Phillip Youmans wrote, directed, and shot “Burning Cane”, his Tribeca-winning debut feature.
Phillip Youmans was 16 years old when he became obsessed with the prospect of making a feature film. He was a junior in high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), where he had just written a short screenplay for a school assignment. But the young director’s teacher thought the script, about Youmans’s experiences growing up in a Southern black Baptist community, had bigger potential. He encouraged his student to write a feature version of the story.
As it turned out, Youmans was more than up to the challenge. He didn’t want to just write the movie; he wanted to shoot it. Using earnings from his part-time job at New Orleans’s Morning Call Coffee stand, along with funds he raised from an Indiegogo campaign, Youmans financed a 23-day shoot with three crew members, including himself. His stretched his budget—which he admits was “less than Blair Witch,” a film that was made for $60K—as far as it could go. He enlisted an all-black cast, led by veteran actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire), to flesh out the complex world of his childhood. Youmans had a clear-eyed artistic vision, and he was determined to bring it to life.
Once he had wrapped principal photography, Youmans was at a loss for how to fund post-production. On a lark, he sent a trailer—via Instagram direct message—to Oscar-nominated director Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), a New Orleans local whose work Youmans had long admired. Remarkably, Zeitlin watched it and decided to come on board as executive producer, helping Youmans to secure a post-production cash grant and an editing suite.
“Any time anyone told me that I was in over my head, it was honestly just fuel. Even if the film turned out terrible, I just knew I was going to shoot it.”
Youmans finished Burning Cane the summer before he graduated high school. The next year, he would be off to NYU. (He’d submitted the film with his application.) Little did he know, however, that a different trip to New York was imminent. Less than a year later, Burning Cane had not only been accepted into the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, it had won its highest prize: Best Narrative Feature. “The voice is searingly original,” wrote the Tribeca jurors in their public statement. “We loved this filmmaker’s vision and we love this filmmaker’s inevitable brilliant future.”
“What’s amazing both for his age, but for anybody, is that his work is totally not derivative of anything,” Zeitlin told The Daily Beast. “Especially for someone coming up that young, you meet lots of filmmakers who are huge film fans and want to be Quentin Tarantino or want to be Martin Scorsese, but Phillip is drawing his own vernacular that seems to come from him completely magically.”
Burning Cane is indeed a singular film. Set in rural Louisiana, Pierce stars as Reverend Pastor Joseph Tillman, a revered community leader who is struggling with the weight of alcoholism and depression, both of which have begun to leach into his sermons. Meanwhile, a deeply religious mother, Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), attempts to reconcile her love for her self-destructive and increasingly deadbeat son with her tightly-held values—all the while witnessing her troubled pastor’s decline.
The film is elliptical, unfurling in a series of vignettes that feel timeless and authentic. The handheld, low-light interiors evoke a rough-around-the-edges documentary ethos. And the messages—a certain hopelessness that pervades black America, and the often hypocritical embodiment of religious values—feel wise beyond their years.
No Film School caught up with Youmans following his film’s Tribeca premiere to discuss how he made his dream possible: an obsessive mindset, hard work, a small and loyal crew, and a commitment to telling human stories.
No Film School: You were in high school when you filmed this. How does a high schooler come to make a feature film, let alone one that wins the top prize at Tribeca?
Phillip Youmans: So, when I was in my junior year of high school, I wrote a script called The Glory. It revolved around the same sort of central characters that are found in Burning Cane. It was sort of an isolated story about their interactions and them coming to terms with their estranged relationship. I never actually shot the short of The Glory—instead, I went on to make another short.
At the time, I was a student in the film program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, a high school in New Orleans. My instructor told me that he thought that The Glory could be expanded to a feature. After he said that, I become very just obsessed with that idea, honestly. I just felt like that was the only way that I would be able to really stand out—if I could make this film how I wanted to make it, it would be a great way to get out into my career. I would have this calling card of a feature [I had already made].
