At exactly seven minutes into the film, Mills gets a call that starts the seven murders. With exactly seven minutes left of the film, Somerset says to a distraught Mills: "he will win," regarding John Doe.
As preparation for his traumatic scene in the interrogation room, Leland Orser would breathe in and out rapidly, so that his body would be overly saturated with oxygen, giving him the ability to hyperventilate. He also did not sleep for a few days, in order to achieve his character's disoriented look.
While filming the scene, in which Mills chases John Doe in the rain, Brad Pitt fell, and his arm went through a car windshield, requiring surgery. This accident was worked into the script of the film. Coincidentally, the original script did call for Pitt's Detective Mills character to be injured during this sequence--but to something other than his hand.
When looking for the part of Victor, David Fincher stated that he wanted to find someone who was incredibly skinny, around ninety pounds. Michael Reid MacKay auditioned, and at the time weighed 96 pounds. Fincher gave him the part, and jokingly told him to lose some more weight. Much to his surprise, MacKay turned up to filming, having lost another six pounds.
All of John Doe's books were real books, written for the film. They took two months to complete, and cost 15,000 dollars. According to Somerset (Morgan Freeman), two months is also the time it would take the police to read all the books.
Gwyneth Paltrow was David Fincher's first choice for the part of Brad Pitt's wife, having impressed him with her work in Flesh and Bone (1993). Paltrow was initially not interested, so Fincher had to ask her then boyfriend - Brad Pitt - to get her to come in and meet with him.
There's a line, in which Mills names motives that killers give; one of them is "Jodie Foster told me to do it." He is referring to John Hinckley, Jr., a man that was obsessed with Jodie Foster, and attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, in order to impress her. The other that Mills says, is "My dog told me to do it.", a reference to David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the "Son of Sam", a serial killer who terrorized New York City in the summers of 1976 and 1977, and claimed that his neighbor's dog was possessed, and told him to commit murder.
Andrew Kevin Walker had enormous difficulty getting a studio to buy the rights to his script, because he was a complete unknown in Hollywood. Allegedly, he put together a list of agents that represented writers that work in the crime and thriller genres, and just called each one up until he got a positive response.
The film's brooding, dark look was achieved through a chemical process called bleach bypass, wherein the silver in the film stock was not removed, which in turn deepened the dark, shadowy images in the film, and increased its overall tonal quality.
For the gluttony scene, seven crates of cockroaches were released on the set and poured on Bob Mack who plays the gluttony victim. Something had to be put in Mack's ears and nose to stop the cockroaches from crawling in, however, that didn't stop them from going into his underwear.
The primary influence for the film's screenplay came from Andrew Kevin Walker's time spent in New York City while trying to make it as a screenwriter. "I didn't like my time in New York, but it's true, that if I hadn't lived there, I probably wouldn't have written Se7en."
During the scene, before Mills and Somerset walk into the District Attorney's office, the camera zooms onto a newspaper announcing the murder. A small article in the corner of the front page says that a family was held hostage by their guinea pig for three days.
For the greed scene, Gene Borkan, who plays the victim was hog-tied and only wearing his underwear for most of shooting, and he was covered in over two gallons of fake blood. The blood was so thick and sticky, that his knees became stuck to the floor.
The original script had a strange, dwarf-like woman, as part of the forensics team, appearing in every one of the "clean-ups" after a murder, and hurling foul language and epithets at Somerset and Mills.
The seven deadly sins are: Lust - to have an intense desire or need: "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Matthew 5:28). Gluttony - excess in eating and drinking: "for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags" (Proverbs 23:21). Greed - excessive or reprehensible acquisitiveness: "Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more" (Ephesians 4:19). Sloth - also known as laziness; disinclined to activity or exertion: not energetic or vigorous: "The way of the sluggard is blocked with thorns, but the path of the upright is a highway" (Proverbs 15:19). Wrath - strong vengeful anger or indignation: "A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger" (Proverbs 15:1) Envy - painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage: "Therefore, rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind. Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation" (1 Peter 2:1-2). Pride - quality or state of being proud - inordinate self esteem: "Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).
An edited-out sequence near the beginning, had Somerset looking over the country house, into which he's planning on moving. He uses his switchblade to cut loose a rose on a fragment of silk wallpaper and carries it with him throughout the movie. The rose falls out of his jacket as he is taking off his gun, before eating with the Mills family. (This touch was edited out, too. Both sequences are in the supplementary section of the Criterion LaserDisc.) The rose is briefly visible in the opening scene, sitting atop a handkerchief on Somerset's dresser.
