” he said. Pacino's acting style “is very different than Robin's but they blended perfectly and Robin kept, as he could, the entire set loose. He even managed to make Al smile a couple of times. He was just an extraordinary talent and a really good guy.”

On the set of Dead Poets Society, Schulman recalled, “As soon as you'd call cut, he would start doing his thing and at a certain point you'd just have to send him away because you couldn't get any work done.”

Witt also remembered how one of the key shots in the film had to be done on the morning of New Year's Day, because the weather conditions were just what were needed.

“We couldn't take a break between Christmas and New Year's,” he said. “We had the school [St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware] and we could use it completely because the students were home” for the holidays.

“There was one shot that Peter had planned but there was never enough snow” to do it, he continued.

On New Year's morning, “after an evening of debauchery, the crew came together with [cinematographer John Seale] and they went out and got this one extraordinary shot and gave it to the director as a gift because it was on their own time, on a holiday, [with] no charges to the production because it would have been triple [time] or whatever.”

That was the shot in the snow when the students have learned about their classmate's suicide.

At Levine's request – because it was a show he grew up with – Witt talked a bit about his experience producing The Partridge Family, the 1970-74 ABC-TV sitcom about a musical family led by mom Shirley Jones and featuring David Cassidy, Susan Dey, Danny Bonaduce, and Dave Madden.

“I wish I could tell you a happy story,” Witt replied. “It was a kind of a nightmare. The business can, – and especially a series – can be very hard on kids. I did the pilot and the first year and I walked away from a hit because of what I was seeing and could not stop. I was never sorry. I never again did a series that featured kids that young. And we chose the kids, the children we worked with very, very, very carefully in areas beyond their talent. It's tough and that show was painful for me in that respect.”

Screenwriter Tom Schulman
An audience member noted that “Robin Williams humor seems so organic,” almost like rock and roll. “Did he seem to suppress it during filming?”

Schulman said no, he didn't.

“In fact, I remember the first day Robin showed up for a shot. He was going to be there for a day and he was going to go to New York for two weeks to be in a play. And he seemed almost too on-book, so literal in the way he was delivering the lines that it worried me. I wanted more of Robin's humor and Peter [Weir] agreed and said, 'Well, we've got two weeks to think about it.'”

When Williams came back to the set, the director “did an improv with Robin. He said, 'What would you like to teach the class? A little Shakespeare, maybe read to them?'”

Weir told Williams he would shoot the improvs, just to see what happened.

“And Robin came in and did that improv, he did the John Wayne thing, he did a reading from that book, and something connected. Robin realized, 'Even though I'm doing all the talking, it's a dialogue, I'm getting something from these kids.' It changed his performance right away and from that day on, Peter never said another word about Robin's performance. Robin just got it. Peter called him 'Robin Keating' – Robin and the character became the same guy. It felt to me that whatever wacky humor Robin used, say on Mork & Mindy or in his improv, he never used that” during the filming of Dead Poets Society. “It was all blended into the teaching” of the character, John Keating.

The entire conversation among Mitch Levine, Tom Schulman, and Paul Junger Witt can be seen on this YouTube video.

*For what it's worth, here's the entire top-ten Google search list for 2014:

1. Robin Williams
2. World Cup
3. Ebola
4. Malaysia Airlines
5. ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
6. Flappy Bird
7. Conchita Wurst
9. Frozen
10. Sochi Olympics

I have no idea who or what “Conchita Wurst” is, and I imagine a lot of people asking “What is Flappy Bird?”

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