Interview: Phillip Youmans on Getting Fired Up for “Burning Cane”

A week before Phillip Youmans was going to film at the Mount Sinai Baptist Church in Algiers, a small town outside of New Orleans in the 15th Ward for his debut feature “Burning Cane,” the writer/director made an announcement as their Sunday service ended, asking if any members of the congregation would be willing to come to sit in as background talent and if the youth choir would perform some of the hymns that were needed for the film. Youmans couldn’t help but be surprised seven days later by the turnout when he came back with his crew, but it was a sign that for “Burning Cane,” faith was something that wasn’t strictly reserved for the Good Lord.

“They all welcomed us in with open arms, so we were really fortunate,” says Youmans, who secured the location in part because he had attended the same high school — the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts — as its pastor Dudley Watson, who had wanted to support a local filmmaker. Wendell Pierce, who would be taking to the dais as the fiery preacher Reverend Tillman, was also a NOCCA alum, yet that isn’t what led him to star in the film, instead receiving a text from his friend Lula Elzy, who struck up a conversation with Youmans while he was waiting tables at the Morning Call Cafe and thought there might be a part in his film for “The Wire” actor.

Although Elzy might’ve mentioned to Pierce that Youmans hadn’t yet graduated from high school — he would make “Burning Cane” during the summer break before his senior year — it wasn’t the kind of detail that would necessarily come up immediately if one were to meet the filmmaker, whose confidence belies his age, and if “Burning Cane” is recognizable as the work of a young man, it’s only in the sense of how exciting and new it feels, as if it is was untethered from ideas of how films should be made, even if it’s steeped in history for its story. Youmans, who was raised in the tradition of the Southern Baptist Church, has crafted an unshakeable tale of a quartet feeling trapped in their small-town surroundings by the religion they should take solace in, from the recently widowed reverend (Pierce) who is drinking his troubles away to Helen (Karen Kaia Livers), one of his parishioners who deals with grief of her own in having become estranged from her alcoholic son Daniel (Dominique McClellan) and by extension her grandson Jeremiah (Braelyn Kelly) as a result of her deep religious conviction.

Ironically, if “Burning Cane” is about the way belief can get in the way of seeing what’s in front of us as a narrative, the making of the film is a testament to how powerful a force it can be when it unites a community. After starting out with a team that included his mother Cassandra and best friends Ojo Akinlana and Mose Mayer to crowd fund the production (on top of the savings the director had from Morning Call), Youmans could see how galvanizing an idea he had on his hands in the nudge from his professor Issac Webb to turn his short into a feature, in the cast and crew’s willingness to hole up in an AirBnB and wake up at the crack of dawn for the half-hour drive into the Laurel Valley Plantation for the production and subsequently the support he found in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” director Benh Zeitlin, who came onto the film as an executive producer, and ARRAY, the Ava DuVernay-led distribution company, that picked the film up following its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year where it picked up awards for Best Narrative Feature, Best Cinematography and Best Actor for Pierce.

With the film currently making its way to theaters across the country, including a run at ARRAY’s beautiful new Amanda Theater in downtown Los Angeles later this week, and a premiere on Netflix tomorrow, Youmans spoke about how all the pieces came together for such an arresting drama.

How did this come about?

It started with a short film that I wrote called “The Glory” in December of my junior year. It was really based around [the story of] Helen, a mother [and her son] Daniel Wayne, during this isolated period where they’re rekindling their relationship. Helen’s really questioning why he’s coming to visit her because of their estranged relationship, and once she realizes [why], in a similar way to how it works in “Burning Cane,” she takes action and she comes to terms with what he’s done. I showed that [short] to my professor at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts named Isaac Webb and he told me he felt the film could be expanded to a feature. I became completely obsessed with that idea and then from that point on, I drafted a feature-length script pretty soon thereafter.

You’ve said Jakob Johnson, a cinematographer who had to excuse himself before production began, was critical in securing some of the film’s locations since he was familiar with the area. Since it plays such a key role, did you know about the Laurel Valley in advance as a setting?

I knew about Thibodeaux because I wanted to shoot it outside New Orleans in that bayou territory the more southeast you go in the state. Thibodeaux has this haunting kind of beauty to it. It has a lot of swampland, a lot of dense foliage, and Laurel Valley felt like this quasi-island amongst all of that because there’s sprawling cane fields in absolutely every direction you go in along the bayou. Once I had gone down there to scout with Jakob, and this was while we thought Jakob was still going to be the DP, we had made a lot of those location connections and then after it became clear he wasn’t going to be able to do it, given that he had a wife and they were expecting a child, he ended up going back to Alabama to his family and giving me all his gear to go shoot it myself.

When you have as much latitude to move around the frame as you do, was there something you could anchor the camerawork to as far as a perspective?

With the interiors in Daniel’s house, I loved the handheld [feel] in those set-ups because it felt so claustrophobic and visceral and kinetic, especially with the amount of drinking and woozy atmosphere that comes with that, and then with Helen, pretty much everything once we moved into dense Laurel Valley where she lives, almost all of those were tripod-based just because I really wanted to let us sit and rest in those cane fields.

One of the things I was so impressed by was how this introduced characters at their strongest and then peeled it back. What was it like to figure out the structure?

