1995’s Seven (or Se7en as it was stylised) is one of the greatest, not to mention most shocking films of the 90s. Directed by David Fincher, who was still largely unknown at the time of the film’s release, the dark psychological thriller casts Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as two mismatched cops assigned to take down a killer whose murders are modelled on the Bible’s Seven Deadly Sins. All these years later, Seven is still a film that gets people talking – but here are some facts about the film that you might not have known. (Caution: spoilers ahead.)
20. Al Pacino and Denzel Washington turned down the lead roles
As with most major movies, the filmmakers approached plenty of other big name actors to star in Seven before settling on their leads. Before Morgan Freeman was cast as Detective Somerset, Al Pacino was offered the role, but he wound up turning it down to make City Hall instead. Two other revered older actors, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, also declined the part before Freeman said yes.
Meanwhile, Denzel Washington passed on playing Detective Mills. Washington later admitted that he regretted turning down the part that Brad Pitt ultimately took. Kevin Costner and Nicolas Cage are said to have been considered, while it’s also been claimed that Sylvester Stallone was offered the Mills role and declined, although this seems implausible given Stallone’s age.
19. The iconic title sequence was only created because Fincher ran out of money to shoot the original opening
Seven director David Fincher made his name calling the shots on TV commercials and music videos. This might explain why the eye-catching opening credits sequence of Seven looks and feels a lot like something you’d see on MTV (back in the 90s, at least). However, until quite late in the day this was not the way that Seven was intended to open.
The original plan was for Seven’s title sequence to show Detective Somerset travelling into the city after buying a house in the country. However, the production ran out of the time and money needed to shoot the sequence. Instead, Fincher commissioned graphic artist Kyle Cooper to create the more abstract – and now iconic – title sequence, which is set to a remix of the Nine Inch Nails song Closer.
18. Kevin Spacey’s appearance in the movie was deliberately kept secret
The name of John Doe actor Kevin Spacey may be dirt today, but back in the mid-90s he was still a popular and respected actor. Not long before Seven was released, Spacey took one of the lead roles in The Usual Suspects, a performance which would later win him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. As he was a hot property at the time, New Line were keen to promote Spacey as one of Seven’s stars.
However, both David Fincher and Spacey himself argued against including Spacey in promotional materials, insisting his appearance should instead take viewers by surprise. Subsequently, Spacey’s name and image did not feature in any of the movie’s marketing material, nor did he appear in the trailer. Because of this, viewers at the time were genuinely taken aback when Spacey was revealed to be John Doe in Seven’s final act.
17. The cast Brad Pitt wears on his arm is real
During his street-based pursuit of Kevin Spacey’s John Doe, Brad Pitt’s Detective Mills injures himself and wears a cast on his wrist for the rest of the movie. You might think that this was simply an added detail to promote a sense of realism in the film, but you’d be wrong. Mills actually wears this cast because Pitt had suffered a genuine injury during the shoot.
Whilst filming the scene in which Mills runs across car rooftops in pursuit of Doe, Pitt fell and damaged his wrist. As a result, Pitt was forced to wear the cast on his arm while he recovered. Rather than shoot around Pitt’s injury, the filmmakers decided it would make sense for Mills the character to be heavily bandaged up after the damage he endures throughout the film.
16. Morgan Freeman’s final voiceover was added to make the ending slightly less bleak
Much as executives at New Line Cinema had expected, many test audience members were absolutely appalled by Seven’s ultra-downbeat conclusion. While the studio would not force Fincher to completely change the ending, they nonetheless insisted it be tweaked to give the film an ever-so-slightly more positive note to go out on.
Director David Fincher initially refused, but eventually compromised by adding the final shot of Pitt’s Mills being taken away in police custody, whilst Freeman’s Somerset says in voiceover, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” We’ll let the reader decide whether or not this makes Seven’s ending any less of a downer.
15. It was a huge critical and commercial success
For all the fears about Seven’s dark tone and disturbing content, the film was released at a time when audiences had proved receptive to such material. Just four years earlier, similarly grim horror-thriller The Silence of the Lambs had been a big hit and went on to sweep the board at the 1992 Academy Awards. Seven didn’t have quite so big an impact, but it wasn’t far off.
Having cost $33 million to make, Seven wound up earning $327 million worldwide ($55 million more than The Silence of the Lambs). It spent four weeks at the top of the US box office, and wound up the seventh highest-grossing movie of 1995. Critics were also kind, and today it has an 82% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. The Oscars mostly snubbed the film, however, giving it just one nomination for Best Film Editing – which it didn’t win.
14. There’s a series of comic books based on the movie
The popularity of Seven meant that many fans were keen to see the story continued in some form. For years, the only form of Seven literature available was the official novelisation, adapted from Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay by writer Anthony Bruno. Then, in September 2006, the film’s story world was explored further in a limited series of Seven comic books.
