Hiro Murai on Directing ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Station Eleven’ and More


In the early 2010s, Hiro Murai was a Los Angeles-based music-video director, working usually with the native Odd Future music collective—which included Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator, amongst others—in addition to making the occasional video for musicians like Demise Cab for Cutie, Usher, Lupe Fiasco, St. Vincent, and the Shins. A lot of his work was unusual, in the easiest way—his 2012 video for Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum” featured a frog as a stand in for the rapper. (Murai nonetheless has the frog, which he named FDR, quick for Frog Delano Roosevelt.)

Nevertheless it was the actor Donald Glover, who additionally performs because the artist Infantile Gambino, who approached Murai with the “weirdest immediate” he’s ever acquired. Glover needed to make a “semi-documentary,” shot on movie, concerning the making of his album, As a result of the Web. The ensuing 24-minute quick movie, Clapping for the Wrong Reasons, wrapped in a fictional component and was “just a little bizarre and surreal, and type of deadpan,” Murai says. As an alternative of following an precise musical monitor, the movie explored the concept of a tune by a meandering narrative, with demos of a beat heard in scenes set in a house studio, and lyrics examined out in freestyle periods on lounge couches and in entrance of a yard campfire. It additionally featured Glover standing in entrance a WC mirror, pulling a grotesque and unexplained size of string from his nostril. The video has over 10.3 million views on YouTube.

That straight-faced embrace of the bizarre and offbeat has come to outline a lot of Murai’s work within the final decade. Although Murai had no tv credit on the time, Glover introduced the filmmaker onto his surrealist comedy Atlanta, which, at first, gave the impression to be a conventional narrative present about Glover’s character Earn, a school dropout making an attempt to launch the rap profession of his cousin Alfred, a.ok.a. Paperboi (Brian Tyree Henry). The sequence quickly took the type of an unpredictable, uncanny fever dream the place plot served largely as a clean canvas enabling Atlanta’s writers, forged, and crew to push the boundaries of serial storytelling and discover all corners of the Black expertise. All through its three seasons, Atlanta has veered from absurdist comedy to surrealist thriller to psychological character examine, the narrative logic extra akin to an ocean tide than a downhill stream. Murai—who has directed 20 of the 31 episodes of Atlanta, together with its first 5 and the series-shaping finales of season 1 and a pair of—has been a key participant in making the present what it’s. He’s introduced a genre-bending approach to its creation, serving to it grow to be one of the unpredictable and most lauded examples of serial storytelling on TV proper now.

Murai, 39, has confirmed his versatility, turning into a guiding thoughts behind equally celebrated reveals like HBO’s ongoing sequence Barry, a darkish comedy a couple of contract killer making an attempt to interrupt into Hollywood, created and starring Invoice Hader, and 2021’s Station Eleven, a critically-acclaimed, limited-series adaptation of creator Emily St. John Mandel’s prescient novel concerning the aftermath of a world-ending pandemic. The latter, which got here out throughout a few of the worst days of the COVID-19 disaster, might simply have leaned into the nihilism of its style and performed on the anxieties of the second. As an alternative, it was affirming. “It isn’t actually about dying; it’s about rebirth,” Murai says. “It’s about individuals not simply surviving, however assessing what they should be absolutely human—it’s about artwork and neighborhood.” Subsequent, he’ll direct two episodes of the extremely anticipated Mr. and Mrs. Smith remake, one other Glover undertaking.

Learn Extra: Atlanta’s Unsparing Season 3 Premiere Is Worth the 4-Year Wait

Now Murai is reflecting on one other season of the present that introduced him to TV. After an almost four-year pause between its second and third seasons, Atlanta returned to FX in March 2022 and aired its season finale on Might 19. Even for a present constructed on unpredictability, the third season was notably dismissive of serial storytelling norms, with the principle forged not even showing in half the episodes, and a number of one-off tales delving into complicated subjects, like reparations for slavery and the notion of Blackness around the globe. Its finale, directed by Glover with Murai on the manufacturing workforce, was as disconcerting and divisive as the opposite 9 episodes this yr.

Previous to the tip of the season, Murai spoke to TIME concerning the Atlanta workforce’s inventive course of, why season Three was so completely different from the 2 that got here earlier than, and the way the TV panorama has modified because the present first premiered.

The third season is generally set in Europe, and even the episodes which are set within the U.S. are both explicitly not in Atlanta, or are geographically obscure. What was behind the choice to maneuver bodily exterior of Atlanta—for a present referred to as Atlanta?

On the finish of season 2, they depart for Europe, and it was particularly about Paperboi, who had by no means left Georgia, going to a brand new continent. Season Three shouldn’t be essentially that very same journey, however the concept of Paperboi seeing his life in Atlanta in hindsight and determining the place he’s now that he’s an internationally identified rapper, and what success means to him—all these have been actually fascinating issues to us.

