Seven Movie Essay

Remember a time before 1995 when movies were loaded with rainbows and puppies? Strawberry ice cream poured out of every frame. Then Se7en came along. Then things got really interesting.

David Fincher’s second effort at feature filmmaking caught a storm, and it was one filled with melancholic grime and depressing endings. Also there was something about a box and what was in it. The state of thrillers changed forever, and, while many copycats tried to pick up the scraps Se7en left in its wake, none would recapture that initial sense of dread when John Doe screamed at Detective David Mills, the killers hands covered in blood.

Paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it? Well, with this week’s Commentary Commentary, we’re hoping the track we’ve selected paints a couple of dozen more. David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman lend their voices and insight into this commentary track for Se7en.

If for no other reason, this track should already be looked into for including Freeman, who has one of the greatest voices this side of a certain Sith. So, without any further ado, here are all 25 items we learned from listening to the Se7en commentary. Now to find out what’s in that box.

Se7en (1995)

Commentators: David Fincher (director), Brad Pitt (actor), Morgan Freeman (actor/voice God)

  • “When I was studying French, I could not figure out why they would call a library a bibliotheque and a bookstore a library, but that’s what they do. They’re a backwards people. Hahaha, don’t do that. I love the French.” This is how the Se7en commentary opens, with Morgan Freeman talking about the French language. He then proceeds to entertain us with some French phrases. While there’s no translation given, the beauty in the words and in Freeman’s voice are undeniable.
  • Originally Se7en was to open with Detective Somerset, played by Freeman, going to look at an old house in the country that he is planning buying. The character tears a piece of the wallpaper off and carries it with him. Originally the opening credits were supposed to play over Somerset’s train ride back to the city, but the production ran out of money before they could film this sequence. Fincher felt the train ride tied this opening to the city and the darkness Somerset must face there, so the whole scene was cut. Moments with Somerset and the piece of wallpaper were filmed to be included throughout the film, but they were forced to be cut, as well.
  • According to Freeman, if a character can wear a hat, the added prop will add a sense of who that character is to the performance. He used this technique for Somerset. “You put the hat on, and you look, and you see the character. You know who he is,” says the actor.
  • As Fincher explains, the opening credits came from a “practical place.” “Oftentimes, some of the most mundane things inspire,” says the director. His crew wanted to get Findlay Bunting, who shot the footage for the opening credits, a pin register camera, because they believed the titles needed to be steady. Fincher questioned this and felt that a shaky, uneven, dirty looking opening credits would fit closer to John Doe’s mindframe. The director also felt these credits gave the audience an awareness of how ugly the film would potentially get.
  • “I’ve found all the best directors make sound effects when they’re describing scenes,” says Pitt. We can only imagine the sound effects Terrence Malick made describing Tree of Life. His dinosaur “GRRRRRR” is truly something to behold.
  • The first time Lynn Harris, the co-executive producer, visited the set was when they were filming the Gluttony victim. The set was so dank and disgusting – the spaghetti sauce used in the scene had been sitting there for weeks before shooting commenced – the producer took one look, agreed that everything was going fine, and walked off set. Fincher also notes the first time Freeman saw this set, he let out a long sigh of disgust. Probably as only Morgan Freeman can. His sighs even have the power of God in them.
  • For the Gluttony victim, actor Bob Mack had to wear his makeup and prosthetics for 10 hours a day, and that was before shooting would even begin. Fincher and Pitt joke about the size of the character’s member in the fiberglass dummy used in the autopsy scene. Fincher also jokes that he wanted that dummy at the after party with a bowl of bean dip and Fritos between its knees. The party actually took place at the New York Public Library.
  • R. Lee Ermey, who plays the Police Captain, auditioned for the part of John Doe. Fincher recollects the former Marine drill instructor made the serial killer character completely unsympathetic. “Not that Kevin’s more unsympathetic,” says the director. But he felt Ermey’s take on the character was “cut and dry,” without much room for any gray area.
  • Fincher remembers Kevin Spacey saying he had heard they had cast someone else for John Doe but called him at the last minute to fill the role. Fincher and Pitt don’t remember it that way. According to them, they fought for Spacey to get the part, especially Pitt who was floored by the actor’s audition. Fincher remembers the production didn’t have the money to cover what Spacey was asking for. Pitt’s tenacity in getting Spacey the part was what eventually convinced the studio to cover the cost.
  • During the rain chase between Mills and John Doe, Pitt slipped and smashed his hand through a windshield. The injury was worked into the screenplay, but earlier scenes had to be shot after that, as well. For these scenes, Pitt did a lot of “pocket acting” where he keeps his hand in his pocket or hidden from view some other way. Fincher remembers Pitt showing him the wound after the accident and how he could see the white of bone in the actor’s hand. Pitt says this was the only time he has ever seen the director “turn green.”
  • 24:18 – Brad Pitt says Morgan Freeman has the “voice of God.” No truer words, Mr. Pitt. No truer words.
  • Freeman talks about his days on The Electric Company. Up to that point, he didn’t stay with jobs where he would become stagnant, sticking with the same role for too long. The Electric Company was the first, long-running job he had, and he remembers he grew to dislike it. He does recognize the good the show did for children and even notes a lot of children have told him the show taught them how to read. “Fine,” says the actor. “That’s interesting. Did I teach you how to understand what you were reading?” He then lets out a loud guffaw. No one cracks Morgan Freeman up like Morgan Freeman.
