In 1995, David Fincher was a music video director with one film credit, Brad Pitt was a sun-kissed beefcake coming off of Legends of the Fall and Morgan Freeman was best known for a movie in which he drove around an old lady. That’s hardly the trio you’d pick to bring a serial killer thriller to the masses. And yet, with Seven, Fincher, Pitt and Morgan, along with the always brilliant Kevin Spacey, collaborated on a shocking, stylistic masterpiece, universally lauded for its innovative story and gritty tone.
Twenty years later, Fincher, Pitt and Freeman remain at the top of the game and while Seven isn’t the most celebrated work on any of their résumés, it remains one of the best. Gluttons for factoids, we dug into the commentary tracks and special features on the Seven Blu-ray and emerged with these 25 things you should know on the film’s 20th anniversary.
1. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was inspired by the brutal conditions of New York City, where he lived. He says in the commentary that he could walk down the street and observe one of the Seven Deadly Sins without even trying.
2. Initial script revisions replaced the now infamous head-in-the-box ending with what Fincher feared most: a happy ending that had Detective Mills (Brad Pitt) running home to save his wife (Gwyneth Paltrow) from John Doe (Kevin Spacey). It was the studio approved ending, and Fincher insisted on dropping it.
3. Early on, the screenplay was being developed for Denzel Washington, with the idea that he would play Mills. That version, Fincher says, was much more of a kick ass, action cop movie, than the film he made.
4. One version of the script included scenes in which the audience saw Doe working away in this sadistic laboratory. Fincher wanted those scenes cut so that Doe was only ever seen from the perspective of the police. And indeed, this is the case in the film, with the exception of the moment he’s seen exiting the taxi before giving himself up in the police station.
Watch the original trailer:
5. After Freeman, who plays Detective Somerset, and Brad Pitt were on board, attention turned to the actor who would play Doe. Everyone but the studio wanted Kevin Spacey, who was too expensive by New Line’s reckoning. Fincher says he was ready to move on to the next choice, but Pitt stepped in and argued that it had to be Spacey. The studio listened.
6. After signing on, Spacey had one demand of his own — to not be billed or featured in any advertising. He was coming off of The Usual Suspects and Outbreak and figured if his name was featured alongside the two stars, it would be obvious that he was the killer. As he told Games Radar in 2004, “I felt very strongly that it was the right thing to do for the movie.”
7. Initial plans called for Mills to be something of a hipster, but Pitt pushed back against that. One of his contributions in that regard was the series of sports-theme ties that his character wears. He thought they were a perfect illustration of the character’s naiveté.
8. The original opening had Somerset touring a rundown house in upstate New York as he imagined life after retirement. The scene was cut because the sequence that was to follow — Somerset on an Amtrak to New York City, riding back into the belly of the beast —was too expensive to shoot.
9. The scrapped Amtrak shoot was also supposed to serve as the title sequence. Fincher instead turned the titles over to special image engineer Findlay Bunting, who had $50,000 to create a haunting introduction to the film. Fincher says the idea was to indicate to the audience that someone out there was doing “weird, f—ed-up stuff.” Knowing that $15,000 was to be spent on creating John Doe’s notebooks, Fincher decided to include that process in the title sequence. And that process was a meticulous one: The writings and ravings of many lunatics were considered and eventually it was determined that Doe’s notebooks should have small writing filling every inch of the pages.
Watch the creepy title sequence:
10. Bob Mack, the actor who played the murder victim representing Gluttony, was able to lie face down in a pile of spaghetti thanks to a SCUBA-like device that he wore on his face. The dead version of the man on the coroner’s table was a fiberglass body with a noticeably large penis. This was an intentional choice. Fincher says Mack had to spend 10 hours in makeup to appear in the movie for about 30 seconds, and he felt bad about that. To make it up to Mack, Fincher said, he figured he could “at least give him a huge c—.”
11. The room constructed for the “gluttony” scene was wrapped in plastic so that the cockroaches let loose inside of it couldn’t escape into the studio. A cockroach wrangler was also on set to keep the bugs in line.
