How Showrunner Frank Doelger Applied What He Learned on ‘Game of Thrones’ to Eco-Thriller ‘The Swarm’

When Frank Doelger, a six-time Emmy award-winning showrunner, whose credits include “Game of Thrones,” “John Adams” and “Rome,” was preparing to adapt Frank Schätzing’s 900-page novel “The Swarm” into an eight-part eco-thriller, he resolved to place it in a different genre. Whereas the novel read like a “disaster movie,” Doelger wanted the series to be a “monster movie” — but with a twist, the monster was us.

In the first few episodes of the show, which premieres at the Berlin Film Festival on Sunday, seemingly random, unconnected events occur in different parts of the world in which marine creatures start behaving in abnormal ways that threaten the lives of those who come in contact with them. After each event, scientists are given the task of finding the cause of the change in behavior, and they slowly start to wonder whether the events are connected, and ask what is triggering them.

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For Doelger, adapting the book presented two major challenges. “The novel is largely driven by the investigation into the events that are happening, and also it takes a lot of time exploring and explaining the science. So the thing we had to figure out was how to turn it into a compelling, character-driven emotional drama. I felt it was very important that we discovered the world through the characters. We also had to update the science, and we had to update the world in which the characters lived.”

Leonie Benesch as Charlie Wagner in “The Swarm”
Leonie Benesch as Charlie Wagner in “The Swarm”

As already stated, he approached the series as a “monster movie.” “It’s a story about a group of people who know something’s out there. They don’t know what it is. It’s clearly acting in an intelligent, strategic way. And the question is, how do they identify what it is? And what do they do about it? And, as is true of a lot of interesting monster movies, it seemed very clear to me that we wanted to have a monster movie in which we finally discover that the monster is actually us, that we are the architects of our own demise.”

Science fiction and supernatural elements were handled with caution. “One of the things I learned during my years on ‘Game of Thrones’ was that the elements that were real, that felt very grounded, were a terrific foil for the elements that were more supernatural,” he says. “And I felt that in the course of ‘The Swarm,’ we wanted to start as real as possible to make you feel like this is happening at this moment, and then gradually introduce other elements. In the last two episodes we go into this slightly more surreal fantasy world, but that’s a slow build. I wanted to make sure that the fantasy elements earned their place.”

One genre he avoided was horror. “To make sure that we weren’t just having unrelenting scenes of horror, we wanted to have scenes that were more mysterious, scenes that were intriguing, things that were threatening, but escalate them very carefully,” he says.

Alexander Karim as Dr. Sigur Johanson in “The Swarm”
Alexander Karim as Dr. Sigur Johanson in “The Swarm”

The alien life-force is revealed little by little. “It was very much the idea of this is a living organism, and the key idea for me was that this is an intelligent life-force that is in every creature in the sea. So it had to be something that could be microscopic, or could be enormous. And I very much liked that idea almost in a quasi-religious sense. I mean, there are a lot of religions that believe that God’s in all of us in one form or the other. And, we also played with the idea that men evolved from the oceans. So, in fact, we at one point probably were part of this same life-force, the same intelligence. And a little bit like the bad seed, we’ve gone a different way.”

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