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

Youn the early 2010s, Hiro Murai was a Los Angeles-based music-video director, working regularly with the local Odd Future music collective—which included Frank Ocean, Earl Sweatshirt, and Tyler, the Creator, among others—as well as making the occasional video for musicians like Death Cab for Cutie, Usher, Lupe Fiasco, St. Vincent, and the Shins. Much of his work was strange, in the best way—his 2012 video for Earl Sweatshirt’s “Chum” featured a frog as a stand in for the rapper. (Murai has the Frog Delano Roosevelt, which he still owns.

But it was the actor Donald Glover, who also performs as the artist Childish Gambino, who approached Murai with the “weirdest prompt” he’s ever received. Glover wanted to make a “semi-documentary,” shot on film, about the making of his album, Internet, because it is. The 24-minute-long short film was completed. You are claiming the wrong reasons, wrapped in a fictional element and was “a little weird and surreal, and kind of deadpan,” Murai says. Filming the story of an idea for a song instead of following it through was more interesting than following a specific musical track. Scenes were set up in a home studio. Lyrics are then tested on couches in living rooms and outside by a fire pit. Glover also appeared in front of the mirror while pulling out a strange and unexplainable string from his nose. It has more than 10.3 million YouTube views.

That straight-faced embrace of the weird and offbeat has come to define much of Murai’s work in the last decade. Glover introduced Murai’s surrealist comedy to television, even though he had never been on TV. Atlanta, which, at first, seemed to be a traditional narrative show about Glover’s character Earn, a college dropout trying to launch the rap career of his cousin Alfred, a.k.a. Paperboi was created by Brian Tyree Henry. Soon, the series took on the shape of an uncanny fever dream in which plot was largely left as an enabler. Atlanta’s writers, cast, and crew to push the boundaries of serial storytelling and explore all corners of the Black experience. Through its three seasons. AtlantaThe narrative logic has been more like an ocean current than a stream, with a variety of absurdist comedy and surrealist thrillers to psychological character studies. Murai—who has directed 20 of the 31 episodes of Atlanta, including its first five and the series-shaping finales of season 1 and 2—has been a key player in making the show what it is. He’s brought a genre-bending technique to its creation, helping it become one of the most unpredictable and most lauded examples of serial storytelling on TV right now.

Murai, 39, has proven his versatility, becoming a guiding mind behind equally celebrated shows like HBO’s ongoing series Barry, a dark comedy about a contract killer trying to break into Hollywood, created and starring Bill Hader, and 2021’s Station Eleven, a critically-acclaimed, limited-series adaptation of author Emily St. John Mandel’s prescient novel about the aftermath of a world-ending pandemic. It was released in the worst days and hours of COVID-19. The adaptation could easily have leant into the despair of the genre or played on the anxiety of the time. It was instead affirming. “It isn’t really about death; it’s about rebirth,” Murai says. “It’s about people not just surviving, but assessing what they need to be fully human—it’s about art and community.” Next, he’ll direct two episodes of the highly anticipated Mr. and Ms. SmithAnother Glover project, remake

Learn More Atlanta’This Season 3 premiere of Unsparing is worth the 4 year wait

Murai thinks back to the season that brought him onto TV. It has been almost four years since the show’s second and third seasons. Atlanta was returnedFX in February 2022. The show aired the season finale on May 19. The third season, despite being unpredictable, was notable for its disregard for serial storytelling norms. Only half of the show’s main cast appeared in the episode, while multiple stories explored complex subjects like reparations for slavery or the perception of Blackness throughout the world. The finale was directed by Glover and Murai, with Murai as part of the production team. It was just as divisive and disconcerting as the nine other episodes.

Murai spoke with TIME before the final episode of Season 8. Atlanta team’s creative process, why season 3 was so different from the two that came before, and how the TV landscape has changed since the show first premiered.

Most of the third season takes place in Europe. Even episodes set in America are not explicitly set there or have geographically vague locations. What was behind the decision to move physically outside of Atlanta—for a show called Atlanta?

They leave Europe at the end of season 2. It was about Paperboi who hadn’t left Georgia before and his journey to Europe. Season 3 is not necessarily that same trip, but the idea of Paperboi seeing his life in Atlanta in hindsight and figuring out where he is now that he’s an internationally known rapper, and what success means to him—all those were really interesting things to us.

