Guy D'Alema/FX

Q&A: Atlanta Director Hiro Murai On Working With Donald Glover, Dream Logic, And That ‘Black Justin Bieber’ Episode

‘That exact moment when you’re about to realize that this might be a dream is my favorite thing’

Director Hiro Murai ended his run directing the first five episodes of Atlanta last week with “Nobody Beats the Biebs.” Otherwise known as the “black Justin Bieber” episode, with its understated commentary and left-field-but-humane comedy, it was the apex of the new FX show’s already impressive streak. Murai will soon return, directing both the 8th and the season-ending 10th episodes, and like previous installments, there’s gleefully no way to know what to expect from them.

Murai is also a producer on Atlanta and spent five months in the titular city making it, but it’s the first television show he’s been a part of: Most of his credits come from music videos. A graduate of USC’s film school, in 2009 he started working his way up the industry’s ladder, and in less than two years he was directing videos for Top 40 hits like B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” and Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ in Love.” But he quickly became dissatisfied with the work. “I thought there was a way of marrying what I wanted to do with filmmaking with pop videos, which I found out through a couple projects just wasn’t possible,” he says. “That’s not saying anything about the artist. If you’re making an Usher video, you’re making an Usher video, not a film with an Usher song in it.”

Instead of quitting, Murai made a hard pivot with his video for St. Vincent’s “Cheerleader,” where an oversize human sculpture comes to life inside a museum, eventually destroying itself. From then on, he focused on seductively surreal videos for respected but less-famous acts, including Earl Sweatshirt’s “Hive,” Flying Lotus’s “Never Catch Me,” and Chet Faker’s “Gold.” In 2013 he started collaborating with Donald Glover, the star and creative force behind Atlanta, on his Childish Gambino project. The results were four music videos and the short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons. Amid the making of Atlanta, he’s done three music videos this year (his haunted approach to Massive Attack’s “Take It There” is a highlight), as well as directed the Nike basketball commercial that was soundtracked by a new Chance The Rapper song and aired during the Olympics.

MTV News caught up with Murai on the phone while he was at an airport in New Orleans, waiting to fly back to Atlanta to shoot a different, undisclosed show for FX. He discussed the sensibilities that link him and Glover, how to humanize your Kramer, and which kids’ cartoon helped shape Atlanta’s approach.

At what stage in Atlanta’s development were you brought in?

Hiro Murai: I’d heard Donald talk about it maybe three or four years ago when we first started working together. It was always something that was a hypothetical. It became an actual real thing when he sold the pilot to FX. He had always expressed interest in me shooting it, and my reaction was always, “Well, you’re going to have to convince FX that that’s a good idea,” because I have no TV experience. When the pilot was happening for real, that’s when I really engaged, which was maybe a year and a half ago.

Was the idea always that you would direct the majority of the episodes of the first season, or did that come about after the pilot was picked up?

Murai: That came about after. You just never know what’s going to happen. We were always thinking about what was in front of us at the moment. When we did the pilot, we were like, “Well, if we get to make this weird pilot, that’s cool.” Once it got picked up and the series was happening for real, it was, “I guess we’re doing the rest of the season, too.” That’s when we really started talking about how many episodes I would do and how this was all going to play out.

Was it an issue convincing FX to let you do it?

Murai: A lot of the credit goes to Donald being persistent and them trusting his choices. FX is a network; that’s their whole model, letting creators make the thing they want to make and then marketing it really well. I went in there myself and talked with the execs about my and Donald’s relationship and how we’ve always worked and how that would apply to the show. It was, like, an hour-long conversation, mostly just letting them know that I wasn’t a raving lunatic.

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What is your creative relationship with Donald like?

Murai: We’ve worked on four music videos at this point, and we did a short film together. We have similar tastes, we see eye-to-eye on what we want to accomplish with tone and approach. He’s definitely the idea man, so he’ll constantly be coming up with new angles and new takes on things. I feel my job has always been to pick up all the pieces and categorize them and figure out the best fit for all these ideas and present them.

A big thing for us has been trying to blur the lines between different genres and tones. There’s a video called “Sober” we did, which is supposed to be like a throwback to a Michael Jackson–era music video where a guy is wooing a girl with dancing, but it’s also sort of creepy and also kind of funny. A lot of times my job is to make a world where all those things fit together.

