'Seven' Turns 20: A Look Back on How That Killer Twist Ending Came Together

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Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Spacey in ‘Seven’

Twenty years after its release, David Fincher’s grim, nihilistic serial-killer drama Seven is considered a modern classic. The film mesmerized audiences, becoming a surprise smash at the box office and the seventh-highest-grossing movie worldwide in 1995. Part of its success was no doubt due to its shocking, uncompromising ending, which still stuns to this day. To celebrate Seven’s anniversary this month, we decided to reconstruct the crime scene with a behind-the-scenes look. Weaving new interviews with previously released material, we learned how the notorious “head-in-the-box” scene came together — and how it was a near miracle it ever happened at all. (Warning: 20-year-old spoilers to follow.)

Seven stars Morgan Freeman as about-to-retire police detective William Somerset, who is belatedly partnered with a young transfer cop named David Mills (Brad Pitt). The impetuous Mills has moved to the movie’s foreboding, nameless city with his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow), and they’re both struggling to adjust to their new, seedy surroundings. Before Somerset can turn in his badge, the two detectives uncover a string of intricate, brutal murders, methodically executed by a shadowy serial killer known only as John Doe. Soon, they realize the killer is staging the Seven Deadly Sins, pursuing victims who represent each of the cardinal offenses. But before they can untangle the investigation, Doe (Kevin Spacey) unexpectedly surrenders at the police station, setting up the stunning denouement.

Just in case the final sequence hasn’t burned itself into your brain, here’s a refresher: Doe leads Somerset and Mills to an isolated rural location with the promise of revealing the last two bodies. A SWAT chopper tracks the partners’ moves, listening via hidden microphones. Seemingly out of nowhere, a delivery truck arrives on a nearby dirt road. Somerset hustles over to the truck while Mills keeps his gun pointed at Doe. The truck driver hands Somerset a box, which he immediately opens, only to draw back in horror at what he discovers inside. As Somerset frantically runs back to Mills, begging him to drop his gun, Doe chillingly explains what he’s done to the confused detective: that he coveted Mills’s life with Tracy, embodying the sin of Envy; that he murdered her that morning and placed her severed head in that box; and that, unknown to Mills, she was pregnant. Doe urges Mills to become the final sin, Wrath, a request the distraught man complies with, promptly shooting Doe dead. In the movie’s DVD commentary track, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker credits the gasp-inducing twist with the movie’s success. “It’s one of the reasons I think Seven did well,” he says. “Because people went in and they did not know in the first 10 minutes exactly how the movie was going to end.”

Perhaps it’s not surprising that such a fantastically dark ending almost didn’t happen. In the first place, Fincher learned of the scene’s existence only by accident. In the DVD commentary, he reveals that his agent inadvertently gave him Walker’s first draft of the script and not the later draft, with a more conventional, studio-approved finale that would have had Tracy drawing a bath as Doe lurked. Fincher recalls asking his agent, “How do I get involved? I love this ending! [It’s] amazing — head in the box.” He signed on to the movie, knowing about the resistance to the original ending but committed to making it happen. Indeed, Fincher remembered producer Arnold Kopelson laying down the law early on, telling him, “Look me right in the eye, because this movie will never end with a head in the box.”

Before filming began, Fincher got Pitt and Freeman onboard with the head-in-the-box ending, but Kopelson remained the final barrier. Fincher pulled out all the stops, giving the producer an impassioned speech he recalls in the commentary: “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.’”

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A storyboard excerpt of Fincher’s original ending (Photo: New Line Cinema)

Fincher’s initial plan for the scene did call for a slightly different finale, in which Somerset shoots Doe dead instead of Mills. “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 [Mills] was salvageable,” Freeman recalls on the DVD track. But Pitt made the case that his character, so filled with rage, couldn’t not do the deed. Pitt even had the ending written into his contract. “I will do it on one condition: The head stays in the box. Put in the contract that the head stays in the box,” the actor said in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in 2011. “[And] he’s got to shoot the killer in the end.” Similar to Pitt, Spacey specifically signed on because of the movie’s unpredictable ending. “When Seven came along, I thought, ‘Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt! They always win,’” the actor told Playboy in 1999. “Here, they lose. They lose big.”

The sequence was shot in Lancaster, Calif. Its specific location, near a set of power lines, was important to Fincher because he originally wanted to depict them disrupting police communications — an aspect of the scene that didn’t make it into the final cut. Part of the power of that final moment is that Spacey as Doe has only been revealed to viewers a few scenes prior, when he memorably enters the police station covered in blood. Fincher famously kept Spacey’s participation under wraps: The actor didn’t promote the film, didn’t appear in any marketing materials, and wasn’t even included in the opening credits. “Kevin shows up and just destroys,” says co-star John C. McGinley, who plays SWAT team leader California, who watches the sequence unfold from the helicopter. “I’m pretty sure the reason I got billing on the poster is they wanted to do a head fake that I was the bad guy.”

