Celebrating Queer Joy
Director Andrew Ahn and actor-writer Joel Kim Booster go on an LGBTQ rom-com vacation to Fire Island
Fire Island is a big Queer road trip overflowing with laughs, tears, love, and most of all friendship. Director Andrew Ahn (Spa Night, Driveways) and actor-writer Joel Kim Booster deliver one of the year’s most delightful surprises with their energetically engaging romantic comedy. A sensation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, this beguiling winner is a lovely little gem that only gets better as it goes along, building to a raucously charming finale that held me happily spellbound.
I caught up with Ahn and Booster to chat about their effervescent critical darling. Here are the edited transcripts of what they had to say:
Sara Michelle Fetters: Joel, who the heck decides to take Pride and Prejudice and Clueless and transform that into Fire Island?
Joel Kim Booster: Yeah, I am this idiot. [laughs]
The genesis was really simple. I went to Fire Island for the first time in 2016 with Bowen Yang. The book that I brought with me to read at the beach was Pride and Prejudice. While I was reading it, I was struck by just how relevant it felt to me in that moment on that island, surrounded by Gay people and the ways in which Gay men sort of create these artificial class systems that separate us from each other. The parallels felt really stark to me in that moment.
It started as a joke, to be honest, as a threat that I would say over drinks. I would say, “Wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote Gay Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island?” Slowly, over time, I would go back to Fire Island and I would bring a different Jane Austen book with me. Austen’s themes felt so relevant to me and related to what we were experiencing on that island.
SMF: Andrew, there’s some humor in in both Spa Night and Driveways, but those are not exactly comedies.
Andrew Ahn: Right.
SMF: What was it about Joel’s script that excited you? What made you the right person for the job?
AA: I received the screenplay for the feature about a year into the pandemic, and it had been a year of not getting to see my friends, not getting to go out and drink and be stupid. I saw in Joel’s script exactly what I wanted to do, and so if I couldn’t do it in life, maybe I could do it in this movie. [laughs]
For me, this was exciting. I love that it’s a film that celebrates chosen family, that it celebrates Queer Asian-American joy. There was substance to this. I don’t know if I would have done any other rom-com, but because of what this story had in its center, in its heart, I had a way into it.
I was really excited by the challenge of directing a comedy. I think it’s so much harder than directing drama. It’s nerve-wracking, because a joke either lands or it doesn’t. It’s a real challenge.
It’s super precise, but in the pre-production with the screenplay, in production with the actors, and then in post-production with my editor, we were trying to make sure that we found that humor and always retained that heart. I think it’s that balance that makes Fire Island feel special.
SMF: Maybe I’m completely off base, but the first time I watched it, I felt like I could feel influences of the late 1990s, early 2000s LGBTQ Queer cinema boom. There were all of these romantic comedies that came out, mostly populated by straight actors playing Queer roles. Some tended to be very facile. It was like representation was all that mattered and little else. The basic scenarios were kind of clichéd and mundane. I feel like the pair of you took those tropes and decided to say no, we’re actually going to go deeper than that.
JKB: I grew up loving Nora Ephron. I grew up loving rom-coms. That’s always been a part of my DNA as a person and as a writer, really. I worked at a video rental store and was able to find movies like Big Eden and Trick and Kissing Jessica Stein and Mambo Italiano. I loved them. I devoured them because those were all that we had at the time.
As much as Fire Island is a subversion of some of those tropes, it is an homage too. I wanted to honor some of those early Queer filmmakers who maybe didn’t have the platform that I have with this movie. I loved those movies and I wanted to honor them.
AA: We never looked down on the genre. We always thought of the rom-com with reverence. I think we put our own spin on it and we tried different things, but it’s very cool to have done this. I took it as seriously as I would take a drama in terms of finding emotional truth. It’s not just a fun, fluffy thing. I think that a lot of people might be expecting that, but I told Joel, even before I got the job, “I want people to watch this film and say that this film had no business being this good.” We went into it with that attitude.
SMF: Now I’m going to need and go back rewrite my review. I literally use that exact line. [laughs]
AA: Don’t rewrite your review. You can use the line. [laughs]
SMF: What I love about what you both just said there, though, is that it’s clear that you took the material seriously. I think one of the big mistakes that a lot of modern romantic comedies make, whether they be Gay, straight, or whatever, it’s almost like they’re trying to Airplane them. Everyone is kind of in the background, winking at the camera. Everybody’s in on the joke.
Even with a narration, even as flamboyant as things become, you never allowed anybody to wink back at the camera. These are real characters living through these situations, not walking punchlines standing around just to be the butts of a few jokes.
AA: Absolutely. I’m a pretty sincere person, which makes being around comedians difficult at times. Joel would joke around with me and I would take him so seriously and he’d be like, “I’m joking.” I didn’t know that.
But I think that there are real stakes in this. The things that happen to these characters, what happens to Luke with Dex, these are difficult things that our community has to deal with. The racism. The classism. There are very important and difficult themes that we’re tackling, and we never wanted to be glib.
I think that we wanted to emphasize the Queer joy of it all, but I think you can’t have the joy unless you acknowledge what we’re rising up out of. We leaned into the kind of range of experiences that these characters are going through, both good and bad.
