SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains details of Season 1, Episode 3 of HBO’s The Last Of Us.
After watching Sunday’s stellar and heartbreakingly tender third episode of The Last of Us, it’s not difficult to see why a person might consider it one of the best pieces of television this year. And that’s hardly an exaggeration. Written by Craig Mazin and directed by Peter Hoar, Episode 3, named after Linda Ronstadt’s ’70s lovelorn ballad “Long Long Time”, goes far beyond the scope of the original game to deliver the audience and eagle-eyed gamers alike something special. It’s a 75-minute character study that wonderfully captures the essence and beauty of a life well lived amongst the bleakness of the outbreak through the eyes of two lovers named Bill (Nick Offerman) and Frank (Murray Bartlett). Under Hoar’s direction and Mazin’s pen, Offerman and Bartlett give career-defining performances that are so vulnerable and visceral that it’s as if almost the camera shouldn’t be there. How did Mazin and video game and series co-creator Neil Druckmann create such a rich episode? We’ll let them explain.
Here, Druckmann and Mazin talk about changing the original narrative, finding their episode leads and creating an opportunity to explore ideas of “permanent love” and peace.
DEADLINE: Whose idea was it to weaponize Linda Ronstadt’s “Long Long Time” against us for this episode? Such a lovely song that ties into the theme of the episode. Which one of you is to blame?
NEIL DRUCKMANN: It’s neither one of us. [Laughs]. Craig, go ahead.
CRAIG MAZIN: I’ll tell you exactly who to blame. I knew there was this moment where Frank would play a song and he would butcher it, and then Bill would play it, and Frank would be blown away. And also, he’d just decide, “OK, I think I’ve been holding back long enough. I know who you are, Bill, and here’s how this is going to go.” And the song had to be about longing and this kind of endless unrequited love that lasts a lifetime. A sense of sadness and futility that you will always be alone. And I wanted a song that wasn’t overplayed or too popular, but I also didn’t want a song that was just so obscure that it felt almost like we had set it up ourselves, and I could not find it for the life of me.
I had struggled and struggled. And so, finally, I gave up and texted my friend Seth Rudetsky, the host of Sirius XM on Broadway and a musical savant, and I listed all the things I needed. And a few seconds later, he texted me back and said, “Linda Ronstadt, ‘Long, Long Time’.” And I played it, and I was like, “Oh, there it is.” And that was it. Seth Rudetsky is the man to both thank and blame for your tears. [Laughs].
DEADLINE: Can you talk about the casting process here? Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett are such great choices. But obviously, they’re no strangers in the industry. So how did they end up on the show?
DRUCKMANN: With Murray, he was kind enough to audition for us, and that addition moved us to tears. It was so good. We’re looking for this very specific character that just has passion for life and needs to be a handsome man that makes Bill feel really insecure – and Murray had that in spades. [Laughs]. With Bill, that was Craig’s idea to reach out to Nick Offerman. I got excited by the idea because of Nick’s performance in Devs; I felt like he was the best thing in that show. Every time he was onscreen, he was just kind of stealing those scenes and so captivating in a serious role. And then imagining him doing something different than what we’ve usually seen him do before was really exciting.
MAZIN: The only correction I’ll add is that I want to take credit for Nick Offerman, but Carolyn Strauss was the one who gave me the idea. So, Carolyn, our partner in crime and executive producer on the show, was the one who said, “What about our buddy, Nick?”
DEADLINE: What was it like working with them on set? Was there a lot of improvising going on? There are some great comedic one-liners balanced in with the heartbreak.
MAZIN: Those guys were remarkably on script, which as a writer, I’m appreciative of. It’s not always the case. But they were incredibly respectful of it. And we certainly, along with Peter Hoar, the director, who did such a beautiful job, gave them space to play. And I’m not behind the camera going, “Oh, you changed my words.” But they were both phenomenal. I think because the piece is pretty structured and so much is intentional, and because we weren’t trying to be a comedy as much as just allowing comic moments to happen, neither one felt a need to wander away from what was there. What they did in the best possible way was perform the lines great. They’re both really funny, and they’re really smart actors. They know how to sell a joke. They know how to underplay things. They just did so well. So, I was thrilled to watch them do what they did.
DEADLINE: Not sure if “risk” is the right word, but I can’t imagine the immense pressure you both had in creating this adaptation. More specifically, in expanding and creating a new narrative for Bill and Frank that is so different from the source material. What was going through your mind? And why did you feel that you needed to tell the story this way?
