Craig Mazin was ready for a change.
About a decade ago, Mazin had carved out a solid career as a comedy screenwriter. Although his credits would hardly win reviews — ‘Scary Movie 3’ and ‘Scary Movie 4’ as well as the second and third installments of the ‘Hangover’ trilogy, among them — the calls from Hollywood executives kept coming. . It was a stable and lucrative job.
Yet, something was missing.
“A lot of what I would be offered was stuff where they were like, ‘Who can fix this? ‘” Mazin recalled during an interview late last month. “Or ‘Can someone go from a C-plus to a B-minus?’”
Eventually, he decided that “I’m better than the job I’m being offered,” he said.
It was the crucial first step in what was to become a remarkable mid-career rise. Over the past four years, Mazin, 51, has spawned two hit HBO series and transformed himself from a comedy scriptwriter to one of premium scripted TV’s hottest showrunners.
Mazin’s latest effort, “The Last of Us,” HBO’s adaptation of a video game revolving around an apocalypse, was an immediate success. The network said the show’s first season, which premiered in January, averaged around 30 million viewers, a total consistent with the ‘Game of Thrones’ spin-off, ‘House of the Dragon’. and easily eclipsing the second seasons of other popular series like “Euphoria” (19.5 million) and “The White Lotus” (15.5 million). The first season finale will air on Sunday.
“The Last of Us” also became the most successful adaptation of a video game into scripted entertainment – breaking a pitiful Hollywood streak. While movies like “Warcraft” and the “Sonic the Hedgehog” movies made a lot of money, few would consider them thoughtful storytelling. (Coming next month: “The Super Mario Bros. Movie”)
For Mazin, it all started with this epiphany about nine years ago. At the time, he already enjoyed the respect of his peers – many of his screenwriting friends, including ‘Game of Thrones’ creators David Benioff and DB Weiss, had relied on him for years for advice on their work. (Mazin was also the co-host of “Scriptnotes,” a popular podcast that deconstructs the screenwriting process.)
“There was this huge gap between how they saw me and how the company saw me,” he said.
He decided it was time to start listening to them and give it a shot, so Mazin set out to create his own project. He came across a news article about ongoing cleanup efforts at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor that was the site of the 1986 disaster. Mazin knew a lot about American disasters but little about Chernobyl, which is in Ukraine, at then part of the Soviet Union. He began to search and was amazed at what he discovered. He devoured everything.
“The thing about Craig is that when he gets locked into something, he’s kind of obsessive,” said Casey Bloys, president of HBO and HBO Max.
Inside the dystopian world of “The Last of Us”
The post-apocalyptic video game that inspired “The Last of Us” TV series wowed gamers with its photorealistic animation and morally complex story.
Still, launching a dramatization of the fallout from a three-decade-old disaster was going to be a tough climb. Mazin needed help. He was friends with Carolyn Strauss, the former HBO programming executive who left the network in 2008 and began a career as a producer, with her first credit on “Game of Thrones.” Strauss knew how much Benioff and Weiss trusted Mazin professionally.
“He was a guy they looked to for grades, for his structural mind, his narrative mind,” she said. “This whole team respected his perspective on their work.”
Strauss joined the Chernobyl Project as a producer and pitched the idea to HBO, knowing full well it would be a tough sell. Kary Antholis, then head of HBO’s miniseries department, took the meeting because it was Strauss calling him. And indeed, he had doubts — both about Mazin’s mundane credits and about the network’s willingness to invest in what was uniquely a Russian story. Then he heard Mazin’s pitch.
“It was the best pitch I’ve heard in 25 years of listening to pitches – there’s nothing quite close to it,” Antholis said.
Antholis convinced Sky to co-produce, easing HBO’s financial burden. Expectations were low, and the series was given a Monday night time slot. Mazin said he was repeatedly told that “no one is going to watch it.”
Instead, it was a hit with viewers and critics and a darling of the awards circuit. “Chernobyl,” which aired on HBO in 2019, won 10 Emmys and two Golden Globes, including Best Limited Series of the Two.
It basically gave Mazin carte blanche for everything he wanted to do next at HBO. Mazin recalled Bloys urging him to pursue what excites him the most, asking, “What makes you levitate?”
Mazin was a dedicated gamer, dating back to the late 1970s when his father brought an Atari 2600 to their Staten Island home. When “The Last of Us” became a top-selling video game in 2013, Mazin bought a PlayStation console for it. He was mesmerized, especially by the relationship between the two main characters: a tough middle-aged survivor named Joel and a 14-year-old girl named Ellie who is immune to the infection that has turned most people in the planet into zombies.
A month after “Chernobyl” ended, Mazin met the game’s creator, Neil Druckmann, and the two hit it off. They pitched the idea to HBO in July 2019.
“Casey, I found the thing that makes me levitate,” Mazin told Bloys. “Please, please, please buy this for me.”
Bloys didn’t play video games, and he was familiar with Hollywood’s checkered history by adapting them. But there was a tradition at HBO that writers who create a successful project are allowed to do whatever they want with their next one, no matter how different: Alan Ball went from ‘Six Feet Under’ to ‘True Blood » ; Mike White from “Enlightened” to “The White Lotus”; Michael Patrick King from “Sex and the City” to “The Comeback”.
“You make a bet on someone, and that requires trust on both sides,” Bloys said. “It will always be a leap of faith until you see it.”
“The Last of Us” was also an expensive gamble for the network, unlike “Chernobyl,” which had a budget of around $40 million, of which only $15 million came from HBO’s programming budget, a said Antholis.
“The Last of Us” was going to cost more than $150 million from HBO, not far from “House of the Dragon”. It was also slated to fill HBO’s first Sunday night time slot, bridging the gap between “The White Lotus,” which wrapped in December, and the final season of “Succession,” which will air in late March. HBO and its debt-ridden parent company, Warner Bros. Discovery, desperately needed a supply of new hits to keep people from canceling HBO Max. The stakes were high.
First, the reviews arrived: critics were thrilled, just as they had been with “Chernobyl” four years earlier. And then the ratings came: it was a huge success.
The third episode further raised the profile of the series. Social media lit up with delight on the standalone episode, which was written by Mazin and mostly hijacked from the source material: it centered on the marriage and survival of two peripheral characters, Bill and Frank, played by Nick Offerman and Murray Bartlett.
“What struck me about Bill and Frank and the potential of this story is to show a kind of love that we just don’t pay much attention to: the love between committed adults who are not getting any younger,” Mazin said.
“The Last of Us” has already been renewed, and Mazin is weeks away from starting writing scripts for Season 2 with Druckmann.
Looking back, the chance to do it all started once Mazin decided he was done with being typecast by Hollywood executives.
“The industry doesn’t understand who people are – it only understands what they wrote today,” he said. “One of the pitfalls you can fall into as a comedy writer is their insistence that you only have to keep doing that because there just aren’t a lot of people they can hire. reliably to do these things. Then they will keep you there.
“It was risky,” he continued, “but also exhilarating to just say, ‘I think I’m going to give myself the freedom to do something else.’”