Based on the classic Jane Austen book Pride and Prejudice, the new Fox Searchlight film Fire Island has an important story to tell LGBTQ+ audiences specifically. In that story, there are plenty of laughs along the way, thanks to the hilarious and poignant script written by Joel Kim Booster that's about a gay cultural divide.
Out and proud stars are connected to the project including Booster himself, Saturday Night Live's Bowen Yang and comedian Margaret Cho. The storyline is set in the Pines of Long Island, New York, on Fire Island, a popular resort destination for the gay community.
The plot follows an eclectic group of friends staying at the home of lesbian owner Erin (Cho) while relaxing in a party atmosphere away from their usual lives. Looking for love while navigating friendships is a challenge for anyone, and that is depicted in the flamboyant adventure.
Booster has written for LGBTQ+ shows such as Billy on the Street, Big Mouth and The Other Two. His acting includes a previous history with Hulu, the company that will stream Fire Island, with the series Shrill.
Andrew Ahn is an openly gay Korean American director who has brought audiences the films Steam Room and Driveways in the past; he now directs Fire Island.
Booster mentioned on the microphone before Fire Island's first public screening at Landmark Century Centre Cinema on May 9 about how proud he was to return as an Illinois native to promote the movie. The early screening was followed by a festive party at Virgin Hotel's Cerise Rooftop that same night.
Booster and Ahn discussed their new endeavor together at the hotel the following day.
Windy City Times: Joel, can you talk about the writing process and creation of Fire Island?
Joel Kim Booster: I brought Pride and Prejudice to read on my first summer going to Fire Island with Bowen. While reading that book on that island the parallels really struck me of what Jane Austen wrote about class and my own experience in the artificial class system that gay men have created for themselves, which is really brought to the fore in a place like Fire Island.
It started as a joke. I didn't think I would ever write a gay version of Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island, but every year subsequently I would bring a different Jane Austen book to read on the beach and it became clear what the story would be.
WCT: Was this also an opportunity to produce your own representation instead of waiting for Hollywood to come along and do it for you?
JKB: That was a big reason that I wanted to write the movie as well.
Conventional wisdom might say that Bowen and I go in for the same parts but would never be in a movie together. That was frustrating for us coming up in the business and also now in our current careers. I decided to do it myself.
As much as Bowen and I check some of the same demographic boxes, we are very different. There is a huge range between us. It was important for us to show that.
WCT: How was Hulu to work with as far as depicting some of the graphic sex scenes in Fire Island?
Andrew Ahn: I tell Joel all the time that I can't believe he bamboozled Searchlight into green lighting this movie! Even in 2016 after making Spa Night with a gay Asian protagonist I still don't know how that would get made in a major studio system.
This felt really significant and special as an opportunity. I asked Joel exactly how explicit this movie would be and we both wanted to show the sex on Fire Island. That part of the story shouldn't be sanitized or shied away from.
We talked with producers and executives about how much we could show. I did ask them about penises but instead, they told me I could have as many butts as I wanted, so I said, "I'll take it!"
WCT: Andrew, your film Driveways was one of my favorites that year. How has the progression from that film to this current film been?
AA: Thank you. I think filmmakers like Ang Lee or Todd Haynes have had careers I would really like to one day have. They work in different genres and explore different themes but at the heart of it, they have a real sense of humanity. They make high-quality films and that is what I hope to do in my career. I want to explore different things and grow as a filmmaker and as a human being.
One of the reasons that I wanted to make this movie was because I wanted to go to Fire Island and have the opportunity to do that. This is my version of Ang Lee's Sense and Sensibility, but gay and set on Fire Island.
WCT: The HIV prevention drug PrEP is casually mentioned a few times in the movie. Did you feel like you had to explain to the audience what PrEP actually is?
JKB: No. It is woven into the fabric of my life like so much of this movie. I didn't even think about the fact that PrEP has probably not been mentioned in many movies before this.
