BURNING CANE Q&A with Director Phillip Youman, Moderated by Erik Luers – Part 3 of 3: The Audience

Today, Thursday, October 31, 2019 is the last day that the movie will be showing at the IFC Center in NYC. Times.  Netflix November 6.

Q&A Audience, Made in NY Media Center, 30 John Street, DUMBO Brooklyn.

BURNING CANE was selected by the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival for Best Narrative, Best Actor and Best Cinematography. It will broadcast on Netflix November 7 and will subsequently open in Los Angeles November 8. It tells the story of a deeply religious woman’s struggle to reconcile her convictions of faith with the love she has for her alcoholic son and a troubled preacher. Set in rural Louisiana, the film explores the relationships within a southern black protestant community, examining the roots of toxic masculinity, how manhood is defined and the dichotomous role of religion and faith.

Director Youman was in high school when he wrapping up the film. He was 19 when it was screened at TFF. BURNING CANE began as a short, THE GLORY, which Youman had penned in November, 2016, during his junior year of high school. He was also worked at Morning Call Coffee Stand in New Orleans City Park to raise money to shoot the short. The original short screenplay featured most of the same key characters as BURNING CANE. THE GLORY told the story of a protestant woman as she deals with an unexpected visit from her estranged son.

Director Phillip Youman & Moderator Erik Luers. Q&A picture by Gregg W. Morris

Moderator Erik Luers opens the floor for questions.

Audience Member 1: “First of all, amazing job. Very fantastic to see. I just was wondering about the post production process and how different or similar this final film is from the script or from rough cuts and just how long that took and how you were guided along the process.”

Youman: So the final cut differs a sizable amount from the original script, but the main story as concentrating on those three characters in their developments is pretty much one-to-one. I think the biggest change that came from the initial cuts that I had to the cut that you guys see today was, one, in the same way that I went through the script and cut out a lot of the dialogue and moved in and did that sort of exercise that I feel like a lot of us are familiar with of like going back in the script, trying to really tack on to the points where you might be saying something and also showing it and maybe not adding anything new to that. You know what I mean? Going back in and really trying to fine tune that script.”

Youman: That same thing sort of happened in post production. Trying to kind of take out a lot of the perfect endings that I saw. A lot of the perfect sort of ways that some of the stories were tying up because I realized I didn’t want the narrative to feel that way. I wanted it to really, really feel like a sort of revolving three and then til the film sort of ultimately unlocks towards the end. That is something I did discover in post production.”

Youman: The initial cut was also way too long, considering how long the script was. And it’s so interesting how I think hindsight is 2020 but it’s so interesting how … The script was 80 pages. My first cut was near three hours for no reason. I took every beat I could possibly be allowed. I love moments where we are just breathing with people, but I think those first touch definitely bordered on over-indulgent.”

Actor Wendell Pierce as Reverend Tillman. Photo by Phillip Youmans. Courtesy of ARRAY Releasing

Youman: “And I think I became aware of that after my first feedback sessions, and those were sort of spearheaded by my exec Ben and Isaac Web at NOCCA, my department chair, helping coordinate those. And they were super formative, kind of painful but important. Because I was so attached to everything, just every aspect of it.”

Youman: “At first, I was kind of headstrong about it. But I realized that there’s no point in me trying to maintain whatever sort of idea of me being this sort of singular voice in this thing that is really detrimental to what the piece is. So I brought in Ruby Klein. She was a grade below me, dope editor, Ruby is great. And it was in the sort of last legs and she helped tighten it down to that final form where it was like 93 minutes. Got it down.”

Youman: “I think it differed a lot. I think I sort of found my editing style also too with Ben and how I loved to have audio really kind of pre-lab and post-lab and really bleed into the next. I discovered that and figured that out this time in this film. I think I had tried [inaudible 00:18:04] cuts before. In this I just kind of just let myself loose. And I think Ben really telling me to really be free in that way, it really motivated me to just work on my instincts in that way. Also I think helped give me confidence in a way to continue that.”

Audience Member 2: “Great piece. Experimental. What were your influences? What other films or anything that you had that influenced you?”

Youman: “The only shot that I can really sort of pinpoint, the reason I kind of highlight the pinpointing a specific shot is like, do you remember a shot in the film where Daniel is drinking and it leads into the final sermon of Pastor Tillman? And he’s sort of like riding that sort of Spike Lee type situation? That’s like, to me, like the most overt reference I feel like the piece has. And the rest of it, it is kind of difficult to say honestly where the references come from. I can say the filmmakers that I really like.”

