HBO’s The Last of Us blew away video game fans and newcomers alike when it aired in January, setting a new standard for future video game adaptations. We can credit the writers and creators of both the series and the game, the cast, the effects, and everything in between, but one crucial component that must not be overlooked is the music. We had the chance to speak with composer Gustavo Santaolalla about his work on both the video game and the TV series.
“Neil and Craig Mazin (the show creators ) have mentioned to the press on several occasions that my music is part of the DNA of The Last of Us. It’s more like another character. It’s like Ellie or Joel,” Santaolalla explains. “That gamers embraced the series also had to do with the fact that we kept the music, that we kept that universe. If the music would have changed, it would have been really a different perception of the series. I’m convinced.”
Santaolalla, known for scores like Brokeback Mountain and his collaborations with acclaimed filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu, knew the video game was going to be something special when co-creator Neil Druckmann first approached him.
“I always like to say that whatever recognitions I’ve gotten, whatever happened in my career, has to do not only with the stuff that I’ve done, but also with the stuff that I said no to. I rejected those. I was waiting for something, for this.”
Though he is definitively not a gamer, Santaolalla could see the potential of Ellie and Joel’s story.
“Anything that music could play a role for, I’m interested in. It could be any format in any medium, anything. For video games, I’m a lousy game player, terrible, I mean awful, but I have a son who, when I started working on The Last of Us, he was in his mid-teens, and he was a great player. I always enjoyed watching him play,” he recalls. “When I met Neil, and he told me the story, I knew this was exactly what I was looking for. Not only do I love the story, but he wanted expressly to connect with a gamer on a different level, so we got to work on it. The big reaffirmation to this was, when we learned that people actually were crying, playing the game.”
Despite having composed primarily for the silver screen, Santaolalla found the process of composing for The Last of Us game to be a seamless continuation of his typical process.
“I had the total freedom to create whatever I wanted to, and Neil was amazing, that he gave me total freedom,” he explains. “I work mainly from the script and my connection with the story, the characters, conversations with the director. I can tell the story about Brokeback Mountain, because that’s the biggest example. I did that whole score without frame being shot yet…70% of all the films that I’ve done is music that I did prior, just on the basis of the characters or the story, so working in the game, it was very similar because you really get the characters moving and rendered at the very end of the process, after two years and a half of working on the music.”
Fans of the game or the series are familiar with the story’s main musical theme. It’s the tune that plays during the opening credits in both media, a sparse, haunting, almost bluesy finger-picked pentatonic melody. Santaolalla wrote the distinctive motif at the very start of his work on the game.
“It came, *he snaps his fingers* like this. I woke up and I went directly to the ronroco,” he recalls, specifying the instrument the theme was written and played on, an Andean stringed instrument from the lute family closely related to the charango. “I realized I was really working in these two worlds, one which was the ronroco world, and the other one was this six-string bass. That is an instrument from the 60s with the Fender six-string bass. If you want one now you have to order it at the custom shop…I realized that these two represented the feminine, delicate world with the ronroco, and a more masculine world with the six-string bass. Then I added in the second game, nylon, classical, also an octave lower, guitar with the strings that are only made in Argentina, but that have that same register as the sixth string bass. I had these two worlds, and the legacy, this fragile element that connects with Ellie, with a feminine side of the story, and this more masculine thing. But I did that totally by instinct, I wasn’t thinking about that.”
Santaolalla plays many of the instruments we hear on the tracks himself, lending a greater sense of intimacy to the show’s sonic landscape with his dynamics and the friction of his fingers on strings. He calls out this detail, the sound of a finger running along a string in particular, as one of the peculiarities of his process.
“I love the noise. I use the noise. People try when playing guitar, they try to keep all the noises out. I actually sometimes enhance the noises. It’s like a canvas when they put a lot of material, a lot of oil, and you see these chunks of paint. Especially for a story like this, it just works, that roughness with the score,” he explains. “I play around a lot. It’s not the route that more, perhaps academically trained musicians will take. As you know, probably, I don’t know how to read or write music. In the score, I usually play almost all the instruments.”
However, no one can play every instrument, a fact Santaolalla often uses to his advantage.
“I introduce the banjo [in the second game], which is between these two worlds, between the low world and between the ronroco, there’s the banjo there,” he says. “But I’m not a banjo player. I’m always talking about the fact that I love to play instruments that I don’t know how to play, or they’re not necessarily my instrument, because they put me in situation that I like, a dangerous situation…It puts me in that high alert situation of danger. It also demands me to be minimalist, to not play that much, to be very selective about the notes that I’m going to play. And it allows me to work with something that I use in my compositions quite a bit, which is silence. But eloquent silence. It’s important that we know that silence or the absence of sound. Sometimes silence can be louder than even the notes that you’re playing.”
Fans eagerly await the second season of The Last of Us and the expected return of Santaolalla’s highly-praised story-driven approach to scoring. I know I do.
The Last of Us is streaming on Max.