Swarm may be a limited series, but the 7-part horror-thriller from creators Janine Nabers and Donald Glover certainly isn’t lacking in scope or ambition.
The show follows Dre, a young woman (Dominique Fishback), on a rampage after the death of her best friend (Chloe Bailey). ‘Dre’s crimes and her passion for fictional pop star Ni’jah, shield her from the depth of her grief. Each episode finds ‘Dre in a new place, surrounded by new people, adding to ‘Dre (and the viewer’s) disorientation. As production designer Sara K White says, “No location ever showed up in two different episodes.”
Here in an interview with Awards Daily, White details the work that went into Swarm‘s expansive world-building and how the production design mirrored ‘Dre’s broken psyche.
Awards Daily: Sara, I have to tell you, I started writing down different locations that I wanted to talk to you about. And then I got overwhelmed. So, I can’t imagine how you felt having to do all these designs. Can you tell me a little about the sheer volume of different locations and elements that went into Swarm’s production design?
Sara K White: Yeah, I mean, that really was our challenge. We went to multiple locations in every episode; we were in different towns, in different states in every episode, in different eras. And it was quite the challenge because nothing repeated; no location ever showed up in two different episodes. So we were moving very fast. It was a massive load on our set decoration team, especially. I worked with my art director, Julia Jenko, and the locations manager to ensure that every location we went into gave us enough of a base to develop the characters and stay in a consistent theme with the visual look we’d created for the show.
We were probably looking at around 20 distinct sets per episode. Sometimes that would be just different parts of the single location, like in the episode where ‘Dre goes back to see her foster parents, the majority of that location was a single house, but we designed every room that we were redressing to evoke the era of her childhood, and we had to make that the location was ready for some pretty extreme stunt work. So even in a single location episode, there was a high turnover and change in the sets. We did have those in advance for the first few episodes, but we shot the first episode in L.A. Then the remainder of the shoot, we moved to Atlanta, so everything that we created, including L.A. for episode three, was actually shot in Atlanta, so we always shot in a place that was not where we were. And we only had about two weeks from when we got the scripts when we began shooting. For some of those locations, we had to prep, shoot, and wrap the same day; that wasn’t unusual. I think the most time we ever got for a single location was four or five days—for both the compound in episode four and the house in episode five. So otherwise, it was single-day dressings. We just had to be extremely coordinated to make sure that everything got done in time. Honestly, our show was so ambitious. Everything we made had some blood, sweat, and tears in it. I’m so proud of my collaboration and my team.
AD: How did you react when you read the script, saw the twists and turns, and knew you had to bring the audience along to these distinct places?
SKW: I really loved the characters. I only had the first episode when I interviewed, so I was drawn into who ‘Dre was and her backstory. And I thought she was just such a unique character, someone we hadn’t seen. Her journey around fandom and the parasocial relationships that she had were things that very much intrigued me. From an intellectual standpoint, it’s stuff that I’ve thought about quite a bit on my own. I’m not heavily invested in a fandom. And I don’t really follow influencers; that’s not the world that I exist in. So, I’m endlessly fascinated by it. The chance to investigate and interrogate it with this show was really exciting. And I was also able to do a bit of genre work that I hadn’t been able to do before. I hadn’t really been able to get into a horror thriller in this way. I was excited to play with that and get to explore that with the team.
AD: I’m assuming there were certain stars who heavily inspired Ni’jah. How did you visualize that star power and ‘Dre’s strong attachment to her?
SKW: Yeah, we tried to make sure that our pop star was as ubiquitous as they would need to be in the world if they were a major driver of pop culture. So, making sure that even in the background of scenes, where it’s not specifically about the pop star, we were constantly seeing their influence over pop culture. We made movie posters and posters for tours that we didn’t ultimately see; we made covers of CDs and posters for the bands that our pop star was a part of before they became a solo artist—all of that was filtered into the background of the scenes and a lot of places just to keep the idea alive that this is a person that everyone knows about, and everyone has an opinion on. Building that with my graphics team was really fun; going back into the history of pop in the 90s was a really fun thing to get into. I remember growing up with many of those stars, and the look of their clothing, the color palettes used in the music videos, and the extravagant sets used at that time—all of these were things that we enjoyed getting into and thinking about.
