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Phillip Youmans on Making His Feature Debut, Burning Cane, at Age 19

Wendell Pierce in Burning Cane

Phillip Youmans isn’t sure if he’s returning to New York University. He’s a sophomore at the venerable institution, but he took the fall semester off because he’s a little busy. Last spring, during the second semester of his freshman year, the filmmaker’s debut feature, Burning Cane, won three awards at the Tribeca Film Festival: Narrative Feature, Cinematography (for him), and Actor for co-lead, the estimable Wendell Pierce. Its executive producer is Benh Zeitlin, of Beasts of the Southern Wild, and it’s being released by Ava Du Vernay’s Array, who arranged a two-city theatrical release before its Netflix drop on November 6. As of this writing, Youmans is still only 19 years old.

Youmans hails from New Orleans, and Burning Cane is set locally, in neighboring and rural parts of Louisiana. The story follows three main characters: A deeply religious woman (Karen Kaia Livers); her alcoholic grown son (Dominique McClellan), who has a son of his own (Braelyn Kelly); and a reverend (Wendell Pierce) who’s falling apart after the death of his wife. Looking at religion and addiction, it’s told in a fragmented fashion that defies indie clichés, pat resolutions or even hard stances on its pet issues. It also in no way belies that it was made by someone who completed it before graduating high school.

Youmans learned his craft at the New Orleans Conservatory for Creative Arts, or NOCCA, an arts high school that gave him the resources to cut his teeth well before he even applied for NYU. He’s since created an installation, entitled Won’t You Celebrate With Me, and a short, Nairobi, for Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron, and he’s working on a documentary about Grammy-nominated jazz musician Jon Batiste. His next narrative feature is about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party.

All this activity, the result of Burning Cane’s accolades, has left Youman’s university future in question. When speaking to Filmmaker, he said he’s technically still enrolled but also still unsure when or if he’ll return. He wants to obtain a degree. On the other hand, degrees are expensive (as is New York City), and there’s nothing like on-the-ground work as a form of education. We spoke to Youmans ahead of Cane’s New York theatrical release, set for October 25.

Filmmaker: How intensive was the training you received at NOCCA? For instance, did they teach you what one does on a professional film set?

Youmans: There was a lot of hands-on, applicable on-set experience at NOCCA. When I first got there, the department chair, a man named Isaac Webb, split the [students] into two groups. I wound up in a group where they picked a script by a someone who had written a horror film called Vein, about bloodsuckers. We then had to pick crew positions. My classmates voted me to be the director, someone was voted to be the DP, editor and so on. We learned how to move a project forward while also co-existing, recognizing the personalities we each had, recognizing the ambitions that we had and our artistic intentions with the project. It was interesting to me that we were straight-up thrown into a real-life, applicable production scenario and dynamic.

Filmmaker: How many students attend the film wing of NOCCA?

Youmans: It’s divided into four levels, so roughly 50 total. I want to say this about NOCCA: The access to resources, in terms being a high schooler and having gear and cameras and a full sound mixing studio, was pretty phenomenal, especially for an institution comprised of kids who wouldn’t be able to afford all of that stuff on their own.

Filmmaker: What is the filmmaking infrastructure like in New Orleans in general? After Hurricane Katrina, a lot of Hollywood productions went down there to help the city, to bring crew and money when the city needed it. I wonder if a lot of that infrastructure is still there a decade-and-a-half later or if it inspired the city to keep filmmaking alive in other ways.

Youmans: There definitely is. createlouisiana was incredibly helpful. They offered us grants, which I got with help from my executive producer, Benh Zeitlin. They gave us a cash award, and they gave me final color correction and editing facilities through FotoKem. It was also dope because we had a physical space we could go to and work on the film. I didn’t have to edit in my room anymore or in the classroom. I could go to a literal production house and sit down and look at [the film]. That also helped me schedule those as work days.

Filmmaker: How did you convince people—especially established professionals like Wendell Pierce—to take a chance on someone so young, who’s still in high school?

