When it comes to setting an otherworldly tone for a movie, is it any wonder that cemeteries often top the list?
Whether the plot revolves around housing developments built atop old burial grounds, greedy grave robbers tempting Fate, “cryptic” hunts for national treasure or animal zombies refusing to leave the premises, cemeteries are part and parcel of cinema thrills, chills, melancholy and contemplative peace. The exercises in this month’s issue will give you some lively ideas for characters, dialogue and plot development.
These discussion questions provide a good foundation prior to choosing which exercises to try first.
1. Identify three movies you’ve watched in which there were scenes that transpired in cemeteries. Were they scary? Comedic? Action-packed? Sad? Would these scenes have been as effective if they had taken place in a different locale? Why or why not?
2. Would you ever accept a dare to spend a night by yourself in a cemetery? Why or why not?
3. Do you believe in ghosts?
4. If you could write the inscription for your own tombstone, what would it say?
“BACK IN AN HOUR”
On a recent trip to Paris, we spent an hour strolling through the Montparnasse Cemetery and taking lots of pictures. Although it was the middle of the day and there were blue skies overhead, I couldn’t help but feel a sudden chill ripple down my spine when I noticed that the door to one of the family crypts had been left open. “There’s a story here,” I thought. Was someone just visiting? Had a rusted lock simply fallen off without anyone noticing? Or had one of the dearly departed occupants opted for a change of scenery?
Your Assignment: The open door crypt is the beginning scene of a new movie you’re planning to write. Draft a two-page film treatment in which you identify the genre, time period, main characters, central conflict, escalating complications and the resolution.
SWITCHED AT DEATH
It wasn’t uncommon in times of financial hardship for families to put up a smaller headstone – or one that had yet to be engraved – as an interim marker until they could afford something better to memorialize a loved one. Although the church record books at these final resting places do an accurate job of identifying who exactly is buried where, there always lingers the possibility of a body accidentally falling through the cracks…
Your Assignment: In the course of doing some family genealogy research, the protagonist of your story decides to visit the grave of a black-sheep ancestor at Shady Acres. S/he is not only surprised to see that the headstone is totally blank but that there is another visitor that day who has brought flowers and insists that the person buried in this particular plot is someone else. The two of them go to the rectory office to find out what’s going on. Write a three-page scene in which the marker mix-up is either clarified or becomes even more mystifying.
Shortly after they were married, Wally and Marjorie decided to purchase side-by-side (and nonrefundable) plots. The marriage, however, was far from idyllic and they spent much of the next 45 years fighting with one another. When Marjorie passed away, Wally suddenly became a much sought-after dance partner at the senior center and shortly thereafter took a second wife who was much nicer than the first one. During an especially lively tango, Wally has a stroke that puts him into a coma, a coma that temporarily allows him to cross to the other side and realize in horror that he’s going to be spending eternity next to Marjorie unless he does something to change that.
Your Assignment: Write a one-page movie synopsis that shows us how – or if – Wally is able to resolve his problem.
TOMB OF THE UNKNOWNS
At Arlington National Cemetery, a 24/7 honor guard keeps respectful vigil over a monument containing the remains of three unknown U.S. soldiers killed during World War I, World War II, and the Korean Conflict. Each of the specially trained sentries is selected from the 3rd U.S. Infantry and must not only undergo a highly disciplined training regimen but must also adhere to a strict moral code of conduct for the rest of his life.
Your Assignment: The protagonist in your movie has just been accepted for this prestigious honor, a duty that his younger, anti-war sibling just can’t understand. Write a two-page scene in which the soldier expresses his passion for the role he is about to assume and the importance of honoring the sacrifices made by a trio of soldiers whose names are known only to God.
National Treasure (2004) brought us the premise that the wily Knights Templar planted a series of clues throughout the District of Columbia, Philadelphia, New York and Boston that would lead to the amassed fortunes of previous centuries. Who’s to say that the inscriptions on cemetery markers couldn’t be used for the same purpose?
Assignment: The lead characters in your film idea start out on a scavenger hunt one evening that takes them into London’s Highgate Cemetery. Purely by coincidence they notice an epitaph that reads like a riddle. Deciphering it leads to another tombstone…and another…and another after that. Your challenge is to not only write each of the sequential riddles but then write a two-page film treatment that gives the group a formidable adversary (who may or may not be of this world), a ticking clock to find what has been hidden, and a discovery that none of them ever expected.
MADE YOU LAUGH
Among the more unusual visuals at Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris is the gravesite of an artist named Ricardo. Rather than going with a stately and somber reflection of his passing, Ricardo decided to perpetuate the same themes of colorful whimsicality that had made him popular in life.
Your Assignment: The recently deceased protagonist of your movie was always one for playing practical jokes, much to the chagrin of her upper-crust, stodgy and generally humorless family. In the three-page scene you’re going to write, her relatives have gathered at the attorney’s office for the unusual unveiling of the monument she had designed for herself before she died. Decide what the most outrageous display would be and how her next of kin react to it.
As part of my ongoing commitment to supply great lesson plans for today’s classrooms, I always enjoy getting feedback on how the material is used and what kind of new content you’d like to see in future columns. I’m also happy to answer any questions related to specific problems your students may be struggling with. Just drop me a note at or through my website at http://www.authorhamlett.com.
Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is an award winning author, professional script consultant, and ghostwriter. Her credits to date include 26 books, 144 plays for young actors, and 5 optioned feature films.