Warning: This post contains spoilers for Sunday’s The Last of Us. Proceed accordingly.
Director Liza Johnson definitely played The Last of Us and its Left Behind downloadable content before helming Episode 7 of HBO’s video-game adaptation. But she hadn’t when she first met with series co-creators Neil Druckmann and Craig Mazin, who told her that her hour of the drama would chronicle a very important evening in Ellie’s pre-Joel life.
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“I was like, ‘First date in an abandoned shopping mall?! You’ve got to be kidding!'” she recalls, laughing. “And so I was very excited about the kind of themes and architecture that came with this one.”
Those who watched the episode saw Ellie’s friend Riley (played by Euphoria‘s Storm Reid) lead Ellie through a magical evening in an abandoned shopping center. As the girls geeked out about riding a carousel and played a video game, it became clear that the night was also pretty much their first date. Things turned tragic, though, when a clicker surprised them, biting them both and leaving them sobbing in each other’s arms as they awaited the Cordyceps’ takeover. (Read a full recap.)
Most of the episode was shot in Calgary’s Northland Village Mall. “I don’t know when that mall was built, and I’m pretty sure it was coming down shortly after we were there, so we had a lot of liberty to hurt it,” Johnson jokes. “And I thought that [production designer] John Paino’s team did an amazing thing, like having the brands, like Espirit or something, that make it feel old.”
Johnson is an accomplished director whose work includes The Sex Lives of College Girls, Physical and Dead to Me. We picked her brain about creating Riley and Ellie’s sweet, sad evening — read on to hear her thoughts.
| This is not a show where you get a lot of tender moments strung together. Talk to me about those little moments with Ellie and Riley that we get in this episode, and how you wanted them to hit the viewer.
Oh gosh. Well, I guess I just totally agree with you that everything that’s tender and joyful is really special in this episode, and I think that the [series] creators are quite self-aware about that. Like, the infected apocalypse is quite strenuous, and so it’s good every once in a while to be able to feel joy or remember why you’re trying to survive. The point of surviving is because actually life can be filled with tenderness and vulnerability and love and joy. So I think they’re right that it’s good to punctuate the series with a couple of episodes that allow that to be more foregrounded or deepened.
And I mean, I think that I was pretty thrilled about Bella Ramsey and Storm Reid, because what I wanted to do, not everyone can do. [Laughs] I also saw this in in Craig [Mazin]’s project Chernobyl: In really good dramatic writing, there’s a lot that happens between the lines. And not everyone can do this, but I thought that [Ramsey and Reid] were unbelievably committed to and talented at kind of realizing all of the space between the words that they say, and what’s happening on their face and their tiny pulses of, I don’t know what you want to call it, like engagement, crush, desire between them, like coming out in pulses. I find that so interesting to look at. And I mean… they’re very young people and they’re as good at that as anyone I have ever worked with.
So that is what I wanted to do, and I hope I had some hand in it, but I mean, it’s really them. [Laughs] Like, the way that got there is they can do it, and I think it’s really wonderful to look at. Like in a way, I sort of view the whole episode as… do you remember in that Greta Garbo movie, I think it’s Ninotchka, and it’s like the first time her character tastes Champagne?
TVLINE | I haven’t seen it.
Oh, it’s just like this amazing moment where she’s like, “Oh, is this good?” And then she’s like, “Isn’t this good?” And then she’s like, [smiles widely] “Yeah, it’s good.” And it’s just, like, all in her face.
And I feel like this episode has the quality of being like an hour-long version of that moment of discovery where it’s just like, “OK, it’s like their first date, it’s their first kiss. But also it’s their first escalator, and their first Mortal Kombat, and their first carousel and like first electrical breaker, maybe? And everything has this quality of discovery. Even when they get to like a dead body in the hallway, they’re like, “Wait, is this bad?” [Laughs] You know what I mean? That even the stuff that’s maybe not delightful to come upon is still a discovery… that even the bad stuff that they’re encountering is still something that they’re discovering as they go through the world together, and so in that sense I think it is a little bit of a different tone than the rest of the project, and it’s a thing that I find delightful.
| Can you talk to me about the rehearsal process? Are you a director who really encourages a lot of rehearsal?
I’m a director who likes to do whatever the actor needs to feel confident, and what makes me feel confident personally is not over-rehearsing, and making sure that the camera is on when people are doing their most interesting thing. But I would say we mostly rehearsed the stunts which are so beautifully choreographed. And in almost all cases in this episode, it’s actor action. Like there might be one time when a shelf falls on the stunt double, but like almost all of it is Storm and Bella, and that was the part that we rehearsed the most just because it’s like a violent form of dance… They both really are incredible physical actors and took that on really well, and so that was the part we rehearsed most.
TVLINE | There are parallels between Sarah and Riley, mainly in that they both show up for a short time in the series but are absolutely foundational to Joel and Ellie, respectively. With that in mind, were there any moments or beats as you were making the episode that you were thinking, like, viewers need to carry this with them after this episode?
Oh gosh. Well, I don’t know. I mean, I hope in general it’s a thing that people carry with them, because of course the tenderness and the vulnerability that they can show to each other and that love is… like, you might need to carry that with you to get through the next two episodes, you know what I mean? Like you might really need that, so I hope you carry it with you.
Courtesy of HBO
And I guess while we were working — you know, you try to plan everything and you think you’ve done all your perfect scene analysis, but there was one part when Riley is telling Ellie about her past and what it meant to have a family and what that has to do with her trying to find a new kind of unit of meaning and the Fireflies and stuff. That was a thing that actually unfolded like while we were shooting. I was like, “Oh, I understand that in a new way. We’re going to go in a way here that I didn’t see coming.” And I’m sure the writers saw it coming, but for some reason for me it really unfolded when we were performing it. I suppose they actually don’t have anything to say about it except that I experienced it as more, or differently, meaningful while we were acting it out than I did when I was reading it on the page. Does that make sense?
TVLINE | It does!
I did want to follow up on one thing… that just has to do with this question of whether you’re on a date or not and how all teenagers have certain new feelings and experiences. And I guess I just did want to say that like, not necessarily with the actors, but among the producers and stuff, we did also always talk about how some of those questions of whether you’re on a date or not, or what’s the nature of your friendship and stuff, like it is specific to their queer romance, you know, just because of the way that it’s a little bit different?
Like the ways that, when you’re on a queer date, you don’t really know whether you also could just be exploiting your friendship, you know? … I don’t remember particularly talking about that with Storm and Bella, but I do think it’s at once a universal thing — where everyone’s like, “Wait, are we on a date?” —and it’s also not, where there’s a special way of being like, “Am I treading on the wrong thing, am I exploiting my friendship wrong?” is also specific. Anyway, I just wanted to throw that out.
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