The Rough Cut: Behind the Scenes of Emmy-Nominated “The Last of Us”
The Last of Us editors Tim Good, ACE and Emily Mendez, are the perfect examples of mentoring in action. Paying forward the mentoring he received from editor Norman Buckley, ACE, Tim has always looked for ways he could elevate assistants into the first chair. Building on her work with Tim on The Umbrella Academy, Emily was more than ready to grab the editorial reins when the time came for The Last of Us.
The Last of Us plot summary
The Last of Us is set in 2023, twenty years into a pandemic caused by a mass fungal infection that causes its hosts to transform into zombie-like creatures and collapses society. The series follows Joel (Pedro Pascal), a smuggler tasked with escorting an immune teenager named Ellie (Bella Ramsey) across a post-apocalyptic United States. The creative force behind the video game on which the series is based is Neil Druckmann. One of the game’s legions of fans was writer/director Craig Mazin (Chernobyl). The two would go on to successfully pitch HBO on the concept of adapting the game into a series.
In our discussion with The Last of Us editors, Tim and Emily, we talk about:
- How to successfully adapt a video game into a series
- Sound design…the assistant’s advantage
- When 1 episode + 1 episode = 1 pilot
- The benefits of bottle episodes
- Meaningful mentoring
Check out The Rough Cut podcast to listen to this interview.
Editing HBO’s The Last of Us
Matt Feury: You would think we’re here to talk about The Last of Us, but technically that’s not true. We’re here to learn about Tim and Emily. The Last of Us is just a great excuse for us to do that. I thought we could start by talking about another TV show called The Resident because that seems to be where your journey together begins. Tell me about that show and how it brought you two together.
Timothy Good, ACE: Ah, The Resident. It was amazing to meet Emily on The Resident. Weirdly enough, she was not my assistant editor at the time. I started in 2017 with an assistant editor named Amanda Panella. Emily was working with another editor named Nicole Vaskell. The cool part was that we all got along. Everyone was very friendly. We said, “Oh wow, we sort of love each other.” After the first season of The Resident, I got an opportunity to do season one of The Umbrella Academy. I said, “Let’s do it!” and we did.
I have been a big advocate of mentorship for my entire career. I was mentored by Norman Buckley, ACE and he has been an incredible influence on my life and career. Mentorship has been a part of my journey this entire time.
I had a situation during season one of The Umbrella Academy where I had to go back to The Resident for season two. They were going to give me a directing position, which I thought was incredible. I had to do that, so I asked them if Amanda could have a co-credit with me so she could finish the last episode. They said, “Yes, of course. Let’s do that” because she was great and I had been training her for a while. They loved what she was doing.
Amanda finished The Umbrella Academy for me while I went back to season two of The Resident. Then, when season two of The Umbrella Academy came around, they said, “Can you come back?” I couldn’t at the time, because The Resident was asking me to direct again. The guys at The Umbrella Academy asked, “What do we do?”I said, “You have Amanda. You know how good she is.” They hired her as the editor in my stead and now I was lacking an assistant editor. Emily, you should continue the story. I think you have more insight on this next section.
“They hired her as the editor in my stead and now I was lacking an assistant editor.”
Emily Mendez: At the same time as this was all going on, my editor, Nicole Vaskell, was moving to a different show. I had grown close to a lot of people on The Resident, and I wasn’t quite ready to leave yet. Also, Tim is great about calling people into his room. He’ll say, “Do you want to come in and see the scene? Come in and check it out.” He was already mentoring me before I was even assisting him. I knew we would be a great fit.
I already wanted to stay on when he called me and said, “I’m looking for an assistant.” I loved the show, I loved the people, and it was close to where I lived. I said, “I would love to join as your assistant. I need an editor to work with now.” It just worked out that way.
Timothy Good: Nicole gave us her blessing, which was great. Thank you, Nicole.
Emily Mendez: We love Nicole.
Timothy Good: She said, “No problem! Have a great time.” That began our working relationship.
Emily Mendez: We started fully working together in season three.
Timothy Good: Right. And the first thing I did was give you a co-credit, right?
Emily Mendez: It was right up front, yeah.
Timothy Good: Episode 302. Right away. I was in Europe and I couldn’t get back. I said, “Please, can you allow her to co-edit with me” because you had already co-edited with Nicole, correct?
Emily Mendez: Yes, I co-edited a couple of episodes with Nicole during season two. We knew that it was going to work out well.
