By Sven Mikulec
Slightly more than 22 years ago, David Fincher, a talented filmmaker who made music videos and commercials and was left by his directorial stint on his first feature Alien 3 so disillusioned and bitter he felt “he’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie,” stumbled upon a script that would renew his faith in the filmmaking business. This particular piece was written by Andrew Kevin Walker, and was deemed too dark and bleak to succeed. The story was largely shaped by Walker’s experience of living in New York City for a couple of years, where he felt alienated, lonely and unhappy. Desperately trying to get his story made, Walker agreed to rewrite the screenplay on the demand of director Jeremiah Chechik (Christmas Vacation), and it was this altered version that should have ended up in Fincher’s hands. But the studio made a mistake, delivering Walker’s original piece to Fincher, who was immediately intrigued and, even when the mistake was explained, chose to insist on the utter darkness Walker envisioned. By mere happenstance, therefore, Se7en found its director and made the first, crucial step on its way to cinematic immortality.
The story of two detectives trying to solve a series of murders inspired by the seven deadly sins might have ended up as your gimmicky, run-of-the-mill predictable thriller. Even the two protagonists—a seasoned veteran cop with decades of experience and a sense of serene disillusionment with the darkness he witnesses on a daily basis, agrees to take a young, hot-tempered, optimistic detective under his wing, a man naively convinced he can make a real difference in a world of depressing indifference—are a certain kind of trope that had been explored countless times in a variety of genres, especially in buddy cop action comedies. But if this formulaic plot and predetermined, plainly distinguishable characters are put in the hands of a filmmaker who acknowledges that the true power of this particular story lies not so much in the action but the psychology and atmosphere, and great actors—Freeman, Spacey and Pitt—capable of making even cardboard cutouts seem alive, deep and believable, then magic can indeed happen. And it did: Se7en still stands out as of the most exciting, most devastating and definitely most memorable thrillers Hollywood has produced in the last half a century. For such a hauntingly terrifying and gut-wrenching piece of mainstream entertainment, it’s surprising to note the film even garnered an Academy Award nomination (for best editing—lost to Apollo 13), as well as almost universal critical acclaim. A solid marketing campaign and exceptional word-of-mouth promotion led Se7en to become, funnily enough, the seventh highest-grossing film of the year, earning 327 million dollars on a ten times smaller budget. Needless to say, the film opened doors for Fincher, who allegedly told his main stars this film probably wasn’t the one they would be remembered for, but might be the one they would be proud of. It turned out he was only partially right, as Se7en stands tall in all of these great actors’ filmographies.
The film impresses with its visuals: the darkness was accentuated by a chemical process applied to the film stock, in which the silver wasn’t removed and hence deepened the shadows and helped set the unique visual tone. The master behind the camera was the Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji (Delicatessen, The City of Lost Children). Fincher stated the camerawork was inspired by the 1988 TV series C.O.P.S., where the camera also took the role of a bystander lurking behind the characters’ shoulders. The Academy Award-nominated editing was provided by Richard Francis-Bruce (The Shawshank Redemption, The Rock), while Howard Shore composed the original score. Solid supporting roles came from John C. McGinley, R. Lee Ermey (who originally auditioned for the role of John Doe) and Richard Roundtree. It’s interesting to note that Se7en would have had a whole other sort of a dynamic and feel to it had the two lead parts gone to the original choices: Morgan Freeman’s Somerset was offered to Al Pacino, who passed on the offer due to scheduling conflicts, while Brad Pitt’s Mills was rejected by Denzel Washington, who considered the picture just too dark for his taste, later regretting the decision.
