The Images of Atlanta and Station Eleven: Inside the Worlds of Hiro Murai

It’s been quite an eventful few years for Hiro Murai. After transitioning 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 that he and cinematographer Christian Sprenger were initially preparing for in late 2019 and early 2020. First, they’d 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’d follow that up by heading to Europe to do the unthinkable and take Atlanta out of Atlanta. And then came the cruelest of twists: a real-life pandemic.

“Even without making Station Eleven, 2020 was such a strange, uncanny experience,” Murai admits. “We had finished [filming] both of our episodes and we were in the edit when COVID hit in the States. It’s such a strange thing because episode one, particularly, is about the outbreak and how people react, and we were getting fact-checked live on what would happen. Like, ‘Oh, the grocery stores aren’t going to be empty, they’re going to be packed, and people are going to be buying toilet paper, for some reason.’ But it also fortified our prompt and approach for the show: It is so much about our need for community and human connection, and those are all things that we viscerally felt as the pandemic spread.”

Murai’s Station Eleven premiere episode, “Wheel of Fire,” often feels bleak and surreal, particularly when it premiered in December as the latest COVID surge got underway. But, aided by author Emily St. John Mandel’s material, Murai and company found hope in a dark place, believing that Station Eleven was not about the dead, but rather the survivors and the communities they formed.

Speaking of community, the COVID pandemic delayed Murai and Strenger’s return to their tight-knit Atlanta family. Murai first worked with Atlanta mastermind Donald Glover back in 2013 when he directed the multihyphenate’s short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons and “3005” music video. That partnership continued on future Childish Gambino projects, like the Grammy-winning visuals for “This Is America.” So when Glover got the chance to make his own series, he turned to Murai, who helmed 14 episodes across the show’s first two seasons; that included the striking series’ high-point “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 race in America to its unique storytelling and visual style. “I really didn’t know what we had because I started making television with Atlanta, and then I came to realize that is not the norm at all,” Murai says.

Maybe that’s why at times Atlanta season three felt like a collection of short films as opposed to a traditional season of TV. Four of the 10 installments were stand-alone stories that were essentially unconnected to the main Atlanta characters, and featured none of the usual starring cast, aside from a very brief Glover appearance in the premiere.

In taking us inside their distinctive worlds, Murai and Sprenger explain how they made dinner parties fun again, turned a dog into a human, and achieved “core Atlanta” with the help of Justin Bartha.

Courtesy of HBO Max

A Cold World

Station Eleven begins with a night at a Chicago theater that takes a deadly turn. When movie star turned stage actor Arthur Leander (Gael García Bernal) collapses, for some reason, Jeevan (Himesh Patel)—not a doctor—rushes up to help. But Arthur dies in front of both the audience and his costars, including young Kirsten (Matilda Lawler). Abandoned by her “child wrangler” in the chaos, Kirsten gets a walk home from Jeevan—a small good deed that becomes a life-changing commitment as a deadly flu pandemic begins to take hold.

“For us, a big part of the show was to see this viral pandemic happening from a very limited, street-level perspective,” Murai explains of this shot, in which Jeevan and Kirsten come across a 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 it to feel like they’re seeing a wounded animal in the wild. So, even though it’s a car, it’s lurching, and brushed up against this tree. It was an evocative moment that I thought was a good example of how we wanted to treat the experience of the show.”

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