The One Page Outline of Se7en
How Andrew Kevin Walker's desperation led to his acclaimed breakthrough film, and how he plans every detail of his scripts in advance.
By David Konow.
Like Taxi Driver in its day, Andrew Kevin Walker’s screenplay for Se7en was a must-read among industry insiders, but no one seemingly had the cojones to make it. Yet against all odds it did get made, and was the surprise hit of 1995. It also cemented Brad Pitt’s star stature, sprung David Fincher from bad movie jail after the debacle of Alien 3, and resurrected the unhappy ending. Many imitations followed in the wake of its success, usually with happier endings (no head in the box, we promise) and some, like Kiss the Girls, even brought Morgan Freeman along, but they all missed the uncompromising vision that made Se7en a great film. Walker was able to use the misery he felt living in New York as inspiration for the story, and as a great example of poetic justice, selling the script would provide his ticket out of the city he hated.
Walker, a native of Pennsylvania, knew early-on that he wanted to work in film, but really got focused on becoming a writer when he was attending Penn State. “I saw writing as a way to get to directing and that was my intention, but once I actually got out of college and saw how hard directing was, I wasn’t that interested,” he says. “But I really got focused on writing in college and was lucky that I was able to work on a feature length script there rather than just a short film.”
After college Walker moved to New York instead of Los Angeles because he couldn’t afford a car. He lived there unhappily for five years, and the city played a big part in inspiring Se7en. “I lived in New York City in the mid to late ’80s, and it was overwhelming to me,” Walker recalls. “I’m from suburbia. NYC was an assault on my senses. I was just expressing some thoughts that occurred to me as I wandered hither and thither in New York. It did actually seem like you could just go around and find all the sins everywhere in the people, in stores, on billboards, in Times Square and the subways… Taxi Driver and Midnight Cowboy really got certain aspects of New York right on the money if you ask me.”
While he lived in New York, Walker worked as a production assistant for a very low budget company called Brisun Entertainment. As he recalls, “The kinds of movies they were making were things like Blood Rush, which was murders in a fraternity house, and they had one idea they wanted to do called “Abusement Park” with somebody sabotaging all the rides, putting piano wire in front of the rollercoaster and everyone’s heads get lobbed off! They never did write that script. And there was something called Brainscan that I worked on that actually got made, which was for no pay. So I was in a very exploitational mode, and the idea of the seven deadly sin murders kind of made sense to me. Now as I developed it and worked on the characters, it hopefully became a little more than what Abusement Park may have been!”
Walker quit working for Brisun because he needed the structure of a regular job where he wouldn’t work long and erratic production hours. He then worked at Tower Records on 66th and Broadway for the next three years. As for how long it took for Se7en to go from idea to a finished draft, Walker says, “I would say, once I started writing, probably five months or so. It took a long time to write Se7en because I was working full-time at Tower Records, and all the research had to take place after work, but I think it does show that you you can carry off a full-time job and still find time to write. I feel like now when I write stuff, once the laborious kind of research period and outlining is all done, I feel like it takes about three months to write a script. Not that that’s fast or slow or anything to shoot for, that’s just kind of where I fall.”
A lot of screenwriters have railed against the creative process having rules, particularly three-act structure, yet Walker is a big believer in going into a script with a good game plan. He highly recommends outlining a script because “when you know where you’re going, I think the reader can feel it. If you do any sort of script reading in general, there are screenplays that feel like the writers sat down, started writing, kept writing, got to page 120, and stopped. That may work really well for some people, but you can often tell that it’s an exhaustive kind of vomiting information out, and it doesn’t sustain your interest as much as you might hope.”
Walker recommends reading as many scripts as you can, which proves a valuable lesson to see how things are laid out on the page, how each writer approaches the process, and what gets changed or cut out of the finished film.
“When I took film production at Penn State, scripts were much harder to find, at least in Pennsylvania,” he recalls. “There was Kubrick’s 2001 in the library, which was amazing, but mostly for how unlike anything else it was. He’d just have two or three lines of description on a lot of the mostly blank pages.”
When planning his own scripts, Walker outlines very specifically and puts it all on one page. “It takes a long time to do it, but I know almost every scene, or at least what I intend it to be, from start to finish,” he says. “That’s why I like having it on one page so I can see whether the first act length is the right size in comparison to the second act and the third act. If I can’t fit it on the page, I know I’m in trouble. There’s three columns. The first column is gonna end right near the bottom of the page, the second act starts at the bottom of the page, the whole center column and maybe a bit more. The third act is always like: three scenes, gigantic chase! Three scenes, they fight!”
