Brad Pitt has had a hell of a film career, no one can argue that. After making women swoon as a shirtless thief in Thelma & Louise, he offered a glimpse of his scary side in Kalifornia and then became the world’s hottest vampire when Robert Pattinson was still learning his multiplication tables. Yet it wasn’t until 1995’s serial-killer thriller Seven (or Se7en, as the cool kids write it) that Pitt established himself as one of the greatest actors of his generation as Detective David Mills, an optimistic hero who unravels in astonishing fashion in an impossible-to-forget final scene. What’s more, it’s this role that won him the coveted title of Most Desirable Male at the 1996 MTV Movie Awards, so take that, Val Kilmer in Batman Forever.
Twenty years later, the final scene in Seven remains just as chilling, from Morgan Freeman’s quivering lip to Pitt screaming, “What’s in the box?!?!” and “Tell me she’s all right!” to Kevin Spacey calmly telling him, “Become wrath.” Part of the genius of Seven was that we never got, or had, to see what was in the box. Viewers never had to know more than what Freeman’s Somerset was willing to tell us: “There’s blood.”
However, if the studios and producers had their ways, Somerset would have never stood there helpless as Mills unloaded his clip into John Doe. When he wrote Seven, Andrew Kevin Walker worked at a Tower Records in New York for three years, and served as a PA on films like Blood Rush, “which was about murders in a fraternity house.” He vowed to write his way out of that record store, and when Seven finally sold, he had enough money to move to Los Angeles. And while Walker never thought that his movie would be made, his script eventually made its way to director David Fincher. Fortunately for all of us, Fincher accidentally received Walker’s original script instead of the copy with a rewritten ending, and from there, Gwyneth Paltrow’s eventual decapitation had its strongest supporter.
Where did the idea for Seven come from?
I had moved from a very suburban upbringing in Pennsylvania, so New York City, for me, was a real culture shock. I was in New York from ’86 to ’91, so it was the height of a lot of New York City-specific stuff, like the crack cocaine epidemic on the rise. It was very different from the way it is now. For example, you would never go to Times Square without being very careful.
It was also, even more than now, a time where a concise one- or two-sentence description of something was a really helpful path for explaining movies, especially because at the time there was a gigantic spec market. So the idea — “seven deadly sin murders” — was a reaction to living in New York and putting myself in a John Doe head space where you could walk down the street and see every “deadly sin” on every street corner. What if someone was so highly, over-sensitively attuned to these injustices? That’s where the idea of seven deadly sins came from. It was my way of trying to make my last week at Tower Records my last week at Tower Records. I worked at Tower for three years and every week I thought, “I’m going to write my way out of here this week.” But it obviously took some time.
Were you surprised when New Line acquired it? And were you nervous about potentially not being part of the creative process of making it?
First, a company called Penta optioned it in concert with Phyllis Carlyle, who was a manager, and then optioned it for Jeremiah Chechik, who was the director of Christmas Vacation. The first part of the process was me doing a massive rewrite, just obediently rewriting it and vastly changing the script for Jeremiah, and he really did make it very different and the ending was completely different. There was no head in the box. I do thank God that that version of it never got made because it would have been a very different path for me in my life. But after that option period went by and New Line acquired it, I remember very specifically the first time I went to Anne Kopelson’s office and sat down with this director, David Fincher, who I had only known as the director of Alien 3. And Fincher, in every possible way, completely changed my life, including allowing me to participate in the creative process.
Fincher was originally sent the first draft that I had written, and he reacted very favorably to it when he spoke to Arnold Kopelson. And they said, “Oh no no no no no David, we sent you the wrong draft.” So they sent him the Jeremiah Checknick draft I had rewritten, and Fincher was like, “No, I don’t want to do this, I want to go back to that first draft.” That was the seed that was planted that ended up saving the movie, in my opinion. Fincher valued my opinion throughout the process of rewriting it.
Fincher does this incredible thing that you don’t always get in the process of rewriting for someone, he listens and he just made the entire process an incredibly great and positive experience. He, along with Mike De Luca and Brad Pitt and Morgan and Kevin Spacey, fought-fought-fought to save that ending, and they are the reason that that ending was maintained and is the ending that’s in the movie. Without them, no one was going to listen to me, the lowly screenwriter — that’s just the way it goes.
What did you think of the casting, and what Brad Pitt, Morgan and Kevin Spacey brought to it?
I thought they were absolutely incredible. Morgan, to state the obvious, is one of the greatest actors absolutely ever. As soon as they mentioned him, you couldn’t even believe that he would consider it. Brad was phenomenal and it was just an amazing time for him, because we were making it and I believe Interview with the Vampire came out, or it may have been that Seven was getting made soon after Legends of the Fall had come out, so that was very exciting. Kevin Spacey was, and is, absolutely phenomenal and it’s incredible that he agreed to have his credit be at the end of the movie so that you wouldn’t be sitting there as an audience member and see Kevin Spacey’s name go by and go, “Oh, where’s Kevin Spacey?” Knowing from the very first moment that he must be the hidden killer would have so knocked the whole thing off balance.
No one could imagine it with any other ending because that ending is so gripping. What did they have you change it to?
[Laughs.] I don’t want to go into it too much because looking back on it I just go, “Why did I rewrite this for them?” Why didn’t I just storm off and say, “Look, I won’t rewrite this, this changes it too much”? But the thing to remember is if I didn’t stick around then I likely wouldn’t have been around when it came back around to Fincher. I’ll just say that it involved, as I remember it, an abandoned church and the seven deadly sins were depicted in a kind of tableau of paintings, and I don’t believe there was any head in the box or anything, there was just a confrontation in an abandoned church. It sounds like the end of Batman.
The head in the box really scared a lot of people creatively along the way, people who were deciding whether to make this movie, deciding whether to put money into this movie. Mike De Luca at New Line championed it, but there were other voices in the process saying, “What if the guy drives out in the end and there’s a box and you open the box and there’s a TV monitor that shows that Gwyneth Paltrow’s character is in jeopardy, but then we can save her,” that kind of thing. So, like I say, thank God for Fincher, thank God for Brad, thank God for Morgan, thank God for De Luca, thank God for Kevin Spacey, thank God for all the people who dug their heels in and said, “Look, this is the ending that’s appropriate.”
There’s nothing wrong with up endings, it’s just that the dark ending of Seven was what it was about. To change the ending to something else was to remove the very heart of the story. It’s about “optimist Mills,” Brad Pitt’s character, going up against this pessimistic kind of world-weary detective in Somerset, Morgan Freeman’s character. Those dramatically-opposed points of view are pushing and pulling each other throughout the story. And then once pessimism is confirmed, even to the optimist who’s been arguing that the fight is always worth fighting, will the pessimist in the light of confirmation of all his worst predictions, will he stay or will he walk away?
The other thing is Seven opened and it did all right moneywise. But the thing that was really surprising was that the next weekend it went through that week and it had very little drop-off. And it sustained for three or four weeks very close to where it had started. I really do think that a lot of that had to do with the fact that the ending had provided an experience that I think is incredibly valuable — but these days is a little bit devalued — and that giving the audience an appropriate and earned ending that is surprising is really a pretty rare thing.
The ending probably had some people arguing about it when they left the theater, or having a conversation about it when they were at the coffee shop afterward. I do thank God that the ending was maintained thanks to these people.
Do you think it would be possible to keep Kevin Spacey’s role a secret today?
I think you can still probably do it, it’s just, there’s always going to be a relatively small group who might go out, find the script, and read it. Within that group certain things might be revealed if the source material or the movie that’s being made is something that is particularly kind of famous or infamous. Then word of the content might spread. Once upon a time it was a small group of super film nerds. It’s probably gotten much larger because of the internet, but it’s just that movies hit such a mass market. There’s always going to be certain people who are going to be kept in the dark, which is a great thing.
My whole thing right now: For a movie that I know I’m going to go see, I try to avoid seeing the trailer because it’s just such a different, wonderful experience. I managed to do it with Mad Max: Fury Road where every time the trailer came on I’d change the channel, I’d close my eyes, I’d plug up my ears. When I walked into Mad Max: Fury Road I had not seen one single frame of it. I just knew that I loved George Miller and I knew I wanted to see it, and I loved it. I feel like it was so much more a unique experience from avoiding the trailers at all costs. Nowadays, I think you can keep certain secrets but you have to work so much harder to do it. And I know of a couple of them in certain scripts that I’ve worked on, that we’ve managed to keep the scripts out of everyone’s hands. It’s just harder to do.
What was it like for you to play a dead person in your own film?
I enjoyed it to a certain extent. I’m the very first corpse, a person in my underpants lying in a pool of blood. I’m the very first body in the scene that Morgan walks in on and I love doing that kind of thing, but I’m very nervous about it. I get really worked up about screwing up the crew’s day or not getting the thing that Fincher, or whomever, wants.
The funny thing about playing the corpse in Seven, which wasn’t very funny at the time, was I had kind of quit smoking around that time, so I was vibrating on a certain unusual frequency for myself and when I laid down, they had rebuilt some of the set to reshoot this insert of the body, me, laying there. I knew they had gone through the expense to rebuild this corner of the set, they had me lay down and poured all this cold blood around me, and the minute I laid down and they put the blood on, I knew that I couldn’t move. So I had a massive panic attack that I managed to breath myself out of and calm myself, but it was just one of those situations where I was like, “If I stand up I’m going to ruin this for everyone. I can’t stand up. Oh, I absolutely have to stand up.” Luckily, they did it pretty quickly and I managed to maintain laying still. If you see those few frames of me laying there in that pool of blood in that first crime scene Morgan’s investigating, just know that I was having a horrible panic attack.
How do you feel knowing that the film is still held in such high regard and considered such a great thriller?
I think that’s a nice, humbling counterbalance. I know a lot of people hate Seven and think it’s just garbage, so it’s good to be humbled in that way. I’m really proud of it, but I feel like the success of that movie, in my opinion, the credit for that belongs squarely on David Fincher’s shoulders. Looking back at the time that’s passed, I feel extremely lucky that they never managed to make a sequel to it, which there have been people who’ve tried for a while. I’ve been lucky that they’ve not managed to make a prequel to it, which, in my opinion, sucks all of the kind of meaning and energy out of who and what John Doe represents. I love that it’s still a standalone piece.
The ending of Seven would not be nearly what it was if not for what I consider the end of the second act, where John Doe turns himself in. The fact that John Doe turns himself in steals a lot of the satisfaction away from not just the characters in the movie but the audience, and it put them in a very uncomfortable, off-kilter position as they, along with the other characters in the movie, proceed into the third act. It was just like, what can we do that still works for the story but that’s going to pull the rug out from under the audience, and as the audience is kind of getting back to their feet, let the ending, as Fincher once described it, be like the audience walked into a buzz saw? Those things work hand in glove.
What would your reaction be if a studio decided to remake Seven?
Half-jokingly my reaction would be, why don’t we leave Seven alone and I think it’s time to go re-make 8MM, which I would love to do. But if they want to make Seven into a TV show, if they want to make Seven into a cartoon — there was a comic book exploring John Doe’s character, which I think is not an interesting exploration — you don’t have any control over it. You just have to go with the flow. But it’s been nice that it’s been this movie that has not be remade or sequelized or prequelized. That’s been terrific.