Timothy Good: The Resident was an incredible place to work. Everyone was super supportive. The showrunner, Amy Holden Jones, used to be an editor. She learned from Hal Ashby. She had incredible information, instincts, and experience and she would share that with us. It was a wonderful place to learn. We experienced all different types of structural storytelling.
MF: I don’t want to go off on a tangent, but it’s so interesting that Amy was an editor as well. What benefits does it afford you when the showrunner can understand what you’re going through?
Timothy Good: It’s faster, I’ll tell you that much. It’s much faster. Amy was extremely quick. She knew exactly how to make things work. She’d say, “Let’s go from here to there and from this line to that line.” It was a struggle if you couldn’t keep up with her.
I was always running around trying to stay afloat. She was just always two steps ahead of you. I would rough things in and go back later to dial them in. It was always wonderfully collaborative. I’d say, “What if I did this?” and she would say, “Oh yeah, I see what you’re saying.” She had a familiarity with the language of editing, which was great.
We had these ridiculous schedules. We were doing twenty-three episodes, which now seems like a huge number. But we never got behind. We never had a problem because of that familiarity. I feel like that helped overall. The show was able to stay on track. It never felt like we were falling behind. No one had to divide their attention. No one ever had to stay overnight. There was never any extra or excess work.
MF: Emily, you seem to have successfully navigated something that beginning editors are always trying to figure out: “How do I build those connections? How do I make that jump?” Not everybody has a Tim who’s thinking about how to bring up the next generation. Are there things that you try to do to make connections with editors and find those spots where you can move up?
Emily Mendez: Sound design is a great skill to have. That’s something that a lot of editors rely on their assistants for. They just don’t have the time to do it. Also, it’s creative. That’s a way to get in there creatively when otherwise our jobs tend to be a little more technical. Sound design is a good way to show your creativity, to show what you’re able to do. That has helped me a lot.
“Sound design is a good way to show your creativity, to show what you’re able to do.”
My other editor, Nicole, was also big about her assistants moving up. That’s why I was able to co-edit with her. It’s important to work with people who want you to move up. I was sticking with these editors because I knew that they wanted their assistants to move up. Sometimes, if you know your editor doesn’t feel that way and you want to move up, it’s best to be real with yourself and say, “This is not going to happen. I need to be with someone who’s going to help push me up.”
Sound is a good skill to start with. You can show off your storytelling skills through sound. My approach is always, “How can I help the story?” That’s a great way to start.
MF: Absolutely. Tim, this is your first time working with Craig Mazin, but I believe you’ve known each other for a while. How did that relationship begin? How did it evolve into you getting the gig for The Last of Us?
Timothy Good: I’ve known Craig for a long time as my husband’s friend. My husband is a screenwriter and they are friendly together. They have been friends for a while.
Craig and his wife and some other writers would show up at our house here and there. We would have silly dinner parties. One of them involved ‘70s foods that everyone dared each other to eat. I ate Craig’s celebration salad, which was vegetables inside a Jell-O mold. He was kind of horrified that I liked it.
Craig told me, “You’re interesting” but I was just the side guy there. I was not part of the team. I was serving drinks and making sure the dinners were good. Then he says to everyone, “I’ve done this show called Chernobyl and I’d love to show you this trailer for it.” I was excited, so I cast it onto my Apple TV. We watched it and everyone’s jaws just dropped. We said, “This is unbelievable. This is incredible.” Shortly after that, I remember saying, “I want to work with this guy. He’s smart, he’s funny, and he’s so wise. What he’s doing editorially is lining up with what I like.”
“I’m just a husband right now, but I can also edit.”
I just asked him, “If you do anything in the future, let me know. I’m just a husband right now, but I can also edit.” Luckily, he had seen some of my work on The Umbrella Academy. His kids were fans of the show.
I followed up with him later, but the timing wasn’t right. Our schedules were always off. I started to think, “Oh, this is too bad.” Then, one of the directors of The Umbrella Academy was booked on The Last of Us and said, “I would love it if you were the editor with me.” I went to their team and said, “You just hired one of my favorite directors. Maybe I can get on the show now.” They said, “We’ve already hired everyone. I’m so sorry.”
But a scheduling issue happened with one of the editors. They said, “There’s now a spot available. If you can get to Calgary in a few weeks, we think you can get it. You have to interview, of course. You have to talk to a bunch of people.” I had to do the whole process. I talked to everyone and I was so grateful that they decided to hire me.
MF: Emily, how about you? You have your connection to Tim, but did you have to interview? What does an assistant editor have to do to get integrated into a new show?
