The Last word

The Last word

By Michael Pickard
December 13, 2023


Emmy-nominated director Peter Hoar recalls making the standout third episode of HBO’s post-apocalyptic drama The Last of Us and discusses working with stars Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett on some of its most poignant scenes.

As an episodic television director, Peter Hoar’s credits include Spooks, Doctor Who, Daredevil and The Umbrella Academy. “I’ve always turned up and done whatever was required,” he says.

It’s only recently he has signed on to helm every episode of a miniseries – and to considerable acclaim. Hoar directed all five parts of Russell T Davies drama It’s A Sin, about a group of friends living in the shadow of the AIDS crisis in 1980s London, before reuniting with the writer for this year’s three-parter Nolly, a biopic of iconic Crossroads actor Noele Gordon.

But he went back to his episodic roots after being offered the chance to team up with showrunner Craig Mazin (Chernobyl) on The Last of Us, an adaptation of the video game of the same name commissioned by US premium cable network HBO.

Peter Hoar

“I got an email from a friend of mine who was working on the show asking if I would be interested. I immediately said yes, but I didn’t know then which episode it was for, just that I would take a meeting because they were looking for directors,” Hoar tells DQ. “Then I had a meeting with Craig – and Craig’s a genius.”

Co-created by Mazin and Neil Druckman, creator of the video game, The Last of Us is set 20 years after civilisation has been destroyed by a deadly fungal virus, creating a race of ‘infected’ that continue to stalk the earth. It’s here that Joel (Pedro Pascal), a hardened survivor, is hired to smuggle 14-year-old Ellie (Bella Ramsay) out of an oppressive quarantine zone, leading them on a brutal, heartbreaking journey across the US as they rely on each other for survival.

The episode Hoar would come on to direct was the series’ third, Long, Long Time, which was originally set to be episode four until the first two instalments of the show were merged to create a feature-length opener. Notably, Joel and Ellie hardly feature, though their appearances bookend the episode.

Instead, it’s just one example of how the writers sought to expand the world of the video game on television by building up the backstory of two characters little seen in the source material. As far as the overall narrative of the series is concerned, the episode sees Joel and Ellie track down survivalist Bill (Nick Offerman) in Lincoln, Massachusetts, where they are ultimately able to secure a car and provisions to continue their journey west.

But almost the entire episode serves as a standalone flashback that follows Bill over the previous 20 years, chronicling how he survives in the town and comes to fall in love with his partner Frank (Murray Bartlett). Both Offerman and Bartlett have been nominated for Emmys for their tender and poignant portrayal of the couple, while Hoar himself has been nominated for his direction.

After the preceding two episodes, which introduce the world of The Last of Us and the array of infected that prowl the torched landscape, Long, Long Time almost feels like it is part of a different show.

Hoar (centre) directs Nick Offerman (left) and Murray Bartlett in Long, Long Time

“It was a bit of a gamble,” Hoar admits of the episode’s story-within-a-story structure. “I had lots of people sending memes about the game, where really the only purpose of Bill’s town is to get a car, because that changes the gameplay. As soon as you get your truck, you can go further, you can do all these raids and whatever else. So really it’s get to Bill’s town, get a car, leave. But in the show, it’s 90 minutes of the biggest tearjerker television has ever known.”

The director believes part of the reason it worked so well – and received acclaim from both critics and viewers – is that it didn’t do what everyone expected.

“It was beautifully written, crafted, emotionally driven and character-driven. It wasn’t a gimmick,” he says. “It wasn’t like we were trying to do something on purpose to grab people’s attention – and those characters are in the game. We didn’t add, as the Christian right want you to believe, those gay characters. They were already there. They just had no story. We didn’t know how they had got together or anything, so that’s what we did. We just told that story bigger. I think it was quite beautiful.”

By the time Hoar came on to direct Long, Long Time, Bartlett – who starred in season one of fellow HBO hit The White Lotus – had already been cast as Frank. But the director was part of the conversation that led the production team to find their Bill in the form of Offerman, who is best known as deadpan government official Ron Swanson in comedy Parks & Recreation.

“Most of Bill is Nick Offerman to a T, but we didn’t know about the rest,” Hoar says. “You can only offer these things and hope that if he says yes that he is going to be up for it and capable of it. I know he had the same feeling because when he read the script, he said to his wife, ‘I don’t know if I can do it for two reasons.’ He didn’t know if he was actually free and whether he had it in him. And his wife [fellow actor Megan Mullally] said straight away, ‘You’re going.’”

