The queer film event of the summer, Andrew Ahn’s Pride and Prejudice-inspired romcom Fire Island hits screens on Thursday for a special NewFest Pride premiere before going to Hulu the following day. Starring Joel Kim Booster (who also penned the script) and SNL’s Bowen Yang as best friends Noah and Howie, the film follows the two as they set off for a week of fun in the sun with their crew and get caught up in shenanigans with a gang of snobby muscle bros. We caught up with Ahn to talk all things Fire island:
Your last film Driveways was a quiet, small-town drama. Tell me about switching gears to a buddy comedy set on Fire Island. Have you always wanted to make a comedy?
I’ll say, I don’t think I ever wanted to make a comedy. I’ve always seen myself as a director of dramatic films and really intimate movies, but I really want to have fun in my career and explore different genres. I look to filmmakers like Ang Lee and Todd Haynes as examples of filmmakers who have explored different types of storytelling and I admire them so much. There’s something very precise about comedy – the difference between a joke landing and not could be an eyebrow raise…a reaction shot…a couple of frames in the edit here or there. Even a syllable. My editor Brian A. Kates made a joke work by just making one syllable of a word a little louder. That to me is wild and as a craftsperson, I’m so intrigued by that. It was a real crash course. At the end of the day, the real reason I wanted to make this movie is because I wanted to work with Joel and Bowen. I wanted to work the best queer Asian-American actors that we have in our generation and it just felt so exciting to me as a gay Asian-American man to be a part of this project, to help tell this story about two queer Asian-American friends.
Did you have carte blanche with the studio in terms of queer content?
Searchlight was very collaborative and they had their priorities. They always want something to be faster and funnier. I have my priorities as a storyteller – I wanted to maintain heart and emotion. When it came to queerness, there were certain things Joel and I felt were important to show. We wanted there to be sex scenes because sex happens on Fire Island and to have an entire movie set on Fire Island without sex wouldn’t make sense. So, we had a long conversation with Searchlight about it and basically came down to an agreement that we couldn’t show any dicks, but we could have as many butts as we wanted. That was the compromise that we worked with.
Fair enough. There’s limited space on Fire Island – was it a challenging place to film, logistically speaking?
We ended up filming for about four weeks in Brooklyn, parts of Long Island, across the water from Fire island, and some sound stages….and then we shot two weeks on the island itself. We had to film after Labor Day – they didn’t want us during peak season. Bowen and Joel both had to move on to other projects, so we had this window of time where we could take advantage of all the island’s beauty. We shot all the exteriors then…all those iconic locations like The Blue Whale, the boardwalks. We really wanted to capture that feeling of being there – it’s such a specific landscape and architecture. But it was tough – we had to ferry everything over and we had like, one truck they allowed us to have. We had a rainstorm during one scene that we had to just tough out and work with what Mother Nature was giving us. We were very prepared though – we had it scheduled to the minute and I’m very happy that we did so much prep work.
Back to making sure all the comedy bits hit the right way – how do you watch your dailies? Do you invite the cast in to see how it’s working?
I was pretty private about watching the dailies. I don’t like watching them in general because it makes me anxious. It’s so much about thinking about what you’ve just done…whereas when I’m in production, I’m so focused trying to prepare for the next scene. I showed some of them to Joel – he was very curious – he ultimately wanted to not watch. I think he was getting in his head about it, but the studio and the producers were watching them. The studio watched them all together in a theater, so I was really open to hearing what they had to say about how the footage was coming along. I felt positive going through this that we had the right performances, we had great cinematography. I always felt really optimistic about it.
How’d Margaret Cho come on board? Her part was originally written for a man, right?
Joel had initially gender-swapped the character from Pride and Prejudice, so Mrs. Bennett became Aaron, a male character. And we had another actor cast in that role but he had to drop out and maybe a day or two later Margaret had reached out to our producers and said “Hey, I love the idea of this movie. I love Bowen and Joel. is there anything for me?” and we looked at each other and were like “Yes!” So we gender-swapped the character back and I can’t imagine it any other way. She’s such an icon and such a trailblazer, especially for queer Asian-American talent.
