“Atlanta” creator Donald Glover has often flirted with surrealistic horror on his Emmy-winning FX series. But with his bold, new limited series “Swarm” on Amazon’s Prime Video, he and cocreator Janine Nabers found a new way to depict the modern Black experience through genre storytelling.
Following a pop idol-obsessed fangirl named Dre (a remarkable Dominique Fishback), “Swarm” dramatizes her slow descent into homicidal madness — and the thriller’s production designer Sara K White was on hand to help bring this deeply original look at a troubled mind to life.
“Seeing this character, even written on the page, was so exciting because you just don’t get the opportunity to showcase a young Black woman in a really challenging place like this,” White, no stranger to telling stories about complex women with TV credits like “The Flight Attendant” and “Mrs. Fletcher,” said. “The audience is invited to watch someone who could be a really difficult personality to watch. What was especially engaging to me was that she wasn’t just straight evil.”
Dre’s descent is told over the course of seven episodes, which unfold like mini-movies, beginning with her crumbling inner-city apartment with her foster sister (Chloe Bailey) and ending with her finally meeting her idol Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown). The structure proved a challenge for White and her team, as the series covers both cramped and expansive environs while also switching from celluloid to digital formats. The latter comes in a deliciously funny episode that apes a true-crime doc format, following a no-nonsense detective (Heather Alicia Simms) on the verge of cracking Dre’s murder streak.
“They were shot pretty much in sequence because they were so individual, and we didn’t have any recurring sets,” White said. She added that she found it vital to explore Dre’s humble roots and trash-strewn apartment early on in the shoot; those scenes were filmed in Los Angeles before production headed to Atlanta, which subs for Houston in the series.
Working on film was also a highlight. “It’s been so long since I had worked with film,” White said. “It gives such a beauty and richness.” Film was especially vital in capturing the colors of “Swarm” — not the least of which being that rich, blood red.
“The reds that you get in digital can always burn out, and working with something that has so much blood in a medium that is so generous to those colors was immediately exciting,” White said of designing with a film shoot in mind.
“Swarm” is also notable from a design standpoint in the ways its décor messages its tone, a kind of Grand Guignol-meets-“Scream”-like self-awareness. This stands particularly true in the series’ fourth episode, which finds Dre taken in by a sunny, cult-like group of women headed for Bonnaroo and led by a character played by real-life pop idol Billie Eilish.
“The ways that different cultures are co-opted [in that story] is on the absurdist side, how they’re using the sweat lodge and the tea ceremony,” White explained. “We really leaned on 1940s mental hospitals in order to create the look of her bedroom [and] to create a little bit of foreboding.”
One of White’s biggest set pieces is also one of the most deceptive: creating the concert where Dre finally gets a one-on-one with Ni’Jah after murdering a ticket scalper. “We were definitely doing some designs on a dime,” White said, laughing. The stage we see onscreen is smaller than meets the eye, running only as wide as they needed for the dancers to get on camera.
“A lot of what we do as production designers is really about getting to the subconscious of the audience,” White said. “So, if we can use something that’s pretty cheap to give an effect that feels a little bit more expansive, that’s what we’re going to do. We had standard scaffolding with lights hitting off of it, and [we] selected the pieces that were the shiniest in order to put them towards the front or the stage so that when all of the lights moved around and hit them, they gave a little bit of life to create the space.”
When all is said and done, the real test might have been how much the “Swarm” team could accomplish without a hemoglobin eruption taking place. Said White: “We did a lot to protect our locations from blood — that was really important to us. Because otherwise, we would have been refinishing a lot of beautiful floors that we couldn’t afford to do.”
“Swarm” is now streaming on Amazon’s Prime Video.