‘The Last of Us’ Co-Creators Break Down Season 1 Finale & Tease Season 2
Mar 13, 2023
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Last of Us.]Over the course of its first season, the expert storytelling, stunning performances, and truly human moments that end in triumph or tragedy have not only made the HBO series The Last of Us an excellent representation of the popular video game its based on, but have also made it one of the best TV shows of 2023. The unbending will to survive, the heartbreak of love pushed to its limits, and the horror of failing short, all contribute to the emotional gut punch that will surely stick with you while you wait for Season 2.
During this press conference to discuss Season 1 and look ahead to Season 2, co-creators Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (who also wrote the video game) talked about deciding how they wanted to present the infected, making sure that every piece of action moves character and wasn’t just there for spectacle, Joel’s actions at the end of the finale, the challenges of turning Calgary into various states in the United States, lining up the directors with their episodes, adding to the backstory for Ellie’s mother, whether they ever considered making any big changes to the end of the season finale, what they’ve learned that they’ll apply to Season 2, why they’ll never recast Ellie, and so much more.
Question: The show started off a little bit more infected-heavy than it ended. In the game, you’re constantly finding the infected, but there were large sections of the story in the TV series where there were no infected. How did you decide how to pace that out?
CRAIG MAZIN: Part of the adaptation process is trying to figure out how to take source material that was built around gameplay and ported over to a medium that is passive. A lot of the gameplay centered on NPCs that you have to get around, either by avoiding, stealth killing, or just confronting head on. That’s your choices when you’re playing. And the NPCs were either raiders or cannibals or Fedra, or were they were the infected, so there’s a lot of fighting. I don’t know what your ultimate kill count is, on a typical run of The Last of Us, but it’s in the triple digits, for sure.
NEIL DRUCKMANN: It depends on your play style, but it’s much higher than we would want for the show.
MAZIN: Yeah. So, we did, at times, have choices to make about how we wanted to present the infected. I will say that, even though we were greenlit for a season of television, Neil and I felt like we couldn’t just make a season of television without considering what would come after. There is more of The Last of Us to come, and the balance is not always just within an episode, or even episode to episode, but season to season. It’s quite possible that there will be a lot more infected later, and perhaps different kinds. But within the episodes that we were concentrating on, ultimately, we generally stressed the power of relationships and trying to find significance within moments of action. And so, there may be less action than some people wanted because we couldn’t necessarily find significance for quite a bit of it, or there was a concern that it would be repetitive. After all, you’re not playing it, you’re watching it. Although a lot of people do like to watch gameplay, it needs to be a little bit focused and purposeful when we’re putting it on TV.
DRUCKMANN: We took a very high level approach and looked at the action across the board, and every piece of action, if you look at the show, has to move character in some way. If it doesn’t move character and it was only there for spectacle, then it was an easy cut for us.
Image via HBO
Something you’ve been warning your audience about, throughout the season, is this idea of the danger of love and how it’s not always a healthy, wholesome thing. Were you trying to prepare viewers for the ending of this season? How does that concept apply to what Joel does at the end of the finale?
DRUCKMANN: You’re right, that was the concept for the story, both for the game and the show. For the game, it started with, how can we make the player feel the unconditional love that parents feel for their child, and this worry and fear and love and joy that can come with it? But then sometimes, when you love something unconditionally, logic goes out the window and you will do really horrible things to protect the ones you love. There are a lot of examples, worldwide, of this happening all the time. For us, it was about, “Okay, here are all the different pieces that we have and the tools that we have within the story. How can we, with each episode, thematically touch on that, in some way?” There’s the beauty and the joy that can come out of a story like Bill and Frank, and a fate worse than death when a man has to kill his own brother because he’s turned. And then, ultimately, there are the greater and greater sacrifices Joel has to make for Ellie, and likewise with what she’s going through to protect him.
