Composers Shawn Sutta and Adam Robl on Crafting a Genuine Sound for “Poser”

When Adam Robl and Shawn Sutta took a look at a scene in “Poser” where Lennon (Sylvie Mix), the host of an indie music podcast, started to feel her oats as she gazed upon herself in a mirror and her confidence growing in being taken seriously for the first time after she meets the queen of the local scene Bobbi Kitten (playing herself), the composing duo thought of evolution, having the random keys of a piano begin to turn into something more full-bodied as the sound begins to overwhelm the image in the same way that the young woman becomes possessed with ideas of her own power.

“I have a really cool sampling keyboard that I use for certain things,” said Robl. “And [this melody] was sampled through this keyboard and then affected because you can just play all the notes all the way down to the really low notes, so it’s in an unnatural range for the instrument. Then we would run it through this cool little 1950s amp, and it just gives it a whole life of its own.”

That presence of the unexpected is laced throughout “Poser,” a beguiling psychological thriller where music truly becomes an obsession. It’s easy to understand why Lennon’s drawn to the medium between the excitement directors Noah Dixon and Ori Segev capture in their hometown of Columbus, Ohio, following the podcaster as she makes her way through the club circuit at night and interviews the real musicians in the area by day, and what Robl and Sutta are able to achieve in getting inside her head, a jumble of incongruous notes and melodies that she starts to hear as a symphony. Quite literally marching to her own drummer, Lennon’s delusions start to get the best of her as Baby Kitten’s compliment of some song lyrics she pitches instills the belief she’s an artist herself, though those verses are actually from another musician she’s spoken to and her judgment is clouded by the possibility of finally fitting in with the in crowd, their elusive cool suddenly seeming within reach.

Still, they remain at an arm’s length when Lennon has no real voice of her own, devoting herself instead to the time-intensive stasis of keeping up an act as lies begin to pile up left and right, but Robl and Sutta pull one into “Poser” with a sonic mix of classical sophistication and more modernist fragmented instrumentation that roils around in Lennon’s mind, preening as if she’s gotten away with fooling everyone while something deeply broken resides inside. It’s both insightful and enlivening, something that Robl and Sutta have been specializing in since they started scoring films, first turning heads with their inspired work on the sneaky thriller “Uncle John” and with “Poser” coming out across the country in the weeks ahead, the two spoke about their creative process, bringing in unorthodox sounds and how they won’t wait around for the films they want to work on.

How did you get involved in this?

Shawn Sutta: I try to keep up with films that are in development, things that might be a good fit for us. The sphere of composers is quite full. There’s a lot of people out there trying to find things, and if you’re not proactive and out there looking and reaching out to people, then even if you’re extremely talented, a lot of the time nobody knows who you are. So you message people, and you have to keep an eye out for things that inspire you. And I came across Noah and Ori, and I learned about what they were doing, and I watched a bunch of their old stuff. I was inspired by their work, so I just reached out to them, and that’s how the collaboration started.

What were the initial conversations with them like?

Adam Robl: Amazing. We gelled right away. We knew before we even saw the movie that it was going to be a great collaboration. You could just feel it.

Shawn Sutta: Because the movie has so much music in it, we were in an interesting spot, where you have to contrast it with the score and that was the goal that we ended up going with is trying to find a style of music that helps tell the story, but is very removed from the world that Lennon is experiencing in the film.

Adam Robl: The way she views her world, [Lennon] is very closed in her world, as you can tell from the beginning. She’s a strange person, and she just looks at all of these artists and the community with such elevated regard, like they’re just some kind of gods to her, so we wanted to make the music stick out in that elevated way where it’s almost too much…

Shawn Sutta: Overly elegant or exaggerated.

Adam Robl: And it basically started with a lot of classical temp. We knew we were going to go in that direction, but it took on a life of its own when we started adding the vocals. We would make these more classical-based foundational pieces, and the vocalist’s name is Gabriela Ferrer, and we would bring her in and just have her start singing. She doesn’t have a classically-trained voice or anything. She has more of a modern sound to her voice, so when she started singing over it, it just really created its own hybrid sound.

Which I loved. Was bringing in the human voice in some form immediately part of this from the start?

Adam Robl: It was talked about in the early stages, how the female voice interacts with everything you’re seeing with Lennon’s story and it was the perfect aesthetic we felt like.

Is it true there were grandfather clocks that were incorporated into the instrumentation?