Despite the fact Se7en is elevated by supreme acting performances and Fincher’s masterful direction which builds up the tension, as well as expert storytelling, where the filmmaker manages to almost effortlessly disgust and disturb us with only a single murder actually occurring on screen (and, as all of you who’ve seen the film know, this killing is all but gruesome), what makes Se7en one of our favorites is the way the location of the plot plays a crucial role in the story as a whole. The setting, a purposefully unnamed metropolis immersed into darkness and drenched in constant, relentless drizzle, is just as vivid a character in this film as are the detectives or the serial killer. The overall bleakness of the huge city superbly connects with the notions of moral decay and the complete indifference of the society. This leads us to the other reason Se7en is so loved here at C&B: the character of John Doe, whose screen time is disproportional to his overall significance for the story. The sadistic murderer portrayed brilliantly subtly by Kevin Spacey is a brutal, uncompromising but highly intelligent and placid man who voluntarily takes on the assignment of purging the city of sin, carrying out a number of hideous killings as if they are the integral part of a mission handed to him by God of the Old Testament: unforgiving, merciless, eager to teach humanity a lesson. In some way, the whole weight of the film lies on Spacey’s shoulders, and had a lesser actor been given this kind of a responsibility, Se7en would have probably crumbled to pieces.
With my first movie, Alien 3, I had to get permission for everything, but my second movie, Seven, was my movie, Andy Walker’s movie, Brad Pitt’s, Morgan Freeman’s and Kevin Spacey’s movie. I didn’t look to anyone for permission. I made a pact with [studio boss] Michael De Luca and just said, “Dude, the audience wants a revelation. I’m going deep. It’s $34 million and fuck it.” He was a thousand percent there, even when push came to shove and we went $3 million over budget. We gave the audience a revelation with Brad and Morgan and by throwing in Gwyneth Paltrow, whom people had seen a bit of. It was the alchemy of those faces, those careers and the ascendance of different talents in that period. I’d direct Seven in a different way today. I would have a lot more fun. It was only by the time I did Zodiac or Benjamin Button that I knew what I was doing. —David Fincher
The much-discussed “what’s in the box” scene should be a topic of a completely separate article. The scene where the serial killer reveals to Detective Mills who the victim of the penultimate murder really was is one of the most quoted ones in cinema history, but it took a little miracle for it to be shot in the first place. This gloomy, petrifying sequence—executed without a hint of gore—was, in fact, the main obstacle on Andrew Kevin Walker’s script’s path to the silver screen. Producer Arnold Kopelson (Platoon, The Fugitive) wanted it out, insisted on a happier ending, wanted positive emotions, optimism, at least some sort of justice. But Fincher, Pitt and Freeman held their ground, agreeing only to shoot an ending with Freeman’s narration that holds at least a fraction of hope, serving as nothing more than a small consolation to the devastated audience. As we stated earlier, Fincher was determined not to let Alien 3 happen again: he wanted complete creative control and a zero amount of studio interventionism. That he was right with sticking with Walker’s original ending can be seen today in the stature of Se7en, a movie hailed as one of the best thrillers of the period. The truth is, it would have definitely been only a shadow of itself had the ending been any different.
A monumentally important screenplay. Screenwriter/filmmaker must-read: Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for Seven [PDF1, PDF2, PDF3, PDF4]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
One of our favorite screenwriters, Andrew Kevin Walker, dissects his bleak thriller masterpiece, Se7en and working with director David Fincher to create the cult classic film.
The following is an excerpt from Empire 80 (February 1996), written by Mark Salisbury, ‘Seventh Hell.’
“I didn’t know what was going to happen at the end” he recalls of reading Andrew Kevin Walker’s script, “or I kind of thought to myself, ‘Well maybe this could happen but they’ll never do that, they’ll never do that to these guys in this movie, it’s just not the Hollywood way to do it…’ I like the fact that the movie was so ruthless. I got twenty pages into it and I thought, ‘Oh God, it’s just a buddy movie, and it’s like I’m the last person in the world to do one, because I don’t understand them, but them all of the sudden it took this turn, and I found myself getting more and more trapped in this kind of evil, and although I felt uncomfortable about being there, I had to keep going.”
