Youth Behind the Lens: An Interview with Phillip Youmans, director of Burning Cane

Photo Credit: Phillip Youmans

Hollywood South has seen some very talented filmmakers, of varying ages, conceive, produce, and screen their movies for eager audiences. Unfortunately, not all move out of regional festivals, and even fewer get theatrical or proper home releases, meaning that many a dream project will likely turn to dust after that crisp light flickers off.

Phillip Youmans, whose film Burning Cane we reviewed, won big at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival out of New York City. Almost immediately, he’s become a name to watch and recognize within our local community and at large, and well beyond.

I was fortunate enough to ask him a few questions on his experiences up to this point in the industry, his approach to storytelling, and how best to capture our state from a director’s point of view:

Bill Arceneaux: How was the Tribeca Film Festival experience and do you have any stories you’d like to share?

Phillip Youmans: In all honesty, Tribeca was everything that I imagined it would be and more. One of my favorite memories of the festival was the dinner after our premiere at a pizza place across the street from Village East Cinema. Most of my family came from the south and traveled a long way to see the film. And it was cool to have some of my new friends from New York meet them. All in all, it was such a triumphant moment. One of the best memories of my life so far.

BA: Having won big for your first feature-length film Burning Cane, you must be earning some heavy clout right out the gate. Are you planning new projects right now and will you be keeping production in state?

PY: Yes, I’m currently in developing my next narrative feature about the New Orleans chapter of the Black Panthers in 1970. And yes, I plan to make that film in New Orleans.

BA: Despite growing up in Metro areas, I felt oddly close to the rural setting of Burning Cane. It almost felt like a second home. What would you attribute your sense of capturing an environment and having it resonate to? Was your eye for intimacy ever a detriment when filming?

PY: As far as connecting the environment of Laurel Valley to its inhabitants, I wanted to make sure that the film had moments where I allowed the characters to “breath”. I really love that stuff and I think it makes each character more approachable, more real. Those moments of simply living only really became a detriment when I moved into the first part of post-production. In truth, I was a little too self-indulgent and my initial cuts of the film were too long because of that. As the cut tightened up, I was able to keep in a lot of those moments that I really loved while also finding a better balance in terms of pacing and plot progression.

BA: If you could only use one famous quote to describe working with Wendell Pierce, what would it be and why?

PY: “When you walk with someone, something unspoken happens. Either you match their pace or they match yours.” – Sidney Poitier

I learned a lot about the process of directing while working with Wendell and all of the actors in Burning Cane as a whole. I think my entire crew learned a lot when we were working with Wendell as well. He’s an exemplary professional. And it’s not that we weren’t approaching the production professionally from the beginning, but I think it’s important to acknowledge how his involvement elevated the professional environment for everyone on set, myself included.

BA: I would imagine your family has been ecstatic about your early career successes. Are you plotting a run at college (if not there already) and how might you juggle filmmaking with education?

PY: Well, I just finished my freshman year at NYU. I’m looking to find a way to make both things coexist. But at the end of the day, my first priority is getting my next narrative feature made.

BA: For anyone who has yet to see your films, what three movies made by anyone else should they watch first to prepare and why?

PY: I’d say watch Killer of Sheep by Charles Burnett to see a perfect example of harnessing those breathing moments of ordinary life that I value so much. Next would be Touki Bouki by Djibril Diop Mambéty because of how unflinchingly raw it is. The story is great and it’s a beautifully shot film but an extra hat off to Mambéty for his sheer daringness to experiment with the medium. Lastly, watch Days of Heaven by Terrence Malik because of the film’s ability to firmly establish you in the prairies of Texas. And it’s also easily one of the most beautiful films ever made. It’s a masterwork.

Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved. Follow him on Twitter: @billreviews

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