Showrunner Craig Mazin is no stranger to taking bleak material and turning it into a crowd- pleasing hit.
Mazin, best known for 2019’s Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning miniseries “Chernobyl,” now helms “The Last of Us,” a new dystopian drama on HBO.
“I’m a huge fan of the game,” Mazin, 51, told The Post, referring to the popular video game on which the show is based. “I played it when it came out in 2013. For video games, it’s always nice to see a situation where nobody has any metaphysical or supernatural powers.
“The storyline … came down to this one relationship. It just felt like there was a TV show in there, trying to get out,” he said. “But I thought, ‘Whoever this [game creator] Neil Druckmann guy is, he’s never going to let me near it!’ Years later, I did ‘Chernobyl’ and I’m looking around to find out what my next thing is. Neil [Druckmann] watched ‘Chernobyl’ and Shannon Woodward, who plays Dina in the second game, sort of set us up on a nice date. We hit it off instantly,” said Mazin, who ended up co-creating “The Last of Us” with Druckmann.
Premiering Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m., the series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler who’s tasked with escorting teen girl Ellie (Bella Ramsey, “Game of Thrones”) across the US — which is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland.
Most of humanity has been wiped out by a fungal infection, which has turned the afflicted into zombie-like creatures. The action picks up in a version of Boston that’s a quarantine zone policed by military forces. There’s also a mysterious rebel group called the Fireflies that believes Ellie might be the key to humanity’s survival.
“We wanted to find someone that the audience had a little bit of buy-in with already, who they could kind of latch onto,” Mazin said of Pascal. “Because he’s going to be pulling you through this complicated landscape with lots of people coming in and out as the story progresses. And Pedro has this incredible combination of old-fashioned masculinity and tough-guy exterior, but this wounded soul and pain and vulnerability in the eyes.
“Normally, you send a script to an actor at that level and three months later, they’re like ‘Oh yeah, somebody else read it and said it was good. We should meet.’ For Pedro, we sent it to him, and the next morning I was on a Zoom with him. He read it and was so into it. I was like, ‘This is awesome.’”
Although Mazin is a fan of “Game of Thrones,” he said it’s “a total coincidence” that his two leads, Pascal and Ramsey, were both in that show.
However, he said he did feel the weight of audience expectations from fans of the game.
“The words ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ get thrown around sometimes as a pejorative. I think the point is that they love ‘The Last of Us’ . People have tattooed dialogue from the game on their bodies, and they’re terrified that somebody is going to make it bad. I don’t blame them,” he said.
“So, there was great pressure. But I had Neil by my side, who was never going to let me do anything that would break the quality and the experience of the game and its place in culture,” he said. “And I followed my own heart as a fan to say, ‘Here are things we must see, here are things that would be amazing to learn more about, and here are some areas where we have the freedom to do things the game didn’t have the latitude to get done.”
Mazin declined to reveal how many seasons of the show he has in mind. “Will I tell you about the plan? No. Listen, I don’t like crossing The New York Post. I grew up on Staten Island,” he said. “I don’t want to see my name in one of those amazing headlines! But, I’ve been thinking about [future seasons].”