When filmmaker Maggie Betts premiered her feature debut, the stunning period piece “Novitiate,” at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, the drama starring Margaret Qualley as a young nun took a path many other films had already followed. It showed to strong reviews (including from this writer), earned Betts a Special Jury Award for Breakthrough Director, was bought at the festival by Sony Pictures Classics for an estimated 7-digit price, got a theatrical release in the heat of the fall season, and even picked up some awards buzz for co-star Melissa Leo.

These days, that once-traditional route is a vestige of the past, as the theatrical landscape continues to shift and festival buys grow slimmer. But while Betts readily admits she’s had to change her ambitions to suit the ecosystem, that hasn’t diminished her work. It has, however, altered it a bit. For one thing, it took her six years to make another film after “Novitiate,” and while the road there was paved with disappointments, heartbreak, and probably more than a little soul-searching, at the end, there is something to celebrate: Betts is back.

Her latest film, “The Burial,” doesn’t sound much like “Novitiate” at first blush, but there are indeed some Betts signatures at hand. (Betts, along with Pulitzer Prize winner Doug Wright, adapted Jonathan Harr’s 1999 New Yorker article of the same name.) Like “Novitiate,” the film is a period piece (this one is set in the mid-’90s and based on a true story) that follows a pair of unique characters (Jamie Foxx as the wild trial lawyer Willie E. Gary, Tommy Lee Jones as his client Jeremiah O’Keefe) as they go through a life-changing process (a dramatic trial that initially hinges on a contract dispute and goes on to tackle all manner of bigger issues). The acting is great, the story is unexpectedly immersive, and it’s compulsively watchable.

But Betts passed on “The Burial” twice, eventually deciding to take it on in November 2020, because, as she told IndieWire during a recent interview, “it was kind of the only thing that was happening.” She added, “It was the only thing that was actively moving forward, which I think is just the case for a lot of people. I think if it hadn’t been for COVID, I would’ve been working sooner. But that’s true of so many people.”

Betts said she’s spent the past six years working on “a variety of different movies.” Part of the period included, by her calculation, eight months of essentially auditioning to direct the “Black Widow” film, which Betts simply calls a “rigorous process” (the gig eventually went to Cate Shortland, also a standout on the festival circuit). Other things came together — and fell apart, thanks to both COVID and the massive shifts in the entertainment industry that took shape both before and after the pandemic. 

Rebecca Dayan, Margaret Qualley, director Maggie Betts, Dianna Agron and Morgan Saylor
“Novitiate”: Rebecca Dayan, Margaret Qualley, director Maggie Betts, Dianna Agron, and Morgan SaylorDaniel Bergeron

“I had one incredibly heart-wrenching experience due to COVID where I went to Australia to shoot an adaptation of ‘The Days of Abandonment’ with Natalie Portman, and it just completely collapsed,” she said. “That was devastating. Then you had COVID for two years and then a couple of projects that I was nurturing during COVID, they were a little bit more independent, so the whole financing thing just became not even possible.”

In 2020, Betts was set to direct Portman in the lead role of an HBO-financed TV feature adaption of the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name (Betts also wrote the adaptation and was set to produce the film). In August 2021, Portman dropped out, which effectively killed the project. Last month, Penélope Cruz joined a resurrected version of the project, which will now be directed by Isabel Coixet.

Writing and directing a film like “The Burial”? That wasn’t on Betts’ metaphorical bingo card, at least at first. “It’s so funny because when I was at Sundance, I had an idea of a career that I wanted, and just because of the way I grew up, the career is totally theatrical, and then you’re kind of like, ‘This is actually dying,’” Betts said. “[I] had a very clear idea of what [I] thought [I was] going to do, but it doesn’t exist anymore, or it only can exist on certain platforms.”

So, what was that career Betts had in mind back at Sundance all those years ago? Betts considered the question carefully. Despite the “Black Widow” process, she didn’t think she was “drifting in the action direction.” She made “Novitiate” for $6 million and expected to scale up from there; in her mind, the next step was a “$20 million movie with a big A-list actress, I thought that would be the natural [next step]. That was in my mind, but that ceased to exist.”

Tommy Lee Jones and Jamie Foxx in "The Burial"
“The Burial”Amazon Studios

At the time, Betts noted, “Netflix and Apple and Hulu were not even fully in the prestige-y movies game. I remember going to meet with Netflix as a potential buyer for ‘Novitiate’ prior to Sundance, just introducing myself and everything. It was not the place [for the film]. It was kind of very tech-y, very corporate. They weren’t movie people, to be honest, the people I met with.”

That’s changed, too. “It’s kind of the place for someone like me to go now, hopefully, if the good Lord shines on me,” she said. “[I] would be able to make a slightly higher budget, more dramatic thing — which I guess [‘The Burial’] is! — at a streamer who isn’t going to be beholden to a theatrical success. But that’s what everybody like me wants to be doing. They don’t buy every pitch that they hear and they don’t make every pitch that they buy, so you just have to hope that that works out.”

The filmmaker has adjusted her thinking beyond just potential producers and distributors. “Now when I get scripts or when I think about ideas, something I never did before is, I immediately think, ‘Would this work as a limited series?’” she said. “That would make it a lot easier to get [my work] out into the world, which is something I never thought I would think.”

When I noted that “The Burial” would actually make a fine limited series, Betts laughed. Great minds! “Jamie himself was obsessed with the idea of making a TV show, like Willie E. Gary and all his lawyers, which I think would be hilarious too,” Betts said. “I doubt I would be the one to do that, but I do think that could be very funny.”

In speaking of her experience making a film for Amazon, Betts is characteristically thoughtful. “There’s a big adjustment with studio stuff,” Betts said. “Definitely, the mandate was [to make] something super-commercial and entertaining, and so I had to adjust my impulses and instincts in that direction, and a lot of times just reign in certain instincts that I had. I think the goal always is that you want to make a commercial movie. You want to make a bigger-budget studio movie with as much creative freedom as you possibly ever could.”

“The Burial”

The film does feel commercial — but with something of a throwback twist, the kind of film they don’t make anymore, the kind of film Betts literally grew up watching, a John Grisham-y court dramedy you can imagine watching endlessly on TBS or TNT.

“When I first got the material, I was like, ‘This is perplexing, because I don’t think courtroom dramas feel contemporary, and I think they feel really dated, and I don’t really know what to do,’” Betts said. “And then it was kind of like, ‘Well, maybe the right thing to do is just completely lean into the datedness of it and go for that ’90s thing that I grew up watching, that’s kind of B-movie and a little bit campy.” (Not so much “The Verdict” she said, more “Jagged Edge.”)

Betts also knew the beats of this genre, and her familiarity with these stories offered her a new kind of entry point. “You watch them so much growing up that you know the formula in your body, almost,” she said. “When I would watch [these movies], my sister would be like, ‘OK, they’re about to get the smoking gun,’ or ‘OK, now that star witness is going to drop out.’ You know them, and so can tell them really well, you can follow the genre beats really well because you’ve just internalized it unintentionally. I tried to follow the exact formula. I wanted to make it like those movies. It wasn’t accidental. It was a very purposeful attempt to recreate the feeling of a ’90s courtroom dramedy type thing.”

When the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, it went over very well. As IndieWire’s own David Ehrlich noted in his review, the “rousing crowdpleaser” … “absolutely slayed the 2,000-person audience” at its premiere. It will spend one week in select theaters before heading to the Prime Video streaming platform on October 13.

“I’ve seen it only now in theaters with incredibly engaged and rambunctious and rowdy audiences that have been clapping and cheering,” the filmmaker said. “So there’s a part of me that’s kind of, I guess, saddened that is not how the vast majority of people will experience it. But again, it gets back to what we were saying in the beginning: this is the reality. It’s like, this is what we’re making, this is where it’s going. It’s a streaming movie.”

Betts doesn’t say that with a trace of ire. She’s thought about this, and from many different perspectives. “As much as [people] say, ‘Oh, it plays so well in front of an audience, why can’t it be [in] more [theaters]?,’ then you’re like, ‘Because the studio would have to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to get that many people to go into a theater to watch it,’” the filmmaker said. “Realistically, it just never could have been. Yes, once they’re sitting there, they have a great time, they’re all clapping and cheering, but what is it going to take for the marketing department to get them in there?”