“The icing on the cake was when John Doe (the killer) gives himself up. I was holding the script so I knew how many pages were left in the movie and I thought, ‘Holy shit, if I’m sitting in a theater, this movie could go on for another hour, this could be the middle of the movie.’ It made me very uncomfortable.” Indeed, Se7en has probably the most depressing ending to any mainstream Hollywood film. Fincher hoots with laughter when I mention this. “Excellent,” he trills, “most movies these days don’t make you feel anything so if you can make people feel something… I just felt so much at the end, and I also felt the movie hearkened to these kind of weird movies of the early seventies, it just sort of reminded me of Klute and Vanishing Point and to have this sort of we-don’t-know-exactly-what-we’re-doing-but-it-could-be-a-movie kind of attitude to it.”
It’s an ending that very nearly didn’t make it to the screen at all. “I called my agent and said, ‘This movie, are they going to make this? I mean, have you read this thing?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I read it.’ And I said, ‘There’s this fucking head in the box at the end, it’s just amazing. Are they really going to do this?’ And he said, ‘No, you’ve got the wrong draft.’ So they sent me the right draft and there was this big chase at the end to get to the bathroom where the wife’s taking a shower and the serial killer’s crawling through the window.” Fincher, you can tell, wasn’t much impressed with ending number two. “I said, ‘This is just crap, the first one is much better.’” And so Fincher went to bat for the script’s original climax. The one with the head in the box. “I went in to talk to (Michael) De Luca (from New Line) and said, ‘The head in the box, that’s the cool ending,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, I thought so too, let’s go make that version.’”
Having convinced the studio, the only other person left to persuade was the film’s producer, Arnold Kopelson. “He said, ‘There’s no way that there will be a head in the box at the end of this movie, there is absolutely no way that that will ever happen, don’t even talk to me about that,’” laughs Fincher, “and I said, ‘Arnold in fifty years from now, there’s going to be a bunch of twenty-five-to- thirty-year-olds at a party and one of them is going to say, ‘Remember when you were like fifteen and that movie was on TV, I don’t even know who was in it, but at the end there’s this head in the box and the guy drives up in the middle of the desert,’ and everybody’s going to go, ‘Oh yeah, I loved that movie.’ That’s how this movie is going to be remembered, so how can you cut the head in the box?’ And he said, ‘You’re right.’ He thinks in terms of like immorality.”
If someone asked you to think of a serial killer movie, chances are you’ll probably come up with The Silence of the Lambs. It’s all about a serial killer, after all, but the comparisons end there. Silence, as good as it is, never strays out of thriller territory. Moreover, there is something perversely appealing about Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter. He may be a mass murderer, but he’s a charming one. He may escape custody at the end, but he’s off to murder the person you least like in the film, so that’s all right then. It’s a cinematic escape valve. Se7en, on the other hand, has no escape valve. No opportunity for the audience to let off steam. “I wanted it to be tough,” insists Fincher. “First you thought it was gonna be a cop movie, then you thought it was gonna be a thriller, and then at the end it’s really a horror movie—It’s the fucking Exorcist, you don’t have any control over this, you’re just along for the ride.”
“From the time he fucking opens the box and Morgan’s running to Brad and the killer, it’s like you realize that the end of this movie’s been written in stone and it’s been there for like eight or nine hours and you don’t have any choice. All of a sudden it became a horror movie, it’s like how do you deal with circumstances way beyond your control?” “You’re in the water and there’s a shark and you can’t swim faster than it can, or you’re in a spaceship and there’s a fucking monster running around and you can’t go outside. And here’s a man and the fate of his wife has been decided and it’s just a question of how he’s going to deal with it. It started off being a buddy movie, in the middle it becomes a thriller but they never really get in front of the train, and they thought the thriller ending was going to come and you just totally sucker punch ’em and hit ’em with a horror movie and I thought that was cool… just kind of fuck with their ideas of what entertainment should be.”
