Fire Island began the way many good scripts do, with a ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if…?’ prompt. That was the kernel that popped for Joel Kim Booster, turning his friendship with Bowen Yang and their escapades at the East Coast gay enclave into one of the year’s sharpest and funniest films.
An adaptation of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, much in the same way that 1996’s Clueless reimagined Austen’s Emma, Fire Island follows a group of close friends on what could be their final summer on the famously, and infamously, gay island mecca where love is sometimes found, sometimes fleeting. But amongst the trees and bushes of the Meat Rack is also racism, substance abuse, body politics and issues of class and confidence that Ahn and Booster explore with directness, honesty and humor.
I sat down with both to discuss telling queer stories, what Fire Island has meant to them personally (both the place and the film), their first exposure to queer media and, like all of us love to do, talk about how great Bowen Yang is.
Erik Anderson: First, a question for both of you, what was your first experience with queer media growing up, and then seeing yourself in it?
Joel Kim Booster: Gosh. I’m sure, probably the first experience I had with queer media was very likely Will & Grace, which I was such a huge fan of the NBC comedy block. So to see gay people rendered in that and… it was that, but I will say later on, when I started working at a movie rental store in high school, I really was able to, I loved the gay rom-coms of like TLA releasing and Wolfe Studios. And like, Big Eden, Mambo Italiano, Latter Days, Kissing Jessica Stein, Trick, all of it was like, I devoured those movies when I was developing my own sensibilities as writer and creator and stuff like that. So this movie is an homage as much, those movies walk so this movie could run.
Andrew Ahn: I think the first queer people that I knew about were like musicians actually, like I remember watching a Korean music program where Boy George was their guest and asking my grandma like, “Who is this?” Because I was obsessed with Boy George, like immediately. And then like weirdly being into k. d. Lang as a child and just thinking like “Constant Craving” was like a bop, but yeah, I remember watching the Wedding Banquet, actually, and it was a film that my mom rented from the video rental store, because she was like, “Oh, this is that Asian movie that white people are watching. Let’s see what it’s about.” Not knowing that it was gay and then me watching this, and I think I was eight years old, I remember every scene of that film, because there was just something about it that spoke to me. And it’s interesting to make a rom-com when the first kind of gay Asian thing that I saw was a rom-com.
EA: It’s a full circle moment. Joel, how much of Fire Island is personal experience for you and also why is Jane Austen such a great conduit for gay drama?
JKB: Yeah, I mean, so much of it is deeply personal. It’s so much based on my friendship with Bowen and the experiences that we’ve had and the late night conversations that we’ve had splitting a joint, but for me, I mean the genesis of the entire movie started when the first trip we ever took Bowen and I to Fire Island, I brought Pride and Prejudice with me as my beach read. And I remember reading it there and just being on the beach and putting it down and turning to Bowen and saying like, “This is insane.” But like, everything she is talking about in this book is so relevant to what we are experiencing on this island, the class divisions and the ways people communicated across class. And it crystallized all the things I experienced on Grindr in terms of, I was like, “Oh, it’s class.”
We’ve created these artificial classes within our community to separate ourselves. And it was so much clearer when you’re in a place like Fire Island, where there are no straight people to oppress us, like how do we oppress each other? And it started as a joke. It started as a threat, honestly. Wouldn’t it be funny if I made gay Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island and people would boo and throw things at the end? And then we would go year after year and I would bring Jane Austen with me every time. And it just slowly began to form this story. And it felt like the most appropriate, honest way to communicate the things that Bowen and I had experienced together. And I don’t know, she writes about friendship and family so well and richly in her books as well. And that felt really real to my relationship to Bowen. So all of it just came together.
EA: Have you always felt like an Elizabeth Bennett or have you traversed all of the sisters?
JKB: You know, I have traversed them all. I felt a little bit all of them, but I think that, as much as Howie is Bowen, I think Howie and Noah represent the duality of my own personality, because I am, on one hand, very cynical and grounded and that’s my standup, and who I am as a comedy person, but I also grew up loving Nora Ephron and rom-coms. And I’m a huge cornball. I am such a sap. And to be able to play out both of those ideas in the ways in which these two romances play out was really gratifying, fun, and important to me.
EA: Andrew, I think about the conversation we had, I think it was a year and a half ago, about Driveways. And after doing more quiet dramas like it and Spa Night, what was the thing that was like, “I can do this, I should do this. Let’s do this!”
