Coming off of such a prestigious drama as Chernobyl, one might not think the creator of that landmark limited series would take on a “zombie” show based on a video game next. But that’s just what writer/producer/show-creator Craig Mazin did with HBOMAX’s The Last of Us. The zombie genre has been well tread and worn, and the history of video games being turned into film or TV shows is full of missteps and disasters. Despite those facts, Mazin believed so strongly in the source material and its potential that he was willing to navigate these obvious land mines.
In our conversation, Craig and I discuss his belief in the material, the inherent adaptation challenges he and his team were presented with, as well as that very remarkable episode three.
Awards Daily: I have to confess something to you. I am the least gamer person you will probably ever talk to. I haven’t owned a console in ages. When I watched the first episode of The Last of Us, I had no idea it was based on a video game.
Craig Mazin: I love that. That’s fantastic.
Awards Daily: I found the show to be completely compelling, and then I was in this state of shock, because video game translations almost never work. I know this is a very story-based video game, but even with that, was there any trepidation about taking on source material that often hasn’t translated well to film and tv?
Craig Mazin: Zero, I mean, zero personal trepidation. I certainly felt everyone else’s. (Laughs). I could feel the waves of anxiety out there, or in some cases disdain or dismissal, and that’s okay. But personally, I didn’t have any trepidation. I couldn’t have been more excited. It was kind of a dream come true because I knew the story very well. I felt I understood how to adapt it, and I had a partner in Neil Druckman who also understood how to adapt it. So we were very confident. I didn’t feel like we were going to fall into the traps that a lot of video game adaptations do fall into. For starters, we weren’t adapting it because it was a popular title that had this many players and then thinking, we’ll just do what we do and we’ll bring in some star that doesn’t know anything, none of us will know anything about it and we’ll do it and then call it this. We weren’t doing that. I know when I’m riding with the wind at my back, and the wind was at my back. I could feel things working. I was never worried about that.
Awards Daily: You were coming off of Chernobyl, which is obviously one of the most well-regarded limited series in recent years. The zombie genre is deathless. But it’s also potentially at that tipping point of being overdone. So maybe you didn’t have a concern about how to adapt this, but did you have any concern about how it might be received just because of the glut of zombie features and shows out there?
Craig Mazin: You know, I’m not the biggest zombie genre fan. I’m the first person to admit it. It’s not that I actively hate zombie movies. I’ve enjoyed some of them, but I’m not a connoisseur and I don’t necessarily care very much about supernatural stories. I’m more interested in the natural. I think that natural things are more terrifying anyway. People aren’t coming out of their graves, that’s just not happening. I was actually quite intrigued by the way Neil created this threat in the game that these were not of the undead, these were sick people. People that are sick are scary to me in that regard because they still have the capacity to do terrible danger to you. They want to infect you. And this notion of being infected by somebody is different. It’s a different primal fear than the normal zombie threat, which to me is really just about mortality. It doesn’t matter how long you last, sooner or later they get you. That’s just time. Right?
But this is different. This is a contagion. And this is about loss of control and of your humanity while you still remain a person. What I knew was that the really interesting parts, to me at least, of the story, didn’t have infected people in them at all. I liked that–the idea that it was not going to be a monster of the week show. I think some people who played the game would’ve liked to have seen more of the infected, which I understand. We just follow what the story demands. So next season where the story demands, we may have more of them. No promises, but I thought that if you present this with care and love and attention, people will look past it if they are not fans of the genre. And we also had episode three up our sleeves, which we thought was going to signal to people that maybe weren’t catching on or wanting to watch that there was something else going on here.
Awards Daily: Since you mentioned episode three…one of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in recent history, just an absolute stunner. What I loved about it, as you had pointed out, there were barely any so-called zombies or infected in that episode. I want to know how you got Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman in the first place to come and do this one episode, this little mini movie, within this series that’s connected of course to the other characters, but it’s really their show–a standalone show for that hour. Tell me about the placement of that episode, which I think is really significant because the first two episodes do have more zombie activity and then the third episode is when you start that transition to becoming a more human story.
