Current television has surpassed the wildest dreams of anyone who didn’t think the medium would ever be on the same level as films. Some have a misconception that television is a place where artists go when their careers are in trouble, but the past decade has proven the opposite. Modern television has evolved in storytelling at its finest, providing audiences with relatable characters that offer an empathetic look at the world we live in, even in situations that don’t seem realistic (such as an infection spreading across the world and turning anyone who gets it into a flesh-eating fungus person). Of course, audiences are immediately drawn to the performances they are seeing, perhaps even beguiled by the writing. What should be more widely discussed is the job of the production designer.
It’s easy to get swept up in the emotional beats of a character’s path as they grow, or not, the performer providing the audience with something to relate to. But there is no character to see if there is no world around that person. This is where the production designer comes in, creating the world that is seen on camera, mesmerizing audiences with a world that feels wholly realistic. The production designer of an entire television season must work on multiple things at once in order to fit everything into the production schedule, including the creation of sets, coordinating with the set decorator(s) and carpenters to create spaces and make them feel lived-in. This is no different on HBO’s newest original series, the television adaptation of beloved video game The Last of Us.
Across the seven episodes that have aired, production designer John Paino led different teams in the construction of different sets, such as the neighborhood Bill and Frank live in (episode 3) and the cul de sac that was entirely created for the final part of episode 5. Having been a fan of the original game (what he played of it), Paino was excited to be able to work on the first season of The Last of Us after speaking to [creators] Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann. He worked closely with directors across episodes to keep the vision steady and continue building on what the game had already established. Paino has an established relationship with television on HBO, The Last of Us being the fourth series he’s worked on for the channel (he previously worked on both seasons of Big Little Lies, the second and third seasons of The Leftovers, along with Sharp Objects).
I talked with Paino about his work on The Last of Us, discussing his original relationship with the game and how that provided guidance during his work, dropping Easter eggs into the set, and the creation of different sets across episodes to provide the characters with the most realistic world possible.
Tyler Doster: I just wanted to start by of course asking what your original relationship with the video game is?
John Paino: I actually played the game, but I didn’t get very far in it because it is so engrossing and everything. I probably started it in between doing a TV show or a movie. My first introduction to the game was when it came out; I didn’t play it when it first came out. The concept art for it was breathtaking and realistic and had an appreciation for lighting and it felt cinematic. I was actually drawn to it after actually seeing some of the concept art [that] made me want to play the game.
That’s how, I guess to answer your question, that’s my first introduction to it. It looked like a concept art that we would do for a film and a lot of concept art for games. It has a kind of clean roundness, just fantasy driven. It was just attention to detail. All of those things attracted me to the game. Just to the idea of the show too. When I got the opportunity to have a meeting about it, I of course jumped on it.
TD: What were those early conversations like with you and [showrunner] Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann, either before you were brought on or after, when talking about the scope of the project and how you felt about it versus how they felt about it?
JP: When I met with Craig and everybody on Zoom, of course I always do boards. I think they sent me the first script or two, and I know the game and everything. I always – I’m trying to find a unique thing to bring to itt, but at the same time, paying homage to it. It’s an interesting thing because in essence it’s already kind of designed to a certain degree, but what it doesn’t have is how to put that into the real world with real actors that can’t walk over a two by four over a chasm. The game certainly is known for it being about the characters more than shooting or trying to find a rifle. It has that element to it, but the show was not going to have that element to it. The show, let’s bring that realism to it. Maybe there’s a heightened realism to it. I know having seen Chernobyl, what attracts Craig and what he wants, which is realism and grittiness and all of that.
I would put these boards together and I also put boards together that showed if you don’t have services, if you don’t have anything for 20 years and you have to rebuild and redo and just use everything no Kmart to go to or anything, what would things look like? I have this book of this incredible photographer who went around Hong Kong and he just took pictures of these chairs outside of the back of restaurants where the guy has a smoke. It would be, like, here’s a folding chair made out of metal and the leg broke off. He wired a piece of wood from some other thing on it, and the back is a telephone book or a tire that he put on the back of the chair because the back fell off. I had a bunch of these things in there and Craig zeroed in on them and he said, “That’s great. That’s the feel right there.”
Finding those things, again, how to translate the game into real world objects, environments and things like that, knowing that we had to build them was a big part of the conversation. He gave me his, and Neil’s, they put a Bible together that had some key images and where it was going based on the game.
Okay, like [episode] three: it’s an extrapolation of a relationship that isn’t really fleshed out or anything. The great thing is that there’s this great source material. It’s fantastic to build on, but there’s also these moments where I get a chance as well to work with Craig and Neil and the director (Peter Hoar), the producers, to flesh out what’s outside the paths. Because one of the fascinating things: Neil put me in touch with some of his people at Naughty Dog. I was like, “What’s the reference? Show me some of your reference boards through these things?” It was fascinating. I’m thinking of environments and they’re thinking of a path. Well, we’re making a path through the game. Certainly there’s things there, but we don’t make anything unless someone goes there to get a first aid kit. There was that. I realized there is room to add on to this incredible world as a designer.