I went into script revisions. I started churning out different drafts. And then when Wendell [Pierce] came into play later on, it allowed the opportunity to expand the film and build a portrait of a community. And so that’s where I took the feature. I separated it from the isolated story of the short, and integrated other parts of the community, trying to build a portrait of it.
NFS: What’s your connection to the community?
Youmans: I grew up in the Southern black Baptist church. I went pretty much every Sunday. I’ve separated ideologically from [the church], but those are still my roots.
That black ethos—that Southern Protestant ethos—is from Louisiana and from South Carolina, where my mother is from. But the community that you find in Burning Cane, Laurel Valley, is much more akin to Hampton low-country South Carolina, from my memory, than it is to any of these southeastern Louisiana towns that I have visited.
I’m from New Orleans. Where we shot wasn’t too far away. The culture of the town, whether it’s in Louisiana or South Carolina, is this culture of Protestantism. There’s congruency in values and norms.
NFS: So, you have a script. Now what? Where did you find the funding?
Youmans: Funding was a big thing. And casting. We were casting really up until principal [photography] began, and even into principal.
As far as money is concerned, I put all of my savings into it. I was working and stocking up funds. My producer, Mose Mayer, and I started an Indiegogo and did some sort of community outreach with my web of contacts. We got some money there. My family threw money in. Mose’s family threw money in. And we had enough to get us through principal.
Behn Zeitlin came on as our exec in post-production. I had reached out to Behn immediately after principal photography. I sent him a short trailer of the film over Instagram. He saw it and responded to it, and then we met for lunch. He was excited about it. We hit it off.
“I learned through a lot of trial and error and put all of my money into my shorts growing up.”
Behn helped us get a grant from Create Louisiana that gave us a cash award alongside color correction from FotoKem and editing space in New Orleans. Behn also helped facilitate some of the feedback sessions that we had. He would sit with me for days on end just combing through the footage, offering a lot of creative mentorship. I think Behn’s a really dope dude. Outside of being a brilliant filmmaker, he’s also one of my good friends now.
NFS: Behn has a very specific aesthetic and production ethos himself. Did any of his creative sensibilities influence you as an artist?
Youmans: It’s difficult for me to say how his influence is applicable because it’s more unconscious for me. I think it’s probably easier for people outside of us to recognize congruencies. I’ve always respected Behn’s work. Glory at Sea and Beasts are incredible works. I’m super hyped for his next one.
I feel like what defined my shooting style in Burning Cane was almost a documentarian approach. I use a lot of handheld to build visceral claustrophobia for the interiors. For a lot of the exteriors, I used tripod settings—static setups, you know. The stories Behn likes to tell look similar. We both shot in a lot of the same locations and the same areas. I can see how there are some stylistic parallels, but none of that was intentional!
NFS: So, you went into production on Burning Cane having shot only one short. Did you feel prepared to shoot a feature?
Youmans: I wrote The Glory script and then I worked on another short, yes. But I’ve been making short films since I was in eighth grade. They were very bad in the beginning but I kept making more and more. I was getting better, learning about the things that didn’t work. I learned through a lot of trial and error and put all of my money into my shorts growing up. That’s why I didn’t travel that much—I would put all of my money into the shorts. That, and gas for my car.
Leading up to Burning Cane was a whole lot of trial and error, too. It’s crazy to see the short film that I made right before Burning Cane because it is flat out nowhere near as good. With Burning Cane, I’ve gotten to a point where I can watch it and appreciate it and not have my stomach churn—not be hypercritical and super neurotic about it.
Any time anyone told me that I was in over my head, it was honestly just fuel. Even if the film turned out terrible, I just knew I was going to shoot it. I became obsessed with the idea.
“Directing is much less of a dictatorship and more of an invigorating committee.”
NFS: People told you that you were in over your head?
