Atlanta Director Hiro Murai On Season
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Hiro Murai’s Humble Storytelling Makes an Indelible Mark

Bill Hader and Brian Tyree Henry reflect on working with a director who thinks of filmmaking "as a team sport."

Atlanta director Hiro Murai

Director Hiro Murai

Copyright 2017, FX Networks. All rights reserved.

There are directors who demand acknowledgement — with their camera, their staging, or other loud, unignorable elements thrust in front of the viewer. Hiro Murai is not one of these directors. He doesn’t demand attention so much as he conjures it — kindly, quietly, and with bewitching curiosity.

“What might be revolutionary about it is that he’s not doing anything too flashy — he’s not worried about an audience’s opinion about him,” cinematographer and frequent collaborator Christian Sprenger said. “He will always check himself if something is cool for cool’s sake — that’s the most blasphemous thing you could do on a Hiro Murai set. You always want to be serving the story first and foremost.”

Recognizing Murai’s talent is both instinctive — as simple as saying, “Wow, that was a great episode of TV” — and intricate. His knowledge of cinematic language is evident in each frame he builds, and the way he discusses scene construction is casual, frank, and pretension-free. But perhaps the simplest way to appreciate his skillset is to notice one simple correlation.

Brian Tyree Henry, Hiro Murai, and Donald Glover on the set of "Atlanta"

Brian Tyree Henry, Hiro Murai, and Donald Glover on the set of “Atlanta”

Coco Olakunle/FX

“It was interesting,” Bill Hader said, remembering when Murai first directed episodes of his HBO comedy, “Barry.” “I noticed differences in his lighting. We had the same DP, but he was very specific in the way he lit [scenes]. I had this weird thing: I didn’t want to see the source of the light in the shot, and he would actually have it in the shot. I always thought [that wouldn’t work.] But [seeing it,] I was like, ‘Actually, that looks pretty great.’”

Once you start looking for them, Murai’s lights are everywhere. They run along the walls of the stash house Hader’s reluctant assassin Barry Berkman raids in Season 1. They’re hanging ominously inside an empty grocery store in the “Station Eleven” premiere. And they’re all over “Atlanta,” from the pilot’s opening flash-forward, where long tube lights frame the liquor store parking lot, to the lone streetlamp on the fateful bridge that welcomes viewers back for Season 3. Diegetic lighting isn’t a trademark or a calling card or any sort of signature. But once you notice it, your eye starts to pick up what else is in the frame and why.

“We design a lot of scenes in ‘Atlanta’ around the idea of where the light is coming from in the room and how we block the actors around those light sources,” Sprenger said. “Perhaps a simple way of saying it is that you’re using a lot of practicals to light your scene, but ultimately the philosophy behind it is that it helps [the story] feel more grounded. [If] what’s happening is outlandish or larger than life, contrast that by grounding it in this very believable existence.”

In the video below, watch how Murai uses location, lighting, and his music video roots to direct Episode 5 (“Cancer Attack”) from “Atlanta” Season 3.

Take “Cancer Attack,” the fifth entry of “Atlanta’s” recently wrapped season. Set in a historic concert venue, the plot zigs toward a caper-esque treasure hunt when Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) looks over the building’s blueprints and “smells adventure,” but then it zags into a one-room interrogation over Alfred’s (Brian Tyree Henry) missing cell phone that takes up the episode’s entire second half.

What you expect to happen isn’t what plays out, and Murai’s largely silent opening sequence tees up expectations without tipping where things are headed. Bright lamps guide stagehands to an isolated loading dock. The camera creeps closer to the glowing entrance, but once inside — tracking the coffee guy as he winds through tall halls and tight corridors — the aging brick creates a uniformity that makes the space difficult to navigate. By the time Earn is asking for eyes on Paper Boi, it’s no surprise he’d be hard to find in this old, eerie venue.

This 60-second set-up isn’t flashy. What’s essentially an extended establishing shot won’t get passed between admiring cinephiles on Twitter. But it’s essential to “Atlanta” and a testament to Murai’s skill, as well as his devotion to storytelling. Within seconds of stepping foot in the theater, it’s easy to believe this place can create and contain the indefinable — that it’s haunted, just like Darius said — but it’s also a real place filled with real people running coffee, setting up the stage, and checking security tags. From the way the first frame edges toward the dark and mysterious venue to how the visible lighting keeps us grounded within it, each subtle choice establishes “Atlanta’s” boundless universe, where invisible cars can knock over pedestrians and a suspected thief can be lying and telling the truth at the same time.

Anything can happen at any moment, and Hiro Murai’s studious vision makes it possible.

"Atlanta"

“Atlanta” Season 3 Episode 5 (“Cancer Attack”)

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Every shot of “Atlanta” carries meaning.

