This piece originally appeared as part of Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List, in the July/August issue of the magazine.
When John Lee was working at his first job — a magic store in the small Bay Area town of Castroville, California — there was a trick he’d always play. “It’s a classic move called the French Drop,” the 49-year-old filmmaker says, as he angles his laptop’s camera downward. He picks up a quarter, slides it into his other hand, and closes his palm; when he opens his fist, there’s no coin there. “‘Oh, look, it stayed in this hand, haha!’”
The teenage Lee wouldn’t perform the gag for regular customers, however; he’d wait until professional magicians came into the shop and then do the antiquated Magic 101 move. The older men would wearily sigh, roll their eyes, and gesture toward the first hand… at which point Lee would open his fist and present their coins. “I loved it, because they would just seethe,” he says, cracking up at the memory. “They thought they caught some 16-year-old kid trying to impress them with the oldest, mustiest trick in the book — and then they’d get so fucking mad! These guys would just storm out and I’d yell, ‘But don’t you want your change?!’
“I’ve always liked using people’s assumptions and familiarity with patterns against them,” Lee adds. “Which is really the basis for jokes, right? And for scares.”
If you’ve cringe-giggled through such squeamish, surreal TV series as Wonder Showzen and The Heart, She Holler, then you know John Lee has mapped out the terrain between funny ha-ha and funny did-someone-dose-my-drink. So the writer-director’s pivot to horror should come as no surprise; what’s shocking is how well it fits his beautifully fucked-up sensibility. False Positive, now streaming on Hulu, follows a married couple (played by Justin Theroux and co-writer Ilana Glazer) who are having trouble conceiving. A celebrity fertility expert (Pierce Brosnan), who also happens to be an old chum of the husband, offers to help. Soon, they’re expecting. The mom-to-be, however, begins to suspect something a little sinister is going on in regard to her miraculous pregnancy. Drawing from elements of classic paranoia cinema, a personal tragedy, and Lee’s subtextual reading of Peter Pan, it’s both a shadow-self twin of his style of comedy and a modern Rosemary’s Baby fueled by 21st-century rage and dread.
The shift in genres wasn’t a calculated move for Lee, or even done out of a sense of restlessness. As an omnivorous, movie-obsessed kid growing up in Northern California during the dawn of the VCR era, who was drawn to the mechanics of filmmaking at an early age, the Venn diagram overlap of absurdity and terror had always been a creative sweet spot for him. Laughs and shrieks: Same coin, just in a different hand.
“This is so stupid, but: I was thinking back to this media class I took in high school,” Lee says. “I did this short that was just shots of nothing: an empty room, an empty street, an empty hallway. Then we see a table. Something moves on the table. And then the title credit comes up: The Invisible Man.” He lets out a long laugh. “My very first movie and already, there’s comedy and horror, right next to each other.”
It was the teacher of that same class who suggested Lee apply to San Francisco State University’s film school, where he met a fellow student and aspiring stand-up named Vernon Chatman. The two quickly bonded over their mutual love of pranks, Errol Morris, and Sesame Street; soon they began crank-calling other dorm residents and collaborating on projects together. Chatman recalls the two of them going to a mall next door to the campus to make a “documentary” about security guards being modern-day American heroes. “We set up the camera, the guard starts talking,” he says, “and then we were like, ‘Sorry, we’ll be right back, but the camera’s rolling so just keep going.’ Then Jon and I go around the corner…and he goes on telling this ridiculous story and acting like a tough guy, all alone, for like a half-hour. We were cracking up. It was the ‘give ’em enough rope’ situation you see in documentaries, but done for comedy. It was an experiment that ended up influencing everything we did later.
“The thing about John is, he’s very funny,” Chatman adds, “but he’s also a jack of all trades. He’s technically proficient at everything, he can operate a camera, he’s worked as an associate editor, he plays music, he can write and direct. We could come up with a bunch of random comedic ideas and I’d sit there, wondering about the feasibility of it all. John is the one who could actually make it happen.”
After college, Lee moved to New York in the mid-Nineties, where he started up a loose production company/art collective called PFFR — “my friends and I know what it means … but we like secrets, so we’ve never told anyone,” Lee says — and formed the band Muckaferguson, which played the Apollo Theater (the moment can be witnessed in all its oddball glory on YouTube) and opened for They Might Be Giants. Chatman was still in San Francisco, but he’d begun writing for Late Night With Conan O’Brien and The Chris Rock Show; the pair would talk out ideas over the phone before Chatman also came out east in 1999. A public-access parody of kids’ TV shows that Lee and Chatman dreamed up as “the Baader-Meinhof gang, but for television!” morphed into Wonder Showzen, the MTV2 sketch series that ran from 2005 to 2007 and became a cult phenomenon. A collection of cartoon parodies, quick-hit “Q&A” skits (“What Does Corn Dream Of?”) and confrontational man-on-the-street interviews involving puppets and kids, it was the most subversive, lysergic half-hour on cable television. That “Wash My Hands” video that went viral last year? Congratulations — you’ve experienced Wonder Showzen‘s bizarre, squirm-inducing humor at work.