AA: [laughs] So I got the script for the feature a year into the pandemic and it had been a long time since I had gone out to drinks with friends, gone dancing, been stupid, and I saw in the script this celebration of queer Asian American joy that reminded me so much of my friend group and that heart to it really reminded me of the heart that the screenplay for Driveways had that I tried to put into spanning. And so I felt like I had a real way in, I remember interviewing for this job, like showing Joel and the producers in Searchlight, photos of my friend group saying like, “I want to make this for them.” And then having to convince them that I had some sense of humor, but I was never worried about the comedy.
I do think comedy is so hard, it’s a very precise skill to render a joke in cinema that involves writing, performance, cinematography, editing, sound design even, every little thing can make a joke work, but I was working with the best, I was so glad to be working with this cast. I think if I had made Joel and Bowen and Margaret Cho unfunny, I should leave the business.
And they were so generous, they were super generous with me, and I think we just had a ton of fun, a lot of the great lines in the film are fun ad-libs that people were throwing in, Joel was constantly thinking of alts for jokes. And I think that just it was about creating an environment where we could play and have fun so when people watch it, not only would the jokes land, but that also, they could see that we’re having as much fun as we want them to have fun watching the film.
EA: Yeah. Joel, one of the things I really love about the script is how open and naked it is about molly or ketamine or PrEP. I can’t think of a mainstream movie that has mentioned PrEP much less, have it be a part of what we’re watching. How important was it for you to make sure that was a part?
JKB: It’s so funny, you’re not the first person to bring this up. And it really wasn’t even a thought, honestly, PrEP has just been a part of the fabric of my life since PrEP has been a thing and being honest about the way I communicate with my friends and about sex and love and relationships, it just was like, oh, of course, if this character is interrogating the other character about what’s word about sex, PrEP is going to come up and I don’t even think we ever had a conversation about it. It was just like this thing that was a part of the fabric of my life. And this movie I wanted to feel real, or at least real to me, and honest about the way I live my life. And all of those things were just a no brainer for me.
AA: I love that the film doesn’t explain what these things are, I think a lesser studio might have given us the note to be like, “Oh, can you explain what PrEP is?” And I think we always had it very clear, like our priority was to make this for queer people, for queer Asian Americans. If a joke goes over a straight person’s head, that’s totally fine.
EA: I think that speaks to the fact that it feels organic. It doesn’t feel inserted. It just is and it’s done in a way that expresses both the good and the bad, but without a whole lot of judgment of either.
EA: There’s a lot of gay rights, but there’s also gay wrongs. And I was here for that.
Joel: [laughs] Exactly.
AA: I mean, I think that’s like, speaking to the authenticity of the film that we were trying to capture, I think being gay, you go through a range of experiences, like going on vacation, you go through a range of experiences and we didn’t want to shy away from what’s difficult in this film, like the racism, the classism, talking about sexual encounters, consent, it’s not all fluffy material. And so we didn’t want to be glib about it ever. And then we also wanted to show the joy of being together with your friends. I think it’s that dichotomy that allows us to feel like, oh, this feels like a real trip, like a real experience. And I think it’s also the darker stuff that lets us really celebrate the joys. It allows it to pop more and gives it meaningfulness that the joy comes from something hard.
EA: Andrew, I have a question from a fan, a Matt Rogers, who wants to know ‘if the acting was good?’
At this point both Joel and Andrew explode in laughter and Andrew almost falls out of his chair.
AA: Oh my God. No, no, no. Oh my God. You know, working with Matt, I mean, working with just such amazing comedians, there were so many bits and I was like lost at sea. I didn’t know how to respond to him ever. I just kept being really sincere being like, “It was really great, Matt.” And I think he was unsatisfied by that answer, but I can’t believe it. He’s going to haunt me. It’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.
EA: Speaking of acting, the rest of the interview is just going to be about Bowen Yang. I hate using a word like revelation, but we almost exclusively see him in comedy and excelling at it, but he brings drama in this that I was not expecting.
JKB: I think both of us are really extremely proud that we’ve given Bowen a platform to show his range. And I think a lot of people are going to be really surprised. I think people love him as the Iceberg and any number of characters that he’s played on that show, but I’ve always known Bowen has this in him. And this part was always for Bowen. And there was actually a moment in pre where there was some question of scheduling if it would work, if Lorne [Michaels] would let him do this movie and they said, “You should think of a backup.” And I said, “There is no backup. There is no one else who can do this movie.” And do this movie with me specifically, because so much of it is so personal to our relationship. And quite honestly, he has the tougher job. I ask him to do a lot of the heavy lifting dramatically in the movie and he did it and he went there and he did it well. And I’m so proud of him and I can’t wait for people to see it.
