Hunkered down amidst the exotic flora and fauna of Southeast Asia, Jessika Pilkes is a long way from home, but she always comes prepared. She’s got sunscreen and shades in her sack. She also has her camera—albeit not the sort that takes snapshots.
Pilkes’ lens focuses on a world many of us have never seen. That is, until her first feature-length film hits screens.
White Elephant tells the story of a traveler in Indonesia who’s searching out the richness he lacks in everyday life. Surrounded by palpable beauty, the film’s fictional protagonist is humbled and moved.
Pilkes can relate. “I was blown away by Indonesia,” gushes the 27-year-old Conestoga High School grad. “I’ve seen many amazing places, but this was different. It was absolutely beautiful—and not merely for its aesthetics, but in the way that beauty was carried out in the warmth and sincerity of the people.”
As the founder of Corviva Films, Pilkes has already made her mark in the industry with a list of promotional travel projects, commercials, and two short films. Made during her junior year at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, 2007’s Nest of Spiders follows a girl trapped in the distorted world of an itinerant carnival. The film earned accolades on the international festival circuit, including a Best Woman Student Director award from the Directors Guild of America and Best of Festival from the American Society of Cinematographers’ Laszlo Kovacs Heritage Awards.
The following year, Pilkes directed the psychological thriller Asphyxia, garnering her and producer Setu Raval (a former UNC classmate) another Heritage Award, this time for Best Cinematography.
When a travel assignment brought her to Indonesia, Pilkes found herself feeling oddly at home. “Within a day of being there, I’d surrendered to the peace and serenity of the Bali breeze,” she says. “It’s an island with soul, and I wanted to share this.”
It was there that she began writing the screenplay for White Elephant. Calling on Raval and other former UNC classmates, Pilkes amassed an arsenal of award-winning talent, including Emmy-nominated sound designer Zach Seivers and production designer Stefan Rambousek. To help fund their efforts, they used Kickstarter, a website that solicits donations from private investors. So far, their modest goal of $7,500 has been surpassed by almost 100 percent.
“We have a script. We have the promotional sizzle. We have a press kit, and we’re traveling across the country doing pitch presentations for potential investors, producers and actors,” says Raval. “We know we can move this project forward.”
Though she currently calls Hong Kong home, Jessika Pilkes was born in New York, living there until her family moved to Paoli shortly before her sophomore year of high school.
“I attended Brooklyn Tech for my freshman year,” says Pilkes. “Tech was a science school, so it was refreshing to come to Conestoga, where there was such an incredible selection of art electives. The school embraced and supported creativity, and I had wonderful teachers that were genuinely enthusiastic to foster our early passions.”
A year before graduating in 2002, Pilkes sat in on a semester-long screenwriting course at Drexel University, which only fed into her passion for the filmmaking process. “I was crazy about filmmaking from the second I could hold a camera,” she says. “Our family always had a camcorder in the house.”
And, conveniently enough, Pilkes had a younger sister to dress up. “I would direct, and Hannah would star in reenactments of Cirque du Soleil and Blue Man Group, fantasies shot in Central Park, and our own rendition of [Swiss pantomime troupe] Mummenschanz. We were New York City kids, and undeniably inspired by the color, energy and constant stimulation of the city.”
After her family moved to the Main Line, 9-year-old Hannah landed a role in The Woodsman, opposite Kevin Bacon, and then in the CBS series Hack, which ran for two seasons and was shot in Philadelphia. Hannah also starred in big sister’s Nest of Spiders.
After graduating from UNC, Pilkes caught a break. “I stumbled upon an incredible opportunity to make travel promotional films,” she says. “I was especially moved in Bali by its people. I found the energy there to be palpable.”
It will likely be some time before White Elephant is fully realized. In the meantime, Pilkes, Raval and the rest of the crew keep busy with research, scouting locations and evaluating logistics. Stateside, Pilkes’ efforts have gone into organizing script readings and building the buzz necessary to generate the network of investors and supporters needed to elevate the scale of their project—like landing big-name actors.
Even while hopping back and forth between Hong Kong and Indonesia, and networking among industry professionals and locals alike, Pilkes rarely loses her focus—or her passion for exploration. “Traveling has changed my life,” she says. “It’s filled me with imagery and stories, and animated my imagination.”