  • There was originally a moment when Somerset and Tracy Mills, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and her head, first meet when the scrap of wallpaper he had cut from his country home falls out of his jacket pocket. When Tracy sees the wallpaper piece and asks Somerset about it, the detective says it’s “his future.” Tracy responds that he “if David saw that, he’d say you were a fag.” The moment was cut because they had edited out the earlier scene with the country house completely.
  • Fincher wanted something different for the chase sequence with Mills and Somerset chasing John Doe through the apartment building. Pitt told the director he hated chase scenes where the chaser always seems to know where the person being chased is. Fincher took this idea and ran with it, and he and Pitt worked out how Mills should be reacting during the chase, reluctantly going around corners and not knowing where John Doe was at any moment. “I like the idea of the guy with clay feet going, ‘I don’t wanna get shot.’,” he explains.
  • Peter Frankfurt, who created the opening credits for Se7en as well as Wild Wild West, based the shot of Will Smith kicking a door open on Brad Pitt kicking John Doe’s door open. So, in a small way, David Fincher helped create Wild Wild West. You’re welcome, world.
  • Fincher mentions something he learned while working at ILM, that a director should look at a scene with the left eye for composition, because it goes to your right brain. Focus or technical side of a shot should be looked at with the right eye or left brain, as it’s more of a technical eye. He also mentions his eyes are two, different colors, so all bets might be off at that point.
  • When Se7en played for the first time in New York City, it had a different ending and cut to black as soon as Mills pulled the trigger on John Doe. Fincher spoke with the theater beforehand, asking them to keep the theater completely dark after the final image to let the audience take it in. This didn’t happen, and the lights in the theater came up as soon as the gunshot was heard. The audience was then immediately handed comment cards asking their thoughts on the movie, and the audience members had to begin thinking up answers to questions like “Who was your favorite character?” Fincher remembers three women who walked by after the screening and hearing one of them say, “The people who made that movie should be killed.” It didn’t help that the recruiting card to get people into the screening asked, “Would you like to see a new movie starring Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall) and Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy)?” “I don’t know what the fuck they thought they were gonna see,” says Fincher, “but I’m telling you, from the reaction of the people in there, they were bristling. They couldn’t have been more offended.” Someone else at that screening came up to Fincher afterwards and said, “Don’t be depressed. You’ll probably get another job.”
  • Fincher thinks every marketing person sees their job as trying to save the film. “I’ve never heard a marketing guy go, ‘What a great movie. That’s a home run. We can’t mess with this.’,” he says. In Fincher’s mind, marketing departments look at every film as something imperfect that they have to sell to as many people as possible. If that means hyping Pitt from Legends of the Fall or Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy, who cares if the film the people are about to see doesn’t match with those previous films’ sensibilities? He does realize that companies are beginning to market films in more ambiguous ways, specifying DreamWorks and the marketing for American Beauty and What Lies Beneath, two films whose focal point on the poster is a woman’s hand. Freeman says later in the commentary that he doesn’t think any film is sold as well as it is with word of mouth.
  • Neither Pitt nor Fincher are happy with the way the car ride at the end with John Doe in the back and Mills and Somerset in the front seat plays out. Their chief concern is that they were forced to loop the entire scene after the fact due to issues with picking up sound in the car on the day of shooting. Pitt feels including looped dialogue caused the scene to “lose its breath.”
  • Pitt finds it interesting that the sun in the film comes out after John Doe has shown up. Fincher points out that this wasn’t intentional. If he could have soaked the end scene with rain machines, he would have.
  • Footage of and from the helicopter in the end scene wasn’t initially shot. The production ran out of time, and New Line told Fincher they would give him extra time and money if they felt it was necessary from the footage he had shot. Naturally, they did, but the months between shooting ground footage and shooting footage from the helicopter had turned the locale from a lush green to a desert. Much of the footage shot on the ground was color corrected to make the location appear more desert-like.
  • Originally, the end scene took place underneath the giant power lines, John Doe had selected this location, because it would mess with the communication between the two men on the ground and the helicopter. “Instead we all just got testicular cancer,” jokes Pitt. The truth of the matter is even funnier. Once they got out to shoot the scene, Fincher and his crew found that communications really were messing up, and the actors had to be cued by cellular phone for many of the takes.
  • According to Freeman, he’s never seen someone’s head in a box nor has he ever seen anyone’s reaction to finding a head in a box. He isn’t completely satisfied with the way he reacts when Somerset opens the box, and he isn’t even sure if he’d be able to find the right reaction if he were to shoot Se7en today.
  • For the final moments between Mills and John Doe, Brad Pitt references Sean Penn’s performance near the end of At Close Range. “There was this complete change in him,” says Pitt. “There was something that Penn did there that you knew, from that moment on, what he’d experience, life would never be the same again. He would never be the same.”
  • Freeman remembers the original ending as having Somerset shoot John Doe instead of Mills. He liked this ending, that the younger detective would still have a life after the events of the film. It was Pitt’s argument that there was no way Mills wouldn’t have shot John Doe for what he had done. Basically, if you’re not sure who should be shot or who should do the shooting, just ask Brad Pitt.

