“False Positive” director John Lee wants people to stop assuming he just ripped off “Rosemary’s Baby” while writing the film.
Lee recently told TheWrap that yes, there are some similarities but although he was inspired in part by Polanski’s 1968 classic thriller he wasn’t trying to directly copy anything from the film when co-writing “False Positive” with star Ilana Glazer (who plays the main character Lucy).
Both movies are about pregnant women experiencing violent delusions, and both use infant characters to advance the plot (and also generally creep people out). But overall, Lee said he drew from many other — sometimes more subtle — influences when creating his film.
“It’s hard to make things about fertility without talking about ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ It’s hard to make gangster movies without talking about ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘The Godfather.’ We’re now in a feedback loop of pop culture that like, all references are those references,” Lee told TheWrap. “I would hope that people were able to see that I understand that. I’m trying to push it in a different direction, but I’m using that as a setup. I feel like some people are angry, and they think it’s a ripoff (of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’). But I’m not that dumb.”
Lee has experience working on horror-adjacent material before (he joked that he often gets sent the “weird episodes” of shows to direct), but “False Positive” is he and Ilana Glazer’s horror film debut. The two worked together since the fist season of Comedy Central’s “Broad City” in 2014 and Lee has a background in comedy — he directed several episodes of HBO Max’s “Search Party” and is on track to direct half the upcoming sixth season.
An inspiration for “False Positive” was Glazer and Lee learning that women being “medically raped” does happen in real life. So-called fertility fraud is real and perhaps the most famous recent example is Donald Cline, a retired Indiana fertility doctor who used his own semen to conceive at least 50 children from 1947 to around 1987 while telling women he used anonymous donors. The case was brought to light in 2017 but Cline was not given any jail time despite admitting guilt. As of 2019 the practice of fertility fraud was only illegal in two states; Indiana and Texas.
Lee spoke with TheWrap about his biggest influences and the process of making the film with Glazer. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What other films influenced the making of “False Positive”?
There’s a lot of ‘Taxi Driver’ in this movie. Travis Bickle (Robert DeNiro) always is isolated in the frame, and Lucy tends to have people invading her frame, invading her space (and) she really gets isolated in a very specialized sense. Basically I did the opposite of ‘Taxi Driver.’ I always liked that idea that Travis is like a loner in this world and I was like, oh, Lucy’s just not an individual in this world. That was an influence for sure.
Certainly also the idea that (Stanley) Kubrick doesn’t always tell you what’s real and what’s not in ‘The Shining.’ I was always like, that’s the way you do dreams. And I was really interested in the Andrzej Żuławski movie ‘Possession.’ Horror is so visceral, it’s not emotional sometimes and the ones that are I find to be very intriguing.
I enjoy when horror movies are actually talking about more than one thing as opposed to fun ones that just scare me. (David) Cronenberg does it. I think some interpretations of Stephen King do it. Sometimes he’s a little too on the nose for me, but certainly it’s hard to deny his his influence of connecting those things (and) that horror is a social genre.
What was your experience directing and writing your first horror film with Ilana Glazer?
The most difficult part was like, I had to dunk (Glazer) in a tub, which is basically waterboarding somebody. I had to make her do some things that were actually physically hard to do, and emotionally hard to do. I care about her. I love her and just tried to be as close as I could off camera, so when I’d called cut, I’d be right there.
She’s used to getting laughs and instant gratification, but horror movies when you’re filming there’s not instant gratification. Even in a jump scare, you don’t get to enjoy because you’re shooting technical stuff. You can jump, but it’s not as fun. You don’t get a crowd laugh.
It was very difficult for her. She never worked on that isolating of an experience. I think it was difficult for her to, like attach to this character just because she’s so used to being the wild-haired goofball. As you know, a lot of comedians are kind of dark souls, and I think it was actually just emotionally hard for her, if that makes sense.
What motivated the twist when Lucy realizes she’s been duped by her doctor (Pierce Brosnan) and her husband (Justin Theroux)?
I don’t even care about twists. To me that’s not the big twist in this movie. That’s not the big surprise. You know, it’s been done a lot and other movies have done it, other TV shows have done it. People have talked about (fertility fraud) a lot. It’s been in the papers. It’s just kind of, I don’t know, what do you call a twist that’s not a twist? It’s just a tragedy. Guess I would call it the truth.
Here’s the thing, ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ is an amazing movie and I don’t mean to criticize it or judge it. But I always thought that the devil part of the movie actually reduced the point of the movie just a little bit because it’s fantasy. What’s really the worst part is just the truth and that’s why that ending can be beautiful and sad. And it hurts because you’re like, oh, right, there isn’t just a magical demon we can blame. It’s not that. It’s these larger, tiny steps that we do that are just slowly trotting on an individual’s rights and understanding.
After researching fertility fraud for the film, what do you think motivates doctors who do this?
Yeah, it’s not illegal. In our reading, we’re like, oh, my god, this (same) doctor showed up in Florida four years later. That was the part that you’re like, how is this not just rape? It’s just that. That was the thing that really surprised us.
There’s a couple little like things in the, in the movie that speak to that like that no one would know, they’re kind of Easter egg things. I’ll give you an example. The code to the safe is 1993, and that’s the year that in all 50 states, that spousal rape actually became a crime. So there’s little things like that, that are all researched and interrelate with the movie, whether you notice or not.
It’s just utter laziness. They are just too lazy to actually care about a human being. They are just too lazy to do the work and get actual donors. And that combined with hubris and ego that makes you feel like you can solve things — which you can, there are fertility specialists who do amazing things — I’m not opinionated on that, I don’t have a stance on that anyway, but I have a stance on a morality. That’s the tragedy of it. It’s just laziness. Beyond the kind of obsession with like, the male ego and needing to spread your seed and the whole metaphor of Johnny Appleseed — which is a subtext in the movie, his name is John. Ultimately, it’s also this other thing — when you combine capitalism and healthcare, laziness is more financially rewarding. Caring about things actually costs money.
“False Positive” is now streaming on Hulu.