Emily Mendez: I had to interview with our post-producer Greg Spence before getting hired on the show, but Tim brought me on. He said, “I want Emily to be my assistant” and that goes a long way. I still interviewed with Greg, but Tim brought me in.
Timothy Good: I told people, “You do not want to miss out on this.” That’s what I always say. “Don’t miss out on this one. It’ll be your fault.”
MF: I found this show’s success to be remarkable. Projects adapted from video games don’t typically have a high success rate. You don’t have to look much further than Uncharted, which was a movie adapted from a game made by the same core crew as The Last of Us. Was adhering to or departing from the game something that you discussed? Was that a constant thread throughout the season or was it something you figured out in the beginning?
Timothy Good: We were hired late in the process, so I had no time to prepare anything. We were wrapping up The Umbrella Academy season three. I didn’t know much about The Last of Us. I didn’t play the game. But I remember something that a producer at Bad Robot told me a decade ago. He said, “Don’t know too much. If you know too much then you’re just going to replicate what’s already been done.” I thought about that and I said, “What if I did that? What if I risk not knowing anything and I just approach the entire production fresh?” Meanwhile, with Emily…
“If you know too much then you’re just going to replicate what’s already been done.”
Emily Mendez: The Last of Us was my favorite game. I knew all about it. I was very excited to join the show and work on it. I was approaching it from the middle. I had played the game a couple of years before, so it wasn’t fresh, but I was still in love with it. I knew the characters. I knew the story. I brought that to the show with me when Tim and I were starting.
Craig and Neil Druckmann had such a strong vision. The scripts that Craig wrote were beautiful from the beginning. They already knew what they were going to adapt from the game and what they weren’t. Tim and I were able to follow those scripts, obviously, but since I knew the game I was able to help Tim find little details early on. We would have them in the cuts from the beginning for Neil, Craig, and everyone to review.
For example, in the episode where Ellie and Joel are at Bill and Frank’s house, Ellie finds a red shirt that’s iconic from the game. We had tons of footage of her going through all different kinds of stuff. I said to Tim, “That red shirt is super important.” He put that shirt in there very early. It helps to get those little details in there.
MF: Emily, with your background, were you unofficially in charge of the Easter eggs?
Emily Mendez: I wasn’t necessarily in charge, but I was trying to get things in there. The person in charge of the Easter eggs has to be Craig. Craig and Neil planned everything perfectly.
MF: It’s not like this is an IP that people weren’t aware of. The game has a rabid fan base and they’re coming in saying, “You had better not disappoint me.” Did you get a lot of feedback from the fans of the game?Timothy Good: Yeah, for better and for worse. It was mostly for the better. A lot of fans were disappointed about episode three with Bill (played by Nick Offerman). Bill was supposed to be this other character, Noah.
More than not, the people were happy with how it all went, to the point where we started seeing side-by-side comparisons with the game. These videos had comments like, “They did it! They nailed it.” Meanwhile, we were just saying, “Yeah, we’re just doing what we do every day.” But I’m glad that we were able to do that for the fans. They had a huge stake in how this was going to be adapted.
I, of course, didn’t understand what that stake was. I was happy to be the person playing for the folks who didn’t know the game. Emily, Craig, and Neil are the ones who know it, so it became this fun collaboration where we made the show work for every audience member.https://youtu.be/SHc1ZHVWZqU
MF: I thought the timing of this show’s release was stacked against it. First, there was the pandemic. Everyone has just gone through the brunt of that. Now here’s a show set in a post-apocalyptic world, about what happens when a killer fungus takes hold.
The other thing, and I don’t want to beat on the “Z” word too much, is that The Walking Dead shares some superficial similarities to The Last of Us. Were things like The Walking Dead or the pandemic brought up as references at all? Did anyone say, “We want to make sure we don’t go too far because that’s leaning too far into being something else.”
Timothy Good: Craig and Neil came into this knowing that the pandemic was weighing on everyone’s mind. Their approach was to lean into it a little bit. The opening scene of the pilot is a talk show set in the 1960s where they talk about the possibility of pandemics happening. There was this odd thing happening there. That scene is saying to the viewer, “The pandemic you just experienced is nothing compared to what could happen.”
So I think they used it to ground your understanding of how a pandemic would happen and then they escalated the stakes by saying, “If you thought what we just went through was bad, there’s something else out there that will destroy us all.”
I thought that was a great scene, but I had no idea that the audience would think, “This was the scariest scene in the whole show. This was scarier than anything else.” No zombies. No nothing. Just the understanding that we could all just die tomorrow from fungus. From a mushroom. That was fascinating to me. That’s where they used the pandemic to their advantage.