AA: Bowen’s amazing. He has the really tough job of being the super vulnerable one. That’s not easy to do. And I could tell Bowen was digging deep to access things that are really uncomfortable, questions of self-worth and your confidence, these are things that we all went through growing up, coming of age as queer people, but he had to put on screen, like have that bubble back up. And things that he’s definitely worked to move beyond in his personal life. And I asked him to go back to that and that’s not an easy thing to ask a friend to do but… he does it with so much grace and he believes so much in Joel, in this project, in me as a director, he was just such a wonderful collaborator.
I want the world for him, and I’m so excited for people to see Bowen and Joel in a slightly different light that they can do it all. I want them to be superheroes. I want them to win Oscars. I think it’s so exciting this next generation of queer Asian-American talent.
I think there was no question before that Bowen is a star, but now I think he’s proven that he’s an actor as well. And I’m really proud of that.
EA: And has Bros later in the summer. He’s owning gay summer completely.
AA: I love that our movie has a little bit of Bros connection through Bowen and also the fact that he yells that line about Neighbors 2, which is directed by Nick Stoller, director of Bros.
JKB: Yeah. That’s so funny. I didn’t even think about that.
AA: I know.
EA: I think something exceptional about this too, and it’s crazy that it is exceptional, is that you have queer actors playing queer roles and the writer and the director, I mean, it just is a gay project. And that is been a bit of a conversation recently about who should and gets to play what roles. Do you have any thoughts on that generally or specifically?
JKB: Well, listen, I don’t have anything, on a intrinsic level, I think that anyone should be able to play any part as long as they’re good for their role. I just happen to think that 99.9% of the time a gay person is going to be the best person to play a gay role. And I think we can sniff it out when it doesn’t feel authentic. And we saw straight actors for some of these parts, we did. I mean, it’s illegal to ask. So we did see straight actors for this, but it just, there’s a shorthand that it would’ve taken a lot of work to get a straight person to understand some of the nuances of this movie and these experiences. And so it was just really easy to slip into it with the cast that we had.
AA: I was telling this story to Joel yesterday, that for a short film that I did casting for a gay character, a straight actor came in and I asked him if he had any questions about the role. And he said, “Is my character the man or the woman in the relationship?” And I had to be like, “Well, they’re both men, it’s a gay relationship.” And I didn’t want to have to explain that on this movie, I didn’t want it to go through that. And for me with Fire Island, it was just an opportunity for me to showcase the immense talent of this queer community of actors, we could have populated this movie with other cast members, because there are so many great ones. And I was so glad that we found the best of the best for this film and that they’re going to go on to green light many more movies. It’s a real privilege to do this as a director.
EA: It’s AAPI Heritage Month right now and we will go right into Pride Month after that and Fire Island is sort of the very small Venn diagram there. What does that mean to you personally?
JKB: It means a lot because here’s the thing, I don’t think either of us felt like this movie is about me and Bowen and it is meant to represent our very specific experience. And I think there’s a lot of pressure on especially marginalized creators to when they create a story about a marginalized group for it to represent to be everything to everyone in that group. And I think like for me, I hope that the specificity of this movie proves that you can make a movie that doesn’t have to serve everyone and that there’s room for so many different kinds of stories.
I mean, it’s part of the reason I’m so grateful Bros is coming out at the same time too, there’s so much variety within our community and we’re not a monolith. And I just hope that it continues to open doors and even if you’re gay and Asian and you don’t see yourself represented in this movie, I hope you go out and make your own story and get that told because there is room for everybody. And I hope we’re proving that.
AA: Yeah. I mean, we’re showing two characters, two queer Asian American characters in this film that have very different perspectives and they can still be friends and I know that there are many more perspectives about being queer Asian-American, but I think that this is a step toward getting more of those seen and made. And I can say both of us are so supportive of up and coming talent and wanting people to be able to make their own spanning, make their own Fire Island. I think that for me is the true hope for this film. It’s not just this film, but the many films that it can help get made.
EA: Exactly. Awesome. Thanks so much guys. I can’t wait for everyone to see it.
JKB: Thank you so much, Erik, it was so great to finally meet you.
AA: Thank you, Erik, it was so nice to talk to you in person!
Fire Island is a Searchlight Pictures production and streams exclusively on Hulu beginning June 3. Joel Kim Booster has a new Netflix comedy special that hits the streamer on June 21.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photos: Sam Aronov/Shutterstock, Jeong Park/Searchlight Pictures