If there was any lingering doubt, The Last of Us proved that even the most hard-core genre concept (in this case, a zombie tale adapted from a video game) can become a best-of-class prestige TV drama in the hands of hugely talented creatives — in this case, showrunners Craig Mazin (who made HBO’s gripping Chernobyl) and Neil Druckmann (who developed PlayStation’s The Last of Us game and its sequel). Their tale of a hardened pandemic survivor (Pedro Pascal) transporting a teenager (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic America full of danger and destruction earned a whopping 24 Emmy nominations (second only to Succession) and was a major streaming hit (averaging more than 30 million viewers per episode).
But perhaps one of the most meaningful accolades came in the form of a simple email. “Steven Spielberg sent an email about episode three [the acclaimed ‘Long, Long Time,’ focusing on a survivor couple played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett],” Mazin marvels. “He was so complimentary about the whole show, but that episode in particular. It was so lovely, and I shared it with all the folks who worked on the show.”
Mazin spoke with THR about his favorite parts of the first season and the lessons learned ahead of the much-anticipated season two.
Which of those Emmy nominations delighted you the most?
Keivonn Woodard [who, at 10 years old, made history as the youngest ever nominated for guest actor in a drama]. We were looking for a Black kid between the ages of 8 and 11 who has to be deaf and fluent in ASL. I even went on Twitter and we still only got like 10 auditions. Kid actors are a challenge. He had never done any of this before and was just a natural. He didn’t overact, didn’t underact. He took direction and was a joy to have on set. And to see him Emmy nominated! It’s so great.
Episode three was such a massive success, but does it loom in your mind like a benchmark that will bug you if you don’t top it? If you’re on season three and people are still going, “Well, the show’s third episode is still the best one,” won’t that be annoying?
I try not to compete with myself, because you can head down some pretty dumb roads where things become synthetic and are not written from a place of honesty. I’m trying to be Zen about it. Some episode has to be the best episode, and it’s very unlikely to be the final one, where it’s just this straight [quality] line going up. But I do recall after Chernobyl, I was like, “That’s about as good as I can do, it’s downhill from here.” If we end the series and episode three of the first season is the one that people feel is creatively the most important or meaningful or moving or well done, I would be proud because, you know, I did do it. But we will keep taking risks. Before the strike, I wrote the first episode of season 2 and anytime I would hear myself saying, “Well, like last season…” I would go: “Stop, don’t go there, it doesn’t matter.”
Well, without getting into the weeds of production details, what did you learn making season one that you’ve used moving forward about how to make this show? What works and what doesn’t for this show in particular?
The biggest lessons came down to learning how to balance our desire to do as much practically in camera as possible and the realities of what visual effects can achieve in a beautiful way. We’re being a bit smarter about it on the front end so that there’s perhaps a more efficient process.
But how about in the storytelling — what stands out?
I’m not saying this arrogantly, but we worked really hard to make sure that the scripts were solid, defensible and shootable. And I think we did what we wanted to do. I do wish we had the foresight to know the original first two episodes were going to become one long episode. Some things got a little bit kludgy or lost on the cutting room floor that I wish hadn’t been. Still, first episodes notoriously go wonky and ours didn’t really, and Neil and I are incredibly satisfied with how the season turned out — particularly the core, which were Pedro and Bella’s performances. Their relationship was exactly what we hoped for.
Is there any chance of fans seeing those deleted scenes from the first episode?
I don’t think so. It’s that thing where you love something so much you wish you could see more of it, and then you see more, and then you’re like, “Oh, actually I get why they cut that.”
I hear you. I didn’t need another 15 minutes with the Ents in The Two Towers.
I do! I watch the extended editions.
I love the extended edition of Fellowship, but prefer the theatrical editions of Towers and Return.
Fair. The Ents, by design, talk slowly.
Kills me every time. So looking back on season one, which scene are you most proud of?
I have a certain place in my heart for a scene in the last episode that I ended up shooting because our director had gotten COVID. It’s the scene where Joel reveals to Ellie why he has that scar on his head. She says, “Time heals all wounds.” And he says, “It wasn’t time that did it.” I’m particularly proud of that scene because, first, it’s simple — it’s two people talking, which is my favorite. They’re not even moving when it gets really good, so everything else goes away and it’s just about their connection. And I’m so proud of the performance that Pedro and Bella delivered in that moment. It was also the third-to-last day of shooting, so it was the culmination of a calendar year of shooting and the culmination of the work that they had done with each other as professionals, but also as human beings. It was so real and it was so beyond. I just love it.
In that finale, what do you personally think about Joel’s killing spree in the hospital in the hospital to protect Ellie, even though her dying would have presumably meant being able to create a cure for the virus? Didn’t he make a selfish and morally wrong decision given the stakes?
It’s certainly selfish. But the question is, “Is it wrong?” It’s the question that we are forced to ask ourselves and I’m not sure we can answer it easily. Because any parent, if somebody comes to them and says, “I’m going to press a button, and either your kid dies or some other kid dies,” I don’t know any parent who would say, “My kid.”
But when you add more and more and more kids on the other end of that, it becomes a different question.
Pass the button and either your kid dies or two other kids die, then this is starting to get itchy. And underneath it is an exploration of love and what love does to us. It defines our humanity, but it also separates us from an algorithm. The Trolley Problem is a problem because it’s a problem [whereby a person is given the choice to divert a runaway trolley that will kill five people onto a different track where it will kill one person]. This act Joel commits is a flawed act. From an objective point of view, let’s call it “technically immoral.” However, this is where the kind of simple exploration of morality begins to break down: If there’s something that we say is immoral and yet no one is capable of not doing it, then what is the point of defining it as immoral? So I have tremendous sympathy for Joel’s decision. I also have tremendous antipathy for Joel’s decision. And that is what echoes forth and why we’re making more The Last of Us.