Craig Mazin: Right. There was just a gut feeling. I follow my gut on these things all the time. I try to put myself in the position of the audience all the time. Even as I’m writing it. When I say the audience, I don’t mean people that are yelling at me on Twitter or something. I mean just me, as the audience. If I’m watching this, how am I feeling? My sense was that after two pretty intense episodes where there were significant deaths, the loss of people we cared about, and the sense that anyone could die at any moment, that we could afford to give them a breather. There needed to be a moment where we could catch our breath. I knew that that episode needed to take Joel and Ellie from a place where he was angry at her and in mourning over Tess, and never wanted to take this kid in the first place, so I am going to take you with me all the way across the country.
That’s a big turn. I felt like, okay, there was an opportunity to tell a different story in the middle there that ultimately the product of which would be inspiration for Joel to take Ellie with him and that lifetime that these two men live in that span allows us to also cover the 20 years that go by between the outbreak and the now. It also allowed me to really dig into the theme of these different kinds of love and the notion of love that goes outward and love that protects and keeps inward, which is thematically something that we’ll see over and over in almost every duo that we meet. Lastly, I think it was an opportunity to show people that there was victory, that you could win. Obviously in this case, winning didn’t mean live forever. Nobody does. Living meant to live on your own terms, have a successful relationship, be in love and end it as you desire. I think that was just crucial. Otherwise it’s hard to root for people when everyone’s failing. That was basically the genesis of it. And then, you know, we got really lucky on our casting, didn’t we?
Awards Daily: A little bit. (Laughs). I think people who knew Murray Bartley from White Lotus, they might have been able to picture him more easily in this role than they might’ve pictured Nick Offerman in his role. Nick Offerman seems like offbeat casting, and it just tells you how we should never underestimate the talent of actors.
Craig Mazin: This is the debate we’re having and I think it’s a good debate because there’s very positive things that are coming out of it. As a straight guy writing an episode about two gay men in love, it was important to me. First of all, my instinct was to cast gay actors and this is a reasonable thing to do. I think it’s a good instinct. So Murray is gay and initially we had cast Con O’Neill, who was in Chernobyl, to play Bill. and Con is gay. Then Con got caught up in Our Flag Means Death. Anyway, he became unavailable. So then we’re like, what do we do? On this episode was where I made sure that the straight guy, me, was surrounded by a lot of middle-aged, married gay men to provide perspective on the script and everything. So our director was a middle-aged, married gay man, our editor’s a middle aged married gay man, and our producer, and just up and down the line and Murray. Well, we started thinking about Nick because Bill is very Nick Offerman-like. He’s got this grouchy, gruff exterior. He’s a do-it-yourself kind of guy. He’s resourceful. He’s also just bottled up.
Nick was a little nervous about it too, but I think Murray and Peter Hoar, our director, settled him on it. What Nick did have as a straight actor playing a gay man was nerves about beginning this relationship, that intimacy and that physicality. He had never done it before and neither had Bill, and you feel it. You can feel his heart pounding there. It’s beautiful. And God bless Murray Bartlett for just being this perfect…coach. Like welcome, here’s how we do it, it’s going to be okay. From there we just springboard into what I do know, which is what it means to be a middle-aged married person in a committed relationship for many, many years. Now that I know. That to me was really what that relationship was about. Gay actors have been playing straight people for a long time and they’ve been doing quite a good job of it. I am all for, as much as we can, increasing representation there and matching people to the experiences they have, but if we make it this hard and fast rule, we can miss out sometimes on these beautiful little things.
Awards Daily: I love the way that the show sort of slow walks the relationship between Joel and Ellie. Even after that third episode, there is still time for this to play out where you can see Joel slowly softening, but trying to hide the softening from Ellie. He doesn’t want her to know that he’s becoming attached to her. The acting of those two…I mean, I obviously knew who Pedro Pascal was. I had no idea who Bella Ramsey was. When I heard her talk with a British accent on one of the post-show mini-docs, I was shocked out of my mind. If the chemistry between the two of them is not there, everything else that you’ve done, no matter how great, isn’t going to work. How did you build that with them?
Craig Mazin: Obviously there is a path for them to follow in the scripts, because the scripts are pretty clear about where each of them are psychologically, vis-a-vis each other, in the world. But just because it says so, doesn’t mean you’re gonna feel it. Chemistry is a thing and we call it chemistry because we don’t really understand what it is. In that regard, the best you can do when casting something like this, is to select the people that you think would be absolutely best for that part, and also seem like good people. You take somebody like Pedro and somebody like Bella who are both just beautiful people, and you put them together and right away it started to just happen. He took her under his wing, and she took care of him by the way. The two of them took care of each other because she’s the oldest soul you’ll ever meet. The relationship between Pedro and Bella, the truth of that relationship, doesn’t need to always be there on screen. They are still playing characters, but there are moments where in my mind, there’s an overlap. It’s not just Joel and Ellie, it’s also Pedro and Bella together, and those moments to me are magical.
