Beastly Baby

False Positive writer and director John Lee tells Ella Kemp about causing chaos with his daughters, preferring to be in the kitchen at parties and using art to reckon with the darkest parts of life.

Art is the history of destruction in many ways, so embrace that in your life.” —⁠John Lee

Once upon a time, a woman called Lucy dreamed of having a little girl. She planned to name her Wendy. Struggling to get pregnant with her husband John, they sought help from miracle fertility doctor Adrian Hindle and, like magic, soon enough they were expecting a daughter. This is how director John Lee’s False Positive kicks off, but an opening shot of a blood-soaked Ilana Glazer suggests this fairy tale is of the darker variety.

The script, co-written by Lee and Glazer, deals with the twisty dynamics between men and women at a moment in life where trust should be more important than anything. Both Broad City star Glazer and Wonder Showzen co-creator Lee are best known for their work in television comedy. In making the leap to psychological thriller, the experience, especially for Glazer fans, feels increasingly unsettling. But it is a short walk from tragedy to comedy, so the reverse is usually also true—as many comedy creators before them have proven.

False Positive is about gaslighting, legacy, appearances, fairy tales and all the insidious feelings that get wrapped up in relationships that we often mistake for pure, true love. It’s also something of a contemporary homage to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (more on that in a minute)—showcasing, here, female agency in a much more complex way.

“The tensions of sacrificing one’s body to grow another… allows for greater glimpses into the diminishment of women throughout pregnancy,” writes Claira Curtis, with Wes Lawson echoing this succinctly by calling False Positive “a horror movie that asks ‘What if your pregnancy was entirely dictated by men?’” It works because of just how awfully compelling these men are—our favorite clean-cut James Bond star Pierce Brosnan delivers a wickedly unsettling turn as Hindle, while Justin Theroux, as John, proves a good bone structure might just be the most untrustworthy thing a man can offer you.

But the film would be nothing without Glazer as Lucy. A million miles away from her effervescent, stoner comedy in Broad City, she’s showing a different side here: a vulnerable woman trying with all her might to keep control over her body, her job, her autonomy, her future.

John Lee spoke to us about Glazer’s intuition, the power of destruction and how Peter Pan is at the root of everything. This interview contains discussion of the film’s plot.

John (Justin Theroux) and Lucy (Ilana Glazer) during a visit to Dr. Hindle’s fertility clinic.
John (Justin Theroux) and Lucy (Ilana Glazer) during a visit to Dr. Hindle’s fertility clinic.

To what extent is Rosemary’s Baby the parent of False Positive?
John Lee: I’m certainly standing on the shoulders of Rosemary’s Baby. In the history of cinema, it’s probably the most famous birth movie there is. But I just would say: let’s not continue down the path of Rosemary’s Baby, let’s go the opposite way. I think one of the problems with Rosemary’s Baby is that it doesn’t quite get in the head of Mia Farrow as Rosemary. It’s a very removed movie, it’s equally about the two men in her life. I wanted to make sure that we were in Lucy’s head. I wanted you to experience what it means to be gaslit. Women know what that’s like, men rarely know what that’s like. I apologize! But that’s the truth.

Most men don’t know what it means to be debased in that way. I wanted to use cinema, which is so psychological, to really express that, because there’s a lot of psychological thrillers that don’t actually get into psychology. They explain things, and I didn’t want to explain things because I think sometimes evil’s not necessarily explained, it’s a feeling, it’s an experience. It’s that buzzy intuition that women, people of color and queer people have.

I wanted to do that in a way that is different than Rosemary’s Baby, in a way that I think is more reflective of an experience that my wife and I had. Before having our first kid, we had infertility issues, and so I wanted to really dive into that. And so it’s only Rosemary’s Baby in that it’s about birth. The joke that Ilana and I had is that we were making Rosemary’s Baby without the rape.

Speaking of Ilana, I’d like to borrow a line from the movie to ask you what she taught you, as a writer and actor, about female intuition?
Ilana is a very fiercely independent woman—and so is my wife, partner and best friend, Alyson Levy, who I’ve also made stuff with. I grew up American so, you like sports, you play sports. And there would be parties and men would be in the living room watching football, and I would go in there, and it was just extremely boring. No one’s talking or saying anything. So I would go into the kitchen, and there’d be these women laughing, crying, making fun of each other. And I was just like, “Oh, this is the place! This is where sarcasm lives.”

I also have a sister who is a big influence in my life, and then seeing my wife who just doesn’t put up with any shit, I’m kind of intimidated by it, and I’m in awe. So in terms of our process on the movie, I think I’ve just been infused with that for a long time and brought that awareness.

When Ilana and I wrote the script, I would let her take the keyboard and write that stuff—because I can’t speak it. I know the feeling of it, but it’s not my voice. We would have discussions but it was all very mercurial and open and free and collaborative in a way that there was no pressure. Collaboration is about being vulnerable and truthful. It’s being an ego sometimes, but also knowing my place to let things be.

When it came to directing Ilana’s performance, was there anything that surprised you once your dynamic shifted as collaborators?
I think the experience for Ilana was tough, because I took away all the things that make her a magical person. Her crazy hair’s gone, her sense of being a wild spirit is gone, her humor gone—all her tools. It’s brutal. I started to admire as we went on just how hard it was for her, so I would just try to give her as many hugs as I could! I would just try to support her in being able to be closed off, and then building up to the climax of the movie when she literally starts throwing punches.

