Set to debut this Friday on Hulu is the pregnancy horror film False Positive, which was directed by John Lee and written by Lee and Ilana Glazer. Glazer also stars in the project as Lucy, a woman who has been struggling to get pregnant with her husband, Adrian (Justin Theroux). The couple eventually reaches out to one of the world’s preeminent fertility doctors, Dr. Hindle (Pierce Brosnan), to help them make their dream of starting a family a reality. That decision comes with a nightmarish price tag attached for Lucy, who fears that her doctor might not be working in her best interests after all.
Recently, Daily Dead had the opportunity to speak with Lee about the film and reteaming with Glazer for False Positive after working with her on Broad City for several years. Lee also discussed the real-life inspirations behind the story of False Positive, creating the visual language of the film, and more.
Fantastic job on the film, John. This is a subject that doesn't get talked about enough because there's this shame that comes with talking about women and fertility and things like that. So I really appreciated how you and Ilana were able to dive into this topic and do it in a very thoughtful way, that also makes for a really entertaining and terrifying experience all the same. I know that you two have worked together before in the past. Can you talk about putting this story together for False Positive and what the inspiration was behind this story as well?
John Lee: It started probably like 15 years ago when my wife and I had some fertility issues and I happened to be reading Peter Pan at the time. It has always been one of my favorite fairy tales. I'm often accused of being a child still. I eat hot fudge sundaes for breakfast, I like all kinds of games, and I'd hang out with kids most of the time whenever I can. So then going through the process with my wife of the pressure that you have during getting pregnant and the heaviness, where every decision seems so exponentially large. Because once you get pregnant, you project to dropping your kid off at college, you project to their first birthday, their fifth, 16th, 21st, all those things. You're just like, "Their whole life is in front of you." But through this process we were like, "We have privilege, we had good doctors," and they were all women. But you could see this lack of support for understanding the way to connect with people about certain things. I would tell my friends we had a miscarriage and they'd be like, "I did, too, but I didn't want to talk about it.” And that’s the thing—why can’t we talk about it?
I think pre-COVID, we didn't know how to talk about mental health in this country, but now we finally do in a way that I'm like, "Why is everyone being so dumb?" I don't suffer from anxiety, but I recognize it and understand it, and understand that it needs a hug sometimes. But we just don't care about healthcare. We don't know how to support people. And I have no opinions on how you should go about your fertility issues. I don't have like, this is the way to be, or this is the way to be. All I know is that we don't support people enough emotionally or physically, and we don't give them choices that make them feel comfortable.
And Ilana is one of those people that wants to expand and wants to use her gifts for things that are beyond just herself. When we were working on the script, it was super collaborative, totally open, where we shared the script. It wasn't like one of us writing it, the other one talking. It would just depend on the day or the idea. We would just hang out at her house most of the time and just come up with these little challenges of jokes that would just make us cringe and feel uncomfortable and be like, "You win. That's so creepy. That's going in." And that was just this fluid experience. Ilana really brought a lot of character to this and she brought a lot of humanism into her character, too. She was like, "Let's make this an actual movie. Let's make this a story and a structure, not just a feeling." And it was invaluable.
As much as it also touches on the things that you discussed, there are aspects of this film that reflect certain things that are happening in our country right now. There are a lot of men in this story making a lot of decisions about this woman's body and what's best for her, and that feels very much in line with a lot of the abortion legislation. Were those parallels conscientious to you guys when you were working on this script at all?
John Lee: Yeah. This is not a new thing though, right? The things you brought up have been going along since the beginning. Literally, I have a photo of Alexander Comstock in there because he had the Comstock laws, which said how women should act here in New York City. He lived less than a mile away from me right now. That's a while ago, but we're still living in that world. Luckily, it seems there's a paradigm shift happening hopefully, but all those things, if you're a fan of Wonder Showzen, all those things are evergreen, sadly. Racism is always fertile ground, patriarchy and misogyny are still fertile ground, and there’s injustice and the destruction of the environment. All those things, you don't make topical jokes about them because they've existed forever.
Why they resonate, and why you can make comedy or dark satire or explore those things is because the true tragedy is just right in front of us. So, how do you respond to it? I respond to it by being sarcastic and laughing and going, "Let's go smash. Let's go smash." Some people are more thoughtful than me and they put policy together and do all those things. And then some people are truly evil and self-centered and selfish and try to stop people and reduce women to not individuals, but to women, and people of color or queer people, too. And it's like, what for? Humanity should aim for the right goal. How do we get there? We can fail and succeed, but as long as we're headed in the right direction, let's do that. We all agree that they're humans, so let's go towards that. That's what humanism is. So this movie is not necessarily topical, it's just a sad product of our society that it is topical.
You've worked with Ilana before, but in a very different genre than this. Was the collaborative process for you guys different for False Positive versus the other stuff that you've done together?
John Lee: It was very different. When we would do Broad City, I often thought of directing as a prank. I would tell Abbi things that I wouldn't tell Ilana so I'd mess with the two of them. And eventually they would catch on, but the point of doing that as a director is to keep the scene alive and to surprise the other person, so they don't get into a rote pattern. It keeps up the energy, and it keeps actors awake in many ways and it was all on purpose. But Ilana called me a week before we started to film False Positive, and she was like, "Can you please not do those tricks on this one?" And I was like, "Of course," because that's how I would direct comedy, but that's not how I would direct a story like this one.
When I did Broad City, it was all about, “How can I let Abbi and Ilana soar and be free? How do I set up a situation or an environment or an interplay with each of them in order to do that?” With this, it was like I took all her tools away. I took away Ilana’s wild hair. We took her goofiness away. We took away her ball of energy that makes us love Ilana Wexler. All that is gone here. And so, she was going into territory she'd never been before. As a comedian, she trained herself for 15 years to find her voice and her rhythm and I said bye-bye to all of that with False Positive. So I just had to be there for her emotionally and try to be supportive of what she was going through as much as possible during production.
Before we go, I wanted to talk about the look of the film, because I love the way you guys shot it, where it feels really structured and safe and warm and that all changes as things are revealed and we begin to suspect things aren’t right. Can you talk a little about that, in terms of what your approach was for the visuals here and working with your cinematographer as well?
John Lee: I wanted to make a movie that was about gaslighting, and you know what that experience is like. We all do. I think that cinema is so much about psychology, and what better way to do that than to remove logic or play around with the audience. I don't want Ilana to experience something and then wake up from a dream. I don't need to know that. I'd rather just cut to a scene and later on, where if you look back, it’s like, "Was that real or not?" That’s what we wanted to do. So it all came down to having that discussion with Pawel [Pogorzelski], the DP, and with Ilana while we wrote the script. That was all really important. And then, we also used all these double images and all these reflections, or we’d have some imagery in there be upside down, too. That was all by design and written into the script.
Then, Pawel would highlight these extra different angles or these other little things and we kept changing the lenses throughout the film, too. It goes from a softer lighting and a softer lens to a really specific, sharp, cold lens. And you're the only person who's noticed that so far, but it's very subtle. We went from removing stuff on the set to making their house feel empty to having more stuff everywhere as Ilana’s character’s brain is struggling with all this stuff. But yeah, the lenses changed, the lighting changed a little bit, the color changed a little bit, too, as we wanted that to reflect what Ilana’s character was going through.
In case you missed it, read Heather Wixson's interview with False Positive co-star Pierce Brosnan!