For “Alice in Wonderland” — their 13th film together — composer Danny Elfman and director Tim Burton had a tougher time than usual.

“Longer hours, harder work, a little more nerve-jangling,” admits the composer. But they wound up with their biggest-grossing effort ever.

The challenge with Burton’s movies, says the four-time Oscar nominee (including “Good Will Hunting” and “Milk”), “is really in the first four to six weeks, trying to find what it is, doing lots of experimenting and trying to ease Tim into that musical world.” In this case, a much darker “Alice” than had previously been put on screen.

“We picked certain important scenes,” notes Elfman. “What is the music when she’s in that room with the doors? What is the tone when we meet these characters? Most importantly, what plays her growth and finding her true self?”

Alice alone has three different themes to express different elements of her character: “the child’s theme, for the innocent side of her; a part that plays the more polite side; and the heroic side of Alice” that ultimately emerges.

Elfman is no stranger to large-scale fantasy. With Burton alone, he’s done “Batman,” “Edward Scissorhands,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Big Fish.” As on the earlier projects, he used a large orchestra and choir and says that the writing was “so much fun (even though) the last 18 minutes is one solid cue, with a lot of action and fighting.”

Scoring “The Next Three Days” with director Paul Haggis “was really quite opposite,” Elfman says. The Russell Crowe action film had a limited music budget, “which I turned into something positive,” he adds. “I was happy to have a smaller ensemble.”

He added piano and strings to his own studio-created percussion and other sounds and was surprised to discover that Haggis preferred the smaller string grouping (13 or 14 players) for its more intimate sound. “It was a dream,” he says.

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