Burning Cane Interview with Director Phillip Youmans & Producer Mose Mayers
In the midst of the three week long festival that is the Seattle International Film Festival, we took a few moments to talk to one cinema’s most promising new talents: Phillip Youmans. He brought his debut feature Burning Cane to the Pacific North West hot off his win at the Tribeca Film Festival where became the youngest director to win the Founder’s Prize, clocking in at only 17 years old. Youmans along with his producer and school mate Mose Mayer sat down to talk about the film, what influences them, and where their careers will take after the success of their first outing.
Below you will find a written transcript of the interview as well as the audio recording — which we highly recommend listening to if you want to hear an extended version where we talk about Goodfellas.
The interview has been edited for clarity and readability.
G: On of the most interesting parts of this film is that you made this film when you were 17 years old. When did you start making the film, from scripting to shooting to post?
P: In December of 2017, I started scripting the film as a short when was 16years old. At the time it was called The Glory. In the ensuing month, the head of the department at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Isaac Webb, told me that after he read the script he felt the film had the potential to be feature length. The primary reason was that the film was grounded in character and did not involve extravagant set pieces... no dominant budgetary constraints would limit feature potential.
He basically said, “You should make this a feature,” and after that I was obsessed with that idea. After that meeting, I immediately went to my producer’s, Mose Mayer’s, house. It was hot and we were swimming, but I explained how we were gonna do this. Mose bought into the idea, and he was one of the producers who helped make the whole thing happen.
After that it was really about finding the money. Mose and I started an Indiegogo. I worked at Morning Call Coffee Stand which is a beignet place in New Orleans. I saved money there. I put all of my savings into it. And throughout this whole time, we were raising money in a really grassroots way. Meanwhile, I was going through script revisions that all led to our summer of shooting where we shot the bulk of principle photography... up until August. Then my entire senior year was post production with some pick up days in between.
G: The film got into Tribeca. You won the Founder’s Prize. How was that experience, and in the wake of your success, where do you see your career and how has it changed?
P: First off, I feel super fortunate that people connected with the film in the way that they did. I say this often, but you never really know if something is going to resonate with people. There was no way we could have predicted it would have turned out the way it did. Tribeca was great. Everyone there was awesome. Jane [Rosenthal], [Robert] DeNiro, and everyone I met through them. I had conversations with people about things I never even dreamt about. It catapulted my career trajectory and prospects for my next film to a whole other level. I got an agent. I had meetings with productions companies. It made the prospects of my next feature real, and now it’s just me putting in the work and making that happen.
G: What is your next project? Can you speak about it?
P: I can give you the ethos of the world it’s in. It revolves around the young men and women who comprised the New Orlean’s Black Panthers in 1970s. I got to know those Panthers during my sophomore year of high school and they became my friends after a certain point. I was interviewing them while making Burning Cane, and when I first visited them, I was so enamored by the idea that they were Panthers. I have such a profound respect for what they did for the community, but in that and getting to know them, there was so much about their vices and what made them people. I really discovered who they were that it helped further my interest in telling that story. On a certain level of humanization, there are so many possibilities for the Panther story, and I’m very excited to tell it
G: When I watched the film, I got a lot about the notion of faith, and how can someone stick to faith in times of extreme circumstance … the cyclical nature of those setbacks. Can you speak to the theme of faith and where the inspiration came from?
P: I grew up in the Baptist church, going to church every Sunday, but I recognized pretty early on that my beliefs and personal convictions didn’t align with the church and religion. There were a number of different factors that developed that. When I first made that discovery, I was almost militaristic and antagonistic against it. In the process of making Burning Cane, it helped me humanize the people I grew up around despite our ideological differences.
However, I do not want Burning Cane to be a piece that is in anyway defined about my personal differences with religion. It’s really just about the people who inhabit that community and their relationships with the church. I try to show that in the most documentarian, objective way possible so that my own personal ideological convictions don’t sour one’s experience in humanizing [our characters].
