“What’s in the box?!” Brad Pitt’s agonized wail is still haunting 22 years after the release of Seven which devastated audiences with its brutal climactic twist of having Det. Mills (Pitt) unwrapping a special delivery of his pregnant wife’s (Gwyneth Paltrow) severed head, provoking him to execute the sadistic-yet-unarmed John Doe (Kevin Spacey) — and unwittingly fulfilling the serial killer’s epic sin tableau in the process.
As you might expect, getting a major studio to embrace writer Andrew Kevin Walker’s bleak ending wasn’t easy — especially after early test audiences didn’t like the conclusion.
Executive producer Arnold Kopelson recalls the internal hand-wringing over the ending after the studio did two preview screenings that delivered poor numbers. “The scores were only at 70 percent,” said Kopelson, whose previous film The Fugitive had tested at 98 percent. “I was concerned that the film would be a disaster.”
Other possible endings were debated:
— Kopelson says director David Fincher (who declined to comment for this story) wanted the final scene to be even bleaker, cutting right to black right after Mills pulls the trigger.
— Pitt once told EW the studio wanted Mills’ dog’s head in the box instead. “You know, he would be much more heroic if he didn’t shoot John Doe — and it’s too unsettling with the head in the box,” Pitt recalled being told by the studio. “We think maybe if it was the dog’s head in the box…” But Kopelson doesn’t recall that option being discussed (“Perhaps this was a casual conversation between Pitt and Fincher but it never reached me for my approval”).
— The team considered having Mill’s partner Somerset (Morgan Freeman) successfully prevent Doe’s execution entirely. Also considered and even storyboarded (video below) was that Somerset would execute Doe himself — that Doe wouldn’t get exactly he wanted and Mills wouldn’t go to prison, softening the blow somewhat.
“The issue was always that the studio thought Doe needed to be thwarted some way,” Fincher said on the Seven DVD commentary. “If he was going to take this guy’s wife and kill her and thereby kill the unborn child within her that he needed to not get the thrill of being killed by the person that he wanted to be killed by — which is a compelling argument, but I think you’re splitting hairs at that point. The double-edged sword of the movie is you give the vengeance-crazed audience their blood lust and what they come to movies for but at the same time you’ve spelled it out for them for the three minutes before the trigger gets pulled that [Doe wants to be executed] … and there are not enough bullets — you can’t do enough damage to him for it to ever be even.”
Ultimately, Walker’s originally scripted outcome was, despite its darkness, too perfect to change — it pays off every character’s arc. Kopelson insisted on adding a denouement to give the audience a hint of the future, a scene where Mills is arrested and Somerset is assured he will be cared for, which also gave Somerset some words to tie up the film.
The result was a true rarity — a very dark R-rated critical and box office hit, delivering $327 million worldwide.
“My concerns [about the ending] were diminished by the fourth day of release,” Kopelson recalls. “There was a huge audience reaction which grew every day. For many weeks throughout the world, it played to packed theaters and it went on and on.”