“The Burial”

The changing nature of Hollywood also impacted the film’s TIFF premiere and current rollout: the writers strike was still on when the film hit Toronto, and the SAG strike still continues today. Betts is happy about the WGA deal, but a little heartbroken over not being able to share the experience with her full cast and crew.

“I’m a member of the WGA, so I was really happy that the WGA is happy and the members are happy with that resolution,” Betts said. “With ‘The Burial,’ [as with] any movie, you work with a group of actors and you’re like a family. You’re so happy and you want to share in the release of it and everything together. It was kind of sad in Toronto to not [be able to] lock arms with them.”

Her stars are staying close, however, including the powerhouse Foxx. “I actually just got two incredibly sweet, long voice messages from Jamie last night, and I hadn’t heard from him in a while. He was just like, ‘I’ve been watching everything and it’s so exciting.’ Everybody’s so excited, but it’s all disparate because you’re not brought together in one place,” she said. She hopes the SAG strike ends soon, and is feeling hopeful after the recent conclusion of the WGA strike.

As different as Betts’ two features might sound, both also speak to her ability for excellent casting and clearly strong relationships with her stars. Betts may be fielding effusive voicemails from Foxx and hanging out with co-star Mamoudou Athie in Los Angeles, but she’s also still thinking about her other stars, like “Novitiate” breakout Margaret Qualley. When asked about discovering the star, Betts lit up.

“I get that so much, and it’s so touching to me,” Betts said. Even Qualley herself has hailed the director for giving the rising star her first lead, Betts added, but she doesn’t get too caught up in that. In her mind, Qualley was always going to be a star; Betts just got there first.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 26:  Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Rebecca Dayan, Margaret Betts, Mararet Qualley, Julianne Nicholson and Morgan Saylor attend a screening of Sony Pictures Classics' "Novitiate" hosted by The Cinema Society at The Landmark at 57 West on October 26, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Andrew Toth/Getty Images)
Melissa Leo, Dianna Agron, Rebecca Dayan, Margaret Betts, Margaret Qualley, Julianne Nicholson, and Morgan Saylor attend a screening of Sony Pictures Classics’ “Novitiate” in 2017Getty Images

“It was a smallish indie, but there were so few serious, dramatic, intense roles for girls between 18 and 23, because they always were playing in high school movies or they were somebody’s daughter in a movie, so every kind of young actress in Hollywood was really interested [in the film],” Betts said. “I Zoom-ed with tons, and then I Zoom-ed with Margaret, and within two seconds I was like, ‘This is a movie star.’ … What she’s able to pull up on a dime emotionally is just astounding. It’s like someone who’s a really natural basketball player or something like that, she’s so naturally good at it and so amazing to look at, and so magnetic. Her eyes communicate so much. Her expressions communicate so much. I don’t think I discovered her, because I thought she was a movie star the first time I met her. She just hadn’t become a movie star yet.”

What’s next? Or, more bluntly: Are we going to have to wait another six years for a new Maggie Betts joint? “I don’t have anything lined up right now, to be perfectly honest,” Betts said. “I have a feeling of what I really want to do, which is what I started with. I would like to do a movie where I’m working with a really powerhouse actress, but it has to be the right thing.”

But what is “the right thing”? Betts has learned that can be its own kind of trap, and she seems eager to avoid it. “The thing that ‘The Burial’ taught me is I also can be super open, not like ‘I can do anything,’ but if you close your mind to the idea of a horror or sci-fi movie or a broad comedy or something like that, you might be sort of closing the valves of one’s attention,” Betts said. “Remember in ‘TÁR,’ when she says that, ‘Closes the valves of one’s attention’ when she’s giving the Julliard class? I had to bring ‘TÁR’ into this at some point! [With] this strike, everything just stopped, even in terms of material. I was about to pitch on a bunch of stuff and everything stopped, so it’s kind of starting again right now.”

Betts isn’t ruling anything out. She’s keeping the valves open. Or, as she succinctly puts it: “I’m trying to be open-minded.”

“The Burial” is now in select theaters and will start streaming on Prime Video on Friday, October 13.

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