Entertainment? Se7en? Surely the two words are anathema. “I don’t know how much movies should entertain,” muses Fincher. “To me I’m always interested in movies that scar. The thing I love about Jaws is the fact that I’ve never gone swimming in the ocean again. I was like twelve when I saw Jaws and I was like, ‘Good God!’ It was amazing.” With Se7en, Fincher manages to fuck with your mind, and your preconceptions, from the word go. The opening credits are like a demented pop video, scored by David Bowie. It’s an amazingly apt portent. “The only way to do that in two minutes was to do something that was fucking really abstract, made up. It had to travel a pretty good distance ’cause you had to establish, basically, that somebody was out there and they were pretty fucked up. Also we wanted people to know that this was not Legends of the Fall. If you thought this was Legends of the Fall you were in the wrong theater.”
Ah yes, Brad Pitt, who proves once and for all that he’s not just a pretty boy but a rather fine actor, too—even if he is blown off the screen by Morgan Freeman’s world-weary seen-it-all-before cop on the verge of retirement. Pitt, Fincher recalls, wasn’t his immediate choice in the role of the young detective. “I had always seen somebody who was more sort of a fuck-up,” explains Fincher, “and CAA said you should just meet with Pitt, he’s really interested in this. We had lunch and he definitely saw the guy that way too, but he also had this amazing ability to say anything and you don’t hold it against him. “He was incredibly enthusiastic and I told him, ‘This is not a major thing. This is a minor movie for everybody involved—and that’s how we’ve got to keep looking at it. It’s a little, tiny minor movie and it’s just an experiment to let everybody do what they do and everybody invest in these people, and hopefully we can trick an audience into loving them or being fascinated by them, but it’s going to be gritty, little, hand-held, fucked-up, scrungy cop movie…’ and he was like, ‘I’m in. I want to do it.’”
In the pivotal role of Pitt’s wife, Fincher cast Pitt’s real-life girlfriend, Gwyneth Paltrow, who he had first seen starring in Flesh and Bone. “She was my first choice, and everybody said, ‘You’ll never get her— she’s too picky, she doesn’t want to play the cop’s wife, she’s not interested in doing this stuff, this is too dark.’ “We tried to get a costume designer that I had worked with before and she said no, I won’t be involved in this movie, and a lot of agents said I’m not going to send this to my client because it’s evil and misogynistic and everybody kept saying, ‘Gwyneth’s not going to do it.’ “We saw probably a hundred people for it and had a couple who were really fine and finally Brad called her and asked her to come in, not to read, but to meet and I remember telling Arnold to watch this girl. He hadn’t seen Flesh and Bone and she came in and she sat down for about two seconds and said, ‘Do you have a rest room?’ and she walked into the restroom and closed the door and Arnold said, ‘She’s perfect…’”
In retrospect, directing a $50 million sequel to two of the most influential and well-loved science fiction films of the last twenty years probably wasn’t the easiest option as a debut movie. Especially one that went through more writers than the Bible. But it was the personal attacks that riled Fincher most. “Probably the most difficult thing about the savagery was that it wasn’t really a personal vision anyway,” recalls Fincher. “It’s not like somebody said, ‘Here’s $60 million, you can do whatever you want,’ and that’s what I came up with. It was people going, ‘Here’s $30 million and we really like your ideas but we don’t want to do any of them because they sound too expensive, and they all sound a little questionable, and that’s not what we want, we want something that looks and reads and smells like a sequel.’” Looking back, what does he think went wrong? Was it to do with the script not being right, him being young, or too many producers interfering? “It’s all that stuff,” sighs Fincher. “It was like the Gulf War. You’ve got to have cast iron balls to make those kinds of movies. That’s why most producers don’t do $50 and $60 million movies that are sequels that have stunts and monsters and special effects. If we didn’t have to live up to the other two movies, they wouldn’t have spent that much money because we would have been much freer, but there was an expectation level on every single thing… You suddenly have seven people in a room and they all have to agree on, ‘Yeah, that’s bigger than what we did last time, and that’s better,’ and any time you have to get seven people in a room to make a decision about what happens in a movie you’re going to end up with something mediocre, because seven people in fear of their jobs are only to agree on what they know works and what they’ve seen before.” Woah. Let’s backtrack a little here—the Gulf War?
