How ‘Atlanta’ and ‘This Is America’ Director Hiro Murai Mashes Up Comedy and Horror

TheWrap Emmy magazine: “A lot of people who make films in my generation have the vocabulary of all the films they’ve seen before,” says the Emmy-nominated director of “Atlanta”

A version of this story about Hiro Murai first appeared in the Down to the Wire issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine.

You may have only just heard of him, but Hiro Murai is done talking.

The 35-year-old Los Angeles-based director is just now developing his first feature film, but in 2018 he’s already released two feverishly discussed pieces of pop culture: the “Teddy Perkins” episode of “Atlanta,” for which Murai is nominated for a directing Emmy, and the music video for Childish Gambino’s provocative “This Is America.”

They both demanded attention and were the subject of countless think pieces and YouTube dissections analyzing hidden symbols and allusions behind every frame. Murai initially weighed in on what it all meant, but there was so much to unpack that he eventually had to step back.

“I’m a firm believer in the idea that once we make a thing and release it, my turn to talk is done,” Murai said. “Ideally, you’re saying everything you want to say in the product you’re making and you don’t have to add commentary to it afterwards.”

The reference-heavy “Teddy Perkins” aired without commercials and hid the fact that a nearly unrecognizable Donald Glover played the title role — a creepy man with a ghostly pale, masklike face living in an old mansion with his brother, with whom he shares a musical past.

Murai dressed the episode with surreal, Gothic horror elements and made shout-outs to everything from Michael Jackson to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” to soft-boiled ostrich eggs.

“When we were making ‘Teddy Perkins,’ we were playing with a lot of horror tropes and things you might’ve seen in movies before, but we get the ability to subvert expectations or get a comedic element out of a horror moment,” Murai said. “A lot of people who make films in my generation have the vocabulary of all the films they’ve seen before. It’s never like an homage or a conscious tip of the hat. It’s just built into the storytelling vocabulary.”

“Teddy Perkins” was designed to work as a standalone, bottle episode of “Atlanta,” an “oddball,” as Murai put it. But he also places “Teddy Perkins” as part of the logical progression in “Atlanta’s” second season and the second act to a long film. It “isn’t just messing around,” Murai added.

That experimentation is what has kept Murai moving and his collaboration with Glover and the rest of the “Atlanta” cast and crew strong. He hasn’t made a first feature film just yet, but he has found a way to keep evolving as a filmmaker.

“What I think is great about the show, and why I feel it’s so personal is it’s really just a collage piece of all of our interests and how we’re reacting to the material,” Murai said.

“For me, that’s probably the most important thing. I get to keep experimenting and keep myself interested. Different mediums, different lengths, different distribution methods. For me, I don’t have a grand vision planned or an end goal, I’m just exploring what’s given to me at any given moment.”

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