In 2013, PlayStation took the entertainment world by storm with The Last of Us, a gripping action-adventure game set in a post-apocalyptic America. Developed by Naughty Dog, The Last of Us tells the harrowing and emotional story of Joel, a hardened smuggler, and Ellie, a bright-eyed teen, who slowly become close as they fight to survive in a hellish, zombie-infested world. It’s a tale that resonated deeply with people; The Last of Us went on to garner more than 200 ‘Game of the Year’ awards and spawn a similarly acclaimed sequel. Together, they’ve sold more than 37 million copies worldwide, and, for many, set the gold standard for prestige, narrative-driven gaming experiences.
Naturally, then, Sony has been looking at many ways to adapt it for a wider audience, including, at one point, a scrapped film helmed by original Spider-Man trilogy director Sam Raimi. Some of these efforts go as far back as 2014, and during that time, Hollywood’s interest in games has only increased. Netflix alone has such series as Arcane, Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, Castlevania and The Cuphead Show!, and that’s to say nothing of big-screen fare like Sonic the Hedgehog, Pokémon: Detective Pikachu and Uncharted.
What makes HBO’s The Last of Us stand out, though, is the people involved. At a time when we have the showrunner of Paramount’s Halo show declaring that he didn’t even look at the games, the key creatives behind HBO’s live-action adaptation of The Last of Us have a much more apparent love and understanding of the source material they’re adapting and the gaming medium as a whole.
First, there’s Neil Druckmann, the co-writer and co-director of Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us, who serves as co-creator, co-showrunner, co-writer and executive producer on the HBO series. It’s practically unheard of to have one of the driving forces behind a game be so involved with its adaptation, especially when, in Druckmann’s case, he already has his hands full serving as Naughty Dog co-president and director of a future, mysterious title. His co-showrunner, Craig Mazin, is the Emmy-winning mind behind HBO’s Chernobyl who’s also been quite candid about his affection for The Last of Us game, even recently calling it “the greatest story ever told in video games.”
For Druckmann, it’s made all the difference to have someone like Mazin — both an avid fan of the source material and a proven screenwriter who knows the ins-and-outs of Hollywood — to be such a close collaborator on the series. The pair were introduced through a mutual friend, Westworld‘s Shannon Woodward, with whom Druckmann worked on The Last of Us Part II. “I can see the love and the passion and how he wanted to do this story justice — it started there. And that would often move me, just to have a partner like that,” he tells MobileSyrup during a group interview.
Of course, Mazin’s screenwriting experience was only enhanced by having Druckmann himself around to ensure authenticity towards the games. In between commitments at Naughty Dog’s Santa Monica, California-based studio, Druckmann spent a fair amount of time in Alberta, where The Last of Us was filmed between June 2021 and 2022. With a rumoured budget of at least $100 million — a sum that rivals what HBO spent on several of Game of Thrones’ individual seasons — The Last of Us is believed to be the most expensive TV production in Canadian history.
According to Druckmann, HBO enlisted a top-notch crew of Canadian talent, including “some of the best prosthetic people, some of the best set designers, costume designers,” to work on The Last of Us. While he’s quick to praise the crew now, he acknowledges that his reaction to their work has regularly left him speechless.
“Most importantly, we needed to feel the movement of Joel and Ellie through space and time” — Mazin
“I often don’t have the right words to describe that feeling,” he says of what it was like to see his creations come to life. “To have our prop master come to me and be like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and they hand me Ellie’s switchblade, and I’m looking at it like, ‘oh my God, I’m holding Ellie’s switchblade, don’t freak out, just be serious and give him some notes!’”
That feeling only got “bigger and bigger” as he went from props to the actual Alberta sets.
“I’m standing inside Joel’s house, and I’m having to take a Zoom call with people back at Naughty Dog. And I’m like, ‘look at the sheets, look at the posters, look at their wallpaper… look how they’re studying this thing that you’ve all built and how they’re honouring it!’” I would often just pause in the middle of a set and just look around and be like, ‘appreciate this — this thing that we’ve made over here as a video game is inspiring all these other artists and craftsmen to just build this really beautiful other version of the story that can stand on its own just as strongly.’”
Mazin adds that it was “fantastic” to shoot in Alberta, pointing out that it was a prime location to adapt The Last of Us‘ story, which is broken up into four chapters based on each season.
“Most importantly, we needed to feel the movement of Joel and Ellie through space and time. Space means diversity of environment and time means seasons — it means weather. We needed snow, we got snow! We needed it to be cold, it was cold! But we also had the Canadian Rockies. We had Canmore, which is a town that’s a dead ringer for Jackson, Wyoming [one of the game’s settings]. We needed people on horseback, no problem. We needed some of the best stunt people in the world — they were there […] While we were bringing crew in from Vancouver as well, there was an enormous amount of fantastic people working in Alberta.”
Mazin says the production took the cast and crew all around the province, including Grand Prairie and Lethbridge. “We’ve been everywhere, and it was a delight. And I miss Calgary and I miss all the folks there. It was an incredible experience to shoot there.”
The cast’s experiences
Of course, the other half of the equation is who’s in front of the camera, and The Last of Us also has some pretty notable talent in that regard. Fittingly for a big HBO production, The Last of Us‘ two leads are Game of Thrones alums Pedro Pascal (Joel) and Bella Ramsey (Ellie). Pascal, of course, plays a spiritually similar role in The Mandalorian, the titular protector of the infant colloquially known as “Baby Yoda.” Meanwhile, Game of Thrones saw Ramsey — who uses they/them pronouns — portray Lyanna Mormont, a fierce and quick-witted teen not unlike Ellie.