Best in Commentary

“The underlying truth of all of these characters is they are in the violent business.” – Morgan Freeman

“If the ultimate journey is truth, or quest defined in a scene, then don’t fight it. At least, at its worst, you’ll have something that’s truthful.” – Brad Pitt

“To me, this is the closest I’ve been to a perfect film. Can we end on that?” – Brad Pitt

“What about Fight Club?” – David Fincher

Final Thoughts

This Se7en commentary is a perfect example of a solid track that doesn’t offer much in the way of items for this column. Fincher and Pitt, recorded together, and Freeman all have much to say in the way of film theory, working with or as actors, and general philosophies when it comes to making movies, but there are very long stretches of this commentary where they aren’t talking specifically about Se7en. Freeman makes long-winded declamation about acting and the differences between the theater and film. It’s worth listening to for Freeman’s voice alone even if he isn’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. We’ve never heard it like this, though.

A few anecdotes from the set make their way into the commentary. It’s interesting listening to Fincher talk about working with an actor who was around his same age, and it’s no surprise he and Brad Pitt have worked together a few times since. He liked having someone on set who understood Monty Python jokes while filming Se7en. Still, there isn’t an abundance of anecdotes or stories from the set, and everyone on this track offers the insight into their general beliefs about the art form.

The 25 items above are very interesting, but this is a commentary track you should listen to for yourself, as well.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

It is almost always raining in the city. Somerset, the veteran detective, wears a hat and raincoat. Mills, the kid who has just been transferred into the district, walks bare-headed in the rain as if he'll be young forever. On their first day together, they investigate the death of a fat man they find face-down in a dish of pasta. On a return visit to the scene, the beams of their flashlights point here and there in the filthy apartment, picking out a shelf lined with dozens of cans of Campbell's Tomato Sauce. Not even a fat man buys that much tomato sauce.

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This grim death sets the tone for David Fincher's "Seven," one of the darkest and most merciless films ever made in the Hollywood mainstream. It will rain day after day. They will investigate death after death. There are words scrawled at the crime scenes; the fat man's word is on the wall behind his refrigerator: Gluttony. After two of these killings Mills realizes they are dealing with a serial killer, who intends every murder to punish one of the Seven Deadly Sins.

This is as formulaic as an Agatha Christie whodunit. But "Seven" takes place not in the genteel world of country house murders, but in the lives of two cops, one who thinks he has seen it all and the other who has no idea what he is about to see. Nor is the film about detection; the killer turns himself in when the film still has half an hour to go. It's more of a character study, in which the older man becomes a scholar of depravity and the younger experiences it in an pitiable and personal way. A hopeful quote by Hemingway was added as a voice-over after preview audiences found the original ending too horrifying. But the original ending is still there, and the quote plays more like a bleak joke. The film should end with Freeman's "see you around." After the devastating conclusion, the Hemingway line is small consolation.