Awards Daily: When you were saying they protected each other, I’m assuming you’re coming from the standpoint of getting the parts together, making sure the scripts are delivered well, but the characters actually protect each other too. One of the episodes I absolutely love is when she is caught with the religious zealots and at a certain point she realizes that even though Joel may be coming for her, that she has to save herself.
Craig Mazin: That’s episode eight. Ellie is the last person in the world to sit there and wait for her savior. Ellie was fighting her whole life. In the episode before, she’s fighting physically and we know that she had to fight for her own life. She has faced infected before. She’s been bitten multiple times at this point. You know from Bella’s spirit there, no matter how scared her Ellie is, and no matter how worried and concerned or how much at a loss her Ellie is, her Ellie is dangerous. And that’s why David says to her, because it’s true, “I’m afraid of you.” And he should be. Everything he says about her is actually true. It’s just that her violent tendencies are tempered by a goodness. There is a morality to her and the question is how will that all hold up in this world?
Awards Daily: Typically in a film or a show where there’s a man looking after a girl, the girl would not have this level of agency. What she’s doing is like young Jodie Foster type stuff, which I mean obviously as a high compliment. She’s not waiting around. And I think it strengthens the relationship. And when they have that moment, when she’s essentially saved herself and he’s finally made it to her in episode eight and there’s the “I’ve got you, baby girl” line, which could have played as saccharin if it hadn’t been done right, it just lands perfectly. The emotions those two bring to that moment feel very real. Explain actors to me. They are magicians! (Laughs).
Craig Mazin:. Well, we have our things that we do to help. We have source material that’s really good. And then we have a script that we think does a nice job and we change that scenario a little bit. In the game after she’s chopping away at David, Joel appears and grabs her from behind right there in that moment. And we changed it so that she finishes and walks outside, it’s concluded, and then he comes. Some fans of the game thought it made it worse. I think it made it better. I think Neil did too. That’s okay. Reasonable people can disagree, but what I loved about it was that you understood in that moment that she had been damaged emotionally.
There was a wound. You give all this information to Pedro and Bella, and then you give them whatever they need. Bella said before I come out through that door, give me a stunt guy in there that can wrestle with me and fight with me and give me a dummy that I can whack away at, and then I’m going to come outside. So I go through it off camera and then give them all that and you roll camera and then you watch, and what you get there is love. You can’t fake it. That is one of those areas where Joel and Ellie and Pedro and Bella overlap and that was a scene that Neil was really worried about just because anytime we were doing something that worked so well in the game, but a little bit different, he would just worry, like in a good way. He was nervous that it would come off well and when I cut that episode together and I showed it to him, when he got to the end, he texted me and he just said, we did it. That’s what he said. That ending, he just could see it. It was there.
Awards Daily: One thing I saw about Pedro recently, this is kind of an aside, but I saw an interview with him on YouTube, and he was talking about what the song “Purple Rain” meant to him, and he nearly broke down in tears talking about it. Just by seeing something about him as a human being, I understood even better how he got there for the show.
Craig Mazin: Pedro’s emotions are right under. I think for a lot of people just very naturally, they’re underneath quite a bit and when they come up, they come up unexpectedly. We don’t necessarily have access to the emotions the way that we should, and Pedro just does. It’s just right there. He is so connected and he’s so present emotionally all the time. What’s interesting about Bella is she’s more intellectual in terms of her approach, which works great for Ellie, because Ellie is very verbal and her mind is always spinning. But when Bella gets physical, that’s her way. Then all the emotions are right there. That’s one thing that was fascinating to see, and it was fascinating to learn about her. When there was physicality, it was BOOM right there. That said, as we went on, we also start to see that she was more like Pedro than we thought. For instance, Storm Reid is another person whose emotions are right there. She can access them, boom. When Storm and Bella are having their final conversation together, it was just all there. So, I think even if actors come at these things from different places, and some of them are able to get to a place a little sooner than another, it doesn’t matter. As long as something authentic happens at some point, that’s all we can ask for.
