Inside the surreal world of Hiro Murai

Hiro Murai’s dream-like vision has produced unforgettable imagery for artists including Childish Gambino and FKA twigs. Here, the filmmaker discusses the joys of collaboration, exploring the realm of television with the series Atlanta, and why This is America is an anomaly in music videos

There’s a certain kind of magic that oozes from Hiro Murai’s work. Whether directing striking music videos for artists FKA twigs and Mercury Prize-winner Michael Kiwanuka, or developing genre-bending TV series Atlanta – just one of his many projects with long-time collaborator Donald Glover – Murai infuses everything with his unique brand of surrealism, earning him a reputation as one of Hollywood’s most in-demand filmmakers.

Born in Tokyo, Murai’s family upped sticks for Los Angeles when he was nine years old. The experience clearly influenced his decision to get into filmmaking but, the director says, he always felt like he was destined to do something creative. “Even when I was in Japan, I was always a visual kid. I liked to draw. For a long time, I thought I wanted to be an architect or an illustrator or something, so it just kind of mutated when I moved out here. I’m sure a big part of it was just being around people in LA; it’s a very industry-based town and there are a lot of people who make movies for a living, so there’s something about it that made it feel a little more real, a little more tactile,” he adds.

In high school, Murai took on the identity of the film nerd and eventually ended up at the prestigious USC School of Cinematic Arts. Before he’d even graduated, he began working on music videos, after a friend who was working with Michel Gondry’s company commissioned him to do various camera operating and DP jobs. “I was getting very burnt out on overly ambitious film kids talking very pretentiously about filmmaking, and making music videos was kind of this escape,” Murai explains.

“I think part of the reason music videos stuck to me almost immediately is because, even when I was making short films in high school, I would often make the story around a piece of music, whether it was movie scores or just pieces of music that I liked. When you’re making short films for no money, it’s really hard to make anything with good sound, because it’s the last thing you can do, and so I would often write a whole thing around a piece of music. I think I got really good at reverse-engineering a piece of music and putting images around me, and so when I got into music videos it just felt like a really familiar language.”

After graduating, Murai continued freelancing on various music video projects, along with working as a storyboard artist on ABC game show Wipeout (the US version of Total Wipeout). In 2009, he got his first big break from Danielle Hinde – the founder of production company Doomsday Entertainment, who still represents the director for commercials and music videos today – when she gave him a couple of thousand dollars to direct the video for the Armand van Helden remix of Bloc Party track Signs. “I don’t think the band even knew we did that video, because it was like a remix that none of them were in,” says Murai.

Top: Hiro Murai’s 2018 promo for Childish Gambino track This is America has gained cult status for its sharp critique of the country’s systemic racism; Above: Still from Amazon Prime’s 2019 musical film, Guava Island, starring Donald Glover alongside Rihanna

Despite his humble words about the project, things began to gain momentum for Murai from that point onwards. He has since created the visuals for Frank Ocean’s Grammy performance of Forrest Gump, depicting the artist running down a two-lane highway; used choreography to electrifying effect on Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar’s Never Catch Me promo, which sees two children become the dancing dead at their own funeral service; and, most recently, sent FKA twigs flying around the streets of London in martial arts epic Sad Day.

“It felt like a very crazy gift,” says Murai of his latest project, which he co-conceived with FKA twigs. “It felt like someone handed me the key to a sports car or something, where she’d been rehearsing Wushu for three years, and she had this skill but didn’t know what to put it in, so now it was my job to come up with a vessel for that three years of hard work.”

It’s impossible not to discuss Murai’s impact on the music video landscape without mentioning his internet-breaking promo for This is America by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s musical alter ego), which has racked up a mammoth 720 million-plus views on YouTube to date. Glover first approached Murai in 2013 after seeing his work with Earl Sweatshirt, commissioning him to shoot short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons to coincide with his 2013 album Because the Internet.

The duo have worked on a number of videos together since then, but when This is America dropped in 2018, it felt like the crescendo of their five-year collaboration. Touted as one of the biggest moments for music videos in recent history, the four-minute film transported viewers on a whistle-stop tour through the history of racism in America, from Jim Crow–era minstrel shows to the 2015 Charleston church massacre, to the country’s systemic problems with police brutality – a message that still rings true in the wake of the recent death of George Floyd.