MAZIN: We give unconditional love way too much credit, like it’s the highest form of love. Unconditional means literally no conditions. None. Including conditions whereby you really ought to be doing something that is not within the best interests of the person you love, at least according to some sort of moral code or a standard of ethics. I’m not suggesting that I have a hard opinion about how things go at the end. I don’t. I’m confused about it, morally. I think it’s a difficult choice. I go back and forth, and I think a lot of people will go back and forth on it. But even if we weren’t necessarily soft launching anything, we are aware of things, as we built this season around the story of the first game, that Neil and Naughty Dog weren’t aware of when they told that story the first time around. So, there are certain little moments and things that we put in there. But ultimately, I don’t think there’s anything this season that contradicts what was already there in essence, or explicitly in the game itself.
When you play the game and it comes to the final decision that Joel makes to shoot the doctor, you have to make that active decision, or at least be complicit in that active decision because you literally can’t get past that scene without shooting the doctor. How did you want to capture that deep investment that someone has when they’re playing the game, when you were representing that in the show?
MAZIN: I didn’t feel that differently about it myself, maybe because it wasn’t a choice. I’ve played a lot of video games, so I know the difference between choosing and not choosing. There’s a fantastic sequence in Bioshock that goes right to the heart of just exactly how much choice you have, as a game player. You become very aware, how much you are on rails in any game. I was playing God of War Ragnarök, and this is a guy that is capable of throwing boulders and killing Gods, but he can’t get through a bush because you have to stay on this path. They didn’t code the stuff over there. So, there is a sense that you have a choice, but when we give you a choice. In those moments, when I played the game, what I felt was that I was being told a story and I was part of the story, I was invested in the story, and it was around me. To the extent that we can make people feel like the rest of the world goes away, as they watch the televised version of this story, I think we’re arriving in the same place, which is that your experiencing the story that Neil wrote, initially as the game, and that we wrote as the show.
DRUCKMANN: It’s an interesting thing that we haven’t quite figure out how to articulate. There’s something that happens when you’re playing a character, that you immediately empathize with them. There’s almost a shortcut compared to other mediums. The greatest example of that is when we were watching people play That Last of Us, when it was all strung together for the first time, and they get to the winter section and, all of a sudden, you think Joel might be dead because he’s so incapacitated, and the camera is just on Ellie, and then the UI comes up and you and every player almost like instinctively says, “Oh, my God, I’m Ellie.” And they start playing it very, very differently than how they were playing as Joel, even though the mechanics are not that different. It was interesting to hear some players talk about when they would come into this operating room, play through it, and then rescue Ellie and run out, and they would say, “Man, I can’t believe you made me kill the doctor and those nurses.” I’m like, “I didn’t make you kill those nurses. You went into that operating room with guns blazing.” It’s an interesting thought process that happened there. Even if you try to resist what’s happening, at least in your mind, you’re starting to say, “What would I do? What do I wanna do versus what the game wants me to do, and the character wants me to do?” For us, it was an interesting conversation to say, “How do we put you in that same mindset?” For the most part, viewers have been in alignment with Joel, as far as what he’s trying to do and protect Ellie. It’s such like a noble cause that he has. So then, how do we show this really sad thing? It’s sad, more than anything else, to see the darkness that he’s capable of. And then, it’s about, “Okay, how do we frame it with music? How do we shoot it? What are all the other tools we have to make you feel something very similar?
What were the challenges of shooting in Calgary and trying to capture several different distinct states in the United States?
MAZIN: It was difficult. Calgary is but one of the places in Alberta that we filmed. We were in Edmonton, and then we were everywhere else. We were in Olds, High River, Fort Macleod, Lethbridge, Grand Prairie, Canmore. I’ve become an expert in the map of Alberta. The best part was when we were shooting in the second part of the season, when we’re out of our urban environment and we’re into the Rockies, and Wyoming and Colorado and snow, the good news was that the Rockies run right through there, and it’s some of the most beautiful landscape you’ll ever find. That’s where they made The Revenant. But the other stuff was difficult, and what it came down to was a lot of anxiety and planning and building, and then some terrific extension work by our visual effects team, led by Alex Wang. Those environments were primarily done by DNEG, which did incredible work, and WETA, as well. Things like finding a cul de sac of homes and having an army of infected swarming out of a hole, we built that entire place. We built that whole cul de sac and designed it. It was a hell of a production. It was massive. I’m trying to stop saying it’s massive to myself because I know that next season is gonna be more massive and I don’t wanna freak out. But man, it wasn’t easy. I would give us, honestly, a solid B plus, but my goal is to do better next season, now that we’ve learned some lessons. Every now and then, you get a little bit of, “Oh, it’s Canada,” when we don’t want it to be Canada. It’s an awesome place to shoot. I loved it. I loved being there. It’s pretty cool when Stephen King points out how much Canada it is, so thanks Stephen.
