More of a Comment, Really…: Interview with SXSW Composer Carla Patullo (Porno)

Carla Patullo SXSW Porno Carla Patullo (photo Impact24 PR)

We sit down with the composer of upcoming SXSW horror comedy Porno to talk about her process, her rock/metal roots, and working with the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab.

Welcome back to More of a Comment, Really…, a weekly interview show hosted by Clint Worthington! Every episode will feature interviews with actors, filmmakers, producers, and more, giving you the skinny on the latest films and TV.

Sundance is gone, but the film festival train keeps a-rolling, with SXSW starting later this month. Continuing our unofficial series of interviews with indie film composers, I spoke to Carla Patullo, Global Music Award-winning artist and composer of the upcoming horror-comedy Porno. Directed by Keola Racela, Porno tells the tale of five teenagers who uncover a demonic sex tape in the middle of a spooky old theater, unleashing a succubus who wreaks havoc on the poor innocents. It’s a droll, erotically-charged spin on an old formula, and Patullo’s vocals-heavy composing style seems like a fascinating accompaniment.

Leading up to the film’s premiere at SXSW on March 9th, I sat down for a quick phone interview with Patullo to talk about the origins of the project, her past life as a Stevie Nicks-inspired rock and metal artist, and the unexpected freedom of working within a tight deadline. Also, we talk a bit about the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Studios, where she worked as a Composer Fellow and began her journey to scoring Porno.

(NOTE: The audio quality of Carla’s call contains some glitches and fuzziness; we apologize for that. A full transcript, edited for clarity, can be found below.)

(More of a Comment, Really… is a proud member of the Chicago Podcast Coop. Thanks to Cards Against Humanity for sponsoring this episode!)


You’re also known as the White Widow. Where did that nickname come from?

I was in a band for many, many years, and it kinda just became my stage name. I was very inspired by Stevie Nicks, so it was kind of a play on her and my music, which was kinda love songs that were very dark. That’s where that spun off from.

Is there a differentiation between a Carla Patullo project and a White Widow project?

You know, there is. The White Widow stuff is definitely more song-related – I wouldn’t say it has a darker tone, but it uses a lot more of my vocals, and lives in more of the rock and punk domain. Whereas the Carla Patullo stuff is me venturing out into the orchestral world, and the two kind of evolve in and out of itself.

Broad strokes, what is Porno about, and what attracted you to the project?

The film is about a group of teenagers who work in a movie theater in a small Christian town, and while they’re in there they discover a film in the basement that contains a sex demon. And the succubus tortures them a bit [laughs]. My connection to the film was the Sundance Composer Lab this year, and it was kind of like a blind date. I got paired up with Keola [Racela], the director, and we began to work out a scene from the film together. Keep in mind that was just supposed to work on one scene for the Lab, but it kinda grew to me scoring the film. It was a good first date.

When you were getting into the early conversations with Keola about how the film should sound, what did you talk about?

I was matched so well to this project because I’m primarily a vocalist. I compose and orchestrate with my vocals; I’ll sing something and say “that’s for the strings,” or whatever. But for this film, I was really able to use my voice playing out these vocal sirens that you’d hear from a succubus. So I think we knew it was going to be a big part of the film, and it would appear throughout.

So let’s talk about the vocals then – what was the process behind incorporating your vocals into the soundtrack?It’s really interesting how haunting and distorted it is.

The cool thing is that we had these alluring vocal moments that took me back to a lot of White Widow stuff, but there are also these moments where I’m really playing with vocals in ways that most wouldn’t even recognize as vocals. I wanted to have this humanness of the succubus throughout the score kind of distorted – whether I was singing through a guitar amp or a processor. I was really experimenting, trying to use different elements to get a taste of the presence there that wasn’t so upfront, either. We had a lot of fun with that.

And it’s good we had a deadline, because we could have gone on like that forever!

Since your voice contributes to the character of the succubus somewhat, did you find yourself doing some character work, to get into the character’s head?

