NOFF 2019: In conversation with Phillip Youmans, director of Burning Cane

Left: Director Phillip Youmans; Right: Still from Burning Cane (Photos: Courtesy of NOFF)

The annual New Orleans Film Festival is in full swing so all this week I’ll be digging into the films being screened and the people behind them. 

New Orleans native Phillip Youmans began writing what would become his first feature length film at the age of 16 while attending NOCCA. The final result is the slow-burning and gorgeously crafted Burning Cane, which won the prestigious Founder’s Award at the Tribeca Film Festival and will screen this weekend as a Centerpiece Film at NOFF. Starring Karen Kaia Livers and Wendell Pierce, this Faulknerian tale digs deep into the personal traumas and longings for meaning of three rural Louisiana residents. Phillip stopped by WWNO’s studio earlier this week to chat with me about the film and what it feels like to be back home.

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David Benedetto: I know you’re based primarily in New York right now. What does it feel like being back home to promote your film?

Phillip Youmans: It just feels so wild to  be back, in truth, because this is where it all started. This is where the film was made. This is where I’m from. And this is home. So it’s really dope to me that the film is sort of ending, at least festival-wise, where it all started.

DB: Have you been to the New Orleans film fest before?

PY: Yeah, the last time I went I was like 15. It’s when I first met a dope local filmmaker named Steven File and saw his black-and-white film Amongst Strangers. From then on, I was just trying to get on all of his sets and everything. But I think the New Orleans Film Festival is really, really dope. The New Orleans Film Society also is incredibly helpful to local filmmakers.

DB: Oh, definitely. Speaking of early film going experiences– was there a movie that you watched when you were younger and that made you be like, yeah, I want to make movies now?

PY: I think I was always enamored by film making ever since I was younger. A lot of the early live-action films that I watched were through that sort of Disney-funnel, and, honestly, I think I started to expand my palette when I started investigating some of Kubrick’s work, some Paul Thomas Anderson’s and Steve McQueen’s work. And Claire Denis as well. [They all] broadened my palette of seeing cinema exclusively as an art form outside of how it functions commercially within a marketplace. And, I think those sort of auteurs, they did broaden my scope.

Around that time I was also acting and taking roles locally around the city that I could get. And so I did see firsthand on set that I did want to be behind the camera, but I also recognized in a simultaneous, parallel motion that a lot of the filmmakers [and] films that I admire were really driven by a tunnel [or] single vision from auteur-type directors. I always thought that was so fascinating to really have a film be a personal palette of expression. I think that discovery opened my mind up to film as an expansive art form in its own right, outside of just its commercial play to a certain extent.

DBIt’s interesting that you bring up Steve McQueen because when I was watching your film Burning Cane, I couldn’t help but thinking about his first feature Hunger and the way that he relies less on traditional storytelling tropes and just let things play out in this very meticulous motion, presenting scenes and characters in ways that you wouldn’t normally see them. Some of the things in your movie that stood out to me were just scenes of people driving and lingering on these long takes. There’s one where a characters is sitting in a pitch black room watching the television. What’s it like framing scenes like that? Because it makes total sense in how they fit into a cohesive whole, but how do you visualize that on set?

PY: My objective with everything I do is just to humanize, humanize, humanize. I feel like there’s so much that we get in terms of humanizing somebody when we’re allowed to live with them and rest in a moment with them. Like with driving like with Tillman (played by Pierce), and Helen (played by Livers). When she’s driving Tillman home, and then when Tillman is driving  drunkenly on the cane fields — I feel like those moments where we’re just resting with them do so much for us to breathe with them. It’s almost hard to articulate in a super applicable sense to say like, ‘OK, I do this because of this,‘ but I do feel like those moments were not really pushed by any plot-driven sequence or anything really forcing us forward. Those moments [where] we just get to live with people, to me, that does so much in the way of humanizing them and allowing us to breathe with them.

Since I was really making this film on my own creative instincts, I wasn’t as aware of [the] audience. I was thinking more about  a story that I wanted to tell, [and] it was a very insular process, and I think with that, if we’re being completely honest, there is a danger in me indulging myself in terms of the stuff that I like that I have to be aware of, and I think that’s something that I’m fully aware of moving forward, especially in consideration for my projects after Burning Cane. But I think there is a  healthy balance that has to be met. This is just me being objective and honest with the work, you know?

DB: I think that’s a good thing to have. Being able to really engage in your work from that standing is really useful, and I think a lot of those directors you listed — like Kubrick is famous for focusing on one component each movie and  improving upon that to perfection, such as the special effects in 2001 or comedy in Dr. Strangelove. But there are sometimes other things that languish or that he’s not happy with. And there’s no such thing as a truly ‘perfect’ film, right?