The ‘story within a story’ structure focuses on the relationship between Frank (Bartlett) and Bill (Offerman), unfolding over a number of years

Working with such storied actors, Hoar says they didn’t have to dive too far beneath the surface to find the emotion of the episode – but sometimes the feelings were too readily on show. On one occasion, when Bill and Frank are having dinner together towards the end of the episode, Bartlett would start crying as the characters contemplated ending their lives together.

The director reveals he spoke to Bartlett about dialling back the emotion. “I told him, ‘Maybe this is the time for no tears. Maybe what Bill has done for him does mean a lot, but it doesn’t make him emotional because it’s such a complicit thing. They understand, it’s that final thing, their final act together.’ He understood the note and he was like, ‘OK, yeah. Alright, I’ll try.’ And then the scene plays out, he cries again. I went to him and he said, ‘I couldn’t do it. I just look at that man’s face telling me that I’m his purpose and I just can’t hold it in. It’s just the way it’s written and it’s beautiful.’”

During other days on set, Hoar would be working just with Offerman, filming scenes where Bill was “breaking into this, smashing that up or building this.” The pair would also chat and tell jokes between takes.

“It does induce a lot of vulnerability, filmmaking, from such people as directors and actors and everybody, really, because you’re just trying things out and you don’t know if you’ve done the right thing,” Hoar says. “That’s partly because there isn’t a right thing. There’s just something that feels good. I do think one of those great things about this episode is that we all just loved that script. We needed to do the best we could, and that kept us together.”

Because so much of the episode doesn’t feature in the video game, there weren’t many visual cues for Hoar to recreate during the course of Long, Long Time – and one example that did mimic the game didn’t make the cut.

Set in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the episode was filmed in Alberta, Canada

“I basically did a shot through the truck window from Ellie’s side, looking past Ellie towards Joel, and then [cinematographer] Eben Bolter came to me with the screen grab,” the director recalls. “We didn’t do any of this intentionally, but it was an exact copy of a still from the game. We thought we would do loads, but actually it didn’t happen that way. But we did that by accident and it didn’t make the cut.”

One of Hoar’s favourite moments from the episode is a scene where Frank reveals he has grown a strawberry patch after trading one of Bill’s guns for some seeds – leading them to burst into giggles at the taste of the fruit before Bill declares, “I was never afraid before you showed up,” as the sun sets in the background.

“That was good because obviously it had a huge impact, but it was good because we shot it in the magic hour,” Hoar remembers. “The light was fading and we had 15 minutes with two cameras to pick it up for real. That’s always a little bit tense because you have a window of opportunity and you’ve got to get it done in that time.

“The crew were just deathly silent, watching and listening to every moment and the little squeals of delight that the boys had when they ate the strawberry. It was really lovely. We didn’t have much time to rehearse, even with the generous schedule you get at HBO, so it was still quite a big day. Then everybody went home with a spring in their step.”

The episode’s final shot was also a pivotal moment for Hoar – and a complicated one. As Joel and Ellie prepare to leave Bill and Frank’s house after collecting Bill’s truck and stocking up on supplies, they drive away through the town. As they drive into the distance, the camera pulls back to reveal its perspective looking out through a window frame on the house.

“That simple shot of pulling back through a window frame sounds easy, other than the fact that the window frame isn’t real,” Hoar says. “It’s part of a wooden house that we built, but the window we were going to use didn’t look in the right direction. So I asked [production designer] John Paino to build me one somewhere else, and he said yes. He built this whole section of wall up on scaffolding at the right height with the right views between two houses so it looked like a perfect moment looking out.

“But then there was no road in the distance for Joel and Ellie to drive along. So that was all put in by VFX. We had to art-direct the inside of that wall and we had that on a slider on top of a scaffolding. It was loads of people working together to get that to look beautiful, to be the most perfect end to that whole scenario. That’s something I’m proud of and that isn’t scripted. We talked about window frames because it’s a big icon from the game and I loved the idea of trying to get it in. I’m quite proud of that last shot.”

Shooting the episode two years ago on a purpose-built town set in Alberta, Canada, Hoar certainly didn’t expect people to still be talking about Long, Long Time so many months on from its premiere, let alone for it to be nominated for multiple Emmy awards. The gongs will be handed out in the strike-delayed ceremony in January.

“Most days when we were filming, I would look at Craig and he’d be crying,” Hoar adds. “I knew this was good because if he’s written it and thought about this for months and months and it’s still making him cry, it must be good. He was convinced it was good. I just loved it for what it was. It seemed to gather this momentum of its own from when it went out. I’ve never seen such a reaction to something I’ve done – and we’re still talking about it.”

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