‘The Last of Us’ EP Craig Mazin on Season 1 Changes and Season 2 Plans
Mar 15, 2023
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for Season 1 of The Last of Us.]From writers/executive producers Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (who also wrote the video game of the same name), the HBO series The Last of Us explores what life is like after an outbreak has destroyed modern civilization. It’s a brutal and ugly world that is an endurance test of survival, where hope is challenging to maintain and what you’re willing to do for love is pushed to the limits.
After watching screeners for the entire first season of HBO’s The Last of Us, Collider got the opportunity to chat 1-on-1 with Mazin, so that he could break down some of the storytelling highlights of the season. While we’ve already shared portions of the conversation after some of those specific episodes, here is the entire interview, in which Mazin talked about their process for deciding when and how to deviate from the source material, how he and Druckmann deal with any possible disagreements, his desire to preserve the essence of the game, the evolution of episode three, why they chose to create the character of Kathleen, looking to the second game for the second season, that there will be no recasting of Ellie, even if they have a bit of a time jump, and whether we could see Abby in Season 2.
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Collider: You’ve previously talked about the deviations that you’re taking with this. There is a lot from the game that is clearly present, but you’ve also made some changes. How did you decide when to deviate? When you thought about specific changes, did you have to meet certain criteria that you set for yourself, in order to make those changes? Sometimes was it just because of it being a different medium? How did you figure it out, when you wanted to actually change something?
CRAIG MAZIN: Yeah, you’re right to delineate two different [kinds of changes]. There were the kinds [of changes] where it was like, “Listen, this actually won’t port over very well to a different medium.” And there are certain things where you’re like, “As much as I enjoyed playing that section in the game,” and the example Neil [Druckmann] always uses is when Joel gets caught in Bill’s trap and is upside down in the game, which is exciting because you’re upside down, you’re shooting, and you’re trying to protect Ellie while she’s trying to get you down,” but if we were to actually film that and show it, we’re not looking through Joel’s eyes, so even if we did go upside down and look goofy, it’s just different. And so, there were things like that, where we thought, “Okay, it actually wouldn’t be anywhere near as fun as it was in the game, so let’s not do it.”
And then, there were things that we thought were just opportunities to maybe try something new, that built off of what was in the game or expanded well beyond it. Neil’s philosophy was always, the bigger the change, the more warranted it must be, while my philosophy was that I didn’t have a philosophy. I just went by instinct. I would sit there, and then I would call Neil up and say, “Okay, I have a radical suggestion.” That was my phrase. And more often than not, he was on board with the radical suggestions, which maybe, in retrospect, weren’t that radical. But I guess the point is that they should feel integrated into the rest of the show.
Image via HBO
Because you are working alongside the game’s writer, was there ever anything you guys disagreed on? If so, how did you handle it? How did you settle it? Did you play the game to see who won? How did you handle disagreements?
MAZIN: Fisticuffs. No. I said to Neil, early on, that my feeling was, no matter what we did, we had to agree. If you say that, early on, then you find yourself actually more inclined to compromise than not because you understand you’re safe and that neither he nor I are gonna force the other person to do something that we feel inherently is incorrect. There were times when we disagreed about things, and we would just talk it through. One of the best things about Neil is that he’s hyper-rational, so it never devolved into ego or hurt feelings, or anything other than just a clinical, scientific story and drama discussion. Sometimes he would say, “You know what? You’re right.” Sometimes he’d say, “I don’t feel as strongly as you do, so I’m gonna go along with you.” Sometimes I would say, “Okay, you’re right.” That’s how it went. Whenever we disagreed, the context was always, “By the time this discussion is over, we will agree on something, whether it was your way, my way, or a different way.”
Were there any changes that you wanted to make or thought that you would make, but then ultimately decided to circle back around to the original story instead?
