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'The Last of Us' showrunners take us inside series premiere, break down changes from the video game

EPs Craig Mazin, Neil Druckmann and actor Gabriel Luna (Tommy Miller) explain game vs. series differences. 

Nico Parker, Pedro Pascal, Shane Harvey in The Last of Us Season 1

The global fan base of Naughty Dog's The Last of Us video game has been on pins and needles waiting to see what a live-action version of the beloved game might look like, and now its finally here with the premiere of HBO's adaptation of The Last of Us. Starring Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller and Bella Ramsey as Ellie Williams, the series premiere introduces some brand-new scenes that are not part of the game narrative and others that strongly mirror what fans are expecting from the adaptation.

***Spoilers below for HBO's The Last of Us series premiere***

To get some insight about those choices, SYFY WIRE asked executive producers/showrunners Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, as well as actor Gabriel Luna, who plays Joel's brother Tommy, to share their thoughts on some of the most impactful scenes in the "When You Are Lost in the Darkness".

The Prologue: Cordyceps Is Coming

The Last of Us Teaser Trailer

Let's talk about how you uniquely begin this series with a prologue set in 1968 with scientists on a talk show sounding the early fungal alarm. It does such an effective job of getting audiences scared about a pandemic again considering how that's been tempered by three years of our COVID reality.

Craig Mazin, Showrunner: Yeah, that's sort of why we did it. Because we know more now than we ever did before. And it's easy for an audience now to, justifiably, when they hear the word pandemic, cross their arms and go, "Well, I've just lived through one, so I don't care." Part of what we needed to get across was: "Not like this." It was important to also show that it had always been there. Cordyceps has been waiting. We were warned and we were told, I generally find myself being scared when scientists are scared. And so there was a chance to really explain to people the beauty and the horror of this very real thing. I mean, this is absolutely real. And to give them a sense of coming dread; unavoidable, inevitable dread. And then fast forward them to the day it finally happened.

Meet the Millers

Pedro Pascal in The Last of Us Season 1

Audiences get to see a lot more how the Millers function as a family with Sarah (Nico Parker) serving as the glue to keep Joel and Tommy functioning. 

Gabriel Luna (Tommy Miller): Yeah. The whole first episode is really very much Sarah's episode and about her experience throughout the day as the world around her descends into chaos. 

We get a lot more context about Tommy before the madness ensues, which is different from the game.

Luna: Yes, you get to see Tommy in his natural habitat, so to speak. Being a part of his very small, tight knit family and to be alive in a world we all recognize before it all comes tumbling down. And that's something you don't necessarily get to see in the game. When you meet Tommy [there], he's already in the throes of the action. In our show, we get to show you the calm before the storm and that was exciting and really fun to explore. To do with just a few lines and a few moments together as a family, the heavy lifting of making our audience fall in love with the Millers. We needed those moments. And that was really, really exciting for me to explore. 

Chaos Erupts

The Last of Us Teaser Trailer

Once Joel and Tommy rescue Sarah from the neighborhood, the series gets close to matching the integral cut scene of Sarah's death in the game. The first-person perspective of the game is reminiscent in the camera moves and action beats. Talk about your choices in how to infuse some of the game play subtly into the visuals.

Neil Druckmann, Showrunner: The ethos at Naughty Dog is that we wanted you to feel like you are Joel and seeing the world through his eyes. So we'd have these long, uninterrupted sequences filled with action that we had to build on. And that creates a certain tension and a connection with the character that's wholly native to video games. If we tried to put just that on the screen, it would get boring. What would be thrilling in one medium, would be boring in another. And the game, when we made it, combined different genres. It wasn't just horror and it wasn't just drama. It was about capturing all those different facets. Our mantra was what's gonna be needed in the show to sell a moment? And the show is not about zombies. It's a show about these very human characters and the struggle that they feel. 

What was it like shooting the sequence in the truck with the Millers fleeing the outbreak in town?

Luna: It was written in the script that whole thing is a oner. We very much tried to take inspiration, and in our execution, make the audience feel what we feel as players witnessing all that happens through Sarah's eyes. 

[In that truck], I'm not driving. We have a full dune buggy pod on top of the Silverado that connects to the drive train to control the vehicle. Our stunt driver was phenomenal. I don't know how you do that, drive from the top of the car! But that allowed us to go full 360 with the camera, and Ksenia Sereda, our DP, is in the back able to turn every direction, so all of that technique helped to recreate the beginning of the game very accurately.

The moment where Sarah is sobbing in pain is brutal. It sells Joel's loss arguably better than the game. Nico is phenomenal.

Mazin: I was talking with her mom, who's also an actor, Thandie Newton. It was before we started shooting and she said, "Just so you know, when you get to that scene, she's gonna break everyone's heart." And I was like, "Okay, Mom, that's cool." Boy....was she right. 

New episodes of The Last of Us premiere Sunday nights on HBOMax.

Looking for more horror? Check out SYFY's Chucky. The first season is streaming now on Peacock, and Season 2 can be found at SYFY.

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