Running for seven issues (of course), each of the comic books based on Seven revolved around one of the seven deadly sins, and told stories from the perspective of John Doe, giving the psychotic killer a backstory in the process. Comic book company Zenoscope Entertainment published the books, which have since been reprinted in a trade paperback collection.
13. There was a ‘sequel’ in 2015
After Seven proved such a big hit, New Line Cinema were eager to make a sequel, despite the fact that most of the people involved with the film thought that was an absurd idea. The studio pushed ahead anyway, provisionally entitling the film Ei8ht. One script was written that saw Morgan Freeman’s Somerset suddenly develop psychic abilities – a notion which David Fincher found laughable.
Undeterred, New Line decided to retool this provisional Seven sequel into a standalone film. Eventually it would be made in 2015 as Solace, which cast Anthony Hopkins as a psychic who is enlisted by the FBI to help catch a killer (Colin Farrell). Despite the talented cast, Solace was widely lambasted by critics, and proved to be a box office flop.
12. It was almost made by the director of National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation
The grim and gritty sensibilities of director David Fincher were perfectly attuned to Andrew Kevin Walker’s dark and bleak screenplay for Seven. This being the case, it’s a little hard to believe which director New Line Cinema originally approached to make the film: Jeremiah S Chechik, best known for his work on the considerably more upbeat National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.
After Seven, Fincher’s movie career went from strength to strength, but the same can’t be said for Chechik. 1998 saw him call the shots on The Avengers (an adaptation of the 60s British TV series, not the Marvel comics), an expensive flop which attracted terrible reviews. Chechik hasn’t made another major film since, and has instead mostly directed episodes of TV.
11. Brad Pitt and Gwyneth Paltrow were a couple at the time
There has never been a time when the gossip columns weren’t obsessed with Brad Pitt’s love life, and this was already the case all the way back in 1995. Pitt was dating Gwyneth Paltrow when she was cast alongside him as Tracy, the wife of Pitt’s David Mills, and the presence of the real life couple only increased audience interest in the movie – and made its conclusion even more of a shocker.
Paltrow, who was still a relative newcomer at the time, took the role of Tracy after Christina Applegate turned it down. Her relationship with Pitt ended in 1997, and in the years since both have had a series of high profile partners: Pitt was famously married to Jennifer Anniston followed by Angelina Jolie, whilst Paltrow dated Ben Affleck and was married to Chris Martin of rock group Coldplay.
10. The ‘sloth’ actor was massively underweight in real life
Seven may be a thoroughly dark and grisly movie, but very few acts of physical violence actually occur on camera. Instead, we’re shown the aftermath of John Doe’s horrific handiwork, resulting in some deeply unsettling imagery. One of the most disturbing moments in the film involves Doe’s ‘sloth’ victim, a man who, in a major jump scare, actually turns out to still be alive.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that this emaciated form was an animatronic, but you’d be wrong. The ‘sloth’ victim, Victor, is portrayed by actor Michael Reid MacKay, a very thin man who weighed just 95 pounds at the time of shooting Seven. MacKay’s naturally skinny frame has landed him a number of special make-up-based movie roles, including parts in The Monster Squad, Batman & Robin and X-Men 2.
9. The studio approved the ending with ‘the box’ by mistake
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker’s original screenplay for Seven was first sold to studio New Line Cinema back in 1991, but it spent a long time in development. During this early development process, spooked studio executives unsurprisingly demanded that Walker rewrite his ending, which infamously features a head in a box; the writer begrudgingly complied.
However, when New Line offered the project to director David Fincher (fresh from the troubled Alien 3), they accidentally sent him the earlier, rejected version of the script, which ends with the box scene. Fincher was hugely taken with the script, and told New Line he would only direct if they agreed to let him shoot the original ending exactly as Walker wrote it.
8. Brad Pitt threatened to leave the film if the box ending was cut
Although New Line Cinema reluctantly gave Fincher the go-ahead to shoot the box ending, this remained a bone of contention all the way through the production. The studio were still keen to scrap the ending, fearing it was too downbeat, but Fincher stood firm. However, at that stage in his career the director didn’t carry quite as much weight in Hollywood as his lead actors did.
Happily for Fincher, Brad Pitt was on his side. Pitt’s star power helped get Seven made, and he threatened to pull out unless the original ‘head in a box’ ending was kept. This helped New Line see sense; it also kickstarted a long and fruitful professional relationship between Fincher and Pitt, who would reunite on Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. (Fincher also came close to directing the aborted World War Z sequel.)
