Filmmaker Phillip Youmans’ debut feature Burning Cane is a meditative yet gritty look at the Black Baptist church in the rural US south. It follows the intersecting lives of three main characters: the grieving widower Reverend Tillman (Wendell Pierce) the loyal congregant Helen Wayne (Karen Kaia Livers), and her unemployed son Daniel Wayne (Dominique McClellan) who struggles with alcoholism. Shot in a vérité style that is both dream-like and hard-hitting in its commentary about faith and addiction, the film often relies upon low angle hero shots bathed in a somber blue-brown-green color palette. With its unbothered pacing and a plot that asks more questions than it answers, Burning Cane sits in the company of indies like Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned and Kasi Lemmons’ Eve’s Bayou.
This impressive debut feels like one from a seasoned filmmaker, so it’s surprising that Youmans, 19, is technically still a teenager. As a kid he acted in productions in his hometown of New Orleans in small roles, making his first short at 13. At 17 he began work on Burning Cane, and he’s now a freshman at NYU film school, currently in post production on his next short, a documentary about jazz musician Jon Batiste.
At the suggestion of his high school film teacher (Issac Webb) at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts — who encouraged him to expand his short, The Glory, into a feature — Youmans started shooting Burning Cane in Louisiana over his summer break. After submitting to the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, he went on to become the youngest director ever to screen there and the first Black director to win Best Narrative Feature. In addition to nabbing awards for Best Actor (Pierce) and Best Cinematography, Youmans also secured a distribution deal with Ava DuVernay’s ARRAY.
Ahead of Burning Cane’s November 6 release on Netflix, I spoke with Youmans about his exciting career trajectory and how he approaches being a cinematic multi-hyphenate (writer, director, cinematographer).
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Hyperallergic: What did you learn from making Burning Cane in terms of your style as a filmmaker?
Phillip Youmans: I solidified the visual style that I like. Especially with handheld, I just like an active camera that can allow me to move organically through scenes. And I also think with my editing style I definitely cemented how much pre lap and post lap I like. I love to hear sounds bleeding. It adds a lot in terms of fluidity and pacing of an edit.
H: Letting the dialogue from future scenes bleed into the existing scene, how did you come to that idea?
PY: Benh Zeitlin [of Beasts of the Southern Wild], he really motivated me to be as fluid as my instinct led me to be. He definitely was a big part of me being open to unlocking the film and not necessarily being tied to a specific time and place of things chronologically. So, in the edit, I decided that I wanted the film to be like a revolving door, three characters of us moving in and out with Daniel, Helen and Tillman. And I think that unlocking schema was really kind of motivated by Benh and the time that he spent with me. I picked up something that he and his editor [Affonso Goncalves] did when they were editing. They would put up frames of the film along the wall, lay it all out chronologically. So I had a physical view of the edit on the wall above where I was editing, and we would come in and really move it around physically creating that revolving door.
H: Before you connected with Benh, you were more committed to a traditional storytelling structure, and he inspired you to go with your gut and do something different?
PY: Definitely. The first draft of Burning Cane was so much more cause and effect. You’d be able to say, ‘Okay this scene happened, and that scene happened,’ but it didn’t really feel like it was helping my intention of the story because I always intended for it to feel documentarian, like we were just living with these people. That went into the edit as well, pulling out certain storylines from the film, pulling out certain answers from the film. Are they allowing more opportunity for people to have their own association with the project as opposed to giving them all the answers?
H: I think a lot of people don’t realize how important it is to have those key collaborators when you’re making a film. Because it takes a strong voice and determination, but you also need people to challenge you and push you in certain ways.
PY: And scrutinize things honestly. All that stuff is so important. Honestly, I think my first cut of it when I thought that I was done was too long, and I wasn’t really considering the audience and how that was all working within the scheme of the film at that point. But after that first feedback session, then it was kind of a snowball effect: still grounding myself in my intention and my initial mission with the project, but also just being real and being aware of an audience and what they experience. I never wanted to play the audience for dumb, to ever feel like the film was second guessing the intelligence of the audience. The intention [was] to create a free association, malleable piece.
H: What was it like being both the director of photography and the director at the same time? Was that your original plan?
PY: I worked with a dedicated DP for the first time this past weekend on a music video shoot. And for everything else before that I shot, I also directed and DP’d, so I’m comfortable with shooting my own material, more out of necessity. I think in the beginning — because there wasn’t really anybody else who wanted to put as much time into my project — I was just always more comfortable shooting it myself. With Burning Cane it was not the intention to be the DP but the DP that I planned to work with, he could no longer do the project and gave me his gear. He had more expensive gear than I would have been able to afford. So I was like, ‘you know what, I’m the only one that I trust with this camera.’ In retrospect, I couldn’t have imagined this film through anybody else’s eyes, but it wasn’t the initial intention. The biggest thing to acknowledge with shooting and directing is that there is definitely a mind split that comes when you have to account for the technical aspects of the frame, tell the story in the frame and also be fully attentive and communicative with your actors. With my actors, having ample conversations and preparation before we got to set so that we were of like minds by the time we got there. I had brilliant actors who made a lot of great decisions. So I lucked out for sure. And I had a great crew, my friends, who were on top of things logistically.
H: Were you intentionally referencing any movies with Burning Cane?
PY: In my first feedback session someone made a really flattering comparison to Killer of Sheep and at the time I hadn’t been exposed to Charles Burnett’s work. I went in with an extremely clear idea about what I wanted to do with the story. The only real direct reference to any film came from one thing: the shot when Daniel is drinking, and he’s woozy and looks like he’s walking and kind of floating, that’s from Spike Lee, sitting on the dolly and pulling it. I’m sure it’s impossible to separate important works have that impacted me. But it is difficult for me to be able to say ‘Okay, This is from there. This is from there.’
H: Do you have a favorite filmmaker, or a top five?
PY: Yes but in no particular order. Barry Jenkins, Paul Thomas Anderson, [Djibril Diop] Mambéty, Agnes Varda, Claire Denis and Ava [DuVernay] of course. I’m kinda biased at this point. (DuVernay’s ARRAY is the distribution outfit behind Burning Cane’s release.)
H: Do you have any advice for your fellow filmmakers?
PY: With other people getting their first feature off the ground, really heavily consider how close and how insightful your perspective on a particular [story] really is. That’s what people are looking for, having conversations about things in a different way, a nuanced way and from a fresh perspective. Everything that’s happened so far has definitely validated my creative instincts. I feel like I’m making films more confidently now than I ever have.