While the 1980s were all about the cinematic mass murderer as a mute, emotionless entity, the 1990s were a good time to peddle screenplays about high-IQ serial killers: The Silence of the Lambs started the decade by becoming one of the few thrillers to ever receive a Best Picture Oscar. But with audience fatigue setting in, few expected that 1995’s Se7en—from a first-time screenwriter and an as-yet-unproven director—would turn out to be a modern genre classic.
1. Se7en came from the mind of a record store employee.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker was a graduate of Penn State’s film program. Several years later, however, he was no closer to achieving his goal of working in the industry. Making ends meet at a New York City Tower Records store, Walker was so depressed that he wrote a bleak and oppressive script about the hunt for a killer who uses the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his crimes.
Satisfied with the outcome, he sent the script to professional writer David Koepp, then followed up with a phone call. Koepp agreed to send it to his agent, who found a buyer in New Line Cinema. (After reading it, Koepp also advised Walker that he "needed professional help.")
2. David Fincher signed on to direct Se7en because of a mix-up.
With only the disappointing experience of Alien 3 under his feature directing belt, David Fincher knew he wasn’t going to get too many more chances to impress Hollywood. He chose Se7en because of its unconventional approach to the genre—particularly the finale, which featured Brad Pitt’s detective character finding that the killer, “John Doe,” had beheaded his wife and stuffed her cranium into a box. Producers wanted the ending changed so that the wife lived, but when Fincher expressed interest in the film, he was accidentally sent Walker’s earlier, more intense climax. Fincher told the studio that was the draft he intended to shoot; they agreed, although producer Arnold Kopelson continued to argue against it throughout filming.
3. Brad Pitt worked himself to the bone on Se7en.
During a scene in which Pitt’s character, Detective David Mills, is chasing the killer through a perpetually rainy backdrop, Pitt slipped and drove his arm through a windshield. The resulting injury (a severed tendon) was so deep it went down to the bone. Pitt had to wear a cast for the rest of filming, which was written into the script; for scenes that had to be shot that took place earlier than the chase, the actor had to conceal his arm as best he could.
4. Se7en’s "Sloth" was a very, very underweight young man.
To cast the role of a victim who was chained to a bed and starved, producers had only two criteria: the ability to lay down for long periods of time and a very slight frame. At 98 pounds, actor Michael Reid MacKay fit the profile. Mostly. “They asked if I could lose a little more weight,” he said. “I didn’t.”
5. Se7en’s “Greed” didn't know what he was in for.
Actor Gene Borkan answered a casting call looking for a smarmy lawyer type. It wasn’t until he arrived on set that he realized he was going to spend his time naked, covered in blood, and acting like a corpse. "Right there and then I renegotiated," he said, asking for (and getting) five times the Screen Actors Guild day-scale fee of $522, as well as a pair of underwear.
6. Most of Se7en’s violence happens off-screen.
Despite extended examinations of tortured, bloated, or insect-infested corpses, virtually all of the actual bloodletting in Se7en takes place before Detectives Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and Mills arrive on the scene. The film’s lone on-camera murder happens only when Mills kills Doe for murdering his wife.
7. Even Se7en’s title sequence was revolutionary.
Fincher originally intended to open the film with scenes of Detective Somerset visiting a home in the country and taking the train back. But when Fincher had to screen a rough cut for studio executives, he needed some filler. That’s when he called Kyle Cooper, a Yale graduate who created a kinetic opening montage of John Doe’s journals set to a Nine Inch Nails song. The New York Times hailed Cooper’s work as a step forward in filmmaking; the designer would go on to high-profile projects including the Spider-Man series and Dawn of the Dead. His work was so compelling, director Zack Snyder once said that some directors refuse to use him because he “makes title sequences better than the movie.”
8. Se7en opened against Showgirls.
Se7en opened in theaters September 22, 1995, the same day as director Paul Verhoeven’s critically reviled Showgirls. While the latter was not the complete commercial disaster it’s often remembered as—Se7en made $13 million in its first weekend, compared to $8 million for the NC-17 film—it came nowhere near Fincher’s worldwide take of more than $327 million dollars.
9. Morgan Freeman was supposed to shoot the killer in Se7en.
Walker and Fincher toyed with the idea of having Freeman’s Detective Somerset shoot John Doe after finding his partner’s wife’s head in a box, but Pitt vetoed the idea: he figured anyone who found their loved one like that would put a bullet into the perpetrator without a second thought.
10. Brad Pitt made sure Gwyneth Paltrow's head stayed in the box in Se7en.
After a bad experience where studio heads intervened on Legends of the Fall, Pitt was determined to make sure Se7en didn’t suffer the same fate. When he signed on to the film, he insisted that the original “head in a box” ending stayed intact. New Line agreed, but after testing the film, Pitt found himself having to put his foot down. “They go, ‘You know, he would be much more heroic if he didn’t shoot John Doe—and it’s too unsettling with the head in the box,’” Pitt recalled in 2011. "'We think maybe if it was the dog’s head in the box ...'"
11. Audiences swore they saw Gwyneth Paltrow’s head in Se7en.
As with Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and its legendary shower scene, audiences believed they were shown more than they were. Viewers came out of the film believing the severed head of actress Gwyneth Paltrow, who played Pitt’s wife, appeared onscreen. It did not. “The thing I appreciated about it and what I thought Andrew Kevin Walker’s script did so well was that it got your mind in overdrive,” Fincher told Playboy in 2014. “It worked on your imagination … we were in great shape and didn’t have to show the head in a box.” Despite his protests, Fincher has gotten into at least one argument with someone who swears they saw it.
12. Se7en inspired a comic book.
In 2006, Zenescope Entertainment acquired a license to produce a seven-part limited series based on John Doe’s fascination with the seven deadly sins. “Pages” of the journal glimpsed in the film were included. The title lasted seven issues.
13. Naturally, the studio wanted a sequel to Se7en.
Despite the closed nature of the film’s ending—Pitt’s character is probably headed for either prison or a mental institution—New Line wanted to build on what they thought could become a franchise. The studio took a spec script titled Solace about a psychic investigating a serial killer, and had it retrofitted for Freeman’s Detective Somerset. The project never moved forward with Freeman; Solace was eventually released—with former Hannibal Lecter Anthony Hopkins—in 2015.
This story has been updated for 2020.