I think I have to have very low expectations about the outcome and just enjoy the process for it to be good. I think when I’m hyper-aware of the outcome, it becomes very contrived

Murai didn’t see the impact it would have coming. “I think This is America was such a weird anomaly,” he reflects, two years on from the furore that surrounded the video’s release. “I certainly didn’t expect it to become what it became. In a way, it’s counter-productive to make something from that place, or have an expectation about how it’ll connect with people, or not connect with people. I think I have to have very low expectations about the outcome and just enjoy the process for it to be good. I think when I’m hyper-aware of the outcome, it becomes very contrived, or it feels dishonest.”

In the post-MTV era, where even videos by big name artists often struggle to cobble together a decent budget, the chances of creating a This is America moment are helped by a close creative relationship like that of Glover and Murai. “I think by nature, music videos make you really good at collaboration, just because, no matter what, 50% of the end product is the music,” says the director. “When you find the right creative partner, it’s a really rewarding experience building something together. It’s just inherently bigger than yourself, and it becomes like a game of hot potato. Every time the potato comes back, it’s better than you’d initially seen it, you know?”

Murai’s music video work also set him up for his recent move into the realm of film and TV, with FX’s Glover-conceived comedy-drama series Atlanta, as well as Amazon Prime’s Guava Island, also created by and starring Glover alongside Rihanna, and black comedy HBO series Barry.

“Obviously, TV and narrative filmmaking is very different from music videos because you’re not attaching images to a singular spine that goes through the whole piece, but I do think I learned something about what a shape of a story should look like,” says Murai. “A good piece of music has an emotional ebb and flow and then a conclusion at the end, and I think in a way all good stories are kind of built in the same way.”

Still from season one of Atlanta, the FX series conceived by Donald Glover, which Murai both directs and executive produces

Atlanta, in particular, feels like a natural extension of Murai and Glover’s carefully curated musical aesthetic. Set against the backdrop of daily life in Atlanta, and focusing on the story of struggling rapper Paper Boi, his cousin-manager Earn (played by Glover) and their friend Darius, the series couldn’t feel further away from your typical half-hour American sitcom.

Instead, each episode unfolds according to its own set of rules, with one-off storylines featuring everything from the cult of Black Justin Bieber to the horror film-style Teddy Perkins episode in series two, in which Darius picks up a piano at the mansion of an ageing, reclusive, Michael Jackson-esque celebrity, played by Glover in whiteface. “Because we had been working on a tone together, we knew the tone of the show should be a carryover from that, a blending of the surrealism and the comedy and the deadpan delivery of scenes,” says Murai.

I think that’s one of the first things we connected on, even though we’ve never explicitly talked about it, the feeling of a dream or dream logic

“Obviously, I’d never done TV at that point, so it took a lot of convincing on [FX’s] part to let me do it, because to them I’m just Donald’s buddy, not a TV director. Thank God he had a clarity of vision and was very persuasive, so he got me in the door. I think because we didn’t know any better, we learned our own way of doing things, which I think begot a certain unique result.”

The freedom afforded to them with Atlanta has also allowed Glover and Murai the opportunity to experiment with one of their shared sources of fascination: dreaming. “I think that’s one of the first things we connected on, even though we’ve never explicitly talked about it, the feeling of a dream or dream logic,” says Murai. “I don’t know why, I’m sure a therapist could tell me why that’s so interesting to us, but there is something about that jarring [feeling of], ‘Oh, is this real?’ or ‘Is the world the way I thought it was?’”

Still from Atlanta directed by Hiro Murai

“Atlanta is sort of built around that feeling, and it’s got different thematic framing devices for that feeling, whether it’s being a young Black man in a society that’s built around systemic racism, and the disconnect of being in that world, or even just depression or grief, but I think that feeling is the common thread through all the episodes,” he adds.

Whether in his music video work, or more recently with Atlanta, Murai’s enduring infatuation with dream logic and surrealism has enabled him to push the boundaries of what storytelling can – and should – look like. “I think on a TV show, usually you go, this is the look of the show, this is how you cover dialogue seen through characters on the show, this is the main set that we come back to every episode. We really don’t have any of that [on Atlanta],” he says.

“I think it’d be really boring, for us anyway, if you had to format it like a classic sitcom, and everything was set and we just had to run the scripts through it. There’s something really stimulating about the way the show is structured, where every episode is different and we change the filmmaking to fit around what we’re trying to do with it.”