12. The effect of a passing subway shaking Mills’ apartment was accomplished by attaching gas-powered VW engines to the set. In the commentary, screenwriter Walker says he’s heard complaints that the subway would’ve come more often and so the apartment should’ve shook more. He has an explanation for that which is appropriately dark: There was a “police action” and the trains were delayed, he says. Meaning someone jumped on the tracks or someone was shot and killed in the station.
13. The ceilings of the sex club where the “lust” murder is committed were lowered to make it feel more claustrophobic. Wax was also splattered on the walls to add texture and create the sense that bodily fluids were everywhere.
14. In the middle of the film’s big chase scene Pitt seriously injured his hand after he went backwards through a car’s back window and then grabbed onto shattered glass as he pushed himself up. He sliced through a tendon, nerve and three fingers. The cast he wore after the injury had to be written into the script. After the cast was removed, Pitt continued to wear bandages that he had to continuously work to conceal from the camera.
15. Film professor Richard Dyer suggests in the commentary that Doe did not know how he would finish his crime until his run-in with Mills while disguised as a photographer. Mills displays his wrath, which gives Doe the idea on how to complete his seven murders, Dyer suggests.
16. Pitt first mispronounced the “Sade” (he says shay-day instead of sod) in Marquis de Sade during read-throughs, and it killed. Fincher recalls that Freeman couldn’t stop laughing. But the director wasn’t sure if it should make it to the final cut because getting the joke required the audience to know how to correctly pronounce “Sade.” Pitt successfully argued to keep the joke, which he thought showed that Mills got all of his knowledge from pop culture.
17. The library where Somerset researches Doe’s influences was actually an old bank building. The entire interior had to be constructed using 5,000 rented books and many fiberglass pieces painted to look like a rows of books, each with a title and a Dewey decimal number.
18. The screenplay described Doe’s apartment in great detail, and Walker had strong justifications for everything. For example, the windows were painted black because if one were to carry on as a serial killer in a big city, one would need privacy. And there was a drawer of empty aspirin bottles because, Walker says, a serial killer would have endless thoughts running through his head that would give him headaches. Plus, he’d probably keep the bottles because they’re a nice shape.
19. Pitt regrets not going shirtless in the scene where Mills and Somerset shave their chests to tape on wires. At the time, he didn’t want to disrobe because he had just come off of Legends of the Fall and didn’t like all the attention he was getting for his body. But in the commentary, he says he wishes he had because it would have been a good moment to show that the two guys were truly opening up to each other.
20. New Line had Fincher shoot the film’s final confrontation without any of the helicopter footage and told him they’d give him the money for it if it was deemed necessary. It was, but when he returned for the overhead shots there were a few problems. For one, the actors weren’t available, so doubles were used for all the long shots. And two, the grass had turned from green to gold. Lots of color correction was necessary to match the grass colors, and still, it’s not perfect.
21. Actor Leland Orser, who plays the man forced to kill the prostitute representing “Lust,” stayed up all night to get into a deranged mindset. But on the expected day of shooting, he learned that he wouldn’t film until the next day. So he stayed up another night. On the actual day of shooting, he spent the time between takes sitting in the corner of the interrogation room breathing rapidly so that he could hyperventilate during the scene. “It was quite torturous, but it all served the intensity of the scene at the end,” he wrote in a Reddit AMA.
22. The 2015 Colin Farrell movie Solace was once slated to be a sequel to Seven. Initially written as an original film by Ocean’s Eleven scribe Ted Griffin, Solace was re-worked so that the main character would be Somerset. But it never came together, in part because Fincher simply didn’t want to revisit the material. “I would be less interested in that than I would in having cigarettes put out in my eyes,” he said a few years back. “I keep trying to get out from under my own shadow. I don’t want to do the same s— over and over.”
23. To build out the ambient sound in the movie, actors were hired to make the sounds of the city — couples arguing, trash men working, drivers yelling at each other. These sounds were then muffled and played in the background of scenes to add depth and authenticity.
24. Years after making the movie, Fincher got into an argument with a woman who said he was wrong to have shown Tracy’s head in the box. He hadn’t, of course, but took this to mean that the power of suggestion was as strong as he’d expected.
25. Cameos include the screenwriter Walker as the first dead guy seen on the floor, Freeman’s son Alfonso Freeman as a fingerprint expert, and longtime Hollywood Reporter columnist George Christie as a police department janitor.