“In [‘Cancer Attack,’] there’s a moment where it’s just Earn and Alfred sitting in the green room,” Brian Tyree Henry said, “and the way that [Murai] framed this [physical] distance — so thick in the air that you can cut it with a knife — shows the [emotional] distance between us, without us even saying a word. There’s no such thing as empty space, because the space is usually building to some kind of statement.”

Henry, who pivots from explaining how Murai “drives me insane” to promising he would “work with Hiro for the rest of my days,” is a key face among a dynamite cast. Many of his expressions are in the GIF hall of fame, after being captured by Murai.

“I’m always floored by what he sees,” Henry said. “Every time I’ve seen the final edit of an episode, I’m shocked that he saw me just shooting a look to the side, or sneaking a glance over here, or even taking a deep breath.”

“My editors and I always joke that ‘Atlanta’s’ subtitle should be, ‘Atlanta: Paper Boi Reacts To Things,’” Murai said. “Because 90 percent of this show is him being put in these absurd scenarios. We, as an audience, just look to his face to see how we should take in these, a lot of times, very obtuse situations. And it’s incredible. Every time a scene is not working, we go, ‘What’s Brian doing right now?’”

Atlanta

“Atlanta”

Guy D'Alema/FX

Murai, born in Tokyo before moving to Los Angeles at age 9, has been described as observational. His longstanding relationship with Donald Glover began with the 2013 short film “Clapping for the Wrong Reasons” and has continued through “Atlanta,” “Guava Island,” and a slew of Childish Gambino music videos, including the Grammy-winning clip for “This Is America,” which can lead people to think of him as an interpreter: a director with a clear understanding of his star, writer, and creator. But interpreting someone else’s vision overlooks the director’s agency, and “observational” can imply a detachment that isn’t present in Murai’s affecting, pensive stories.

“I don’t like feeling the intention of the filmmaker that forefronted,” Murai said. “I don’t like the feeling of someone forcing me to pay attention to a certain thing. It’s always there, obviously, because you’re choosing what’s on the screen, but I think a light touch lets the audience get comfortable and then lean in and engage with the story on their own terms.

“I just let people into the room. I’m not telling them what to pay attention to or where to sit. I just want them to find themselves in the room and have it be an exploratory, conversational experience.”

"Atlanta"

“Atlanta”

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Murai’s artistic stamp carries over from project to project, no matter who he’s shooting. “Atlanta,” “Barry,” and “Station Eleven” all tell plausible stories containing astounding aspects. “Barry” tracks an actor starting a second career in the entertainment industry — very common, very relatable — but there are also gunfights and assassinations and dead bodies, which aren’t so routine. “Station Eleven” follows a traveling theater troupe, a little girl, and her unexpected caretaker, all of whom are trying to survive a global pandemic… with a spaceman watching over them from the stars. “Atlanta” can spend an entire episode watching Alfred try to get a haircut, then dive right into “Teddy Perkins” the following week.

What holds such disparate parts together is a tonal balance anchored by many inconspicuous elements — elements diligently orchestrated by Murai.

“He’s kind of like another writer on the team,” Stephen Glover, an executive producer and writer on “Atanta,” said. “He’s very good at understanding what we do and don’t need. Even working on Season 4, there was a script I wrote and he’s like, ‘The stories feel a little lagging in the front, so maybe we cut this scene, and we cut this scene, and at the end, we add a line here.’ He’s very good at consolidating useless scenes or useless information. He understands how to tell a story visually really well, to a point where sometimes I’m like, ‘Man, as a writer, Hiro did a way better job than me.’”

Before shooting, Murai sits with Sprenger to break down how they can best capture each scene, beat by beat, not just with the camera, but with costumes, set design, and more.

Atlanta Hiro Muraicinematographer Christian Sprenger

Hiro Murai and cinematographer Christian Sprenger

Guy D'Alema/FX

“We have a lot of discussions that get pretty deep into the emotional storyline,” Sprenger said, “and I don’t think a lot of directors do that — certainly not a lot of television directors.”

Deep dives into scripts are only part of the gig. Murai often spends four or five days in the edit room finishing an episode. He runs a smooth, supportive set, which Stephen Glover called “a well-oiled machine,” adding that Murai “has the best temperament for the job” — very chill, very relaxed, and “the vibe on set is always great.”

“I remember in this particular block, I was going between ‘Barbershop’ and ‘Woods,’” Henry said, referencing two Alfred-focused episodes from Season 2. “’Barbershop’ is supposed to be the levity, right? And then you’ve got ‘Woods.’ […] There were times I was like covered in wounds, covered in blood, leaves in my arms, leaves in my hair. And he was there with me, man. Like he really made sure to keep me in this space. It wasn’t like he was trying to get any method performance out of me. But he wanted to really be there as a referee for my grief, honestly, because it was one of the hardest things I ever had to do.

