Whether you’re an OG fan that played The Last of Us when it was released in 2013 or a new one that joined when the HBO adaptation came around, there’s one thing that we can all agree on: the music from The Last of Us is undeniably a character of its own. The soundtrack added a depth of emotion that many of us have never experienced before when it comes to storytelling. And that’s all thanks to Argentinian composer Gustavo Santaolalla.
Remezcla had the honor to interview Gustavo Santaolalla from the perspective of a fan (myself) who admittedly was more excited about how his soundtrack would fit into the HBO adaptation than anything else. (Sorry, Pedro Pascal.) During our interview, we got the chance to talk about his work, and the connection he has with fans who have embraced his work. But most importantly, we were able to put a voice to one of the most beautiful soundtracks of our generation.
For those not familiar with the story, co-creator Neil Druckmann approached the composer and musician to do the soundtrack for The Last of Us before its release in 2013. With a career that spans right down to his childhood when his grandmother gifted him a guitar at 5 years old, Santaolalla’s expansive work impressed the co-creator. And this came at a time when Santaolalla had just won Oscars for his work on Brokeback Mountain and Babel and companies were approaching him left and right for projects. But it’s Druckmann that really sold Santaolalla on the story of Joel, Ellie, and the world they inhabit.
“When I met Neil and he told me [about The Last of Us] I said this is exactly what I’m looking for. It was perfect,” Santaolalla said. “Not that I thought about the Clickers [as being the reason why I signed on], but I thought about connecting with something emotionally on that level…and Neil’s will to actually establish this connection with gamers.” Because, from the very start, the music for The Last of Us was meant to be part of the DNA of Joel, Ellie, and everything they went through. And if the music made people cry along the way, even better. Because that spoke of a connection that meant Santaolalla did his job.
But it wasn’t like Santaolalla didn’t have themes to already work with. The story had rhythms in it that he was used to working with in movies and The Last of Us soundtrack felt like a natural extension of his work that could be compared to great literary works. And it’s the reason he wasn’t worried when it came to the HBO adaptation. “I never felt like this is a remake of The Last of Us. It’s a great story, like Shakespeare, or Othello, or Romeo and Juliet, or Cinderella. Great stories, you can do them in any medium.”
Santaolalla will admit though that there’s something different about The Last of Us fans in comparison to any other piece of work he’s done. And this is coming from a career musician who has been making records since he was 17. He knows fans. But this The Last of Us fandom has offered something different because “they have a connection with the music that is so strong, so deep.”
“You can tell by the way that they approach me or write to me,” Santaolalla said, “And I don’t know if it’s the connection or the power of the story with the music, but something happened that is very special in the way they connect with the music.” And it goes to show him how important his work is to people all over the world and how music brings people together, no matter what walks of life they’re currently on.
The HBO adaptation of The Last of Us has also given Santaolalla an opportunity to branch out in new ways when it comes to the beloved soundtrack. One of these new songs that he had an opportunity to work on was Depeche Mode’s “Never Let Me Down Again” which played in the end credits of episode 6 “Kin.” According to Santaolla, he produced that song with the help of co-creator Craig Mazin’s daughter Jessica Mazin and that “at 15 years old her voice was incredible.”
And with season one of The Last of Us just wrapping up, which he absolutely watched after watching the 2023 Oscars, Santaolalla of course has thoughts on what Joel decided to do at the climax of this story aka something he’s had to think about for 10 years. “[Joel’s] not replacing his daughter,” Santaolalla went on to explain. But “as a new daughter, I don’t think he’s ready to lose [Ellie].” And even though it’s controversial, he loves that The Last of Us lives in the grey areas of life where it’s not “easy to pinpoint the good guys and bad guys.”
Ultimately, Gustavo Santaolalla is grateful to be part of something like The Last of Us. He’s grateful for the people that it’s brought into his life, from The Naughty Dog team to HBO. He’s grateful for the fans that have connected with the other character in The Last of Us aka the music. And as we enter season 2 of the HBO adaptation, Santaolalla is grateful and oh so ready to explore the grey areas of this story because “there’s still so much to tell when it comes to The Last of Us, especially with Part II.”
The Last of Us season one is how available on HBO Max.