Definitely. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I feel like her presence is one of those where you get chills when you walk past, when you feel somebody there when you don’t see her. So getting into her mind, being seductive but also torturing, was really interesting. It was kinda powerful to play, as a woman, because you’re now the person who’s in power.

Of course, this is a horror comedy, and you’ve composed for all kinds of genres – documentary, queer movies, and so forth. Is there a different mindset you enter when you score horror?

There is! In documentaries, it’s not as upfront as in a horror-comedy, where it’s really about timing. Horror or comedy alone, as genres, have this incredible timing – you really have to be on top of it, where you don’t reveal the joke or what’s going to happen early in the music. So it’s really about pacing. When you’re working with someone like Keola, he edits his own films and is very musical in his approach to editing, which really helps bring the other music to another level. You’ve just really got to watch out for what you’re telling the viewer, and not spoiling it.

This movie feels of a kind with a lot of other horror films, at least in terms of basic premise – there’s a group of innocents taking this descent into hell, so to speak. When it came time to differentiate the real and the supernatural, what sound did you want to achieve for each?

A lot of the supernatural stuff was really interesting. This whole thing takes place in a movie theater, so it’s easy to say “we’re entering this world,” and there’s visual stuff too that goes in that direction. But musically, it was more of this undertone of mist – that’s where we brought in most of the vocals in those areas. Whereas in the up-front areas, we have some choir that comes in when we’re in the moment of what’s happening, as opposed to the supernatural.

This film is called Porno, it’s about a sex demon, it’s about kids who are filled with a lot of different temptations. What was it like handling the sexy elements of the film – how horrific did you want the sex to be? How sexy did you want the horror to be?

It’s funny, they really pushed us to cross those lines. We didn’t hold back with the score, certainly – it’s so sexy it becomes horror. We just really pushed it to this point where it’s like, the sexier the music got, the more horrific it got. And I feel like the movie just pushes these buttons, so it was really cool to just keep going. Like, when you’re in the studio, and you see the meter, and you ask “are we going into the red?” and they say “oh, we are so in the red now!” [laughs]. Just pushing it to the max.

Carla Patullo Keola Racela Porno SXSW SUndance Lab
Composer Carla Patullo and Director Keola Racela in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Studios

Let’s talk about the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab; what was it like working with those resources?

It was really incredible! We had a slightly different interpretation of what we ended up using in the film, but it was so cool to experiment. When I get onto a film project, there’s often a sharp deadline, not as much time to really experiment in the way we did at the beginning. [Keola and I] spent our first few weeks together before going to the lab discussing our favorite film scores, so by the time we got there we already had this understanding of where we were coming from artistically and musically. So we really had the luxury to experiment with the sound designer, for example, and create new sounds that could be incorporated into the score. And working with a live ensemble and not having that pressure of ‘this is it’ – you can experiment, you can screw it all up, and it’s okay.

There were so many things we grabbed from that and said “we can do this in the score now,” that worked really well. So we didn’t feel that pressure on blowing all that money on experimenting. That was really great. So we really got to focus on collaboration, as opposed to the business side of things, which can get in the way of things.

I’m sure if you had your druthers, you’d love all the time in the world to craft a score. But are there times when you’re on a deadline, where you feel like that limitation drives the work?

It’s funny, because I do think I thrive on limitations. We had about two and a half months [to score Porno], so it wasn’t the worst deadline I’ve had, but it definitely moved things along. Like I said before, I could have kept experimenting with my vocals and worked on the score for a year. But you know, when you don’t have a budget for an orchestra, you find a workaround, and I tend to find that these workarounds end up forcing you to be more creative. So that, to me, is a blessing in disguise.

Is there a particular genre you haven’t worked in that you’d love to write a score for?

Yeah, I guess for me I’d love to write music for an action film, or maybe something more thriller-ish. I mean, I’ve done some thriller stuff before, but it was more psychological; I’d love to do something more action-packed. I feel like those types of scores relate a lot to rock and metal music, just rhythmically. I think it’d be really cool to jump in on something like that.

Liked it? Take a second to support The Spool on Patreon!