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HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ is a hit. This producer wants to clear the air.

Showrunner Craig Mazin talks preproduction, fan backlash and spores

(Frazer Harrison/Getty; HBO/Washington Post illustration; Frazer Harrison/Getty; HBO)
9 min

When Craig Mazin first played “The Last of Us” in 2013, he was engrossed by the post-apocalyptic story within the first 10 minutes. He thought to himself, “someone’s going to adapt this [for TV or film], and it’s going to be awesome, but it won’t be me.”

A decade later, Mazin — who is best known as the writer and creator of the 2019 HBO miniseries “Chernobyl” — told The Washington Post he’s surprised to find himself releasing an adaptation of the critically acclaimed video game series alongside its co-creator Neil Druckmann, who Mazin says he thought would never choose him for the task. The pilot premiered earlier this month to favorable reviews and an audience of 4.7 million, making it HBO’s second most-watched debut since 2010. The TV adaptation stars Pedro Pascal (Joel) and Bella Ramsey (Ellie) in leading roles as they navigate a zombie-infested America.

Mazin recalled first being approached by PlayStation Productions in 2018. Carter Swan, the publisher’s senior producer of IP expansion, presented to him a long list of Sony PlayStation-owned titles the publisher saw fit for potential television adaptation. Mazin was confused as he searched the list, noticing a glaring omission: “Where’s ‘The Last of Us’?” he asked. He was disappointed to hear it was poised to be a feature film, feeling that “it’s not a movie” and would be better for TV.

Though “The Last of Us” was at one point positioned as a live-action movie, to be directed by Sam Raimi and with Sony subsidiary Screen Gems to distribute it, the partnership ended with relinquished rights following creative differences.

Druckmann began reconsidering “The Last of Us’s” future as an adaptation. A film no longer seemed like the right fit, and he landed on the potential of TV with Sony Pictures Television. Following a nudge from actress Shannon Woodward (Dina in “The Last of Us Part II”), who was a friend of Mazin’s and who believed the two would hit it off, Druckmann and Mazin met for lunch in 2019 and instantly connected.

“A week later, we pitched [the show] to HBO and that’s it,” Mazin said. “We’ve been going lightspeed ever since.”

Mazin, who has worked with the prestige television network previously, said that pitching HBO was easy. The adaptation process, in comparison, was “tricky.” Shooting took a full 200 days and followed a feature-film-like production schedule, which Mazin said, in his prior experience with creating “Chernobyl,” is an expected pace for HBO.

“Network television will ask their showrunners to shoot seven to eight pages [of the script] a day,” Mazin said. “We shot more like 18-19 days per episode, [which amounted to] two and a half pages a day, maybe three.”

One of the biggest hurdles was size and scope. Mazin and Druckmann knew they wanted to tell the first game’s full story in Season 1, and that it would need to be told in nine episodes. Going beyond that maximum number, Mazin thought, could “demand too much of the audience.”

The process was slow but calculated. Mazin asked Druckmann thousands of questions during production, contemplating what lore from the game to keep versus what to invent or elaborate on in the show. For example, the show shifts the timeline to bring Joel and Ellie’s story to the year 2023, meaning the fictional pandemic ravaged their world in 2003 (instead of 2013 as in the games). This accounts for several technology changes in comparison to the game, including no smartphones (and potentially no “Future Days” by Pearl Jam — though Mazin said they will address “issues as they arise” should they move on to another season to portray “Last of Us Part II”).

The change in medium from game to show introduced some new freedoms, too, such as the ability to cast light on the world through flashbacks beyond Ellie and Joel, whose perspectives players are locked into in the game.

The shift from game to television show also provided the space for a new take on the story’s characters. Druckmann and Mazin instructed actors Pascal and Ramsey to not play the games, to erase the notion of those preexisting performances.

“I didn’t coach [Ramsey] to do Ellie’s [video game] mannerisms,” Mazin said. “I didn’t coach her to do Ellie’s rhythms. I didn’t coach her to do anything, except inside of the scenes I let her know what the intentions were in the dialogue and in the text.”

The two leading actors cheated a little by watching some gameplay on YouTube, but outside of those instances, Mazin urged them to make the roles their own. “A lot of people got worried” when USA Today published an interview with Ramsey, detailing how she was explicitly told not to play the game when she auditioned. Mazin recalled that “it was frustrating to know what we had and to see people doubting.”