The tools of the trade were much different back then as well. “It’s more easy now than ever because of Scriptware and Final Draft,” Walker says. “You can hand in a professional looking piece of material to somebody. There wasn’t spellcheck when I started writing… way back when! I actually wrote my first stuff on an electric typewriter, then I had a word processor and the files weren’t big enough to take a whole script, so I had to break Se7en down into five separate files. I’d stop one and move on to the next, and if I changed something and the end of the page on one file got shorter, then I had to go back in and shorten that one, then I had to shorten and adjust all the other files.”
Walker spends a lot of time in the screenwriting process conducting research. “It’s invaluable in making a detective story seem real, a period piece seem real and so forth,” he says. “One of the biggest reasons for research is it’s one of these things that stirs up your imagination. There are countless things in Se7en that came from just the research. Research is often a lot more surprising in its worth. If you read or at least skim an entire book and get one good thing out of it, it’s worth it.”
Walker continues, “Another thing that was drummed in by my professor was make everything fully imagined, without sitting there and describing every scrap of clothing on a person, what their shoes look like, what their hat looks like… and please especially don’t describe things like: ‘He has a look on his face that tells ya he’s been in Vietnam! The scar on his cheek is from a woman that he left…’ Don’t tell me stuff you can’t see. You can tell me if he looks grizzled and beaten, but you gotta sell that stuff through what’s said and what’s seen when it comes to character.”
Once Se7en was finished, the next step was to get an agent, which is always easier said than done. “I think you gotta do whatever you can when it comes to looking for an agent, but before that, you really have to have written the script that you think is going to get an agent,” Walker says. “You shouldn’t, I think, be trying to show an agent a handful of treatments or outlines. You should have this thing that’s hopefully not five-hundred pages, that’s hopefully not written in crayon, that you can give to an agent, that you think can honestly give you the very best shot at getting a sale. You wanna put your very best foot forward.”
Walker ended up getting his big break by calling David Koepp (Spider-Man, Panic Room) out of the phone book, and asking if he’d check out Se7en. “With David Koepp, he happened to have a few articles written about him in Premiere magazine at the time, and Bad Influence had just come out,” Walker continues. “He was at a smaller agency that wasn’t ICM or CAA, and I really thought that if you went to a smaller agency there would be more of a chance of them taking a chance on somebody who’s new, which is true.”
Once Koepp checked out the screenplay for Se7en, he recommended it to his agent, Gavin Polone. It wasn’t long before Andrew got the phone call every struggling screenwriter dreams of. “When Gavin called me up in my tiny Astoria, Queens apartment and said he’d represent the script for Se7en, I literally leaped for joy. And I’m not using the word ‘literally’ like so many people do nowadays. I jumped in the air! I hope I never forget how impossible it felt to ever get an agent to look at anything, let alone shop it around. I know what desperation is, that feeling of wanting and trying and yearning to work in the film business. I don’t ever want to forget that.”
Walker has often said that with Se7en he tried to take the clichés you see in police stories and twist them into fresher ideas. “The stuff that people got on Se7en about, and still do, are the rookie cop comes in, the old cop is there… anything with two buddy cops doing something, anytime you walk into a crime scene, especially now because of CSI. Look, if you have a cop who comes into the autopsy room and the guy doing the autopsy is eating a submarine sandwich, we’ve seen that a thousand times! You know when you’re doing that stuff that you’re doing it, some of it you’re gonna have to do. You’re gonna have to walk into a crime scene if there’s been a murder, but there’s gotta be some way to play with it.” [Walker went against a cliché in his last act where the cops usually apprehend the villain by having John Doe turn himself in instead.]
One of the best scenes in Se7en wasn’t a graphic or bloody one, but a tender moment between Gwyneth Paltrow and Morgan Freeman where she confesses she’s pregnant and is unsure whether she’ll keep the baby. Walker comments, “I liked that scene because it had Tracy asking Somerset to keep a secret, that she was pregnant, from Mills. And that played a part in the final scene, because Somerset knew, even before Mills, all that was lost with Tracy’s death. That scene between Somerset and Tracy, along with Mills and Somerset’s argument in the bar about whether they can make any difference at all or should even try—these were scenes that some involved in the making of Se7en wanted to cut out, I guess because they were slow, maybe even boring, scenes for some. I’ve come to seriously appreciate a movie that isn’t afraid to bore me occasionally. I find that a really daring choice these days, to be applauded and celebrated as a great achievement.”
