Behind the scenes of The Last of Us episode three, being hailed as one of the best ever hours of television

 (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
(© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

In the middle of the apocalypse, two men meet and fall in love. What follows is an hour of television that some critics are already calling one of the best of the year.

In Long Long Time, episode three of Sky and HBO’s hotly acclaimed new show The Last Of Us, the focus is not on its protagonists Joel and Ellie, but the two minor characters of Frank and Bill (played by Murray Bartlett and Nick Offerman).

Their story features briefly in the video game from which the show was adapted – in it, the pair have a turbulent, unhappy relationship that ultimately ends in tragedy. But as the TV episode’s title makes clear (Long Long Time is a nod to Linda Ronstadt’s famous love song), this time around the show’s creators wanted to do things differently.

“In the game, Frank is seen dangling from the rafters, and you just see his feet, he’s taken his own life,” the episode’s director Peter Hoar says. “So as you’re playing the game, you’re like, what [about] that character?”

“Anyway, Craig [Mazin, one of the TV series’ showrunners] took it on and thought, here’s a way to explain the story of an apocalypse, and an individual relationship within that, because we didn’t do that in episode one.”

During the standalone TV episode, the show flashes back from Joel and Ellie’s story, twenty years after the apocalypse, to tell that of Bill, a prepper who builds himself a mini-fortress in his old neighbourhood after the end of the world. When Frank falls into one of his zombie traps, Bill takes him in, and the pair fall in love and grow old together, in a shift away from the darker view of their relationship in the game.

For Hoar, the chance to spotlight a gay romance in a new way made the episode a special one for him – especially after he worked on celebrated TV show It’s A Sin.

Frank and Bill playing the piano (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
Frank and Bill playing the piano (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

“When I did [It’s A Sin], I did it because it was a great script and a great writer. But what it taught me in the aftermath was literally how important it is to tell those stories. I grew up with stories about gay relationships that were always tragic,” he says. “But I think love and hope are a big part of this show… I think the story of Bill and Frank was just a small, unique way of doing that.”

Once he received the script for the episode, Murray Bartlett, who plays Frank, jumped at the chance.

“It is such a beautiful script. I mean, we were all completely floored by it,” Bartlett says. “I know that every department was treating this episode with such reverence… came at it with such emotion: we came to set the first day, and I felt like everyone was on the verge of tears.”

Bartlett is also quick to praise his co-star, Offerman. “Nick was really excited to play something very different to what he’s been asked to play before. Which, seeing him, is sort of incomprehensible, because he’s so perfectly cast. He’s such a tough shell of a guy, and just also so incredibly sensitive and like a small child, as a person and as an actor.”

All of the episode takes place in an abandoned town that Bill eventually transforms into a fortress of sorts – to bring it to life, the filmmakers went the extra mile and created a brand-new set in the Canadian wilderness.

“Every house there was built by the production side of the art team – none of the roofs were built, all the roofs were VFX,” the episode’s cinematographer, Eben Boulter, says. “All of the exterior was almost like a Western town that we built out in the middle of nowhere.”

Though the inside of the buildings were constructed in a soundstage, Boulter explains that the team tried to make the interiors feel as natural, and full of natural light, as possible – as well as finding ways to illustrate the passing of time and the seasons.

“The Last of Us, I think, is a love story. It’s all about love, good and bad, a lot of bad, but always about love. And it’s about nature. It’s about the beauty of nature, it’s about nature reclaiming the earth: all of those things.”

Murray Bartlett as Frank (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)
Murray Bartlett as Frank (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. Al)

In the end, the cast and crew had twenty days to shoot the episode – which, Hoar says, allowed them to really delve into all of its nuances.

“With our story, [we were] able to sort of fill it and ease into it and see the changes because again, John Paino with the Art Department changed that set so many times,” he says. One of the biggest challenges was the roads, which were gradually degraded with VFX.

“Basically all the roads that you see there were normal roads. And so all of that, the twigs and twine and whatever and grass, they’re grown over it: all VFX. So there was a huge amount of work to do.”

With Long Long Time now out in the world, the cast and crew are confident that viewers will love this standalone as much as they do.

“It’s a big show in a big world and I can’t speak for the other episodes, but I understand that it was similar: that the humanity never gets lost and these beautiful human stories get as much attention as all the bigger stuff,” Bartlett says.

“I think there was magic in the script. And we all carried that magic with us.”

The Last of Us is on Sky Atlantic and streaming service NOW, with an Entertainment Membership for just £9.99

Watch episode one for free on YouTube