The enigma of Somerset's character is at the heart of the film, and this is one of Morgan Freeman's best performances. He embodies authority naturally; I can't recall him ever playing a weak man. Here he knows all the lessons a cop might internalize during years spent in what we learn is one of the worst districts of the city. He lives alone, in what looks like a rented apartment, bookshelves on the walls. He puts himself to sleep with a metronome. He never married, although he came close once. He is a lonely man who confronts life with resigned detachment.

When he realizes he's dealing with the Seven Deadly Sins, he does what few people would do, and goes to the library. There he looks into Dante's Inferno, Milton's Paradise Lost and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. It's not that he reads them so much as that he references them for viewers; it is often effective in a horror film to introduce disturbing elements from literature as atmosphere, and Fincher provides glimpses of Gustav Dore's illustrations for Dante, including the famous depiction of a woman with spider legs. Somerset sounds erudite as he names the deadly sins to Mills, who seems to be hearing of them for the first time.

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What's being used here is the same sort of approach William Friedkin employed in "The Exorcist" and Jonathan Demme in "The Silence of the Lambs." What could become a routine cop movie is elevated by the evocation of dread mythology and symbolism. "Seven" is not really a very deep or profound film, but it provides the convincing illusion of one. Almost all mainstream thrillers seek first to provide entertainment; this one intends to fascinate and appall. By giving the impression of scholarship, Detective Somerset lends a depth and significance to what the killer apparently considers moral statements. To be sure, Somerset lucks out in finding that the killer has a library card, although with this killer, thinking back, you figure he didn't get his ideas in the library, and checked out those books to lure the police.

The five murders investigated by the partners provide variety. The killer has obviously gone to elaborate pains in planning and carrying them out -- in one case, at least a year in advance. His agenda in the film's climactic scene, however, must have been improvised recently. "Seven" draws us relentlessly into its horrors, some of which are all the more effective for being glimpsed in brief shots. We can only be sure of the killing methods after the cops discuss them--although a shot of the contents of a plastic bag after an autopsy hardly requires more explanation. Fincher shows us enough to disgust us, and cuts away.

The killer obviously intends his elaborate murders as moral statement. He suggests as much after we meet him. When he's told his crimes will soon be forgotten in the daily rush of cruelty, he insists they will be remembered forever. They are his masterpiece. What goes unexplained is how, exactly, he is making a statement. His victims, presumably guilty of their sins, have been convicted and executed by his actions. What's the lesson? Let that be a warning to us?

Somerset and Mills represent established fiction formulas. Mills is the fish out of water, they're an Odd Couple, and together they're the old hand and the greenhorn. The actors and the dialogue by Andrew Kevin Walker enrich the formulas with specific details and Freeman's precise, laconic speech. Brad Pitt seems more one-dimensional, or perhaps guarded; he's a hothead, quick to dismiss Freeman's caution and experience. It is his wife Tracy (Gwyneth Paltrow) who brings a note of humanity into the picture; we never find out very much about her, but we know she loves her husband and worries about him, and she has good instincts when she invites the never-married Somerset over for dinner. Best to make an ally of the man who her husband needs and can learn from. Watching the film, we assume the Tracy character is simply a place-holder, labeled Protagonist's Wife and denied much dimension. But she is saving her impact until later. Thinking back through the film, our appreciation for its construction grows.

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The killer, as I said, turns himself in with 30 minutes to go, and dominates the film from that point forward. When "Seven" was released in 1995 the ads, posters and opening credits didn't mention the name of the actor, and although you may well know it, I don't think I will either. This actor has a big assignment. He embodies Evil. Like Hannibal Lecter, his character must be played by a strong actor who projects not merely villainy but twisted psychological complexities. Observe his face. Smug. Self-satisfied. Listen to his voice. Intelligent. Analytical. Mark his composure and apparent fearlessness. The film essentially depends on him, and would go astray if the actor faltered. He doesn't.

"Seven" (1995) was David Fincher's second feature, after "Alien 3" (1992), filmed when he was only 29. Still to come were such as "Zodiac" (2007) and "The Social Network" (2010). In his work he likes a saturated palate and gravitates toward sombre colors and underlighted interiors. None of his films is darker than this one. Like Spielberg, he infuses the air in his interiors with a fine unseen powder that makes the beams of flashlights visible, emphasizing the surrounding darkness. I don't know why the interior lights in "Seven" so often seem weak or absent, but I'm not complaining. I remember a shot in Murnau's "Faust" (1926) in which Satan wore a black cloak that enveloped a tiny village below. That is the sensation Fincher creates here.

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