I feel that way with Atlanta too. As you’ve seen in the first five episodes, the stories go in many directions. There are five different shows in the first five episodes, really. Obviously Donald is party to this too, but a big part of my job is trying to find a way to tell that story where all those things fit under the same umbrella.

How did you two first start working together?

Murai: He reached out to me after I started working with a couple of the Odd Future guys. He was prepping his last album, Because the Internet, and we just casually met and talked about what we could possibly do together. I knew he was looking to do something weird. I didn’t hear back from him for two or three months, so I figured that it was just a meeting. But then out of the blue he texted me, “Hey, do you want to make this short film? I want it to be half an hour long and I want to shoot it on film.” That was the only thing he told me. From that point on, every couple months we would get together and make a music video or a weird short. It was a very casual working relationship, which I really liked.

Are most artists you work with this collaborative?

Murai: It’s almost never this collaborative, and if artists do have ideas, they’re often not great. A lot of the music video stuff I’ve worked on is mostly me pitching ideas, and then if [the artists] have notes or thoughts, I’ll integrate them into the idea. But with Donald, he’s really good at packaging things. He’s collaborative, but he’s also very specific about the type of visuals he wants to put out for his albums.

When you said that you two share a lot of similar reference points or influences, can you expand on what some of those are?

Murai: It’s not specifically other works. I think we’re both contrarians, so we like the feeling of keeping people off-balance and having the audience not knowing where we’re coming from or keeping that mysterious. We’re also sort of existentialist in philosophy, but also humanist in a lot of ways, too. The way we look at stories is often from far outside, like a god’s point of view, and also very, very subjective. Those are the three things I keep going back to, if that makes any sense.

In past models, directors of TV shows were usually just hired hands, or were often seen that way. They have a lot less creative control — the stylistic and visual tones of the show have been established beforehand, and they hire a different person to share the burden of getting these episodes made. How is what you’re doing with Atlanta different than that?

Murai: That’s been an interesting thing, because I’m just learning as I go along too, seeing what gets the best outcome. TV is generally an unfriendly environment for directors because you’re expected to come in and tell a story in the voice of the show that already exists, and just fill in the blanks and then submit it back. I’m not trying to diminish what TV directors do, but when Donald and I started talking about the show, we were both so interested in tone and atmosphere, which is stuff you don’t necessarily see on the page when you read the script. It’s stuff you build and create while filming and editing. The DNA of the show became very director-centric and execution-heavy. That’s why I ended up doing so many episodes and Donald ended up doing two of them.

Were you involved with coming up with stories at all?

Murai: I would come in and out of the writers’ room. The stories are very specific. A lot of the writers had grown up in Atlanta and had very specific experiences they wanted to tell stories about. I wasn’t about to go in there and tell stories about what it’s like to be black in Atlanta. But I would come in sometimes and talk about the overall season arc or which characters I wanted to hear more from. As far as story goes, that was my extent of affecting the writers’ room. If I wanted certain moments to be weirder, I would just say that and Donald would send me a draft the next day.

How did they respond when you said, “Make it weirder”?

Murai: That’s an oversimplification for sure, but it was our shorthand for making things more ambiguous or less straightforward.

You touched on this briefly, but one of the things that’s notable about the show is that the entire writing staff is black, and many are from Atlanta. How was it coming in as an outsider and trying to represent that experience honestly?

Murai: I’m not from that world and I hadn’t really spent that much time in Atlanta before we shot the show, but obviously I’m a fan of the mythos of Atlanta hip-hop, and it’s something I grew up imagining. It was very interesting to get there and see the real version of this world and then reconcile the differences between what’s presented as Atlanta hip-hop to the rest of the world and what the real, breathing version of it is. That’s part of the show as well, deconstructing the caricatures of the Atlanta hip-hop scene with real human characters.

In re-watching your Childish Gambino videos and short film, it feels like you guys have tried to capture some sense of his Los Angeles existence, similar to how Atlanta captures that city. Is that a theme you realized you were exploring back then?

