The complicated nature of pregnancy and gaslighting play a big part in Hulu and A24’s atmospheric horror False Positive. Directed by John Lee and co-written by Ilana Glazer and Lee himself, the movie tells the story of a wife named Lucy (Glazer) whose dream to get pregnant suddenly comes true after months of trying and failing when her husband Adrian (Justin Theroux) takes her to meet a fertility doctor known as John Hindle (Pierce Brosnan). But as her pregnancy progresses, she starts to feel that Hindle might have a hidden agenda.
When Lucy tries to talk about her concerns with Adrian, he brushes her off, telling her that it might just be anxiety because of the pregnancy. Determined to prove that her suspicion is not wrong, Lucy goes on to untangle all the mysteries surrounding Hindle, which might also have something to do with her husband. False Positive, for the most part, plays with all the gaslights and microaggressions that Lucy is experiencing to create a sense of ambiguity, which results in the line between what’s real and not getting blurred throughout the movie. Though it sounds a lot like Rosemary’s Baby, False Positive is actually its own thing: a feminist horror exploring male obsession over the female body.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking to John Lee to discuss the inspiration behind the story, white privilege, and microaggression.
False Positive is your second directorial feature, and it’s so different from many of your previous projects. How did the idea for the film first come about?
When the first nugget of the inspiration for the story came to me a few years ago, my wife and I just had a miscarriage. And during that time, I was reading Peter Pan in anticipation of having children. In the book, there’s a section where the parents characters are in their children’s room, staring at the open window where their kids have gone. And it just struck me as a really dark notion in that it can’t be a good thing — I had an imagination that the kids are either abducted or thrown out of the window.
This was kinda also the beginning of me sort of understanding loss and also hope — the parents in Peter Pan are so hopeful about wanting their kids to return. And the book is also about the loss of innocence and love in so many ways. So those two things really made me examine the feeling that I had at that moment; why I was feeling so connected to those things and how I was going through my own grief. We are fine now, we have two kids, so it’s not an issue, but it’s definitely a strange feeling just to think about that.
Aside from Peter Pan, the film also echoes a lot of Rosemary’s Baby. Were there any other horror films or stories that inspired you while you were writing the script?
For sure. One of them is Lost Highway by David Lynch, and then also The Shining, Taxi Driver, which is not necessarily a horror movie but it kinda gets close to horror sometimes, and Possession by [Andrzej] Żuławski, which is one of my favorite movies of all time. These movies don’t always show up in a cinematic form in False Positive, but it’s there in detail and in the feelings that I want to capture.
Ilana [Glazer] started to get involved in the writing process a few years after you came up with the story for the film. So how much did the original idea change after she joined, if at all?
It changed a lot in the sense that I first wrote the idea as a tone poem before Ilana gave the story a strong structure and the character a lot of focus. The dreamy, floaty parts of the poem are still in the movie. The ending is similar to the one that I originally imagined, but a lot of the narrative structure and a lot of the simple arc following Lucy’s pregnancy changed during the writing process. This is not a story-driven movie, it’s character-driven, and Ilana provided a solid framework and also a lot of humor, as well as the complexity that surrounds birth and birth medicine.
The film not only tackles the horror of pregnancy, but also male obsession over the female body. Why did you decide to explore all these themes using the language of horror?
Ultimately, I wanted people to know what it’s like to be gaslit, which is what most horror movies are about. I think a lot of men don’t know that feeling while women do, specifically around birth. My wife, my lady, my best friend Allison, and I talked about that experience and about the lack of control and knowledge surrounding birth. We don’t have healthcare in the States, so it’s extra complicated cause there’s no support and you’re kinda on your own to figure everything out, and that’s such an unstable place to be — we have great doctors and hospitals, but you still have to make this decision that seems so large, and so all of that feels kinda both nervously funny and also like a nightmare at the same time.
Being frightened and comedy go hand in hand. How do you respond when you get scared? You get scared at first but then you’ll laugh out of relief. When you ride a roller coaster, either you scream or you laugh. So, I wanna mash those two together and stay right in between that area where you can either laugh or scream or give up or fight — that weird liminal space between those two.
So does that mean that the shift from comedy to horror wasn’t a challenge then?
Yeah, it wasn’t really much of a challenge to me. [laughing] I feel that I’ve been making uncomfortable arts throughout my entire career, whether it’s Wonder Showzen or The Heart, She Holler — all those shows made people feel uncertain and nervous, so this was just more of a mature version of my previous projects. My earlier works are a little bit more childlike and, in some way, bratty, and with this movie, I’m just trying to be a little more clean and thoughtful.
You mentioned gaslighting as a big part of the story, and so much of it creates this feeling of ambiguity and mystery throughout the film. While you were writing the script, did you create the full outline of the story first then pull some stuff out to make things ambiguous, or is it the other way around: build the narrative based on the ambiguity?
