Seven is one of the most iconic horror/thrillers released in the last 20 years, and one of the reasons is the incredible detail that the film offers. Just take the example of John Doe’s notebooks.
Antagonist John Doe’s notebooks are seen in glimpses in the film’s opening title sequence, and once again briefly when our heroes (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) take over Doe’s apartment.
But to create those notebooks, Seven’s art department spent weeks designing and creating them, and one man — John Sabel — filled them up with content, writing every page by hand.
A separate art team worked on designing the notebooks of Seven. In fact, the main duo who designed and made the notebooks, Clive Piercy and John Sabel, weren’t even credited for their work in the film. Seven production designer Arthur Max wasn’t too satisfied with their own design, so he called up Piercy and Sabel and asked them to make a new set of notebooks.
Piercy and Sabel went to work, and it took them several weeks before they had a large set of books for the film.
The notebooks in John Doe’s apartment fill up entire shelves, and contrary to a popular myth, not all were filled with content.
“There was a whole shelf full of books, and probably six of them had content inside,” says Piercy, adding that two of those had more elaborate content with photos and notes. Still, it took weeks and tens of thousands of dollars to make those notebooks.
And those six notebooks still had to be filled with handwriting. That was Sabel’s job, who spent hours upon hours copying the text that was sent by the production by hand into the notebooks.
“It was painful [to write the notebooks]” says Sabel about writing the notebooks.
To really show John Doe’s macabre mind on the pages, the team added various crime scene photos and whatever dark and gritty imagery they could find. One additions that caused some stir among the crew was a genuine suicide letter written by a man who took his life shortly after writing it.
“Let these people [the filmmakers] have to deal with it if they’re pushing is this far”
They added the suicide letter to the film because they were pushed by the filmmakers to make the notebooks more realistic, darker, and grittier.
“Let these people [the filmmakers] have to deal with it if they’re pushing is this far”, said Sabel, commenting on a possible backlash if the suicide letter was included. It was, and appears briefly in the films opening title sequence.
The movie’s opening title sequence, made by advertising agency R/GA, extensively used the newly finished notebooks. The opening sequence is made entirely of insert shots of the notebooks, with (supposed) John Doe in the process of making them.
Here are some of the interesting bits concerning the Seven notebooks, as revealed by Sabel and Piercy during a special featurette on the Seven DVD:
It’s interesting to see just how much work it requires to make something feel real in a movie. The production could have take the easy way and saved a lot of money, but they chose to do it right. They chose to put in the work and effort for something that’s barely used in the film.
In the end, the notebooks have become legendary in the movie world for their design and the level of detail put into them. The masterful opening title sequence wouldn’t have had nearly as much impact if notebooks didn’t look right.