Behind the Music interview: Porno’s Carla Patullo (White Widow)

Still from the horror-comedy, Porno. Photo Credit: SXSW Film Festival
Still from the horror-comedy, Porno. Photo Credit: SXSW Film Festival /

Fresh off of the SXSW premiere of the horror-comedy, Porno, composer Carla Patullo, a.k.a. White Widow, stops by Hidden Remote to talk about the details of the surreal horror-comedy for this edition of Behind the Music!

Behind the Music is an ongoing series that seeks to interview and gain an introspective on both established and up-and-coming composers. These composers, who have worked for everything from television to film to commercials, share their experiences, work ethic, and more. For this edition, we chat with acclaimed composer and filmmaker, Carla Patullo, also known as the White Widow.

Although her name isn’t known on a household basis, Carla Patullo is sure to have made music that has caught the attention of many an ear, thanks to her prolific body of work spanning films and shows, including tracks made for The Ellen Degeneres Show, Skins, and The Young & the Restless. Her body of work is characterized by her impressive versatility and willingness to think outside of the box, which has granted her success as a film and show composer AND as a touring performer, both solo and with her band.

Patullo’s method for creating rich and haunting sounds came in handy when she was pegged to score the SXSW horror-comedy from director Keola Racela, Porno, which follows a group of young theater workers that discover that the seemingly normal movie theater they work at has a dark and NSFW past, which literally comes back to haunt them in the form of a sex demon.

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As out there as the premise is, Carla Patullo made it work to her advantage with her appropriately haunting musical score for Porno, which debuted at this year’s SXSW and should be on everyone’s watchlist for the future! Patullo, despite her schedule, was kind enough to chat with me for Hidden Remote, as she talks about the creative process behind her work on the film, her own work as a co-director for the critically acclaimed short film, Lotte That Silhouette Girl, and more here in this feature!

Hidden Remote: Thank you for taking the time to answer questions for us at Hidden Remote! From what I’ve seen on your page, you like to keep busy with multiple projects, including three documentary features? How has that been going?

Carla Patullo: It’s been going great!  All three projects are at different stages of development.  Of Shadows (current working title) is a feature documentary about Lotte Reiniger derived from the short documentary Lotte that Silhouette Girl, which I co-directed with Elizabeth Beech last year.  It is the story of one animations’ early pioneers, who despite being a woman and living through World War II, was able to rise above and make truly inspiring films in a signature style that she invented. The second documentary, Canta di Libertà is about another amazing artist from Italy; Milva, a singer who began her career in the 1960s singing songs about freedom. Since both of the films are about female artists, musically, I have been trying to spin sounds and melodies from the themes represented in their artwork and then grow from there.

Each of these projects have been inspiring the other, and sparking new ideas for each other so it’s been a real benefit to work on them at the same time. LA: A Queer History, the third documentary I’m writing music for, is a film that I have been watching grow for quite some time now.  There is so much happening with the LGBTQ community right now and how that ties into Hollywood, so it’s a work in progress where the story is still changing. All three films have very different aesthetics and emotions that are being conveyed so the music for each one is quite different from the others. It’s really fun to grow as a composer this way–branching in different directions at the same time.

Writers Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli, composer Carla Patullo, and director Keola Racela at the SXSW premiere of Porno. Photo Credit: Impact24 PR
Writers Matt Black and Laurence Vannicelli, composer Carla Patullo, and director Keola Racela at the SXSW premiere of Porno. Photo Credit: Impact24 PR /

Hidden Remote: It would feel quite stress-inducing to have that much on your plate (if you even consider that to be overwhelming), so how do you reduce stress during a tight schedule?

Carla: Well each film ends up having its own set of deadlines, so there is a lot of juggling back and forth, but at different points one of the films will be my first priority, and I just hyper-focus on that one project. The process for both the films that I am co-directing is very similar.

They are both animated documentaries and musically I end up writing a lot of music before we dive into visuals. I usually take one project as far as I can or to meet a specific deadline, and then I’m usually ready for a change of scenery so switching to another project is a relief actually. When deadlines collide though, that’s when the stress hits me, but I try really hard to not let that happen. At this point, I know how much time a need for a specific amount of music so I try to negotiate for enough time to do good work.

