Making a television series or film that is based on an original idea in this day and age is bold, brave, and admirable.
Janine Nabers teamed up with Donald Glover to bring to life Prime Video’s newest show, Swarm. After collaborating on FX’s hit show Atlanta for two years, they decided to bring viewers a story so unique, it will force you to stop whatever you’re doing to pay attention as soon as you hit play. There are strong similarities between the two shows. As Nabers tells Complex, they thought of this new series as a sister show to Atlanta and they even brought on some of the hit show’s writers to help tell this new story.
Both shows use music and the music industry to tell a bigger story about common, everyday people. But at the root of it, the central relationships in both shows are between two family members. While cousins Earn (Donald Glover) and Al (Brian Tyree Henry) were the two forces we followed throughout four seasons of Atlanta, in Swarm, the story follows two sisters Dre (Dominique Fishback) and Marissa (Chloë Bailey).
On the surface, the show is about Dre’s undying obsession with a pop icon named Ni’Jah, a Beyoncé-like figure she idolizes excessively. While fans might think that the show is a criticism or making fun of fandoms like the Beyhive, it is actually much more than that. But either way, Nabers and the team don’t seem to mind that the trailer alone was enough to elicit strong reactions from people. “People are always going to kind of intellectualize and try to find some sort of meaning in a story, especially when there are iconic images or ideas at play,” Nabers tells Complex in regard to people’s comments. “We welcome all of them. We’re down to clown, and we’re just happy it’s making some noise.”
While music is a major component in Swarm, it also evolves into an examination of sisterhood, grief, and what obsession can become if not properly controlled. The show drops on Prime Video on Friday, March 17, and Complex briefly caught up with Nabers to talk about the inspiration for the show, Dre and Marissa’s relationship, and all that went into the creation of Dre.
There are some familiar names from Atlanta in the Swarm writing credits. Can you talk about reuniting with this team to create this new show?
Well, Donald and I started talking about Swarm when Season 4 of Atlanta was being broken during the pandemic in 2020. So it was very natural that in that kind of headspace, it was one of those things where I was really like, “I want to bring some writers from Atlanta.” I thought it would be really great to kind of live in this bubble because we all know each other well. We have a shorthand, we know the stories that we’re capable of telling together, and it just felt very organic and nice. And I think this feels like an evolution from Atlanta in a really nice way.
We often talked about [Swarm] being a sister to Atlanta in the sense that it has this kind of music component. You have this, the story of sisters, even though it’s a totally different tone, it still has this, it still has a little bit of that presence of, I think the strangeness of Atlanta, but just pushed to an extreme.
When the trailer dropped, I immediately went to the comments to see what people were going to say. Have you seen the reactions? I already saw some from the Beyhive saying “Oh, they’re throwing shade at us,” or “They’re making fun of us.”
Yeah, I mean I think people are always going to kind of intellectualize and try to find some sort of meaning and meaning in a story, especially when there are iconic images or ideas at play. I think for Donald and I, it was really about just allowing Black people to be settled in, “What is the feeling that this woman is supposed to give us?” And so that familiar feeling, obviously people are going to project whoever they want onto that image and feeling, but it’s really for us to understand. We made this character.
She is our own creation, this character that Dre is obsessed with. So how can we really allow people to understand how epic this woman is, and how much she means to just Black people in general? And so that comment, we welcome all of them. We’re down to clown, and we’re just happy it’s making some noise.
Dre, from the second we meet her, she’s someone that at some point we can relate to. Can you talk about bringing that character to life and working with Dominique to make it happen?
When we ended up casting Dominique, it was very much, that this woman is an alien in her own world. She’s a fly on the wall in her own world. She’s invisible to some people. People don’t look at her and see her for who she really is. And that is then through her journey, through the pilot, she’s kind of reborn into this thing that she’s always been that’s maybe been dormant. And the title of the pilot is “Stung.” It feels like she is then, that’s a reaction that she has that then sends her on this journey.
We gave [Dominique] all of the scripts, and she really sat with it and melted and shifted into this character. And I’m not an actor, but Donald is, and he directed the pilot, and I think the two of them really worked together to craft just the physicality. And you see her in the pilot, she hides behind her hair a little bit. She has this very innocent way of being seen. And then we see that kind of shift and growth throughout the course of this series, which takes place over two and a half years.
We don’t really talk about how obsession translates to other aspects of people’s lives. Can you talk about Dre’s relationship with Marissa and wanting to use that as the root of her, as you said, transformation?
So I think that there’s something to that relationship that is really, that’s her family, that’s the person who just sees her in a way and doesn’t really judge her. And I think that that, we enter this story from the perspective of Dre, but we also see the empathy that Marissa has for her sister in a really lovely way. And I think that that is the thing that really kind of allows us to feel for her at times. And it kind of keeps us going throughout the series, too.
That empathy that Marissa shows for Dre and being honest with her about [the obsession with Ni’Jah] getting too much. How were you able to capture Marissa’s concern for Dre, but also her wanting to find her own way?
I think when you look at Atlanta and you look at the relationship between Al and Earn, I think that there are just a lot of things that are unsaid between them. And I think we really wanted to find the female counterpart to that. Obviously, this is a much darker and much more extreme story, but the female counterpoint of “family first,” and understanding, but not always understanding, but still having this kind of unspoken kinship for sure, so that was really important to us.
Can you talk about exploring more of those darker themes and the horror side of the show?
Yeah. Well, that’s kind of the headspace that I’ve always lived in as a storyteller. That’s where my plays have lived, that’s where I think some of the stuff that I’ve written in TV has lived. And I think working on Atlanta for two years, Donald saw that, which is why we kind of got together to tell this really, I think off-the-wall, outside-of-the-box story about a woman’s obsession and her drive.