Image via HBO
Was there any moment or detail in the show, which may have looked simple or insignificant on screen, but actually took a great deal of work?
MAZIN :Good question. All of Lincoln, all of Bill’s Town, was erected out of nothing, and then CG took over the rest of it. Those houses had no rooftops and they weren’t as dirty as we wanted them to be. Going a little deeper into Bill’s Town, one of the things about it was we start in 2003 when things are roughly fine, and then some years go by where Bill takes care of his own house and neglects everybody else’s house. Frank shows up, a little more time goes by, and Frank says, “I wanna take care of other people’s houses.” So, things get better. Now, more time goes by and they’re old, and Frank isn’t doing well, and things have gone back again. There was this constant changing of foliage and weeds and grass and paint. But there were also little things that were done with the effects that were really difficult to pull off, but necessary, that blend in with moments where it was prosthetic work and you can’t tell where the handover is. You can’t tell where it goes. But so many people work so hard, to make it so that you couldn’t tell. The thing is, if you don’t make movies and television, it’s hard to explain, other than everything is hard. We move very slowly and deliberately and carefully. On average, we shoot 2 ½ pages of work a day, covering it from multiple angles, repeating it, repeating it and repeating it. Our actors are often doing very physical things, over and over and over. Bella Ramsey, was crawling on the ground, over and over and over. Pedro Pascal was walking through snow blasting in his face from a large fan, over and over and over. He would yell at me so much because it was only for three seconds and he was so cranky, but it looked awesome. As it turns out, everything is way harder than people know, which is why, if you’re a critic, I’m begging you, no matter how much you don’t like something, please never accuse the people making it of being lazy. There’s nothing lazy about making any of this stuff.
DRUCKMANN: And shout out to HBO, who gave us the budget and time to make it safe to be on the set, as well, get all the coverage that we needed, spend time with the actors, and really take our time and be as thoughtful as we wanted to be.
You gathered a range of talented directors from different artistic worlds. How did you choose which director should shoot which episode?
MAZIN: It’s a bit like casting, in its own way. It’s a little bit like casting actors for roles. Generally speaking, we followed the same vibe that we used on Chernobyl, where we only used one director, Johan Renck. But when we cast Johan Renck as the director, we were looking for somebody that was not necessarily the usual, and we did the same thing here. Some of it was as simple as saying, “Look, these are the episodes that we have available.” And some of it was saying, “This is the one we think you might be good with.” Some of it was them saying, “I wanna do this one. Case in point, with Jasmila Žbanić, the wonderful Bosnian director – if you seen her film Quo Vadis, Aida?, you should – I thought because she had grown up in the middle of the civil war in Sarajevo that she would be interested in directing the episode where we see Kansas City torn apart in a civil war. And she said, “No, the episode I wanna do is the episode where things are working, and where Maria, Tommy’s wife, as a leader of a community, has rebuilt a functioning society in a world where we have seen almost nothing functioning.” That was where her heart was. By and large, my feeling is that, if you’re is with something, then you’ll give it all you’ve got. That’s the way it’s always been for m, as a writer. I think that’s the way it is for directors. We like to take big swings. We like to bring in interesting people. We had Ali Abbasi. We also had Jeremy Webb. We had Liza Johnson. We had Neil and myself. We had Peter Hoar, the king of them all, who directed episode three. We were multiple countries and multiple points of view, and it accrued to our benefit, each time.
