Open in App

20 "The Last Of Us" Behind-The-Scenes Facts, Straight From The Co-Creator Himself

By Natasha Jokic,


🚨Warning: This post contains spoilers for The Last of Us Episodes 1 and 2.🚨

If you're also a huge fan of The Last of Us , one of the people to thank is Neil Druckmann. Not only is he the writer and director of the games, but he is the co-creator of the new HBO series. In short, the man is a certified expert on everything about the horror series.
Amy Sussman / The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images

So, BuzzFeed (virtually) sat down with Neil to get the inside intel on all things The Last of Us :

1. Pedro Pascal agreed to play Joel within a day of being sent the script. After chatting with Neil over Zoom, he was locked in for the role.

Neil began, "We had been eyeing him for a while as a potential for this role β€” mostly because we knew we would make a mistake if we cast a purely tough guy as Joel. I'm not saying Pedro isn't tough, he can be very tough! But it's all the other aspects that are more interesting and harder to find in a really good actor, which is someone where you can just look in their eyes and find a tortured soul. Or someone that can have these moments of levity and these moments of charisma."

"The beauty of what Pedro is doing on the show, is that he's suppressing all that and he's not revealing it β€” then, when it comes out in little bits and pieces as Ellie draws it out of him, it becomes these really compelling moments of humanity that you see it slowly emerge."

Liane Hentscher / HBO

2. Neil watched over 100 auditions for Ellie before seeing Bella Ramsey's audition, of which he said, "It didn't feel like I was watching someone acting like Ellie. I was watching Ellie."

"We needed someone that can play 14. Already, finding someone that could be a child and is a good actor is hard. Beyond that, we needed someone that can be quirky, that feels like they push back, like they have this potential for violence or viciousness behind everything they're doing, and someone that's very smart beyond their age while being young. Bella naturally had all those qualities," he said. "We just found Ellie in the real world and happened to put her in the show."

Liane Hentscher / HBO

3. Indeed, the video game actors look nothing like the roles they're playing β€” especially Troy Baker, who was a "tall, skinny, bleached-hair hipster" when he played Joel.

"The unique thing about video games is you don't need to look the part, which is why Ashley Johnson, when she was 27, was able to play a 14-year-old girl [Ellie]. Troy Baker at the time was this tall, skinny, bleached-hair hipster β€” but then when he spoke and moved, he became the role," Neil recalled. "That's why we couldn't cast those same people into these roles for the show, but they were instrumental in bringing those characters to life."

PlayStation / Via

4. One challenge with the adaptation was how to change gameplay scenes that would be "long and boring" if they were adapted exactly as they were in the video game.

"We ask you to put yourself in [the characters'] shoes," he said. "You [sometimes decide how to] engage with Ellie, who's a completely AI companion, moving alongside you and reacting dynamically to your actions. But that requires long, uninterrupted stretches in real time and a larger body count than what is realistic so that you can get a mastery of mechanics. Once that happens, you get to this flow state and you really feel this connection with the character. But if you were just to translate those sequences as is over to TV, which is a passive medium, they would be long and boring."

Naughty Dog

5. However, the adaptation offered the opportunity to expand on characters' backstories β€” like Marlene and Ellie's relationship β€” as they weren't limited to a first-person POV.

Speaking of characters in an unreleased episode, he said, "We get to see the other side. Who are these people? What motivates them? They're not pure henchmen or villains, we get to flesh them out as human beings. ... It was actually quite exciting to flesh out the corners of the world, or characters that we barely touched on, and get to do a much deeper dive into them."


6. The TV show also offered Neil the opportunity for "another bite at the apple" to iterate on certain moments differently β€” such as making Ellie's infection more "scientifically plausible."

"I've evolved as a writer," Neil said. "We're able to do a deeper dive on certain explanations of how the infection spread. In the game, it's just hinted at. Here, we're able to flesh it out a bit more and get into specifics of why certain decisions were made β€” like bombing the outskirts of a quarantine zone in hopes of trying to push the infection out. Likewise, how Ellie is infected and what that means β€”Β  we did a bit more research and had something that's more scientifically plausible than what was in the game."


7. Huge apocalyptic sets had to be made for the show that were only used once β€” like the interior of the Capitol Building, which was "built on a soundstage from scratch." Matching the "lushness" of the game while making it "more realistic" was the end goal, and art books from Naughty Dog (the company that developed the video games) were used as a jumping off point.

"For example, we spent an enormous amount of time and resources to build out the quarantine zone β€” and we spent one episode in there," Neil said.Β "In episode two, that I had the privilege of directing, I'm standing in waders in a hotel lobby that's flooded and water's up to my waist. I couldn't believe what they had just built for a scene that's like a minute long."


8. As the clickers were a "home run" in the games, prosthetic artists from Game of Thrones were brought on to make them look as close to the source material as possible.

Neil said, "They had the challenge of taking something that was only sculpted and designed digitally, and make it real in a way where it gives the actor freedom of movement. They move in this very particular, staccato sort of way, as if they're a puppet being controlled by this parasite."

Naughty Dog

9. There was even a "movement bootcamp" to train extras how to move like infected.

Speaking of the horrifying Capitol scene in Episode 2, Neil said, "We had to cast dozens of infected, put them in full prosthetic makeup, and have a movement bootcamp where they had to train to move like infected."


10. And to separate the recently infected from a "typical zombie," they landed on the concept of transmission via tendrils.