Youmans: Yeah. I’m not going to say any names, but there was a filmmaker that I used to look up to that told me he didn’t think that I understood the investment—the undertaking—that making a feature would entail. But we did it!
NFS: You’re so clear-eyed that it’s hard to imagine anyone saying that to you.
Youmans: I must admit, it is easier to see it in hindsight. Because when we were making the film, you know, we were talking about how we were going to the top—we were going to be screening at Tribeca or Sundance or at Cannes or whatever. But we said that more as just motivation, because at the end of the day, even though we had some great talent attached, you never know if the film is going to go anywhere. You never know if anyone’s really going to see it. I think we all believed in it, on a substantive level, but you can’t account for how people are going to perceive your work at all.
NFS: You have such a strong artistic vision with this film. You would think that you honed it over many years, but you kind of just come out of the gate with it. What gave you this stylistic clarity? You shot mostly in low light. You made bold decisions to keep things spare and elliptical, narratively.
Youmans: Going back to the inception of Burning Cane, my intention was to humanize the people that I grew up with—the people that I had ideological differences with. I knew they were fallible. It was about showing a whole, nuanced picture.
An example of that is, say, with Pastor Tillman in the film. There’s something that he says that I think is undeniably true: we should value personal relationships over material possessions. Even though it’s hidden under a doctrine that I disagree with, there’s still some truth there, you know? But there are also moments where he says some overtly homophobic and trans-phobic remarks. There are moments where you see him grieving and drunk. He’s a community leader—he has mayoral status—but he’s fallible and he shouldn’t be heralded. I wanted to humanize him, to create that whole nuanced, dual picture of an individual.
“My biggest fear was that I was going be so concentrated on the camera that my collaboration with the actors would suffer.”
I wanted to approach it [like] a documentarian. That’s why I dug the handheld setups, especially in the interiors. I think there’s a certain claustrophobic visceral-ness to handheld. With lighting, it was all natural and practical because I didn’t really want it to feel like it was planned or pre-lit. That’s always something that I notice. If a lighting set-up is too perfect, then it’s really hard for me to [suspend disbelief]. It’s an aesthetic—it’s an art, a creative choice. It’s subjective at the end of the day.
When you’re in real life, things aren’t perfectly and evenly lit all the time. With Burning Cane, I wanted the movie to feel like we were in there with these people and experiences. I think the hand-held documentarian aesthetic accentuates that real-life feeling.
NFS: You shot the film yourself. Why?
Youmans: Yes, I shot the film. I was my DP. I initially wanted to use an outside DP—a friend of mine who’s a filmmaker in Alabama named Jacob Johnson. I’d worked with him on a UCLA thesis film. We were friends and we were going to collaborate. Burning Cane seemed like the opportunity to do it. But we were so grassroots, we couldn’t pay him much of anything.
NFS: Did you have the requisite technical skills to shoot your own film?
Youmans: Yeah. I mean, I had learned a lot of the technical foundation beforehand, so I was comfortable with the gear. But it was more just about dividing so much attention amongst everything on set, in terms of directing and shooting. My biggest fear was that I was going to go in and be so concentrated on the camera that my collaboration with the actors would suffer. But luckily, my crew held down the set. My producers, Ojo and Mose, were on the tee about making sure everything was running well.
I also lucked out in terms of the actors. I learned with this production that, at least for me, so much of directing is about the conversation and trusting in the decisions that your actors will make. Respecting them as artists in their own right, and respecting the decisions that they make with the character.
For Wendell, for example, so much of the directing work came in the back-and-forth email correspondence in us talking about Tillman’s past, about where he is with his wife, etc. On set, I mean, he’s a brilliant actor. So you’re going to be hard-pressed to find a choice that Wendell makes for the character that isn’t perfect. So it really allowed me to sort of be almost a spectator in those moments, and concentrate on camera. With Braelyn [the kid in the film], it definitely involved a more hands-on approach, because he was maybe eight years old when we shot. He was inquisitive, which is refreshing—especially coming from a kid so young. He was so interested in learning about a character’s experience. He had no prior acting experience; he was really learning all of it.