DRUCKMANN: When we were, as Craig calls it, casting for all these different roles, we always looked for passion. We looked for someone that really connected. Whether they were gamers or not was not a prerequisite. We just needed you to be passionate about the material for the show and have an interesting take on it. That was the conversation we’d have. It wasn’t, “How are you gonna shoot it? How are you gonna approach it?” It was, “Let’s talk characters. Let’s talk about what this thing is about.” And you could feel their excitement, when they really connected with it.
The finale adds to the mythology of the game, by showing Ellie’s mom and her connection to Marlene and, most importantly, why Ellie is immune. Why was it important to add that information to the show, and why did you decide to reveal that in this episode?
DRUCKMANN: The short story of the origin of that little sequence is that, when we’re wrapping up the game, there were these opportunities to do other pieces of storytelling to help promote the game. We did this comic book, called American Dream, and that’s where we developed Riley, which later turned into the Left Behind additional chapter, and there was an opportunity to do an animated short. So, trying to come up with a story, I wrote this short script about Ellie’s mom and how she gave birth to Ellie, was bitten at the same time, and wasn’t sure if she was infected during that birth. It just became this little character drama that felt like it spoke to the same themes of parental love for their child and how much you’re willing to do, even when you’re on death’s door. That deal fell apart. And then, we were talking to another game company to potentially do it as a whole other game. And then, that deal fell apart, to tell that story. Then, I got into live-action and we actually did a short. I was talking to Ashley Johnson about her starring it, but then we both got busy and that fell apart. I just forgot about it until I started meeting with Mr. Mazin to talk about the show. He was like, “What do you have that we haven’t seen? What is Ellie’s backstory?” I was just telling all this stuff, and I told him this other story about Ellie’s mom. And he was like, “Oh, my God, that has to go into the show.” And then, we talked about how it would fit and where it made sense to put it in. It does hint at and gives some theories of why Ellie is immune, even though we don’t answer that conclusively. More importantly than that, it builds the relationship between Marlene and Anna, so that when you get to the ending and we put Marlene against Joel, and they have their own opposite philosophical terms of the ends justifying the means, knowing how close she was with Anna, and that Anna’s dying wish is, “Take care of my kid,” gives more weight and maybe more tragedy to the sacrifice Marlene is trying to make for the betterment of mankind.
MAZIN: It was one of those moments when I would ask the questions and he would tell me things. We both simultaneously came to Ashley. That, to me, is one of the most fulfilling moments of the production of the show because I’m a fan of the game and I’m a fan of Ashley’s. Troy Baker disappears into a thousand roles. I can’t believe he’s all the different characters that he plays. But Ashley sounds like Ellie, and Ellie sounds like Ashley. She’s already this quasi-mythological creature to me, and to see her giving birth to herself, in a sense, and to create that genetic connection between her performance as Ellie and the origin story of Bella [Ramsey] as Ellie, was just profound. I think everybody just felt something beautiful about it. It goes to the fact that Neil has these very deeply connected relationships with the people who have played these parts, whether it’s Troy or Ashley or Jeffrey Pierce or Merle Dandridge. You feel these things, and that carried through. Those relationships carried through to the show and gave me space to make relationships with them too. You just feel like there was a family, and the family has grown. It doesn’t always work like that in this business. It really doesn’t. It was honestly a beautiful thing. And I’m so proud of what Ashley did in that episode.
DRUCKMANN: Ashley is incredible, and I had no doubt that she would be incredible because I’ve worked with her for so many years. This is the first time she did anything for The Last of Us that I wasn’t directing. Before the shoot, she called me and she was all nervous. She was like, “I don’t know how to do this. I wish you were here.” I told her, and I wasn’t lying and felt totally confident in saying, “Craig is there. Trust Craig.” He’s been my co-parent now for all these months, and I felt comfortable leaving the set for months at a time because I saw the love he had for the material. And I think that gave her some ease to say, “Okay, someone else is watching me, and that someone else really loves and cares about these characters.” And I told him, “Just do what you do, which is collaborate.” Working with Ashley was such a collaboration. I had one understanding of who Ellie is when I was writing those scripts, and then working with her, I had a very different understanding. When we were making the game, we were writing it live. There was an outline that we were adhering to, but after shooting those first few scenes with Ashley, she helped shape that character, in so many ways. She metaphorically gave birth to that character, so having her literally do that in that scene just felt incredibly poetic and beautiful despite how sad that that scene is.
