December 10, 2023

Maggie Betts, writer-director of The Burial, spoke about her film’s Oscar-winning stars Saturday at Deadline’s Contenders Film Los Angeles event. Jamie Foxx plays a lawyer representing a funeral home owner (Tommy Lee Jones) in a lawsuit against a big corporation. Betts learned she had to give Foxx space for his process.

“He never does the same take twice,” Betts said. “He doesn’t like to rehearse. I think he only drops in five minutes before. That’s Jamie’s process. The results are extraordinary. He likes to do four takes and then he wants direction at that point.”

By contrast, Jones is all about rehearsal and preparation. But the test for Betts came during preproduction meetings with Jones. He spoke about his Texas ranch at length, and paying attention paid off for Betts.

“The next Zoom I had, he was in Argentina,” Betts said. “He was talking about this ranch he was in in Argentina. He said something about the water table. I said, ‘Oh, that water table’s very different from Texas, right?’ He was like, ‘What do you know about the water table in Texas?’ I was like, ‘It’s six feet down,’ because I remembered. He was like, ‘Touché.’ From that moment forward, I had passed the ranching test.”

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The Burial is based on a true story. When meeting with Amazon, Betts wanted the chance to rewrite the script. She invented the character of opposing counsel Mame Downes (June Smollett) so that there could be a woman involved.

RELATED: ‘The Burial’ Review: Jamie Foxx And Tommy Lee Jones Lead Rousing David Vs. Goliath Deep South Legal Story – Toronto Film Festival

“It was very bro-y,” Betts said. “It was a relationship between two men. I can create a female character that will have agency in the story and impact on the outcome of the story. It’s a true story, so that was the only character that was created from the cloth.”

The actual case went to trial in the mid-‘90s, and Wright wrote the script after The New Yorker published an article about it in 1999. By the 2020s, Betts felt it important to update the film’s racial dynamics.

RELATED: ‘The Burial’ Trailer: Jamie Foxx & Tommy Lee Jones In A Legal Matter From Maggie Betts

“You have two Black characters representing two white clients in the South who are fighting over this contract dispute,” Betts said. “This is no discredit to Doug. It was just a script from that time period. The point was how white people saw Black people, which wasn’t necessarily negative. It needed a more Black point of view.”

RELATED: The Contenders Film: Los Angeles – Deadline’s Full Coverage

The Burial is streaming on Prime Video.

Check back Monday for the panel video.

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