Youmans: I don’t know. I think there’s a lot to be said about the community atmosphere to New Orleans and NOCCA; the arts community there is very tight. Wendell I met through a chance encounter with [dancer and Pierce friend] Lula Elzy while I was working at a beignet stand. [Upon discovering Youmans was making a film, Elzy texted Pierce right there on the spot, thus putting the two in contact.] But Wendell responded to the work, to the script. He was excited about the idea of playing this preacher, someone grappling with his own demons and starting to question the inner workings of everything he’d been preaching for years. He was just invigorated by the material, and that probably helped him to pacify some of these questions that come when you’re working with such a young and unproven director, which I was. I have to give mad props to Wendell for taking that chance. There wasn’t any short that I had made before that I was confident in showing him as a test or a teaser to give him some video reference.

Filmmaker: You also have Benh Zeitlin as executive producer, who came on after you direct messaged him over Instagram. I’m sure someone of his stature is flooded with DMs from budding filmmakers. What did you say to get his attention?

Youmans: I just sent him the trailer that I had cut immediately after principal was finished. It wasn’t with the intention of him coming on [as executive producer]. I just wanted to meet the guy. Benh responded to the work, and he’s become one of my best friends. My first questions to him were about what it’s like to be in a festival scenario when your film and see it explode and take on a life of its own that you can’t even imagine. He gave me notes on what I had shown him. It was just about getting his thoughts on the material and seeing his perspective, because I respected him. He was also the only filmmaker that lived locally that was working on a national-worldwide level. It just felt like a no-brainer to reach out to him.

Filmmaker: What are your viewing habits like? I’ve seen you cite people like Terrence Malick and Djibouti Diop Mambéty and Paul Thomas Anderson as inspirations, but Burning Cane doesn’t seem explicitly influenced by them. It’s perhaps a little closer to certain kinds of minimalist art films from Europe and Asia and South America, where there’s long takes that observe action as it unfolds paired with abstract narratives that don’t resolve neatly.

Youmans: Looking at my influences and how they affected Burning Cane, I think it would be difficult for me to describe that to an outsider. Nothing I watched I thought, “I’m going to take that for Burning Cane.” The only thing I can say I took was there’s this one shot where it looks like Daniel is almost floating after he’s been drinking. That I had seen in a Spike Lee film. I thought that would be a dope way to show Daniel at that moment. But in terms of my viewing habits, it’s a lot of French cinema, a lot of Wong Kar-wai, definitely a lot of foreign films, mostly within that European realm. It’s just hard for me to say how much of that had an effect on the way I wanted to shoot Burning Cane. That all definitely plays a factor, but it’s difficult to say where I got what, except for that one shot.

Filmmaker: There’s a handful of scenes of Pierce’s Reverend Tillman delivering fiery sermons at church. When you wrote those sermons, did you reach out to pastors to check your work or were you going off of your own experiences growing up in the church?

Youmans: I didn’t run them by any pastors, I didn’t put them through the ringer in that way. I think Wendell brought a lot of that [passion], taking what I wrote and breathing life into it in terms of the cadence, the way preachers often will. We shot those church sequences at an actual live church. The people in attendance were actual parish members who attended that church, Mt Sinai Baptist Church in Algiers, Louisiana. That youth choir is the real youth choir there.

Filmmaker: So it was kind of like you were shooting a documentary where Pierce is subbing in for the pastor.

Youmans: Yes, yes, yes! We were trying to do it respectably [so] that none of it went into caricature. Pastor Watson [of the church], he also went to NOCCA, and, given what the film was about, that it shows religious figures in a valid light, I think he was trying to help a NOCCA brother get this film off the ground.

Filmmaker: Have you showed the film to them yet?

Youmans: No. I’ve spoken to Pastor Watson about it. I need to show them the film, but I’m honestly a little afraid considering what all of it is about. I was pretty direct about how I feel [about religion]. I think Pastor Watson knew what it was about, but I don’t know. Part of me, in all honesty, has to come to terms and reckon with everything that the film is about, the commentary I make, with the people who put their time and effort to help make it, just so they’re fully aware.

Filmmaker: Tell me about any copyright issues you ran into. There’s a scene where Daniel and Jeremiah dance to “They’re Red Hot” by Robert Johnson, but a scene that prominently features The Jungle Book playing on a television had to be removed after its Tribeca debut.