Image via HBO
We got to see Ellie mom, Anna, and learn about some of her backstory. Did you ever consider including anything about Ellie’s biological father?
DRUCKMANN: There was some stuff written for the mom and the dad, for the game studio, to potentially do an Anna game, the climax of which was this scene. I’m reluctant to say anything about it because, as I’ve now found out several times, stories that I think are failures and that will never see the light of day, sometimes see the light of day. All I’ll say is that, in our calculation and our engineering and the decisions we made, for why we picked what we picked and how we placed it, like the religious iconography for Ellie, wasn’t in our calculus. That was never a conversation for us.
MAZIN: It wasn’t directly, although there were moments in the description, and it may have even said it in the script, when Marlene arrives to find Anna with Ellie, and there’s blood and a dead infected, and Anna is holding a knife and she’s infected, we said it was the most fucked up mother and child pietà that you’ve ever seen. Certainly, you can make superficial connections there. But I actually never had my own curiosity about Ellie’s father. In my mind at least, Joel’s daughter exists, and then he meets Ellie, and the whole process is about how difficult it is to let somebody else in when you’ve closed that door off and nailed it shut forever. But Ellie doesn’t have that. That door is open. That room has never been occupied. Joel just gets in there almost immediately, and I do like that. I like the idea that the room is open and empty, and even we don’t know anything about that. That’s interesting.
With the story of Ellie’s mom as a tragic twist to Marlene’s actions in the finale, and given the promise that she made to Anna, did you and Merle Dandridge consider doing anything different with her character, compared to how it was approached in the game?
DRUCKMANN: In the game, you never see Anna. You get to experience her in very game, mechanical ways. There’s a note in Ellie’s backpack, so you can open the backpack and go through all the items in there, and it’s a hidden thing that players can or cannot find. It gives you a little bit about Anna’s character. And then, in the hospital, there are these voice recordings that Marlene recorded talking about the struggle she had to make this choice because of how close she was with Anna. Here, we get to dramatize. It’s a beautiful thing because we get to do it with Merle and Ashley. This relationship that existed in Merle’s mind when she was recording those lines, she got to see it live, with one of her good friends, Ashley Johnson. There’s just something really nice about the actors that have contributed so much to bringing life of the story, then doing it again on the show.
MAZIN: We were talking a lot, the three of us – Merle and Neil and I – about the nature of Marlene’s relationship with Anna. Merle had her own thoughts, and Neil had some ideas. We were just moving around and around. Where we landed, and I think it was the right choice, was to not let us in on too much of it beyond, “How long have we know each other? All our lives.” That’s what mattered. The circumstances of it were not important. It was the length of the investment. You understood that there was a connection there that was deep and long-standing and profound. That was the most important thing.
DRUCKMANN: That’s the thing that puts the most weight on Marlene’s decision to break the oath that she made to her friend.
Did you ever consider making a major creative departure from the game’s ending, for episode 9? Was that ever a consideration to change how the story ended?
DRUCKMANN: No, not with this production. No, not at all. Craig was already in love with it. We had little things that we considered, like changing certain shots or beats or lines, but they were what I would consider superficial things. There was no major deviation.
MAZIN: Neil was never the guy who said, “No, we have to do it the way it was in the game.” I was that guy because I’m a fan. In the smartest, most generous and flexible way, Neil was always open to the process of adaptation. He understood what adaptation meant. And it wasn’t like he was suggesting, “You know, we shouldn’t do the giraffe scene,” or “We should do it differently.” It wasn’t that. It was me saying, “By the way, we’re doing that exactly the way it was in the game. We’re doing it as close as we can.” Sometimes cameras would be on the other side because of the way the set was, or the sun or the wind, with the things that you don’t have to worry about when you’re making a game, there was never a question, that was the ending. As a player, I got to the end and was like, “Why would I ever want to change that? It’s awesome.”
