clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Like Swarm? The showrunner wants you to watch these movies and shows

The mood is based more on these things, and less on true events

Dre (Dominique Fishback) looking startled and bloody as she shovels pie into her mouth Photo: Warrick Page/Prime Video

There are certain influences on Swarm, the new Prime Video show from Janine Nabers and Donald Glover, that are quite obvious. Both of them wrote for Atlanta, which Glover co-created. And of course there’s the Beyoncé of it all, with Swarm following Dre (played by Dominique Fishback), whose life and obsession with a Beyoncé-like pop star (Ni’Jah, in the world of the show) takes a dark turn.

But the list doesn’t stop there. “We watched a lot of movies. We had a lot of film fans in our writers room. We all have subscriptions to the Criterion Collection. So we were just watching a lot,” Nabers tells Polygon, saying she and Glover watched everything from documentaries to features to “so, so, so, so” much more, “just to think outside the box of the way we see TV right now.”

Considering the level of detail Nabers and her crew put into even a visual album we’d only see for a few seconds on screen, it’s worth unpacking the wealth or influences (cited or not) that you can see on screen in Swarm.

The Piano Teacher

Dre (Dominique Fishback) mopping up blood Photo: Quantrell D. Colbert/Prime Video

Nabers says she and Glover are both really big fans of Michael Haneke, citing Caché as one of her favorite films (and, indeed, it’s pretty clear to see the similarities between that movie’s poster and Swarm’s). But for Swarm, Nabers said she pulled more from The Piano Teacher, “one of the wildest journeys I’ve ever gone on in terms of just as a viewer.”

“You’re watching a woman who you’re just completely mesmerized by, but also terrified by. And I think just that feeling of I’m leaning into something, but I just don’t know what I’m gonna get, and just having that feeling kind of be reshaped in every single episode that we watch with this character, was definitely something that was very important to us when telling this story.”

The Piano Teacher is streaming on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel. Caché is available for digital rental or purchase on Amazon, Apple TV, Google Play, and YouTube.

Under the Skin

An obsidian black alien with no features peels back her fake woman skin in the woods in Under the Skin Image: A24

Another easy comparison for the sometimes grounded and eerie tone of Swarm, 2013 sci-fi Under the Skin from Jonathan Glazer could fit right into much of the world of the show. If you’ve only made it to episode 2, it’s easy to see how Swarm lets Dre use her sexuality in a way not unlike Scarlett Johansson’s Laura (though she’s less successful as a lure than they are, at least when she’s working in a strip club). But Nabers says the connection between them is deeper than that.

“In a way, she’s like, putting on different skins to see what fits. And I think Dre does that a lot as well. We kind of see her in so many different shades of a woman in the show,” Nabers says. “I think in terms of Under the Skin — this woman is actually an alien in Under the Skin, and just, like, looking at how we really want to project humanity onto her even though she isn’t human, and that need to always try to do that with every scene that she’s in.

“And there’s something about the alienness of Dre and us kind of doing the same thing with her in a lot of ways and her reaction to things that you think would be one way being drastically different.”

Under the Skin is available to stream on HBO Max, or for free with a library card on Kanopy.

Don’t Fuck With Cats

“That documentary, like, just completely blew our minds,” Nabers says. “That to me is just the idea of how social media kind of played a huge point in the storytelling, and the puzzle of that documentary, and how the pieces kind of fell together. All of that was really real food for thought for us.”

Don’t Fuck With Cats is available to stream on Netflix.

The works of Bret Easton Ellis

Bret Easton Ellis, with all his wild pulp and circumstance, is another influence on Nabers for Swarm. She cites American Psycho as one of her favorite movies, but notes that his books are also formative — particularly Less Than Zero. “It feels a little bit like you’re [...] just running with this woman and you just don’t know what’s gonna happen next. And I think that was really, really important to us with a story.”

American Psycho is available to stream for free with ads on Pluto TV.


Photo: Guy D’Alema/FX

Unsurprisingly, the last show that Glover and Nabers worked on together is a big influence on the show (Nabers says that “most of the writers” came from Atlanta as well). Obviously some of that comes formalistically — the moody look and tone of Swarm, in particular — especially when it comes to nailing the tone of the Amazon show as it swings wildly from tragedy to comedy.

“That’s just the way that we see story. It’s like math at this point,” Nabers says. “It can be terrifying and it can be all of those things. But at the end of the day we can watch something horrifying in a room, and we’ll find something to laugh about. There’s always something to laugh about.”

But it’s also where the room was able to capture the emotional crux driving the show: a relationship between two people who are each other’s family.

“Even though Atlanta became a lot outside of that story of [Earn and Alfred], at the end of the day, the kernel of that story was still that,” Nabers tells Polygon. “And I think that’s very similar to what the story of Swarm is; at the end of the day, the kernel of the story is between the two sisters. And the journey that Dre goes on will take us in a lot of really, really interesting and weird places. So that has always kind of been part of the parallel of working on a show like Atlanta, and now working on this.”

Atlanta is available to stream on Hulu.

Beyoncé: Lemonade

This one is sort of a cheat. Though Nabers doesn’t cite Lemonade specifically, it’s undeniable that Beyoncé’s visual album opus had an influence on the show — our world stopped to watch it drop just like Dre drops everything to watch Festival in the show.

What Nabers does say is they worked really hard for every glimpse we see of Ni’Jah to feel real and grounded in reality. “All of that stuff has to feel really specific and real. So we put as much effort into that as we did writing the scripts,” Nabers says, citing the team efforts of everyone from production designers to directors to the writers. “We have people who have directed music videos that are on our staff. [...] We have, obviously, Donald, who’s a musician himself and is very, very into every single thing that comes out, [and] very intricate with everything that is on his brand as Childish Gambino.

“[We just wanted] to really, really nail that idea of who this woman is, and make it feel as lived-in and real as possible.”

Of course, if you want to catch every single one of the Beyoncé Easter eggs — the concert dates, the “Running Scared” tour with Ni’Jah’s husband Caché, the posters on Dre’s wall — you’ll have to do a deeper dive than just Lemonade. Surely the Beyhive has educational pamphlets for this.

Lemonade is available to watch on Tidal.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon