The film's screenplay was influenced by the time Walker spent in New York City trying to make it as a writer. Principal photography took place in Los Angeles, with the last scene filmed near Lancaster, California. The film's budget was US$33 million.
In an unnamed American city, soon-to-be-retiring detective William Somerset is partnered with short-tempered but idealistic David Mills, who recently transferred to the department, moving to the city with his wife Tracy. Mills introduces Somerset to Tracy, after which Somerset becomes her confidant. Tracy is unhappy with the city and feels it is no place to raise a child. She discloses to Somerset that she is pregnant and has yet to inform her husband. Somerset sympathizes with her, having a similar situation with his ex-girlfriend many years earlier, and advises her to tell Mills only if she plans on keeping the child.
Somerset and Mills investigate a pair of murders. The first victim is an obese man forced to eat until his stomach ruptured. The second was a wealthy defense attorney who died from both fatal bloodletting and the removal of a pound of flesh. At each crime scene, the murderer leaves behind clues for the detectives, including the word gluttony at the obese man's home and greed at the attorney's office. Somerset recognizes them as part of the seven deadly sins and realizes the murders are related. Other clues lead them to a possible perpetrator's apartment. There, they find another victim, a known drug dealer and child molester, strapped to a bed, barely alive and emaciated, with a series of pictures indicating he had been tied to the bed for an entire year. The word sloth is scrawled on the wall. The photos also indicate the killer has been planning these deaths for some time.
Somerset and Mills identify a man named John Doe, who has checked out several library books on the deadly sins. Doe flees when they go to his apartment, and Mills gives chase. Doe eventually corners Mills and holds him at gunpoint, but after a few moments, turns and escapes. At Doe's apartment, they find hundreds of handwritten journals showing Doe's apparent psychopathy, and clues leading to a fourth victim. They arrive too late to prevent the death of the victim, a prostitute killed by an unwilling man forced by Doe to wear a bladed S&M phallic device on his genitals and to rape and kill her while severely traumatizing him. They find lust written on the door. They are alerted to their next victim, an attractive young woman, presumably a model, whose face has been mutilated by Doe; she was given the option to call for help and be disfigured, or to commit suicide by taking pills. She chose suicide. The word pride is written on her wall.
Shortly after, as Somerset and Mills return to the police station, they are approached by a man covered in blood, surrendering himself. Mills recognizes him as Doe and arrests him. They discover Doe has been removing the skin on his fingers to avoid leaving behind prints; the blood on him is from a yet-to-be-identified victim. Doe, through his lawyer, advises there are two more victims and offers to take the detectives to them and confess to all the murders, but only under very specific terms, or he will otherwise plead insanity. Somerset is wary, but Mills agrees.
The two detectives, following Doe's directions, drive him to a remote desert location. Within minutes, a delivery van approaches them. Mills holds Doe at gunpoint while Somerset goes to intercept the driver, who had been instructed to bring a box to them. As Somerset recovers the box and sends the driver away, Doe begins telling Mills about how jealous he is of Mills' life and marriage to Tracy, antagonizing Mills. Somerset opens the box, and in horror, tells Mills to stay back and not listen to Doe. Doe continues to taunt Mills as Mills frantically asks what is in the box. Doe reveals that he was so jealous of Mills that he killed Tracy, her death being a result of his envy, and that her head is in the box. Doe tries to goad Mills into vengeance, to become wrath and shoot him. Somerset desperately tries to convince Mills not to shoot Doe, but then Doe reveals that Tracy was pregnant. The revelation is too much for Mills and he shoots Doe six times. Doe's death completes the seven sins. Police converge and take a devastated Mills away. The police captain reassures Somerset that Mills will be taken care of. When asked by the Captain where he will be, Somerset says he will "be around."
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 Seven." He envisioned actor William Hurt as Somerset and named the character after his favorite author, W. Somerset Maugham.
Jeremiah S. Chechik was attached to direct at one point. During pre-production, Al Pacino was considered for the Somerset role, but he decided to do City Hall. Denzel Washington and Sylvester Stallone turned down the role of Mills. Washington later regretted turning down the role.
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. At the time, Fincher had not read a script for a year and a half since the frustrating experience of making Alien 3; he said, "I thought I'd rather die of colon cancer than do another movie". Fincher eventually agreed to direct Seven 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".
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. Actor Pitt joined Fincher in arguing for keeping this original scene, noting that his previous film Legends of the Fall had its emotional ending cut after negative feedback from test audiences, and refusing to do Seven unless the head-in-the-box scene remained.
Filming took place in Los Angeles, California.
Fincher approached making Seven like a "tiny genre movie, the kind of movie Friedkin might have made after The Exorcist." He worked with cinematographer Darius Khondji and adopted a simple approach to the camerawork, which was influenced by the television show COPS, "how the camera is in the backseat peering over people's shoulder". Fincher allowed Walker on the set while filming for on-the-set rewrites. According to the director, "Seven is the first time I got to carry through certain things about the camera – and about what movies are or can be".
The crowded urban streets filled with noisy denizens and an oppressive rain that seems to fall without respite were integral parts of the film, as Fincher wanted to show a city that was "dirty, violent, polluted, often depressing. Visually and stylistically, that's how we wanted to portray this world. Everything needed to be as authentic and raw as possible." To this end, Fincher turned to production designer Arthur Max to create a dismal world that often eerily mirrors its inhabitants. "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." 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.
The 'head in a box' ending continued to worry the studio after filming was completed. 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. However, both Fincher and Pitt continued to fight for the original ending. The final scenes of Mills being taken away and Somerset's quote from Ernest Hemingway were filmed by Fincher after initial filming was complete as a way to placate the studio (the original intention was for the film to suddenly end after Mills shot John Doe).
On the film's title sequence, Fincher has said:
The sequence for Se7en did very important non-narrative things; in the original script there was a title sequence that had Morgan Freeman buying a house out in the middle of nowhere and then travelling back on a train. He was making his way back to the unnamed city from the unnamed suburban sprawl, and that's where the title was supposed to be—"insert title sequence here"—but we didn't have the money to do that. We also lacked the feeling of John Doe, the villain, who just appeared 90 minutes into the movie. It was oddly problematic, you just needed a sense of what these guys were up against. Kyle Cooper, the designer of the title sequence, came to me and said, "You know, you have these amazing books that you spent tens of thousands of dollars to make for the John Doe interior props. I'd like to see them featured." And I said, "Well, that would be neat, but that's kind of a 2D glimpse. Figure out a way for it to involve John Doe, to show that somewhere across town somebody is working on some really evil shit. I don't want it to be just flipping through pages, as beautiful as they are." So Kyle came up with a great storyboard, and then we got Angus Wall and Harris Savides—Harris to shoot it and Angus to cut it—and the rest, as they say, is internet history.
Seven was released on September 22, 1995, in 2,441 theaters where it grossed US$13.9 million on its opening weekend. It went on to gross $100.1 million in North America and $227.1 million in the rest of the world for a total of $327.3 million, making Seven the seventh-highest-grossing film in 1995. The film also spent 4 consecutive weeks in the top spot at the U.S. box office in 1995.
The film was well received by critics and holds an 80% positive rating at the film-review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, based on 70 critics with an average rating of 7.7 out of 10. Its consensus reads: "A brutal, relentlessly grimy shocker with taut performances, slick gore effects, and a haunting finale." The film has a rating of 65 on Metacritic based on 22 reviews.
Gary Arnold, in The Washington Times, praised the cast: "The film's ace in the hole is the personal appeal generated by Mr. Freeman as the mature, cerebral cop and Mr. Pitt as the young, headstrong cop. Not that the contrast is inspired or believable in itself. What gets to you is the prowess of the co-stars as they fill out sketchy character profiles." Sheila Johnston, in her review for The Independent, praised Freeman's performance: "The film belongs to Freeman and his quiet, carefully detailed portrayal of the jaded older man who learns not to give up the fight." James Charisma, in a list of Spacey's greatest film performances for Paste, wrote: "Spacey’s portrayal is a perfect balancing act: John Doe is detached from the murders he commits, yet deliberate and meticulous in his execution ... Unemotional yet smug. Analytical, violent, patient, impenetrable." In his review for Sight and Sound, John Wrathall wrote, "Seven has the scariest ending since George Sluizer's original The Vanishing ... and stands as the most complex and disturbing entry in the serial killer genre since Manhunter." In his "Great Movies" list review, film critic Roger Ebert commented on Fincher's direction: "None of his films is darker than this one."
New Line Cinema re-released Seven in Westwood, Los Angeles, California, on Christmas Day and in New York City on December 29, 1995, in an attempt to generate Academy Award nominations for Freeman, Pitt, and Fincher, which was ultimately unsuccessful.
American Film Institute listsAFI's 100 Years...100 Thrills - Nominated
AFI's 100 Years...100 Heroes and Villains
John Doe - Nominated Villain
AFI's 10 Top 10 - Nominated Mystery Film
For the DVD release, Seven was remastered and presented in the widescreen format, preserving the 2.40:1 aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition. Audio options include Dolby Digital EX 5.1, DTS ES Discrete 6.1, and Stereo Surround Sound.
The Seven DVD features four newly recorded, feature-length audio commentaries featuring the stars and other key contributors to the film, who talk about their experiences making Seven.
This DVD is also compatible with DVD-ROM drives. Disc One features a printable screenplay with links to the film. The Blu-ray Disc was released September 14, 2010.
In 1995, a novelization with the same title was written by Anthony Bruno based on the original film.
Between September 2006 and October 2007, a series of seven comic books were published by Zenescope Entertainment with each of the seven issues dedicated to one of the seven sins. It told the story from the perspective of John Doe rather than the two homicide detectives as in the film. Each issue included contributions by a group of creators independent of each other. All seven issues were collected in trade paperback form, released on January 15, 2008, as SE7EN , edited by David Seidman and Ralph Tedesco.
The opening credit music is a spliced sample of an uncredited remix of the Nine Inch Nails song "Closer", available as "Closer (Precursor)", remixed by Coil, on the "Closer" single. The song during the end credits is David Bowie's song "The Hearts Filthy Lesson", found on his album Outside. The film's original score is by Howard Shore.
- "In the Beginning" – The Statler Brothers
- "Guilty" – Gravity Kills
- "Trouble Man" – Marvin Gaye
- "Speaking of Happiness" – Gloria Lynne – written by Buddy Scott & Jimmy Radcliffe
- "Suite No. 3 in D Major, BWV 1068 Air" – written by Johann Sebastian Bach, performed by Stuttgarter Kammerorchester / Karl Münchinger
- "Love Plus One" – Haircut One Hundred
- "I Cover the Waterfront" – Billie Holiday
- "Now's the Time" – Charlie Parker
- "Straight, No Chaser" – Thelonious Monk (Taken from Monk in Tokyo)
- "Portrait of John Doe" – Howard Shore
- "Suite from Seven" – Howard Shore