Catching up with THE LAST OF US Editor Emily Mendez

This month, we spoke to editor and AFI Alum Emily Mendez (AFI Class of 2015), who worked on the post-apocalyptic series THE LAST OF US, which stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey and is based on the popular 2013 video game. Debuting to critical acclaim, the show broke viewership records and recently garnered 24 Primetime Emmy® Award nominations – with Mendez and her co-editor Timothy Good honored for their work on the episode “Endure and Survive.” Mendez’s other credits include THE RESIDENT and LIGHT AS A FEATHER. We spoke to her about her experience at the AFI Conservatory, her transition from an assistant editor to editor, and what it meant to receive her very first Emmy® nomination for THE LAST OF US.


AFI: Congratulations on receiving an Emmy® nomination! What was it like waking up to that news and knowing that you and editor Tim Good had been honored by the Television Academy?


Emily: Hearing that Tim and I had received an Emmy® nomination was surreal. I was lucky enough to read the news with my family on a video call, so there was lots of cheering when we got to the editing category! I am continually filled with gratitude for the opportunities THE LAST OF US has given me.


AFI: How were you first approached to be a part of the extraordinary editing team behind the show, and what resonated with you about the storytelling?


Emily: In 2019, I started working with Tim as his assistant editor on season 3 of Fox’s THE RESIDENT. We clicked from the first day of us working together. He’s the most incredible mentor and a huge advocate for his assistants moving up to edit. Whenever I had free time, I would spend it in his office watching him work through scenes. I’m happiest when I’m learning, so I was always trying to absorb as much from him as possible. We had been working together for a couple years when he got the call about THE LAST OF US. I was beyond excited that he wanted to continue working together on this special show!


What resonates with me about the storytelling in THE LAST OF US is how grounded it is. Craig Mazin and Neil Druckmann have done such an amazing job creating a show that people can connect with — even when it’s a show that’s set in a chaotic, post-apocalyptic world. I think that’s because we have these wonderful three-dimensional characters that are so relatable. Even though we experience a lot of pain and heartbreak with them, we still see so many moments of growth and love. It’s a delicate balance that’s really rewarding to work on.


AFI: As someone who loved playing the video game, how did that inform your process and how did you handle that so many viewers knew how the story was originally edited and experienced as a video game?


Emily: THE LAST OF US has always been one of my favorite video games. Knowing this, Tim decided not to play the game before working on the show. That way he could approach the material as someone who was watching the show fresh without any knowledge of the game. I represented the rest of us who knew the material. It became this editorial balance of gamer and non-gamer. Whenever there were game details that stood out to me – like Ellie’s iconic red t-shirt – I would say to Tim, “in these montage dailies, that shirt Ellie unboxes is really important. It’s something the gamers will know.” These are details that Neil and Craig would have incorporated into the cut eventually, but it was really helpful having them included from the beginning.


As far as handling the expectation from other gamers, I didn’t overthink it, and I promised myself I wouldn’t let my own knowledge hinder anything new. I was always open to anything that Craig wanted us to try in the cut.


AFI: You were bumped up from assistant editor to editor during the post-production process for THE LAST OF US. Can you talk about that transitional phase and what it meant to you to hit that milestone in your career?


Emily: I have had the most amazing journey since starting on the show back in September 2021. The first episode Tim and I worked on was Episode 3, “Long, Long Time” and Tim let me cut a few scenes, including the ending sequence of Joel and Ellie driving away from Bill and Frank’s town. Tim has forever been a champion of mine, so he was always the first to tell Craig when I had cut a scene that he liked. This helped me later in the season when Tim needed extra help editorially. He was working on multiple episodes while his next one was about to start shooting. Because of this, he pitched to Craig that I co-edit “Left Behind” with him.


Tim called me around Christmas to tell me that I’d be cutting that episode with him in January. It was the best present I could have received. And to top that, after we finished “Left Behind,” we continued editing other episodes together. We became this wonderfully efficient editorial team. I am forever grateful to Tim and Craig for giving me the opportunity. To reach that point in my career where I was asked to edit was so thrilling, especially on a show that I love so much!


AFI: With THE LAST OF US emphasizing Sound Design so much, can you talk about how you created such a distinct sound space and how you incorporated it into the series?


Emily: Sound design is something that Craig and I bonded over quickly because we are both very passionate about it. Overall, I would describe our sound design process as extremely story-based. There’s a scene in the pilot that really opened my ears to what Craig was looking for. It’s after Sarah, Joel and Tommy crash in a town that has just been destroyed by an airplane. Originally, I had a pretty chaotic soundscape in the cut. This included many layers of people screaming, alarms ringing, gun fire and infected noises. Craig watched that version and then had me do a new pass where we pulled back on a lot of the sounds. We became very deliberate with our sounds – a single gunshot in the distance, an echoed scream, a transformer blowing. This gave the scene so much more tension. It also did a better job of telling the story of this town being completely devastated post-explosion. Restraint is the word that Tim and I took from that. It reminded us how powerful silence can be.


AFI: Between Bill and Frank’s relationship in “Long, Long Time” and Ellie and Riley’s in “Left Behind,” how important is queer storytelling and onscreen representation for you? How did you work to tell these stories in an authentic and meaningful way?


Emily: When I first played THE LAST OF US, one of my favorite parts of the game was the Left Behind DLC. I remember playing it and thinking, “this is like me.” I had never played a game that resonated so deeply with my personal life. It made me giddy in a way, being able to play through a queer love storyline. When I was a teenager, it was stories like this that made a huge difference in my ability to accept myself. That’s why queer representation is so important. This is also why the “Left Behind” episode holds such a special place in my heart. During dailies, I was drawn to moments that reminded me of that secret language that exists in the queer community – the one where you aren’t so sure if your friend really feels the same as you, so you send out small signals to see what you get in return. Bella and Storm gave such beautiful performances with those secret glances and variations that Tim and I carefully integrated into the cut. Incorporating those details really elevated the material, and I love that as editors we can draw from our own life experiences to help bring storylines to life.


AFI: What originally led you to the AFI Conservatory and what lessons did you take away from your experience of working on cycle and thesis films that you carry with you as an editor?


Emily: I went to AFI because I wanted to learn more about editing from people who did it professionally. I was also drawn to the hands-on learning process of the cycle and thesis films. During my time at the Conservatory, I learned that there is nothing stronger than the network you gain from AFI. Even while I was attending AFI, I was getting small editing gigs through the people that I knew there. To this day, some of my closest friends are from my editing classes. And one of my mentors from AFI, Farrel Levy, not only helped connect me to my first television assisting job, but has also been a constant supporter of mine over the years. There are so many incredible people I met during my time at AFI. It opened many doors for me that I wouldn’t have found otherwise.


AFI: What advice to you have for aspiring editors who want to transition from an assistant editor to an editor?


Emily: My biggest advice is to work for people who support you. If your editor is making an effort to teach you, to show your scenes to producers, to try and elevate you, then you’re in the right place. And it’s a good thing if it takes some time to move up. There is always something to learn or take away from the work we do as assistants, especially if we have supportive editors who are passing down what they know. Learn as much as you can from them so you’re ready for the day when someone asks you to cut. It’ll happen eventually!


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