Craig and Neil are so good at building relationships. They build families and focus on them. They focus on the stories between characters. There’s less focus on the zombie perspective. Everything is grounded in the relationships and I think that’s how people connect with these characters. Some people were disappointed at first because there weren’t enough zombies, or ‘infected’ as we call them.
“Yes, there were some great infected sequences, but overall it was about the connection between the characters.”
What made the show interesting was seeing how the world affected these characters and how the relationship between Joel and Ellie developed. Over time, yes, there were some great infected sequences, but overall it was about the connection between the characters. That was the North Star for all of us.
Emily Mendez: I agree. That was the North Star. We’re always character-building. We’re always about the story first. That’s something that unites us with Craig in our editorial approaches. Tim and I are very story-based and character-based. When we’re building our scene architecture that is always the first thing we’re thinking about. That makes a huge difference.
It’s not just about zombies. Zombies are very far down in this story we’re telling. We’re talking about people who start to feel very real to us. I remember when we were working on the show, I would carry the characters home with me. It was important to us to portray this side of the story because the characters mean a lot to us.
MF: Tim, you mentioned that you went up to Calgary to talk to the team. Tell me where you were both working and how you were able to collaborate effectively with each other and with the production.
Timothy Good: In the beginning, Craig wanted the editorial to be up in Calgary, so we were in the production office. The shooting locations were so different every day. They were all over Calgary, so there was no way for us to be with the production. I think I went for thirty minutes once and I came right back because it took me two hours to return to the production office.
Craig is a person who likes to be very close to who he’s working with. He likes to have conversations that are not on the internet. He likes to be in person. He likes to work in a connected environment. That was great because he could come back from set at night and say, “Hey can you show me the shots here? I want to make sure we don’t miss this and that.” When he was working on director cuts, he could pop in when he wasn’t covering the set and say, “Hey, let’s work on this for a little bit.” It made the whole experience go much faster because he was right there. He could make adjustments very quickly. It was efficient for all of us.
But as soon as the weather in Calgary became unbearable they said, “This isn’t as worth it as you think. Time to go.” I was lucky enough to go home at that point. Emily, unfortunately, was in Los Angeles at the same time. You were set up on your home system, correct?
Emily Mendez: Yes, I was at home working remotely. Tim and I have been working remotely for a while. We were remote on The Umbrella Academy and we were remote for part of The Resident season four because of the pandemic. So, we were used to that workflow, even though I prefer to be in person. Eventually, we moved to editing in person on this show but we were remote at first. I was remote while Tim was in Calgary. We would call and text all the time.
“If you stick yourself alone in a dark and silent room you might lose sight of the purpose behind your actions.”
Timothy Good: The collaboration we had on this show was truly a team effort. I would call her and say, “I’m going to show you this sequence. Let me know what you think.” We would talk back and forth. She would send something and I’d look at it and send her back adjustments. She would say, “I don’t know if this is exactly working.” We were talking as much as we possibly could.
If you stick yourself alone in a dark and silent room you might lose sight of the purpose behind your actions. I love having that sounding board. Emily has been the most fantastic person to collaborate with.
Emily Mendez: I loved it too, especially once we started working together in person. I would sit in Tim’s room and work together. He would work on the Avid and I would sit beside him and discuss. I like having conversations, learning, and trying things. I’ve learned so much by just sitting in his room. He started letting me do that back on The Resident.
There was one episode where he had a giant surgery scene. I went to him and said, “I’m curious. How are you going to cut this scene?” He said, “You can sit and watch me cut.” I sat in his room for hours and he walked me through it. I have learned the most wonderful things from watching him work. Tim loves to teach. I’ve enjoyed getting to absorb everything I can from him when I have the time to do it.
MF: What a good guy you are, Tim.
Timothy Good: I’m doing my best. I have to live up to the name, right?
MF: I should have seen that coming. Emily, how does that remote workflow impact you when you are working as an assistant rather than a co-editor? Are there additional things that are part of your duties? Does it negatively impact what you’re used to doing?
Emily Mendez: That’s a good question. Overall, remote workflow as an assistant works pretty well, especially when you know your editor. I’d already been working with Tim for a couple of years, so I knew what he was expecting. We have a shorthand. We’re always texting back and forth. It was pretty easy for me to work remotely with Tim.