SMF: Joel, I do have to ask, when you’re structuring this script and you’re putting it all together, when we’re talking about the racism, the classism, and the ageism, how do you structure things so that you’re not being preachy or didactic, that you’re letting these moments and the weight of what’s happening to these characters have meaning yet still are allowed to be funny?
JKB: I guess I’m uniquely positioned to do that, because so much of this was just ripped from the headlines of my life and my friendship with Bowen. Many of those conversations are truly remixes of conversations that I’ve had with Bowen or situations we’ve both experienced, like the moment we walk into that party and someone says, “I think you’re at the wrong house.” That happened to me.
A lot of it was just about digging into and mining my own life and them handling those moments with a grounded sort of realism. In those moments, when I lived them, they didn’t feel like teaching moments, they just felt like regular, everyday experiences that I think a lot of Queer Asian men experience in places like Fire Island. I honestly went into all of this with a sense of honesty. I didn’t set out to teach anybody anything. I think if that happens, then it’s great, but it’s sort of ancillary to the original goal.
SMF: You talk about your friendship with Bowen, and it’s so clear in the film the two of you have this naturalistic rapport with one another. Where do Noah and Howie begin and Bowen and Joel end?
JKB: They’re definitely not one in the same. I think, especially for Bowen, he is a lot more confident and self-possessed than Howie is at points in the movie. Asking Bowen to go to some of those dark places was actually quite difficult. I think it shows a lot of his range as an actor that he was able to be as vulnerable and do some of those scenes.
For me, I think it was about showing the duality of my personality. But I think there’s a lot of me in both of these characters. On one hand, I’m cynical and sort of brash. On the other hand, I’m a huge cornball. I think that the duality of those two parts of myself was rendered in the movie in the ways in which those various romances play out. You have the big sort of romantic rom-com — some might say unrealistic — ending, and then you have the more measured, grounded ambiguity of Will and Noah’s ending.
SMF: Andrew, when you’re dealing with an ensemble of this size and you need to make sure that each character gets their moment to shine, how do you handle that? What’s the balancing act like?
AA: This is going to sound very silly, but my priority was Joel. I wanted to make sure that we really understood Noah’s point of view. More importantly, with him being the writer, I knew that my collaboration with Joel went beyond just his character. This relationship was also going to help me understand every character.
But I think we all went into this with a spirit of generosity. Everybody knew that this was a big ensemble, and sometimes you’re in a scene where you got a lot of different actors and the focus will not be on you. But it was always so much fun when we opened up takes to ad-lib and improvisation. We really got some fun reaction shots.
It was never this thing where someone was being short-shifted. I wanted to make sure that we all knew why we were there together in each and every scene. This cast understood the importance of what we were doing, and they were really inspired by Joel’s screenplay.
We also got a free trip to Fire Island out of it. We got paid to be on Fire Island. [laughs]
SMF: Joel, you have a scene in the film that I don’t want to go into a lot — I don’t want to spoil it — but you have a moment with Margaret Cho rather late in the film. It’s so beautifully underplayed by the both of you. But I do wonder, for you, standing there in a scene, having this really emotional moment with somebody like Margaret, what’s going through your head while you’re there on the set?
JKB: It’s completely surreal. I’ve said it many times, but Margaret changed my life. I can draw a straight line from All-American Girl to this movie. Before that show, I had no conception of what was possible for me as an Asian American Queer person in entertainment. I was a little kid, and the only Asian people I saw on screen were martial artists or, quite honestly, the butt of a joke. That was it.
To see someone in control, with agency, it was life-changing for me. It really did alter the course of my life. Then to discover her standup later in life, before I even ever had an inkling of doing standup myself — she is such a part of me and what I do.
To have Margaret there was really wonderful. A dream. And then to have her defer to me and Andrew, to ask us for notes and things, that was so bizarre. I was just like, you’re Margaret Cho. You can do whatever you want and we’ll be happy. The fact that you’re even here is just incredible.
She did not disappoint on any level. As a human being. As a performer. As a comedian. It was wonderful to have Margaret there.
SMF: Now that audiences are going to get a chance to see this film outside of the festival circuit, with its big Hulu premiere on June 3, what do you hope viewers take away after watching the film? What do you want them to be talking about afterward?
AA: For me, I hope that people celebrate their friendships. I think we live in a world where we have to do a lot of self-care. I think that that’s super important. I think part of self-care is community care. It’s about supporting each other and celebrating your friendships.
I hate it when someone gets into a relationship and then they abandon their friends. I hope people recognize who made us who we are, and that you should go on vacation with them! [laughs] Go on a big Gay trip, just one with hopefully not as much drama as these characters encounter, but hopefully one where you have just as much fun.
JKB: I think it’s about joy, and finding the joy in being Gay and being Queer. I had a friend who saw the movie last night say, “It just made me so happy that I was Gay.” A lot of the media aimed at our community is about our trauma. It’s about coming out. It’s about hate crimes. It’s about all the struggles of being Gay. Those stories are valid and need to be told, but I also think that there’s room for Queer joy, too. I hope people come away from this movie feeling that joy.
Fire Island is now streaming on Hulu.
– Interview reprinted courtesy of the SGN in Seattle