I think it’s a little bit of both. When you’re writing, you outline as much as you can. But sometimes you come up with a new idea or mystery that you’re like, “Okay, how does this fit into the story?” But particularly, in this case, it was very much an initial plan for the movie to be vague and ambiguous. I don’t care about telling people what scenes are real or not; I don’t think that’s the point of the movie. I often don’t care in movies when they explain everything, like for example when a character in horror films is about to open a doorway and the camera pushing in, and then it reverses back to that character — I don’t care what’s behind that door, and I want that feeling to go throughout the movie.
When you’re uncertain about things, it’s both so exciting and destructive to the character and the audience, and I want this movie to live in that place. I haven’t seen a lot of movies that have committed to that such ambiguity and confusion as to what’s real and not and make that part of the commentary and part of the character and also the structure. Most movies tend to explain things, and I always think you can explain less, which eventually will require the audience to think and project more and participate a little more as well.
In the film, Lucy is portrayed as the victim. But at the same time, her privilege as a straight, upper-middle class white woman is also being critically commented on. Tell me about that choice.
That’s a key point in the movie. Lucy actually doesn’t take control until she realizes her own privilege and racism, and that’s when she gets “rebirth.” There’s a shot where the door opens and Lucy walks in while covered in blood like a newborn baby, and she’s herself for the first time and that’s where she finally takes control. The history of feminism is mostly interpreted as a white history, so Ilana and I want to make sure that people who are privileged, like Lucy, need to check on those things more and see themselves as parts of the problem.
I know most people have good intentions, but even in those cases you still have to go like, “Okay, what am I saying incorrectly? What am I doing incorrectly? How am I being unfair to people?” — and all those things need to be in the movie because if it’s not, then we’re not doing an honest portrayal of a woman in New York City going through this. If we take that thing out of the movie, then the movie’s racist. And if you don’t talk about race, then what are you doing? It’s one of the biggest issues of our time since the history of inequality, so it’s very necessary to talk about it.
Ilana and I live in New York City, and we’re very progressive and politically proactive. Most of the work we make tends to be about something. I’m always interested in having a discussion about all these issues, so that’s why it’s very essential to the movie that you kinda don’t like Lucy a little bit until she realizes her own privilege.
The film’s take on microaggression isn’t just limited to the medical world just because the main plot centers on Lucy’s pregnancy, but it extends to workplace sexism as well. Why did you decide to show all these spectrums of microaggression?
[laughing] I’m a middle-aged white man, so I’m like Justin Theroux’s character in the movie, and I have a lot of male friends who did not recognize the microaggression they might have thrown toward women, and then when they were pointed out, they were like, “Oh, maybe I do that.” The whole point of satire is to hold a mirror up to the audience watching it, and hopefully, they see some despicable characters that might be part of them.
Our society has punched a certain binary structure into our brains and how we should respond to that concept, and that’s honestly just kinda foolish and nonsense. Women, especially women of color, have this big history of microaggressions, so I really wanna examine and explore it in the movie for uncomfortableness and truthfulness and for all the things that make you wiggle because of how real and unpleasant it is.
There’s one line in the film that I found very interesting. It was when Sophia Bush’s character said to Lucy, “This pregnancy shit is no joke. It’s really scary. But you are not alone.” But then the film shows the complete opposite of that; how lonely and isolating pregnancy is. What did you want to capture through the dichotomy between that line and Lucy’s reality?
In most of the shots of Lucy, there’s always at least one man in her frame — sometimes it’s just a male shoulder, sometimes it’s two men surrounding her at different times — and it’s all to show how isolated she actually is. When you’re on the table being examined, you’re just looking up at nothing without really knowing what’s going on down there, and it’s a very lonely experience. Watching my wife go through it, I can see and understand that. So I wanted to make sure that the movie showed that.
I also wanted to show that when you gaslighted people and made them question themselves, it could be very destructive — how instead of actually supporting someone, you’re making them feel uncertain about themselves. When you feel uncertain about yourself, you isolate yourself because you stop trusting other people and you start to live in a world of confusion, which is really alienating and lonely it almost feels as though you’re in a fog, just like how Lucy is feeling throughout the movie.
I wanna wrap this up by asking a fun question. If you could program a double feature to watch with False Positive, what movie would you choose?
I might pick — what’s that movie that’s based on a book by Bret Easton Ellis? The one about this business guy? It’s American Psycho, right? Yeah, I’d put this together with American Psycho. I feel that it could be the masculine version of False Positive, which is more feminist. It’s funny that a woman made that movie, and I’m a man making this one. [laughing] I think these two movies go hand in hand very well. There’s a lot of uncomfortable comedies in that movie. It’s a very interesting examination of masculinity and business.
False Positive will be available on Hulu from June 25, 2021.