Adam Robl: We have a really large arsenal of cool instruments here, and we’re just nerds about all that stuff, but particularly in this film, there’s a section where Lennon is talking about her process, and it’s a little bit ridiculous how she gets into it, but she talks about recording to her phone and then re-recording out to a tape machine and then back and forth, back and forth, so we wanted to get that in the music in a way. We were just trying to find weird sounds to mirror that process. We would just use a lot of different approaches to getting that sound. We have a tape machine here and we would run everything through tape.

Shawn Sutta: Another goal with that was to not have traditional classical music where it’s a chamber ensemble and piano, but something with its own voice and adding clocks or analog [items] like that really brings it into its own universe and gives it its own character. A lot of the foundations were the composition of the piece, which might start from the piano or from then strings. And then the layering on top of that was where you bring that sound to it and bring it into the universe of the rest of the score.

The scene I wanted to ask about specifically was the introduction with Lennon going into the club. There’s this beautiful piano there that’s surrounded by all the other sounds that are coming in. How did you figure it out?

Adam Robl: That might have been the hardest scene because originally, we had a few other options. Most of the scenes there weren’t a lot of redos on. Noah and Ori really liked most of the stuff we did right from the start, but that was the one that we had to take a couple cracks at.

Shawn Sutta: Yeah, that scene actually ended up changing lots of times while we were still working on it, but that was a great moment.

Adam Robl: We started with piano, and then just like with everything, we’d bring it to the vocalist. And it was fun with that cue because we just had her sing over it, and it was just a single track that we did. Then after that, I decided I wanted to make the vocal sound a little bit almost like processed — not auto tuned — but give it a cool, sometimes weird distortions and we took the single line, and I just started stacking it and stacking it and stacking it and then moving the notes. It just ended up creating this force above the moving piano, so it’s a fun little way of doing it.

Was there anything that took this in a direction that you really didn’t expect, some discovery that you made along the way?

Shawn Sutta: Yeah, there’s one piece where the two main characters are mimicking each other in our art installation and I started that piece with this very basic piano thing that’s very classical and dreamy, and it fits. And then I passed it over to Adam, and he put the grandfather clock that we were talking about on this total counter rhythm. [Typically] that would just never occur to me to put something like that, but then Gabby came in to sing on it, and she brought this whole human element that I was just blown away [by] when I came in and heard where they had taken it. I was so surprised from where it started and so much more inspired by where it ended up.

Was there anything that took this in a direction that you really didn’t expect, some discovery that you made along the way?

Shawn Sutta: Yeah, there’s one piece where the two main characters are mimicking each other in our art installation and I started that piece with this very basic piano thing that’s very classical and dreamy, and it fits. And then I passed it over to Adam, and he put the grandfather clock that we were talking about on this total counter rhythm. [Typically] that would just never occur to me to put something like that, but then Gabby came in to sing on it, and she brought this whole human element that I was just blown away [by] when I came in and heard where they had taken it. I was so surprised from where it started and so much more inspired by where it ended up.

What was it like for you guys to see this all come together?

Adam Robl: It’s always awesome to see the finished product.

Shawn Sutta: Yeah, it was a good film already when it came to us. When we saw the rough cut, we’re like, “Wow, this in a lot of ways had already come together.” These guys had been working on this for a couple of years, and it really looked great, and it was flowing already, and then seeing from where we first saw it to when it finally got mixed and totally colored, they really did just such a solid job. It was exciting to watch it come together.

Adam, I noticed in the end credits you had one that wasn’t related to the music. What else did you contribute?

Adam Robl: I’ve been painting too for about 10, 15 [years], and really I just do it for myself. It’s just a catharsis, but I do have some art on Instagram, and Noah and Ori just saw it and they were like, “Hey, can we just throw some of this on the film?” And I was like, “Yeah, for sure.”

This movie really opened the door for me to this entire community of artists in Ohio. Was that a discovery for you as well?

Adam Robl: That was the coolest part. Really cool people. We really gelled with them when we got to meet them.

Shawn Sutta: Yeah, I think the whole country is about to discover this pocket of artists in Columbus that we’ve had the chance to meet at screenings, and they’re incredible. They have a really robust community of creatives in all facets and they have some incredible musicians out there who have become friends, and we were stoked to be a part of that community from afar.

“Poser” opens on June 17th in New York at the Quad Cinema and Los Angeles at the Landmark Westwood before expanding in the weeks ahead. A full list of theaters and dates is here.