DRUCKMANN: I’ll give you a little bit of my perspective, which was if you were to ask me before I met Craig, would I be willing to take one of the most iconic characters from the game and change their fate? I would’ve been like, hell no. It’s got to be like it is in the game. And it’s like that for a reason. But at that point, I’ve been working with Craig on the first several episodes, and then we started talking about this one and what we could do with it. And there was just the idea of taking a break because the last episode was so intense, and we lost Tess. And then presenting a counterpoint of, well, we saw what you stand to lose and what do you stand to gain?
And there was also taking advantage of a medium that’s very different from games that we could change perspective. We don’t have to stay with our two heroes the entire journey, and we don’t have to stay in the same time and location. We could actually jump around in time quite a bit. And that afforded me the opportunity to tell this kind of story. So, when Craig pitched it to me pretty fully, it evolved over time, but it was mostly there. And again, the faith of the character is 180 degrees different from what happens in the game. It was so beautiful and moving and kind of hit the mark as far as speaking to the themes and increasing the stakes for Joel and Ellie in an interesting way. Even though we’re deviating so much, I felt completely comfortable saying, “Absolutely, let’s do this. This is such a great idea.”
DEADLINE: This episode is already being praised by critics as one of the best in television. But when did you know that you had something substantial during the creative process?
MAZIN: Well, we felt really good about the script, and we felt really good about our cast, and we felt really good about our director. But I felt good about scripts, cast and directors before, and then sometimes the soufflé doesn’t rise. And with this one, in being there each day and watching the episode take shape, I was feeling pretty good about it. But it wasn’t until I saw the director’s cut that I knew. Peter Hoar did his director’s cut with our editor, Tim Good, which was quite long. When they sent it to me, I think it was almost two hours or something like that. So, I was like, oh, that’s probably not good.And I sat down, but I’m like, “OK, I’ll watch the two-hour version of this episode.” And I cried so hard that at one point, I actually said out loud, “Ow.” I mean, it hurt. I cried so hard; it hurt. And I thought,” Well, if these guys can do this to me and I wrote this f**king thing, then I think it might work pretty well on other people” Now, we did work really hard to, but we knew we couldn’t put a two-hour version of this thing out there, but HBO—
DEADLINE: OK, wait. But you could. It sounds like we need the painful, longer cut. We could see more of Bill and Frank falling in love with each other …
MAZIN: We didn’t quite have the luxury of that, I think. [Laughs]. But HBO was kind enough to let us go a bit long. And look, I never want to overstay my welcome. I always want to leave people wanting more. But this is a longer episode, and what’s really interesting is, even though I think it’s like 73 minutes long, so many people who have seen it have said that hour flew by. And I’m like; it wasn’t just an hour. It was 1 hour and 12 minutes. And so that’s, I think, a real achievement. But it was really when I saw Peter and Tim’s cut that I just thought like, “Wow, this one got me right here.” [Mazin places his hand on his chest].
DRUCKMANN: Well, I think because I was more removed on this episode, I was more confident than Craig was initially. When he sent me that script, I said, “This is one of the most beautiful scripts I’ve ever read.” And I felt this joy that it emerged out of the foundation that was there in the game. It was just kind of really cool to see that. And then to see it come to life and to see the performances that these two amazing actors gave, I’m incredibly proud to be associated with it. It’s just awesome.
DEADLINE: I have to ask you about that incredibly serene final shot at the end of the episode, where from Bill and Frank’s window, we see the curtains rustling in the wind as the camera pans down from their bedroom to look at Joel and Ellie leaving town. Was that an indication of their spirits watching over them? It’s very peaceful. What was the intention—if any—of that last frame?
MAZIN: I think you might be on to something there. There’s a couple of interesting moments when Joel arrives at Bill’s house, and the door closes from the [gust of] wind behind him. I mean, I’m not a big believer in ghosts, but there’s certainly this vibe of just their energy still [being] there. This was their home and they’re still kind of watching [over it]. But there’s also this other thing, which is the visual theme of the window, which is something that we took directly from the game. I mean, it’s something that, as a player, I just always loved the start screen in The Last of Us, looking at this window and how peaceful it was, even though the world is not peaceful, and what happens to these characters isn’t peaceful. And it seemed like a good place for us to go; there’s an opportunity to show both the idea of this permanent love that’s always going to be there in that building, in their home, but also just the theme of that window being the epitome of peace in the world of The Last of Us.
The Last of Us airs every Sunday on HBO.
[This interview has been edited for length and clarity]
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