Danny Elfman searches for the sound of ‘Wonderland’

Feb. 04, 2010 | 5:08 a.m.


Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she in fact the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex we’re counting down to film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today it’s a conversation with Danny Elfman, the composer of the film’s score and Burton’s favorite maestro.

Danny Elfman


GB: I imagine you’re feeling pretty good right now. The only thing better than taking on an exciting new project is actually finishing an exciting new project.

DE: Being done with “Alice” is a great relief, to put it mildly. Tim told me six months ago that this one would go right up to the 59th minute of the 11th hour. He knew it then. I was still doing last bits of music on Sunday and that was with the print-mastering beginning Monday. It doesn’t get any tighter. But I knew going into it that this would be insanity. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s a function of motion-capture projects — you’re going to wait for shots to come in. You’re trying to finish the movie and the shots are still coming in. Things are happening at the very last second. It’s very challenging. But you can only go at the pace that it goes.

GB: What was the very last thing you finished on Sunday?

DE: It was this crazy dance that the Mad Hatter does. It’s called the Fudderwacken. That was something we had tried many different approaches before we reached the one that is in the movie.

GB: What were your compass points coming into this project?

DE: Your guiding principles on a narrative type of story like this, it’s always the same. The same guiding principles, rather — hopefully not the same score over and over again. [Laughs] Unfortunately it’s common in my business. But we try to avoid it. But really it’s about finding the narrative and finding the themes and trying to knit things together and form continuity. The decision-making process is about who gets a theme and who doesn’t. You can’t just give every character a theme. It just starts getting too crazy.

 Experimentation for me is, usually, finding a central theme and then two or three secondary themes and determining how they’re going to play. That’s the fun of it, the surprise of it, too. Sometimes I’ll find I’m using a theme over a character and it’s not necessarily their theme and I don’t know why I’m doing it, but I’ll go with it anyway and there ends up being a certain logic to it — [the scene] is about a certain character or about a trajectory of a certain character.



GB: I imagine there are many ways to follow a “safe” path that amps up emotion and excitement but can undermine the film’s identity, right?

DE: All of it, the challenge is to be inventive but do the purpose, which is to add continuity and to add energy and motion and anticipation and a sense of something building. To get that sense of forward motion. To do it poorly in this kind of film — a real active film, an adventure film — is actually really easy. You can always just play for energy, orchestrate something very active. Anybody who understands film composition could that in their sleep. The hard part is, can you do that and still come up with something that gives it a sense of identity? That’s really hard.

GB: The framing sequences in the film take place in England of the 19th century. Does that influence any choices you make?

DE: No. In essence, if I just played 19th century music it would get really boring really fast. Even in the context of a serious period piece, a drama, let’s say, taking place in the 19th century, you’re still perhaps only going to allude to the period. If you get too strict with it, it’s going to get really boring. Eventually, you’re going to play the characters and you’re going to play internally, and when you start playing internally there really aren’t any rules. In something like “Alice in Wonderland” there are even less rules. Who knows what kind of music does or doesn’t belong in Wonderland, after all? Outside of Wonderland, at the beginning of the film and at the end of the movie, I’m really just trying to establish some of the themes that will come back. Essentially, Alice’s primary theme and, because she starts as a little girl, I have what I called the “little Alice” theme, which I bring back later at times. I’m just planting seeds at the beginning of the film.

Danny Elfman in Hancock Park home


GB: And then when the film gets to Wonderland?

DE: I open up and get a little crazier, but I’m still incorporating the same thematic ideas. I am a believer in thematic unity and the importance of that in a storytelling film. There are certain types of film where it simply doesn’t matter, but when you have a crazy story that you’re following through and there are a lot of crazy characters, it does matter.

GB: In talking to Tim Burton, it’s clear he considered the challenge in adapting the source material was the lack of a strong narrative arc.

DE: Well, you have to realize this isn’t “Alice in Wonderland” from Lewis Carroll’s book. It isn’t that story up on the screen in any way, shape or form. It’s really taking the characters and putting them in a whole new story. It’s actually more like a sequel. We start off with Alice as a little girl, but we quickly pick up on Alice 10 years later. She’s returning to Wonderland and there is the story. Is it or isn’t it the right Alice that they have brought down to Wonderland?

GB: Sure, I think that’s become especially clear with the latest trailer. I have to say that, personally, it makes me much more interested in the film. Watching a pure retelling of familiar stories isn’t especially alluring to me.

Danny Elfman in Oingo Boingo

DE: No one can dispute the brilliance of the book. To put that on the screen? That would be really interesting, but it’s hard to say what kind of movie it would make, you know, for an hour-and-a-half. So they came up with a concept: Alice is [almost] 20, and she’s going to chase the rabbit down the hole and you’re going to see all the same stuff, but you also hear these voices. “Is it her?” “It doesn’t look like her.” “I’m telling you it’s her.” And then she has to find out if it’s a mistake, if she’s the right Alice or not. She’s been brought there for a purpose. But you still have all the same stuff [as far as imagery] with the Mad Hatter and the tea party and everything.

GB: I think an older Alice makes the film more interesting right off the bat.