MAZIN: That’s something I think Neil experienced more than I did. As a fan, I could say, “Listen, I want this moment to be like it was in the game. I want the wallpaper to be the same. I want the dialogue to be the same. I want their clothes to be the same. As a fan, it’s important to me. I feel like my heart would hurt, if it weren’t there. And similarly, as a fan, I want people who have never played the game and have never experienced this to experience it as closely as I did. This is the kind of moment that we can port over, exactly.” Sometimes I had to talk him into that. It was probably more me saying, “Hey, let’s preserve these moments, the right way.” There are these interesting moments, where we do things that are almost like the game, but a little bit different. I’m thinking of, for instance, the moment where Ellie and Riley, in the game, have this fun water pistol fight, and they’re wearing masks, and then they dance around to a song. We didn’t wanna do the water pistol thing, so we were like, “What if they’re dancing around in the masks?” It’s almost the same, but a little bit different, and always with the hope that we were making something that people would love, whether they had played the game or not.
Image via HBO
I want to ask you about episode three because, like many people who have watched the screeners, I found that episode tremendously moving and emotional. I was a wreck with that episode. I also thought it was one of the best written hours of television that I’ve probably ever seen.
MAZIN: Wow, thank you.
Because that episode deviates from the game, how did that whole thing come about? What made you decide to change Bill’s story, and how did it all evolve in the way that it did?
MAZIN: Well, I had this instinct that, after the story of the first episode, which is almost movie length and very tense and very upsetting, where we see the world fall apart, and then we see Joel and Ellie meeting each other, and they don’t like each other, and they head out into an adventure, and then the second episode is in this destroyed open city, and there’s more danger and more action and tragedy, I needed a breath. I needed an episode to just take a breath. I started to think, naturally, about how what would happen next is that we would get to Bill. The way Neil had designed Bill’s character in the game, he becomes a partner to you, in gameplay. Some of what he was, was connected specifically to the needs of gameplay. But also, he was a dark omen of what Joel could become, if he didn’t open his heart back up to somebody else.
I thought that maybe, since we could disconnect Bill from Joel and Ellie, in terms of gameplay, we could expand on this hint of a partnership with Bill and Frank, and maybe give it a slightly different, or actually a radically different, ending. That is when I pick up the phone and say, “Neil, I’ve got a radical idea. Maybe it’s not a negative or dark omen, but actually a sign of hope. There is a chance that, in this world, as dangerous and terrible as it is, there can be positive love and a successful long-term relationship.” I’m not a gay man, but I’m a middle-aged married man. I’ve been in a committed relationship for over 25 years. I know what that is, and that’s a different kind of love. It’s a different kind of commitment and sharing.
I thought it was a chance to show how time elapsed from Outbreak Day to where we are now, but also to show success and a victory, and to really dig into two basic archetypes of love. There’s the kind of love that is outward and giving and nurturing. As Frank says, “Paying attention to things is how we show love.” And then, there’s the other part of love, which is the protective, violent, if necessary, vengeful conserving of the people that you care about and love. Those two kinds of loves are gonna appear, over and over, in the series. Bill and Frank’s relationship became a codex for me, of how the theme of this storyline was gonna play out, over and over and over. The question is, will it always play out as successfully as it does for Bill and Frank, or is there a different kind of version, where it’s explosive and actually very dangerous? So, I wrote it all, I sent it to Neil, and I was like, “Uh.” And he was like, “This is my new favorite.” And I was like, “Phew.” And that’s a credit to him. I completely wandered way off the reservation there, and he loved it.
Yeah, it’s beautifully done.
MAZIN: Thank you.
Image via HBO
What made you want to and decide to create Kathleen, as a character, and weave her into the storyline with Henry, instead of just focusing on Henry? How did that come about?