Youmans: Oh, yes, we had issues! [Laughs] With The Jungle Book, I had to replace that with a clip that I actually like more. I think it fits so much better, it’s more relevant to the piece. I know Disney is incredibly protective of their IP, and I’d been reaching out to them since high school, just trying to get some response. I knew I couldn’t make an enticing financial offer, especially with the resources I had, so I wrote an entire short paper, essentially, saying why I thought [using the clip] was important, trying to make a sort of artist’s statement. But I never heard anything back. No answer is not a replacement for clearance, so I had to pull that out. The Robert Johnson song, I did end up getting clearance. I got in touch with Sony after a long time, just trying to submit proposals and requests and not hearing anything back. But I finally did hear back, and we worked out a deal around the resources we had.

Filmmaker: How long did it take to hear back from Sony after your first started contacting them?

Youmans: I’d been asking them since high school, so I probably submitted those requests starting two years ago.

Filmmaker: So it took about a year?

Youmans: [Laughs] Yeah.

Filmmaker: Did you have a back-up song in case they turned you down?

Youmans: I tried other songs and, honestly, none of them felt as good, none of them felt right. And when songs feel right, it’s so difficult to articulate why. It’s more like a feeling.

Filmmaker: Would you have taken the scene out if they had said no?

Youmans: No, no. Had push come to shove, I guess I would have just bit the bullet and did what I had to do. But it would have been such a painful thing, because [the song] fits the mood of the scene so well, especially considering what [Johnson] is talking about. On “They’re Red Hot,” Robert Johnson is talking about prostitution. It was about an insatiable quality that’s parallel to addiction. It felt right sonically and conversation-wise as well.

Filmmaker: Your next narrative feature is about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther party. Where are you on that?

Youmans: Deep development. I just finished my first draft. I’ve met with a producer. I’m starting to think seriously about actors. I’ve known since high school, before I made Burning Cane, that I wanted to make that movie, and now it’s crazy how it’s all coming together so quickly. What Burning Cane laid out for me in terms of opportunities is something I never could have imagined.

Filmmaker: Given that it’s a period piece, presumably with a bigger budget, will it be in a similar style to Burning Cane?

Youmans: I definitely have a lot of room to grow. With Burning Cane I wanted it to be about a group of characters. I wanted the story to function in a fluid way of coming in and out and weaving through these narratives. But with the Panther film, I want to focus on one particular experience of one particular character. In terms of style, I do want it to feel as free-flowing as Burning Cane felt for me. I found my editing style, and I want to edit my next film as well, or at least have a major stake in the editing process. I brought on an editor with Burning Cane at the tail end of production, Ruby Kline, and she helped tighten up that last stage of the cut while being fully aware of how attached I was to the material. I want it to be clear that the Panther film is my voice, especially as I’m starting to define my style as I work on these projects.

Filmmaker: Since Burning Cane you’ve branched out, directing music videos and documentaries and you’ve been hired to make content for Solange Knowles’ Saint Heron. Do you see your career shuffling between different motion picture mediums? There is a lot of questions these days about whether Generation Z will even keep cinema alive.

Youmans: That’s an interesting question because there’s so many kids these days you talk to who say they never watch movies. I don’t know, though. I think film as a medium is growing. It’s become so democratized by how many new outlets of distribution there are, and how many new eyes there are on content every single day. Democratization is a good thing. It allows the space for more nuanced, non-commercial stories to be taken seriously and to have a marketplace. Film and cinema, I’m biased, but I do think it’s the best medium there is, period point blank. I do know there are a ton of people my age or younger who aren’t actively watching movies in that way. But the streaming world and these new avenues of distribution will help preserve [film], and there will be new and interesting content on the cutting edge that has a place to function outside of the strictly commercial outlet.

Filmmaker: It will be interesting where these different outlets — including the forthcoming short-format platform Quibi — take the medium, if it will be successful at creating new kinds of content that will still be cinema.

Youmans: That’s what it’s about — it’s about pushing art forward, pushing film forward. That’s what’s going to allow it to survive: if it’s always evolving, always growing.

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