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.”