Many adjectives fit the ending of Se7en. Shocking and controversial certainly come to mind, but it also seemed the most logical way to end the film. It’s hard to think of any other way the movie could convincingly end, but Walker smiled and said, “Well the studio had all kinds of different ways! The killer had to do the thing that guaranteed that this cop was gonna complete the cycle, so it was only natural that that head should be in a box.” In a sense, the ending was there practically from the beginning. When the idea for the movie first popped into his mind, at a certain point Walker thought, well, there has to be something where the cop becomes that seventh sin, and that became the conceit of the film. Not everyone understood this line of reasoning. During one meeting Se7en producer Arnold Kopelson reportedly said, “There’s no way that there will be a head in the box at the end of this movie, there is absolutely no way that will ever happen, don’t even talk to me about that.”
“Luckily Fincher and everyone fought for it,” says Walker. “It’s not like I’m saying the only good endings are really depressing, down endings. The only ending that’s good is the ending that’s appropriate to it. Sleepy Hollow always had a happier ending. “My argument was always that anybody who sits through this and makes it through the lust murder, if they’re still in the theater, they’re ready for whatever! The lust murder was the real sweaty palm moment when you watched the test screening…. The thing I remember when they were test screening Se7en was that you were subjecting this movie to an especially unsuspecting audience, recruited from a mall, for example, and so I was expecting everyone to stand up and leave. Luckily they didn’t.” “Se7en was a hard movie to test-screen because it’s kind of designed so that the audience walks into the same buzz-saw that Somerset and Mills walk into,” Walker continues. “There were no credits and no music, no period for anyone to catch their breath. So if you were an audience member at one of the test screenings, basically there’s the last scene with the head in the box, and all that agony and violence, and then suddenly the lights come up, and someone hands you a scorecard and pencil and says, ‘How’d you enjoy that?! What do ya think?!’”
Se7en never showed as much as you thought, but people swear it’s a much bloodier movie than it really is. Surprisingly, Walker says, “Nowadays they don’t show anything, which to me is a huge disappointment. I grew up with Dawn of the Dead, which was showing something; there’s just certain things that it’s appropriate for. Nowadays everything’s PG-13, or if it’s an R, they’re worried about getting an NC-17. To be honest, I can go either way on it. There were certain things in 8mm that were like, ‘There’s no reason to show this,’ you know? People sometimes talk about Se7en like it was restrained, I mean you see a lot of stuff. And yes, you don’t see the murders, that’s what suited the story. It doesn’t mean that was the way it should be done, it just means it worked for that. It would have been ridiculous to show the lust murder. It was better that people imagine it and see the reaction of the characters; that made sense.” One of the best elements that was never shown was in Walker’s first draft of 8mm, where one of the villains is a gigantic steroids monster porn star named Machine, who always wears a Mexican wrestling mask. At the end of the script when he is killed and the mask is finally pulled off, his face is never shown.
When he was first writing Se7en, Walker also wanted the audience to know absolutely nothing about John Doe for the entire story. But as he came to realize, “A serial killer story where there’s a series of murders and a cat-and-mouse game with the police, you kinda have to tell a little bit about the character, towards the end at least. I really wanted to leave it almost all unsaid because the more you describe it, the more you’re gonna push it into pure fiction. When you’re trying to explain exactly what spanking it was, and at what age it was inappropriate that his mother gave it to him and that’s when his mind snapped.… With Machine, when they take off the mask and you’re waiting, I thought, ‘How cool would it be—it’s so pretentious, but who cares— not to show his face?’ It really frustrates the audience, but what face under there would answer any questions you had? ‘Oh, of course!’”
Se7en came in at number one at the box office on its opening weekend, and remained in the top spot for several weeks. “It wasn’t that it opened huge, but it hung on pretty well week to week,” says Walker. “The thing that was hard to grasp regarding Se7en being successful financially, which is so important in this town, was it was hard to stop worrying about whether it would do well. The thing is I loved it, and so did all the people who were involved in it and fought for it, so I’d be very, very proud of it regardless. But it took the longest time for it to sink in that the movie did well financially, and how lucky I was in that respect, because frankly, with the bleak subject matter and ending, it certainly wasn’t a given that it would recoup.”
So is the key to follow your heart, and the rest will follow? “You really have to write what you want to write, including, if you gotta write your five-hundred- page script, God bless ya,” he says. “Probably nobody’s gonna take a look at it, but if that’s what you gotta do, then that’s what you gotta do. But I would say once you’ve sent out your five-hundred page script and spent all your money at Kinko’s, start your next one, then start your next one, and your next one. Don’t just sit and go, ‘This is the one that’s gonna make it happen.’
“You gotta keep doing it and keep striving for this thing that you want it to be. You can never really be trying to write stuff that you think other people will want. Please don’t go and write what you think has been done before that you can reinterpret slightly and make a million bucks at it. You may do that, but make sure you’re doing something that feels right and personal to you. If you dig something that’s super mainstream, that’s great as long as you’re being true to yourself—then I think more good stuff will get made accidentally.”
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 11, #2
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