“I’ve never been the kind of person who WANTS to figure out how to be the next Hitchcock. I just did whatever I was interested in at the moment.” says filmmaker PJ Raval while reclining in the living room of his rented Central Austin home, and discussing his upbringing, education and career. “I just did whatever I was interested in at the moment.”
The director, writer and cinematographer on dozens of film projects – including several that have been honored with significant film industry awards – Raval has a natural, intuitive eye for creating an on-screen mood, whether light-hearted and blithely absurd or achingly tense. And he is particularly gifted at capturing and conveying those moments in such a way that the audience is affected deeply and viscerally, not soon forgetting the scenes that so disturbed, inspired or shocked them.
This adeptness, it seems, stems from Raval’s long- time love of and forte for photography. It is something, he says, that will always inform his film work. Combined with Raval’s innate storytelling ability, it is evident that he made the most appropriate and complimentary career choice. But, as Raval says, he never had designs on becoming the next Hitchcock, rather just someone who really enjoys his work.
The Collision of Art and Science
Now in his mid-30s, Raval was born in Princeton, N.J., but raised an entire continent away in Clovis, Calif., just outside of Fresno. The son of Filipino immigrants, Raval says his parents always strongly emphasized education, and, with plenty of relatives in the medical, engineering and political fields, it was assumed Raval would follow down one of those paths.
Indeed, by the time Raval moved to Southern California to attend the University of California at San Diego, he was well on his way to becoming a scientist.
“But I kind of led a double life,” he says, noting that college found him taking on a somewhat paradoxical course of study that included molecular biology, art and psychology. Come graduation, Raval had managed to pick up a Bachelor of Arts degree in art with an emphasis in photography, as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in biology with an emphasis in genetics and molecular biology. But he’d also attended some film classes and completed a couple of his own cinematic projects by then. “When I graduated from UCSD I didn’t really have a plan. I thought maybe I’d become a professor in genetics or microbiology, but I was also attracted to being an artist and showing my work.”
Soon Raval realized that his interest in science was more conceptual than practical, and what he calls his “alter ego” – the one that was fulfilled by artistic endeavors – began to take hold. Having already studied media art and, to a lesser degree, film, Raval found his affection for film and video work growing, so he applied to the University of Texas’ radio-television-film program. After being accepted, he uprooted his Southern California life to make a new home in Austin.
Though the disciplines of science and art may seem worlds apart to many, Raval, who capably straddles the fine line between the two, sees less of a division between the fields of study. Rather, he says, science and art compliment each other like two opposing sides of a scale that meet on an equal plain when balanced.
“With film, there’s a lot of technical stuff going on and it really can be part of the scientific sphere,” Raval asserts. “Film is about creativity meeting art and science. It’s all connected.”
In 2004, Raval received his master’s degree in film production from UT, but unlike many RTF graduates who might be unsure of their next career move, Raval already had one foot in the reel world.
A Little Breathing Room
With his photography background, Raval took easily to the art of cinematography in graduate school. He was so talented, in fact, that he was afforded the opportunity to take a semester off and work as the cinematographer on “Room,” Kyle Henry’s eerie and disquieting feature narrative about a woman haunted by psychic visions. The film, which received several Independent Spirit Award nominations, earned Raval the Haskell Wexler Award for Cinematography, an impressive honor for the budding student-turned-filmmaker, who admits he didn’t think the project would necessarily launch his film career.
“It was just something to do that was fun,” Raval says, cracking a reluctant grin. “I’ve never been like, ‘This is how I’m going to have my career go.’ Some people have always wanted to be filmmakers, but that was not me. I just wanted to allow myself time to explore things artistically, and I’ve been fortunate to work on projects that have taken me to where I’ve gotten.”
While Raval has had his fair share of odd jobs – he once worked as an editorial assistant for a Fox TV affiliate, riffling through hours of “The Simpsons” and “The X-Files” episodes in order to compile promotional clips; took a gig operating a camera at a Del Mar race track; and even worked in the graphics and editorial departments for a multi-media start-up company – each position further influenced his eventual career in the film business.
Yet, despite his apparent talent for film- making and his unexpected real-world experience working on “Room,” Raval was unsure whether he could eke out a living as a filmmaker.
“I loved art in theory and in practice, but I was not sure I could do it to survive. There was such this view of the starving artist, and I didn’t know if I could actually have a career in film,” Raval remembers. “But I knew that anything I was going to do was going to have to be for me, and be something I really wanted to do, learn from and have an interest in. Art is important, film is important, and I discovered there are ways to survive financially.”