Over the course of his prolific career, Pascal, in particular, has been a part of many big and beloved franchises, including the aforementioned Star Wars and Game of Thrones, as well as DC’s Wonder Woman 1984 and Netflix’s Narcos. Even still, he notes that filming The Last of Us in Alberta was special. Last year, he raved about Banff on The Late Late Show with James Corden, and he was equally effusive when asked about the rest of the province.
“I feel like being there was essential to the experience — that we couldn’t have done it anywhere else” — Pascal
In his typical gentlemanly demeanour, though, he’s quick to let Ramsey answer first.
“My favourite place that we went to was Canmore for sure,” they say, eliciting an excited response — “I was gonna say Canmore!” — from Pascal.
“Yeah, it was great!” adds Ramsey, to which Pascal smiles and nods in agreement. “We went to Waterton as well. High River, Fort Macleod….”
While Pascal notes that they went “all over Alberta,” he keeps coming back to Canmore. “Every inch of Canmore was just this magical little town… with really great fudge.”
“I never tried the fudge! Oh man,” laments Ramsey, leading Pascal to laugh and say “you should!”
Jackson community is coming to life in Canmore. The town is gaining details characteristic of The Last of Us universe.
— The Last of Us HBO – Jan 15 (@TheLastofUsNews) November 9, 2021
Evidently, the lighthearted rapport between the two is infectious, and it should help convey the tight bond between their characters on the screen.
Ramsey also noted how “wonderful” the Canadian crew had been. “They were so consistently passionate throughout the whole year. There was never a moment where it felt like no one wanted to be there. Even on the really hard, long nights we spent shooting, everyone was so pleased to be there and passionate about the work we were collectively creating.”
“I feel like being there was essential to the experience — that we couldn’t have done it anywhere else,” adds Pascal. “Physically, for one, but also for our crew and the warmth and the dedication and everybody really in it together and caring as much. There wasn’t a fraction of apathy in the entire experience, and honestly, it felt Canadian to me.”
Canadian connections aside, part of the wider appeal of HBO’s The Last of Us adaptation for gamers is how Druckmann and Mazin have updated the story. While it’s an overall faithful recreation of the first The Last of Us game, the pair have also added material to expand upon what was originally there. One of the biggest examples of this comes in the pilot during extended pre-pandemic scenes with Joel’s daughter Sarah (Nico Parker, Dumbo) and younger brother Tommy (Gabriel Luna, Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).
For Luna, this presented a rich opportunity to flesh out the games, which he’d played and enjoyed even before being cast in the HBO series.
“What was wonderful is that we got to show the family together before the world ends. Even if it’s just a couple of brief scenes, you get to just see them be together, see them joke, see them read each other as brothers do,” he says. “It was really, really great to do that — to start to just build the tissue of a very small, tight knit family that we intend for you to fall in love with very quickly so you can feel the pain with us when they get ripped apart.”
Tommy is an interesting character in that he’s a major part of Joel’s life both before and after the outbreak. That makes the role significant in and of itself, and Luna says he only felt closer to it due to his own experiences. That started with bonding with Pascal about their shared Hispanic backgrounds and upbringings in Texas, but he says he also related to Tommy due to his own family.
“You just have a really superb script that depicts this brotherly connection, this relationship, this somewhat paternal relationship that Joel has not only to his daughter Sarah, but also to his younger brother, Tommy, which I can absolutely identify with, as an older brother myself. My father has been gone since before I was born. My mother was a 15-year-old widow when she had me. And so she very much sometimes is more like a sibling than she is a mother in that we’re so kind of close in age,” he says.
“Then I feel that I have to assume the role of patriarch and take care of my younger brother and younger sisters as a father would have. My mother raised my brother and was a single mother. And so there’s that element, too — that Joel feels that he’s the guy, he’s the boss, he’s the father figure, not only to his daughter, but to [Tommy] also. So you try to explore all that.”
Merle Dandridge (Greenleaf) also has her own close connection to The Last of Us. While original game actors Troy Baker (Joel), Ashley Johnson (Ellie) and Jeffrey Pierce (Tommy) all return to play different characters in the show, Dandridge actually reprises her role of Marlene, the leader of a resistance group known as the Fireflies. Her character is how Joel becomes introduced to Ellie, and she plays a pivotal role throughout the story.
“At times, it still moves me to tears, as weird as that sounds, because I never expected that people would, again, put so much of themselves and honour it to this degree” — Druckmann
Naturally, this gives Dandridge a unique perspective among the cast, especially since acting in the original game meant having to imagine nearly everything while being in a largely empty motion-capture studio. While she says her background in theatre made such mo-cap work “a natural fit,” she was still in awe when she got to actually step foot in a physical recreation of the world of The Last of Us.
“To get up there in Alberta on the set and to tangibly be able to touch everything and feel the weight and hear the water drip and the texture of the sets and accuracy and beauty of the costumes — it was, at many times, deeply overwhelming. I know [Mazin] would always think of me as his litmus test and put me in front of things and I would have a visceral emotional reaction every single time! And, often, dissolve into a puddle of tears because one, as an artist, I’m an open spirit, but I was, fundamentally, deeply moved by the clear love that all of the artists and designers had in every single detail of the show. So for me to know and love and have so much sentimentality for this and see it elucidated was highly emotional and joyful.”
Even after years of developing the series, Druckmann says he still gets a similar feeling.
“At times, it still moves me to tears, as weird as that sounds, because I never expected that people would, again, put so much of themselves and honour it to this degree. And I love taking everything back to the Naughty Dog team and just showing them the stuff. I’m like, ‘the love that you’ve given this thing is now translated over here.’ And often, they’re moved to tears when I show them this. It’s a really hard thing for me to articulate, but it’s pretty surreal.”
The Last of Us will begin streaming in Canada exclusively on Crave on January 15th.
Image credit: HBO