This story about director Peter Hoar and “The Last of Us” first ran in the Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
For pure emotional punch this past TV season, one need look no further than “Long, Long Time,” the third episode of HBO’s “The Last of Us.” Detouring from the main journey of a lone man and the fungus-resistant young woman under his care (Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey) navigating zombie-strewn roads, the series settled down for a decades-spanning romance between two older men, Bill and Frank (played unforgettably by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett), that resonated with its universality and refusal to reduce the duo to dreary stereotypes. If your heart didn’t break watching these men make peace with their life decisions through the unsteady ages, you simply do not and never did have one beating in your chest.
“I would have said yes to an episode full of zombies being shot in the head and probably would have been very excited,” director Peter Hoar said. He had been a devotee of the video game on which “The Last of Us” is based but also knew a thing or two about depicting the ravages of a plague on humanity, having just done the remarkable AIDS-era miniseries “It’s a Sin” a few years back.
“I was just a geek fan of the game. I played it, loved it and was destroyed by it. And I knew HBO had a version of it. I’d never done an HBO show and was like, ‘It won’t come to me.’ But then I was asked if I would be interested, and I immediately said yes. I had no idea what it was then, and then they sent me the script. And that’s when I was like, ‘Oh, maybe there’s a reason why it’s me that they’ve asked.’”
Offerman’s character, Bill, the shaggy, paranoid survivalist half of the couple, appears in the game in a truncated fashion and even briefly refers to a male partner, though that person is never seen alive. His was the trickier role to cast: English actor Con O’Neill was originally attached to costar with Bartlett but dropped out over a scheduling conflict with “Our Flag Means Death;” Offerman, a friend of cocreator Craig Mazin, got the offer to step in.
“I’m always very keen to cast authentically, for lots of reasons,” Hoar said. “But when we talked about who Bill really was, there was a slight disconnect. Bill’s language isn’t modern and he doesn’t know who he is. He discovers who he is when he meets Frank and hasn’t got a label for it. He falls in love with a human being called Frank. That’s what I love about it — it just so happens that it’s a guy.”
According to Hoar, Offerman leaned into Bartlett’s experiences as an out gay man to assuage his doubts about being able to bring authenticity to the role. “Bill and Nick have so much in common because Nick is a master at survival — he knew all the tricks and bits of equipment everywhere and knew so many things about the props. He was perfect for Bill because he has a big heart. Nick looked to Murray just the way that Bill looks to Frank for guidance.”
One of the most lauded elements of this wrenching hour is the astonishing crane shot that tracks through the open bedroom window of Bill and Frank at the end of the episode. The shot is a visual takeoff from the video game’s loading screen.
“When the game loads, there’s this image of a window and it’s all rotten and dilapidated, and there’s a breeze,” Hoar said, noting that while much of the shooting used real locations, that shot had to be manipulated and built a certain way to truly capture the crane’s angle at the most vital points. “It really made you understand the world that people had left, because everyone in cities in these apocalypse stories are always charging around on, like, an ‘Avengers’-level scale. Most of us in the world don’t live there. We live away from all that. And you always think, ‘What would I do in the middle of nowhere?’”
Another key is the poignant song that gives the episode its title, a 1970 Gary White ballad made famous by Linda Ronstadt that becomes a through-line for all the characters, including Pascal and Ramsey. “Long, Long Time” was chosen after much debate on what the unifying song would be, with a shortlist that even included various showtunes. Mazin enlisted the help of friends (notably NYC accompanist and SiriusXM radio host Seth Rudetsky, who gets a consulting credit in the episode) to find the perfect tune.
“Linda Ronstadt is well known, but this particular song was new to many, many people,” Hoar said. “And those lyrics, that longing, that waiting for something, that understanding of how frail it all is — felt in a single female voice.” Ronstadt’s original version skyrocketed up the iTunes charts immediately after “Long, Long Time” aired, much like Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” did after it was used on “Stranger Things” last year. The Bush song, coincidentally, had previously been used to haunting effect in the Peter Hoar-directed “It’s a Sin.”
“She wrote back the most wonderful email to us about how important it was, and she said it would be an absolute honor to have it used,” Hoar said of his dealings with Bush on that limited series. “And she mentioned me too by name. I said, ‘Oh my God, Kate Bush knows what I do for a living!’”