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‘The Last of Us’ Turned to the Director of ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ for Some Much-Needed Hope

After the most acclaimed film of her career, Jasmila Žbanić brought her personal experiences to a fictional story that touched on some of the same basic human needs.

Last of Us HBO Jackson

“The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “The Last of Us” Season 1, Episode 6, “Kin.”]

Across its first season, “The Last of Us” has told the story of people figuring out how to continue life after the unthinkable. Some of the HBO series’ core characters have devoted their lives to making sure that a massive global tragedy is less of an end than a new beginning. The context is different, but the newest episode “Kin” runs parallel to the last entry in director Jasmila Žbanić’s filmography, “Quo Vadis, Aida?”

That film details the events surrounding the July 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, which claimed the lives of 8,000 men and boys who lived in the town in what is now present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina. The legacy of war, particularly the one that decimated her hometown of Sarajevo for much of the early half of the 1990s, is a subject that runs through much of Žbanić’s work. Ranging from films like “Quo Vadis, Aida?” (nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar) that depict the war itself to others like “Grbavica” and “On the Path” that look at how the years after the conflict shaped both the city and the entire region, Žbanić’s stories confront past, present, and future.

The ability to consider all three at once was pivotal for “Kin,” the episode of “The Last of Us” that introduces Jackson, a haven in Wyoming with a small but flourishing society finding a way to continue after a deadly pandemic.

“This episode was very important for me because I felt a lot of similarities with what I experienced in war,” Žbanić said. “Sarajevo was like a Jackson in a way, surrounded by enemies. People inside had to somehow go on with life, find a way how to produce electricity and food. All of that made me very much attached to Jackson. I didn’t know the game before I started, but after I watched it, after I researched everything, I felt, ‘Oh, I know Jackson very well.'”

Last of Us HBO Jamila Zbanic

Jasmila Žbanić and Gabriel Luna on the set of “The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

That personal connection to what the show was offering extended into the look of Jackson as well as what it signified. Žbanić is able to convey so much about a location through a patient presentation of how an outsider moves through it, whether it’s Jackson or Srebrenica or Sarajevo. There are no cars in sight in Jackson, but the main road through the commune is still bustling in different ways. Mostly, it’s in the people passing by Maria (Rutina Wesley) as she introduces newcomers to this town.

“I love extras, the faces of extras. In my previous film, and in this episode, I was really hand picking the faces, because I think that’s what creates this feeling of society. Each corner, each table, each person is really thought of,” Žbanić said.

Joel (Pedro Pascal) and Ellie (Bella Ramsey) may ultimately leave Jackson for the promise of the Fireflies’ hideout deeper into the Rockies, but you don’t have to be a player of the game to sense that this might not be the last glimpse of this town that “The Last of Us” might have in store. Knowing that she was building a foundation the show could return to, she and the rest of the show’s creative team put a lot of thought into building out the details of how everything in Jackson worked. It wasn’t all exteriors and dive bars and living arrangements — they took the few introductory details that Maria offers to Joel and Ellie and extended them.

“We talked a lot about how these people eat, how they grow their own food, how they cook together. One party’s out to protect, one party’s there to make food, to make clothes, fix shoes,” Žbanić said. “Also, it was very important for us that they have cinema. Even during the war in Sarajevo, we didn’t have anything, but we had a film festival. You cannot live as a human being without dignity. For me, it was very important that they find a way how to live a life full of dignity.”

Between Žbanić’s personal experiences and those of the characters in the series, there was a chance for Jackson to represent a different form of structuring society. Žbanić has long been interested in the topic, one she’ll be able to continue exploring in a new documentary project chronicling the life and public works of former Sarajevo mayor Emerik Blum.

“I believe that life will go on. Even in the worst circumstances, people will find a way to make a society. An especially successful society is a society based on solidarity,” Žbanić said. “I was witness to it. During the war, I had a feeling that people were much kinder to each other in Sarajevo. They didn’t care about materialistic stuff, many things that now we care about. We were all equal, because we had nothing. There are different ways of organizing society, but this one proved to be successful. So I was really happy that Jackson was portrayed in this way, and that it gives hope.”

Last of Us HBO Jackson Theater

“The Last of Us”

Liane Hentscher/HBO

In addition to the thematic connection to Jackson and facing what lies beyond it, Žbanić said that she enjoyed the collaboration of the TV process. And she’s not done with TV yet — she’s also currently working on a Bosnian series that will reunite her with “Quo Vadis, Aida?” star Jasna Đuričić.

“For me, it was about people I want to be with and learn from. If there are people that are inspiring, I would like to do different stuff,” Žbanić said. “I’m doing films in different conditions, the European way. But for me, this was a new experience how to get somebody else’s vision on images. It’s different from what I did until now, but I like it because I’m a team player.”

“The Last of Us” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO and is available to stream on HBO Max.

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