Hiro Murai's directorial credits are a hip-hop head's dream. The Tokyo-born filmmaker arrived in Los Angeles with dreams of features, but quickly discovered a talent for music videos at USC film school. The accolades didn't arrive all at once, but in 2016 he's cemented a role as a music video guru, creating magical, paranormal worlds, not-quite-realities with something predatory and surreal on the edges. From the casket dance routines in Flying Lotus' "Never Catch Me" to any of the videos ("Sweatpants," "Telegraph Ave.," "Sober," "3005") he's done with Childish Gambino. Other credits include Earl Sweatshirt, St. Vincent, and Chet Faker's iconic "Gold" video. Through it all, early influence from David Lynch gave Murai's work a moody, alluring tone and wove narratives into the music.
But Murai took a break from music videos this year. He spent four months in Atlanta shooting Atlanta, the FX original series conceived by Donald Glover and directed by Murai. Its his first TV series, and has become one of the fall's most anticipated new shows. It premieres tonight on FX, and we caught up with Murai to hear about how it all came together.
Have you reached a total state of calm, now that you’re this close to the premiere?
It’s slowed down a lot. We’re just about done with the season. We’re still buttoning some things up, but the storm has left. It’s a little calmer… it does feel very surreal to be putting out the show. We just had a premiere in Atlanta, where all the cast and crew got back together. It was at the aquarium.
This is your first time directing a TV series, but you’ve already made so many of our favorite music videos. Back when you were just starting out at USC film school, was it always music videos you were interested in?
No, I mean, I got into film school thinking I was going to make features, like every other film geek. Somewhere along the line I got very… I enjoyed some parts of the process, but I got… not disillusioned, but it’s a very stuffy environment, film school. Music videos were an outlet. They were the jobs most easily available to me, but creatively they’re also so free form, there are no rules whatsoever. I just gravitated towards it because it was so different from what we were doing in school, and what we were being taught about the film industry.
I imagine especially at USC there’s a lot of respect for the old guard and Hollywood. There’s a certain supernatural quality about music videos, especially yours—the trailers and teaser for Atlanta have hinted towards a similar rule-bending world. It’s not being presented as a real-world drama, is there any sort of supernatural element to the show?
Yeah, I think less so than what we’ve done in music videos, but there’s definitely an element of surreal-ness in the show. I think it’s really important the show feels grounded, and this is a real world we’re looking at. But there are hints of being elevated that I think will be fun to watch.
Did the music industry storyline come easily for you and Donald? Are these real, non-fiction stories you’re telling?
Obviously the rapper character is fictional, but Donald knows his way around the music industry really well, and all the writers are based out of Atlanta, so they know that scene really well. I think they had a lot of fun picking apart what’s trending right now, what the character’s supposed to be in comparison to what’s hot right now. I think the rapper character in the show is a throwback to old Gucci, or Jeezy when he first started. He’s less of showman, and he realizes when he talks real shit, people like it.
We had fun putting him in the New Atlanta scene, where he’s butting heads with that industry a little bit.
When you say New Atlanta, are you talking about Young Thug, Lil Yachty-type music, or the music everyone's been calling "trap?"
I think all of the above. There are just so many different pockets to that scene, but we wanted to approach it as someone who wasn’t born in that scene.
As for the production itself, how did Atlanta compare to L.A. or other locations?
I hadn’t spent a lot of time there before we started shooting, but as a production town it’s become a kind of a hot spot, because of the Marvel movies and all the big studio movies they’re shooting there. So the level of the crew is pretty high.
But as far as the location itself, I feel as though we were some of the only people to use Atlanta for Atlanta. Some of these big crews are shooting it to be Anywhere, USA. So we had a lot of fun shooting the eccentric quirks of the city, and finding the corners that hadn’t really been shot. I think you’ll feel that when you watch the show.
Did that stand in contrast to some of your music video work?
Music videos tend to be more scrappy, but this show as a comparison to everything else on TV is a pretty small-scale production. What we’re trying to do is still scrappy, and we like it that way. Less oversight, and we get to do our own thing.