Hidden Remote: Before we go onto your work on the SXSW film, Porno, I’d like to introduce you to the readers here at HR! For starters, how did your interest in music blossom? 

Carla: Well when I was very young, we had this toy piano in our house that I would sit at and just clunk out melodies on.  It was an instant thought for me to try and create my own. I grew up with my grandparents, and they both loved Charlie Chaplin so I would always try to entertain them like he did!  I quickly began writing songs and put out my first recording at the age of 13. I decided to start taking vocal lessons, because I thought I needed to get my singing chops down so I could sing my own songs! I quickly got into all aspects of music.

I started playing the Bari Sax and I had a really cool teacher in high school who spent time teaching me how to arrange for Big Band.  My parents were from a small, small town in Italy and neither of them had the opportunity to go to college or even really finish high school, so my mother insisted that I went to college. She was always very supportive of my music and so I decided to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston. After Berklee, I moved to New York and started my White Widow project. I guess the best way to describe White Widow is that I wrote songs that were recorded one way and then performed quite differently live!

The early recordings were pretty slick, and when I would perform them live, I would put so much more angst in them. As a performer, I always got excited to interact with the audience, and this was in New York so there were a lot of fun and interesting people in the East Village where I would play that I would interact with.  Just an incredible energy of people that I feel fortunate to have been able to perform in front of.  From there, I played a show in a parking lot at SXSW, and played before one of my favorite entertainers, Sandra Bernhard.  We really hit it off and I became her musical director for her next tour, I Love Being Me, Don’t You?

As I started writing arrangements, or ‘scores’ to her live performance, I began to really study music as a way to support a story arc, and in this period, I began listening to film music and working more in the orchestral field of music.

Hidden Remote: What would you say are some of your biggest influences in music and how they have inspired you in your own career?

Carla: I would say that I draw from real life experiences and people that I know more than anything.  If I am in tune with a certain story or person, I write things very quickly.  Ideas end up flowing naturally to me that way. My influences are funny because early on, I was heavily influenced by punk and rock music, but I listen to a really wide array of music now.

I prefer music with an illuminating imagery to it, like Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, or Tom Petty. I also love Laurie Anderson, Jerry Goldsmith, and Philip Glass. I like music where you can really hear the sound of that person’s energy, and it’s not like anyone else’s. It’s them.

Carla Patullo at the SXSW premiere of Porno. Photo Credit: Impact24 PR
Carla Patullo at the SXSW premiere of Porno. Photo Credit: Impact24 PR /

Hidden Remote: Your work as both a co-director and composer for Lotte That Silhouette Girl has done wonders in showcasing your talents in the world of filmmaking! How did your experience directing change up how you approach your work nowadays, if at all? 

Carla: Well I definitely can see things from a director’s perspective now! When I am composing a score for a director, I really value their overall vision and starting point of how the music should sound or what it should evoke.

Co-directing has helped me understand that better and taught me to look at things from their angle of how the music should work. The challenge I love about film music is that you are not just trying to compose a compelling piece, but you are trying to support a vision, a story, and an emotion. It’s an extra challenge, but it’s also extra inspiration so it kind of evens out.

HR: Porno, the SXSW horror-comedy which premiered at this year’s festival, looks to be quite different from your work in the past. How did you approach a genre title like this one as opposed to your previous musical work in drama and animation?

Carla: On the contrary, my work for White Widow was actually very haunting, as well as the score I wrote for Cinderella, A Shadow Ballet. The first soundtrack I wrote music for was called A Psychological Thriller, which was originally a concept album that two very talented animators from Brooklyn created a short film from. The music for Porno is very vocally driven and haunting, so I was able to bring in quite a few White Widow elements! The comedy aspect comes from my years of playing with Sandra Bernhard, so it was actually a really great fit for me, and I loved working on it!

Hidden Remote: So you do have experience with this type of sound then! Since that’s the case, what initially drew you to this outlandish horror-comedy?