Youman: “It is interesting also, some of the comparisons and conversations and flattering, honestly, comparisons and conversations that have been sparked like by a Killer of Sheep. I think that’s a brilliant piece. I didn’t see that until after I made Burning Cane. But I can see some sort of size parallels in that way. And that’s dope, man.”

Youman: “But it is difficult for me to say what my specific influences were. I think it is probably easier to see those influences and perspectives and conversation from maybe an outside perspective, honestly. But for me, I just knew that I wanted to approach this story and this narrative with the intention of humanizing from the sort of documentarian, kinetic, handheld, grimy kind of visceral perspective.”

Audience Member 3: “So, first question. Since you brought up KILLER OF SHEEP,, I actually just saw it yesterday. I think that even though it shows the difficult situation those people were living in, there was still a sense of hope at the end. And I’m wondering if you felt that your film also has this sense. I felt that it was very bleak. I just don’t know what your thoughts on the ending are. Okay, you can answer this first.”

Youman: “So the damming is definitely bleak. But that was with the intention of highlighting the dangers of like enacting a fundamentalist interpretation of religion or in following somebody’s words and guidance that literally with that sort of biblical context hanging over it. And I say that when Holland () goes to Tillman () and asked him what she should do, he reads a verse, but he switches some of the words around and makes it more action oriented, and from that she acts.”

Youman: “But that was really just me trying to speak on some of the dangers, like I said, of enacting fundamentalist, direct interpretation of religion, and in also following someone with that sort of mayoral status that pastors have. That was my thoughts on the ending. It is definitely bleak. It was with that intention in mind.”

Actress Karen Caia Livers as Helen Wayne. Picture by Phillip Youman. Courtesy of AARAY-Releasing

Audience Member 3: “I know you probably didn’t have that much money. How did you go about getting the music? Because there is a lot of music in this film.” Note: She wanted to know if Youman got the rights to the music?

Youman: “Oh, the rights to do it. Okay. A lot of emails. I’m going to be real, like the Robert Johnson song, they’re red hot, I was emailing them since pretty much the moment production round. Once I started throwing the edit on and messing around with that scene. I didn’t hear from them for a while, but I just heard from them right after we had been acquired by Array. I then started ramping up my efforts because I’m like, Oh snap, this is real. And I made it clear, I told them my situation: we’re a very, very independent grassroots production situation. And so I just pretty much told them my reality, spoke my truth, and told them the situation I was in. They were very understanding, also considering that we moved forward and showed the film before I’d ever gotten any response from anybody.”

Youman: “I just honestly chanced it because I didn’t know if the film would ever get seen anyway, in truth. And then when it had, it was also a thing where I love that stuff, but it was also another fear of like, I don’t want to change, I don’t want to mess around too much. This is the form that resonates. But lucky enough towards the end, Sony and me worked something out. And then, so that’s all clear.”

Youman: In this cut that you’ve all seen, there’s a goose cartoon that comes on the end called “A Time for Love.” Initially that was the Jungle Book, but Disney just never responded. I know they’re incredibly protective of their IP’s. But see Sony, and it was also really dope, the Mary Lou Williams’ song “Black Christ” on her album “Black Christ of the Andes”, Saint Martin de Porres, when that plays in the film, they were really, really easy to communicate with in high school when I told the message ration then too. And they were super easy to work with in that way.

Youman: “So all the music that I really, really, really wanted to get on, even the ending song like that came down to the wire, honestly, of me just trying to find another sort of gospel record that I felt sort of fit that moment, that final reprieve and exhale. And I was lucky enough that Callie got back to my email. And I saw that song. I went through a ton of deep Southern gospel records and recordings like home videos, you taken to YouTube. And I was like, this is insane. And then I emailed her some insane long thing about it and then she got back to me and was also willing to work with me.”

Audience Member 4: I grew up in the South and I went to a Southern Baptist church. So, when I heard the sermons they kind of took me back to being in church. And I was curious on how you came up with the dialogue or like what inspired the dialogue.

Youman: The biggest thing that inspired the dialogue with sermons was trying to essentially meditate on that conversation of the devil. And of trying to speak about the evil within us. And then finally by the third sermon sort of dropped in devil’s name and let it be known. And not for me. It was just speaking on how we will oftentimes, there’s a lot that’s blamed on the devil, this physical evil force that really doesn’t account for maybe the evil that’s within us. It’s scapegoating, in a way. So that really guided it.

Youman: “And I think in terms of the sermons that I had written, a big question Wendell would ask me actually was, because when you read it, at that time I didn’t really write how someone, I didn’t write how [inaudible 00:26:31]. The cadence that a Baptist preacher can sometimes get when the sermons wrap up. It was really kind of much more like … Wendell asked me, yo, do you want this? Like how much of this do you want me to maintain? I’m like yo, go at it full force, do your thing. And I think he brought a lot to the table in terms of really bringing those words and making them his own. Yeah. That was the guiding thing, just trying to dance around the subject matter of the devil and then ultimately name that and call that out by the end.