NFS: What was the learning curve like in terms of realizing that you had to trust your actors creatively?
Youmans: At least for me, it was so much less about saying, “We need to go here, hitting your exact mark, yada, yada, yada.” [Directing] is much less of a dictatorship and more of an invigorating committee. I think that’s probably a lot of why some of my earlier work suffered. I don’t think I had enough respect for the other people that I was collaborating with.
NFS: How big was your crew?
Youmans: Our solid, continual, rotating crew was three people: Me, Mose Mayer (producer, first AD, first AC), and Ojo Akinlana (producer, first AD, production designer). But we would have days where there would be more. We would have people in for sound sometimes, but when we didn’t have a sound person for a day, then either Mose or Ojo would pick that up, too. There was no time on the set where anyone would say, “Oh, that’s not my job; I don’t do that.” If it needs to get done, it’s going to get done. No one imposed any hierarchy on anybody. It’s like, we’re all going to stay late and make sure this location is cleaned up regardless of whether or not we’re wrapped.
I love those guys. They worked their asses off the whole time.
NFS: You know, sometimes indie productions with 40 or 50 people refer to themselves as a skeleton crew, but yours really was one.
Youmans: Yeah, it had to be. It’s very difficult to find a crew that you can’t pay consistently. So, you do have to kind of lean on your friends who are really behind the project. I was fortunate in that everyone that I brought in was also an artist. Ojo is a painter and a tattoo artist, and is a brilliant production designer. He has a brilliant eye that translates perfectly into film. I just think there were so many talents on so many different dimensions with everybody that it was an easy, fruitful collaboration.
“There was no time on the set where anyone would say, “Oh, that’s not my job; I don’t do that.”
NFS: How long did you shoot for?
Youmans: We shot for about 18 days of principal and then about 5 days of pick-ups.
Our script was 80 pages. There were certain times when we didn’t have more than two or three takes. Some of them were one-take shots. We had so much to get in. But we planned for that accordingly. We dressed the set for Laurel Valley before we came and we made sure that there were certain things that we could control prior because we knew that once we were all on the clock, it was really on the clock.
Every night, we stayed in this Airbnb with all the cast and crew. It was actually really fun. We were doing everything there, you know. Bringing back gear, loading up gear, charging batteries, making call sheets.
NFS: I can imagine that there were some things that you had to learn once you started shooting. There’s only so much you can prep for your first feature. What were the hard and fast lessons you learned, other than trusting your actors?
Youmans: I think a part of the reason why people worked so hard on Burning Cane was because there was never any air of hostility anywhere. When people are working with you to help realize something, you have to show them as much respect as possible and be as cordial and kind. There can’t be any tenseness or hostility on a set because people aren’t getting paid enough to deal with any sort of attitude. I think it really cemented how powerful a respectful, non-hostile set can be when everyone really likes each other. Like, you want to go drink a beer after with each other. When that’s the vibe, it’s kinetic.
Another thing that I learned was kind of cliché, but it’s really true: a film is written three times. In pre-production, production, and in post. In this case, there were certain things that went into writing that didn’t necessarily translate into production. But it’s almost better that they didn’t because I didn’t account for some of the brilliant moments that can happen in just regular, real life.
“For every pass I took in the editing room, we cut out pretty much 60% of the dialogue.”
NFS: What’s an example of that?
Youmans: In Laurel Valley, there are chickens. I didn’t realize that. Initially, for some reason, I just envisioned Helen as a duck hunter, and she would hunt ducks along the bayou. But, that wasn’t applicable to where she was. And there’s a certain domestic brutality to gutting a chicken. Even though I visited the location before, it took coming to the production to see how everything was to say like, “She wouldn’t be hunting ducks.” So, that was something where I was like, “Okay, that needs to be reworked.”