Fincher nods in the affirmative. “It was a very strange thing, because none of the studio executives wanted to fly over to see what we were doing, they tried to control what was going on without actually knowing what was going on. They were sort of taking the word of a lot of people who were very terrified that they were going to lose their jobs if this thing went over budget and yet they were all sort of trying to cover their arses over the phone. So none of the people from Fox were really there, they were making these kind of blanket policy decisions about what would happen without actually knowing. ‘If that’s going to cost $138,000 then you can only have half of it.’ ‘Well, I can’t shoot the scene with only half the set.’ ‘Then you’re going to have to figure out a way…’ It was all that kind of stuff.” So what was the worst horror story? “They’re all horror stories,” he sighs. “The most horrifying thing about doing Alien 3 was realizing that the more you cared, the more they fucking had you. It was a very tough lesson to learn. The game that you have to play when you’re dealing with that kind of money is that you have to be able to walk away and go ‘Fuck it.’ Then if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. Say, ‘I don’t give a shit.’ Then you really are in a position of power.
I was totally powerless because I was so possessed to do something that would live up to the other two movies.” Rewatching Alien 3, it’s not as terrible as you might remember. It’s still a bad Alien film, but as a movie divorced of its two prequels it’s an interesting piece of work. Talking to Fincher, it’s a pity his ideas didn’t make it to the screen. “The story I told them, that got me the job, was cool. It was a fucking David Lean movie. It wasn’t about tough guys in outer space, it was about pedophiles in outer space. It was a huge movie and it was very complicated and political. There were three Lance Henriksens running around, Paul McGann was a serial killer, and at the end of the movie you had the alien running around and you’ve got three thousand storm troopers on their way. It was massive and strange and the idea of it was great. I went, ‘They gave me the work, so they’re going to let me make this movie.’ Then it was like, ‘We can’t do that, we can only have eighteen guys show up at the end.’ ‘Well, they should have some amazing kind of contraption.’ ‘Well, we can’t afford that.’ And so at a certain point they cut the fucking balls off the thing.”
Fincher grew up in Marin County, California. Down the street from George Lucas. It was, he says, a “very sunny and happy and very safe environment, although for about six to eight months, the Zodiac Killer was around so we were all being followed by the Californian Highway Patrol in our little yellow school buses, but that was kind of the only thing to break the idyllic patina. It was a beautiful place to grow up.” This is important because Fincher’s two movies are both set in such gloomy, depressive, dark milieus, one could easily see them as a reflection of a deeply depressed childhood. “You’re not going to make a fucking Alien movie that has like a bunch of carousels and people selling balloons,” he grins. ‘You’re going to make a fucking Alien movie that takes place in the bowls of some hideous joint. And when you start doing research on serial killers these people don’t prey on senators, they pick off the weak and the stragglers and the runaways and the prostitutes and the people hitchhiking, and people unfortunate enough to be at a 7-Eleven at two o’clock in the morning. It takes place in a very dark world, and so it just seemed like the darkness was more in keeping with making a horror movie.”
What about the fact that it’s always raining in Se7en? Is that a reflection of six months living in England while he was making Alien 3? Fincher laughs. “No, that was really a completely pragmatic decision based on that fact that we had fifty-five days with Brad Pitt and then he was going on to Terry Gillian’s movie (Twelve Monkeys)—there were no ifs, ands, or buts about it. So, it was raining in L.A. at the time and we knew we would have to match in the exteriors stuff that was being shot interiors. Also, it was a way to make it kind of not look like Los Angeles, ’cause Los Angeles is always seen in the sun.” From the age of eight Fincher wanted to be a film director. “That’s all I wanted to do,” he says. The film that got him hooked was The Empire Strikes Back. “Fuck man, the coolest stuff being done, the most interesting application of all the processes involved in filmmaking—painting and sculpting and making models and rubber creatures—the most interesting place to get experience of that kind of stuff was at ILM.”
