It was a few eventful years before Hiro Murai. After making the transition from directing music videos to directing for television, he found immediate critical success 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 he and cameraman faced Christian Sprenger were initially preparing for late 2019 and early 2020. First, they would be responsible for kick-starting HBO Max’s limited-series adaptation of the best-selling novel. station eleven, which follows a group of survivors of a catastrophic pandemic. They would follow that up by going to Europe to do the unthinkable and… Atlanta from Atlanta. And then came the cruelest twist: a real pandemic.
“Even without making Station Eleven, 2020 was such a strange, creepy experience,” admits Murai. “We were ready [filming] both our episodes and we were in the montage when COVID hit the United States. It’s so strange because especially episode one is about the outbreak and how people are reacting, and we were monitored live for what was going to happen. Like, “Oh, the supermarkets won’t be empty, they’ll be full and people will buy toilet paper for some reason.” But it also bolstered our speed and approach to the show: it’s so much about our need for community and human connection, and those are all things we felt visceral as the pandemic spread.”
Murai’s Eleven Station premiere episode, “Wheel of Fire,” often feels bleak and surreal, especially when it premiered in December as the latest COVID wave got underway. But, helped by author Emily St. John Mandel‘s material, Murai and his company found hope in a dark place, believing that Eleven Station was not about the dead, but about the survivors and the communities they formed.
Speaking of community, the COVID pandemic 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 short film of the multihyphenate Clap for the wrong reasons and “3005” music video. That collaboration continued in future Childish Gambino 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 directed 14 episodes in the show’s first two seasons; including the standout series’ standout ‘Teddy Perkins’, for which Murai earned an Emmy nomination, while Strenger won the Emmy for cinematography. For many Atlanta has been a TV game changer, from the way it explores racing in America to its unique storytelling and visual style. “I really didn’t know what we had because I started doing television with” Atlanta, and then I realized that’s not the norm at all,” says Murai.
Maybe that’s why sometimes Atlanta season three felt like a collection of short films as opposed to a traditional TV season. Four of the 10 episodes were standalone stories that were essentially unrelated to the main story Atlanta characters, and had none of the usual lead characters, apart from a very brief Glover appearance in the premiere.
Taking us inside their distinctive worlds, Murai and Sprenger explain how they made dinner parties fun again, turned a dog into a human, and “core Atlanta” with help of Justin Bartha.
A cold world
Eleven Station begins with a night at a Chicago theater that takes a deadly turn. When movie star became stage actor Arthur Leander (Gael Garcia Bernal) pours, for some reason, Jeevan (Himesh Patel) – no doctor – rushes to help. But Arthur dies in front of both the audience and his fellow actors, including the young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler† In the chaos left by her ‘child warrior’, Kirsten gets a walk home from Jeevan – a small deed that turns into a life-changing union when a deadly flu pandemic begins to strike.
“For us, a big part of the show was seeing this viral pandemic happen from a very narrow street-level perspective,” explains Murai of this recording, in which Jeevan and Kirsten encounter a car idling after hitting a tree. “This is the first time Jeevan has actually seen the effects of the pandemic in real life. And the way Christian lit and staged it, we wanted it to feel like they’re seeing a wounded animal in the wild. So even though it’s a car, it swings and hits this tree. It was an evocative moment that I thought was a great example of how we wanted to treat the experience of the show.”