The past few years have been eventful for Hiro Murai. After transitioning from directing music videos to directing for television, he found immediate critical acclaim as an Emmy-nominated producer-director on Atlanta and a guest director on Barry, Legion, and Snowfall. But nothing could have prepared him for the back-to-back challenges that he and the cinematographer Christian Sprenger were initially gearing up in late 2019 and early 2020. First, they would be responsible for launching HBO Max’s limited series adaptation of the hit novel. Station Eleven, which follows a group of survivors of a catastrophic pandemic. They would follow this by going to Europe to do the unthinkable and take Atlanta out of Atlanta. And then came the cruellest twist: a real pandemic.
“Even without doing station eleven, 2020 has been such a weird and unsettling experience,” admits Murai. “We were done [filming] our two episodes and we were in the edit when COVID hit the US. It’s such a weird thing because episode one, in particular, is about the outbreak and how people are reacting, and we were live-checked on what would happen. Like, ‘Oh, the grocery stores aren’t going to be empty, they’re going to be full, and people are going to be buying toilet paper, for some reason.’ But it also reinforced our readiness and our approach to the show: it’s so much about our need for community and human connection, and those are all things we’ve felt viscerally as the pandemic has spread.
Murai’s station eleven first episode, “Wheel of Fire”, often feels dark and surreal, especially when it premiered in December as the latest wave of COVID has begun. But, helped by the author Emily St. John MandelMurai and company found hope in a dark place, believing that station eleven was not about the dead, but rather about the survivors and the communities they formed.
Speaking of community, the COVID pandemic has delayed Murai and Strenger’s return to their close bond. Atlanta family. Murai first worked with Atlanta brain Donald Glover in 2013 when he directed the multihyphenate short film Applauding for the wrong reasons and the “3005” music video. This partnership continued on Childish Gambino’s future projects, such as the Grammy-winning visuals for “This Is America.” So when Glover got the chance to create his own series, he turned to Murai, who helmed 14 episodes in the show’s first two seasons. which included the hit series climax “Teddy Perkins,” for which Murai earned an Emmy nomination, while Strenger won the Emmy for Cinematography. For many Atlanta changed the television game, from the way it explores race in America to its unique narrative and visual style. “I really didn’t know what we had because I started doing TV with Atlanta, and then I realized that was not the norm at all,” says Murai.
Maybe that’s why sometimes Atlanta season three felt like a collection of shorts as opposed to a traditional television season. Four of the 10 installments were standalone stories that were essentially unrelated to the main Atlanta characters, and didn’t feature any of the usual main cast, other than a very brief appearance by Glover in the premiere.
Taking us into their separate worlds, Murai and Sprenger talk about how they made dinner parties fun again, turned a dog into a human, and reached for “the heart.” Atlanta” with the help of Justin Barta.
A cold world
station eleven begins with a night at a Chicago theater that takes a deadly turn. When movie star became theater actor Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal) collapses, for some reason, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) – not a doctor – rushes to help. But Arthur dies in front of the public and in front of his partners, including young Kirsten (Mathilde Lawler). Abandoned by her “wrestling child” in the chaos, Kirsten walks home from Jeevan – a small good deed that becomes a life-changing commitment as a deadly flu pandemic begins to take hold.
“A big part of the show for us was seeing this viral pandemic happen from a very limited, street-level perspective,” Murai says of the shot, in which Jeevan and Kirsten meet a girl. car idling after hitting a tree. “This is the first time Jeevan has really seen the effects of the pandemic in real life. And the way Christian lit and staged it, we wanted them to feel like they were seeing an injured animal in nature. So even though it’s a car, it swerves and brushes against that tree. It was an evocative moment that I think was a good example of how we wanted to treat the experience of the spectacle.