All-American Girl [Cho’s short-lived 90s sitcom] was so major.
Joel talks about how you can draw a direct line from All-American Girl to Fire Island. Her influence is so important to us, and the fact that she plays a mother figure, a mentor, and a friend to this group of queer talent just feels so special to me.
I was just reading Jack Parlett’s new book about Fire Island, and like your film, it addresses the history of racist, classist, and exclusionary attitudes associated with the island. Do you hope your film has the potential to incite discussion?
I really hope that the film forces people to understand that the queer community is not clear of racism and classism – those are problems that plague society so they plague our community as well. I’m excited for the film to spark a discussion. In some ways I’m even more excited for it to inspire action. I really understand the limit to art in some ways – representation is great, but I also want people to go out there and donate to mutual aid funds, I want them to vote, I want them to protest. I think that part of the equation…working towards a more equitable society…that needs to be supported as much as the Hollywood industry part of the equation.
There’s a funny scene where two characters discuss Alice Munro, and one is surprised that anyone is reading a book in such a hedonistic atmosphere. Have you ever been that guy tucked in a book while people are partying and carrying on around you? Was this a nod to the island’s rich literary past?
I remember when I first got the screenplay, I didn’t know much about it. I’d actually never been there before making the film. The one fun fact about Fire Island that I knew was that Frank O’Hara, one of my favorite poets, died there.
A car accident, right? Like with a dune buggy?
Yeah, he got run over. So i knew about it because of that. Joel’s a big reader – his first trip that he went on to Fire Island with Bowen, he brought Pride and Prejudice with him. That was his beach read. So that moment in the film, it was very much inspired by how Joel likes to have his Fire Island vacations. Every summer after that trip, he’d bring another Jane Austen novel as a tradition. So it feels really special now that we’ve made the movie.
You guys will totally love that book I mentioned before. It’s like this queer literary history of the island and talks about people like Paul Cadmus, James Baldwin, Donald Windham, Jack Dunphy, Patricia Highsmith – what they created there and what was going on in their lives and the world around them at the time.
What’s it called again?
Fire Island: A Century in the Life of an American Paradise. It’s out in the middle of June.
Sounds great. It’s so interesting you mention Paul Cadmus. He’s such an inspiration for my work. I love the way his figures look at each other. There’s something about that gay gaze that’s so specific and beautiful and I’ve used as references for every one of my films.
So gorgeous. Speaking of references, I love the nod to Clueless in your movie. Which buddy movies did you watch to get in the mood to make your own buddy comedy?
One of my references was actually Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion.
I love it so much. I tried to find a way to put the whole “I’m the Mary, you’re the Rhoda” bit into the film. I love seeing friendship on screen. There’s something so endearing and it’s so infectious, like…you can’t stop smiling. I love that Joel and Bowen are real-life friends – they have a sense of history in their performances in this movie, and a real vulnerability with each other. They are at their best in their scenes together because they’re so generous with each other as friends and as performers. But yeah, I was thinking about stuff like Broad City. Romy and Michelle was the big one for me. And yeah, Joel loves Clueless…he loves that adaptation.
I’d be into a Fire Island sequel. Have there been any discussions about that?
I think the reason why people ask is because the relationships feel so special and they feel so exciting. There’s so many different perspectives amongst the group that you could really mine for more narratives.
Oh, there’s definitely a lot of spinoff potential here.
Yeah, Joel jokes about how instead of doing something any time soon, we should wait 20 years, like Sex and the City/And Just Like That. We’ll gather everyone back, but Bowen will be Kim Catrall and not show up.
“Busy with other projects?”
(Laughs). Yeah. I’d love to do another movie with this cast. They’re just such lovely people. If we don’t do another movie, at least we’ll go on trips together. That for me is fun enough!
Fire Island premieres June 2 at NewFest / Hulu on June 3