The biggest negative about remote workflows is being isolated. I missed so much by not being able to go into Tim’s room and hang out. When I finish my work for the day, prepping dailies or whatever, I would normally go and hang out with Tim. Remotely, I would find myself thinking, “Oh, this is when I would be watching Tim edit the scene. Instead, I’m waiting for him to finish it. We’re going to talk about it, but I don’t get to watch him do it.” Honestly, that was the biggest negative of remote work. I missed working in person with Tim.
MF: Can you give me an idea of the basic workflow for the show? How was it shot? Were you working on more than one episode at a time?
Timothy Good: We were always behind. That was wild. We started on episode three. For reasons that are mysterious, my approach and Emily’s talent dovetailed exactly with what Craig was looking for. Craig would say, “I want you to do as many of these episodes as you can” and that was tricky because it was a lot of work. The production took about twenty days to shoot every episode. That’s a very long schedule, but they wanted to do it right. They didn’t want to skimp on things and run out of time.
A day in the life for us was initially about juggling several episodes at the same time. It was tricky. I realized I couldn’t do them all. There was just no way to do it with my process. Emily and I have a process where we have to watch everything. We have to build the nuance of the characters. We cannot just start cutting without having a good basis for making decisions.
“We have to watch everything.”
This is how Emily became my co-editor. We were coming up on episode seven, which was the mall episode. We sometimes shot out of order because of weather concerns and it got to a point where we had to stay inside for all of January. So they decided to film episode seven because it was all indoors. I told Craig, “This is a perfect opportunity for Emily to step up. It would be great if she could co-edit it with me because I have too much going on. Also, this episode has a lesbian love story and she’s a lesbian woman. She will have a deep understanding of the relationship between these characters. I would love to help us make sure that we’re doing justice to this relationship.”
Craig is a massive supporter of people. He said, “I want good people to be doing things. Sure, Emily hasn’t done much editing yet, but I trust her.” That was fantastic because we split up the episode. Emily got to do some of the biggest relationship scenes. We still had our process, but now each of us was showing the other scenes as opposed to just me showing her scenes. She was showing me scenes and I would give her feedback.
That was a great experience because it’s all her work up there on the screen. There was never a moment where I had to go in and take over. There’s none of that. The work that she did is fantastic. Craig was making notes and making sure that everything was to his specifications. He was happy with it.
“It was difficult because there was a lot of trust heaped on us.”
Ultimately, we became a team. We would have episodes that were sitting around for months and Craig would say, “Alright, you’re going to go do episode six. Can we do it in twelve days?” I’d ask, “Can Emily do it with me? Then we can do it in twelve days.” The next thing you know, we’re both working quickly to get it done. It was difficult because there was a lot of trust heaped on us. A lot of responsibility was put on our plate. I’m grateful that Emily was there. Because of our working relationship, we were able to get through seven of the nine episodes, which was a feat.
Emily Mendez: I feel very lucky that Craig allowed me the opportunity to do this and that Tim was pushing for me to do it too. It took a lot of people giving me that chance to be able to move up. I was working on sound design from the very beginning of the show and that was how I started working with Craig.
Craig and I love sound design. I was doing sound design for episode three, which was the first episode that Tim and I did. Then we moved on to the pilot. I worked closely with Craig on the sound design for that. Doing that helped me get in line with him. He became more open to the idea of me moving up. Craig was also aware that I was cutting a few scenes here and there for Tim, just as an assistant. I was taking the opportunity to work a little extra and let Craig see what I was able to do. “Oh, she can do these scenes. She can do sound design.” I was lucky enough to have Tim supporting me as well. All those things mixed together and allowed me to move up, which was fantastic.
MF: You started with episode three, and then you did the pilot episode. That one is so critical. You have to build the right kind of forward momentum. Tim, you said it yourself, the show starts with a 1960s talk show and then jumps to 2003. We meet Joel and his family and then the whole world falls apart. Then, the show jumps forward another twenty years. We’re in a post-apocalyptic world and you have to show how Joel and Ellie meet. That’s a huge amount of work. And it’s not even the first thing that you’re working on!
Timothy Good: It was a wild eighteen months. It was fun but it was also insane. Here’s what we had: we had Craig and his scripts are stunning. We had those as our blueprints. After episode three, we also began to understand that he was more interested in the character relationships than he was in the spectacle of it all. Craig feels that the spectacle is about experiencing it through the characters. He wants to ground the spectacle in the experience with the characters.
“It was fun but it was also insane.”
There was a bunch of material filmed later for the pilot that we were able to integrate. The first two episodes were integrated and became the pilot. The first version of the pilot ends without us meeting Ellie. HBO was wise to say, “We have to meet her as well.” Craig said, “You’re right. We have a plan” and we integrated everything together.