“[Fans] should be encouraged,” he continued. “It’s our job. It’s Neil’s job, and my job, to put all of Ellie and Joel on the page. We know Ellie and Joel completely. We know them inside and out, not only as they were manifested in such a beautiful way by [the characters’ in-game actors] Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson, but just from the ground up as Neil thought it all through. And as he and I created these new versions.”

The results are two actors who bring their own twists as they shape the characters they play. Joel is less gruff and more representative of his age and hard of hearing in one ear. Ellie is angrier and sassier, but also sadder and more fearful of the unknown. Mazin said that in the game, you see Ellie and Joel interact mostly through cutscenes or while exploring or puzzle-solving, whereas in the show, a lot more time is dedicated “to just Joel and Ellie talking.”

HBO’s ‘The Last of Us’ stays true to the game, and hits just as hard

The news of the request for the actors not to play the game wasn’t the only time the internet shot criticism at “The Last of Us’s” showrunners. Fans and critics alike considered some comments from showrunners to be hyperbolic ahead of the show’s release, such as Druckmann calling the show the “best, most authentic game adaptation” yet and how it would “put that video game curse to bed” in an article in the New Yorker, despite there being some recent quality video game adaptations, such as Netflix’s “Arcane” and “Cyberpunk: Edgerunners.”

Some fans were also protective of the game’s story and characters. In Mazin’s words, they were “confused” and “angry” regarding a quote of his in that same New Yorker article, in which he seemed to suggest that the death of video game characters have less weight than those played by actors. “Watching a person die, I think, ought to be much different than watching pixels die,” he told the outlet. Mazin told The Post that he was specifically discussing NPCs (nonplayer characters), rather than main character deaths. In-game combat against enemies is presented as an obstacle to overcome, rather than a scene carrying emotional weight.

“I think when we’re talking about the deaths of main characters, those were handled so beautifully in the game, and I felt them tremendously,” Mazin said. “If we can equal the emotions and impact that those deaths had in the game in the show, I will be thrilled.

“I don’t think anybody playing ‘The Last of Us’ — maybe there was somebody, but I can’t imagine — were feeling the impact of random hunters or FEDRA [Federal Disaster Response Agency] officers that you’re having to get through to get to the other side of the gameplay,” he said. “For us, with the show, we want you to feel everybody’s death. Everybody.”

“The Last of Us Part II” attempted to get players to empathize with NPC deaths more so than in the first game through dogs that mourned their masters’ deaths or friends of the fallen calling out for them by name. The show continues to intensify death, including early moments during the pandemic’s initial outbreak in the pilot, through the addition of tendrils. These thin, stemlike threads slowly grow from an infected’s mouth. Upon contact with a human, they too become infected, offering an entirely new method of transmission. Characters can still be bitten by zombies, but spores — which allowed for the game’s disease to be airborne — were ditched for this first season.

“It was less about ‘oh, the spores don’t work,’ because I have to say, you may see spores yet,” Mazin said. “It’s not so much that they can’t exist in this world. It was really more like, when a character is transmitting this to another character, what can we do that’s slightly different than just ‘chomp’?”

‘The Last of Us’ zombie fungus is real, and it’s found in health supplements

Visually, the creators wanted to add something “unique.” In talking with a mycologist, an expert in the studies of fungi, the production team learned about mycelium, which are thin threads that fungi use to move through a host to take over. Mazin said they instantly became “enamored” by the idea, particularly that it felt real, since it was based on science, but also that it felt visceral and “invasive.”

During preproduction, one of the show’s directors, Jasmila Žbanić, sent Mazin and company images of jellyfish stings, used as inspiration for the show’s creation of tendrils.

“We loved how it felt chaotic and wormlike,” he said. “The idea that it’s under your skin or in your throat really made us squirm.”

For fans who love the spores from the game, Mazin shrugged and said it’s not out of the question for them to be included in the show — just not this season. Should the series get renewed, which it very well might considering its sky-high success so far, spores may very well come back as another method of infection.

Elise Favis is a journalist focusing on video game culture and technology, with bylines in outlets such as Game Informer, Rolling Stone, and Fanbyte. She is also a former full-time reporter for The Washington Post’s video game vertical, Launcher.

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