Going into season 2, did HBO give you a good budget bump — not that season one was low budget, mind you, but given the show’s success and scope I could certainly see a boost being warranted.
There’s always a budget bump and then there’s a discussion about why it’s not enough of a budget bump. For as long as I’ve been doing this, I have never, ever, not once, been in a situation on a where I was like, “What I need is this” and they’re like, “Okay!” It eventually gets to this [holds hands at same level], so I’m not concerned about that. Even if we have a principal debate about what is required to execute a second season, a third season, a fourth season,, what I always know is that they are always working in good faith and appreciate the creative value of the show. It’s not a bloodless, business only decision for them. Maybe on some level there are people for whom it is, but not for [Casey Bloys and Francesca Orsi]. They care and want to back us up.
There are so many fans out there who are only familiar with the show and have such positive vibes towards it and there are some story moves in The Last of Us: Part II game — without spoiling anything — that are really going to challenge that. Are you sort of like giddily looking forward to the explosive reactions to come? Or are you kinda dreading the amount of backlash you’re likely to receive?
Neither, and I dispute the premise. I’m very studiously avoiding confirming anything even through a passive acceptance of a question. Anybody that has played the game and then watched the first season knows that sometimes we do exactly what happened to the game and sometimes we do something wildly different. We also don’t necessarily do things in the same order, or at the same time. In our first season, we repeatedly did things that were upsetting — everyone died except Joel and Ellie. People understood watching the show that this was a story where people aren’t safe. If you are planning on running a series for as long as it can, you put plot armor [slang for characters who repeatedly and inexplicably avoid harm or misfortune] on your main characters until such time the actors are asking for too much money or their Q score goes down or the ratings go down, and then you kill them. That’s not what we do or what HBO does. So anyone can die at any moment, as far as I’m concerned. As for backlash, sometimes it’s hard to tell the different between emotion because they care and backlash. But neither I nor Neil make things with that in mind. There are also times during the season where we think they’re probably gonna be annoyed with us, but later they’ll get it. Like until you saw Ellie and Joel properly fuse, a lot of viewers were like, “Uh, she’s annoying.” And I’m like, “Yeah, exactly! She’s annoying and you don’t like her – just like Joel finds her annoying and doesn’t like her.” Until he does, and would now kill everyone for her, just like how you feel at the end, because that’s how good Bella is.
A few quick numbers question. You originally were given 10 episodes for season one, then you rolled it back to 9. So does that mean season two is 9 or 10?
Neither. It means neither of those things. We’ve laid out our vision to HBO for how this series should lay out across not one season, but multiple seasons.
Four seasons? Like you suggested earlier?
I was aware that I mentioned that. You never know. It can end up being three or five. But four seems like a good number. Some seasons, because of the story we’re telling, will need fewer episodes and some will need more. The best news is the audience wants more. We will not indulge a desire for more simply to make them happier when they hear how many episodes are announced. And if they don’t like how many episodes are in a season because they want more, well, okay. But when all is said and done, I think the wisdom of how we lay it out will hopefully be clear. I don’t know if any season will actually have the same amount of episodes. But, whatever, the number’s not important. What’s important is when they get to the end of the season, they’re like, “That was a good season.”
You’ve previously said Part II will be split into at least two seasons, which I assume is the case at this point.
What I can certainly confirm is that that story does not fit into one season.
Orsi teased a couple casting announcements coming soon in a recent interview. Have you found your [major Last of Us Part II character] Abby?
You’re turning red, so that’s making me think, “Yes.”
The strike stopped us in our tracks. Things were in process. Look, Abby was the first role that we wanted to tackle. We’ve got a pretty good track record of making major cast announcements and people going “really?” which will probably continue. So people may disagree, but I think we got it right so far and the audience seems to feel we got it right and the Academy seems to feel we got it right.
You previously worked as a marketing executive for Disney. Did having that experience influence how your show was marketed? Did you bring your own insights to that process?
I wish to God that the HBO marketing team was behind me right now so that they could just start spit-taking. I’m a very hands-on showrunner in that regard. But the cool part is they let me. I worked very carefully with a guy named Badger Denehy, who does a lot of their trailer work. It’s always difficult. I’m handing people things going, “Do you like it?” It’s tricky. The thing I usually go off of is if I want to just watch it over and over, then it’s good. That first teaser we did with the Hank Williams song, I almost had that on a loop, I loved it so much. I knew people would get our vibe from it.
You’ve been active in union politics. What are your thoughts on the strike at this point?
My general point of view is that the Writers Guild position, and SAG’s as well, is a position of simplicity. We can’t be in the business of making tweaks to what existed before to try to solve problems. We have to start over with something new. We have to make some large, sweeping changes, because everything’s broken around us. And there’s nowhere else for us to go. Our backs are against the wall as a labor force. We all know writers who have gazillions of dollars. It’s not about them. It’s about the 95 percent of the union who are the rank and file.
I think for a few months, the companies have been kind of delusional in thinking that this wasn’t going to be any different — “We’ve just got to wait them out and soften them up and they’ll start fighting among themselves.” But this is not like any other negotiation I’ve seen in my 30 years. There’s a Zen about it: This sucks, we all hate it, but this is it. Every day that the companies wait to end it [extends] its inevitable conclusion. They’re just costing themselves more money, and I don’t know why when they could just end it today. I do think their delusional phase has finally ended, and now we just have to deal with some other issues like fear and pride. This will end, and when it ends, it will end to the satisfaction of the Writers Guild. I am absolutely convinced of that. We have no other choice.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe. This interview was coordinated through Mazin’s personal PR in accordance with WGA ruling following the writers strike that began May 2.