DRUCKMANN: Had Craig come and said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about this other ending,” I’m sure at first, I would tense up a little bit and I’d hear the pitch,” but our process would have been like, “Okay, let’s talk it through.” We would then go back through the whole season and say, “Have we worked up towards this other ending, potentially?,” and we’d consider it. Often, we would have these pitches and be like, “What if we did this drastic change?” And then, we’d play it through the whole story, and often the answer would be like, “Okay, it doesn’t quite work,” or “It changes too many things,” or “We like what this part was about, and this would shift it too much.” So, we’d go back to where we were, and then keep going.
MAZIN: We certainly weren’t afraid to talk about anything, or to consider changing anything. Obviously, we did change a lot of things. My phrase that I would use with Neil was “radical suggestion.” Sometimes it was, “Hey, what if Sam were deaf?,” or “Hey, what if Bill and Frank actually had a great relationship?” And then, other times, we would play around with stuff because it was important to give things their chance. If you don’t give it a chance, then you can start to feel a little choked off. The writing time is the safe time. It’s just ink. It’s not even ink anymore.
DRUCKMANN: It’s the cheapest way to try really expensive things.
Image via HBO
According to the credits for the finale episode, Laura Bailey is one of the nurses about to operate on Ellie at the hospital. How do you land on her, in that capacity? Will we see her again?
She was like, “Come on, let me be in the show.” And we were like, “We love you. Of course!” It was late along, and Merle was back to play Marlene. She had been in the first episode, and here she was back in the end. We were shooting up in Grand Prairie, which is fully far-flung Northern Alberta, out where the oil fields are. Laura and Merle are great friends, and we were like, “Do you wanna be a nurse? And she was like, “Yeah!” It was just this fun thing. We were all hanging out in a bar in a Fairfield Suites, or whatever it was, in Grand Prairie, and I took Laura on a tour of the halls of this hospital. We were up there because they have a hospital that essentially is abandoned, at this point. It’s gonna be torn down. It was interesting, she cried, just looking at it. The same thing that happened with Merle. The first time Merle put the Marlene wig on, she cried. It was a common thing that the people that had come from Neil’s game world felt like they were stepping into the most amazing VR adaptation of The Last of Us, ever.
DRUCKMANN: By the way, I had the same reaction when I first walked onto the set.
MAZIN: Laura is great. I won’t tell you which one she is. The two nurses look very similar, and I won’t tell you which one she is.
DRUCKMANN: Laura played Abbey in the second game, which is a very pivotal character in that story. People say that Merle is the only actor that played the same role in both the game and the show, which is not entirely true. Laura Bailey also played the nurse in the operating room for the first game, and now she plays that nurse again. We were like, “Okay, we’ve gotta get you in there somewhere in the season.” Maybe we’ll do something else with her in the next season.
MAZIN: She’s got a mask on, so we can make her anything we want in the next season.
DRUCKMANN: She sent me this very funny picture that she took the day that they shot that scene. For those that know who she plays in the next story, it’s very much related to that operating room. So, maybe when the season’s over, I’ll tweet that picture of her.
Reflecting on Season 1 as a whole, and looking ahead to Season 2, what is something that you think you’ll do differently in the adaptation? What did you learn about yourselves, or the way in which you work together, through this process of Season 1?
MAZIN: One of the things Neil and I have been talking about, over and over, is to not change the process, at least our process. Our process works, of kicking the tires on everything, and of how, no matter how much we disagree, we find a way to agree. There’s no veto power here. No one gets his way. We just figure it out. We wanna keep the writing process roughly what it was, which is pretty solitary. That’s important to us. Production wise, I learned so much because this is the biggest production I’ve ever been involved in. I’ve been involved in making some big productions, but not like this.
DRUCKMANN: I knew 0% about making TV shows. Now, I know 5%.
