Hiro Murai comes from the world of music videos, which gave him experience in creating stylized visuals. Now, as a key director in television, that background has helped inform his work on shows like FX’s comedy “Atlanta,” which includes surreal moments woven into the narrative, and the trippy Marvel series “Legion.”
“I think you get a really good grasp of the visual language of film,” Murai said of music videos. “The downside is not working with dialogue or actors as much. But you learn how to tell simple stories visually very quickly.”
Murai moved to the United States from Japan around age nine and learned some of the English language and American cultural cues from watching “The Simpsons.” In middle school, he started shooting small projects on handicam, and by college he landed his first paid gig, as a cinematographer for an indie band’s music video.
But even before going into that gig, he was learning directing by watching the masters.
“‘Twin Peaks’ was my gateway for David Lynch,” Murai said. “I think that’s true for a lot of people. Because at first my grasp of the language wasn’t as tight, I was really drawing on the tone. Even if you didn’t understand the dialogue completely, there’s something so visceral and strange happening tonally. I remember being very, very fascinated.”
Murai also draws from his Japanese roots when it comes to cinema. “I was watching [Akira] Kurosawa crime movies recently,” he said. “I just watched ‘The Bad Sleep Well’ yesterday. I just got a Filmstruck account so I can watch all of those Criterion movies streaming. I’ve been nerding out about that. I’m drawn to Japanese cinema and I think that a lot of that shows up in the things we make, even the minimalist approach.”
Jumping from music videos to directing seven episodes of “Atlanta” was a major transition for Murai. The series, set and shot in Atlanta, follows Earn Marks (Donald Glover) as an aspiring manager for his rapper cousin Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry).
“A lot of it was figuring out how my kind of storytelling and filmmaking fit into to a serialized format,” he said. “We like to go in with a plan that we think works, and then on the day, part of the fun is finding what’s working the best and what’s not working as well and then adding and subtracting.”
Although Murai doesn’t necessarily mimic styles, the films and TV series he grew up watching have created an instinct for visual interest in scenes. For example, some of Kurosawa’s influence can be seen in the way Murai frames his subjects in a scene geometrically or in how he moves the camera.
“I don’t think there was a big conceptual discussion how to film. It’s per scene what we wanted to do,” he said. “When we wanted it to feel like there’s these two people having an intimate moment, and we don’t want to intrude, we’d shoot it through a doorway. Or Earn is kind of outside in a lot of these interactions, and if he feels like he wants to be disconnected from it, we’ll make a choice to compose it, frame it up so that he’s justified in the wrong direction.”
While most of the action on “Atlanta” is grounded in reality, there are strange, unconnected and sometimes violent events scattered through the episodes, creating a feeling of unpredictability and danger. In this way, Murai has channeled a bit of Lynch into his work.
“In a lot of comedy shows there’s a safety net where you don’t assume anything of real consequence will happen,” he said. “The idea that we can make a comedy inside a world where people can get hurt or die, there’s no real sense of safety net in the world. It wasn’t on the page necessarily, but it was something that me and Donald talked about from very early on. That was always part of the architecture of this show, kind of quiet tension in the background even when there are jokes being thrown around.”
Murai took that sense of menace with him to “Legion,” a Marvel property that centers on David Haller (Dan Stevens), a man who has powerful psychic abilities but is confused about whether he is also schizophrenic. Created by Noah Hawley (“Fargo”), the series brought Murai on for the sixth episode, which was a change for the director, who was able to set the tone and style for “Atlanta” from the very beginning.