Carla Patullo (left) and Keola Racela (right) in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Studios. Photo credit: Impact24 PR
Carla Patullo (left) and Keola Racela (right) in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab at Skywalker Studios. Photo credit: Impact24 PR /

Carla: I was a fellow in the Sundance Film Music and Sound Design Lab last year, and I was paired with the film there.  It was an incredible experience, and I really enjoyed working with the director Keola Racela. I felt like we were a perfect match.  The lab itself offers this place where you can take the time to experiment and develop something that hopefully you end up liking, but you can’t actually use the recording in the end, which gives you freedom to play around, make mistakes, and try crazy things!  We worked on one scene together in the lab, and I was super excited when Keola asked me to score the rest of the film.

Hidden Remote: Your musical work has been described as versatile and extremely flexible, which should definitely work to the film’s advantage! Which musical elements did you try and hone in for Porno and why those specifically?

Carla: Well there is a powerful succubus in the film so using my vocals to capture her energy was a lot of fun. I ending up experimenting with vocals quite a bit. There are the vocals that are more upfront and seductive, there are the creepy lingering ones, there are some that are so distorted that they sound like other instruments, and there are other breathy and ghostlike types of vocals hiding in there too.

Hidden Remote: Without spoiling any crucial plot points, what were elements of the film that you felt helped inspire you to flesh out the music for Porno?

Still of horror-comedy, Porno, from SXSW. Photo Credit: SXSW Film Festival
Still of horror-comedy, Porno, from SXSW. Photo Credit: SXSW Film Festival /

Carla: The actors in the film are phenomenal, and the writers wrote great characters with fun relationships to each other.  The personalities of each character helped inspire different themes.  A lot of times I found that I was composing music that were in counterpart to their performance or emotional state. This is where I got to be a little trippy. Because it’s a comedy, there’s a lot of space to be silly, but then the horror aspect comes in, and you snap back in to dead-serious dread. Sometimes you want to accentuate a joke, but sometimes you want to keep it subtle. I think between the elements of seduction, comedy and fear, there was a lot to help inspire me.

Hidden Remote: The title of Porno will obviously gross out some people who might not be fond of that subject matter. What do you say is the best way to approach a movie like this with that mindset? 

Carla: This film is entertaining, and I think it’s best to experience it in a theater.  When you are watching this with an audience, it’s so much fun because as an audience you are just like the kids who work in the theater. They are scared of porn too, and you relate to both their fear and curiosity. The film doesn’t rub porn in your face like you might think–it’s much more nuanced, light-hearted and playful than that. It’s asking the question why are we scared of this thing? And it’s answering it in both a fun and scary way, which I think a lot of people can relate to.

Hidden Remote: It seems like a fair amount of critics coming out of the SXSW premiere feel the same way, as Porno has been getting a good chunk of positive reviews coming out the gate, with the consensus being that it will make for a fun romp of a genre film! What did you personally get out of the film by working on the score and what were any lessons that you might’ve learned during the process?

Carla Patullo at the 2018 Music and Sound Design Lab. Photo Credits: Impact24 PR and Brandon Joseph Baker
Carla Patullo at the 2018 Music and Sound Design Lab. Photo Credits: Impact24 PR and Brandon Joseph Baker /

Carla: Personally, being able to create new tones and play with my vocals in a new way was really great.  Also, the process of working with comedy and suspense at the same time was really interesting to hone in on. Keola and I really crafted the timing for the musical cues. You need to land with a punch at precisely the right time.

Hidden Remote: With Porno out of the way, do you see yourself tackling another horror-based musical project in the future? 

Carla: Absolutely!  I would love to!  However, for me, it really comes down to good stories as opposed to genres.

Hidden Remote: How about directing? You’ve mentioned that you already have projects in the works now and Lotte That Silhouette Girl received a lot of love when it came out and it shows that you’ve got a good handling on your directing craft! 

Carla: We are very excited about the two docs we are directing now.  It has really pushed me as a composer to tell stories with my music.

Hidden Remote: For the last question, I’d like to know if you have any final words for the readers checking this piece out? Any words of advice and knowledge that you’ve gained during your busy career that could be applied to hopefuls starting up their own careers?

Carla: Allow yourself to fail, and to travel artistically very far from your comfort zone!

Next. The 5 biggest movie premieres at this year's SXSW. dark

Carla Patullo’s work can be heard all throughout Porno, which everyone should be on the lookout for in the future! What’s your favorite horror-comedy and what’s some of your favorite work from Patullo? Sound off below!