SWARM Showrunner Janine Nabers on the Twisted Inspiration for This Obsessive Fan Tale

March is full of buzzing and it is not just because of Yellowjackets season two. Creative geniuses Donald Glover and Janine Nabers are delivering something deliciously sinister, sweet, and strange to Prime Video with Swarm. This series follows Dre, an obsessive fan of a Beyoncé-esque pop star whose love for her fave leads down a dark and bloody road. It’s the type of series that strikes a cultural nerve in a time where overzealous fandom is the wave. Nerdist caught up with Swarm showrunner/co-creator/executive producer Janine Nabers to chat about Black women antiheroes, working with Malia Obama, and the films that inspire this twisted tale. 

Nerdist: How did you partner with Donald Glover to come up with Swarm‘s concept?

Janine Nabers: Well, I wrote on season three and four of Atlanta… COVID hit during that period, so we had a whole extra year of getting to know each other. And during season four of Atlanta, which was virtual, he approached me with the idea of a [show about] a Black woman obsessed with a pop star. And we ran with it for maybe six months before we really solidified the story, and then pitched it to Amazon.

Awesome! And now it’s here and already causing a buzz with that wild trailer. Dre is such an intriguing character, especially in horror thriller space because we don’t get this specific vein of Black woman antihero too often. Tell me about how you developed her character and why Dominique Fishback was the right choice to portray her. 

Nabers: Yeah. We sat down to really create a Black woman antihero because that space is often reserved for white men in these really compelling and interesting and complicated stories. So why not do that for a Black woman as well? I say all the time that [Swarm’s] pilot is the origin story of a villain. This is someone who is not always the most reliable narrator of the story. Sometimes we think we know exactly what she’s going to do, and then she does the exact opposite…

And so that I think was always part of the very beautiful challenge of writing this particular story. And Dominique Fishback, I think she’s one of the greatest actresses of our time. I think that she really just really gave herself into this role. And she does an incredible job. And I’m really, really excited for everyone to see what she’s capable of because it’s pretty tremendous.

a woman in a nice house with marble floors mops up blood in swarm teaser trailer
Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

She is truly a force. There’s also interesting talent behind the scenes, specifically Malia Obama as a writer. What was it like working with her?

Nabers: Malia had some really wild, incredible pitches. And she’s a visual storyteller. This is very much like a cinephile’s dream of a TV show because everything’s shot on film. We pulled from so many different films as inspiration. And [Malia is] a little bit of a Wikipedia page when it comes to movies, so she knows so much. We had a great time. We really became a family unit. And we’re all just so happy that this show got made, and we’re really happy for the world to see it.

You mentioned that there are several films that inspire this story. What are they, specifically? 

Nabers: [There’s] Under the Skin with Scarlett Johansson, this movie where she’s an alien in the world and people are just constantly trying to project their own humanity onto her. That was something that we had Dominique watch. We talked a lot about Michael Haneke films, The Piano Teacher being one of them. It’s a very, very just subversive, strange French film. You follow the quiet life of a woman whom you think you know well, and then she just does some of the most outlandish, crazy stuff…

And that was really important to us. We watched a lot of the Criterion Collection. And as Black people, we really wanted to make our own Criterion film with this show. It’s seven half hour episodes, all very, very, very different, and shot on film. And this is a “director’s show” in a lot of ways, similar to the movies I just mentioned. Very much director-driven, just very poetic, avant-garde movies. 

photo of a person standing in front of a fire in janine nabers series swarm
Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

Love that! There’s definitely going to be a lot of conversation about Swarm and how it fits into the context of today’s society. But, from an inspirational perspective, what do you hope this show will incite?

Nabers: I think it [will encourage] people who are torn at making weird off-the-wall stuff. We really want people to just make cool shit. And we really want Black people to tell stories that are outside of the realm of expectations that people have placed on us with the stories that they think that we should tell as Black people… If this show is the catalyst for other weirdo Black shows being made, then we did our job well!

Swarm hits Prime Video on March 17.

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