MAZIN: One of the things that Neil and I talked about, from the very beginning, was that part of the requirement of gameplay is to create NPCs (non-player characters) that become obstacles for you to get past, whether it’s through stealth or violence. Therefore because there are so many NPCs, their general humanity isn’t really gonna be on display. You get really interesting moments, especially when Naughty Dog is developing games where NPCs do have flavor, and you do hear lines of dialogue and things, but you don’t know them. I also thought, when the apocalypse happens, how pop culture tends to overestimate how many people will get together and become villainous. I don’t think people will get together and become villainous. I think people will get together to protect themselves, and that sense of protection, which is a kind of love, can turn into xenophobia, tribalism, paranoia, and then ultimately violence.
Kathleen seemed, to me, like a chance to humanize the bad guys and to ask the question, “Why are they doing these things? Why are they behaving this way?” And then, you understand that they’ve been abused and tormented for decades. We know from the French Revolution that, just because you’re tormented and subjugated and oppressed, it doesn’t mean that when you get power, you’re gonna behave any better. Oftentimes, revolution is followed by times of terror. Well, what motivates that? Why is she so hell bent on finding and hurting one person? Well, it just keeps coming back to that same dichotomy – the two kinds of love.
And there’s something so brilliant about casting somebody like Melanie Lynskey because you love her and it’s hard for you not to love her, so it’s more painful when she does awful things. When you cast an actor like that, it’s a bold choice.
MAZIN: First of all, if you cast Melanie Lynskey, you’ve already won. So, there’s that. But when I called her, I was like, “Look, Melanie, I don’t think you probably get too many roles offered to you that are exactly like this, but it’s why I want you to do it.” Melanie may be the nicest person on the planet. She’s impossibly nice. I want her to be my mom, so bad. Teasing out of that was this, “Well, okay, what if that maternal nature got really dark?” Seeing those things come out of her, she automatically humanizes them. Every time she commits violence or contemplates committing violence, you can see pain in her eyes. She doesn’t wanna do it, but she does. It’s Melanie Lynskey. I don’t know what else you can say. She’s just one of the greatest actors who has ever walked the planet.
Image via HBO
Have you always had the second game in mind for Season 2? Was that pretty much the plan?
MAZIN: Yes. Anybody that has played the first game, and then watches this season of television, will know that we are neither afraid to do what was in the game, nor afraid to do something that wasn’t in the game, nor afraid to change things somewhat radically from the game. We follow our hearts, when it comes to the process of adaptation, which is sometimes about fidelity and sometimes about new creation. But yes, certainly, I was thinking about it a lot. I had the benefit of adapting this game, the first game, with the awareness of what happened in the Left Behind DLC, and then the second game, which is much bigger and much more dramatically complicated with more characters. Certainly, there’s no way to tell the remaining story in one more season. We would need more time than that. But we are also committed to moving toward a conclusion, as opposed to creating an open-ended series that goes on as long as people watch.
The second game takes place five years later, after the events of the first game. Is that something you would reflect in Season 2? Are you planning on making a time jump? That wouldn’t lead you to recast anybody, would it? Have you thought about these sorts of things?
MAZIN: Of course. I don’t want to pin anything down. Obviously, the time jump is important, to some extent. It reflects the changing nature of Ellie’s relationship with Joel, as she gets older. In the game, as you point out, she goes from 14 to 19, I believe. But no, we are not doing House of the Dragon leaps. Those were very significant leaps in age, and we don’t have that. So, no recasting will occur. Not on my watch. Of course, in the second game, there’s a primary shift in time, but there are also moments that you see, that are in between the events of the main storyline of The Last of Us Part II and the storyline of The Last of Us Part I.
Are you planning to include Abby, and the events that occur surrounding that character, for Season 2, or is that something you’re thinking about later on?
MAZIN: Anytime you talk about Abby, you start to excite certain corners of the internet. All I can say is that Neil and I will be adapting the story to television, as best we see fit. It seems likely that main characters that are crucial to the storyline would be portrayed, but no, right now, it’s too early for me to commit to anything in print, let’s put it that way.
The Last of Us is available to stream at HBO Max.
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