In the journey [of the film], we see them in that way. I think a big thing about reclining on faith in Burning Kane is that it’s clear that Helen really falls to into it during those really dire time near the end of the the film. With that, I think it’s important to highlight that I didn’t want to make a commentary on the dangers of utilizing and enacting a fundamentalist interpretation of religion. By the end of the film with Hlelen, she takes Tilman’s— the pastor who is broken at this point — guidance literally. In the end she takes action from that.
G: When I was doing research for this interview, the word ‘meditation’ kept coming up, and it feels like a very good encapsulation of the shooting style and structure of the film. When you were going through the scripting process and while you were on set, was that the nature you wanted the film to be like … as opposed to a classical Hollywood structure where everything is clear cut? For example the opening where Helen describes the cleansing the dog over and over again as an allegory for her own trials of faith.
P: That’s an interesting question. I think with Burning Cane, I knew I wasn’t tying myself to any sort of convention. What’s so freeing about being so grassroots and funded independently is that there was no one I or anyone in the production were answering to with regard to our creative opinions. I think that’s what helped keep my point of view with the film unadulterated.
With that, I did not want the film to be tied to any traditional capitalist-driven scene sequence… something that was a beat for beat plot structure. My intention was for it to be a portrait of the community by using those three key pillar characters, particularly with Helen and the pastor who she still looks to for guidance despite their tumultuous past.
I wasn’t thinking about how commercial the film was going to be or anything like that. In truth, that’s why all this has been so validating personally. I’ve really been following my own personal creative addiction entirely with this film. I also really want to give a shout-out to all the filmmakers and mentors that came to the feedback sessions and spent time with me, giving me really hard harsh, but very real, feedback that I needed to hear in the post-production process.
I didn’t want to hand the audience anything or underestimate their intelligence by making everything abundantly clear. I think it’s interesting that you mention the dog’s mange in the beginning — for me, that helped establish a parallel to Helen’s dynamic with her son. I don’t want to divulge too deeply into the underlying meaning, because I think it’s better to leave it open to the audience in how they should interpret the film, but I wanted them to have a lot to unpack. Commercialization wasn’t apart of that.
G: For your productions, as a 17 year old — maybe we can loop Mose into this one — what was it like for you two?
P: We both went to the same high school. Especially for Loral Valley where we shot the bulk of principle, we were staying in an AirBnB with all the cast and crew in the same house. It felt like a fun boot camp.
M: It felt like Sleepaway Camp. [laughter] We had junk food, and like eight people who were mostly our friends we reached out to. We didn’t have a casting agency or anything. Everyone Phillip knew came out to help.
P: Yah it wasn’t a lot. But especially with Kaia [Livers - Helen in the film] and Dominique [McClellan - her son in the film] there was a slight bit of a search for those roles. Kaia came on because she was supposed to cast the film, but she read the short draft, and eventually attached herself as Helen. I had readings with her and it was phenomenal. Bar-none, a clear casting from the beginning.
G: Had you two worked together before on a short prior to this feature?
M: I had worked with Phillip during my sophomore year, but I wasn’t really involved. It was awesome to help then, but I wasn’t in the mindset for film at that time. But once he came to me with Burning Cane, which at the time was called The Glory, I threw myself at it.
P: Right after my meeting with Mr. Webb, I drove to his house, and we were both like, “We’re gonna do this. By the end of the summer, we’re gonna have a film shot.” And that’s what happened.
G: Do you have any personal inspirations for the film? Or a film that set you on the path for filmmaking?
P: I can only say the films I appreciate during the time when I was making the film. I have to say there was no film or filmmakers that I can really say were a direct inspiration for Burning Cane. Like I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone’s specific style, truly. That being said, I really love Touki Bouki, Dog Day Afternoon, and some of the write-ups [about me] have said Malick was an influence, and I really am a big fan of his. To be put on the spot is so daunting! PTA is a must. Wes Anderson is outside of my style, but someone I still like. Someone at the fore front of nuance in story telling, like Barry Jenkins too. There are so many filmmakers and films that I admire, but it’s hasn’t been a direct influence.
For our complete coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival, including what we thought of Burning Cane, check our our Capsule Review feature.