This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
There are occasions where we have sheer luck to thank for the existence of a movie. Take Seven, David Fincher’s atmospheric thriller from 1995; had the studio behind its making, New Line, not sent Fincher the wrong draft of the script, the film may never have been made–at least, not by Fincher, who at that time was still smarting from the experience of making his debut, Alien 3.
Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker had initially written Seven as a spec script–the kind of high-concept thriller that would get him noticed, get him out of his day job at Tower Records and into a career as a writer. About two cops on the trail of a serial killer obsessed with the seven deadly sins, Walker’s story was a page-turner in the tradition of Thomas Harris’ Silence of the Lambs, albeit laced with a sense of despair and world-weariness which emerged from the writer’s own state of mind after moving to a rough part of New York in the 1980s. And, to underline the grim tone, Seven’s final third was punctuated with one heck of a wrenching twist; to quote a character from Apocalypse Now, “Good does not always triumph over evil…”
Seven caught the eye of director Jeremiah Chechik, who’d recently come off the hit Chevy Chase comedy sequel, Christmas Vacation. Chechik evidently wanted to tackle something a bit more serious for his next project and must have seen something in Walker’s concept that he liked; unfortunately, he wasn’t too keen on that bleak twist ending. Walker was therefore presented with a painfully common dilemma faced by new writers: rework the screenplay based on Chechik’s notes or jealously guard his work in the hope that someone else picks it up. Walker, who was hardly in the financial position to get all precious over his art, understandably chose the former.
The Chechik version of Seven, never happened, of course, but the draft of the screenplay based on his softened vision for the thriller kept floating round Hollywood. When New Line purchased Seven in the early ’90s, it was this very same draft the studio intended to send to David Fincher, who was hardly in a rush to return to directing, but was at least open to temptation if the project proved juicy enough.
It’s here that something bizarre happened. New Line sent the script to Fincher to read, but somehow got the drafts muddled up. Instead of sending him the Chechik-approved screenplay, they’d sent Walker’s original one, with its pitch-black ending. New Line had no idea of the mistake until a few days later when Fincher rang up and expressed his admiration for the script–especially the ending where the detectives and the captured killer are interrupted by the delivery of a mysterious box, sent by a courier. New Line tried to rescue the situation by sending him a later draft, but it was too late; Fincher had read the gloomy Walker screenplay and that was the movie he wanted to make.
Seven was therefore a movie that happened in spite of itself. Even when New Line finally relented and let Fincher make the version of the thriller he wanted, the studio repeatedly leaned on him to lighten it up; Fincher, tenacious to the last, dug his heels in. When he managed to hook in a sterling cast–Morgan Freeman and Brad Pitt as the detectives, plus a surprise appearance from Kevin Spacey as the killer–Fincher’s position was strengthened further, particularly when Pitt lobbied to keep the twist ending that made executives so nervous.
Thanks to all this, Fincher got his way, and the result is arguably among the best thrillers of the 1990s. Where the similarly gothic-feeling Alien 3 was a compromised movie, doomed from the outset by meddling from a nervous studio, Seven remains true to its black heart from beginning to end. Here finally was the perfect showcase for Fincher’s exacting style of filmmaking.
Because while Seven wouldn’t be the movie it is without Walker’s writing, the sublime acting skills of its leads (including Gwyneth Paltrow, in a relatively small yet pivotal role) and the contributions of cinematographer Darius Khondji, production designer Arthur Max or composer Howard Shore, it’s Fincher who makes Seven more than the sum of its parts. It’s because of his attention to detail, and his fluent understanding of pace and controlled suspense, that Seven winds up being more than the sum of its parts.
To illustrate just how good Seven is, take another look at its chase sequence. Arriving in the middle of the film, it comes at a point where we’ve already been immersed in the story’s apocalyptic air of dread for the best part of an hour. Detectives Mills and Somerset (Pitt and Freeman respectively) have been one step behind the killer and the grotesque crime scenes he leaves behind; now, at last, they have a lead: some library records acquired from the FBI have led them to the apartment of one Johnathan Doe – an otherwise anonymous guy who likes to read up on books about the Marquis de Sade and the seven deadly sins.
With little else to go on, they knock on the suspect’s door, only to notice a figure walking towards them down the corridor, carrying what appears to be a large bag of groceries. No sooner have the looked round at the figure than he’s pulled a gun and opened fire. So begins what is really the film’s only pure action sequence: a cat-and-mouse chase through a fairly down-at-heel apartment block and out into the street outside. As ever, the killer’s one step ahead, pinning down Mills – the younger and more gung-ho of the two detectives – with gunfire as he tries to make his escape.