"This came from research, talking to scientists, and just how cordycepsΒ works," Neil said. "What if it's less about biting and them being violent? It's about transferring these tendrils from one host to another. As you see in Episode 2 with Tess, if you don't fight back, they're not going to be violent towards you."


11. The art teams were given the direction to "find the beauty" in the fungus. As Neil said, "When you see the beauty in these monsters, it somehow makes them creepier."

"That's the thing that will also separate us, as often these stories are very monochrome, grim, and dark. There's something beautiful when you look at fungus and how it grows and spreads. It's got these lush colors and interesting patterns," he said.

Liane Hentscher / HBO

12. It was Bella Ramsey's suggestion to have Ellie sleep with a switchblade during her first night with Tess and Joel.

"It was my first day directing, so I was super nervous," Neil recalled. "It was the first time I got to work with Bella and Ellie is this character that's very precious to me. She walked over to me and said like in this very Bella, polite British way, 'I feel like when Ellie's going to sleep here, she doesn't trust these two yet. I feel like she would have her switchblade in her hand. Is that okay?' And I'm like, 'Absolutely!'"

"I just love how committed everybody was to bringing this to life the right way β€” they're going beyond what's even on the page. I felt like it was in such safe hands, that I could trust all these people to do right by this story and experience that we worked so hard at Naughty Dog for."


13. Neil's favorite Easter egg is a drawing made by a kid in Episode 5.

"There's this whole story that is in the game that we couldn't fit into the show," he said. "But fans of the game will know the deeper story of what the initial sketch means."

Liane Hentscher / HBO

14. Neil always thought of Joel and Tess's relationship as romantic, and the TV show offered the opportunity to make that "explicit."

Neil explained, "When we would start breaking an episode, Craig [Mazin] would have like a list of questions, including how much did we figure out about characters' backstory? And then I told him how I see Joel and Tess's relationship. I always saw it as a romantic one, but the way it played out, I didn't feel like there was a need to make that explicit in the game. But I would say it's pretty obvious from the way she speaks to him at the end after she's been bitten in the game."

"Here, we're going to spend a bit more time with them β€” show more of their living arrangements, their working relationship, and how they complement each other. There was an opportunity to show her crawling into bed with him and answer that question, in case anybody had any doubts. What I always found fascinating about them is that they're both committed to each other, and yet they keep each other at arm's length. This isn't a fully healthy relationship, where they're both being vulnerable and completely honest with each other and about each other's feelings towards one another."

Naughty Dog

15. And that Tess and Joel can "only find comfort in each other."

He continued, "They're two very, very, very broken people that have both experienced trauma and committed horrible acts of violence. I think they can only find comfort in each other, at least where they are in their lives right now."


16. Neil will sometimes cry while watching episodes of the show.

After I told Neil I wept at one episode, he replied, "When I watch the show, it just hits me to my core. I cry all the time, like a senile man that cries at commercials. One, I think the show is really good and even if I wasn't involved with it, I would love it. Two, I'm in awe of how much love Craig and the cast and crew put into this. It feels like it honors this thing that we made at Naughty Dog in a way that I've never experienced before. It overwhelms me at times and I cry."


17. Neil is open to a The Last of Us Part 3 game, but it depends on whether the team can "come up with a compelling story that has this universal message and statement about love."

When asked about the future of the franchise, Neil began, "We've been pretty open that the next Last of Us game is going to be this multiplayer experience, where you'll be able to enter the world of The Last of Us with your friend and get to experience the tension and the brutality of that world β€” and a brand new story and cast of characters that live in another city that we haven't seen yet in the world of The Last of Us . This is going to be another chapter in the universe of The Last of Us .

"Beyond that, I know there's a bunch of people wondering about The Last of Us Part 3 and whether that will be a thing or not. All I could say is, at Naughty Dog we're very, very privileged that our publisher is Sony β€” which means Sony funds our games, supports us, and we're owned by Sony. They have supported us every step of the way to follow our passions β€” meaning that just because something is successful, people think there's all this pressure and we have to make a sequel. That's not the case. For us, Uncharted was insanely successful β€” Uncharted 4 was one of our best selling games β€” and we're able to put our finalΒ  brushstroke on that story and say that we're done. We're moving on.

"Likewise, with The Last of Us , it's up to us whether we want to continue it or not. Our process is the same thing we did when we did Part 2 , which is if we can come up with a compelling story that has this universal message and statement about love β€” just like the first and second game did β€” then we will tell that story. If we can't come up with something, we have a very strong ending with Part 2 and that will be the end."

Naughty Dog

18. There have already been "conversations" about a Season 2 of The Last of Us.

"We have had conversations about where we would go if we get renewed. Nothing has been official yet. The response so far has been incredible β€” reviews, fans, coming off the first episode β€” so we just pray that people will keep watching, we'll keep having this response, and there'll be more story to tell," Neil said.

Liane Hentscher / HBO

19. However, the show will not go beyond the scope of the games.

Neil added, "We only want to adapt to games, so we don't want to go outside of them."

Shane Harvey / HBO

20. Finally, the show means that Neil's parents can finally check out The Last of Us.

"My parents get to finally experience The Last of Us β€” I've worked on this thing for again over a decade, and they kind of knew what it was about, but now they really get to know really what it's about," he concluded.

Liane Hentscher / HBO

Thanks for talking to us, Neil! Keep an eye out for more The Last of Us exclusives in the coming weeks.

Note: Some quotes have been edited for length and/or clarity.

Expand All
Comments / 0
Add a Comment
Most Popular newsMost Popular

Comments / 0