The Last of Us

Adapting video games to screen has proved notoriously difficult but HBO’s version of The Last of Us cracked the code. Turning the hit survival game created by Naughty Dog for the PlayStation 3 into a nine episode drama was the work of showrunner Craig Mazin and the game’s writer and director, Neil Druckmann.

The Last of Us follows Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) as they navigate the dangers of a post-apocalyptic world populated by zombie-like ‘infected,’ marauding gangs of raiders and self-righteous leadership councils. The emotional core of the story is of family, either forming or being violently
forced apart, with humanity’s hope entrusted to a father and adopted daughter at the center of the maelstrom. Timothy Good, ACE (Gossip Girl, The Umbrella Academy) and Emily Mendez — who began the series as an assistant and was promoted to editor during post — were hired several months after photography began in fall 2021 so they had to hit the ground running. Their first assignment was to tackle the intimate relationship drama of Episode 3, “Long, Long Time.”

While Good had never played the game, Emily had it down as one of her favorites. “When Tim said we’d been invited to join the show I immediately said we have to do it,” she says. “I knew it was a wonderful story and one that had always resonated with me.”

There are benefits to both approaches. Good says, “My goal was for the story to work for the viewer who knows nothing about the game. I always say, ‘My mom in Chicago has to understand this’ and if she doesn’t then we’re in trouble.” Mendez says she wanted to be in the middle, between knowing the game and experiencing the dailies. Her existing game knowledge helped them both. In Episode 3 for instance, Ellie is going through boxes in Frank and Bill’s house and pulls out a red shirt. “I knew that was a very iconic shirt from the games and so I suggested we get that into the cut at a much earlier stage.”

The pilot was written as 40 (or so) minutes with Episode 2 at (around) 50 minutes but the balance between them wasn’t working. Good explains, “The original pilot had Joel’s daughter Sarah dying, we jump 20 years ahead and see him incinerating another dead kid and we end on our first sight of a strange girl [Ellie] in a window.

“HBO was wise enough to say that all this might prove too depressing for an audience to want to come back. So, we integrated those two episodes together. By doing this we introduce the audience to Ellie and to Bella Ramsey whose energy is so infectious and electric.”

A key consideration was establishing Joel and Ellie’s relationship by refocusing the early part of the pilot on Sarah. “Craig and Neil were aware that Sarah is the echo of Ellie,” says Good. “For example, in the pilot Sarah finds a knife and opens it up. That is a recurring image that would connect the
two characters over time to the viewer in an emotional way. Ellie’s most prized possession is a switchblade.”

Good explains that he recut the opening to be primarily from Sarah’s point of view. “Even when I had fantastic closer shots of Pedro I was forcing myself as much as possible not to use them because we wanted the audience to connect with Sarah.” He says, “Gamers know what is going to happen so I can’t worry about that. I have to think about people who don’t know the game. I want them to think that Sarah is who they are going to enjoy following over the series so when she dies their whole point of view pivots to Joel. There’s a realization that everything up to this point with Sarah has actually been informing us of Joel’s character.”

Much of the series’ action is classic horror suspense in which our heroes must move through landscapes or within buildings and tunnels without giving their presence away. “I prefer to avoid overcutting in order to keep the audience on edge,” Good says. “As soon as you change the perspective from the main characters the audience gets a release. You want them in the discomfort zone. So, one way of building suspense is by not editing until it becomes an active situation.”

Sound plays another key role and is one of Mendez’s fortes. In Episode 2 when Joel, Ellie and Tess (Anna Torv) venture intoa museum she ensured the  sound was more subtle than overt, as per Mazin’s intent. “When we’re hearing the ‘clickers’ the idea was for them to be a threat that crept up on our characters, first from one side and then from the other. The characters and the audience realize that there are two clickers just by sound alone. Craig likes being able to hear lots of layers and have a richness to the sound so it feels more real.”

In the pilot, our heroes are escaping through town when a plane crashes and so does their car. Sarah is knocked unconscious and when she wakes up, we learn how the town has changed from the soundscape. “You can hear some patches of infected in the distance or gun shots but you’re not hearing this crazy amount of activity,” Mendez explains. “It’s eerie, silent, creepy. Building this at a temp level helped us set the emotional stakes in the scene.”

Staying with sound there are a number of specifically chosen sync tracks dotted throughout the series including by Depeche Mode, Hank Williams and Linda Ronstadt. In certain episodes the editors had enormous latitude to pick musical accompaniment. In Episode 7, “Left Behind,” they chose A-ha’s “Take On Me,” a track that Ellie plays in Part II of the video game and in the same episode, Good found the perfect fit for a lullaby version of The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.”

