'Swarm' Production Designer Sara K White Dissects The Series' Parasocial Layers
Dre's bedroom. Courtesy of Amazon Studios
When it comes to bringing a film or television series to life, everything from lighting to costume design plays a key role. But it's production design that truly helps to lay down the story's foundation. By ensuring that each location chose and studio set built perfectly captures the vision of the director and producers, production designers provide a crucial backbone to what we enjoy on screen.
Sara K White, the production designer of Swarm (production began at the end of 2021), was tasked with forming a parasocial and dangerous world for the critically acclaimed Amazon Prime series. The satirical horror, created by Janine Nabers and Donald Glover, follows Dre (played by Dominique Fishback) who is an overly obsessive fan of a larger-than-life pop star to the point where her obsession turns deadly. Swarm also stars Chloe Bailey, Billie Eilish, Heather Alicia Simms, and Damson Idris.
White, who has worked on series like The Flight Attendant and Mrs. Fletcher, got her start as a corporate interior designer in New York City. The Ohio native worked for the likes of Studios Architecture and Gehry buildings before she transitioned to working on sets around 2008, after helping some NYU film school friends on their music videos and short films.
"I think the foundations of understanding how locations are constructed and the processes of understanding a project brief are very similar. So, thinking about the inhabitants of the space and what their needs are, when you're doing that work as an actual interior designer, you're working with real humans," White tells EDITION about the transition. "But when you're doing it for production design, you get to make up the people who are living in these spaces, make up their interests and their histories. You get to do that while collaborating with the writer or the director or the showrunner. The overall needs are still the same, but the process by which you create it is quite different.
She continues: "For me, that's the most exciting part, that I'm getting to really dig into these people, dig into these characters. I get to think about where they come from, why they are, where they are, where they want to go, what's holding them back and things in their history that might still be around them, causing them to either be held back or propel them forward. I also get to think about how they react to the people in their lives and how the space can support that."
Below, White speaks to EDITION about working on Swarm and breaks down key moments that highlight the main character's downfall.
Sara K White
Of course, Swarm is horror-based. Did you and the team draw from certain references?
We talked about a lot of films that were about the disconnect that a person might have to the environment that they're living in, and how that disconnect could cause them to react in a way that is not typical or heightened. We talked a lot about films like The Piano Teacher, Jeanne Dielman and Madeline’s Madeline. I brought up films like Mandy as a visual reference for how we might conceive of some of the more horror-thriller elements, which was a fun conversation. It was something that we talked about [regarding] how far to take that horror thriller element. Ultimately, we didn't end up representing a lot of that in the spaces and they were more about who the people were and how they came to be the people that they were.
For the Youtube influencer Daython's house, that's something that we talked about. Where is he in his influencer career? Did he come from the city that he's living in? Is he close to his family? Is he just this prototypical flashy YouTube guy who's living the highlife of where he is in his young career? That's ultimately where we landed, and even though it's a very violent scene, it's a particularly iconic and flashy blood scene for this show, it's something that we contrasted with the space. We thought about the character first and what their space would be. Then we worked Dre's actions into what the space had to offer which was pretty epic, in the end.
That’s definitely one of the more notable scenes. That vivid red playing against the starkness of the house visually grabs you.
Yeah, it was really exciting to see that one come together. We had to do a lot to protect that home actually because it was a very nice home with very beautiful furniture, some of which we used in the set. We had to make sure we lay down protection on the floor, so we didn't get any of our blood into the grout.
Marissa's dressing station. Courtesy of Amazon Studios
I can imagine how hard that would be to clean up. I want to get into some of my personal favorite moments of the show, starting with Dre’s room. What stood out to me was just how bare and muted her home was compared to the wall that shows Ni’jah, which is the most colorful part of her life.
One thing that we kept talking about was how stunted Dre was in her growth. The elements that we had to bring into that space were a little bit more childlike and underdeveloped. She doesn't have a lot of interests, and in order to make that extremely clear, we just did not show things that weren’t part of the world of her obsession. She also doesn't have a lot of resources. She is pretty broke, she didn't get money growing up and she's a foster kid who was rejected. She doesn't have resources available to her outside of this job that she's not very good at keeping because she doesn’t relate to it in a way that would allow her to be gainfully employed and grow in that position.
She only spends her money on things that are very important to her. The things that are very important to her are Ni’jah and Marissa, and that's where the line ends. We wanted to make it very clear that her two interests are her best friend/sister and this pop star, which meant that we just eliminated other things in her home.
I think the lack of personal items in her room also reflects her lack of identity, which serial killers often don’t have. There's this interesting dynamic between having that lack of identity as a killer and also being so submerged in this pop star's life that you can't see yourself outside of that bubble.
What is really interesting about Dominique Fishback’s portrayal of Dre is her mannerisms. As Dre, she talks about how she didn't really have the ability to understand how to interact in situations. So, she just copied people who were near her. That is a way that she created what looked like a personality to others, but she never truly knew how to be her own person. I think that was definitely continuous throughout her life, and where that started is anybody's guess. It could have been from her birth and she was just made that way, or it could have been exacerbated by the foster care system that clearly didn't treat her very well and didn't give her an understanding of how relationships work.
I felt really excited when we first started talking about doing this project with the opportunity to show this kind of character in a very new way. You don't often see a young Black serial killer, especially [one as] a young Black woman. It was also interesting because I felt that throughout the conversations about who Dre was from the very beginning, there was sympathy toward her because she was not handed a great life. She’s absolutely guilty of all of the crimes she committed. She made choices but was not given the opportunities in her life to possibly be stopped from making bad choices. We don't know a lot about that part of her, but there's a part of her that makes you believe she could have had a chance and just wasn't given it.
