Looking back at a masterpiece in the crime genre

Twenty-five years back a creative team consisting of an unproven director and a novice screenwriter churned out what would become one of modern cinema’s greatest genre classics, with 1995’s Se7en. The 90s was a decade saturated with serial-killer whodunits, a trend which was jump-started with the unexpected success of Jonathan Demme’s award winning tour-de-forceThe Silence of the Lambs in 1991. So even with the involvement of two high-profile actors like Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt, Se7en didn’t garner much attention until things turned upside-down with its release. But let’s rewind the clock back to the very beginning and explore how this dark, neo-noir crime drama first came to be.

In the early 90s, Andrew Kevin Walker was a struggling screenwriter based in New York city, trying to catch a break. A graduate of Penn State’s film programme, Walker relocated to the Big Apple with hopes of getting better job opportunities, but eventually ended up in a career in retail at Tower Records to make ends meet.

Morgan Freeman

Brad Pitt
David Fincher

Gwyneth Paltrow

Kevin Spacey

Hammered to the point of desperation and utterly depressed, he crafted an exceedingly bleak script about a hunt for a serial-killer who uses the seven deadly sins as inspiration for his heinous acts. Satisfied with his output, Walker then moved to Los Angeles to sell his screenplay. There he contacted fellow screenwriter David Koepp in an attempt to reach out to any studio who would be interested taking a second glance at his effort. At that point Koepp had become a reputed screenwriter, having worked on such films like Death Becomes Her, Jurassic Park and Carlito’s Way. One look at Walker’s script and Koepp saw its potential, quickly putting it across to his agent who found a buyer in New Line Cinema. He also suggested that Walker seek professional help, considering the overtly dark nature of Se7en’s narrative.

Following his frustrating experience working on Alien 3 for 20th Century Fox, director David Fincher had almost given up working on mainstream cinema. “I thought I’d rather die of colon cancer than do another movie,” Fincher once quipped, reflecting on the bitter ordeal he endured helming a franchise film for a major studio. Because of this he didn’t even bother reading a single script sent his way for over one year. The ending of the original draft penned by Walker, which included the notorious head-in-the-box finale, was rejected by New Line in favour of a more conventional, Hollywoodized ending with action elements.

However, by a queer quirk of fate, the version of the script that ended up on Fincher’s doorstep was a copy of the original script. Naturally, Fincher was immediately drawn to the project thanks to Walker’s unconventional approach to the genre and the doozy of an ending he had written. When New Line realized their mistake, it was too late as both Fincher and his lead star Brad Pitt refused to do the film unless the head-in-the-box scene was retained in the theatrical cut. After his own depressing affair on the set of Legends of the Fall, where studio heads intervened to remove the film’s emotional conclusion after it received negative feedback from test audiences, Pitt was determined to ensure that Se7en didn’t suffer the same fate.

In the early stages of production, veteran Academy award winners Al Pacino and Denzel Washington were considered for the roles of Detective Somerset and Mills respectively. Pacino declined as he was already scheduled to the 1996 film City Hall and Washington turned down the offer since he deemed the film too “dark and evil.” Washington however regretted his decision upon seeing a screening of Se7en later on. Robert Duvall and Gene Hackman weren’t too keen on playing the role of Somerset and they too passed on their offers. Fincher, who was impressed with Gwyneth Paltrow’s work in 1993’s Flesh and Bone, wanted her for the role of Tracy. Because of Paltrow’s initial disinterest Fincher persuaded her then boyfriend Brad Pitt to convince her to meet him. Fincher succeeded in the task, and secured the impressive cast of Freeman, Pitt and Paltrow for the film’s lead roles. What was left was to cast the movie’s villain.

In a brilliant publicity move, Fincher kept the involvement of actor Kevin Spacey under wraps until the film was released. Undoubtedly, the film’s pièce de résistance, Spacey’s role as Se7en’s twisted antagonist John Doe proved to be a real shocker since the audience never saw it coming. As the third leading actor to appear in the film after Freeman and Pitt, the deliberate decision to keep Spacey’s name off all promotional material for the movie made his eventual revelation that much more effective. With a stacked cast now in place, the talented auteur next moved on to assembling a crew that would help him realize his singular vision for the film.

Fincher’s approach to the film was akin to making a small-scale genre movie, “the kind of film Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist.” Being fastidious in nature, the filmmaker had a specific aesthetic he wanted for Se7en which was that of a black-and-white film in colour. In order to accomplish his goal, he hired Iranian-French cinematographer Darius Khondji who was more known for lensing stunning perfume commercials.