TD: That’s actually something I wanted to talk to you about. When you’re approaching something that already has its own world that exists, but you’re also dealing with a story that’s going to be as expansive as this one ends up being, what excites you most when you’re approaching designing all of this? Is it that you already have a little bit of a guide or is it the originality or is it a bit of both?
JP: I think it’s a little bit of both, because you have what’s there, but there’s a lot of details that you can add that reinforce what’s happening that they couldn’t do in the game.
One, for instance, was in the game. They could not use any real businesses or names or anything. There’s no Starbucks, which I, coming from a realistic background and shows that I watch, that have a sense of place, that’s really important for me. I want to have that Boston logo on the side of the bus to be real. The maps, the signage. We don’t have Fuddruckers, we have real [ones]. When we get to the mall, it’s very important because they’re also a sad echo of what we’ll never [see again]… that’s part of adding the realism, making sure that there’s Starbucks cups, making sure that there’s this, that and the other things that are actually real.
The joy of Ellie seeing these things as she gets in a car. This is a spaceship. All of that mixed with the horror, adding all those things that the game didn’t do for whatever reason is what we can bring to it. It’s adding commentary, it’s adding pathos. It’s a challenge, too, because it’s fun to research all those things. Fun and important to make sure we get all those, that realism we hit, we get all that right. There’s room to invent. There’s room to extrapolate Bill’s town to make sure the details and there are right and many other places. The show is so expansive. Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember all the things because we’re going from A to B constantly, but a lot of times everything’s so desiccated. We want to make sure, we want to stay away from disaster porn to some extent, but we want to make sure that there’s some hint of what happened in the places in the bedrooms. There’s Easter eggs and we invented some Easter eggs that we put in too. So it’s a big mix. It’s a mix of respecting the game, adding the Easter eggs, making sure it’s real extrapolating on things, making sure that there’s a nod to the drowned world, but not too much because we don’t want it to be. We also want Ellie to have a sense of awe about it too and wonder.
All those are great. I think the main thing, the biggest challenge always is actually making them, actually finding them and building them and making sure the actor doesn’t get killed by jumping on them and working with all the various departments to bring it all together and make it look seamless.
TD: Speaking of those Easter eggs, are there any in the first few episodes that viewers might have missed?
I know I’ve seen in the pilot episode, [viewers] can see the card that Sarah has made for Joel, sitting on her dresser. Is there anything else that you hope people eventually notice or have already noticed that you’re proud of?
JP: They’re probably, they probably notice them. I don’t think that they’re so important. There’s something like a hundred billion people who have played this game and know it much better than I do. I know that props and set decoration went out of their way to put in those things. I think that there might be some things on the dresser that people didn’t notice going through the house. They certainly notice everything that Ellie’s wearing in Joel’s wristwatch and his gun had to be exact. My crew was amazing and they hit it on the head, always. There might be one or two little talismans here or there.
TD: I wanted to talk to you about episode three, of course, which has been so hotly discussed.
JP: I read it and I emailed Craig Emil, I said, “This is – and I mean this – It’s one of the best scripts I’ve ever read in my life.” I was just so sad. I was watching with my wife and she’s like, “Well, Frank can’t kill himself and Bill will be all by himself. That’s horrible.” She was beside herself. She’s like, “Well, he can’t kill himself.” I said, “Oh wait, you’re going to see what happens. He is not stupid. You put all the pills in the wine bottle before and they’re both going to pass.” You know, because they’re in love.
TD: That episode is gorgeous. Tell me about the construction of that neighborhood and specifically the construction of Bill’s house to reflect the desecration of the world, but also the passing of time with his and Frank’s relationship.
JP: Well, I grew up in New York. My parents dragged me to colonial towns to attempt to educate me in Williamsburg, Virginia and things like this. I have friends who live in places like this. Craig’s thing was, this is literally one traffic light. There’s a grocery store, like a convenience store, maybe a little wine shop, and they all have the Square with the Civil War Monument or Revolutionary War Monument. But this is the original colonial little hamlet Kent in Connecticut or New Bedford. We looked at those and I was familiar with them. That kind of architecture, anything that even resembles colonial architecture is obviously not available to us in Canada. Early on we knew that we would probably have to make this, and our locations department found an area that had been housing, had been suburban housing with no pine trees, thank God around it, because we don’t have those in Massachusetts really.
There was a roadway there and there was a driveway or two, but we had to create a lot of them. What happened [was] there were houses built there like a community, and then it’s in a flood zone, so they tore all the houses down. The layout of the lot was pretty good. We built what you see there, pretty much everything was built except for beyond the gates, there’s one shot where you look out and you see other homes. It’s all built. Some parts of the roofs weren’t built on some of the outbuildings because it was just easier to put those in CG. The monument was built, pretty much everything on that x, the Civil War monument, full size, the line shop, all of that’s built the Stonewall.