In earlier days, Raval admits he faced some challenges in an effort to support himself through his film work, like many artists. But in recent times, he’s worked to establish a lifestyle that allows him to sustain financially by doing what he loves without finding himself distracted by daily living costs.
“I’m not there yet,” he reveals, “but I’m where I need to be now. I’m allowing myself to make my own work and work on projects I really enjoy. To me, that’s just as important.”
With seemingly endless creative talents and an aptitude for incredibly intricate concepts like those inherent in the fields of genetics and microbiology, Raval could have chosen just about any discipline to dedicate his life to. So why filmmaking? What is it about the process of making movies that so appeals to this cinematic wunderkind?
“I think the thing that I love about filmmaking is that it’s a really great form of expression and communication,” Raval says. “I’ve always loved photography. And where I felt limited there, where I wanted to go, film and video was more inclined. Film can be really powerful; it has the power to make people think and open their minds. I love that.”
This sentiment was born out clearly at a recent Austin screening of “Trouble the Water,” in which audience members unleashed a torrent of sobs and wholeheartedly offered up a standing ovation at the film’s culmination. Co-shot by Raval and produced and directed by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Bowling for Columbine”), “Trouble the Water” is a truly unique, poignant and heart-wrenching documentary that follows a New Orleans family before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
The film – the Sundance Film Festival’s Documentary Grand Jury Award winner and the recipient of the Gotham Independent Film Awards’ Best Documentary prize – has received many accolades from film industry publications and is currently touring select theaters nationwide. It’s even been short-listed for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category.
The critical success of films like “Room” and “Trouble the Water” not withstanding, Raval is not happy to rest on his laurels. He is a seeker of new experiences, and, though it would likely take less effort to dedicate himself to one genre as a filmmaker, he has little interest in that.
Raval’s breadth of cinematography work includes everything from music videos for the likes of Wade Bowen and documentaries like “Trouble the Water” and the Sundance Channel’s “Keeping Time: New Music from America’s Roots,” to short films and feature narratives like the painfully funny “Gretchen” and Burnt Orange Productions’ charming adventure- mystery “Cassidy Kids.” As a director, Raval has brought life to digitally animated pieces, created award-winning short narratives that screened at gay and lesbian film festivals across the country, and always has a at least one project in development.
“I like the idea of changing genres,” Raval says. “They’re all interesting and they all inform each other. I think exploring all genres makes a better filmmaker and it keeps things fresh.”
Life in Trinidad and Beyond
While Raval’s film work varies in style, theme and genre, he admits that the thread that runs through all his homegrown enterprises is one of exploring gender and family systems. He relishes in delving in to atypical lifestyles and different human experiences, and finds a sense of satisfaction in being on the fringes of society himself.
“I’m very comfortable being a little bit of an outsider,” Raval says, “so, I think those same kinds of ideas in film intrigue me. I like looking at things and lifestyles that are underrepresented because I might be able to relate to them, but I also learn from them.”
This sentiment is certainly evident in one of Raval’s most recent projects, a powerful documentary he co-produced and co-directed called “Trinidad” about three trans- gender women, their lives in Trinidad, Colo. (the “sex- change capital of the world”), and the rural western town’s reaction to becoming the a transgender mecca of sorts.
“With ‘Trinidad,’ I definitely experienced the process of coming out and what is, to some, considered living an alternative lifestyle.” “But I’ve never experienced not feeling comfortable in my own gender or physical body, and the transgender experience, while similar, is also very different. When I learned about that story, I really wanted to share it with others.”
Currently in the distribution phase, “Trinidad” has already been screened in front of thousands of viewers as part of film festivals nationwide, and Raval is spending much of the early part of this year lining up partnerships with transgender groups as he organizes a theatrical tour for the film.
While Raval spends a great deal of his days and nights working on his own and others’ film projects, he does take the occasional break to teach in the film department at UT and spend time kicking back and sipping wine with his partner and friends. He also recently joined the board of the Austin Gay & Lesbian International Film Festival, a move that will no doubt strengthen that organization.
As a working filmmaker who is driven by his passion to create and convey fascinating and powerful stories, Raval is more than motivated to continue on his path toward becoming a cinematic heavyweight. But even after working on dozens of film projects, he understands that success is no guarantee.
“The harsh reality of the field I’m in is that someone who starts making films tomorrow could be more successful than me. So you kind of have to let your ego go a little bit, but at the same point, you have to have a little bit of an ego because there’s work you’re making that you want people to see and think is worth seeing.”“As far as the goal for my career, I definitely want to be more active in terms of making my own work professionally and surviving off that”