Approaching it after episode three helped because it made sense to focus entirely on the characters. The world was built through the characters. I was very specific with the character of Sarah (played by Nico Parker). I knew that if the audience loved her then they would be crushed when she died at the thirty-seven-minute mark. The gamers know it’s coming, so I didn’t have to worry about them. They know it’s coming, but the rest of the audience doesn’t.
I made sure to play every scene from her specific perspective. I was always leaning on her experiences. For example, if Joel was in a scene with Sarah, I made sure there were fewer close-ups of Joel. I wanted the scene to be from her perspective. I wanted the audience to feel like, “This is the person we’re going to experience the entire series through. We’re going to bond with her. We’re going to be connected to her.”
Once she dies, hopefully, you understand that everything was creating the character of Joel through Sarah. The goal for the first forty minutes of the pilot was to lean heavily into her experience. The audience is supposed to hurt as much as Joel does when they see Sarah die.
Then, going forward twenty years, it’s all about Joel. It’s all about the loss that he’s experienced. Hopefully, because Sarah has become this person that you loved so much, you see the depths of his despair by his being able to toss a child who has died into a fire with no emotion. Zero. That tells you exactly where he is.
Pedro Pascal’s performance is a wonder of restraint. He wanted to stay deeply hidden. I had to watch dailies leaning into the screen. I would watch the dailies so closely because I was seeing these little micro-muscles in his eyes. I was seeing all the little tiny things behind what he was doing.
The great part of introducing Ellie was that she was the opposite. Ellie is rambunctious. She desperately does not like Joel. He desperately does not want to be near her. I’m sure it reminds him too much of his daughter. I think the pilot works because we created that dynamic where they don’t like each other. was why. In the end, you want to see the journey that they’re about to take. We feel like something is happening between these two. Ultimately, everything was built around the characters.
Emily Mendez: Everything you said is on point. The cool thing about the pilot was that we were getting to know what Craig liked. There was so much going on in that episode. There was so much emotion and so much story. That was a great starting point. We got to know Craig and understand what he’s looking for. I was doing a lot of sound stuff with him in that episode and that gave me an idea of what he’s interested in for making this world work.
MF: Can you give me an example of some of the sound stuff that you were working on with Craig?
Emily Mendez: There’s a scene where Joel and Sarah are driving with Tommy (played by Gabriel Luna) and then the plane crashes. They wake up, their truck has crashed, and they’re in this town. Originally, there was lots of noise when they woke up. That was in the temp. We had put in lots of noise because there was chaos all around them and we were thinking, “Fear and loud stuff.”
Craig watched it and said, “No, it should be quiet because the plane has crashed. There’s not a lot of people around anymore. It will be much scarier to be quiet and to feel this environment around you. Then you feel it when there’s a gunshot or hear an infected person in the distance.” When we changed that to be quiet with just little sounds here and there, it gave that world so much more.
That was the turning point for me. That’s when I realized what Craig was looking for. He wanted things to be realistic, sometimes a little bit more held back. Then, when you’re in areas where it’s louder or something big is happening, it’s hitting you because you’ve before been in these quieter environments that are just low on the sound floor. That was interesting to experience.
MF: I don’t think I can resist talking about episode seven anymore. It takes place in an abandoned mall, which there are a lot of these days. You probably have trouble finding one.
Timothy Good: We didn’t.
MF: That episode gives us an important part of Ellie’s backstory and her relationship with Riley (played by Storm Reid). Riley takes Ellie to a mall so they can run around, explore, play video games and maybe build a relationship together. While they’re in the mall, there’s a moment where the camera leaves them and shows one of the infected is there. From that point on, the suspense clock is ticking. The audience is waiting for the inevitable to happen.
As a viewer, your senses are heightened, you’re scanning the negative space of the frame. You’re listening for sounds. You’re responding to the cuts in a different way. I would love to know more about that sequence. How did you craft and manipulate it? I think ‘manipulate’ is the keyword here. How did you manipulate the audience for maximum effect in that scene?
Timothy Good: I found that the most effective way of doing it was to not change the style of the scene anymore. I said, “I know everyone is going to feel scared at this point. So I tried not to edit with any understanding of that. I wanted the scenes to feel very normal. I tried to cut them as though that infected person didn’t even exist. That created, and I think Craig said this, “The world of Riley and Ellie.” It was a bubble where no fear and no threats existed.