DE: Yes, and Mia [Wasikowska, the Australian newcomer] is wonderful as Alice. I had never seen her in anything before. She’s a great Alice. She really is like a child-woman, a child and a woman both. She has a wonderful simplicity but she has to go through this emotional growth in the story. And Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, well, that’s a slam dunk. When Johnny gets in this type of role he really has fun with it. The movie is a treat and a feast for the eyes. It was fun to do even though it was intense. I don’t mind intense. When you’re geared up for it and you’re expecting it, it’s ‘OK, let me have it, I’m ready.”

GB: You’ve worked with Tim Burton on more than a dozen film projects, including some of his signature films — the two “Batman” films, “Beetlejuice,” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Edward Scissorhands” — and I’m curious how your collaboration has changed through the years? Either in rhythm or approach?

DE: The joy of working with Tim is and always has been his unpredictability. I never know how he is going to react to something. People say, “Oh, you’ve worked with him so long, you must know when you write something that he will love it.” It’s quite the contrary. I’ve never found the secret, magic key. He started unpredictable and he is extremely unpredictable for me still. In that is also the joy. Over the years, his favorite stuff has often been the stuff I played for him as an afterthought. He gravitates to the areas that others directors do not allow. Like the character Edward Scissorhands having a theme which is almost Eastern European Jewish. A lot of directors would have said, ‘Hey, wait a minute, Edward’s not Jewish and he’s not from Europe.” Tim doesn’t ask these types of questions. He responds completely viscerally to everything and immediately likes it or doesn’t like it. I have to figure out why. Honestly, after 25 years I can’t say that he is any easier for me to work with or any more predictable, and that actually is what I look forward to the most in our collaboration.

— Geoff Boucher


Mia Wasikowska

“Alice” star Mia Wasikowska on Depp: ‘He’s so brave and smart’

Johnny Depp explains how he picked his poison for “Alice”

Tim Burton and “Alice” feel the love at D23 Expo

Who will Depp ride with in “Lone Ranger”?

Depp: “There’s a crack in my enthusiasm” for “Pirates” 4

Tim Burton’s graveyard cabaret

“Alice” a big part of Disney’s D23 Expo

Burton on past “Alice” films: “There wasn’t anything underneath”

Tim Burton on working with Depp on a darker “Alice”

PHOTO: Top and third photo: Danny Elfman at his home in Hancock Park in 2003. (Anne Cusack/Los Angeles Times). Second and bottom photo: Mia  Wasikowska in “Alice in Wonderland” (Walt Disney Studios). Fourth photo: Elfman in rock-star mode, performing with his old band Oingo Boingo in Irvine in 1995 (Christine Cotter/Los Angeles Times)


18 Responses to Danny Elfman searches for the sound of ‘Wonderland’

  1. Dascha says:

    Good luck DE and TB. Curious though, will there be any new technology used in this film at all? for example, a distributed rendering tool for voice? I hear that a lot of work goes into 3D for 95% of the big films now, but why is half of it on just this part. Just think of the new voices for the characters you could create and use in other productions, saving time and money, yet pushing the envelope at the same time.

  2. Boingo Fan says:

    Unfortunately for D.E. if you were to play back any of his musical scores from any of the Burton, films they would all sound the same to me. I'm a long time Oingo Boingo fan but not a D.E. musical score fan. He will never be a John Williams.

  3. Sal says:

    @Boingo Fan:
    No, you are right. All of DE's scores are all alike.

  4. SagaciousPenguin says:

    @ Boingo Fan & Sal
    Really? Beetlejuice and Big Fish sound the same? Batman and Mars Attacks are indistinguishable? Pee Wee's Big Adventure and the Sleepy Hollow could be shredded up and mixed together in a top hat and if you pulled a piece of one out you wouldn't be able to tell which one it is? Come now.
    I'm a huge Williams fan, but the title themes from Star Wars and Superman are far more nearly dopplegangers than any of the title themes from Elfman/Burton movies. Maybe they're more memorable to you because they YELL at their listeners, but as brilliant as Williams is, his way isn't the only right and proper way to score a film.
    I may prefer to march to William's themes, but Elfman's music has stirred my soul far more frequently. If by saying Elfman will never be "a John Williams," you mean he'll never be "a great film score composer," then go to Youtube right now, listen to "The Grand Finale" from Edward Scissorhands, shut up, and feel very bad for having ignorantly insulted a genius.
    Have a good day, sirs.

  5. Sam says:

    While his themes and scores may vary a little, there are many similarities. Elfman is no genius when it comes to music. He has, however, had a lot of luck, stepped on the right people and pulled in the right talent to handle arrangements, orchestrations and conducting. If you want to give credit where credit is due, look no further than Steve Bartek and Shirley Walker (RIP). Don't confuse your worship for the man with reality.