AD: I’m from Houston, and I loved seeing how the city was depicted in the pilot. Tell me about recreating Houston and “setting the scene” with ‘Dre’s apartment. What does that space tell us about who she is and what’s to come?
SKW: Yeah, it was a really exciting one to get into. I spent a lot of time researching; we wanted to do our due diligence. We did a lot of research on the 3rd Ward in Houston, where I’d never been. I spent a lot of time looking at apartment listings and walking around Google Street View to get a sense of the neighborhood. If you spend enough time, you can find people standing in line at a burger joint, riding their bikes, or putting out their trash, and I loved seeing how people interacted with their neighborhood. Our showrunner, Janine Nabers, is from Houston, so she also helped guide us. We separated the interior and exterior spaces to get the best look. On the interior, we wanted a long hall to give us a bit of tension, introducing the idea of ‘Dre “stalking her prey.” And then, we prioritized frame-in-frame opportunities and a space that gave us good movement for characters and the camera. I was really happy with the layout of the place.
To decorate their space, we grounded our decisions in how they made their money and their different directions in life. Marissa is stable, confident, and goal-oriented. She has a mini-makeup studio set up in her bedroom; she’s more on-trend and organized. ‘Dre has a sort of arrested development; she doesn’t have momentum and still relies on elements of comfort from her childhood. The toys in her room are the only things other than her shrines to Ni’jah. Marissa pulled together their shared space with little help from ‘Dre, but she recently stopped. She was painting a wall in the living room but only got halfway through because she was not sure there was a point. Are they going to keep living together? Elsewhere, we aged the walls and ceiling and added vintage peeling wallpaper in the bathroom, complete with water stains, so it felt like they were barely scraping by and had nowhere to go but up.
AD: What other set(s) did you find the most challenging?
SKW: The Sweat Lodge for Episode 4 was a big task. Originally the scene was scripted for a different kind of location, but because we were shooting in Atlanta, not Tennessee, we had to adjust. We wanted the scene to force intimacy among the participants and put ‘Dre in a position of physical vulnerability. The wellness cult had already appropriated a lot of other cultures’ rituals, so creating a sweat lodge seemed like a natural next step. Of course, we had to re-conceive it as a “luxury” experience, so the space was expanded, an oculus was added, and the materials and decor were completely performative. Where the structure would have used young saplings for support, we made a geometrically precise armature that was aged and wrapped in leather to “hide the artifice.” We used canvas as the skin of the lodge, which spoke to that “glamping” vibe and gave us a beautiful soft glow when lit from the outside.
The project was an all-hands-on-deck experience, with my art director, working very closely with the construction and scenic team to build it in situ in an active grazing field. Precisely wrapping it in canvas so seams were hidden and the material held fast while still being removable for camera angles was a considerable challenge, but Julia was not afraid to get her hands dirty in getting it right. Because of the quick pivot, gathering all the pillows, hides, and horns to fill it out was not easy. I have so much respect for my decorator, Laura Belle Wallgren, and her whole team for turning on a dime to make this set happen. I loved what it gave to the scene and the progression of ‘Dre in that episode.
AD: You mentioned that you’re not a member of any fandoms. How has working on Swarm changed your view of pop culture and parasocial relationships?
SKW: Paradoxically, the earnestness of ‘Dre’s love of Ni’jah, however unhinged, made me a little envious. The ability to fall so deeply in love with someone, or even just the concept of someone, at its best, means loving that entity no matter their faults. In life and work, I think a lot about people’s complexity. I don’t want to reduce characters. I try to make their spaces reflect their many facets, like in Tonk’s house. In some ways, pure acceptance in spite of complexity can help create a more understanding world, and that’s undeniably good. But it’s a double-edged sword, as love often comes with a side of hate. You have to protect that love. I keep a pretty wide berth between appreciation of talent and my emotions, so I don’t let myself go all in when thinking about something like, say, a politician, a corporation, or a blockchain enthusiast, where it’s dangerous to lose your rationality. But I also don’t let my emotions take over with something like the Swarm, which, outside of ‘Dre, could be a lovely place of community and joy. I definitely think about how I might be missing out on some of that happiness.
Swarm is streaming now on Prime Video.