The film was the subject of a lawsuit brought by a photographer, whose work was used in the background of John Doe's apartment. The case was decided in the filmmakers' favor. Sandoval v. New Line Cinema Corp., 973 F.Supp. 409, 412-414 (S.D.N.Y. 1997).
The autopsy of the first killing, as originally scripted, was incorrect according to the research of make-up man Rob Bottin (who viewed a real human autopsy as part of his prep work). The scene was truncated from the original script, and shows only the sewn-up corpse of gluttony, not the actual autopsy.
At the time, David Fincher had not read a script for a year and a half since after the frustrating experience of making Alien³ (1992); he said, "I thought I'd rather die of colon cancer than do another movie". Fincher eventually agreed to direct the film because he was drawn to the script, which he found to be a "connect-the-dots movie that delivers about inhumanity. It's psychologically violent. It implies so much, not about why you did but how you did it". He found it more a "meditation on evil" rather than a "police procedural".
Surprisingly, this enjoyed some degree of success in post-revolutionary Iran, where it did well at the box-office (this was prior to the hardline Iranian regime taking control, and effectively outlawing anything pro-Western). Its success in Iran, can partly be attributed to the fact that the film's Cinematographer, Darius Khondji, hails from that country.
The Platinum Series DVD of by New Line Cinema is mastered from a new HDTV transfer which was made directly from the camera negative. This required that the whole film had to be re-graded digitally, applying color and contrast correction to every shot under the director's supervision. The resulting HDTV master is now the official master of the film. The digital corrections are quite extensive in some shots as the DVD supplements demonstrate in detail.
Before Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt were cast, Al Pacino and Denzel Washington were early choices for Somerset and Mills, respectively. Pacino declined, as he was already scheduled to film City Hall (1996), and Washington turned down the offer, deeming the film to be "too dark." Both actors have expressed regret in not taking their individual offers.
The "song" playing, when Mills and Somerset arrive at the "lust" crime scene, is called of course Lust. The song, which is only 56 seconds long, was created specifically for that scene in the film, it was created by Sound Designers Ren Klyce and Steve Boeddeker.
According to Brad Pitt, there was originally a scene where Mills and Somerset discussed "thumb recall"; cut off the thumb of anyone convicted of a violent crime, and there's no way they'd be able to fire a gun. The scene was ultimately cut from the film, because they were afraid someone would "roll with it."
After Brad Pitt chased John Doe through his apartment building, at the end of the scene, Brad Pitt actually did hurt his left arm. The cast was real. The office scenes of him and Freeman were shot later and so Pitt's left arm was hidden. When Pitt moved into his office, were Freeman was in his chair, during the phone call, you could see Pitt's hand was a bit purple and swollen. That was real.
When Somerset is in his apartment, he can be heard listening to a radio broadcast of John F. McClellan. McLellan was a Boston disc jockey (among other things) who did live Tuesday night broadcasts from the Boston club Storyville, on WHDH radio in the early 1950s. In the clip in the movie, you can hear McLellan's voice announcing some of the members of the band at Storyville that night, including Charlie Parker with Herb Pomeroy on trumpet.
In the opening credits, a reworked version of "Closer" by 'Nine Inch Nails' can be heard. Trent Reznor (the lead in the band) would later attach to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011), The Social Network (2010), and Gone Girl (2014), all David Fincher properties, to create the musical scores. Additionally, although Reznor was only involved by proxy in this film, the opening title sequence won awards, as did the music in the following three films.
A rejected version of the credits had the same scratchy handwriting and Coil-remixed "Closer", but used static images instead of the jumpy, blurred footage used currently. (This credit sequence is in the Criterion LaserDisc supplement section.)
The U.S. Criterion Collection LaserDisc includes: A new widescreen (2.35:1) digital transfer supervised by David Fincher, New surround sound mix supervised by Sound Designer Ren Klyce, optimized for home theater listening, Discrete 5.1 channel Dolby AC-3 soundtrack, Screen-specific audio commentary by Fincher, Morgan Freeman, Brad Pitt, Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker, Production Designer Arthur Max, and Special Make-up Effects Designer Rob Bottin, Deleted scenes, outtakes, dailies, crime scene photographs, production design sketches, and storyboards, A study of the opening credit sequence, including storyboards, and an early version with commentary by Designer Kyle Cooper, A visual essay and commentary by Rob Bottin, The Killer's photographs, with notes by photographer Melodie McDaniel, The Killer's diaries, Hundreds of behind the scenes photos, production and publicity stills, and proposed promotional artwork, The original widescreen theatrical trailer, eight television spots, and behind-the-scenes footage.