  6. SagaciousPenguin says:

    If I "worship" anything, it's the music – which in the end is the only reality that matters when judging this sort of thing. And the music – in my opinion and the opinions of many, many others – is sublime. If we have the team of Elfman and Bartek to thank for that, then I thank them both. But I know that without Elfman this mass of diverse and beautiful score music (that I do dub to be the result of musical genious) would not be here. And so I appreciate him, and consider him one of the greats of the era.
    To write him off as lucky might have worked if Batman were his only claim to fame. But the twenty CDs of his music on my score shelf (and the score shelves of many others) say otherwise. (And don't mistake me for some Elfman-only fanboy. His albums sit alongside stacks and stacks of other great film composers' works.)
    Shirley Walker was also, indeed, great – and she is missed.
    And EVERY composer to have ever scored films has "many similarities" among their canon and also has a team of helpers they work with. John Williams has had Conrad Pope and William Ross among others, Hans Zimmer has an entire army. Don't single Elfman out for such things simply because you're not a personal fan of the music. And as I said before, it's all about the music. If you don't care for it, that's perfectly fine, but don't go claiming there's no merit, inspiration, or genious involved in its creation.
    Don't confuse your obvious disdain for the man with reality.

  7. Sam says:

    Disdain? That's a mighty (and baseless) big word. I have actually worked with Danny on a couple projects and know how he works. While he may have many cds of musical scores, quantity does not designate genius. The process to which he composes is not genius. I get along well with Danny and I respect the success that he has achieved. I also really like some of his scores and many of the themes that he has composed. To say that he has not been lucky is completely short-sighted. It wasn't luck that he synched up with Tim Burton (who really made his career)? Cmon, reality check.

  8. Mike says:

    i'm sorry but that's a BS argument. you don't like Elfman good for you, but how are all his music for Burton's movie's the same. one of you people please provide proof instead of just talking out of your ears
    there are so many composers out there who repeat the same themes and chords a million times, you guys don't have a problem with that, but you harp on Elfman.
    just give me proof of how Batman sounds like Mars Attacks, or how Scissorhands sounds like Sleepy Hollow. give me proof and i'll agree with you people.
    and of course he's no John Williams, no one is except the great master himself. Elfman is one of the best composers working in the industry today, you don't like his music, don't listen to it. no one's forcing you to listen to it

  9. Monty says:

    Elfman is one of the two or three film composers working today who is still pushing himself to get better with each work.
    And the only reason any one ever cared about Shirley Walker is that she was a woman in a male-dominated industry. Her music was nothing special.

  10. Monty says:

    Hey "Sam"… your last name wouldn't happen to be "Raimi," would it?

  11. robbie says:

    interesting view points i have to admit some of danny elfmans scores sound alike however i still believe he has written some brillant and beautiful pieces of works,i suppose he has been lucky in many ways in regards to the point being mentioned that working with tim burton has given him more exposure than he may have got however can the same not be said of john williams due to his connection to steven spielberg and his big film productions credit where it is due i like alot of john williams themes and he has had a influence on film music but i cannot be the only one to feel he is over rated the true master is ENNIO MORRICONE,now in my opinion he has got greater range beauty and originality in his music than john williams

  12. OBoingo Fan says:

    @Sam: As much as I love Tim Burton's films, Mr. Burton was NOT responsible for Danny Elfman's career. Ever heard of that "little band" Oingo Boingo? Do you know the original name of the band (I'm not telling)? Pretty funny stuff. They actually got their start in the 70's on the Gong Show … look it up for a hilarious act, which featured Danny's brother as the lead, not Danny. Several albums, sold out concerts at huge venues, drummer so dedicated he played with a broken ankle the last time I saw them. The list goes on. Danny's career did not begin with music scores, but it is a perfect fit for this one-time performance artist. While there is a certain attitude to all his music, it definitely does not all sound the same. Maybe you should listen to Vivaldi's Four Seasons without looking at the cover … see if you can feel the mood of each season from the music.

  13. ILoveCA says:

    Danny Elfman has a distinctive sound that is recognizable by many. It doesn't mean that all his music sounds the same. The man is pure genius. And comparing him to John Williams is like comparing apples to oranges. Both are fantastic with their own flavors to attend to the masses. Now I ask you…is that graditude?

  14. Chris says:

    Wow – so much bitterness in all these comments!
    Danny's Edwad Scissorhands score is one of the greatest ever written and also the most imitated. He was given a bad wrap because he is not 'classically trained' and has orchestrators. AS a working film composer I can tell you that orchestrators and arrangers are absolutely essential when you have a very limited amount of time, TREMENDOUS pressure, producers and directors having you rewrite cues constantly, as well as all the copyists, musicians, mixers, engineers, etc.. Its a huge amount of work for one person to do alone. John Williams has Conrad Pope orchestrate his scores and you never hear anyone complain about that.
    Also – I worked for Shirley Walker and she was a really great orchestrator and composer and is truly missed by those who worked with her.

  15. David says:

    Danny Elfman is awesome. Chris is right. Always complaining about composers because they aren't classic trained. Like Tyler Bates and others. Not everyone can be John Williams, but because of that, they don't deserve crap like that.

  16. SHooLCbype says:


    Я извеняюсь, но.. в настоящее время любой имеет возможность Скачать Фильмы, сериалы.

    Нет ни каких проблем для того чтоб найти в сети и посмотреть Эро Галереи – Азиатки

    Жить стало веселей :)

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