Ilana Glazer was trying without much success to think of movies devoted to the experience of conceiving and carrying a child.
“There’s not a lot from the pregnant person’s point of view,” Glazer said. She pointed, for example, to “Knocked Up,” the 2007 comedy that starred Seth Rogen and Katherine Heigl, but that was told “from the inseminator’s perspective,” she said.
There was “Rosemary’s Baby,” the 1968 thriller adapted by Roman Polanski, which fit the narrative bill but was still difficult to endorse. As Glazer succinctly summarized: “Great movie — not a great guy.”
And the 1987 comedy “Three Men and a Baby” definitely didn’t make the cut. “How many men do we need to tell about how this baby got here?” Glazer exclaimed.
The topic was especially personal for Glazer, a creator and star of the Comedy Central series “Broad City.” She was 36 weeks pregnant during this phone conversation in late May and apologetic for the fact that she was eating while she spoke.
“I’m stuffing my face,” she said. “I have no choice. I’ve got to be eating this pita and dip right now.”
The subject of childbirth is also of particular interest to Glazer because she is the star and co-writer of a new film, “False Positive,” that casts her as a woman whose efforts to have a child draw her into a nightmarish spiral of uncertainty and deceit. The movie, which is directed and co-written by John Lee, made its debut last week at the Tribeca Film Festival and was released by Hulu on June 25.
In reviews of the film, The Hollywood Reporter praised “False Positive” as a “juicy genre entry about how women’s reproductive systems are treated like coveted real estate,” and The Wrap called it a “smart, sharp shocker.”
Glazer, 34, started working on “False Positive” long before she became pregnant, and while it is one of the most prominent projects she has appeared in since “Broad City” ended in 2019, it is by no means a comedy.
It is an unapologetic work of body horror — one that begins with the image of Glazer’s character disoriented and awash in blood as she wanders the streets of New York. The provocations escalate from there.
This onscreen version of Glazer is very different from the one audiences have grown accustomed to seeing — not happy-go-lucky, but frantic and fighting for her life — and writing and filming the movie tested her in ways that comedy had not entirely prepared her for.
But Glazer said these efforts were necessary to tell a story about a modern childbirth process that she fears has become debased and commodified, particularly in the United States — fears she had held well before she became acquainted with it firsthand.
“I’m really obsessed with how in-plain-sight evil the system that we live in is,” she said. “It’s absurd and it’s funny, even though it’s horrible, the way we are stripped of our humanity. Everyone is gaslit into thinking it is normal.”
Glazer and Lee started working together when Lee, a creator of subversive TV comedies like “Wonder Showzen” and “Xavier: Renegade Angel,” was hired to direct episodes of “Broad City” beginning with its first season in 2014.
They bonded over a shared worldview and talked about their work outside the show, including an amorphous narrative piece that Lee was writing with the author and TV creator Alissa Nutting (“Made for Love”).
Lee, who described that piece as a “tone poem,” said that it drew inspiration from tragic events in his life: his wife and frequent collaborator, Alyson Levy, had had a miscarriage and his father had died.
“I was reading ‘Peter Pan’ at the same time,” Lee said, “and there were all these issues of memories and ghosts swirling around. I became fascinated with the idea of metamorphosis — it’s such a cinematic thing — and how it happens in the real world through the act of birth.”
Glazer also had thoughts about pregnancy but they tended to be misgivings. “We’re all told it’s a gain, gain, gain — you’re gaining a baby,” she said. “But there’s a lot of loss around it. Life brings up death. You think of the people you’ve lost who aren’t meeting this baby. You lose the former, pre-parent version of yourself.”
Glazer looked back to the debut of “Broad City” and the experiences of its executive producer Amy Poehler when she became a mother. “I remember Amy getting asked over and over, ‘How do you have it all? How do you do it all? How do you have it all?’” she said.
And she thought about longstanding traditions of childbirth that she regarded as inherently patriarchal and how little they had changed over time. “It’s like, no, no, no — 10,000 years of this system is not going to go away with the latest Instagram update either,” she said.
Glazer and Lee channeled these ideas into the screenplay that would become “False Positive”: the story of a New York professional (Glazer) who, after becoming pregnant, grows increasingly suspicious of her husband (Justin Theroux) and their prominent fertility doctor (Pierce Brosnan) and starts investigating a conspiracy that may exist only in her mind.
The writers learned more about how to collaborate with each other in the process of drafting the script.
Lee said of Glazer, “I knew her well enough in the comedy world, but did she really want to make weird things? Was she into Lynch? Did she know Zulawski? She’s like, yeah, I want to make this. And she gave it a more grounded structure to hang all these things on.”
Their screenplay got them the support of A24, the independent studio behind thrillers like “Hereditary” and “The Lighthouse,” as well as the involvement of co-stars like Brosnan.
“It was a movie that my wife read and said, you have to do this,” Brosnan recalled, adding that he was interested in “False Positive” because it addressed “a gnarly, thorny subject” and dramatized “what happens in our society to women at the most joyous and vulnerable time of their lives, when they’re trying to have a child.”
Though Brosnan wasn’t initially familiar with “Broad City” — “I’m so far behind on TV, I mean decades,” he explained — he said he received a crash course in Glazer’s methods when he arrived on the set.
“I remember the first night I met her, I went down to Brooklyn where they were filming and Ilana was there, butt-naked, covered in blood,” he said. “And I thought, wow. OK. Game on.”
But when it came to the actual production of the film, which took place in spring 2019, Glazer said bluntly, “It was a horror to make.”
Part of that difficulty, she said, came from a sense of identification with the protagonist and Glazer’s growing understanding that the scenes and actions she writes for her characters are things she must actually do in front of a camera.
“In ‘Broad City,’ we would write these ridiculous, vulnerable comedic scenes,” she said. “We’re separating ourselves from the characters, thinking it’s funny.” As shooting progressed on “False Positive,” she said she came to realize, “I’m not pretending. I’m not making anything up. I’m lending myself to what the character needs to go through and we’re capturing that.”
The physical demands of filming gradually took their toll on Glazer, whether spending extended periods of time in stirrups for a gynecological exam scene or shooting a hallucinatory sequence that required her to be submerged in a bathtub.
“It was so hard and so painful,” Glazer said of the experience. “At the end I got the flu for a week.”
“After certain takes I would try to give her hugs,” Lee said. “She would say to me, can you just be really close to me in this scene? And I would do it and be right next to her.”
Glazer said that the release of “False Positive” was never intended to coordinate with her due date, and aligned only because of various pandemic-related delays that limited earlier opportunities for the movie to be shown at other film festivals. (Also, a release date for the movie in April put it too close to National Infertility Awareness Week.)
Now that she has experienced pregnancy for herself, Glazer said she had no regrets making “False Positive,” but she was pleased that none of the phantasmagoric or downright dire outcomes imagined in the film came to pass for her.
“My horror came from what I have been told about the traumas of pregnancy and birth, how it ruins your body, it ruins your work,” she said. “My experience in life has been so different from that, so much warmer and softer and colorful, more beautiful and hotter than I’ve ever been told it would be.”
After she gives birth, Glazer said, she planned to take a maternity leave of about four months from her production company and then return to telling stories about a range of human experiences.
“I’m really inspired to keep going,” she said. “After my break I’m stoked to come back and go hard.”
Glazer thought for a moment and realized she’d had a change of heart. “You know what?” she said. “My new perspective on everything is, I’m going to go soft. The system tells us, go hard, push push push. I’m going to go soft.”
Dave Itzkoff is a culture reporter whose latest book, “Robin,” a biography of Robin Williams, was published in May 2018. More about Dave Itzkoff
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