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‘Twin Peaks’ to Akira Kurosawa: How FX’s Most In-Demand Director Learned His Visual Storytelling Style

Hiro Murai has directed episodes of “Atlanta,” “Legion” and the upcoming “Snowfall,” adding his eclectic influences – from David Lynch to Japanese minimalist cinema.

HIro Murai

HIro Murai

Copyright 2017, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

<<Page 1: Film influences, “Atlanta

Jumping into this fully formed and rather confusing world wasn’t as daunting as it could have been. Murai was able to watch the pilot episode for cues and references. Episode 6 also takes place in David’s subconscious, which revisits Clockworks Mental Hospital, as seen in the pilot.

“Noah walked me through his thoughts about the script in detail, and also it’s a bottle episode. It works as a self-contained episode,” he said. “And it’s very referential to the pilot. I took that as a license to play around it. It’s all about building that uncanny feeling about these characters that you know. It gave me a little bit of freedom.”

Although this is David’s subconscious, he doesn’t control it. In fact, a character named Lenny Busker (Aubrey Plaza) takes the form of a malevolent presence in his mind and is calling the shots. This is why Lenny appears to be a therapist in Clockworks, keeping David and others trapped.

"Legion"

Legion

Michelle Faye/FX

“When the DP went through a lot of references, we kept referring to ‘The Shining’ because of the slow pace, using the environment as a literal prison for the characters,” said Murai. “And that’s letting all of the anxieties and strange tones ferment in that space. I think it comes down to the simple dolly pushes down the hall, to various still shots of people talking in a circle. They’re trying to milk the uncanny tone of that set.”

A simple way Murai changed up the framing of a shot was when David and his love interest Syd (Rachel Keller) are lying next to each other in bed. While the usual shots of heads on pillows were used to represent their conversation, Murai turned the camera 90 degrees to have their heads aligned vertically.

“I really like that scene, it was a very sweet, intimate scene, but you feel the slight rift between their two perspectives,” he said. “You know David’s very content to be there and Syd has this anxiety that she can’t seem to push away. It’s a long scene that takes place between two people in bed. I thought that an interesting way to cover it is to shoot them as if they’re standing upright but it’s this vertigo-inducing, strange tone to these shots. You know it feels a little bit nauseating in a weird way while still being intimate just between these two people.”

In the sequence below, David is trying to navigate life in Clockworks, but his sister appears to be a nurse there and denies him certain privileges such as pie. Murai’s camera work provides movement to a scene that would normally seem stagnant. The scene transitions via a cherry pie (shades of “Twin Peaks”?) with Lenny’s face superimposed over it. What results is a wild and vampy expression of joy.

“Lenny just dances on David’s grave almost,” he said. “You know, it was a victory for her and she really got to express joy in there, in the devilish way that she does. That was just a general concept and the rest of it was her visiting all of these different memories that David had experienced loss and then just letting her go to town.”

After this detour into the mind of a mutant and possible madman, FX wasn’t done with Murai yet. The director shifted over the “Snowfall,” a period crime drama created by John Singleton and set in 1980s Los Angeles just before the crack cocaine epidemic. Murai helmed the fourth episode of the series, which will premiere on July 5.

Given its subject matter, “Snowfall” also gives a sense of foreboding and threat, a through-line in all of Murai’s work for FX. The show’s real-world setting, however, provided a different challenge.

“There’s a lot of heightened elements of ‘Snowfall’ too,” he said. “It’s a lot more grounded and it’s more about the textures of daily life and minutiae than it is on ‘Legion.’”

Murai, who lives on the east side of Los Angeles, had an easy commute to the show’s production and was able to see the city in anew light.

“It was one of the few productions that shoot in Los Angeles,” he said. “The LA landscape has changed so much in 30 years. I found this slightly less developed area with a lot of white houses and it’s not as built out as most of LA. It was fun to look at that side of town as a bit of a time capsule. A bygone era.”

Take a look at “Snowfall” below:

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