For “Milk,” about the pioneering gay activist and politician who was assassinated in 1978, Danny Elfman found all the drama he needed in the storyline. “Harvey’s story is a really moving, poignant story,” he says. “The inspiration was right there all the time.”

The result is a departure for a composer best known for his fantastical collaborations with director Tim Burton. “Gus (Van Sant) wanted to avoid getting overly dramatic or worse, melodramatic,” he says. “The trick here was to find a theme that was emotional, but not trying to ‘push’ the audience.”

Initially, Elfman considered taking an approach inspired by Milk’s love of opera. “It was one of those things that worked better in concept than in reality,” he says. “I played around with some string effects and various guitar sounds, which we used a lot. It became about finding a melody that felt like it had purpose and momentum.

“(Milk’s) theme is not a ‘gay’ theme or a ‘straight’ theme. It’s an American theme for a great man.”