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How ‘The Last of Us’ Turned Its Terrifying Outbreak Day Into a ‘Period Piece’

Along with some 360-degree camerawork and some well-timed laughter, a whole Alberta town came together to make societal collapse feel true to the show's version of 2003.

The Last of Us Sarah

“The Last of Us”

Shane Harvey/HBO

[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 1, “When You’re Lost in the Darkness.”]

Making “The Last of Us” was hard enough. Not only was the mammoth production fighting the logistical challenges of both a fictional pandemic and a real one, the series’ opening episode had to effectively show a full-scale societal collapse in about a half-hour. The HBO show’s “Outbreak Day” had one major enemy: the Sun.

“The nights were short. It was when it was summertime in the Great White North. The sun goes down at 11:00, 11:30. So we had to work at a brisk pace,” Gabriel Luna, who plays Tommy on the series, said.

Perhaps less daunting, but still formidable, was the bar set by the show’s source material. “The Last of Us” has a canonical place in modern gaming and a memorable, entrenched story to draw from. Neil Druckmann, a writer on both the original game and this premiere episode, and co-creator Craig Mazin saw a benefit in making one overarching change and switching the date of Outbreak Day from 2013 (originally meant to coincide with the first game’s release) to 2003.

“Craig really wanted the bulk of the story to be present day, not 20 years in the future. As we talked about it, it became interesting, the distance we are from 2003,” Druckmann said. “In my old age now, it doesn’t feel that long ago, but it is a long time ago. I thought, ‘This is a weird kind of period piece. It’s going to make our job harder, because we have to make sure all the cars, all the technology, everything is correct.’ You see how Joel checks the time. He pulls out this giant Nokia phone. It was an interesting creative choice that was suggested and we embraced it early on.”

Although the timeline of the story was shifted for TV purposes, Druckmann wanted to keep the general structure of the opening of the game. The same drive to upend expectations that fueled the writing of the game was something that translated into TV script form, too. That meant keeping Sarah (Nico Parker) in the spotlight early on.

"The Last of Us" Joel Sarah

“The Last of Us”

Shane Harvey/HBO

“The game used to start with you playing as Joel and you going over to your neighbor’s house and seeing what happened. There’s been so many stories and movies and comic books that start with an outbreak and you’ve seen so many versions of it. In the game, the ‘aha’ moment was, ‘What if we saw it through a kid’s eyes instead of our hero that we’re following along?’ That, all of a sudden, made it feel fresh and it became this very memorable opening for the game,” Druckmann said. “In the game, there’s a certain tension for the player that you want to be in control. You can’t be too far away from some sort of action, where you’re going to survive or you’re going to fight something. The show doesn’t need that as much. We can spend more time sitting at breakfast with our characters or seeing Sarah going to a watch shop to get her dad’s watch fixed and really get to feel what we’re about to lose, both on a grand scale and a very intimate family scale.”

Getting that script on its feet meant a number of practical effects to recreate the feel of a crumbling city. The exploding planes and tendrils waggling out of the newly Infected involved a little bit of digital trickery, but a number of the most harrowing moments from the premiere came from things that the cast and crew could see for themselves on set. Maybe the most unnerving was the carefully planned movements of hundreds of background actors and stunt performers.

“Outbreak Day was a very, very specific collective choreography and so many moving parts. It felt like an entire town was part of creating this experience. There were so many extras. It was crazy,” Pedro Pascal, the show’s Joel, said.

“To have this pinpoint precision in the movement and the choreography of these very large groups, that in itself is an incredible feat. One that I don’t envy that our ADs have to undergo, trying to layer this chaos and bring some method to it. It’s extremely unnerving,” Luna said. “At one point, a stuntman had to do a gag where he’s on a motorcycle and he gets tackled off the motorcycle as he’s riding alongside us. I witnessed that happen over and over again. And his determination to do it at full speed every time was was unbelievably impressive. That adds to the tension and the unnerving feelings, when you have people putting life and limb in the hands of the choreography and in the trust of our stunt coordinators.”

The precise nature of Outbreak Day coming together also applied to the ill-fated family pickup truck ride into the city. On the road through the night and when the Joel, Sarah, and Tommy have to contend with a downtown Austin imploding around them, it was a little jittery for the cast and crew inside the car as well.

“I definitely felt the intensity of the situation. It’s the pressure of having your big brother barking orders at you. But it’s also interesting the way we positioned the camera. It’s on this tether, and Ksenia [Sereda] was able to move it the full 360 degrees. We had very specific choreography for where the cameras were pointing at any given moment, as you have to when you’re dealing with a one-camera situation in a long oner,” Luna said. “And I got a lot of hair, man. So we’re in these French overs, and I’m like, ‘Can they see my face?’ I have to pretend to be driving this way, but I’d give them a bit of it on the side.”

The Last of Us Tommy

“The Last of Us”

Shane Harvey/HBO

Living in that environment of destruction for hours and days on end didn’t exactly lend itself to a constant stream of cheeriness on filming days. But Pascal and fellow series co-star Bella Ramsey found a simple, primal way to stave off some show-induced melancholy.

“You get the giggles. It was a severe coping mechanism,” Pascal said.

“That was our thing, for sure. You sort of are on edge the whole time,” Ramsey added.

Beyond laughter, Luna had a couple other bonus moves up his sleeve. Not only is he a self-proclaimed superfan of the game, he was able to use some of his personal background to help the Outbreak Day setting feel more lived-in.

“The house that we found for the Miller House, the kitchen and the layout. I don’t know how we found this house, but it looks so much like the game. Curtis and the Viper posters, certain comics that are around that one might find. All that was really cool to see our graphics department go so heavy,” Luna said. “I’m from Austin, so I was a bit of an honorary consultant when it came to authenticity. Seeing a lot of the lawn ornaments and the Texas Longhorn flags, the neighborhood they found in High River Alberta very much feels like an Austin neighborhood. We were committed to making things real and practical and present. And that never wavered.”

“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max. 

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