It’s worth pausing here to make an useful point. In Andrew Kevin Walker’s first draft – which you can read on his website–this all unfolds rather differently. While the story is otherwise extremely close to the final movie, the first draft sees John Doe appear in the corridor, pull an Uzi machine gun, open fire, and run off. It’s not until the production draft, dated August 1994, that the longer chase sequence appears, meaning it’s possibly Fincher’s suggestion, or at least an idea Walker and Fincher cooked up together as they developed the shooting script.
At any rate, the way Fincher chooses to shoot this chase between Mills and John Doe exemplifies his controlled approach to Seven’s storytelling. For one thing, it isn’t a straight chase, or even your typical shoot-out; we see Mills cautiously peer around corners, anticipating the bullets that might come whizzing past his nose at any second. In a film that has, up to this point, been shot with fairly long takes and a prowling camera, the style suddenly changes focus: Fincher makes a rare use of a handheld camera to grab shots from Mills’ POV, either stealing a look down a stairwell or hunkering down as glass and bullets fly across the screen.
In a superb interview with Art of the Title, Fincher explains that he doesn’t actually like to use handheld cameras, since he believes its distinctive style can detract from the meaning of a precisely-written scene or an individual performance.
“I like a very specific kind of operating,” Fincher says. “For instance, I don’t shoot a lot of shots that require you to follow someone’s face or eyes. I like to find a frame that the actor can sort of play in. Handheld has a powerful psychological stranglehold. It means something specific and I don’t want to cloud what’s going on with too much meaning.”
For the chase sequence in Seven, meanwhile, Fincher uses a handheld camera because it fulfils a specific purpose: it places the audience in the chaos of the moment. Fincher wants the audience to feel the sense of panic as Mills and Somerset are suddenly confronted by an armed assailant; with these stolen shots around corners, the director efficiently gets across the danger of simply glancing down a stairwell at the wrong moment.
“Well, normally in movies characters just run pell-mell after the antagonist,” Fincher explains. “I always thought, ‘God, if someone was shooting at me, I would be terrified to turn any corner!’ If you set it up properly and put the audience in that subjective place, handheld is the perfect way to get that feeling. Otherwise, it gets very overused.”
There are two things to highlight in that quote above. First, that Fincher knows how to use the camera to create the impression of a human emotion. It’s a painfully obvious thing to point out, but something a lot of filmmakers don’t accurately convey: being shot at is absolutely terrifying. So rather than make his chase sequence full of elaborate stunts, Fincher concentrates instead on this very human aspect – the adrenaline, the pain and the fear that Mills experiences as he goes after John Doe.
The second thing to highlight: Fincher knows that making sparing use of a filmmaking technique at just the right time can create a massive impact. The moments that use handheld cameras in Seven are so rare that, when they are used, their effect on the storytelling is dramatic, even if the audience isn’t consciously aware of them. Aside from the chase scene, the only other place where the camera moves in a documentary kind of style is towards the end, where we see a few shots from the perspective of a police marksman aboard a helicopter; again, Fincher cuts these in very deliberately, since they capture the chaos and shock of the moment.
It’s Fincher’s control over his filmmaking tools – the consideration that goes into seemingly every shot – that makes Seven (and all of his movies) so watchable. At the end of his chase set-piece, Doe gets the upper hand on Mills in a rain-drenched alleyway. Dropping down from a truck where he’s been lying in wait, Doe incapacitates Mills, then holds a gun to his head. It’s here that Fincher allows the rhythm of the editing to slow down again, edging the pace of the movie away from the intensity of the pursuit and back to that of a suspense thriller.
It’s interesting how the extreme close-up of the gun pressed against Mills’ temple echoes one of the most powerful shots in Fincher’s Alien 3–the one where the xenomorph squares up to Ripley, its jaws extended. In both instances, we see the antagonist gain the upper hand over the protagonist, only for them to unexpectedly show mercy at the last second. Again, Fincher’s stylised yet specific selection of close-ups and extreme camera angles are used to heighten the dramatic impact – and provide a set-up which has a grim pay-off later on.
This is why Seven has aged far better than the dozens of other thrillers that followed in the wake of Silence Of The Lambs’ Oscar-winning success. Where lesser filmmakers copy and deploy fashionable techniques because they look simply look good, Fincher seldom does things arbitrarily. There’s a style and a slickness to his work that springs from his background in the advertising and effects industry, but his use of technique is always in service to the story his telling.
Great thrillers are an exercise in control – the gradual parcelling out of information, an air of mystery, a sense of discovery. Fincher’s eye for framing and pace leaves the writing and acting room to breathe, yet it’s his skill as a filmmaker that makes Seven more than just another ’90s serial killer flick.
From beginning to end, Seven is about a chillingly smart villain who’s always one step ahead of his pursuers. By the same token, there’s always the sense that Fincher is also the hidden puppet master, standing just outside the frame, guiding the film to its unforgettably black conclusion.