One of the most disruptive directors working today, Atlanta helmer Hiro Murai has brought specificity of vision to the Golden Globe- and Emmy-winning series, resulting in an experience unlike any other on television.
Working with Donald Glover prior to Atlanta—on memorable music videos for the actor’s alter ego, Childish Gambino—Murai found a methodology and a shared sensibility that would factor significantly into the FX series. Set within the context of Atlanta’s music scene, the series feels indebted, in some way, to the music video as a form, in all its open-ended visual potential.
Infusing Atlanta with dream logic, surreal imagery and an avant-garde, experimental spirit, Murai has consistently pushed the boundaries of what is possible in narrative television, going where few other directors would dare to tread. Unpredictable and tonally complex, Atlanta has always operated by its own set of rules.
For Murai, this is where the challenge lies. When you’re operating by the rules of dream logic—in a way that’s less tethered to plot—what is the approach? Instinct seems to play a major role. “It’s a hard thing to pin down. It’s a very difficult thing to look for because you don’t know what it is until you see it,” the director reflects. “But I think that’s the thing that makes the show special.”
Outside of Atlanta, Murai branched out this season to direct Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” music video—an internet sensation, registering 265 million views to date—and several episodes of HBO comedy Barry, where he tackled some of the series’ most visually remarkable sequences thus far.
“I really enjoyed working on the show. Those guys, what they’re doing with that show is so interesting to me,” Murai explains. “They’ve managed to hit this balance of tone that I just didn’t think was possible, honestly. It’s just such a cool combination of comedy and real-life stakes.”
In conversation with Deadline, Murai discussed the prospect of making his entrée into the feature world. “Features are certainly something that I’m looking at, something that I’ve always wanted to do. But I think I’m more driven by what’s interesting to me in the moment,” he said. “Whether it’s a TV show or a music video, the seed of the idea is what’s driving my decisions, not the format or the outcome.”
How has the collaborative rapport you established with Donald Glover early on, in the music video world, carried over to Atlanta?
It’s funny because I’ve never objectively tried to figure out why this collaboration works. There’s just a certain kind of intuitiveness and an ease that I’ve never really had with anyone else. Nothing we do feels overly complicated; it just feels very natural, even in our music videos.
Regularly in music videos, I’ll write the pitch and convince the artists that this is a good idea, and then I’m having to make concessions to meet in the middle. With Donald, I always feel like we’re facing in the same direction. Of course, he’s a writer and he writes a lot of the concepts for the music videos, as well. So, I don’t know. There was something about it that felt very easy for me.
How would you define your visual sensibility, and how that’s been brought to bear on Atlanta?
I try not to have too much of an objective view on it, just because I think it muddles the process. But in general, I think we thrive in tonal ambiguity on this show, and stylistically, I try to support that as much as possible. It has this sort of deadpan, neutral perspective that can swing in any direction. We’re kind of holding the cards close to our chest, so any moment can go extremely dramatic or extremely comedic. I think it creates a tone that feels like it can go in any direction.
Was your experience early on as a cinematographer and music video director influential in finding your voice, or your perspective?
Yeah, I think so. Even the fact that I worked in music videos for so long before I started doing narratives, I think you get a very good grasp on visual storytelling, and how to control tone, and how music and visuals work together. But everything’s a process.
In relation to Season 1 of Atlanta, what were you hoping to explore and achieve with the series’ second season?
Well, the scripts and the general direction of the show kind of pivoted. I was aware of the fact that the writers were pivoting towards this Robbin’ Season theme, telling stories that are a little bit darker potentially and a little bit less serialized, a little more self-contained. So we were just sort of reacting to that. We still wanted the show to feel like the show that you’ve watched in the first season, but the tone and palette has changed a little bit. Then also this season, the episodes sort of shift in genre—and even stylistically, kind of change, episode to episode. We were just trying to support that, the conceit of the season as a whole.
Is it challenging to navigate a series that is so unconventional, branching out to explore different ideas while preserving a certain continuity?
It definitely can be. But I think the joy of this show is that the core collaborators are a very small circle, and even the crew has stayed consistent from last year to this year. The constant on the show is the people making it. So, we all know the show really well, and there’s a certain joy in everybody getting together and finding out what else the show can do.
As a director, what is your approach to navigating scenes based in dream logic?