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Spacey’s name does not appear on the official poster.

Indeed, Spacey did the film on the condition he wouldn’t get billing. “It would be much more of a surprise,” he said in the same Playboy interview. “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.”

The crux of the scene is of course the moment when Somerset opens the cardboard box. It’s so powerful and jarring that viewers often swear they’ve seen more than they really have. “You never actually see the head in the box, but so many people think they see it. That’s just the power of suggestion,” editor Richard Francis-Bruce tells Yahoo Movies. “If you look very carefully you can see a little wisp of hair in one shot.” The editor also credits “the reaction on Morgan Freeman’s face when he’s looking into the box” with fooling audiences. But the actor didn’t see it that way. “During all this, I know I’m going to have to look into a box, I’m going to have to react to that,” Freeman says on the DVD commentary. “I know there are certain ways you can fake it … but I couldn’t find the place to do it, find where that really worked for me — the horror, the horror … And if I can go back now and do it, I still don’t know where I would find it.”

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Morgan Freeman in ‘Seven’

For Pitt, the emotional burden was even more complex. “Such a place for Brad to get to,” says Freeman. “Such a heavy, heavy, heavy emotional place to try and reach.” In a commentary track, Pitt connects it to the earlier scene when Doe turns himself in: “What’s so horrifying for second viewing is [Doe is] covered in blood … and that is the blood of [Mills’s] wife and his unborn child.” Pitt said that he found inspiration in Sean Penn’s performance in the 1986 crime drama At Close Range. “[It’s] when he’s in the courtroom, and there’s just those few seconds when there was this complete change in him, and it was something that Penn did there that you knew from that moment on, what he experienced, life would never be the same again,” says Pitt.

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Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow in ‘Seven’

In that moment, as the true horror of what has happened dawns on Mills, a few frames of Gwyneth Paltrow’s face flash onscreen, suggesting Mills’s sense memory of his wife. In the commentary, Fincher remembers it was two frames, but Francis-Bruce tells Yahoo that “it was four frames. That was purely David. He said, ‘I want to cut in four frames of Gwyneth.’ He must have planned it. It wasn’t scripted.”

Aside from the emotional complexity of the scene, Fincher had to deal with some logistical difficulties, the first being that he ran out of money before he could film the police helicopter flying overhead. The studio New Line said they’d only hand over the extra cash if they deemed it crucial to the movie. Fortunately they did, although the production had to resort to some low-tech tricks for the close-ups. McGinley flew in a real chopper for the long shots, but the closer shots were all faked. “It’s called ‘poor man’s process,’” he tells Yahoo. “It’s when they put the helicopter on a bunch of springs and boards, blow smoke, and shoot that.” As Fincher recalls on the commentary track, “It’s just one of those things where you’re going, ‘Oh, man, who’s gonna fall for this?’”

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John C. McGinley in ‘Seven’

McGinley also describes improvising his dumbfounded final line — “Somebody call somebody” — after his character witnesses Mills assassinating Doe from the air. It was supposed to be the very last line in the film before it cut to black and the credits rolled. “David put that in as the button to that scene,” the actor says.

That changed, however, after the movie’s unsuccessful first test screening. “Three women come by, and one says to the other one, ‘The people who made that movie should be killed,’” Fincher remembers. “The people in there were bristling. They couldn’t have been more offended.” Francis-Bruce recalls that the studio briefly tried to come up with some alternatives, including having the head of one of Mills’s dogs in the box instead of Tracy’s. In the end, New Line had the production add a voiceover from Morgan Freeman and another brief scene showing a despondent Mills being carted off in a police car. “That was a compromise,” notes Freeman. “I don’t know how much you’re really listening at that point,” says Pitt. Says Fincher: “Yeah, I think you’re pretty well f—ed over [by that point].”

In spite of those few concessions, Seven’s anti-Hollywood ending emerged mostly unscathed, and Fincher’s determination to make his head-in-the-box movie paid off for posterity. “To me this is the closest I’ve been to a perfect film,” says Pitt in the commentary. Adds Fincher, “Come hell or high water, no matter how it was received, I was gonna make that movie, make it the way I saw it.” The director recalls walking out of the premiere in New York and having somebody say, “Don’t be depressed. You’ll probably get another job.” His response: “I have no apologies.”

Watch the ending scene of ‘Seven’: