Se7en Opening Credits Analysis Essay

Remember a time before 1995 when movies were loaded with rainbows and puppies? Strawberry ice cream poured out of every frame. Then Se7en came along. Then things got really interesting.

David Fincher’s second effort at feature filmmaking caught a storm, and it was one filled with melancholic grime and depressing endings. Also there was something about a box and what was in it. The state of thrillers changed forever, and, while many copycats tried to pick up the scraps Se7en left in its wake, none would recapture that initial sense of dread when John Doe screamed at Detective David Mills, the killers hands covered in blood.

Paints a pretty picture, doesn’t it? Well, with this week’s Commentary Commentary, we’re hoping the track we’ve selected paints a couple of dozen more. David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman lend their voices and insight into this commentary track for Se7en.

If for no other reason, this track should already be looked into for including Freeman, who has one of the greatest voices this side of a certain Sith. So, without any further ado, here are all 25 items we learned from listening to the Se7en commentary. Now to find out what’s in that box.

Se7en (1995)

Commentators: David Fincher (director), Brad Pitt (actor), Morgan Freeman (actor/voice God)

  • “When I was studying French, I could not figure out why they would call a library a bibliotheque and a bookstore a library, but that’s what they do. They’re a backwards people. Hahaha, don’t do that. I love the French.” This is how the Se7en commentary opens, with Morgan Freeman talking about the French language. He then proceeds to entertain us with some French phrases. While there’s no translation given, the beauty in the words and in Freeman’s voice are undeniable.
  • Originally Se7en was to open with Detective Somerset, played by Freeman, going to look at an old house in the country that he is planning buying. The character tears a piece of the wallpaper off and carries it with him. Originally the opening credits were supposed to play over Somerset’s train ride back to the city, but the production ran out of money before they could film this sequence. Fincher felt the train ride tied this opening to the city and the darkness Somerset must face there, so the whole scene was cut. Moments with Somerset and the piece of wallpaper were filmed to be included throughout the film, but they were forced to be cut, as well.
  • According to Freeman, if a character can wear a hat, the added prop will add a sense of who that character is to the performance. He used this technique for Somerset. “You put the hat on, and you look, and you see the character. You know who he is,” says the actor.
  • As Fincher explains, the opening credits came from a “practical place.” “Oftentimes, some of the most mundane things inspire,” says the director. His crew wanted to get Findlay Bunting, who shot the footage for the opening credits, a pin register camera, because they believed the titles needed to be steady. Fincher questioned this and felt that a shaky, uneven, dirty looking opening credits would fit closer to John Doe’s mindframe. The director also felt these credits gave the audience an awareness of how ugly the film would potentially get.
  • “I’ve found all the best directors make sound effects when they’re describing scenes,” says Pitt. We can only imagine the sound effects Terrence Malick made describing Tree of Life. His dinosaur “GRRRRRR” is truly something to behold.
  • The first time Lynn Harris, the co-executive producer, visited the set was when they were filming the Gluttony victim. The set was so dank and disgusting – the spaghetti sauce used in the scene had been sitting there for weeks before shooting commenced – the producer took one look, agreed that everything was going fine, and walked off set. Fincher also notes the first time Freeman saw this set, he let out a long sigh of disgust. Probably as only Morgan Freeman can. His sighs even have the power of God in them.
  • For the Gluttony victim, actor Bob Mack had to wear his makeup and prosthetics for 10 hours a day, and that was before shooting would even begin. Fincher and Pitt joke about the size of the character’s member in the fiberglass dummy used in the autopsy scene. Fincher also jokes that he wanted that dummy at the after party with a bowl of bean dip and Fritos between its knees. The party actually took place at the New York Public Library.
  • R. Lee Ermey, who plays the Police Captain, auditioned for the part of John Doe. Fincher recollects the former Marine drill instructor made the serial killer character completely unsympathetic. “Not that Kevin’s more unsympathetic,” says the director. But he felt Ermey’s take on the character was “cut and dry,” without much room for any gray area.
  • Fincher remembers Kevin Spacey saying he had heard they had cast someone else for John Doe but called him at the last minute to fill the role. Fincher and Pitt don’t remember it that way. According to them, they fought for Spacey to get the part, especially Pitt who was floored by the actor’s audition. Fincher remembers the production didn’t have the money to cover what Spacey was asking for. Pitt’s tenacity in getting Spacey the part was what eventually convinced the studio to cover the cost.
  • During the rain chase between Mills and John Doe, Pitt slipped and smashed his hand through a windshield. The injury was worked into the screenplay, but earlier scenes had to be shot after that, as well. For these scenes, Pitt did a lot of “pocket acting” where he keeps his hand in his pocket or hidden from view some other way. Fincher remembers Pitt showing him the wound after the accident and how he could see the white of bone in the actor’s hand. Pitt says this was the only time he has ever seen the director “turn green.”
  • 24:18 – Brad Pitt says Morgan Freeman has the “voice of God.” No truer words, Mr. Pitt. No truer words.
  • Freeman talks about his days on The Electric Company. Up to that point, he didn’t stay with jobs where he would become stagnant, sticking with the same role for too long. The Electric Company was the first, long-running job he had, and he remembers he grew to dislike it. He does recognize the good the show did for children and even notes a lot of children have told him the show taught them how to read. “Fine,” says the actor. “That’s interesting. Did I teach you how to understand what you were reading?” He then lets out a loud guffaw. No one cracks Morgan Freeman up like Morgan Freeman.
  • There was originally a moment when Somerset and Tracy Mills, played by Gwyneth Paltrow and her head, first meet when the scrap of wallpaper he had cut from his country home falls out of his jacket pocket. When Tracy sees the wallpaper piece and asks Somerset about it, the detective says it’s “his future.” Tracy responds that he “if David saw that, he’d say you were a fag.” The moment was cut because they had edited out the earlier scene with the country house completely.
  • Fincher wanted something different for the chase sequence with Mills and Somerset chasing John Doe through the apartment building. Pitt told the director he hated chase scenes where the chaser always seems to know where the person being chased is. Fincher took this idea and ran with it, and he and Pitt worked out how Mills should be reacting during the chase, reluctantly going around corners and not knowing where John Doe was at any moment. “I like the idea of the guy with clay feet going, ‘I don’t wanna get shot.’,” he explains.
  • Peter Frankfurt, who created the opening credits for Se7en as well as Wild Wild West, based the shot of Will Smith kicking a door open on Brad Pitt kicking John Doe’s door open. So, in a small way, David Fincher helped create Wild Wild West. You’re welcome, world.
  • Fincher mentions something he learned while working at ILM, that a director should look at a scene with the left eye for composition, because it goes to your right brain. Focus or technical side of a shot should be looked at with the right eye or left brain, as it’s more of a technical eye. He also mentions his eyes are two, different colors, so all bets might be off at that point.
  • When Se7en played for the first time in New York City, it had a different ending and cut to black as soon as Mills pulled the trigger on John Doe. Fincher spoke with the theater beforehand, asking them to keep the theater completely dark after the final image to let the audience take it in. This didn’t happen, and the lights in the theater came up as soon as the gunshot was heard. The audience was then immediately handed comment cards asking their thoughts on the movie, and the audience members had to begin thinking up answers to questions like “Who was your favorite character?” Fincher remembers three women who walked by after the screening and hearing one of them say, “The people who made that movie should be killed.” It didn’t help that the recruiting card to get people into the screening asked, “Would you like to see a new movie starring Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall) and Morgan Freeman (Driving Miss Daisy)?” “I don’t know what the fuck they thought they were gonna see,” says Fincher, “but I’m telling you, from the reaction of the people in there, they were bristling. They couldn’t have been more offended.” Someone else at that screening came up to Fincher afterwards and said, “Don’t be depressed. You’ll probably get another job.”
  • Fincher thinks every marketing person sees their job as trying to save the film. “I’ve never heard a marketing guy go, ‘What a great movie. That’s a home run. We can’t mess with this.’,” he says. In Fincher’s mind, marketing departments look at every film as something imperfect that they have to sell to as many people as possible. If that means hyping Pitt from Legends of the Fall or Freeman from Driving Miss Daisy, who cares if the film the people are about to see doesn’t match with those previous films’ sensibilities? He does realize that companies are beginning to market films in more ambiguous ways, specifying DreamWorks and the marketing for American Beauty and What Lies Beneath, two films whose focal point on the poster is a woman’s hand. Freeman says later in the commentary that he doesn’t think any film is sold as well as it is with word of mouth.
  • Neither Pitt nor Fincher are happy with the way the car ride at the end with John Doe in the back and Mills and Somerset in the front seat plays out. Their chief concern is that they were forced to loop the entire scene after the fact due to issues with picking up sound in the car on the day of shooting. Pitt feels including looped dialogue caused the scene to “lose its breath.”
  • Pitt finds it interesting that the sun in the film comes out after John Doe has shown up. Fincher points out that this wasn’t intentional. If he could have soaked the end scene with rain machines, he would have.
  • Footage of and from the helicopter in the end scene wasn’t initially shot. The production ran out of time, and New Line told Fincher they would give him extra time and money if they felt it was necessary from the footage he had shot. Naturally, they did, but the months between shooting ground footage and shooting footage from the helicopter had turned the locale from a lush green to a desert. Much of the footage shot on the ground was color corrected to make the location appear more desert-like.
  • Originally, the end scene took place underneath the giant power lines, John Doe had selected this location, because it would mess with the communication between the two men on the ground and the helicopter. “Instead we all just got testicular cancer,” jokes Pitt. The truth of the matter is even funnier. Once they got out to shoot the scene, Fincher and his crew found that communications really were messing up, and the actors had to be cued by cellular phone for many of the takes.
  • According to Freeman, he’s never seen someone’s head in a box nor has he ever seen anyone’s reaction to finding a head in a box. He isn’t completely satisfied with the way he reacts when Somerset opens the box, and he isn’t even sure if he’d be able to find the right reaction if he were to shoot Se7en today.
  • For the final moments between Mills and John Doe, Brad Pitt references Sean Penn’s performance near the end of At Close Range. “There was this complete change in him,” says Pitt. “There was something that Penn did there that you knew, from that moment on, what he’d experience, life would never be the same again. He would never be the same.”
  • Freeman remembers the original ending as having Somerset shoot John Doe instead of Mills. He liked this ending, that the younger detective would still have a life after the events of the film. It was Pitt’s argument that there was no way Mills wouldn’t have shot John Doe for what he had done. Basically, if you’re not sure who should be shot or who should do the shooting, just ask Brad Pitt.

Best in Commentary

“The underlying truth of all of these characters is they are in the violent business.” – Morgan Freeman

“If the ultimate journey is truth, or quest defined in a scene, then don’t fight it. At least, at its worst, you’ll have something that’s truthful.” – Brad Pitt

“To me, this is the closest I’ve been to a perfect film. Can we end on that?” – Brad Pitt

“What about Fight Club?” – David Fincher

Final Thoughts

This Se7en commentary is a perfect example of a solid track that doesn’t offer much in the way of items for this column. Fincher and Pitt, recorded together, and Freeman all have much to say in the way of film theory, working with or as actors, and general philosophies when it comes to making movies, but there are very long stretches of this commentary where they aren’t talking specifically about Se7en. Freeman makes long-winded declamation about acting and the differences between the theater and film. It’s worth listening to for Freeman’s voice alone even if he isn’t saying anything we haven’t heard before. We’ve never heard it like this, though.

A few anecdotes from the set make their way into the commentary. It’s interesting listening to Fincher talk about working with an actor who was around his same age, and it’s no surprise he and Brad Pitt have worked together a few times since. He liked having someone on set who understood Monty Python jokes while filming Se7en. Still, there isn’t an abundance of anecdotes or stories from the set, and everyone on this track offers the insight into their general beliefs about the art form.

The 25 items above are very interesting, but this is a commentary track you should listen to for yourself, as well.

Check out more commentary commentary in the Commentary Commentary archives

Or Enjoy a Different Feature

The great filmmaker Albert Maysles once explained the power of nonfiction moviemaking by saying, “When you see somebody on the screen in a documentary, you’re really engaged with a person going through real life experiences, so for that period of time, as you watch the film, you are, in effect, in the shoes of another individual. What a privilege to have that experience.”

A privilege, yes, and a privilege that’s outsized for us today. We now have access to thousands of documentaries online, allowing us all kinds of shapes and sizes of shoes to step into. To extend our personal knowledge of human experience. Thousands of little empathy machines. Small windows into lives that aren’t our own.

Here are 25 of the best documentaries that you can stream right now.

1. 13TH (2016)

Following the breakout prestige of Selma, Ava DuVernay constructed an exploration of the criminalization of black individuals in the United States, crafting a throughline from slavery to the modern private prison boom. Eschewing an overdramatized style, DuVernay calmly, patiently lays out facts and figures that will drop your jaw only until you start clenching it.

Where to watch it:Netflix

2. AILEEN: LIFE AND DEATH OF A SERIAL KILLER (2003)

For those only familiar with Aileen Wuornos through Charlize Theron’s portrayal in Monster, Nick Broomfield’s documentary offers a considered portrait of the human being behind the murderer. In his first film about Wuornos, The Selling of a Serial Killer, Broomfield considered her as a victim of abuse and betrayal, with her image commodified. In this follow-up, he takes us all the way to the day of her execution, wondering how anyone would think she was of sound mind.

Where to watch it:Netflix and Amazon Prime

3. ABACUS: SMALL ENOUGH TO JAIL (2017)

“Too big to fail” entered the lexicon following 2008’s bursting housing bubble, but while the world’s largest banks skated through, Abacus Federal Savings Bank was deemed small enough to prosecute. Steve James (of Hoop Dreams fame) has crafted an intimate, Oscar-nominated look at the Chinatown bank that became the only financial institution to face criminal charges in the wake of the subprime mortgage crisis, starting at the family level before zooming out to the community and country.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

4. BEING ELMO (2011)

Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, puppeteer Kevin Clash shares his childhood growing up in Baltimore and the road to a career as a furry red monster on Sesame Street. It’s a delightful peek behind the curtain to see how magic is made, featuring interviews with legends like Frank Oz and Kermit Love. Pairs well with I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (which is available to rent on Amazon).

Where to watch it:Netflix

5. BEST OF ENEMIES (2015)

Both quaint and prescient, the televised debates between William F. Buckley Jr. and Gore Vidal during the 1968 Republican National Convention show us a midpoint between idealized civic discussion and the worst instincts of modern punditry. This sly documentary explains the force of this rivalry, its ironic popularity as televised circus, and the aftermath of all the clever insults.

Where to watch it:Netflix

6. CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER (2017)

A bright palate cleanser that shouldn’t be overlooked just because it isn’t emotionally devastating. The success of this film is its ability to transfer other people’s obsessions to the viewer. Tom Hanks, John Mayer, historians, collectors, and repairmen all share their abiding love for the click-clack of a device that defies obsolescence. You may crave a Smith Corona when it’s all over.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

7. CAMERAPERSON (2016)

Patience is rewarded in this thoughtful, dazzling cinematic quilt of footage collected from 25 years of Kirsten Johnson’s career as a cinematographer. Her lens takes us to Brooklyn for boxing, Bosnia for post-war life, Nigeria for midwifery, and more.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

8. CARTEL LAND (2015)

Raw and fearsome, Matthew Heineman’s documentary puts you in the boots on the ground of the Mexican Drug War. This gripping look at Arizona Border Recon and the Autodefensas of Michoacán shows what happens when governments fail citizens who are in the line of fire.

Where to watch it:Netflix and Amazon Prime

9. CASTING JONBENET (2017)

This isn’t the documentary you’d expect it to be. Kitty Green took an experimental approach that’s less about rehashing the true crime sensationalism of the headline-owning murder of a child beauty queen and more about how many stories can be contained in a single story. Green auditioned actors from JonBenét Ramsey’s hometown and, in the process of making several dramatizations, interviewed them about what it was like living in the area during the 1996 investigations (and what they think really happened).

Where to watch it:Netflix

10. CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS (2011)

There’s nothing like hanging out with Werner Herzog in an ancient cave. Herzog filmed in the Chauvet Cave in southern France to document the oldest known human-painted images, which is fortunate for us because the cave isn’t open to the public. It’s a wondrous nature documentary about us.

Where to watch it:Netflix

11. CITY OF GHOSTS (2017)

Another brutal hit from Matthew Heineman, this documentary carries the audience into the Syrian conflict through the eyes of citizen journalist collective Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently, which both reports on war news and acts as a counter to propaganda efforts from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Some documentaries are interesting, but this one is also necessary. 

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

12. DARK DAYS (2000)

Before Humans of New York there was Dark Days. This delicate, funny, mournful project is a true blend of reality and art. Marc Singer made it after befriending and living among the squatter community living in the Freedom Tunnel section of the New York City subway. Despite never making a movie before, he decided that shining a light on these homeless neighbors would be the best way to help them.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

13. EXIT THROUGH THE GIFT SHOP (2010)

Covered in spray paint and questionable facial hair decisions, this documentary displays the transformation of Thierry Guetta from clothing shop owner to celebrated street artist, but since Banksy directed it, it’ll never shake the question of its authenticity. Real doc? Elaborate prank? Entertaining either way.

Where to watch it:Netflix

14. GAGA: FIVE FOOT TWO (2017)

It’s incredibly honest. As much as an inside look into the life of a global pop superstar can be. Lady Gaga (real name Stefani Germanotta) spends a healthy amount of the movie standing around without makeup, waxing wise and humorously before jumping face-first into her work and fanbase. The film focuses on her time crafting her Joanne album and her Super Bowl halftime show, but they could make one of these every few years without it getting stale because Gaga is a tower of magnetism.

Where to watch it:Netflix

15. THE INTERRUPTERS (2012)

In the middle of gang violence in Chicago, CeaseFire attempts to use members’ direct experiences to ward off new brutalities. Dubbed “violence interrupters,” Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra are at the heart of this vital film about ending community violence by employing disease-control strategies, and the Herculean task of reversing systemic criminal activity without losing sight of the humanity of the people affected.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

16. JIRO DREAMS OF SUSHI (2012)

Let’s hope that this meditative, sumptuous documentary never leaves Netflix’s shores. The portrait of then-85-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro’s quest for unattainable perfection is both food porn and a somber-sweet consideration of the satisfaction and disquiet of becoming the best in the world at something and, somehow, striving for better.

Where to watch it:Netflix

17. JOSHUA: TEENAGER VS SUPERPOWER (2017)

When someone tells you it can’t be done, show them this. The simple title both celebrates and belies the smallness of one person fighting a system. Joe Piscatella’s doc follows the explosive growth of the Hong Kong protest movement engaged by teen activist Joshua Wong when the Chinese government refused to act on its promise of granting autonomy to the region, and it is a dose of pure inspiration.

Where to watch it:Netflix

18. THE LOOK OF SILENCE (2014)

Joshua Oppenheimer and Anonymous’s sequel to the Oscar-nominated The Act of Killing features an Indonesian man whose brother was murdered during the 1965 purge of Communists talking to his brother’s killers while literally checking their vision. His bravery and composure are astonishing, as is the insight into the many rationalities unrepentant men use to shield their psyches from their own heinous acts. A peerless piece of investigative art.

Where to watch it:Netflix

19. MY SCIENTOLOGY MOVIE (2017)

An absurdist rabbit chase and a deliberate provocation, writer/star Louis Theroux’s punk documentary poked the bear of the infamous religion in order to get access to it. They auditioned young actors to recreate real-life events described by ex-members, got denounced by the church, and even got into a “Who’s On First”-style argument with a member (“You tell him to turn the camera off then I’ll tell him to turn the camera off!”). Serious subject matter by way of Borat.

Where to watch it:Netflix

20. THE NIGHTMARE (2015)

This documentary by Rodney Ascher should be seen by everyone and somehow be banned from being seen. Not content to profile people suffering from sleep paralysis—the condition where you can’t move or speak while falling asleep or awakening, yeah—Ascher riffs on the hallucinations that sometimes accompany the ailment. As if being frozen weren’t enough. The result is a true story that’s just as effective as a horror film.

Where to watch it:Netflix

21. PUMPING IRON (1977)

A landmark docudrama about the Mr. Olympia competition, this is the film that launched a wannabe actor from Austria into the public conscious. Arnold Schwarzenegger is brash and beautiful in this celebration of body perfection which finds a balance between joy and the teeth-gritting agony of endurance. Great back then, it’s now a fascinating artifact of the soon-to-be action star/politician.

Where to watch it:Netflix

22. STOLEN SEAS (2013)

Constructed using real audio and found footage of the 2008 hostage negotiation aboard a Danish shipping vessel, filmmaker Thymaya Payne’s film isn’t content to simply shine a light on the horrific reality of a Somali pirate attack; it strikes to build a contextual understanding of what these attacks mean for the rest of the world. For all of us.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

23. STORIES WE TELL (2013)

An absolute personal stunner, actress Sarah Polley directed this docudrama about the scariest thing you can reveal to the world: your family. It’s an emotional, gamut-spanning search for identity that requires reconciling conflicting views about your parents and digging through buried secrets. Polley bringing them into full view, for all of us to see, is a selfless act that resulted in an outstanding piece of art.

Where to watch it:Amazon Prime

24. THE THIN BLUE LINE (1988)

A modern classic of nonfiction storytelling. Through archival footage, interviews, and reenactments, documentary royalty Errol Morris used this film to argue the innocence of a man destined for lethal injection. It tells the story of Randall Dale Adams, who was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in 1976, despite evidence that the real killer—a minor at the time—had committed the crime. A must-see for fans of Making a Murderer.

Where to watch it:Netflix

25. TIG (2015)

When you get diagnosed with cancer, the natural thing is to perform a stand-up act about it the same day, right? Comedian Tig Notaro became famous overnight when her set confronting her same-day diagnosis went viral, and this documentary from Kristina Goolsby and Ashley York focuses on the year that followed. A rocky year that deals with death, a new career chapter, a new relationship, and possibly a new child. It’s okay to laugh through the tears.

Where to watch it:Netflix

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