How HBO's The Last of Us pulled off its first big shocker: 'An extreme Halloween Horror Nights'

Warning: This article contains spoilers from The Last of Us episode 1.

In 2013, gamers lost their minds in the first 20 minutes of The Last of Us. Craig Mazin, who has since adapted this story with the game's creator Neil Druckmann, was among them.

Before the main action, which tracks a hardened survivor and smart aleck teen traversing a post-apocalyptic future America, the now-award-winning title placed players in control of a young girl, Sarah Miller. Sarah wakes up in the night on her living room couch. Joel, a single father, is on the phone in the background. She waited up to give her dad his birthday gift: the watch Sarah had fixed. They plan to stay up late watching one of their favorite movies together, but she can't keep her eyes open. Then the world falls apart.

A parasitic infection caused by an evolved cordyceps, a fungus, has been rapidly spreading all over the world, taking over the human brain and transforming victims into rabid zombie-like monsters. Through Sarah's eyes, gamers watch as Joel and her uncle, Tommy, rush to find the family safety, only to be trapped in town after their car tips over amid the chaos. The player then takes control of Joel, desperately trying to protect his daughter.

The shocker, the first of many gut-wrenching twists that have made The Last of Us so lauded, comes when Sarah is abruptly killed by a soldier tasked to keep the plague from spreading.

When adapting this moment for the big-ticket HBO series adaptation, writers and executive producers Mazin and Druckmann kept the core element. "We're so used to characters with plot armor," Mazin tells EW, gathering over Zoom with his work partner Friday afternoon before their drama premieres on Sunday. "One of the great things that The Last of Us achieved was puncturing that plot armor in such a brutal and gorgeous and sad way."

The last of Sarah

Nico Parker. The Last of Us. Credit: HBO
Nico Parker. The Last of Us. Credit: HBO

HBO Nico Parker as Sarah in HBO's 'The Last of Us' premiere episode

The game forged that emotional bond between audience and character by making the player become Sarah. "Well, we can't do that in a television show," Mazin notes, "but what we can do is give you more moments with her alone." Druckmann agrees the question became, "How do we get you to care about Sarah as much as possible, so not only [do] you see Joel's loss, you feel a loss like you are rooting for this character that now we violently take away from you?"

The series begins with a day in the life of Sarah Miller, played by actress Nico Parker. We see her get ready for school in Austin in the year 2003. News segments on TV alert that something dire is going on in the world at large. After making a birthday breakfast of scrambled eggs for Joel (played on the show by The Mandalorian's Pedro Pascal), she attends class, where she notices the hand of her classmate is twitching uncontrollably. Sarah ignores it as the bell rings and she heads to a watch repairman to get Joel's gift ready with cash she stole from his drawer.

"She also finds a knife," Mazin points out within these moments. "You see her fascination with it. To me, that's the kind of thing where you wonder, what would Sarah have become? These little bits of things that we connect you to her in such a powerful way that you just forget that there's a possibility that she won't make it."

"There was also an opportunity to show, if an outbreak like this happened, what would it look like from a kid's perspective?" Druckmann adds. "They're not watching the news actively. They're just seeing someone's hand shake in the classroom or being shoved out of a watch store because they're closing early. This fear is slowly growing in this world."

Pascal confirms the sequence that follows in the car was just as crazy to film as it looked on screen. Production took over the town of Fort Macleod in Alberta, Canada, for what the actor calls "an extreme version of Halloween Horror Nights."

Car ride from hell

Nico Parker, Pedro Pascal. The Last of Us. Credit: HBO
Nico Parker, Pedro Pascal. The Last of Us. Credit: HBO

HBO Nico Parker appears as Sarah Miller, the daughter of Pedro Pascal's Joel, in HBO's 'The Last of Us.'

Sarah wakes up for the second time on the night of Joel's birthday and finds herself alone. Druckmann recalls toying with a number of story ideas for how to get Joel out of the house to line up these solo scenes with Sarah to the events of the game. The "eureka moment" that he says solved "a bunch of problems" was Tommy, played by Gabriel Luna.

"Tommy's in jail because he fought someone that was infected. So we came with a solution and helped build the world and tie this group of characters even further together and give you a bit more of a sense of who they are," Druckmann explains.

Sarah ventures outside to find her dad, but instead discovers her elderly neighbor eating her family in the house next door. Joel and Tommy rush in to save her, and all three pile in their truck as they frantically race by blaring police sirens, a farm home in flames, and panicked townsfolk attempting to survive the night.