We shot that at the end on purpose, so she couldn’t actually experience that, so she had to be in this tension. In terms of specific surprises, when Hindle inseminates her for the first time, and she and him have basically a sexual experience, I was really surprised by her version of it. It was so quiet and delicate and hopeful.

Lucy’s outburst at the end makes for one of a very small handful of moments in the film which features a very intense, guttural scream. These moments are extremely well chosen—how did you go about deciding which specific beats to give that visceral power to?
My job as a writer is to create as much tension as possible. I don’t care about explanations in movies and I’m rarely surprised by a twist. What I really enjoy is the transition from one state to the next, a metamorphosis. And birth is a metamorphosis, pregnancy is that, so I was really into that experience of just really sitting in the quiet nervous tension, this nervous laughter in a moment when you can only laugh because you don’t know how else to respond.

I wanted to give a little bit of relief, because you have to go through a journey and she has to scream at some point. She has to throw punches, or the movie’s just dire and I’m not that dire of a person. I’m really also very optimistic and I wanted this movie to be. Even though it’s a bit aggressive, the screams were an exaltation of her independence. Screaming is good.

During the pandemic, I’ve told my daughters, “Let’s go be destructive a little bit.” You have to! So we get those bubble teas and shoot them at cars. I’m like, “Let’s go smash a bottle! No one’s gonna get hurt, we’re not causing damage.”

But you do have to let that out. You have to find a way, whether it be through creativity or music or art, or smashing a bottle, to express that. Art is the history of destruction in many ways, so embrace that in your life. Lucy embracing that was important. From screams to punches to blood, to smashing. Because the phrase “smash the patriarchy” exists—it requires a smash!

But there’s also a tenderness to False Positive. The only thing that stops it veering into the abyss and being destructive all the time is the reliance on fairy tales. It’s in the score and in the script, crucially through the relationship the film has with the story of Peter Pan.
Before my wife and I had our kids we had a miscarriage, and I was reading Peter Pan at the time. In the book, there are chapters where the parents are sitting in the kids’ rooms staring out the window, waiting for them to return. I was reading that and I was trying to understand loss and memory. How do you get over something like that and just have a kid again? What does that mean to the kid you were about to have?

That notion of the parents staring out the window became one of the darkest things I realized, because there’s only two options: those kids were either thrown out the window, or someone stole those children. It really made me rethink Peter Pan—like, all fairy tales are actually dark stories. And then I started to realize the evil that men do is rape in every possible way: financial, physical, all kinds of control. The evil that women do is killing their babies. So I was like, “Oh my god, okay, that’s a movie, right there.”

So this movie is about that loss of innocence at your own demise, and what that means to try to understand the women who have done that, and why they did it. They had such a lack of support, institutionally, structurally and healthcare-wise. And what we do in this country is we just say, “Oh, that’s mommy brain.” We don’t actually say, “Hey, let’s give these people support for whatever they’re going through.” So all that is both profoundly dark and profoundly humorous, in the same way that when you ride a roller coaster, you either scream or you crack up. I want this movie to feel like that experience.

So if Lucy is a vague proxy for Wendy, who is Peter? John or Adrian?
Peter Pan, the trickster, is the Beast that makes brief appearances throughout the movie—Lucy’s intuition.

Pierce Brosnan and John Lee on the set of False Positive.
Pierce Brosnan and John Lee on the set of False Positive.

Let’s move onto some quickfire Life in Film questions. Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia! or as James Bond?
Pierce Brosnan in Mrs. Doubtfire.

What’s your favorite unconventional fairy tale?
It’s ‘The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth To Learn What Fear Was’ by the Grimm Brothers. There are three brothers, and two of them go to find something scary, but one can’t be scared. They do all these elaborate plots to make them scared, and the only thing that scares him is they put fish down his pants, and that gives him the shivers. They put fish down his pants on his wedding night, so it’s very clearly about sexuality.

I also love all these Asian fairy tales, in which I don’t think monsters have to be evil. They are a reflection of how you treat them. So if you treat them well, they will be well back to you. And so that’s Lucy’s intuition—there’s a monster in the movie, but it’s telling her to wake up. I really enjoy that kind of thing, you see that in a lot of Miyazaki films and I’m like, why don’t we embrace that here? Why are we stuck in black and white?

What is the one film that made you want to be a filmmaker?
Stranger than Paradise by Jim Jarmusch. My girlfriend in high school brought it home, and she’s like, “This looks weird. Let’s watch this.” And I realized I had seen some of it before but then was just like, “Oh my god, this is an option? You can do this.” I grew up in a really small town with half migrant workers and half hillbillies, Steinbeck country. And so I didn’t realize you could do something like that. I just thought: whatever that is, I want to go down that path.

Tinkerbell, Peter Pan and Wendy in Peter Pan (1953).
Tinkerbell, Peter Pan and Wendy in Peter Pan (1953).

And finally: what’s your favorite filmed version of Peter Pan?
The Disney animated version. I think the song at the end, ‘He Can Fly’, is beautiful and we used a lot of references from it in the movie. All the other versions are a little hokey to me.

False Positive’ is streaming now on Hulu.

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