From our perspective, it was about keeping those scenes as normal as possible. I thought the audience would already have those instincts themselves and if I did anything to manipulate them then I’d be tipping my hand a little bit. So I said, “The manipulation is already in play. There’s nothing else we need to do here.” I know this is an odd answer, but I believe the answer is that we didn’t do anything.
Emily Mendez: Our characters had no idea what was happening, so we didn’t change anything. Ellie and Riley don’t know what’s happening so when we’re with them again, they’re just focused on each other. “Does she like me? I like her.” That’s what we’re focused on, not the infected that’s looming around the corner. We know he’s there as an audience, but our characters have no idea.
“The manipulation is already in play. There’s nothing else we need to do here.”
MF: I want to go back to an answer you both gave about perspective. Maybe this is something that you can shed some light on, Emily. When you’re playing the game, you are specifically from somebody’s perspective. In this show, sometimes it feels like the audience is completely aligned with Joel because we know things that Ellie doesn’t know. But sometimes it feels like we’re with Ellie because we’re discovering things about this world along with her. Was there any discussion about whose perspective this show is from? Is the audience aligned with Joel or Ellie? Or does it change?
Emily Mendez: I think it changes. It depends on the scene. Normally, we would go to Craig and ask, “Who should we be sticking with for this scene?” Tim, do you have any examples?
Timothy Good: I feel like it’s a dual point of view. To understand one is to understand the other. In the same way, episode three, the Bill and Frank episode, was a dual point of view. I would shift the point of view mid-scene with them. I felt like if I didn’t follow both of them then their relationship wouldn’t work over time because it was only from one character’s perspective.
Ellie and Joel’s relationship was a similar situation. In the last episode, there’s a scene where Joel admits to Ellie that he was the one who tried to kill himself. That scene was from his perspective, but it was also about her listening. Joel specifically said in episode three, “Let’s not tell our stories. We don’t do that. We’re going to keep everything to ourselves.” Now, here he is at the end of the show, opening up. If we didn’t see her listening and recognizing that then this arc wouldn’t land.
That means I needed to pay attention to both her listening and him making decisions about sharing this information. That was the way Craig saw it as well. He said, “This is about the two of them. This is about how each of them grows closer to each other towards the end.” Ultimately, it’s about the choice that Joel has to make about Ellie. Over time, their perspectives are collapsing closer and closer together. I think that’s what makes the end of the season so impactful.
MF: You can’t talk about the show without just talking about how impactful episodes three and seven were. Those two episodes stand on their own. There’s some connective tissue between episodes, but you could move those around a little bit if you wanted. Were those episodes always set to be where they were? Did you ever talk about moving them around?
Timothy Good: They could not be moved around, actually. Craig and Neil, in their wisdom, understood that these side stories served a purpose to the main story. Bill and Frank’s story was a way of informing Joel about who he is.
The most important scene in that episode is when Ellie reads the letter to Joel where Bill says, “You and I are the same. We protect people. That’s what we do. I did it and I’m happy. I hope you can protect Tess.” Well, Tess is already dead at this point. Sarah is dead too and that’s all basically telling Joel who he is. That letter tells Joel what he has to do.
Similarly, in episode seven, Riley tells Ellie, “You do not give up on your family.” That was important to be framed within the context of Joel dying. Joel is telling her, “Get out. Don’t you dare save me.” The point of that entire flashback is to get to where Riley says, “You never give up on your family. Never.”
That’s the moment where Ellie comes back into the world. That’s what she learns. The two of them learn lessons from these other characters that put them on a new plateau. That’s what those side stories are there for. They’re these wonderful little tales that inform the characters’ intentions and their arcs going forward.
MF: These episodes inform who Joel and Ellie are in a much more satisfying way than just working little character details in here and there. Were you able to let some of that stuff go in later episodes? Could you be more free in how you handled Joel and Ellie because you didn’t have to explain why they would make decisions?
Timothy Good: Most of our episodes were based on creating the character of Joel as Ellie sees him. For example, at the beginning of the sixth episode, we have a sequence with the native couple. They’re arguing over Joel and Ellie. Joel has them at gunpoint and he says, “Tell me where we’re going.” Then the character played by Elaine Miles says, “You’re scared. I can see you and you’re scared.” Ellie sees that Joel is scared too, which scares her. Now she’s worried and it’s because someone else has picked up on the fact that Joel is scared.
I made sure in the edit that there was a moment where Elaine Miles looked at Joel and there was a cut to Joel looking scared, so that line didn’t come from nowhere. It comes out of a moment that she actually had. That’s how we did everything as elegantly as I think we did. Things weren’t just being said. They were being experienced before they were being said. If it was being said, other people were letting our characters know it versus having some sort of an omniscient character explain everything.
