‘The Last of Us’ was created ‘from a place of purity’
By Sarah Bahr
The amount of pressure that came with trying to turn the dystopian video game “The Last of Us” into an HBO drama was intense: There were the expectations of tens of millions of fans of the bestselling game. The astronomical costs required — a reported production budget of more than $100 million — to pull it off. The legacy of dozens of subpar video game adaptations that had come before it.
“You need to tune it out because it will destroy you,” Craig Mazin, 52, a creator, showrunner and writer on the zombie thriller series, said in a call Wednesday afternoon from his office in Hollywood.
So it was rewarding Wednesday when the nine-episode series with a no-longer-so-fantastic premise about a viral outbreak that leaves society in shambles — though, granted, this one turned people into fungal zombies — picked up 24 Emmy nominations. They included nods for best drama, writing and directing, and acting nominations for the series’s stars, Bella Ramsey and Pedro Pascal.
“We were all really blown away by the reception — the enthusiasm and the love for the show is astonishing,” Mazin said of the series, which is the first video game adaptation to be a serious contender for top awards in Hollywood.
In an interview, Mazin, who won Emmy Awards for best writing for a limited series and best limited series for HBO’s “Chernobyl,” discussed what distinguished “The Last of Us” from the many video game adaptation flops that preceded it, whether that model can be replicated and his hopes for the second season. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: Given the various pressures and challenges involved in adapting something like “The Last of Us,” how did it feel to rack up 24 Emmy nominations?
A: It’s stunning, particularly for a show in its first season, and a genre show. We were overwhelmed, though it’s a mixed-emotions day because our business is in trouble, and it is the fault of the people for whom we work. Even though it’s a day where you want to freely celebrate, there are so many people — working crews and actors and artists — who are suffering because the companies simply won’t do what’s required.
Q: What made “The Last of Us” so different from the many subpar film and TV adaptations of video games that came before?
A: For starters, we have “The Last of Us.” It’s an amazing video game, which I played when it came out in 2013. Even then, I could see it was also just an incredible story with remarkable characters and, most importantly, remarkable relationships. It was a story that was a game, not a game that also had a story.
The other big part is this wasn’t something where a company bought the rights to a thing and then went around going, “Hey, we want to exploit this IP.” This was me and Neil Druckmann, the creator of the game, coming to HBO and saying, “We want to do this out of love.” So we came at it from a place of purity.
Q: What was the most challenging part of bringing the series to life?
A: The size. There are more words to write, more days to plan, more actors to cast, more stunts to approve. It becomes an endurance test. We shot for 200 days, living away from home during COVID — my wife couldn’t even come to the set because it was a violation of the COVID rules. It was a very arduous thing to do day in and day out in the heat, in the freezing cold, in the rain and the snow. And yet, we did it, a bit like women who go through labor and are like, “Oh, my God, I’m never doing that again,” and then a few years later are like, “Maybe I would do that again.” I’m that mom who’s like, “I think I want to do it again.”
Q: What are you most excited about for Season Two?
A: I like tracking the growth and evolution of people, and I like the way we get to continue this show but do a season that is not the same. The thing about “The Last of Us” is that the story is constantly moving — we don’t live in the same neighborhood; we don’t go back to the same shop or store or house. Even episode to episode within a season feels like we’re in different places, different kinds of movies. So, more of that.
Q: There are a number of other popular video game franchises with film and TV adaptations in the works, including “Twisted Metal,” “Ghost of Tsushima” and “Assassin’s Creed.” Can the model for “The Last of Us” be replicated?
A: If they are starting from a place of purity, a place of creative passion, then anything is possible. If the source material has great stuff to adapt — and ideally, if its creator has the kind of generosity and intellectual flexibility that Neil Druckmann has — then you have a real chance of doing something that makes the fans happy but also makes new people happy. What’s the point of making the show if you’re only making it for the people who read the book or who played the game?
That’s why Neil wanted to do an adaptation in the first place: There are millions of people who will never pick up a controller and never play the game. They will never know this story, and he wanted them to know it. And if people are coming at it like that, they have a real shot.