TBI Scripted: Behind ‘The Last Of Us’ post-apocalyptic love story

Bill (Nick Offerman) & Frank (Murrray Bartlett)

Launching just over two weeks ago, post-apocalyptic drama The Last Of Us is already shaping up to be one of HBO’s tentpole scripted series.

A second season renewal was confirmed at the end of last week and prior to that, the show’s second episode was watched by 5.7m viewers across HBO and linear telecasts in the US, up 22% from the series debut. The figure marked the largest week two audience growth for an HBO Original drama series in the history of the network.

The Sony Pictures Television show is similarly in demand internationally, with Amazon in France striking an exclusive deal with Warner Bros. Discovery to place The Last Of Us on its Prime Video streamer.

Based on the 2013 video game developed by Naughty Dog and set 20 years after global fungal infection that led to the collapse of society, the series stars Pedro Pascal (The Mandalorian) as Joel, a taciturn smuggler tasked with escorting teenager Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a United States now populated by dangerous raiders and monsters.

The third episode of the series – Long Long Time – debuted on HBO & HBO Max yesterday, as well as international services such as Sky Atlantic and NOW in the UK today. Ahead of broadcast, TBI was in attendance at a special screening of the episode in London, where director Peter Hoar (It’s A Sin), actor Murray Bartlett (The White Lotus) and cinematographer Eben Bolter (Avenue 5) discussed the episode in detail.

Episode three spoilers follow…

Frank (Murray Bartlett)

Long Long Time is a ‘bottle episode’ that largely sets the main narrative aside to follow guest characters Frank (Bartlett) and Bill (Nick Offerman) over the course of 20 years – from first meeting, to blossoming romantic relationship, battling raiders and eventually taking their own lives in old age.

In a Q&A session following the screening, Hoar, Bartlett and Bolter discussed bringing this iconic section of the game to the screen in this episode.

Questions and responses have both been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get involved, Peter? Bill and Frank’s story is told in a different and very limited way in the game…

Hoar: I’m a bit of a gamer, so I played the game; I had to stop playing about three times because it was quite traumatic and I’d never experienced that in a game – it’s incredibly cinematic, it’s a great story, great character. I’d always been a fan.

In the game, Frank is seen dangling from the rafters, and you just see his feet and he’s taken his own life and Bill’s story is told in retrospect. So, Craig [Mazin, the co-showrunner] took it on and thought here’s a way to explain the story of an apocalypse and an individual relationship within that.

Murray, what was your familiarity with this world before this script arrived?

Bartlett: I’m not a gamer, I’m embarrassed to say. I knew nothing about the game so I had to kind of dig in and investigate, but I also was a huge fan of [Craig Mazin’s miniseries] Chernobyl and that was one of the first sort of things that got my attention [and made me think] I want to work with that guy.

I also thought what a great match to have someone like that adapt a video game because I just knew he’d do such a beautiful job. Then I saw the scenes that he had written and they were just so tender and unexpected.

I think the entire crew, I know that every department was sort of treating this episode with such reverence, because everyone loved it so much and everyone came at it with such emotion. We came to set the first day and I feel like everyone was on the verge of tears – we hadn’t shot anything yet.

What I found really amazing was that it’s a big show in a big world and the humanity never gets lost and these beautiful human stories that happen get as much attention as all the bigger stuff

Bill (Nick Offerman)

On working with Nick Offerman on some of the more romantic scenes…

Bartlett: I had some sort of familiarity with the type of material that [we would be working on and that] he, I think, was craving to dive into. I think we both were aware of that dynamic as actors and kind of went into that, because it really made sense for the characters and Frank does take the lead in those scenes and is kind of teaching him a little bit. Not that I think I can teach Nick Offerman anything, as he’s such an extraordinary actor.

This is a very verdant, sunny apocalypse. There’s such a beauty to Bill’s town and your use of natural light. Eben, tell us a little about that.

Bolter: The Last Of Us, I think, is a love story; it’s all about love, good and bad, and it’s the beauty of nature, about nature reclaiming the earth. So in this episode in particular, Peter and I talked a lot about the passage of time and seasons.

This more than any other [episode] is a love story and you know we could have shot the whole thing in magic hour, the whole thing backlit, but it was always about emotional truth, always about the story always about taking away any artifice – it was such a less is more approach, it was cinematic naturalism, it always had to feel like a real location.

On the piano scene, I’m pretty sure we had three cameras cross shooting, one in the middle, and [the idea] was let’s just flow, it’s imperfect but that’s fine, life is imperfect. It was a bit of a high concept game to never have a film light on the floor on the set and I can’t remember if we 100% pulled that off, but it was close.

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