MAZIN: He’s up to 5%. I’m up to 12%. We’re doing great. Thanks HBO. Going into the show, I had the benefit of 25 years or so of experience making stuff, but scale is its own challenge, and I learned a lot about scale. I think we will be a little more efficient in our process, which means we’ll have more time to do some more complicated things. What I’m really excited about is the fact that, for so many of us, whether it’s crew or cast, we will be returning sophomores. We know where everything is. We won’t get lost, figuring out how to get to math class anymore. That’s a comfort level that you have to earn, so I’m excited to feel that.
When it comes to Bella Ramsey and future chapters of this show, The Last of Us II takes place multiple years after the story of the original game. Is it important for Ellie, in particular, to age up a bit more, prior to Season 2?
DRUCKMANN: Let’s put this to rest.
MAZIN: She’s in a very experimental process to accelerate her aging. She’s smoking six packs of cigarettes a day, and she’s on a pure whiskey and tainted beef diet. No. One of the things about the casting process that’s tough is that we invite people to join us on this process, but all they know is the game. We know what we’re gonna do, in terms of costume and makeup and hair. But more importantly, we also know the spirit and soul of the actor. It’s tough, as a parent of an actor, since you become a surrogate father on set, especially to someone who joined us when she was 17. She’s 19 now, which by the way, is the age of Ellie in The Last of Us II. People were like, “But she doesn’t look like the character.” We were like, “It doesn’t matter. Just watch what happens.” And now they know. There is this constant drumbeat of anxiety, and all I can say to people is that I have so much anxiety myself, about doing a good job on this. Just know I am also very anxious. If you’re anxious about something, I’m probably anxious about it, which means we’re talking about it and thinking about it. We will present things, but it will be different. Just as this season was different, it will be different. Sometimes it will be radically different, and sometimes it will be barely different at all, but it’s gonna be different. It will be its own thing. It won’t be exactly like the game. It will be the show that Neil and I wanna make, and we’re making it with Bella.
DRUCKMANN: When we made the game, I felt we were incredibly lucky. It was like lightning in a bottle that we found Ashley Johnson. I can’t imagine that version of me being anybody else. And then, somehow we got lightning in a bottle again with Bella. We are extremely lucky to have Bella, as you can tell by this season. The only way we would ever consider recasting Bella, is if she said, “I don’t wanna work with you guys anymore.” And even then, we’re not sure that we would grant her that. We might still force her to do it.
MAZIN: And Bella has said, if she could do this forever, she would.
Image via HBO
Neil, what’s it been like to take such a journey with The Last of Us, thinking about the story in a variety of different mediums? How has that changed your perspective of the characters and what comes next?
DRUCKMANN: I’m one of those writers that keeps exploring. There are two kinds of writers. There are the writers where every story they tell is very vastly different from the story they told before. And then, there are writers who just keep telling the same story, over and over, and just keep refining it and changing it and exploring the same themes. If you look at when I was writing and directing Uncharted 4, a very similar theme that I was exploring was family dynamics and finding the struggle between the people you love versus what you’re meant to do and obsession. I love the opportunity to keep revisiting these characters and coming back to them and collaborating with people, to have a better understanding of that world and those characters. More than anything, the joy of this show has been the making of it and getting to better understand these characters that I’ve lived with for so many years, by working with Craig, or by seeing how Pedro and Bella reinterpreted them, and all these other artists that helped rebuild the world again. For me, it’s been incredibly enlightening, as far as understanding who they are. If we ever get to revisit them in game form, and we’ll see, there’s definitely stuff I’m gonna take from here that would be applied over there.
This series has kicked off so much dialogue around video game adaptations and why The Last of Us might be the first great video game adaptation. To what extent do you agree that there haven’t been many, or any, great adaptations until now? Why do you think video games are so sidelined, despite being so rich in story and the highest grossing media products?
MAZIN: There’s Arcane, which is really good.
DRUCKMANN: And don’t forget Sonic the Hedgehog, which is really good.
MAZIN: And Detective Pikachu.