PY: Facts.

DB: I come from a literary background and on the literary front in New Orleans we’ve had a lot to celebrate recently with the publications of books by Maurice Carlos Ruffin and Sarah M. Broom being a National Book Award finalist, but typically stories from this place — and specifically from black New Orleanians — are often unnoticed by a wider audience. For you, because this film is getting a lot of attention and you’re getting interviews and write ups, what does it feel like to kind of be a representative of this place? Do you feel like you have a burden to carry this place with you?

PY: No, this is home and these are my roots. This is where I’m from. My mom and her side of the family is from low country South Carolina, but she moved here in the 80s. She’s been here. She’s thoroughly a part of the community. This is home. I don’t feel any burden about it either which way; I just follow the way that my instincts take me. 

And for my next film, it’s going to be based here. It’s about a New Orleans story that meant something to me, and I don’t feel any sort of burden. I also feel like New Orleans is the dopest place in the world to be from. It feels like anywhere I go, when people find out you’re from New Orleans they’re always interested…I don’t think there’s any other hotbed [for art] quite like New Orleans, considering how small of a city we are. So, I feel nothing but pride to be from here, to be back here, to make films here and to tell the stories of this place, you know, because it’s home.

DB: I guess to rephrase my question a little bit, not so much a burden, but do you feel any pressure to represent this place in like the ‘right’ way or to be a representative of this place in a certain way?

PY: See that’s a really interesting question. I feel like ‘right,’ can get very subjective because I’m just trying to tell things as honestly as I can, you know? And I think sometimes I think the biggest responsibility I feel is within my community. Specifically being a black man, telling stories of a black experience from an honest nuance.

It can be bleak sometimes, but at least [I am] showcasing some of the love [and] some of the humanity that really drives us. I think I feel more responsibility in that way than I do to the city, but I think it’s also kind of hand-in-hand because New Orleans history is so rooted in black history and black culture, so it kind of does feel like a synonymous discussion in a way or a parallel discussion I’d say.

I’m never going to put New Orleans — or make any sort of intention for me to put New Orleans in a negative light. I think New Orleans is a character on its own, and it speaks for itself. And a lot of the inner workings of the city are dark sometimes, but it is a story and a portrait in itself that needs to be told.

I think New Orleans is such an interesting place, man. I just feel like stories pop out of here like popcorn, you know? But I’d say [I feel] more responsibility definitely to my community, community of color, black people. But my city is so intertwined in all of that it’s really kind of hard to separate it.

DB: Do you see yourself ever moving back here?

PY: Well, I know I want to die in New Orleans. This is where I want to spend my last years of life, but I’m 19 now, and I spent all of my 18 years before this here except for a year in Georgia post-Katrina. And I love the city, and I want to bring work here, but there’s so much of the world to see. I just went to London, and I could really consider living in London some time. I just think there’s so many other places in the world that I want to live and experience, but my roots are here and this is where I’m going to end.

Right now I’m actually in L.A. I was in New York for the past year, but I’m in L.A. now because that’s where my producer for my next film is, and we’re doing a lot of the development stuff there. But as soon as pre-production starts in earnest I’m going to come back here, and so I’ll be here and making those projects. I think I’ll be  in and out of the city for my whole life. But I think in terms of where I live on a day-to-day, it’s probably going to shift because I want it to shift. I want to have the opportunity to be able to live and experience different things because for the longest [time] I put all of my money into making my shorts.

My sister has traveled the world earlier than I have because she saved up a lot of her money and then put that towards travel towards the end of high school. Most dollars that I got besides putting gas in my car and stuff like that I would put into my shorts and making stuff, and it’s crazy. I feel mad fortunate that Burning Cane has sort of opened up travelling the world in a way. So it’s cool.

DB: And now for a fun one– what is a film you jealously wish you had made instead of its actual director?

PY: Oh, that’s a good one! Snap, I would say There Will Be Blood. I think it’s one of the top five best films of the 21st century.

DB: I think that’s a good choice! And finally, what are some other films that you’re super excited to see at the New Orleans Film Fest?

PY: I really want to see Lost Bayou by another Louisiana film team — shout out to all of them. I met them at Tribeca and never got a chance to see it, but I’m going to see it this go around. I honestly have to see more of the lineup, but I do also want to see the other centerpiece film Waves. I have heard nothing but good things about it and the soundtrack — it had a Frank Ocean song in the trailer [which] I think is sick as hell.

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Burning Cane will make its local debut at the Orpheum Theater on Saturday, October 19th at 8PM. More information about the New Orleans Film Festival can be found here, while more about the film and Phillip can be found on his website here

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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