"It was so wild," Pascal tells EW in a separate interview. "It was like the entire town of Fort McLeod was our set. It was unbelievable. Then you put a camera in the car and we drive through a real staging that is an entire town with people pouring out of a movie theater and cars almost hitting us and mobs of infected chasing people. The greatest opportunity of playing make-believe I've ever had."

The Last of Us . Credit: HBO
The Last of Us . Credit: HBO

HBO 'The Last of Us' writer and EP Craig Mazin directs an infected actor.

Luna had to drive the car on set with Pascal in the passenger seat. Parker was placed in the back with cinematographer Ksenia Sereda, who strapped in with her camera and a helmet to capture the action. The events spill out of the vehicle when a careening car crashes into the family. Joel is forced to carry a wounded Sarah on foot as they are chased by infected, leading up to the climax of a plane falling out of the sky on top of the town.

It was a madhouse for Mazin and Druckmann as well. "All of it was very difficult to do," Mazin says. "That was some of our earliest stuff we shot. It was in July in Calgary. Calgary is very far north, so night lasts about, I don't know, five hours. We would show up at 9 p.m. when it was still broad daylight and rehearse until the sun properly went down at like 11:30. Then we would shoot until about 4:30. Neil and I get to the street where everything's gone bad, and we look around. We're like, 'We gotta work on this.' And so Neil and I are just running around at night, putting garbage in spots and saying 'blood over here' and 'do this over here.'"

"'Inspect this person's shirt' and 'add more scratches here,'" Druckmann chimes in.

"We've got four minutes before you have to start rolling," Mazin continues. "It was like let's-put-on-a-show manic insanity. I think it worked."

Druckmann also makes note of the massive lights the production set up at the end of the street. They would turn on at the moment when the plane crashes to the ground and causes an explosion. "They warn us to not look directly into these lights," he says. "They could blind you, they're so bright, but it was to get the proper lighting off of all the buildings and the characters and everything. Then right when you say action, when you're holding your breath, to see it all come together was a testament to everyone that was there that night."

(*Jamie Lee Curtis meme voice*) It's about trauma

The Last of Us . Credit: HBO
The Last of Us . Credit: HBO

HBO Pedro Pascal as Joel Miller in HBO's 'The Last of Us'

A gunshot cuts through the air to stop a rampaging infected host from chowing down on Joel and Sarah. They look and see a soldier's flashlight. For a brief moment, they think they found help. Then the soldier turns his gun on them. Commanded by his superiors over the walkie to kill the suspected infected, the armed guard opens fire, causing Joel and Sarah to tumble down the hill. Tommy intervenes, killing the soldier. Again, there's hope. Maybe they got out of it. Then Joel hears Sarah's labored breaths and sees she's been hit by a bullet. She dies cradled in her bereaved father's arms.

As it is in the game, the loss of Sarah sets the tone for the entire show, alerting the viewer that everyone is expendable. It was also a crucial touchstone for Pascal when crafting his performance as Joel, the actor confirms.

"That is the ultimate identifying skin that the character wears for the rest of the season, the defining moment for what will shape who they are and what they do," he tells EW in a conversation with Bella Ramsey, who plays Ellie, the teen Joel is reluctantly saddled with for the majority of the series. "And how the character of Ellie affects him directly related to this loss and trauma and loss of hope and learning to hope again. That humanity suddenly showing you how inhuman you can be."

We see the lingering effects of this event as the show jumps forward 20 years in the future, when Joel is living in a militarized Boston quarantine zone with Tess (Anna Torv), his friend and lover. They are tasked by the Fireflies rebel group to smuggle Ellie out of the city to their allies on the outside. Joel learns why Ellie is so special when they get caught by a guard from FEDRA (Federal Disaster Response Agency), the organization that runs the QZ: Ellie, though bitten, is immune to the cordyceps infection, making her the key to possibly finding a cure.

Joel stares into the flashlight of the FEDRA agent, which brings back flashes of the night Sarah died. Fueled by those tragic memories, he attacks the guard, pummeling him with bare fists until bloody.

Mazin found the first episode the hardest to put together. "That's the episode that you're gonna be judged on the most, and it's often the least rewarding," he says. The premiere has a hefty task: set up a specific, intricately crafted world and the main players in ways that will be clear to even those who haven't played the game. "The trick is they have to happen within the context of the only thing we actually care about, which are relationships," he continues. "In doing so, we get a full picture."

Though both creators are admittedly antsy about how the audience at large will take The Last of Us, Mazin admits, "I do think that our first episode is pretty f---ing good."

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