Susan Kouguell interviews 19-year old Phillip Youmans about his journey as a writer and filmmaker, and bringing Burning Cane to the screen.
I recently had the pleasure to speak with Phillip Youmans about his journey as a writer and filmmaker, and bringing Burning Cane to the screen. The film was featured at the Urbanworld Film Festival in September in Manhattan, which I attended and I was excited when our schedules finally synched up and we could talk.
Written, directed, shot, and edited by Phillip Youmans during his final years of high school Burning Cane tells the story of a deeply religious woman's struggle to reconcile her convictions of faith with the love she has for her alcoholic son and a troubled preacher. Set in rural Louisiana, the film explores the relationships within a southern black protestant community, examining the roots of toxic masculinity, how manhood is defined and the dichotomous role of religion and faith.
Burning Cane won the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative Feature, Best Actor (Wendell Pierce) and Best Cinematography.
PHILLIP YOUMANS (Writer/Director/Cinematographer/Producer/Editor) is from the 7th Ward of New Orleans. Before high school, Phillip began writing, directing, shooting, and editing his own short films. During his high school years at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), Phillip solidified his technical foundation of filmmaking in their media arts program. Phillip’s most recent video installation titled Won't You Celebrate with Me premiered through Solange Knowles' creative agency Saint Heron at the end of his senior year of high school; the installation is a showcase of black female unity in a non-material, alternative future.
His latest short film NAIROBI, also made with Saint Heron, about a Harlem-based family of francophone West-African immigrants, will premiere on their platform in 2019. Phillip is in postproduction on his short documentary about the Grammy-nominated jazz musician Jon Batiste titled The Vanguard: Days with Jon Batiste.
KOUGUELL: The film has a very poetic quality. There isn’t that much dialogue. Tell me about the writing process.
YOUMANS: I had gone through the script and it had a lot of dialogue; it was explaining too much. The first pass was to see what we communicated through action lines and then I began axing dialogue from there. I approached it with that lens. So much of the crafting and staying within those moments were found during the editing process. During editing there was still too much talking; it was too exposition heavy. It didn’t drop us into the world, it over-explained the world.
Burning Cane began as the short film The Glory that Youmans penned in November 2016, in his junior year of high school. During this time, Youmans began working at Morning Call Coffee Stand in New Orleans City Park to raise money to shoot the short.
The original short screenplay featured most of the same key characters as Burning Cane: Reverend Tillman, Helen Wayne, and Daniel Wayne. Akin to Burning Cane, The Glory followed a protestant woman as she deals with an unexpected visit from her estranged son.
KOUGUELL: How did the The Glory evolve into this feature?
YOUMANS: The short film was very centered on the two pillar characters -- Helen, living in isolation and surviving independently, and her son randomly appearing. In the feature I wanted to give more backstory to the characters.
When Wendell Pierce came on board, it changed everything. One, he’s a phenomenal actor and two, I was able to expand the role of Pastor Tillman. His character is in a mayoral position, and what he’s preaching he doesn’t believe in; all that was built upon after the prospect of Wendell being attached came to fruition.
KOUGUELL: Given your age, were there naysayers that said you couldn’t make this happen?
YOUMANS: There were a couple of local filmmakers in New Orleans that I volunteered on their sets who thought it was a monstrous undertaking and not possible to do this and raise the money. But, I was working with people who were my friends and didn’t care about getting paid. They wanted to be on set. A lot of people’s reservations were valid but my situation was different. I went to NOCCA; we had a full sound stage, mixing room, great cameras and audio gear and a crew of people that I would have been hanging out with regardless of making this film.
KOUGUELL: What questions do you wish people would ask you about your film and your journey?
YOUMANS:: What it’s like submitting a film to a festival. Letting it go after investing so much energy. After so much time and hours, donated hours, I wanted the film to be seen, I wanted people to connect to the work, I wanted it to resonate with the world. The process was tough. My mother said, ‘Let it go, you can’t keep on it forever.’
When I first made the film, the first cut was three hours; the script was 80 pages. The first cut was me being too attached to the material, I overindulged. I got feedback and listened, and took it into consideration. The feedback sessions changed the whole game.
KOUGUELL: Advice for aspiring writers and directors?
YOUMANS: When I was younger I thought I needed to be in New York or Los Angeles to make a name for myself and find a story. But, falling back into my roots, into the world I knew and people I was familiar with, I gave an authentic perspective and unapologetic statement on my work.
My advice -- fall back into the things you really know and what means something to you. People are very interested in a story that we haven’t spoken about in a new way before. The only way to bring in a new perspective is if it’s coming from you with authenticity and from whatever you can honestly speak on.
Burning Cane opens in theaters in New York City October 25, and November 8th in Los Angeles. It will be released on Netflix November 6th.
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