7. Somerset almost shot John Doe instead of Mills
As iconic as the ending of Seven proved to be, it was (as we’ve established) the cause of much concerned back-and-forth behind the scenes, mainly because studio executives feared it was so bleak that it would turn audiences against the film. Various alternatives were considered, one of which was a very slight twist on what we ended up with, but with a different cop pulling the trigger.
David Fincher and Andrew Kevin Walker considered changing the conclusion to instead have Morgan Freeman’s Somerset shooting John Doe dead, the idea being that the elder cop on the brink of retirement would keep his young partner from condemning himself as a murderer. This idea was ultimately thrown out after Pitt argued that anyone would do the same as Mills under the circumstances.
6. Some viewers thought they had actually seen Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in the box
As well as leaving a lot of the details of John Doe’s hideous crimes to the audience’s imagination, Seven also stops short of actually showing us what Morgan Freeman’s Somerset sees when he opens the box. However, the scene had such an impact that many viewers left the film convinced that they had actually seen more than they really saw.
Contrary to what some might think, the head of Gwyenth Paltrow’s Tracy is never actually seen in the box. However, David Fincher does play a slight trick on viewers by cutting in an almost subliminal close-up shot of Paltrow’s face whilst Brad Pitt’s Mills reels at the revelation of his wife’s death, seconds before he shoots Kevin Spacey’s John Doe.
5. ‘Lust’ actor Leland Orser went method for the role
The term ‘method acting’ is generally taken to apply to actors who go to lengths to make their own life experience and/or physical condition as close as possible to that of the character they’re portraying. It’s almost unthinkable that anyone involved in the making of Seven would take this approach, particularly those playing John Doe’s victims, given how hideous their fates are – but one actor did.
Leland Orser’s character (credited as Crazed Man) isn’t technically the victim of ‘lust,’ but the role John Doe forced him to play in the death of one woman is shown to have taken its toll physically and emotionally. To convey this, Orser deprived himself of sleep for a number of days then went on to practice rapid breathing on set, so that he could hyperventilate at will.
4. Brad Pitt chose his own ties to deliberately give Mills poor fashion sense
Since the early days of his career, Brad Pitt has been perhaps more renowned for his dashing good looks and excellent taste in clothes than for his skill as an actor. Yet while the studio may have been counting on Pitt’s on-screen charisma to draw a large audience, the actor himself was keen to keep that at a distance when portraying Detective David Mills.
As Mills was written as ambitious and principled but ultimately not the brightest nor most effective police officer, Pitt wanted the character to appear somewhat awkward on screen. To this end, the actor is reported to have personally chosen all the ties he wears in the movie, and he deliberately picked bad ones. Style icon Pitt was determined to make Mills look as un-stylish as possible.
3. The very same diner is featured in Training Day
One of the gentler moments in Seven comes when Mills’ wife Tracy asks Somerset to meet her at a diner, where she explains her misgivings about her new home and confides in him about her pregnancy. This touching moment only becomes more painful in retrospect given Tracy’s fate, so chances are you may not have paid too much attention to the diner itself.
However, viewers who have watched a little more closely might find the diner looks familiar. This could be because the very same location, the Quality Coffee Shop in Los Angeles, is featured in another acclaimed police drama, 2001’s Training Day. Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke’s characters first meet at the same diner, sit in the next booth, and are even shot from the same angle.
2. It opened on the same day as Showgirls (and performed a great deal better)
Seven was one of the most talked-about and provocative movies of 1995, but it opened back-to-back with another provocative adult-oriented drama which gained notoriety for altogether different reasons: Showgirls. That’s right, director Paul Verhoeven’s infamous Las Vegas melodrama was released to cinemas on the very same day as David Fincher’s intense psychological thriller.
Seven wound up saving Fincher’s directing career, but Showgirls had very much the opposite effect on Verhoeven’s. A critical and commercial disaster, it was widely derided as one of the worst films ever made, and had a negative impact on everyone involved (not least actress Elizabeth Berkley). Even so, with time Showgirls came to be rediscovered as a so-bad-it’s-good classic.
1. Gwyneth Paltrow once dressed as her Seven character for Halloween
Gwyneth Paltrow has enjoyed her share of memorable roles over the years, not least her Oscar-winning performance in Shakespeare in Love and her recurring role as Pepper Potts in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. However, there’s still something very special about Paltrow’s role in Seven, and clearly the actress herself has never lost sight of this.
For Halloween 2017, 22 years after Seven first hit screens, Paltrow light-heartedly recreated her role of Tracy Mills in the form of one of the simplest Halloween costumes ever: a cardboard box worn over her head. Paltrow’s boyfriend Brad Falchuk made it a proper couple’s Halloween ensemble by donning an orange prison jumpsuit not unlike the one worn by Tracy’s killer John Doe.