Jeff Cronenweth started as a camera operator in the film, but when Darius Khondji moved to Stealing Beauty (1996), Cronenweth and Harris Savides did about two weeks of additional photography inserts and pickup jobs for the movie. They ended up shooting the entire end sequence again, at a remote desert area.
57 minutes into the movie Gwyneth Paltrow's character meets with Morgan Freeman's at a diner. The source music (music being played through the diner's speakers as opposed to score) is the theme from the movie, The Third Man.
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
The producers intended that Kevin Spacey should receive top billing at the start of the movie, but he insisted that his name not appear in the opening credits, so as to surprise the audience with the identity of the killer. To compensate, he is listed twice in the closing credits: once before the credits start rolling, and once in the rolling credits in order of appearance. Another advantage from Spacey's point of view, as he saw it, was that he was excluded from the film's marketing during its release, meaning he didn't have to make any public appearances or do any interviews.
The ending in the movie is the ending in the original draft of the screenplay. Producer Arnold Kopelson had it re-written and the ending became a race to save Tracy's life. When David Fincher, Brad Pitt, and Morgan Freeman read the new ending, they all demanded the that original ending be put back in, or they wouldn't do the movie. (From the Platinum Series DVD).
The victim tied to the bed for a year was not an animatronic model, but a very skinny actor made up to look even more corpse-like. Rob Bottin used a set of exaggerated teeth to make the head look smaller and more shrunken from malnutrition.
Morgan 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 Brad Pitt's argument that there was no way Mills wouldn't have shot John Doe for what he had done.
Kevin Spacey as the antagonist, John Doe, made his first appearance in the film, as the photographer taking pictures of Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman at the sloth crime scene. If you pause the film, when Pitt's character is slapping the camera out of the photographer's hand (at around 54 mins), you can clearly see that it is Kevin Spacey.
It is raining every day in the movie except for the last day. The reason is less about thematic issues and more about continuity. It rained on the first day that Brad Pitt filmed so they kept it going as they were rushing to do all of Pitt's scenes before he left to go make Twelve Monkeys (1995).
To appease the producers, who wanted to soften the dramatic ending a bit, an alternate version of the ending was storyboarded, with Somerset saying that he "wants out", and killing John Doe, thereby preventing Doe from winning, and Mills from ending up in jail. In the mean time, the crew shot a test ending, which is basically the theatrical ending without some of the dramatic shots. This finale was so well received in screenings that it convinced the producers to go along with it, and not even film the alternate ending.
The ending narration of Somerset quoting Ernest Hemingway, was an added compromise, for which neither David Fincher nor Morgan Freeman particularly cared. The decision came from New Line after poor test screenings regarding the dark ending.
One version of the script contained a few scenes following the final confrontation between the detectives and John Doe. In one, Somerset is recovering in the hospital after being shot by Mills, and the captain delivers a letter to him from Mills which reads, "You were right. You were right about everything."
An alternate ending revealed that John Doe did not murder Mills' wife, only substituting a look-a-like. Mills then has no justification for killing an unarmed man, and will spend the rest of his life in jail. Somerset decides not to retire, and instead gives his country house to Mills' wife and her unborn baby.
The only murder that is shown on-screen, is when Mills shoots John Doe while in police custody, at the end of the movie. The rest of the murders occur off-screen with only their grisly aftermaths shown.
One of the re-written endings of the film involved Somerset discovering that John Doe was raised by an abusive priest in a church orphanage. Doe kidnaps Mills and lures Somerset to a decrepit church decorated with artwork depicting the Seven Deadly Sins, intent on making Somerset murder him out of vengeance. Instead, Doe and Somerset engage in a shootout, and Somerset lawfully kills Doe after Mills is killed during a struggle with Doe.
The ending of the screenplay, with the head in the box, was originally part of an earlier draft that New Line had rejected, instead, opting for an ending that involved more traditional elements of a detective thriller film with more action-oriented elements. But when New Line sent David Fincher the screenplay to review for his interest in the project, they accidentally sent him the original screenplay with the head-in-the-box ending. When New Line realized that they had sent Fincher the wrong draft, the President of Production, Michael De Luca, met with Fincher and noted that there was internal pressure to retain the revised version; De Luca stated that if Fincher promised to produce the movie, they would be able to stay with the head-in-a-box ending. Despite this, Producer Kopelson refused to allow the film to include the head-in-a-box scene. Brad Pitt joined Fincher in arguing for keeping this original scene, noting that his previous film Legends of the Fall (1994) had its emotional ending cut after negative feedback from test audiences, and refusing to do Se7en unless the head-in-the-box scene remained.
After the first cut of the film was shown to the studio, they attempted to mitigate the bleakness of the ending by replacing Mills' wife's head with that of a dog, or by not having Mills fire on John Doe.