Rising up to the challenge Khondji created a delicate bleaching process that retained the silver in the prints, which produced the blackest of blacks. Production designer Arthur Max too played an instrumental role in creating the immersive, visually striking world which the narrative’s characters inhabited. Fincher wanted the film’s immediate environment and its surroundings – replete with waste choked streets, oppressive rain and urban cacophony – to be a character of its own. Using classics like Alan J. Pakula’s Klute and Harold Becker’s Malice as visual references suggested by Fincher, Max was able to create the hellish urban sprawl of Se7en. “We created a setting that reflects the moral decay of the people in it,” says Max. “Everything is falling apart, and nothing is working properly.” Film composer Howard Shore, who went on to receive critical acclaim for his stellar work in the Lord of the Rings franchise, heightened the suspenseful atmosphere further through his musical contribution.

To this day one of the most memorable facets of Se7en is its revolutionary title-sequence. Originally Fincher intended to use a montage of Somerset purchasing a house in a remote country area before travelling back to the city for the title sequence. Due to budgetary constraints however, the director hired the services of a Yale University art graduate Kyle Cooper to create something cost-effective and visually striking instead.

Using pages from John Doe’s handwritten notebooks, created as props for the film, he conceived a sequence that resembled a slideshow set to a remix of Nine-Inch Nails’ Closer. Blown away with the output Fincher told Cooper to expand on it in such a way so that the antagonist’s involvement is incorporated on a more personal level. Cooper reworked the idea, integrating more disturbing imagery, new props and footage inspired by Doe’s twisted behaviour like cutting his fingertips. The end result? A seminal piece of work that would inspire countless copycats and get under the skin of audiences the world over.

So, what madeSe7en the definitive murder mystery detective thriller, inevitably relegating all others of the genre as redundant? Well, to start off Se7en features some of the most immersive homicide crime-scenes ever put to film. Each crime-scene is a literal embodiment of one of the seven deadly sins in Christian theology. The sheer brutality of every murder, expounds the grisly repercussions of indulging in these cardinal vices. It makes one pause and think about the consequences of one’s actions, both good and bad. The very sins that we feel comfortable to gloss over on a daily basis are surgically dissected and their dark ramifications laid bare for us to see. The graphic nature of the crime-scenes contributes to their memorability, despite the horrifying violence taking place off-screen.

Another detail that makes the murders unforgettable is that nothing at face value is told regarding the crime-scenes we are introduced to. We follow the two detectives in their journey as they piece together each distinct piece of puzzle and reconstruct what has taken place. It is a brilliant method which makes the audience invest more in the story, as it unfolds. ‘Show, don’t tell. Less, is more.’ That’s the watchword here. The nameless city itself is a character of its own, as I mentioned earlier. It is a filthy reflection of its inhabitants. A devil’s playground smothered by sins and vice. It’s not just some fictional bubble-city that exists for the sole purpose of the narrative, but something more.

Kevin Spacey’s John Doe is another singular aspect of the film that made an indelible impression on the collective audience. He is a deranged psychopath who’s committed unspeakable horrors, but there’s a clear understandable reason for his actions. As an audience, we never find the justifications for his murders agreeable or logical, but we understand why he does what he does. Coupled with a chilling performance by Spacey and Kevin Walker’s incredible writing, and we have one of the most memorable movie villains seen in film.

As soon asSe7en was released in 1995, a string of copycats followed. Films like Along Came a Spider, The Bone Collector and The Pledge were released over the course of the next few years to middling and disappointing effect. Nothing could top the original in terms of concept, innovation, originality and execution, that much was abundantly obvious. Being the seventh highest grossing film of 1995, naturally the studio wanted a sequel to their hit film. A spec script drafted by writer Ted Griffin was entertained as a potential sequel toSe7en (titled Ei8ht, no less) but was later developed into its own film in 2015 called Solace, starring the Silence of the Lambs man-eater Anthony Hopkins himself. A seven-issue limited edition comic book story arc told from the perspective of the film’s antagonist John Doe was also published in 2006 by Zenescope Entertainment.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, or so they say, but in this instance, I think we can all agree that nothing comes close to the original. (Flickering Myth)

(Hasitha Fernando is a part-time medical practitioner and full-time cinephile. Follow him on Twitter via @DoctorCinephile for regular updates on the world of entertainment.)



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