Atlanta has all the time posed questions on racial dynamics and id within the U.S. This season, these questions rose much more to the forefront in episodes like Wealthy Wigga, Poor Wigga, concerning the conflicts between inside and exterior perceptions of “Blackness” in America, or The Huge Payback, a couple of white man getting sued for reparations, or White Trend, wherein a number of white characters co-opt points of Black tradition for monetary achieve. However as a result of the present leaves the U.S. geographically, I’m curious: what ought to viewers make of that?

A whole lot of the conversations about Europe got here from Donald and his brother [Stephen Glover, who both writes for Atlanta and collaborates musically with Childish Gambino] touring in Europe. But additionally, as two children from Atlanta, nothing makes you notice what’s happening—what occurred in your upbringing—greater than stepping exterior of it. You study rather a lot about who we’re as People by leaving America. A whole lot of the issues that really feel tremendous pointed about season Three are because of the truth that the distinction is sharper. Within the earlier seasons, race is all the time there as a dialog, nevertheless it was about Black individuals being round different Black individuals. Having to face being surrounded by European white individuals is a unique dynamic.

Atlanta has by no means been afraid to go away the principle characters and first narrative behind, however this season took it to a brand new stage, with 4 of the 10 episodes not together with Earn, Paperboi, Earn’s associate Van (Zazie Beetz), or the crew’s resident eccentric Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) in any respect. How did you find yourself with so many anthology episodes?

It simply felt like the easiest way to inform this story was these bizarre little offbeat parables.

There have been conversations about, “Is that this a foul concept? Will individuals be upset that they’re not seeing Paperboi within the present they love?” However on the identical time, I really feel like this complete present is constructed on us doubling down on bizarre impulses and making an attempt to make one thing completely different every time. I don’t suppose we’ve ever actually loved organising a format and simply coloring inside these traces.

It was just a little scary, nevertheless it was additionally actually thrilling. How do you’re taking this attitude of the present, and the mind-set, after which apply it to those completely different tales in numerous areas? Can Atlanta nonetheless be Atlanta if Paperboi is in Amsterdam, or Van is in Paris? Season Three was very a lot about us pushing ourselves out of our consolation zones.

Inform me about how the method of constructing Atlanta differs from conventional TV.

I had actually by no means labored in tv earlier than Atlanta. Donald has an extended historical past of working in writers rooms, however all people else in that writers’ room, they weren’t even writers. We ended up making plenty of selections that you simply simply shouldn’t make in tv, each in story and execution. We instantly began letting our minds run wild; we have been like, “Oh, what if every episode was a brief movie, and it befell in all these completely different areas, and we met new characters each episode, and we constructed it out that means?” Then after we executed it, it grew to become this form of loopy indie movie grind, the place every episode we needed to construct from complete fabric, from scratch. It’s extraordinarily tough as a result of we’re working with a TV price range, nevertheless it’s additionally very fulfilling.

It’s now pretty regular for TV reveals do the types of issues Atlanta pioneered in TV manufacturing—that includes uncanny characters which will or is probably not actual or veering away from the protagonist to observe what beforehand felt like a tertiary character. What has your expertise been seeing season Three air now on this new context that you simply helped create?

Atlanta has all the time been a weirdly private present for everybody who makes it. Season 1 was this factor that no person cared about—it was simply us messing round. When it hit and folks appreciated it, we have been stunned, and season 2 grew to become a narrative about us coping with the accolades and [how] hastily all of the actors are well-known and getting stopped on the street and, you recognize, all of the discomfort and anxiousness that comes out of that.

It’s all the time been like a remedy session for everyone who makes it. Clearly we’re aware of the viewers, however at the start, we do it for us. So sure, we have been conscious of the change within the TV local weather and what individuals anticipate out of a TV present. Additionally, politically, it’s a very completely different environment—the final season was in 2018. However we caught to the credo that we’re right here to work our personal sh-t out and categorical ourselves and our anxieties and the subjects which were in our heads, after which hopefully, individuals will click on in and connect with that. It’s not about making an attempt to maintain the present precisely as we bear in mind it in 2018. As a result of we’re not the identical people who we have been in 2018.

The discourse round Atlanta season Three has largely targeted on how lengthy it took to return out. Within the season’s first episode, there’s a callback to a scene from the pilot, when Earn wakes up and recounts a nightmare to Van. The brand new season begins with nearly precisely that nightmare. Did you deliberately put flags in there to acknowledge or reference the time that’s handed?

We tried to make the present very rewatchable, so you’ll be able to simply drop into any episode. Donald got here from basic sitcoms. We’re nonetheless type of doing a Seinfeld factor: We all the time prefer to strategy it as if you’re simply there for that episode.

So it’s not that essential to us whether or not you get the reference, however in the event you love this present sufficient, and also you rewatch the seasons, and also you’re type of on the earth of the present, you’d get an additional layer of appreciation for it.

What have you ever watched or learn lately that you’d suggest?

The factor I’ve learn most lately that I’ve been fully obsessive about—that I’ve purchased for all of the editors and DPs that I work with, is the George Saunders e-book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain. The e-book is him studying 5 or 6 Russian quick tales and deconstructing them to speak about storytelling. For anybody who works within the craft of storytelling, the e-book is a present.

This interview has been condensed and edited for readability.

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