Awards Daily: Did it seem to you that you were creating a degree of difficulty by treating the zombies like Jaws, in that you don’t get to see them that much? It’s actually incredibly effective, because it makes you care about the main storyline. I remember thinking there were episodes that went by and I was like, gosh, there’s just not that many fungus zombies. And then the ground opens up and they come pouring out and I remember realizing that’s why they did it this way because when it happens, *smack* right In the kisser. (Laughs).
Craig Mazin: Again that’s about thinking about me in the audience. I think the steady drip of monsters turns them into what they are in the game, because after a while gameplay requires you to go through these loops. They become obstacles. But when you’re watching a show, they always have to be visceral and terrifying. So one of the things that we stuck to, for season one at least, was the notion of either go small or go huge. One is scary, a thousand is scary, eight is not so scary. We keep adjusting as we go. Part of our job as entertainers is a little bit like physical trainers that always want to confuse your muscles and they don’t want you to keep using the same muscles over and over. So we will keep shifting around. We don’t like to get into a rut and feel like we’re repeating the moves. So that’s part of what we do as we go on. But that was definitely the idea. I was so excited when I was reading the feedback online where people are like “There’s no zombies in the show.” We had zombies in the first couple episodes. There was one briefly in three, and none in four. Then they’re watching five and they’re almost all the way through, and they’re like “Zombies!” And I was like, you want zombies? I’ll give you zombies. (Laughs).
Awards Daily: They’re basically fungi zombies, right? I mean the infection. Were you at all worried that the visual effects would be able to make them look scary, especially when they get to the blooming point?
Craig Mazin: Yeah, there’s a fine line between scary and dumb. And scary and funny are this close. They really are. We did a lot of R&D. A lot. We had the benefit of Barrie Gower, who runs the best prosthetic shop in the world. He did Game of Thrones, and he did Chernobyl, and Stranger Things. Barry and his team put together these beautiful creations. And then in certain cases what we did was scan them and create digital versions to expand how many we had. Practically, putting a lot of people in those costumes, or in certain cases where we’re going to have you run out and trample each other, some of those people are real and some of those people are not real. We mix them around. Alex Wang, who’s our visual effects supervisor, worked with Weta primarily on creatures to basically take Barry’s designs and in certain cases enhance, in some cases just give a little zhoosh, and sometimes create an entire digital replica. But you’re right. Basically the thing that we were always chasing was scary. And if it wasn’t scary, then we weren’t going to show it. And we know when something looks dumb. So we followed that rule. Nothing dumb.
Awards Daily: It would be easy to say that one of the key deaths in the show is Joel’s daughter early on, but the one that got me, the one that put me in the “holy shit, anything can happen” space, was Anna Torv’s character. It raised the stakes. She’s so compelling and has such good chemistry with Pedro immediately, that you have this impression that she’s gonna carry along for a while. Then when she doesn’t, that’s when you realize where the stakes exist.
Craig Mazin: That’s why we needed Anna Torv, because Tess has to feel like the hero. The thing is, Joel is not interested in being a hero. Joel is certainly not interested in noble causes and neither would it seem was Tess, in the sense that Tess was basically Joel’s boss. She’s kind of running the show there. He’s the muscle. We understand from that very first scene they have together that she knows exactly how to talk to him. She knows exactly what he’s going to do. She can calm him down, she can put him right. She controls him, not out of any kind of malice, but rather out of care. As it turns out, what we find out later is that she loves him. Even if he didn’t love her. But she’s tough and she’s smart, and she’s directed, and that’s why Ellie likes her. So Ellie’s interested in following her.
When they come outside, she talks to her. When Ellie’s left alone with Joel, he’s a dick. He doesn’t talk to her. He goes to sleep. He doesn’t pay any attention. She still kind of looks for some comfort from him because she’s scared. Then she fucks with him some more and he gets angry. We did make a couple of interesting choices in that regard. One of them was in the museum when the clickers show up, Ellie runs with Anna, right? She runs with Tess, because that’s who she follows. Then she’s separated and she’s stuck with Joel. But Joel’s the one who saves her there and then when Tess dies, we understand that two people who did not want each other are now stuck. If you feel, as a viewer, a little unmoored and concerned and insecure? Good. That’s the point.