I think in post-production, the film was rewritten again in terms of figuring out if, amongst everything that we shot, there was enough deviation. The root of the script was still maintained in production, but there was enough of a deviation in certain aspects that I did kind of have to reevaluate: “What is this story about?”
I took some storylines out. In the older cuts, everything had answers. I felt like it was too perfect to wrap up all those little different plot lines completely. Because in real life, it’s not that. I was sticking too closely to a catalyst-driven scene sequence. Like, “this happened because that happened. And that happened because this happened.” I was following a beat-for-beat traditional narrative structure.
For every pass I took in the editing room, we cut out pretty much 60% of the dialogue. This is another cliché I learned: show, don’t tell. In the editing room, it just became so much more clear to me what I was really trying to say—the portrait that I was actually trying to paint with the film.
NFS: Did you edit the film?
Youmans: Yeah, I edited it for the bulk of post, but then towards the end of it, I kind of hit a dead end. After a number of feedback sessions, I brought in this talented young editor named Ruby Kline, who was a year under me at NOCCA. She came in for a couple of months and helped me bring a more objective eye to the table.
Our first cut was three hours. Thinking about that…we only shot for 21 days, that’s completely outrageous. I was so attached to everything, you know…writing, directing, shooting. I realized that I was just too attached to every second on the screen. So it serviced the film to bring a more objective eye to the table to say, “Okay, some of this isn’t servicing the story.”
NFS: I can imagine you stretched your budget as far as it would go. How did you get creative in trying to figure out how to make your money go further?
Youmans: A lot of our locations in Laurel Valley, we were able to get because Jacob Johnson, the guy who was supposed to be our DP, facilitated them. We didn’t have to put a dime on locations. That was incredible because some of the other locations that we were looking at in New Orleans were just outrageous compared to what we could afford.
That was an example of a blessing in disguise. By not being able to shoot in the city, it forced us to really go shoot in small-town Louisiana. I think that just created a completely different atmosphere.
NFS: Probably for the actors, too.
Youmans: Yes. They’ve all spoken about that!
NFS: I don’t know if you’re comfortable saying what your budget was, but I feel like it would help filmmakers to know.
Youmans: Well, I can say this: less than Blair Witch.
NFS: At the beginning of our conversation, you said something about how you were initially hoping this film would be a calling card for your career as a director. Having it at Tribeca, have you found that’s been true?
Youmans: Yeah, it’s been crazy. The response has been—at least from the people I’ve interacted with—been positive. It’s been validating that people are responding to it the way that they are. I’ve had some meetings here that I never would have imagined that I would ever have… like, with production companies, and agents and producers and filmmakers that I dream about. Tribeca was surreal.
NFS: Do you have a next project that you are excited about?
Youmans: Yeah, I do have something cooking. I’m on script revisions with a project about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers in 1970. It’s a period piece, so we’re going to need all the resources that we can get, you know.
NFS: I certainly hope this budget is more like Blair Witch 2.
Youmans: [Laughs] Me too!
NFS: Say a first-time director was reading this article, and they were hoping to get out there and shoot their own thing with limited resources and crew. What would you tell them, having just been through it yourself?
Youmans: I’d say, find friends and collaborators that you actually like and respect you and your work. Friends are willing to stick through it with you even when things are incredibly uncertain. The money might not always come through at certain points, but having people who believe in the project, and care about you as an individual outside of the project, was so valuable. Even when things didn’t work out, I didn’t have to fear that my crew was ever going to leave me.
In terms of, like, high school directors, the only people that you can rely on in that way are your friends. I mean, really—the only people that you can rely on to stick it through with you like that without the budget to pay people industry standard rates are your friends.
And at the end of the day, have your goal in mind. We didn’t know all of this was going to happen. I think that’s what makes it so sweet. I sure didn’t think I’d ever be sitting here right now.