The big thing, one of the hardest things was just getting something that looked like private bushes, things like that, that would be prevalent in New England. The idea behind the town is, and this fascinated me, was that when you go to these places, the houses are from the colonial period. They’re 1700s, some of them even older. We wanted to make sure they felt like Bill’s family was rich, maybe his mom was the matriarch. They were the founders of the town the idea is. It was evocative of what Bill was, which was kind of like the glass menagerie, it’s perfect. He hates people. He wants to create a hermetically sealed place, and he lives in a hermetically sealed place. We talked a lot about him being closeted. What is his life like? He grew up in that house. He slept in the bedroom, but he had his thing in the basement. His mom kept it as a colonial home as people do.
I’ve been to these villages and one thing I wanted to make sure that all historical markers were on the houses like Charles Proctor, 1642, all of that’s there. We wanted it to reinforce this kind of fortress. It’s already like that. It’s already keeping reality out. That was a great metaphor for him, for his character. It was really important to make sure it was all clean and all and span because he is very sartorial, he’s very spic and span, very orderly.
That was a really great thing to reinforce for us visually, to help the character, to tell the character’s story. We had a lot of discussions about how the inside was a real colonial owned home. It kept like that. If you look at the kitchen, it’s got a giant hearth. We wanted it to be authentic like that. The interior was built on a separate stage, but we did build parts of it on the location so that the scene, when the raiders come, I think we built the front rooms on the ground floor and we built a bit of the back rooms later on when Frank is painting in that little vestibule, which is such a beautiful scene. We built that room adjacent to that.
Certainly, we built parts of the other places that we would see from the street, but Frank’s house in the garage, sorry, Bill’s house in the garage had a bit of building, but everything else was facades, but fully realized facades too.
TD: I want to go into the end of episode five where the Bloater is coming out of that ruined house. How was the construction of that scene? Because, obviously, at that moment there’s a lot of chaos going on. How was it to get that exactly right and to get it prepared for everyone to be on set?
JP: There were many, many meetings about the genesis of what we call the cul de sac set. That entire area, that street, the cul de sac, all the houses were built. There were many meetings and tests and we built a full scale model, not full scale model, but a scale model of the set, everything. We had many meetings with stunt effects, VFX safety to work that out. The pit was actually dug. The car, the truck go into the pit. Then we had a hydraulic rig that had it sink. We rigged the house, the front of it to collapse. Actually just kind of hits the vegetables and the stairwells. We did build the inside of the ground level at a basement level, and we tested it. We did a run of the truck into it, and we would do a test of it, “Okay, here we’re going to test the collapsing without the truck here, we’re going to test it with the truck going to it.” I’m sure there were at least 20 meetings about the genesis and as we developed it.
Then we would’ve site visits and we would do test runs of the truck and test runs of the building collapse and test runs of the fire. We do stuff with the extras, well, with the infected coming out of it after and then it goes in a little bit with the hydraulics, but that’s augmented with VFX. There certainly is fire, there’s fire around them. All of that debris was all brought in. I think it was four weeks of shooting that, not that sequence, but the entire thing was about four weeks of nights because “Okay, now we’re going to do it.” It was all story boarded too, which was great. I mean, I don’t know how you would do that without [it], but it was all storyboarded, which we had to do because it was so complicated and dangerous. A truck was running through and hitting cars and things.
We’d do it in stages, we’d cut, we’d do the hydraulics that would go down. Then we’d come back another day and pull the truck out and dig the hole and get a little bit more, put the people in it. It really is a lot of meetings and a lot of test runs. We can actually do a virtual run at first too and make sure everyone’s happy with that before we start building.
TD: Not just with that scene or set in particular, but were there any complications that were unforeseen that ended up happening that you had to get around?
JP: No, I don’t think there were any. I don’t think there were any complications. It was the usual things like Joel’s POV because a lot of it is watching from his POV. In our computer models and just figuring out how tall that should be. What’s the best angle on the window to get all the action in so it doesn’t feel contrived? Is this too far away when he switches to the scope? That now it looks too close? What does he see? How does he know who to shoot? Because we knew in this episode, [director] Jeremy [Webb] came on early.
It’s all about this really, this is such a big deal. In the episode that it was more about just making sure we had the time to go through all these steps and all the possible things and like working out the POV, at one point, the truck was going to crash into a house that was in the actual round part of the cul de sac. But then Craig was like, “No, no, let’s have it crash before that so we can bring the battle action into the giant round area. So the actual shooting and all of that.” If they crash right in the circle. I got nowhere to go. There’s nowhere, but this way it has room for people to spread out, back up so when the Bloater comes out, it’s like, “Oh my God.” It’s not so close to the house. To answer your question: I’d have to say there wasn’t a lot, we didn’t not anticipate because we spent so much time [saying], “What if we do this?” Which was really good on a TV schedule that was super smart and really helpful.
TD: The show has been renewed for season two, so I just have to ask: are you going to be back for season two, John?
JP: Well, to answer the question, I would love to. I think that knowing what season two of the game is, there’s a lot of work to do. There’s a lot of figuring out but I would love to if they ask me back.
The Last of Us is currently streaming weekly on HBO Max.