On the set of Atlanta , director Hiro Murai shares a shorthand with the show’s creator.
Few directors start their television careers working with a good friend on one of the medium's most respected shows.
But that's exactly where Hiro Murai is, working with creator–executive producer–writer–star Donald Glover on FX's Emmy-winning Atlanta. "This show has really spoiled me," says Tokyo-born Murai, who was previously known for directing music videos. "It's sort of a dream scenario, where you're working with friends and having a really fruitful and satisfying collaboration. It's a rare thing, obviously."
He should know. Atlanta has led to other directing jobs on FX series, like Snowfall and Legion, where he gets to see how guest directors fit in. Having helmed 14 of Atlanta's 21 episodes so far, Murai found guest-directing to be an eye-opening experience that he brought back to his own show, on which he's also a coexecutive producer.
"It's been educational and interesting, working on other TV shows, seeing how they operate. It's really different from what we do," he explains. "Our structure is unlike any other show, so it's fun to get to play in someone else's world a bit.
"I sort of felt like I was coming into someone else's house and rearranging their furniture. It's a question of how much authority you have while doing it, so I've been careful about dealing with our own guest directors when they come in. I let them know that they have some freedom to explore their vision. I encourage them to own it."
That can be tricky with a show like Atlanta, which often toggles between comedy and drama, with occasional action in the mix. In season two, subtitled "Robbin' Season," the first episode begins with an attempted holdup of a fast food restaurant, which leads to a shootout involving automatic weapons. Under Murai's direction, that leads seamlessly into a hilarious bit about Willy, Glover's character's uncle, who keeps a live adult alligator in his house.
"Donald really likes the idea of playing with tone, so that the show can be a drama sometimes, and a comedy [too]. It can be a lot of things, and that's part of the trick of managing it all, making sure it's cohesive and it works the way we want it to," Murai says. "A lot of it is about atmosphere and performance and having it all gel together. The idea is for the show to keep you on your toes. You should be a little confused."
Glover was initially struck by the visuals Murai created for Frank Ocean's performance at the 2013 Grammys. Later that year, Murai directed three music videos for Childish Gambino, Glover's hip-hop alter ego. When Atlanta came along, Murai recalls, Glover "called me and we started talking, and it just clicked. It's the most intuitive collaboration I've had in my life. We're on the same page constantly and have really good shorthand. We don't have to explain things to each other — it just sort of makes sense."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 4, 2018