DRUCKMANN: I don’t think we’re the only great on, with all the ones we’ve listed. Maybe now we can subdivide them into adaptation categories, like this is a more direct adaptation than those examples that we gave. Often, the adaptations don’t work for a few reasons. If people had just tried to copy the process for The Last of Us for a different adaptation, they might fail for other reasons. This process worked for this particular story. Trying to adapt another story might have source material that you would have to adapt more and make greater changes to, so if you’re trying to stick to the source material as closely as we have, it wouldn’t work. I think that the biggest reason why these adaptations haven’t worked in the past is often that the people making them don’t know the source material that well and don’t love it the way that we love it, and you can feel it when you watch the thing. They get the soul of it wrong. The superficial details are not necessarily what I believe players want. They wanna have the same experience of the feelings that game made them feel. They wanna somehow replicate that experience while watching it. So, where I think a lot of these shows or movies fail is that they might get the superficial stuff right, but they get the really important, deep stuff wrong.
MAZIN: There was a really interesting phenomenon that I noticed, in people’s responses to episodes of The Last of Us, as they rolled out. Oftentimes, people would say some version of, “It was amazing tonight. It’s just mind-blowing, how it’s almost a 1-1 reproduction of the game.” And it would be on an episode where I’d be like, “Literally almost nothing in that episode was even in the game.” But they’re talking about the soul. Whether they realize it or not, that’s why they think that. It’s because they have a memory of playing it, and it made them feel things that we were able to bring up through the adaptation. That’s the point. You think about, what is the intention of a piece of art? And video games are art. How did the intention land? How do we recreate that? That means it will be different, and yet you will have the same kind of response. The key word that Neil said is love. You cannot adapt video games from a place of cynicism, commercialism, or pure numbers. Some of the most popular video games in the world have nothing to offer, in terms of character. You have to invent character and you have to create character, and that’s really hard to do. There are a lot of characters that I love playing, but they don’t have flaws. That’s not how it functions. And so, finding the things that feel adaptable, and then loving them and recreating that essence, is how you get people saying, “Oh, my God, it’s just like the game.” It’s not, but it makes you feel like you’re playing the game.
Image via HBO
It seems like there are influences from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Stephen King’s The Stand, and even The Leftovers. Did those works influence this? What do those works teach us about human nature?
DRUCKMANN: For sure, this was influenced by The Road and Children of Men, and a bunch of world events that we probably shouldn’t get into because then someone will accuse this interview of being political. What I love about this genre and the stories, especially when it’s more character driven, is that the best stories take really interesting characters that we can find ourselves within and apply as much pressure as you can. That’s what the genre does, as you see the interesting choices that they make. This is another flavor of that, but with a focus on the love between these characters. Often we draw different conclusions than some of these other stories, like Road to Perdition. So many of those stories were about protecting the innocence of the child, all the way to the bitter end. For me, and I think Craig is the same way, there’s poetry to that story, but it’s not quite as realistic, in how we see the world. There’s a corruption that happens to anyone that survives here, so sometimes that love is about teaching this very innocent being, this child, how to kill and how to do terrible things, so they can survive. That’s part of protecting the cub. The wolf and cub becomes the wolf and wolf.
MAZIN: Certainly, we are soaking in post-apocalyptic culture. Cormac McCarthy is an interesting example because he is the most literate, so The Road is absolutely gorgeous. I remember reading it and thinking, “Wow, he’s really nailed the cadence of boy asking questions of his father, endlessly, and the answers getting shorter and shorter and shorter because children can be exhausting, in that way.” What Cormac McCarthy stressed in The Road, which is correct, is that there are all these circumstances, but what matters is relationship, above all else. That’s what matters. Not plot. And the plot that occurs, occurs to stress the relationship, to put it under stress and strain, and to see what happens to it. That’s just a general philosophy of storytelling that I think is correct. That’s why Cormac McCarthy’s source material is adaptable in so many different ways. The apocalyptic thing is nothing new. I’m not a huge fan of the zombie genre. It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I was never like, “Oh, my God, the latest zombie movie is out.” And also, I’m not like, “Oh, my God, I’ve gotta get to the latest apocalyptic film.” But Children of Men blew my mind, reading The Road blew my mind, and playing The Last of Us blew my mind. All three of those center on one relationship at the core, and I love that.
The Last of Us is available to stream at HBO Max.
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