“Things weren’t just being said. They were being experienced.”
MF: Emily, the look of this world is certainly important but I think the sound is what sells it. The sound of the infected was terrifying. Tell me about the evolution of the sound and how those poor, unfortunate souls ended up sounding like that.
Emily Mendez: The sounds of the infected were something that we worked on for a long time. Craig wanted them to sound like they do in the game. It’s so iconic, specifically the Clickers. We were working from this great formula that already existed in the games but also we needed new stuff.
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Craig worked on our infected noises a lot with the sound team. A lot of those sounds stem from the story. What is happening in the scene? We have a scene where Ellie is down in a basement and there’s an infected that’s completely crushed by rubble. What does he sound like when he’s barely able to breathe? Those are things that we’re talking about. It’s always discussed on a scene-by-scene basis. How is the story affecting how they sound?
Timothy Good: In that scene, Craig said, “I don’t want this infected character to sound scary. I want the infected character to sound sad. I want the audience to understand that these were people and now they’re trapped.” It’s not necessarily about them being scary. It’s about them being relatable. Then Ellie goes up to this sad character, studies it, and then just kills it in cold blood. We find out later why she would do that, of course.
“I want the audience to understand that these were people and now they’re trapped.”
Our sound supervisor Michael Benavente had the original actors who voiced the clickers in the game come in and recreate the sounds. They would all work together and talk about what each sound was and replicate it the way that they were looking for. Craig used all the original people because he wanted authenticity to it. He wanted to make sure that it was exactly correct. I remember in the second episode they went through many, many, versions of the Clicker sequence until they were happy with it.
MF: I thought a good way to close would be to talk about advice for up-and-comers from the perspective of where you each are in your career. Emily, what is your advice for people looking to be assistant editors? Tim, what advice would you give to people wanting to move from assistant to editor?
Emily Mendez: I know that the struggle can be real. Being an assistant is hard and even getting a job as an assistant is hard. Then the struggle is to move up. The most important thing is to go to work with a great attitude every day and ask your editor questions. Try to absorb as much as you can from them, try to understand, “What does this person do that’s successful and how can I adapt myself to that?”
I have my approach as an editor but I also want to pull in things that you know Tim is doing. I want to pull in things that my editor Nicole is doing. It’s important to learn from people who are working as editors and not just assume that you already know everything. I always try to go to work and learn something that day.
Timothy Good: I was mentored and it meant so much to me that it became part of my career. Every assistant I’ve ever had has become an editor in some way, shape, or form. I’m very proud of that. I mentor because Norman Buckley said to me, “Sit in the room with me and watch me do what I’m doing.” That’s why I allow people in the room. I don’t want to hide the craft. I don’t want to hide what I’m doing. It’s important for the craft to flourish.
“You have to know the psychological, architectural, and emotional reasons behind why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
The craft of editing can be tricky at times. Everyone has an editing system, but not everyone is a good editor. It’s nice to say, “Here’s a reason why we’re making these decisions and we’re using these great tools to make these decisions.” But everyone can get the tools now. It didn’t used to be that way. But now it is. To tell a strong story you have to have a great sense of craft. You have to know the psychological, architectural, and emotional reasons behind why you’re doing what you’re doing.
You also have to be able to get along with people. That’s the key. I look for assistant editors who are like Emily. They’re eager to learn. They don’t say,
“I’m going to leave now, my shift is over.” They go, “I’d love to see what you’re doing.” I love seeing the hustle of an assistant who wants to know more. That’s what I’m generally looking for. I’m eager to help assistant editors get an understanding of that.
I listen to assistants as much as I can. I support them and I try to help them because I was helped. If I wasn’t helped, I would not be where I am now. That’s why it’s so important for me to be a mentor. Hopefully, the people who I mentor will mentor again just like I did after Norman mentored me.
MF: When it comes to mentoring, you walk the talk. Kudos to you. Kudos to both of you for an amazing series. I went in to do it feeling, “I don’t know if I feel like watching this” and came out desperately wanting season two. So get back to work!
Tim, Emily schooled you on the game The Last of Us. Did you get a chance to tell her a thing or two about Mortal Kombat?
Timothy Good: Only because I’m old enough to understand what Mortal Kombat is. Especially Mortal Kombat 2. I didn’t school her on anything. She knows more than I do. But it was very fun to do Mortal Kombat 2. It took me right back to my summers in Michigan playing that arcade game and losing all my quarters. It was an absolute joy to re-experience that.