I found that structure in post-production because there was so much more cause and effect in the script, so you’d look at it like “That happened because that happened,” but I didn’t dig that at all in production because it seemed like it was completely opposed to my intention of creating a documentary-like style. So in post-production, I did some restructuring to make it feel like a revolving door of three characters, like we’re flowing in and out of their lives until the film unlocks by that last sermon. But I wanted it to be that rotating three, starting with Helen talking about the dog and providing her with something that she fruitlessly tries to save and loves, and I didn’t want to end that or tie up that dog’s story too [cleanly] because I wanted to infer that was a continuous situational parallel for her situation with Daniel, and in post, the intention was to drop bits and pieces about them in terms of characterization, not necessarily forcing each scene to be a moment of plot progression, but instead more of a moment of us seeing them living.

It coalesces around this series of sermons Reverend Tillman, played by Wendell Pierce, delivers. Were there certain bible passages you drew on for those?

I knew the sermon was ultimately dancing around this inner evil within us, and the entire buildup is that piece by piece Tillman is expanding on this conversation about the evil within us until he names that emotional scapegoat, the Devil, giving all your blame to the evil actions you do to some outside physical being whose intention is to corrupt you when in truth, it’s taking a lot of responsibility out of our own hands and not looking inward. But I think that Wendell brought so much of that to life because how I wrote it, those sermons were so much more robotic. It was centered around this great hook of the Malcolm Forbes’ quote [““He who dies with the most toys wins”], building on it, trying to recognize the ways that sermons unlock and the way that it’s about illustrating a service, but also getting people hyped up and energized about the words that he’s saying, continually reiterating certain points, but when we were in the church that day, Wendell asked me straight up, “Phillip, how close did you want me to follow this?” And really, I just wanted him to follow the gist of the service, the escalation and the message of each particular sermon, but Wendell was really, really solid in recognizing and picking up the cadence of that preaching because I didn’t really write the sermons in a way where someone could look at it and say, “Okay, I need to raise my voice here” or “Give it a little bit of that…” Wendell brought so much of that to the table.

There’s something else I couldn’t possibly imagine being planned, but I wouldn’t put it past you given how accomplished this is. There’s a scene where the Reverend is being driven home after the authorities find him on the side of the road and you get this remarkable reflection that looks like the moon, but you pull back to reveal it’s a speck of light – was that a moment you waited to capture?

That was just a perfect circumstance. I literally saw that seconds before we took off in the car, I was like, “Hold up, this is dope,” for lack of a better word. [laughs] I just thought that was gorgeous, how you could see the particles moving within the inside of the light almost — it just seemed crazy, so I shot that and kept it within the scene to start it out. Where I wanted to be in that scene was planned, but really I pressed “record” and was pulling that focus out and it’s crazy how it lined up because the moment that I came into focus in the foreground, out of that focus trained on those lights, immediately [Helen] looks back and that wasn’t something where I said, “Helen, look back.” The timing just worked so that when I pulled that focus out, then [Kaia, who played Helen] turned around, took that puff of the cigarette and checked over to Wendell, and it was a perfect [storm] of circumstances because I love that shot.

It’s amazing, and it’s accompanied by a really beautiful piece of music. Were there certain pieces you were attracted to from the start?

The whole time I was writing it and developing the idea, I was listening to so many blues artists like Robert Johnson and Lightning Hopkins and then a lot of old Southern gospel like Mary Lou Williams — she is the one who made that song “St. Martin de Porres,” it’s from her album “Black Christ of the Andes,” and side note, if you ever get a chance to check out that album, check out this song called “The Devil” on that album, I promise it will give you chills. [laughs] First off, the choral music [during that scene in the car with the Reverend] is so beautiful, but it’s also so painstakingly eerie and haunting, and that [feeling was] something that I felt was difficult to articulate, so I wanted it feel like [the song] was coming through the radio, and it carries through for so long and the volume raises that it wouldn’t be in that same box as the rest of the soundscape, so that’s one [scene] where the sound doesn’t have a diegetic source, and it bleeds over into the next scene. We can [also] look at “They’re Red Hot,” the song when Daniel plays the record for Jeremiah and they’re dancing together, and you can see [that song] starts out on the record, so we know where the music is coming from, but then the cut after that, you still hear the song playing.

What’s it been like putting this out into the world?

It’s really impossible to know how much a piece is going to resonate with somebody, so it’s been nothing but fortunate and a blessing because when you submit a film to a festival, no matter how much you put into it, you don’t know if it’s going to be accepted or not, so even getting it into Tribeca was mortifying, and the days leading up to the premiere were [too], but I recognized that I had to let go of really any outside reaction at that point and whatever life this film takes on is the life that the art itself is supposed to take on. It’s so interesting to read opinions and reviews about it because I can take that to heart like any artist, look, I have to stop myself from reading every review that I see pops up because no matter what opinion they take, it really affects me. [laughs] But it’s important that I get better about recognizing and respecting everybody’s opinion of the work because it is art, but also not letting that cloud too much of my perspective and my intention and my day-to-day, and thus far, the response to the film is larger than I could’ve ever imagined and I feel nothing but fortunate.

“Burning Cane” will open in Los Angeles on November 8th at the Amanda Theater on the ARRAY HQ, San Diego at the Digital GYM and Brooklyn at the Stuart Cinema. A full schedule of theaters and dates is here. It will also be available on Netflix beginning November 6th.