Cuts We Love 3Q19

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3rd Qtr, 2019

There’s no escaping the grim fascination of this neo-noir crime thriller nor the horrific inevitability of its conclusion. Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman are detectives Mills and Somerset on the trail of a serial killer who uses the seven deadly sins as a motif in his murders.

The film is largely set in a claustrophobic, dark and perpetually-raining hellish vision of New York City (though the city is never named). For the denouement, serial killer John Doe (Kevin Spacey) is driven in custody and handcuffs by the detectives away from the city into a wide-open sun-parched industrial landscape.

“It was always meant to be a daytime or early evening scene,” explains Richard Francis-Bruce, ACE. “When a journalist asked [director David Fincher] whether he chose that location with its electrical pylons as an homage to North by Northwest, he said, ‘No, I just thought it was a great location.’

Funnily enough, the first scene we shot with Brad, which is the second scene in the film when he is waiting for Somerset to turn up, it was raining hard but they liked the look of it so much they shot everything else with rain machines. They just wanted the end of the film to be different.”

In the distance a van approaches the trio and the tension racks up. “This is the moment we’ve been waiting for, when all will be revealed, and yet it is not that moment,” says Francis-Bruce, who was Oscar® nominated. “The van and the driver are a false ‘gotcha.’ It’s built with fast cuts as the van gets closer and screeches to a halt when Somerset fires his gun. You know Doe has a master plan. But it’s not the van. Could it be what’s in the van? As Somerset considers the box, we hope the audience thinks that there’s a bomb. The intent is to build layers of suspense and peel them back one by one.

The principal photography on the ground was shot at a time when the vegetation was very green and lush. The POV from the helicopter was done weeks later when the ground was parched. The earlier material was color timed to match the later shots. “This was the last film I cut on film so the ability to do multiple versions wasn’t there. That was a bit of a blessing since I was able to spend time cutting the principal story and when we got the aerial footage I could work out where to drop it in fairly easily. If I’d had all the material at once the scene would have been a lot more difficult to build.”

He says, “Suspense works better slowly. We lengthened the scene, strung it out by cutting up the dialogue between the two stories – one with Mills and Doe and one with Somerset. Once Somerset stands up there are three cuts of the box before he decides to run. He is just stunned and doesn’t know what to do.”

The audience feels just as stunned as Somerset because of Freeman’s reaction on opening the box. “The script had Somerset saying, ‘Oh dear Christ’ to be played over the radio on a shot of the SWAT team’s helicopter. But Morgan’s reaction to opening the box was just so disturbing it communicated everything. It was the first take. After that he couldn’t get it quite right.” The realization is only driven home to the audience on John Doe’s words: “…her pretty head.” “It hits you like thunder clap.”

Fincher had no intention of displaying what was in the box but the scene exacted such a visceral reaction when shown to New Line Cinema execs that the studio started to get nervous. “One idea was to substitute the head of Mills’ pet dog but that was never shot. People imagine they see a lot more gore than they do. Some tell me they’re convinced they’ve seen a head in the box. “If you look very closely though there is one shot of the open box with a piece of hair. It’s very slight. Was it really there?”