Atlanta director Hiro Murai with Brian Tyree Henry

Murai on the set of “Atlanta” with Brian Tyree Henry

Coco Olakunle/FX

“And let’s be honest: Most of Alfred’s standalone episodes are surrounding trauma. Hiro understands that part of me. He’s not just my director. He’s my friend. He really is my friend, my confidante. There’s something about him that makes me want to try harder and dive deeper than any other project I’ve ever done.”

When asked about these scenes, Murai deflects praise to Henry. “He’s such an incredible talent,” he said. “He really makes so much of the show work.” That humble demeanor extends from discussing his own style to crediting others for it. He notes his start in music videos — which “famously have zero resources” — for forcing him to use existing lighting and environments, before giving credit to Sprenger for the resulting effect, which they call “heightened naturalism.”

“He’s a very mischievous humanist,” said Isaac Hagy , who edits on “Atlanta” and met Murai during their freshman year at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “He enjoys getting a reaction out of the audience, but he’s also very dedicated to his characters and telling a very human, empathetic story.”

Atlanta Pajamas Lakeith Stanfield Donald Glover

“Atlanta”

Guy D'Alema/FX

The sought-after reactions aren’t always specific, and restraint is key. In a sentiment echoed by multiple “Atlanta” collaborators, Hagy described the series’ “north star” as a story where viewers have to draw their own conclusions. Episode 4 of Season 3, “The Big Payback,” is a prime example. Colloquially referred to as “The Reparations Episode,” the standalone entry takes place as a slew of lawsuits require descendants of slave owners to provide restitution to any living ancestors. As a result, Marshall (Justin Bartha) loses his apartment and, while staying at a motel, runs into a man named Earnest (Tobias Segal). Earnest first appears earlier in the season as an ominous, ghostly figure, but here he comforts Marshall about their shared financial plight. Maybe paying reparations isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it could be freeing — healing, even.

“I think in other shows, you’ve been like, ‘OK. This is the thesis of the show. This is the lesson that the episode is trying to teach us,’” Hagy said. “But of course in ‘Atlanta,’ he immediately goes out, smokes a cigarette by the pool, and commits suicide.”

“The Big Payback” stirred a reaction in at least one of Murai’s past collaborators. “That reparations episode was amazing,” Bill Hader said, unprompted, while discussing Murai. (Although Hader says he doesn’t watch a lot of TV, he admits he never misses an “Atlanta.)

Atlanta-The-Big-Payback-Ep-4

“Atlanta” Season 3 Episode 4 (“The Big Payback”)

Guy D'Alema/FX

Murai has helmed 20 of the 30 “Atlanta” episodes so far, with more to come in the upcoming fourth and final season. Prior to the series, he made his name in music videos outside of Donald Glover’s orbit, including clips for Earl Sweatshirt, The Shins, Flying Lotus, and Usher. But despite changes in budget, format, and scale, Murai has held firm on certain attributes.

“At heart, his voice is still the same as it always was,” Hagy said. “I think what’s changed is he’s gotten way more interested in the building blocks of narrative — narrative structure and how stories are told,” Hagy said. “Hiro is weirdly drawn to writers. Donald is a writer. We did a pilot with George Saunders called ‘Sea Oak,’ and I think Hiro picked George’s brain a lot. Being a bit of a student on writing and structure, that’s showing up more in these seasons. He’s become more involved even in the writing process and I think the work’s been better for it.”

“I love to play around and see what comes out of my own head as a writer,” Murai said. “[But] I don’t know if it’s because of the music video start I had, but I just think of filmmaking as a team sport. I think you can’t learn much about yourself if you’re the only person in the room. You know what I mean? You need a counterpoint. You need a contrast.”

Donald Glover in "Atlanta" Season 1, Episode 1

Donald Glover in “Atlanta” Season 1, Episode 1

Guy D'Alema/FX

In 2022, Murai will be as busy as ever. “The Bear,” an FX comedy he executive produced with Nate Matteson through their company, Super Frog, premieres later this month on Hulu. He has multiple projects in development, as a director and producer, and said he’s prepping a show right now. Plus, there’s “Atlanta” Season 4, which Murai described as “a homecoming.”

“We hadn’t been in Atlanta during the summer since Season 1,” he said. “Season 2 we shot in the winter and it was a darker season — just bleaker aesthetically and story-wise. Season 4 feels like a full-circle return to Season 1. Obviously, we’re different people than we were in 2016, but there’s a little bit of the nostalgia of seeing ourselves from six years ago and how we’ve changed. And of course, a lot of existential angst about time and growth and what it means to be home and all those things. But also, it felt like a lovely way to look back on ourselves from when we started making the show. I think all those feelings are packed in there for the final season.” —Ben Travers

Hiro Murai

Credits: "Atlanta," "Barry," "Station Eleven," "Legion," "Guava Island"

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