“It just made sense because it replicates Ellie’s desire for this relationship and running away with the girl she loves. Craig was incredibly open to this interpretation and to us bringing our ideas into the mix.” In “Long, Long Time” Good chose Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac’s “I’m Coming Home to Stay” and also Cream’s “White Room” to go with the montage sequences for Bill (played by Nick Offerman). “I fell in love with late ‘60s music a while back and I thought this kinda makes sense for Bill. He’s a conservative dude in a small town and the music tracks were leaning into that misdirect there.”

We first see Bill as a grizzly middle-aged guy selfishly defending his own turf and content to enjoy life alone. Then he meets Frank (Murray Bartlett) and the episode transforms into a tender love story. It is directed by Peter Hoar who made It’s a Sin, the acclaimed drama about the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

“That episode seemed designed for me,” Good shares. “I am in a relationship with a Bill and I am a Frank. I grew up in a time where you had to hide who you were to survive emotionally and even physically so it was a story I very much understand. It was a joy to put this together and to pick up on all the nuances of their performances. Every little tiny detail and smile adds to richness of the story and to the space of the characters that they inhabit.”

At the beginning of their relationship, for example, Frank sees Bill’s dusty mantlepiece. “It’s full of old photos. It’s death. Frank thinks this place needs his help. Then, years later, there’s a moment when Murray looked over at the mantelpiece and I noticed the way Eben Bolter, BSC had photographed the dining room so that the lightest part of the frame was on the mantlepiece.

The mantle had changed into a place with life and flowers, full of their life together. Murray just had this little look of satisfaction that recognized his own purpose in Bill’s life. Some people would say we could lose that moment. But it’s not ‘air.’ It is their whole relationship right there.”

Good sculpted the episode to produce “the best version of everything that was filmed with nothing left out. At a certain point we had it around the 74-minute mark and Craig and I knew that if we take out anything else it will get ugly. Luckily HBO saw the value in the longer episode straight away.”

Mendez also edited scenes in this episode, after which she was given Episode 7, “Left Behind,” the backstory of Ellie, to co-edit with Good. Good explains, “Emily was assistant editor until this point on the show and doing incredible sound work. She had been editing scenes and co-editing episodes with me in previous shows for some time so it was very easy for me to approach Craig with this request. At that point I was juggling so much stuff I just said to

Craig was there any way that Emily could help cut this. “Just as there are certain things in ‘Long, Long Time’ that I could intuit, there would be things that Emily will know that I won’t know about the relationship between Ellie and Riley in ‘Left Behind.’ “Craig is a big believer in giving people chances and in giving artists the space to do their work. It was a really great success and that’s when Emily became a co-editor for the remainder of the season.”

While Good and Mendez teamed on most episodes, Mark Hartzell, ACE, edited Episode 2 and Cindy Mollo, ACE, edited the penultimate episode. Mendez also cut the opening of the finale when we’re introduced to Anna, played by Ashley Johnson, who voiced Ellie in the game. “That sequence has a lot going on,” Mendez says. “She is running from an infected and then giving birth so we have a lot of horror and also the pure sentiment of Ellie being
born. For me it was a matter of finding a good balance of all those things at once. It was the biggest scene I did.”

Later in the episode, Joel goes on a killing spree to try and save Ellie from the operating table, in what Good says was his most challenging creative task. “The massacre was very tricky because in a way it was designed to be a shoot ‘em up which felt foreign to the show.

To this point, The Last of Us had been about withholding violence from the viewer and now we actually needed to show a massive amount. “Craig said he wanted the violence and action but that it had to be emotional. My key into it was discovering an operatic version of one of the game’s musical themes as temp and then employing  Emily in the tactic of treating the sound FX as muted versus active and in your face. “The challenge was to make it a sequence that exhibited the sheer rage and total shutdown of a character where they literally don’t care about anything other than getting to Ellie, directly connected to one of love. Once we’re with Joel in the hospital hallway lined with pictures of elephants and giraffes the lower key of the music fell into line with what the character was feeling.

That was a really tricky balance but they basically took the temp music and put it in the show.” It’s rare for a screen adaptation of a game to become a hit with both fans of the game and non-gamers alike. Almost as,  soon as the first episode had landed, the internet was awash with praise and awe. “I was surprised at the extent of the success,” Good says. “You always hope it’s going to be good but sometimes that doesn’t happen. You can’t ask for better for your work [than] to affect people’s lives.”

Mendez is also excited about the prospect for the announced second season. “Tim and I love the show so much and we’ve put so much of our hearts into the show. I’m so excited that everyone feels the same way.”

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