Luers: In those sequences that you mentioned, in those sermons, it seemed like the camera is much closer. It feels a lot tighter. Is that also something you were lining in terms of close ups and filming the face? He’s doing a very performative thing, in a lot of ways.

Youman: Yeah, we had gotten other coverage, significantly wider coverage. But getting those closeups and those tighter, front facing, the front side facing sort of close ups. It just felt so kinetic watching them in post because it felt like he was constantly bleeding out of the screen, like constantly exploding out of it. And I felt like it just accentuated
Wendell’s intensity in such a cool way that a lot of the wider takes also kind of felt just, I mean, they were so great but it was also like this, there’s just such a kinetic energy to those frames that it just felt like it just was, it just directly accentuated what Wendell was bringing forth.

Youman: So that was something I really sort of locked on in post. It was coverage that I knew I wanted to get and really, get entire masters of the scene with that because I knew he was going to be in the face with it in a dope way. But I ended up really sticking with those because of how much I felt it sort of connected with and helped, not necessarily elevate, but like I said, accentuate what he was bringing forth.

Luers: They brought the two together.

Youman: Yeah, exactly.

Audience Member 5: “Two questions as well. First off, awesome job. Very impressive work. First question, super easy. What did you shoot on?””

Youman: Combination of two cameras. At first, it was a Black Magic”Production Camera 4K. Second one was Black Magic URSA Mini 4.6K.””

Audience Member 5: “Wow. I thought it was film. That’s awesome.””

Youman: “That’s dope.”

Audience Member 6: “That’s really cool. Second question, I know you said that you varied quite a bit from the script when you were editing it in post, but as far as when you were shooting, how close to the script did you stick? Because like [inaudible 00:29:32] the documentarian style, which is definitely apparent and like the way in which you explore a lot of [inaudible 00:29:40] scenes as if you explore some of the elements that are happening within the house, in the bathroom. It feels very free flowing, which is really cool. So I was just curious as to how close to the script you stuck shooting.”

Braelyn Kelly as Jeremiah Wayne. Photo by Phlllip Youmans. Courtesy of ARRAY Releasing.

Youman: “So in terms of a lot of the major dialogue scenes, we stuck to those in production. A lot of those didn’t make it into the final edit but we stuck with those in production. In truth, the first half of the feature script, excuse me, sorry. The first half of the feature length script was really dedicated to us living within the molasses that it felt like living in that house with Daniel and Jeremiah was like. So there was with me a lot of description of a lot of very, very, very sort of like mind-numbing tasks. And those were continued into production but in different ways.”

Youman: “Say for example, if it was about Daniel sawing a door, trying to build a door himself in the script. In production, it was him trying to fix a toilet, fiddling with it, sinking his hand inside of it, flushing it, trying to get it to work. And some of those things had to evolve the day of. I don’t remember specifics in terms of like what spurred on the dropping of specific scenes within those sort of menial tasks that he was working on or the household necessary tasks maintained the day.”

Youman: “At least for him to keep him entertained, making him feel like he is still productive, he is still getting something done. It is almost like a quasi-coping mechanism to fix something that isn’t necessarily broken. That was the intention in the script and it moved into production. It changed in different ways.”

Luers: “Just to wrap up, you mentioned how appreciative and how welcoming the local community is as well. And could you just speak a little bit about, are you planning to continue to tell stories that are specific and central to a certain location or could you speak about that experience?

Youman: “In terms of back home?”

Luers: “Yeah. It seems like you were able to reach out to a lot of people and they were all very encouraging and forming those relationships seemed to be pretty central to the film.”

Youman: “For sure. And I think that is something that could be said for all of my career. I feel like people in the New Orleans arts community really seem to look out for each other. For me, I feel like it is the dopest place to be from that is home. And I feel like the community that I’ve built is really also extended to New York as well, like with John Batiste and Wendell also. Wendell went to NOCCA and John went to NOCCA and [inaudible 00:32:54] went to NOCCA, so much of the crew went to NOCCA, the New Orleans Center of Creative Arts. There is such a community there. And I definitely want to tell my next one, my next film is going to take place largely in new Orleans, the Panther story.”

Youman: “It is my intention to bring stories back there and bring them home. I can’t really speak that far in advance past the next film because that’s really long thinking about after this, but I’m definitely bringing it back home for the next one. For sure.”


Gregg W. Morris can be reached at gmorris@hunter.cuny.edu