I think a lot of it is that the writers—especially Donald—are interested in the same thing. We like things that feel like metaphysical microcosms of the story that we’re telling—things that maybe don’t feel cohesive narratively, but kind of telegraph what the feeling of the moment should be. Whether that’s baked into the script, or something that we find on set with actors, or just small details on location that we find, we always have our eyes open for those moments, because I think that’s the funnest thing on this show.
When it comes to Season 2, “Teddy Perkins” is the episode that takes dream logic to its extremes.
Yeah, that was my favorite script of the season. It’s the craziest script of the season, and it was exciting to us because it felt like its own thing. It felt like a real departure from the world of the show, and yet we could still play with the same themes and ideas from a different angle.
I think the first thing I thought of was, on paper, it feels like a horror movie, in a way. I think there’s elements of that in the final episode, but it was really important to us that it didn’t feel that way up top. Because I think that episode again thrives on ambiguity, not knowing where the story is going. It’s a lot like looking into Teddy Perkins’ face: You don’t really understand what’s happening. The joy is in trying to read into his face, trying to see if he’s just a strange man or if he has ulterior motives. I think that episode depends on the tension of not knowing, and being a little bit unbalanced about what you think the story is going to be.
This series is obviously set in the world of music. From a general perspective, as a director, how does music factor into your creative process?
I’ve loved music all my life. Working in music videos for so long, I’m really aware of how much it affects picture. One thing that’s interesting about the way we decided to work with music on the show is that it’s not a show that’s scored, ever. The way we use music is always in the context of what’s happening inside the world. All the music you hear is diegetic; it’s either coming from a car radio, or from someone’s phone. It’s been an interesting experiment, in terms of how to score a scene, but make it feel incidental. We’re always looking to blur the line between what’s just incidentally playing in the background and how that intentionally affects the scene that we’re watching.
Given the series’ title, it’s no surprise that Atlanta itself becomes a primary character for exploration. What has your approach been in photographing the city, and what have you learned about this place over the last several years?
One of the first things I noticed about Atlanta—and this is something that Donald was really interested in, too—is that it’s a city that’s really built in the middle of nature. If you go out from the center of the city, you can see and feel nature overtaking the city, more and more. It has a really interesting, kind of chaotic feeling to it; you can kind of feel the tension between nature and the city. Even though it’s a big city and an urban environment, especially on the outskirts where a lot of these characters live, you can feel that there’s a lot of Kudzu vines and trees that are kind of engulfing men, and buildings, and things. In a weird way, it feels like an urban jungle. We really wanted to fold that into the story and have it feel like this sort of mythical place—[because] it really does feel that way.
Outside of Atlanta, you’ve put in notable work this year on Barry. What was your experience like on that series?
I initially saw the pilot when they were trying to crew up for the season, and I kind of fell in love with it. Bill Hader’s performance in it was just so incredible. So I just immediately was like, “Hey, I love what this is. You guys do more, please. Let’s do something.”
When it came to [fruition], Bill [Hader] and Alec Berg told me that they gave me the two episodes that have the most action and visual stuff, which I guess they assumed I could do because I come from music videos. But I’d never shot any sort of action scene before. [laughs] So, I just sort of nodded and rolled with it. It was a really fun, exploratory process and I learned a lot about how to stage and shoot these gunfight sequences. Which actually came in handy because when we started shooting Atlanta‘s second season, the first thing we shot was a big shoot-out in the chicken place. So, it was a really good way of learning how to shoot that stuff.
Looking at Childish Gambino’s music video for “This Is America,” there’s similarly complex choreography at hand. What was the process in pulling that video together?
I think it’s actually a lot less complicated than people assume it is because the way we had to put that video together, it happened very fast. We prepped it for maybe a week, 10 days, and then we cut it together and delivered it in less than a week after that. It kind of goes back to the collaborative process I have with Donald, but I don’t think that video could have gotten done in time if I was working with anybody else. It just sort of intuitively happened. A lot of the decisions we were making were on the fly; we knew what we wanted the video to feel like, and Donald had specific things kind of written out. But the rest of it, we filled in as we were prepping. Even as we were shooting, we were moving things around to fit what we were going for.
I really enjoy blocking and staging. I think most of visual storytelling is camera placement, and how to stage action around the camera. That video just felt like an extreme version of that, where you’re playing with hundreds of human bodies and have more chips to play with.