The son of a concert pianist and trumpeter, Bulgarian-born, Austrian-trained composer Mario Grigorov has been creating film music for two decades, having become particularly busy in the last ten years or so. Among his movie credits are Leonardo Ricagni’s 29 Palms (1999) and El chevrolé (2002), Alison Thompson’s documentary The Third Wave: A Volunteer Story (2007), additional music for Alex Gibney’s Oscar-winning Iraq War documentary Taxi to the Dark Side, and a number of short films.
Grigorov’s other music credits include the albums “Rhymes with Orange” and “Aria on Café del Mar,” musical scores for numerous commercial outlets, and even playing in the Shah’s Symphony Orchestra in Iran, where Grigorov lived for six years. “Both on disc and onstage,” wrote Neil Tesser in the Chicago Reader “he uses his explosive and electrifying virtuosity to stake his own middle ground between European classical music and American jazz.” And let’s not forget that Persian influence.
Grigorov’s most recent compositions can be heard in the critically acclaimed drama Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire, which opened last Friday in the United States. Though playing in only 18 theaters, Precious, a Sundance winner and likely best picture Oscar nominee, earned (as per studio estimates) $1.8 million at the box office – a whopping $100,000 per screen.
Directed by Lee Daniels, Precious stars Gabourey Sidibe as Precious, an illiterate, pregnant New York City teenager who, in an attempt to escape from her abusive family (Mo’Nique plays her Mother from Hell), enrolls in an alternative school where she is befriended by a concerned teacher (Paula Patton).
Mario Grigorov, who currently divides his time between Los Angeles and New York, has kindly agreed to take part in a brief q&a (via e-mail) in which he discusses his Precious experiences. See below.
You’ve composed scores for numerous films in the last two decades. Were there any specific challenges you had to face while composing the music for Precious?
The best part about the process is the discovery. There is always something new to learn and always a new and dynamic obstacle to overcome. Working on a film this powerful created several challenges. Aside from the production process which can be difficult, the most important parts, the inspiration and creation of the themes and melodies, are the most fun and the most difficult.
In Precious we are dealing with intensely human emotions that come from very dark places, but always have an element of hope and the chance to overcome life’s difficulties. What I’ve said here is a very big understatement for how important the film is, and the music I wrote had to work to support the vision of Lee Daniels, help tell the story of Precious, through her eyes and her emotions. Lee was a big help to get me to that place so I could find the inspiration and write.
This is your second collaboration with Lee Daniels as director, following Shadowboxer (above, with Helen Mirren) in 2005. How do you two work together – or do you? In other words, what’s the process like of scoring a film directed by Lee Daniels?
I first have to say that Lee Daniels is a genius. He has pure vision and truth behind all that he does. I truly enjoy working with Lee because he has an innate ability to bring out from me what he needs. Despite all my training as a pianist, my years composing for all types of films and other projects, working with Lee is always fresh and fun. Of course there is the craziness, but that is why we get on so well together. We get each other and come from a similar place in how we think creatively.
This being the second collaboration with Lee as director and the third film with him – Tennessee was produced by Lee and he had a great deal of creative involvement in that film as well – it didn’t come as any surprise that I would have to find a place with him, communicate in our own crazy language, and come up with a score that was not only fitting, but almost another story supporting his vision.
You’ve created music for both documentaries and narrative features. Would you say there’s a difference in your approach to either type of film? Or …
Not really. The difference comes from the subject matter and style, but my process is typically always the same. Sometimes I have more creative freedom than others, depending on the experience of the director or producer, or their comfort level with music, or whether or not there is a music supervisor involved, but I always start with the picture, understanding the story and then having a conversation in plain language as to what emotions we are trying to address. There is always a process of trying out a few options for the cues and getting some themes started; and once I have that, the rest starts to come together by the nature of the specific scene I am working on.
Any particular musical inspirations for your Precious score?
I find it very fortunate that I am able to draw from many influences in my work. I know you ask specifically for musical inspiration and I certainly have those, but also from life experiences. Growing up and moving as often as I did, experiencing life in communist countries, those ruled by religion, and now one ruled by democracy, at various stages I’ve been through my own set of struggles and triumphs. The important lesson for me working on this project is that with just the right bit of hope and resilience, anything is possible. Precious helped me to realize that, and Lee helped me to put it into music.
Much of what I was looking to do was to pull elements of neo-romantic music and meld it with a form of western underscore. The basis for much of my life’s work has blues and jazz influences, while structured by classical training and an affinity for various styles of music both in regards to genre as well as culture.