UNBURIED: An Estranged Mother and Daughter Confront The Painful Task Of Leaving The Past Behind

Rebecca Norris recently adapted her stage play UNBURIED into a feature-length screenplay.

In every house exists items that have a sentimental value to them, like old family photos or priceless heirlooms. Though many people consider such objects as heartwarming reminders of weddings, births, graduations and baby’s first steps, others develop an unhealthy — and potentially life-threatening — attachment to things that would otherwise be thrown away after no longer being of use.

For the millions of citizens who struggle with chronic hoarding, seemingly ordinary items like clothing, newspapers, toothbrushes and even expired food trigger memories of the once-happy lives they enjoyed. Yet despite those memories, the emotional heartache that hoarding imposes upon sufferers and their concerned families is stronger than the supposedly nostalgic feelings that hoarders attach to all that they hang on to.

As presented with equal levels of humor and poignancy in Rebecca Norris’s screenplay Unburied, that heartache is displayed by a mother, Carole, whose endless hoarding and shopping addictions jeopardize her life while threatening to shatter the already distant connection she has with her daughter Jill.

Carole’s home, practically stacked from floor to ceiling with rubbish, becomes a neighborhood eyesore that its sarcastic resident is in danger of losing. For both Carole and Jill, tossing out all of the house’s useless wares is a painful yet necessary effort that forces Carole to deal with the unresolved sorrow of her past so that she can finally get a sense of hope for her future.

Adapted from Norris’s stage play script of the same name, Unburied’s screenplay is still, in its author’s words, a “work in progress”. Such a term is appropriate not just for Unburied, but especially for anyone dealing with life’s emotional challenges — including the audiences that Norris hopes will be touched by her film.

Chris Hadley: What inspired you to write Unburied, and were there any real people/real life experiences that inspired the screenplay’s story and characters?
Rebecca Norris (screenwriter, Unburied):
I personally know some people who hoard, and it has a deleterious effect not only on them, but even more so those around them. And, over time, it just gets worse and more painful for everyone involved if left untreated. The characters are an amalgamation of people that I have known and situations I’ve encountered or heard about with hoarders. I won’t lie, I watched about 20 episodes of Hoarders to get a better understanding of the disorder!

CH: You adapted your screenplay from the original stage version of Unburied. What was that process like, and in what ways is the screenplay similar to/different from the stage play it’s based on?

RN: I developed the play in the Seedlings dramaturgy program at Theatricum Botanicum Theater in Los Angeles. It was a very collaborative process, with meetings and readings every week, culminating in a professional staged reading. It was so helpful to hear my scenes read out loud not long after I had written them; I knew right away if they worked or not and could revise accordingly. I was able to bounce ideas off of the other writers and the dramaturg, and strengthen the story.

Screenwriting, unlike theater, is more of a solitary process. (I’m talking for film, not TV). Yes, if you’re working with a producer or studio, you take meetings and get notes, but much of the actual writing is done on your own. It’s harder to know if things are working. But since I had gotten such great notes during the development of the stage play, and much of the screenplay is similar to the play, I’m feeling pretty confident in how it turned out.

There are some differences, though. Unburied is a full-length stage play, yet as a screenplay it came up short on the page count. So I had to expand the story and add in extra scenes to further flesh it out. It still takes place mostly in one location and has few characters, so it should be relatively straightforward to shoot.

CH: Unburied portrays both the relationship between a mother and her daughter, and the psychological struggles brought about by hoarding (the need to save things that most people would otherwise discard, thus endangering life and property alike). In writing the script for this project, how did you balance those aspects of the story while accurately and non-judgmentally representing the daily struggles of hoarders through the character of Carole?
RN:
The one thing I kept in mind while writing is that hoarding is an actual mental disease: Hoarding Disorder. Carole is sick, and can’t control her behavior. Her pain and grief are in the driver’s seat in her life. I didn’t want to judge her; rather, I wanted to make sure that she comes across as perhaps stubborn, even unreasonable, but not ‘crazy.’

Throwing her out of her home isn’t the answer to the problem; she’d just find a way to fill up any other place she lived in. Only through confronting her pain head-on can she work toward healing her disorder and changing her life. I also wanted to make sure the story wasn’t a public service announcement for the disease — it’s a narrative story that ultimately serves to entertain and provide a cathartic journey for the audience, as well as possibly educate a bit along the way.

CH: How can people relate to the characters and story told in Unburied, and in what ways can Unburied help hoarders and their families/friends to constructively deal with hoarding?

RN: I believe the issues between Carole and Jill are relatable even if you don’t personally know a hoarder or have been affected by hoarding. Carole and Jill are at odds over what Jill perceives as selfish and unfair behavior on her mother’s part over the years, the trauma of which damaged her childhood and followed her into adulthood as well. Jill doesn’t understand Carole’s mental state; she simply feels unloved. Jill has also become the ‘parent’ in the relationship, and that dynamic has damaged both mother and child. All of these can be relatable for many people.

The journey of Unburied isn’t just for Carole to find healing, (but) it’s also for Jill to try to understand the roots of her mother’s behavior and find healing for herself at the same time. As I said earlier, I believe hoarding harms people around the hoarder even more than the hoarder herself. I think if those who have a loved one who hoards can see that it’s a real addiction and disease, like alcoholism or drug addiction, that can help bring about understanding. The hoarder needs patience, compassion, and therapy, not berating or abuse for refusing to throw things out.

CH: Overall, what do you want people to take away from Unburied?

RN: Ideally, I’d love for the audience to be entertained, (to) have fun, laugh a little, cry a little, and maybe even learn a little something new. The best of all worlds!

Find out more about Norris on her iMDB page:

Read Norris’ columns on screenwriting via Script Magazine:

https://scriptmag.com/author/rebeccanorris

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Chris Hadley

Writer, @SnobbyRobot, @FSMOnlineMag, Writer/Creator, @LateLateNewsTV