Young Success

Meet the 19-year-old filmmaker who made history at Tribeca and now works with Ava DuVernay

Meet the 19-year-old director who made history at Tribeca Film Festival 2019
Meet the 19-year-old director who made history at Tribeca Film Festival 2019

At just 19 years old, Phillip Youmans is already making history as a director in Hollywood.

His debut feature film, "Burning Cane," which he wrote and directed in high school, won Best Narrative Feature and Best Cinematography at Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. The film also won the festival's Founders Award, making Youmans the youngest and first black director to receive that honor.

Since Tribeca, Youmans' film, which focuses on the complexities of religion in a southern black Louisiana community, has caught the attention of several power players in Hollywood including award-winning filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Barry Jenkins.


In September, DuVernay's distribution company, ARRAY, acquired Youmans' feature film and released it in select theaters across the country and on Netflix in November.

"The reception and response that the film has received so far is really beyond me," the New Orleans native tells CNBC Make It. He says that "when you look back at how grassroots this production was" you will see that "the life the film has taken on is a supreme blessing."

Producer/director Ava DuVernay and writer/director Phillip Youmans attends the Build Series to discuss "Burning Cane" at Build Studio on November 11, 2019 in New York City./Getty Images)
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

Creating the film

Youmans got his first introduction into filmmaking when he was a young kid who was interested in acting. After participating in a few local production sets in his hometown, the teen developed a strong interest in what was happening off camera.

"I saw so much about the process behind the camera and how much more interesting that was to me," he says. "I realized so many of the creative conversations and so much of the creative control that I was personally interested in lie behind the camera."

From that point on, Youmans says he started writing his own short scripts when he was about 11 years old. Then, when he reached high school, he attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, which he credits as a turning point for developing his skills as a filmmaker.

"It's a very sort of technical film school in a way," he says. "It did sort of give me a big help and boost in sort of solidifying the technical foundation of filmmaking for me."

In December of his junior year, the then 16-year-old started writing the script for his now award-winning film "Burning Cane." Initially, he says, the project was going to be a short film titled "The Glory." But after presenting the script to his high school instructor Isaac Webb at the beginning of 2017, Webb convinced him to turn the short into a feature film.

"I started churning out drafts for the feature-length script and just going through revisions with my peers, with [Webb] and reading with actors," says Youmans.

During this time, the teen says he also started picking up extra shifts at a local coffee shop, Morning Call, and he started an Indiegogo campaign with his friends in order to raise the money needed to produce the film. After putting together funds from his campaign, family donations, his savings account and the extra money he picked up from his job, Youmans started filming "Burning Cane" during the summer of 2017 in New Orleans. He also tapped some of his friends and classmates to help him with production.

Writer/director Phillip Youmans attends the Build Series to discuss his film "Burning Cane" at Build Studio on November 11, 2019 in New York City.
Jim Spellman/Getty Images

"Overall, when you look at what we spent, it was in the ballpark of $60,000," says Youmans. "But it was never something where we had all of that [money] at one point in time."

As he continued to make progress on putting together his cast and crew, Youmans connected with a customer at Morning Call who promised to put him in touch with award-winning actor and former NOCCA graduate Wendell Pierce. "I definitely sort of freaked out," says the 19-year-old. "Because I thought working with an actor of that sort of prestige and talent seemed completely out of belief. Like, it didn't even seem like a possibility."

After connecting with Pierce about the film and its storyline, the veteran actor decided to not only come on board and play the reverend in Youmans' debut film, but he also decided to be a producer on the project.

In August of 2017, Youmans and his team shot Pierce's scenes and then created a short trailer for the film. Youmans, who was hopeful about getting the film in front of the right people, sent that trailer to "Beasts of the Southern Wild" director Benh Zeitlin over Instagram. Shortly after sending the direct message, Youmans says Zeitlin responded with an invitation for them to meet up in the city. Youmans says the two hit it off, with Zeitlin eventually coming on board as an executive producer of the film.

"Benh has just been an incredibly formative mentor," says Youmans, in regards to the director who moved to New Orleans in 2006 to shoot his short film "Glory at Sea." "Benh spent countless upon countless hours with me sort of combing through the edit, helping me organize feedback sessions and helping us get a grant from #CreateLouisiana that ended up being incredibly formative for the final product."

That grant, which Youmans says was a cash award of roughly $25,000, was helpful in terms of sorting out the licensing for the film and its post-production release.

Photo courtesy of Getty

Connecting with Ava DuVernay

After submitting the film to Tribeca Film Festival and winning some of the event's biggest awards, Youmans started to think further about how he could spread the word about his project. As a fan of DuVernay, he reached out to the director and the president of ARRAY, Tilane Jones, to see if there was an opportunity for them to work together.

"I sent a letter to Ava and Tilane saying that I really felt like our missions were the same in a way," says Youmans. "They are so dedicated to promoting the work of filmmakers of color and women of all kind, and my mission as a filmmaker is to create a humanizing portrait of the black experience. So, really it was just me talking about how it would be an honor to be with them and to have 'Burning Cane' find a home with ARRAY."

After back and forth conversations with Youmans and the ARRAY team, the 19-year-old got his wish of joining the ARRAY family.


At former president Barack Obama's Obama Summit in November, DuVernay discussed her relationship with Youmans and her admiration for his work. "He made something with what he had," she says. "He wasn't thinking about studios ... because he gave the film to a black woman-owned distribution company and said, 'There you go.'"

DuVernay continued by saying, "I'm so inspired by a kid who is not enamored by all of the trappings of what maybe enamored me earlier on moving into this space. He is just about story, and I've been so inspired and re-centered just by watching him fight for and defend and share his story by any means necessary."

After receiving early praises from DuVernay on Twitter, Youmans' work caught the attention of Academy Award-winning director Barry Jenkins. After Jenkins started following Youmans on Twitter, the 19-year-old sent him a direct message thanking him for his work and expressing his desire to meet him one day. To his surprise, Jenkins not only responded to his message but he also sent his number for Youmans to text. Though the two have yet to meet in-person, Youmans says he hopes to meet the director soon.

Phillip Youmans attends Awards Night - 2019 Tribeca Film Festival at BMCC Tribeca PAC on May 02, 2019 in New York City.
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Next steps

As "Burning Cane" continues to gain attention, Youmans, who enrolled in New York University film school right after high school, says he's taking time off from college to focus on the film's success.

"I definitely see the value in school and in college," he says. "In the case of 'Burning Cane' and what it means for my wider career, I feel like I've been so fortunate that it has resonated with people and that there seems to be a sort of career trajectory looming if I keep working as hard as I can and keep on the same pace. So, I don't really ever want to slow down."

With a clear vision and desire to make films for years to come, Youmans is already working on his next narrative feature that will focus on the New Orleans 1970 chapter of The Black Panther Party. "I got to know the Panthers early on in high school, and they're still friends of mine today," he says. "I'm really excited to give a humanizing full scope picture of the New Orleans chapter and their time there, especially because a lot of people don't know that New Orleans had a chapter."

When reflecting back on his career and all of the success he's seen already, Youmans says there is one piece of advice that has been most useful to him.

"I think the best career advice I ever got was probably from my [aunt]," he says. "She told me the seven P's: Proper prior preparation prevents piss poor performance. And I think that's just been so true and helpful in reminding myself of that sort of sentiment."

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