That sympathy towards her was something that I was always interested in balancing. It's part of why I was interested in giving her that childlike characteristic in her set because she is still a child in a lot of ways.
As a production designer, do you also collaborate with the lighting techs?
I worked really closely with Drew Daniels, as well as our costume designer Dominique Dawson, to make sure that we were creating color palettes that are really dynamic and supported the action of the scene and the characters within it. We had a really deep collaboration on this show because we didn’t have a lot of resources, but color was one of them. Being able to push that everywhere we could and use that to our advantage was really important to make this project come together.
The reason I brought it up was I noticed that in the beginning, the blue lighting of the strip club Dre works at felt very cold and uninviting. But as she slowly begins to unravel and become more deranged, the lighting in the strip club becomes more warm and sensual. I don't know if that was intentional, but that scene really stood out.
We wanted to make sure that she had this maturation between those two dancing scenes. She gains a tremendous amount of confidence between those two scenes. Representing that, we talked a lot about how we were going to use warm colors in the show. Red, specifically, but also yellow, a color associated with bees and the hive. Keeping things on the warm side of the spectrum was something that we did intentionally, and when we brought out those colors, it was done with a lot of fun discussions.
Inside the yurt. Courtesy of Amazon Studios
I also enjoyed when Dre goes to Billie Eilish’s character, Eva's house. I know cult leaders inspired her character, and I noticed that cults often have muted and neutral tones for that deceiving comfort.
We really wanted to play against the trope of wellness and the way that cults often masquerade as centers for wellness. Also, we wanted to play with the ideas of authenticity. The home itself, located on the outskirts of Atlanta, was really beautiful. It was gorgeous to be there. It's a very new construction, but all of the surfaces are made to look quite old. There's a lot of stonework, plaster work and a lot of materials brought into that home to make it feel like an old French farmhouse. Meanwhile, it's a new construction outside of Atlanta, so the base that we were working with was spot-on for what we were trying to evoke.
We were able to bring a few additional dressing elements that could hype that up a bit more. We brought in the yurt that we created from scratch and put that in place so it had a lot of natural elements in it. The idea of the drumming and the tea ceremony are all things that were co-opted from old traditions that were not actually of the group that was being represented by those the cult leaders and cult members. They were co-opting all of these ancient traditions in order to make themselves feel authentic when, in fact, they were not at all. That was some of the impetus behind choosing that location and then bringing in design elements that accentuated it.
In one of the later episodes, Dre goes back into her foster parent’s home where there’s the shrine in Marissa’s room. It’s blending real life and fantasy. Dre’s mindset is such a blur because she can't really differentiate Marissa from Ni’jah, and that mixes with the social concept of thinking that these pop stars are your friends in real life.
With the shrine itself, we were originally speaking about it as something that was put together by their mother. When Marissa passed away, the idea originally was that this mom was distraught, she felt like Dre had killed her baby and she was never going to move on from that loss. Her healing from that meant that she needed a place to focus all of that energy and so she recreated the most special part of Marissa’s world, her makeup area where she was fostering her career. It helped show all her interests, the Ni’jah tickets and little bits that Marissa had were all brought back into that space.
In the episode, it just built upon that so much because of the way we see the home overall and the parents’ tone towards Dre. There's a part of her seeing that shrine in the final episode, that you're not sure if it's real or if it's in her mind. That was a really special opportunity that came to pass during filming and the conceiving of the sequence of that episode. It was something that had a really solid conception point, but we were able to expand on it during the filming and make it feel a lot more ethereal. We got to add Dre’s feelings of disassociation at that moment in the space of the only childhood home that she really had. So I thought that was really exciting.
With regard to the idea of blending Marissa's face into Ni’jah, the whole experience that Dre has with relating to other humans is that she doesn't have a strong base for it. She focuses heavily and she gives the responsibility for her emotions to other people. The only person that she actually has a close relationship with is Marissa. When we see her finally on stage with Ni’jah, she doesn't have a template for how to interact with this person who has been her fantasy. The idea that she might replace that person with somebody that she really knows is something that I thought was really exciting and interesting. It was something that we talked about from the very beginning and we knew that at the very end, we were never actually going to see Dre with Ni’jah. We were going to see her in this fantasy of being back with her best friend/sister, the only person who ever gave her the time of day.
You've worked on The Flight Attendant, which also does have a darker element to it. But, how would you say working on Swarm differs from that?
We definitely got to get creepier in Swarm than I've ever been able to get before, which was really fun. I love working in a way that is constantly communicating with the audience, and I think about that a lot. I always like to make people feel like there's more to understand about the characters, and that is something that I did get to do in The Flight Attendant. But, the ability to make people feel uncomfortable as they're watching this wasn’t something I’d gotten to do yet.
I like to space out watching shows, but I binge-watched Swarm to prepare to speak with you. That wasn’t the best decision because it was just so intense. I was like, “Oh my goodness, I need to drink a glass of wine.” There's so many layers to unpack with this series.
That was one of the things that made me so excited to work on this with these creators. I knew that there was so much behind each decision, so I was really excited to do that, to get into being a part of these layers of communicating ideas to the audience. My parents couldn't watch it, either. My dad tried, but my mom saw the previews and was like, “No!”