Totally Awesome Facts You Need to Know About Seven
David Fincher’s feel-good movie of 1995, Seven or Se7en if you prefer, was released 20 years ago today. And Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play. Sorry, this movie can be a bit of a downer. So I figured I’d start us off with a bit of goofiness. Also, if we’re going to discuss the facts you need to know about Seven, we’re going to have to get spoilery. Granted, these spoilers are two decades old, but they are spoilers all the same. If you haven’t seen Seven and you intend to see it, go watch it right now and then come back for all the totally awesome fact you need to know.
This is how IMDB summarizes the plot of the movie:
Two detectives, a rookie and a veteran, hunt a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as his modus operandi.
That’s a completely accurate description and yet, it makes the movie sound kind of cheesy. That’s because while Seven may sound like it’s just another serial killer movie like the dozen or so others Morgan Freeman has made, it’s not. As Amy Taubin writes about the movie
What’s striking about Seven is that the detectives never get the better of the killer. They’re two steps behind him from beginning to end, and so are we. It’s a police procedural/horror hybrid in which the fascination with death outweighs the logic of detection. There’s almost no violence enacted on the screen. There are no scenes of the killer stalking his victims. The film refuses that kind of cheap thrill. All we see is the evidence of violence.
The suggestion of violence in Seven is more disturbing then most blood-soaked slasher movies. You might think that the inspiration for such a twisted tale may come from a real life case file. But it didn’t. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was inspired by the miseries of trying to make it in New York City. Walker was working a regular job at Tower Records while writing low-budget exploitation movies at night. According to Walker:
I didn’t like my time in New York, but it’s true that if I hadn’t lived there I probably wouldn’t have written Seven.
Walker originally wrote the part of the veteran cop, Sommerset, with William Hurt in mind. He named the character after his favorite author, W. Somerset Maugham. Early on, Al Pacino was courted for the role, but he opted to make City Hall instead. Denzel Washington and Sylvester Stallone both turned down the role of the rookie cop, Mills.
Not surprisingly, New Line Cinema wasn’t keen on Walker’s original ending. This is where the spoilers come in, folks. The movie ends with the killer, played by Kevin Spacey, showing the rookie cop, played by Brad Pitt, his young wife’s head in a box. Filled with rage, Pitt kills Spacey and completes the themed murders by enacting wrath. It’s a serious bummer.
New Line demanded that Walker re-write the ending. They wanted something more typical of the genre with the two cops on a race to save the rookie’s wife. Walker wrote the studio the ending they wanted. But the original ending was saved when the studio accidentally sent the original script to director David Fincher.
Fincher had made a name for himself directing music videos like Madonna’s Express Yourself.
The rain is kind of a dead give-away, isn’t it?
In 1992, Fincher made his feature film debut directing Alien 3. I’ll save the details for a later article, but I think it’s safe to say that movie was a disaster. The studio ruined any chance Alien 3 had of being good. Fincher was so traumatized by the experience that he considered giving up directing. But he was lured back to the director’s chair when he read Walker’s script with the original ending.
Fincher knew when he agreed to make the movie that he would have to fight the studio to keep the ending. Early on, Producer Arnold Kopelson drew a line in the sand. He told Fincher, “Look me right in the eye, because this movie will never end with a head in the box.”
What followed was a lot of wrangling. The director was able to sell Freeman and Pitt on the “head-in-a-box” ending. Pitt had just come off the movie Legends of the Fall where his favorite scene in the movie was cut after negative reaction from test audiences. So Pitt took steps to make sure that didn’t happen to him again. In 2011, Pitt told Entertainment Weekly:
With Seven, I said, ‘I will do it on one condition – the head stays in the box. Put in the contract that the head stays in the box.’ Actually, there was a second thing, too: ‘He’s got to shoot the killer in the end. He doesn’t do the ‘right’ thing, he does the thing of passion.’ Those two things are in the contract. Cut to: Seven has been put together, and they’ve tested it. They go, ‘You know, he would be much more heroic if he didn’t shoot John Doe – and it’s too unsettling with the head in the box. We think maybe if it was the dog’s head in the box…’
At one point, a compromise was considered in which Pitt’s character did not get to shoot Spacey. Instead, Freeman would have killed Spacey in order to spare the young cop’s life. Freeman recalled:
I first understood the ending to be — and it made sense to me — that the sacrifice was going to be Somerset’s, that this young policeman was salvageable.
But Pitt insisted that it had to be his character that shot the killer. He explained that his character would be so full of rage upon learning that his pregnant wife had been decapitated, that he couldn’t NOT take vengeance.
Ultimately, Fincher was able to convince Kopleson to let him shoot his ending:
I just said, ‘Long after we’re all gone — 50, 60 years from now — a bunch of 20-somethings will be at a cocktail party talking about a movie that they saw on the late show the night before … the ‘head-in-the-box movie.’ I said, ‘This is the head-in-the-box movie. Every person I’ve talked to … knows it as the head-in-the-box movie. You can’t take the head in the box out of the head-in-the-box movie.’ And he thought about it, and he kind of smiled and said, ‘OK. Do it.’
Fincher did give the studio an inch. They asked for a coda at the end in which Freeman’s character quotes Ernest Hemmingway. Neither Freeman nor Fincher liked the coda, but they acquiesced since New Line had agreed to the “head-in-a-box” finale.
Pitt wasn’t the only one who was dictating terms to the studio. Kevin Spacey insisted that his name should not appear in the credits. He felt it would make the reveal that much more surprising if audiences didn’t know he was in the movie, According to Spacey, the studio took some convincing:
It took two days to sell [the studio] on the idea. Later, they were very happy. The bonus was that I was in a movie that made more than $300 million worldwide, and I didn’t have to do a single interview.
Spacey asked Fincher if he should shave his head for the part. Fincher offered to shave his head too if Spacey did. So they were both shaved bald during filming.
Gwyneth Paltrow was reluctant to appear in the movie. But Fincher had been impressed with her performance in the drama, Flesh and Bone. Fortunately, Paltrow was dating Pitt at the time. Fincher asked Pitt to convince his girlfriend to make the movie.
Seven is known for its non-stop downpours. It is raining in nearly every scene. This wasn’t originally planned nor was it purely a stylistic choice. The filmmakers were rushing to film all of Brad Pitt’s scenes because he would be leaving soon to make Twelve Monkeys. There was heavy rain on his first day of filming, so rain was added to later scenes to maintain continuity.
While filming a rainy chase scene, Pitt accidentally slipped and fell. On his way down, he smashed a car’s windshield. The injury required surgery. As a result, it was incorporated into the movie.
Fincher insisted on incredible attention to detail. All the hand-written books in the killer’s apartment were real. It took the production team two months to complete them at an estimated cost of $15,000 dollars. Morgan Freeman’s character has a line that it would take the police two months to read all the books.
After the success of Seven, the studio wanted a sequel. Fincher said he would rather poke his eyes out than make a sequel. Thankfully, that wasn’t necessary. The sequel never gained any traction.