So rather than go to film school, Fincher started working at an animation company, loading cameras, learning the craft of filmmaking from inside out. “I’ve always been a fan of people who understand kind of everything, as a director it always seemed to me that you wanted to know so much about everything that was going on so people couldn’t bullshit you, so you could go, ‘Here’s what I want to do,’ and there couldn’t be some lazy fuck there going, ‘You can’t do that because you can’t hold focus on that.’ I wanted to be able to go, ‘That’s not true, give me a T56 and a 28mm lens and we’ll be able to hold plenty into focus.’ So I figured the best place to be would be at a special effects place.” At eighteen Fincher went to work at Lucas’s multi Oscar-winning special effects facility Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). He stayed for four years, working on Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom—“When they started work on Starman and Explorers is when I split”—before leaving to make TV commercials.
His first was shot at weekends for the American Cancer Society and featured a fetus smoking a cigarette. He then formed Propaganda and a career was born. What was the favorite pop video he directed? “I don’t like any of them. I did that stuff for very selfish reasons. I wanted to play with a certain piece of equipment or I wanted to do this little gag or that little thing. They’re like my Da Vinci sketchbook, you use to kind of fuck with something, you got to kind of play, I take everything very seriously when I’m doing it, but my attitude has always been I do my job and then try to learn to live it down.” Se7en is a film Fincher shouldn’t need to live down. The question is, will he make another? “I just want to do it really well and I want it to be stuff that I give a shit about. It’s hard to find those things that I can spend a year thinking about, but I have a couple of things that I’m interested in doing and we’ll see…”
Listen to out-of-print Criterion Collection laserdisc commentary with director David Fincher, actors Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, production designer Arthur Max, and special makeup effects artist Rob Bottin. This commentary is only available on the Criterion Collection laserdisc release of Se7en.
The second installment of The Directors Series goes into the films and career of director David Fincher, covering his major early commercial works and his breakout as a successful feature director with 1995’s Se7en.
Recalling how David Fincher first described his approach to Se7en, cinematographer Darius Khondji, AFC excitedly echoes the director’s whispered words: “It’s got to be frightening.” —The Sins of a Serial Killer
Ren Klyce is David Fincher’s go-to person for sound on practically all films he’s ever made and most likely will make. Ren Klyce along with Howard Shore and David Fincher (in brief bits) discuss the importance of sound mixing and sound design of a film. You may have the prettiest composition, but if sound isn’t right—if it’s not supplementing the image—the image will fall flat. Listen to the men discuss its importance. —Ren Klyce on sound
A look at the hidden visual effects work within David Fincher’s filmography.
Every Frame a Painting’s Tony Zhou has published a video you simply have to see. In his eight-minute analysis of David Fincher’s filmmaking technique, Tony created a brilliant insight into the craft of one of the most distinguished directors in contemporary cinema, opening a window for us to peek into the mind of a modern master. For sheer directorial craft, there are few people working today who can match David Fincher. And yet he describes his own process as “not what I do, but what I don’t do.” Join us today in answering the question: What does David Fincher not do?
David Fincher discussed his craft and career. From the BAFTA Archives. Recorded on 19 September 2014.
“Studios treat audiences like lemmings, like cattle in a stockyard. I don’t want to ask actors or anyone else on a movie to work so hard with me if the studios treat us as though we’re making Big Macs. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is not a Big Mac. Gone Girl is not a Big Mac. This TV show I’m doing about music videos in the 1980s and the crew members who worked on them, or this other show, a Sunset Boulevard set in the world of soaps—they’re not Big Macs. I don’t make Big Macs.” —David Fincher
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of David Fincher’s Se7en. Production still photographers: Peter Sorel & Darren Michaels © New Line Cinema, Cecchi Gori Pictures, Juno Pix. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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