Rolling Stone

Hot Director John Lee

A filmmaker who’s known for twisted humor pivots to surreal horror


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 didsomeone-dose-my-drink. So the 49-year-old filmmaker’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) offers to help, and soon, the mom-to-be begins to suspect something suspicious is happening regarding 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 Lee’s style of comedy and a modern Rosemary’s Baby fueled by 21st-century rage and dread.

A graduate of San Francisco State University, Lee began making short films with his longtime collaborat­or Vernon Chatman in college after bonding over their mutual love of pranks, Werner Herzog, and Sesame Street. After moving to New York, he started a loose production company/art collective called PFFR — “We know what it means, but we like secrets, so we’ve never told anyone,” Lee says — and formed the band Muckafurga­son, which played the Apollo Theater and opened for They Might Be Giants. A public-access parody of TV kid shows that Lee and Chatman dreamed up as “Baader-Meinhof, but for television!” morphed into Wonder Showzen, the MTV2 sketch series that became an early2000s cult phenomenon. (If you’ve seen the “Wash My Hands” segment that went viral last year, you’ve seen Lee’s humor at work.)

After Lee lost his father, and his wife suffered a miscarriag­e, he began talking about grief and anger with his friend, novelist Alyssa Nutting. “She and I ended up writing this sort of 60-page, ethereal kind of tone poem,” he says. “It was like a really lovely garment with no hanger to hang it on.” Lee put it aside. Later, when he was directing an episode of Broad City, Glazer approached him during a break and asked if there was anything else they could work on together. “I said, ‘I have these two ideas, they’re nuggets of something. . . .’ When I mentioned the tone poem, she immediatel­y went, ‘That one.’ That became the basis for False Positive.”

“I’ve always enjoyed making people feel uncomforta­ble, and I’ve always liked using people’s assumption­s and familiarit­y with patterns against them,” Lee admits, “which is the basis for jokes and scares. I always say that the main difference between horror and comedy is how seriously you take the punchline. 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.”

 ??  ?? “I’ve always
enjoyed making people uncomforta­ble,”
Lee says.
“I’ve always enjoyed making people uncomforta­ble,” Lee says.

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