The Last of Us creator Neil Druckmann was a computer science student at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University in 2004 when his class got an interesting assignment: come up with a zombie story and pitch it to George Romero, whose Pittsburgh-set horror masterpiece, 1968’s Night of the Living Dead, is widely regarded as the Patient Zero of the zombie genre.
Drawing inspiration from the PlayStation 2 game Ico and Frank Miller’s Sin City, Druckmann came up with a story of a father who has lost his daughter and a daughter who has lost her father, joining together to survive in a zombie wasteland. Sounds good, right? Romero didn’t think so.
“He didn’t like it,” Druckmann says in a new interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “He picked something else.”
Things worked out okay for Druckmann. A new TV show based on his idea debuts on HBO on January 15. Led by Chernobyl creator Craig Mazin, the series is HBO’s next big swing. It stars The Mandalorian lead Pedro Pascal as the father and Game of Thrones veteran Bella Ramsey as the daughter.
Of course, The Last of Us didn’t go straight from a Carnegie Mellon classroom to HBO — in between, it became what Mazin calls “the best video game story ever — not by a little, but by a lot.”
After Druckmann graduated Carnegie Mellon, he went to work for the gaming company Naughty Dog and to become the co-lead designer and co-writer on the Uncharted sequel Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. By then he had expanded his zombie idea into a graphic novel, which soon mutated into the Last of Us game.
When The Last of Us came out on PlayStation 3 in 2013, it earned immediate praise and, along with its sequel, has sold more than 37 million copies. Druckmann developed a movie adaptation idea, with Evil Dead mastermind Sam Raimi attached to direct. But Druckmann had troubled boiling the game down to a feature-length film, he told The Hollywood Reporter. But when he saw Mazin’s Chernobyl — a multipart, sensitive yet incredibly dramatic study of a reckoning with armageddon — he thought it might provide a model.
He arranged a meeting with Mazin through a mutual friend, and Mazin, who had an overall deal with HBO, pitched it to HBO executives. Druckmann says that in the pitch meeting, he got to observe Mazin adhering to one of the rules he picked up as a screenwriter for projects ranging from The Hangover to the Scary Movie films: “Don’t pitch plot, pitch passion.”
Though George Romero wasn’t a huge fan of Druckmann’s Last of Us idea, Druckmann remained a fan of Romero’s to the end.
“RIP George Romero.,” he tweeted upon the director’s death in 2017. “As a student I had the privilege of briefly working with you. The Last of Us wouldn’t exist without your inspiration.”
The Last of Us debuts on HBO on January 15.