The Last of Us is not the first adaptation from video game to film and it certainly won’t be the last. But perhaps more than any property that has moved from interactive medium to passive television, The Last of Us seems most suited to make the transition. Joel and Ellie’s story is an emotional and cinematic one that does not rely on player choice.
Ahead of the show’s premiere we spoke with some of the actors about the adaptation, as well as Neil Druckmann, co-creator of The Last of Us, who was heavily involved in writing the show and directed a few episodes.
Druckmann is no stranger to directing actors, even if the recording process of a TV show is different from how it works in a video game. “There is a certain luxury we have in video games that when we capture a performance, we have every camera angle under the sun. We don’t have to worry about coverage because we have all the coverage in the world,” Druckmann said in a round-table interview about working in the show. “We can after-the-fact decide – the way that line was delivered? That’s going to be a close-up. The way they were fighting over here? That should be a wide shot. What they’re wearing? Let’s try different outfits and we can figure that out after the fact. We can change the weather, we can change the setting – we can do all these things after the fact.”
For television it is a much more planned out process. You have to make your decisions ahead of time, make sure everything is exactly how you want, and hope for the best. “What happens is you have all these different departments: the actors, the costumes – everything has to come together for this moment where you say, ‘Action!’ And you hold your breath and hope all the pieces kind of come together,” Druckmann says, “And usually they don’t the first time, so you make some adjustments and you say it again. And when it does work, it’s this high. It’s a thrill. It feels like a high-wire circus act. I get the addiction people might get to this process.”
Most of the work work happens before the shoot in television and film as opposed to after in the world of video games, but in many ways, for Druckmann, the whole process felt very familiar. “Giving art direction is giving art direction, except you’re doing it in real life instead of on a screen,” Druckmann says of both the surprising and unsurprising similarities. “Working with actors is working with actors. Writing it is a lot of the same conversations – just trying to make it authentic and honest.”
Speaking with Druckmann, it seems he enjoyed the process of directing television and working on the adaptation of his work, but video games are still where his heart lies. “I love all forms of storytelling. At this point I’ve gotten to do a little bit in comics, a lot in video games, and a little bit in TV and I think there is always something to learn from all of them, and help improve all of them by having a better understanding,” Druckmann says. “My love for games will never go away, but this was a thrilling experience, as well.”
We’ve watched the early episodes of the show, and at least in the first few it seems like a faithful adaptation of the source material, but with additional context to establish the world and the chance to spend more time with characters we may have only met briefly in the game. Despite that decision to hew close to the original game (at least early in the show), there is still room to play for the actors.
We spoke with Pedro Pascal about playing Joel in the show and specifically learned how he approached the accent. It is pared back for the TV show compared to Troy Baker’s more southern-flavored voice. “I think it was more a matter of kind of composing a quality amongst many other ones. It was all of these different pieces that were part of a puzzle,” Pascal told us in a round-table discussion with the creators. “Joel’s from Austin, so a thick Texas accent, isn’t technically applicable. I grew up in San Antonio. Before I was two years old, my family landed in San Antonio, and I lived there until I was nearly 12 years old. It was more matter of playing with, what’s in my system already. What’s the sound that shapes the words that are on the page. What harkens to something that is from the game, that is familiar to us already. What is the music of it all? A bit of a twang was definitely part of it.”
The Last of Us begins airing on HBO on January 15. For more from the creators of the show, look out for the next issue of the Game Informer magazine for details from Gabriel Luna who plays Tommy in the show, as well as Merle Dandridge, who is the only actor to play the same character in the game and the show, Marlene.