AtlantaThe U.S. has been asking questions regarding racial identity and dynamics. In episodes like this, these questions are brought up even more in the current season. Poor Wigga, Rich Wigga, about the conflicts between internal and external perceptions of “Blackness” in America, or Big PaybackThis article is about a white male who was sued to recover his damages. White FashionThe film, where multiple white characters adopt aspects of Black culture in order to gain financial success. But because the show leaves the U.S. geographically, I’m curious: what should viewers make of that?

Donald and his brother Donald were responsible for a lot of European conversations. [Stephen Glover, who both writes for Atlanta and collaborates musically with Childish Gambino]Europe. But also, as two kids from Atlanta, nothing makes you realize what’s going on—what happened in your upbringing—more than stepping outside of it. It is a great way to discover more about yourself as an American by moving away from it. Season 3 is more interesting because of its stark contrast. The conversation about race was always present in previous seasons. But it wasn’t just about Black people living with other Blacks. Being surrounded with European whites is an entirely different dynamic.

Atlanta has never been afraid to leave the main characters and primary narrative behind, but this season took it to a new level, with four of the 10 episodes not including Earn, Paperboi, Earn’s partner Van (Zazie Beetz), or the crew’s resident eccentric Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) at all. You must be wondering how you managed to have so many episodes of anthology.

This collection of bizarre and offbeat stories seemed to be the best way for me to tell my story.

There were conversations about, “Is this a bad idea? Will people be upset that they’re not seeing Paperboi in the show they love?” But at the same time, I feel like this whole show is built on us doubling down on weird impulses and trying to make something different each time. I don’t think we’ve ever really enjoyed setting up a format and just coloring inside those lines.

Although it was scary at times, it was very exciting. What can you do to take the perspective and state of mind of this show and apply it in these stories set at different places? You can. Atlanta still be AtlantaWhat if Paperboi or Van are in Paris, Amsterdam? Season 3 focused on us pushing beyond our comfort zone.

Please tell me how you go about making this. AtlantaDifferent from TVs of the past

It was the first time I worked in TV. Atlanta. Donald has a long history of working in writers rooms, but everybody else in that writers’ room, they weren’t even writers. We ended up making a lot of choices that you just shouldn’t make in television, both in story and execution. We immediately started letting our minds run wild; we were like, “Oh, what if each episode was a short film, and it took place in all these different locations, and we met new characters every episode, and we built it out that way?” Then when we executed it, it became this sort of crazy indie film grind, where each episode we had to build from whole cloth, from scratch. It’s extremely difficult because we’re working with a TV budget, but it’s also very fulfilling.

It’s now fairly normal for TV shows do the sorts of things Atlanta pioneered in TV production—featuringUncanny characters who may or might not be real To follow what was previously a secondary character, we must veer away from the protagonist. Was it a positive experience to watch season 3 now that the show is in this new environment you helped make?

AtlantaIt has been an oddly personal series for all who make it. Season 1 was this thing that nobody cared about—it was just us messing around. We were shocked when it was successful and everyone liked it. Season 2 began as a story about how we dealt with all the praises. [how]All of sudden, the actor is famous, and everyone stops to take pictures.

It’s always been like a therapy session for everybody who makes it. While we may be aware of their expectations, it is first and foremost our job to do this for them. We were conscious of the changes in television climates and the expectations people have for TV programs. Also, politically, it’s a completely different atmosphere—the last season was in 2018. But we stuck to the credo that we’re here to work our own sh-t out and express ourselves and our anxieties and the topics that have been in our heads, and then hopefully, people will click in and connect to that. It’s not about trying to keep the show exactly as we remember it in 2018. Because we’re not the same people that we were in 2018.

This is what the conversation around AtlantaThe length of season 3 is what has been the focus. In 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. This is almost how the season begins. Did you intentionally put flags in there to acknowledge or reference the time that’s passed?

Our goal was to make it easy for viewers to rewatch the series, making each episode accessible from any device. Donald comes from sitcoms of the past. We’re still kind of doing a Seinfeld thing: We always like to approach it as though you’re just there for that episode.

So it’s not that important to us whether you get the reference, but if you love this show enough, and you rewatch the seasons, and you’re kind of in the world of the show, you’d get an extra layer of appreciation for it.

You would like to recommend what you’ve seen or read in recent times.

The thing I’ve read most recently that I’ve been completely obsessed with—that I’ve bought for all the editors and DPs that I work with, is the George Saunders book, Take a dip in the rainy pond. He reads five to six short Russian stories, and then deconstructs them in order to discuss storytelling. This book will be a wonderful gift to anyone working in storytelling.

This interview has been edited to be more concise.

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