Murai: I don’t think we ever talked about it in that way, but we’re interested in absurdism and the environments of the main character, whether it’s a music video or a show. So the environment becomes a really big part of the storytelling, no matter what we’re talking about. If we’re filming in Los Angeles, we naturally lean on all the weird textures of Los Angeles. If we’re shooting in Atlanta, it’s the same thing.

Let’s talk about the “black Justin Bieber” episode, since it seems to have really struck a cultural cord. Can you talk me through being presented with the idea?

Murai: It was actually one of the first ideas that Donald and Stephen [Glover, his brother and a writer on the show] told me about after we shot the pilot. I had a really tough time wrapping my head around it at first, because it was such a jump from what we did in the pilot. [Episodes] 1 through 5 oscillate between a grounded story about two cousins in the hip-hop scene and Earn’s struggle, with almost Chappelle Show–esque concept-driven sketch pieces but told in a narrative way. When they first told me the [black Justin Bieber] idea, I had no idea how much the show would oscillate between the two. I would say, “How does that fit into our world?” But as I saw the other scripts fill in the gaps, I realized that the show, because it’s a half-hour comedy, because it’s a little more fluid than an hour-long drama, it has the capacity to be both.

It was interesting to notice in light of the “black Justin Bieber” episode — and it’s touched on in the final scene where the reporter tells Paper Boi to play his role — that no one seemed to bat an eye two episodes earlier when Quavo from Migos shot a person like an animal he’s hunting. Were you aware of the different responses?

Murai: I was very surprised. To be fair, Bieber is more visible and people know more about him than Migos, but I did think the same. I was surprised more people didn’t react to how absurdist that Migos scene was, but there are certain expectations and a mystique for trap rappers that don’t exist for Justin Bieber.

People point to Atlanta and some other recent shows as changing our expectations of what TV can be and how it can be structured. You’ve been up-front about saying you’ve never done TV before, so I’m curious if you’ve been only looking at other nontraditional models, or if the more time-tested approaches of TV shows interest you at all.

Murai: The structural godfathers of this show are shows like Louie, and even Adventure Time, to an extent. I brought up Adventure Time a fair amount with Donald when we were working on the show because Adventure Time does a very strange thing where it’s very world-based. Sometimes the main characters won’t even appear in an episode and the story will sort of detour with some side character. It has a very meandering feel that I really like, and there’s something about that cadence that makes it more digestible, or you’re more willing to go with the flow.

Atlanta does feel very different from everything else out there, but one of the TV shows I do think about when watching it is Seinfeld, which is a masterful, old-model TV show in terms of bringing together the A story, B story, and C story so they all somehow make sense. Do you guys think about stuff like that?

Murai: We never really talked about it, but I think Donald is really good at weaving a traditional aesthetic with an experimental aesthetic. He does it with his music as well. He knows what works with shows like Seinfeld and classic sitcoms. The Darius character [in Atlanta] could be someone who really is in the same tradition as Kramer, but it’s also interesting because how do we take that character and put him in a world where you accept that he’s a real human being and not a sitcom character? Or do you even need to do that?

A lot of the stranger or more surreal aspects of the show wouldn’t work if it didn’t have that base in reality.

Murai: Exactly.

So how do you root the show in reality and make sure you don’t get too weird?

Murai: That’s exactly where the traditionalist stuff comes in. In the middle of this crazy show where there’s a black Justin Bieber, what we’re trying to do is keep track of the core characters’ emotional space and keep the arc really clean. At the end of the day, if you don’t identify with the main characters, no television show will work. Among all the craziness, our job has been to keep that clear. Obviously the actors are incredible at being the audience surrogates in this crazy universe.

I’ve seen previous interviews where you talk about being interested in dream logic and how daydreams are an influence. Do you differentiate between the dreams you have when you’re asleep at night where literally anything can happen and with daydreaming, where your mind is usually exploring the tendrils of what could happen in the situation you’re presently in?

Murai: I don’t know why, but even my nighttime dreams are very, very rooted in reality. They just start to become surreal, little by little. That exact moment when you’re about to realize that this might be a dream is my favorite thing. Otherwise, too many things are possible in a dream. It’s most interesting when you don’t know which space you’re in.