It is just a reality of my sex life and the sex lives of most of my friends. It came from an honest place and was organic at the moment. I am glad we didn't have to explain it. The people on the island know what it is so we didn't have dialogue such as, "PrEP, you know the thing you take every day to not catch HIV…"
For a certain audience, it is going to feel very authentic and although some audience members might not know what PrEP is, they can look it up and find out about it.
WCT: I didn't see a lot of content in Fire Island for straight audiences, but thought maybe I have been conditioned to feel that way. Our community definitely deserves to have more gay movies.
JKB: Yes, this is one thing that can be just for us! It is true. We weren't really concerned about teaching straight audiences about gay culture. Thematically there is so much in there that is universal with friendship, love and family. For example, I have never been to Mordor, but I still like Lord of the Rings. There are things to connect to no matter what. People will be able to key into this no matter what their background because we all have a group of friends like this and we all love to have fun!
WCT: How was tackling the subject of the division of the gay community within itself on Fire Island? Joel, your comedy background makes the jokes easy but the drama must have been challenging for you to write.
JKB: That part is really going to surprise a lot of people. People will turn to this movie thinking it will be a fun romp, but so much of it is ripped from the headlines of my life such as my friendship with Bowen and the things we have experienced on that island. Walking into a party and being mistreated has happened to me personally on Fire Island. It was really traumatic and damaging.
I wanted to honor the breadth of experience that Asian gay men face in this community. It wouldn't have felt like an honest movie if I hadn't tackled those things. If I am going to title a movie Fire Island then it has to be a 360-degree view of it.
WCT: Did you consider making the friend group all Asians?
JKB: Only Bowen and I had our races delineated in the script. For the other characters, we saw actors of every race. It fell into place that Margaret Cho and Conrad Ricamora were cast that it became a more heavily depicted Asian movie.
If we saw people with the right chemistry there could have been a version with an all-Asian cast, but I am glad it worked out the way it did. We got a little bit of everything in the movie.
WCT: How long have you known Bowen?
JKB: I have known Bowen for close to a decade. I met him for the first time when I moved to New York close to 2015. We have been close ever since we had an immediate connection with not a lot of us being in the industry. There are more now, but we really bonded back then.
WCT: Joel, we judged a singing contest together for Windy City Gay Idol at Spin Nightclub many years ago and I remember you being smaller. When did you bulk up with muscles?
JKB: [laughs] Honestly, I went through a very bad breakup in the past and that pushed me to start taking yoga. It grew from there. Going to the gym is a meditative experience for me.
WCT: What does the tattoo on your shoulder signify?
JKB: It is a Jane Austen quote from Mansfield Park and is also an anal sex joke. There is some disagreement on if she knew what she was doing when she made the reference or not. "Of rears and vices, I saw enough" is from a character talking about the navy and seeing guys fuck each other in the ass. It shows the range she has as a writer!
WCT: For the sequel of Fire Island are you planning on going to Provincetown or Palm Springs?
JKB: It will either be an anthology of gay locations or it will be similar to Sex and the City's And Just Like That… where we come back in 20 years. Hopefully, Bowen won't be the Kim Cattrall hold out and will come back for it!
WCT: What are you both working on next?
JKB: My Netflix special Psychosexual is coming on June 21 and I am hosting another Netflix gay comedy special called Stand Out that comes out June 14. I am on a new Apple TV+ series called Loot with Maya Rudolph that comes out June 24.
That is my June. I will be sleeping for three months straight after that!
AA: I have nothing that I can talk about yet, but a lot of cool stuff!
WCT: How is everyone celebrating Pride this year? Sounds like you are really busy, Joel.
JKB: I will be in San Francisco with my boyfriend for Pride.
AA: I will be traveling with the movie. I am excited for Provincetown and I am super-psyched for the screening in San Francisco. The press for this will be fun because it is a celebration.
Fire Island turns up the heat on the streaming service Hulu on Friday, June 3.