‘The Last of Us’ Co-Creator Craig Mazin Received a ‘Mind-Blowing’ Congratulatory Letter From Steven Spielberg

TheWrap magazine: The co-showrunner says no one involved in the HBO series expected a whopping 24 Emmy nominations


This story about HBO’s “The Last of Us” first appeared in the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

Going into Emmy nominations morning, most Emmy watchers figured that “The Last of Us,” the hit HBO drama series adaptation of the PlayStation video game franchise, would do pretty well. But that doesn’t mean they were expecting that the series, a dystopian road trip through an American landscape ravaged by a fungal infection that essentially turns people into zombies, would land 24 nominations, second only to “Succession” among all programs. Nor was Mazin expecting a congratulatory letter from none other than Steven Spielberg.

“We thought, ‘Hey, we’ll probably get some,’” executive producer, co-writer and co-creator Craig Mazin said in an interview conducted according to WGA strike guidance and coordinated through his personal publicist. “But none of us thought we were gonna get 24 nominations. For a show in its first season, that’s pretty awesome.”

Mazin celebrated the nominations on a Zoom call together with co-creator Neil
Druckmann (who also co-created “The Last of Us” video game) and stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. And then, as showrunner, it was his job to call and congratulate everybody else who was nominated, which included actors Murray Bartlett, Nick Offerman, Keivonn Montreal Woodard, Melanie Lynskey, Storm Reid and Anna Torv and composer Gustavo Santaolalla, as well as costume designers, production designers, casting directors, makeup, hair and visual effects artists, main title designers, sound mixers, sound and picture editors.

“It’s just an incredible feeling to know that our peers’ votes in all these areas were for us, our show, all these people that worked on it,” Mazin said. “More than anything, I’m just excited for the cast and crew because they’re the bulk of it, and it’s great to see everybody acknowledged like this. We made the show as a family. We’re celebrating as a family. I think we’re all very happy to have done so well. Of course, me being me, now I’m just like, ‘Oh, I hope I can keep doing well.’ That’s very me.”

Mazin himself received two nominations, one as a producer in the Outstanding Drama Series category and one for writing the “Long, Long Time” episode about a gay couple who come together in crisis and live their lives in the face of the deadly infection. The heartbreaking episode was also singled out for Peter Hoar’s directing.

“You can make things and sometimes people just don’t notice and sometimes people may not connect with your intention, they may take it differently than you intended,” Mazin said. “And this is one of those cases where we tried to make something beautiful and people generally seem to receive it exactly as we intended. I have heard so many beautiful things from everyone, every kind of walk of life. But honestly when middle-aged queer people tell me, ‘Wow, this saw me,’ I go ‘OK, I feel very good about having put it in the world’.”

One of the most notable responses to the episode came in the form of a
congratulatory letter from none other than Steven Spielberg.

“That was pretty awesome,” he said. “I think for all of us — myself, Peter Hoar, Neil, Nick, Murray — we’re talking about a lot of middle-aged people who grew up being inspired by Steven Spielberg and continue to be. I just think he’s incredible. I don’t know how anyone could direct, generally speaking, better than Steven Spielberg has done over the course of a career. It’s just astonishing to me. And so to get any kind of praise from him, much less praise like that, was mind-blowing to us all. I was giddy and shared it with great excitement with everybody.”

While Mazin is thankful for the nominations on that episode, he said that “maybe the shiniest badge that we’ve gotten is the fact that it’s bothered so many homophobes” who complained about the gay storyline.

“That’s a joy. I really like that,” he said. “Cry more, as the kids say.”

When asked why he felt “The Last of Us” has resonated so well with new audiences, Mazin replied that it was his and Druckmann’s commitment to making a television show rather than a televised video game.

“That meant doing quite a bit of adaptation,” he said. “Sometimes it meant doing no adaptation, doing it almost 1 to 1. But typically, we did alter things to some extent or quite radically to make a television show. In doing that, we did it as the creator of the source material and a fan of the source material. We felt pretty comfortable that people who were fans of the video game would appreciate what we were doing, and by and large they did. But our real goal was to make sure that anyone who came to this without having played the game or knowing anything about that game would be able to appreciate it as its own thing. And I think that

While much of the buzz around “The Last of Us” has focused on its faithfulness to its source material, Mazin pointed out that it isn’t the only video game adaptation that is capable of garnering awards-season recognition.

“It’s easy for me to say, ‘Look, we adapted what I think is the best video game story in existence—so good luck to everybody else, you don’t have that’,” he said. “But there are a lot of great stories in video games and I think they can be adapted beautifully. There are a bunch of adaptations currently going on right now that I think have a really good shot. Of course, we may always get surprised by one that we think wouldn’t be adaptable and yet turns out to be. I never forget the [Phil] Lord and [Christopher] Miller lesson of ‘The Lego Movie.’ I mean, you never know. There’s a good way to do anything.”

His advice for anyone looking to create an award-worthy video game adaptation is to focus on making a quality television show or film, regardless of the source material, and let the recognition come later.

“If you cling too much to the notion that you are exploiting IP, which is a very cynical way of looking at things, then you’re probably going to struggle,” he said.

Read more from the Down to the Wire: Drama and Limited Series issue here.

Illustration by Becki Gill for TheWrap