Wonder Showzen only lasted two seasons, but it was particularly popular among college students, including an NYU undergrad from Long Island named Ilana Glazer. She remembers immediately glomming on to the way it melded political commentary, gonzo comedy, and bizarro vignettes, along with a certain seat-of-your-pants scrappiness. “And it was all happening in my neighborhood,” she notes. “They’d have this little ginger kid going up to strangers and asking these outrageous questions, and I’d be like, ‘Wait, that’s Washington Square Park. I know that bench!’ There were times when it was just so weird, you’d think, like, ‘Did I actually see that on the show or did I dream it?'” Glazer holds for a beat. “To be fair, this was a time in my life when I was, um, smoking a lot, so …”
Years later, when Glazer and her friend Abbi Jacobson were scouting directors for their Comedy Central show Broad City, Lee came in to interview — and when Glazer saw the Wonder Showzen DVD he’d brought with him, she freaked out. “I think I went, ‘Holy shit, you made that TV series I was obsessed with! The one that’s like a children’s show but fucked-up!”’ she says. “I was just so thrilled to meet him.” Lee ended up directing a number of Broad City episodes, and he and Glazer became friends. One day, when they were filming a scene on an airplane in Los Angeles, she mentioned that she was keen to collaborate on something with him. Did he have anything he was working on? Well, Lee said, there are few things. One of them is just a nugget of an idea, really. But it has to do with babies, and grief ….
Lee says he can narrow down the genesis of what would become False Positive to three separate incidents. The first was the death of his father, a second-generation Chinese American, over a decade ago. The second happened slightly after that: He and his wife, producer Alyson Levy, had a miscarriage. “We got pregnant again, we have two daughters, and they’re lovely and great,” he notes. “It all worked out. But the experience sticks with you.”
And the last happened while thumbing through a copy of Peter Pan. “There’s a section in the book that’s not necessarily in the plays, or the movies, or the animated versions,” Lee says. “It’s just the adult Darlings standing by the window in their kids’ bedroom, looking out. I read that and thought, ‘Oh my god! They’re thinking that either the children jumped or were abducted,’ and neither of those options were good. I didn’t know whether [author] J.M. Barrie’s intentions were to talk about the death of children, but I suddenly thought: I want to make that version of Peter Pan. I want to do it where the parents are longing, and how did they get over a loss of three children, you know?”
All of this transpired within the span of a few years, Lee says. It was roughly around that same time when Levy had come across Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, a collection of short stories by Alyssa Nutting, and passed the book on to her husband. “She said, ‘I’ve never read anybody that is more like you and Vernon — you need to read this.’ And it was immediately like, Oh, yes: This person is a comrade-in-arms in terms of strangeness and imagery, but she’s also trying to say something with it.”
Once he finished the book, Lee emailed Nutting and told her he loved it. Nutting wrote back, saying she knew his work; by this point, Chatman and Lee had done the animated series Xavier: Renegade Angel and their hillbilly faux-soap opera The Heart, She Holler for Adult Swim. They began talking, with Lee telling her about these thoughts he’d been having about the miscarriage, his dad, death, mourning, ghosts, dreams. Nutting encouraged him to explore it further, resulting in a joint writing project that he describes as “a 60-page, very ethereal kind of tone poem. I’d say it was kind of like a really lovely garment with no hanger to hang it on.”
It never went further than that — both of he and Nutting went on to work on other things, and Lee put it in the “possibly revisit later” pile. When Glazer ended up inquiring about something for them to work on, however, “I think I mentioned two ideas to Ilana,” Lee recalls. “And when I got to the tone poem, she immediately went: ‘That one. Let’s make that one.'”
Lee credits Glazer for adding a much-needed sense of narrative structure, as well as introducing the notion of “selective reduction,” which — it’s safe to say without spoiling anything major — plays a key part in False Positive‘s story. In the film’s drive-by moments of deadpan comedy, some cringeworthy exchanges at the office of Glazer’s character, and the creepy fembot vibe in Brosnan’s clinic, you can see both of Lee and Glazer’s comic DNA. But those woozy dream sequences, and the sense of reality bending at the edges that borrow heavily from David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick, and the dreamy-but-direct references to Peter Pan (there’s even a snippet of Leonard Bernstein’s music from the 1950 Broadway production)? That’s completely in sync with Lee’s aesthetic, as is the movie’s divisive ending, which goes back to that original tone poem. “I remember telling her, ‘You know, I like to go a little weirder than most,'” Lee says. “And I figured, if she’s OK with the ending, then maybe we can make this work. Once she said, yeah, we can’t get rid of that — I knew we could do it.”
What really stays with you after you’ve seen False Positive, however, is the anger of it all. Go back to Wonder Showzen‘s shock-and-arghh attack, and you can see Lee and Chatman raging against racism, classism, exploitation, America’s war fetish, the ever-widening class structure at the beginning of the 21st century. It’s all there, right under the jokes about undercover hobos and obnoxious puppets. There’s always been a social consciousness and a sense of outrage embedded in his work. Even the ludicrous Heart, She Holler series, Lee notes, purposefully doubled as a warning against a burbling threat of white supremacy. People thought he was being extreme then. “And then look who gets elected president,” he says.
With False Positive, Lee may have been partially working through some personal issues. But he was also bucking against a culture that seems systematically hellbent on denying women everything from a sense of safety to agency over their own bodies, especially in regard to the previous political administration. “I’ve joked that this film ideally should have come out two years ago,” he says. “But it’s not like all of this isn’t still relevant. So much of what Vernon and I have done together — and with this film as well — has been a sort of raising of flags. It’s very much a sense of, ‘Do you not see what is happening? Does this not make you fucking angry as well?!’ You look at the emotional burden of what it means to be a woman in the medical industry, and even if you are not a woman, you can still find yourself enraged.”
And it’s that sense of making people feel uncomfortable — both in the name of pulling a prank and emphasizing a point — that’s fueled his work regardless of the genre. “I mean, that is the through-line, yeah,” he agrees, “and it very much comes from the same place in me. It’s just a question of tone.” He trots out one last analogy before signing off. “The main difference between horror and comedy is how seriously you take the punch line. It’s the classic joke of: A hobo on the street asked me ‘Hey, buddy, spare a bite to eat? So I bit him.’ The horror movie is if you actually start biting that hobo.” He nods. “The hobo definitely gets bit here.”