Awards Daily: And it continues to happen because Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett and Melanie Lynskey, all these faces that you recognize, these powerful, really impressive actors and even some other folks who may not be as well known, there is no safety in being a guest on the show. (Laughs).
Craig Mazin: I think in terms of guest stars, let’s see who makes it… I’m trying to think. Tommy (Gabe Luna), Rutina Wesley (who plays Maria)… so basically Gabe Luna and Rutina Wesley. And Graham Greene and Elaine Miles who play the old couple that they meet at the beginning of the sixth episode. Yeah, that’s about it. It’s not a lot.
Awards Daily: Were you at all concerned that showing viewers these post-show mini-docs just after each episode might mess with their suspension of disbelief as they went along from episode to episode. Did that ever cross your mind?
Craig Mazin: It crossed my mind every single time. One of the great things about HBO is they really do let us, as showrunners and creators, give them a lot of input on those pieces. When we say “We don’t want to show that,” they take it out. We really tried as best we could to not get too behind the scenes-y with the infected until much later on, until really after the big sequence. I agree with you, it can be demystifying. But I have to say, people’s fascination with the “behind the scenes” stuff is far greater than I thought. They want to know it, and it doesn’t seem to hurt their viewing experience. Personally, I would just put out the episode and never do any of that stuff. That’s just me. I understand that people really do like it. So we do it.
Awards Daily: When you started shooting, you had to know that this was a commercial project. Unlike me, you knew there was a video game. So there was a base audience already in existence and you really had to just not screw it up to pull in viewers. That being said, this show has gone well beyond that base and appealed to people well beyond gamers. With the degree of difficulty you had pleasing a rabid fan base, building a fan base that doesn’t yet exist, and trying to do it through a genre that has been really well covered, the reception to the show has got to feel great.
Craig Mazin: It’s overwhelming. I have to say, the fact that there was a very large fan base for the game was no guarantee whatsoever that they would show up. In fact, they’re notorious for not showing up, because they love what they love, and then they see a version of it that just looks like it’s fugazi, it’s ersatz. And they’re like, I’m outta here. I’m not watching this fake crap. I was actually more worried that they wouldn’t show up, but we tried our best. The way we covered both bases was not by worrying about the two bases, but rather taking our love for the game and our love for the characters and story, which is honest and true and authentic, and pouring that into an adaptation that would be a great television show for anybody, whether they had played the game or not.
That meant that people who had played the game would be surprised at times and challenged at times because we would change things. People who hadn’t played the game wouldn’t have needed to because the same kind of story that we love would be unfolding. That was our lodestar. Just make a good TV show. If you build it, they will come. But you are absolutely right. Nobody thought it was going to become what it became. I think the level of attention and praise that we received just knocked us on our heels. Especially because, in grand HBO style—because we go week after week, we were doing this thing that shows never do. We were just getting more and more people each week. Usually your biggest night is your first night. So by the end, we were almost double what we had in the beginning. Something like over 40 million people have seen the first episode. That was the last number I saw–just in the United States.
Awards Daily: On a pay for network.
Craig Mazin: Yeah. Yeah. Exactly. They’re paying for it. It’s a little terrifying, because we have to sort of put that out of our minds as we begin to create the second season where we have to essentially forcibly and maybe artificially put ourselves back where we were back at square one. Just go back and follow the same process.
Awards Daily: The mistake that shows can sometimes make, and I think this happens especially with shows of supernatural aspects, like you could say Lost, or The Walking Dead, is that they keep going because they have such a large audience, but then they burn out. Do you have an endgame in mind?
Craig Mazin: Absolutely. I guess we can now say we’re members of the Jesse Armstrong (Succession) School of Television. (Laughs). I saw Brian Cox talking about it. It’s true. Here’s the thing, I come out of features and in general I think stories have endings. I don’t know how to write a beginning if I don’t know what the ending is. So stories must have an end. There is an end. We have a pretty good handle on how many seasons we have to go to reach that end. We know some of the adventures and variations we may take along the way, but oh yeah, of course it ends. The last thing I want to be doing is just spinning plates. I don’t know how to do that. I literally don’t know how to do it. Like I don’t know how that works. A story is a circle. I need the circle. I can’t have a line. I need the circle.