‘The Last of Us’: ‘Day of outbreak’ and start date moved to 2003
Along with some 360-degree camera work and some well-timed laughs, an entire Alberta town came together to adapt the social breakdown to the 2003 version of the series.
(Editor’s note: Contains the following spoilers for “The Last of Us” Episode 1, “When You’re Lost in the Dark.”
Making “The Last of Us” was quite difficult. Not only did the mammoth production grapple with the logistical challenges of a fictional and a real world pandemic, the series’ opening episode had to practically depict a full-scale social collapse in about half an hour. HBO’s “Eruption Day” had one main enemy: the sun.
“The nights were short. This was when it was summer in the great white north. The sun sets at 11:00, 11:30. So we had to work at a fast pace,” said Gabriel Luna, who plays Tommy in the series.
Perhaps less scary, but still terrifying, the bar was set by the show’s source material. “The Last of Us” holds a canonical place in modern gaming and can draw upon a memorable, entrenched story. Neil Druckmann, writer of the original game and the premiere episode, and co-creator Craig Mazin saw the benefit of making a sweeping change, moving the date of Outbreak Day from 2013 (which originally coincided with the release of the first game) to was changed. 2003
“Craig really wanted most of the story to be in the present, not 20 years from now. As we talked about it, it became interesting how far we are from 2003,” said Druckmann. “In my old age, I don’t feel that long ago, but a long time ago. I thought, “This is a strange period piece. This makes it difficult for us because we have to make sure that every car, every technology, everything is in order. You see Joel checking the time. He pulls out this giant Nokia phone. It was an interesting creative choice that they suggested and we did it early on.”
Although the story timeline was shifted for TV purposes, Druckmann wanted to keep the general structure of the game’s opening. The same drive to subvert expectations that fueled the writing of the game carried over into the TV script. That meant putting Sarah (Nico Parker) in the spotlight early on.
“The game started with you playing as Joel and going over to your neighbor’s house and seeing what happened. There have been so many stories, movies and comics that start with the outbreak of an epidemic, and you have seen many versions of it. The “aha” moment in the game was, “What if we could see it through the eyes of a child, not through the hero we’re following?” It suddenly freshened up the game and it became a very memorable opening to the game,” said Druckmann. “In the game, there is a certain tension in the player that you want to control. You can’t be too far away from some kind of action where you’re surviving or fighting something. The show doesn’t really need that. We get to spend more time with our characters having breakfast, or see Sarah go to a watch shop to fix her father’s watch, and we really feel what we’re missing out on, both on a grand scale and on a very intimate family scale. “
Bringing this scenario to life involved a number of practical effects to recreate the atmosphere of the crumbling city. The exploding planes and tendrils of the newly infected involved a bit of digital trickery, but the premiere’s most harrowing moments came from things the cast and crew could see on set. Perhaps most annoying was the carefully planned movements of the hundreds of background actors and stuntmen.
“Outbreak Day was a very, very specific collective choreography and so many moving parts. He felt like a whole city was part of this experience. There were so many extras. It was crazy,” said Pedro Pascal, the show’s Joel.
“This precise precision in the movement and choreography of large groups is an incredible achievement in itself. I don’t envy our ads having to go through trying to layer this chaos and bring some method to it. This is extremely disturbing, Luna said. “At one point, a stuntman had to be gagged when he was on a motorcycle, and he was being pulled off the motorcycle as he was riding past us. I have witnessed this time and time again. And his determination to do it at full speed every time was incredibly impressive. It adds to the tension and unsettling feelings as people put life and power into the hands of the choreography and into the trust of our stunt coordinators.”
The precise nature of the Outbreak Day gathering extended to the ill-fated family van trip into town. On the drive through the night, and when Joel, Sarah and Tommy have to deal with a downtown Austin around them, the cast and crew in the car were also nervous.
“I definitely felt the intensity of the situation. It’s the pressure of your big brother ordering you around. But the way we placed the camera is also interesting. It’s on this roll and Ksenia (Sereda) was able to move it through a full 360 degrees. We had a very specific choreography of where the cameras were pointing at that moment, as you have to handle one camera situation in a long sequence,” Luna said. “And I have a lot of hair, man.” So we’re in these Frenchies and I’m like, “Can they see my face?” I have to pretend I’m driving on this road, but give them a little bit of the side.”
Living in the destructive environment for hours and days was not exactly suitable for continuous joy on the shooting days. But Pascal and his co-star Bella Ramsey have found a simple, ancient way to avoid the melancholy of the shows.
“He can feel the giggles. It was a severe coping mechanism,” Pascal said.
“It was our job, that’s for sure. You’re on top the whole time, Ramsey added.
In addition to laughing, Luna had a few bonus moves. Not only is he a self-proclaimed superfan of the game, but he was also able to use some of his personal background to better experience the Outbreak Day setting.
“The house we found for the Miller house is the kitchen and the layout. I don’t know how we found this house, but it looks a lot like the game. Curtis and the Viper posters, certain comics that can be found around the area. It was really cool to see our graphics department being so tough,” Luna said. “I’m from Austin, so I was a bit of an honorary consultant when it came to authenticity. With lots of lawn decorations and the Texas Longhorn flag, the neighborhood found in High River Alberta looks very much like an Austin neighborhood. We were committed to making things real, practical and present. And that never wavered.”
“The Last of Us” airs Sunday nights at 9:00 PM on HBO and can be streamed on HBO Max.
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