How True Crime, NXIVM, Influencers, and Real Beyoncé Stalkers Inspired "Swarm"

Donald Glover and Janine Nabers's "Swarm" is full of variances and fractures. There are the neon colors of the videos fictional popstar Ni'jah puts into the world, breaking up the dull beiges and grays of the apartments and cars Dre (Dominique Fishback) inhabits on her cross-country killing spree. There's Dre's childlike reverence for Ni'Jah, and the rage that seems to consume her like an insatiable hunger, embodied by the broken glass and spreading pools of blood that seem to follow her wherever she goes.

According to production designer Sara K White, the show's design was intended to make Dre's persona especially paradoxical. "I feel like what we were able to do was provide a character who is both extremely ferocious and also sympathetic," she tells POPSUGAR. "You don't necessarily think that she's just evil, however much evil she does. That was a great line that we were looking to walk."

To build up Dre's fragmented worldview, White and the team played with contrasts that would highlight Dre's disconnect from reality, time, and other people. They also drew from real events, including true crime encapsulating murders and stalkers, with the intent of further obscuring the line between truth and fiction, and reality and fantasy.

How "Swarm" Shapes Dre's Delusional Mindset by Drawing From Real Events

By shattering the line between true events and fiction, "Swarm" shows how fluidly Dre slips between her imagination and the real world. The most defining – and most warped – aspect of Dre's distorted reality is, of course, her connection to Ni'Jah, who is (not-so-subtly) based on Beyoncé. Dre's ties to Ni'Jah are an extreme example of a parasocial relationship, or a completely one-sided connection between one highly-invested person and another who knows nothing of their existence, White explains.

While telling Dre's story, White says she drew inspiration from many real-world sources, including her own experience watching influencers become major forces in culture. In the past few decades, social media influencers have moved from figureheads to major players able to shape the lives of people they don't know on a daily, often moment-by-moment basis. "I was fascinated by the idea of devoting oneself to a person who is never going to directly respond to your needs," White says. "As much as she feels fulfilled . . . and feels like Ni'Jah is a person who understands her, [Dre] never is going to be able to have an actual conversation with her."

Beyoncé's acolytes are far from the only wild fanbase in the world, and, as White notes, figures like the Beatles and Shakespeare also had overzealous stans during their times. Worship and reverence, after all, have always been part of human nature.

"We were really interested in showing the transition between her reality and the reality that others live in."

Still, Beyoncé was the blueprint. "We worked with a lot of the viral rumors and the known incidents of stalkers affecting Beyoncé," White says. (Over the years, Beyoncé has reportedly been plagued by a number of stalkers.)

"The story about where Dre bites Ni'Jah — that's based on something that is rumored to have truly happened with Beyonce," White notes. Indeed, in 2018, Tiffany Haddish told GQ that she'd witnessed another celebrity doing just that. "There was this actress there that's just, like, doing the mostest. She bit Beyoncé in the face," Haddish said.

Each episode of the controversial series begins with a strange disclaimer that reads, "Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional," and White emphasizes that "each of these episodes is inspired by true events." For example, she says, the murder of Reggie — a character who Dre kills in the second episode — was inspired by an actual similar cold case. Meanwhile, the episode that features Billie Eilish as the leader of an all-female cult was heavily inspired by NXIVM, the cult that was brought into the public eye after its founder and leader was sentenced to 120 years in prison for crimes including human trafficking, sex trafficking, and fraud.

"We wanted to explore what disturbed relationships looked like in a different socioeconomic world," White explains of the episode. Like NXIVM, Eva's cult includes exhausting morning routines and hypnotic interrogations masquerading as self-help. Its members also brand themselves with symbols of their loyalty, something plucked directly from NXIVM's twisted playbook.

Yet, just as it highlights the delusions at the heart of some fandoms, "Swarm" is sure to emphasize the rot underneath the cult's calm surface from the very beginning. Eva's house is "very high class, beautiful, artisanaly done," White says, "but also within that space, the area that we have Dre living in is directly influenced by 1940s mental hospitals, and the way that they set up their beds." Details, like the stained glass window that surrounds Eva's head like a halo as she interrogates Dre, effectively communicate how things that seem benevolent — like religious practies, or love for a particular artist — can quietly breed terror and madness. Every symbol of love and devotion hides a sea of sharks in "Swarm," and the way that love and worship bleed into delusion and insanity is central to the story.

How "Swarm"'s Design Depicts Parasocial Relationships and Detachment from Reality

Ultimately, more than any star or fandom in particular, "Swarm"'s primary canvas is Dre's inner world, and Fishback's unnerving performance is at the center. Fishback "was so invested in creating the mental landscape that allowed her to play this character," says White. "We let her have her space . . . so that she could come into those spaces, feel the emotions that she needed to feel and do the hard work of portraying someone so dissimilar from herself."

From the very beginning, "Swarm"'s sets were designed to help Fishback transform into someone so extremely disconnected from the real world. "Her space has these moments of childhood in it. There's a very playful bedspread," White says. "She has stuffed animals around her. She has these little mementos, drawings of Ni'Jah that she's done, that she's hung up on the wall that have a really innocent and childlike expression," White says. "Then we contrasted that with Marissa, whose space is mature and current, and you can see that she has a passion."

In many ways, Marissa (Chloe Bailey) is Dre's primary connection to reality; she's the one who pays the bills and handles the adult aspects of life, while Dre spends her days figuring out how to secure Ni'Jah tickets. After Marissa dies, however, Dre's world immediately begins to splinter — and the show's cinematography reflects this.

"We talked a lot about the fact that Dre is a person who is in the world, experiencing the world, but not able to understand social relationships in a [quote-on-quote] neurotypical way," White says. "Some of that comes from her internally, and some of that is related to layers of trauma that influence the way that she's able to connect and see people and they're able to see and understand her." In conversations with Glover and Nabers, she says, "We talked a lot about using things like mirrors and screens to reflect back the world in a way that's, maybe, a little bit off."

Filmography-wise, the production team wanted to focus on contrasting Dre's frame of mind with the lives she wreaks havoc on. Dre's kills occur in "long hallways or wide open spaces where you can see her stalking her prey," White says. ". . . We made sure that we had a wide open space so we could see. . .her just coming towards that person, and that person not being able to do much to save himself."

Where a lot of Dre's world is up-close, intense, and packed with sensory information, murder scenes take place in cool, airy spaces, against the backdrop of a hyper-modern mansion or a night sky. Meanwhile, her adoptive parents' house back in Texas is designed to resemble a classic '90s family comedy — but upon a closer look, everything is skewed and warped. "On the inside, we bring in a lot of reds, and we made sure that the dressing in the space is a little bit spare and a little bit awkward. We place things in the wrong room," says White. "We're just constantly trying to set up an expectation and then work against it as much as possible." Ultimately, she adds, "We were really interested in showing the transition between her reality and the reality that others live in."

"Swarm" reminds us that it's impossible to really know another person's inner world — particularly when they're behind an anonymous account online — and it's easy to forget the obsessive fans tapping out death threats via the internet might be writing from in the weeds of a deep trauma or personal tragedy. It's also easy to ignore the power that major pop culture figures have over the masses, especially in a generation that lives a great deal of their lives online. By the time Dre has descended into full-on hallucinations, "Swarm" has made it impossible to look away.