We sit down with the director and writer/star of the Asian-centered gay romcom to talk Austen, toxic gays, and more.
In Searchlight Pictures’ latest, the Asian-centered gay romcom Fire Island, screenwriter and star Joel Kim Booster transports the timeless story of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice from Regency England to the famous (or infamous) gay vacation spot. The film follows a group of friends as they face the joys and sorrows of love and found families during a fabulous week on the island.
The Spool sat down with Booster, as well as director Andrew Ahn (Driveways), to discuss the eternal appeal of Jane Austen, the shifting landscape of queer cinema, and how to make the most of your first trip to Fire Island. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Fire Island is based on Pride and Prejudice, starting off with that famous line [It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife]. What inspired you to want to adapt Austen?
JOEL KIM BOOSTER: The genesis of the movie is pretty simple. When I first went to Fire Island with Bowen [Yang], I brought Pride and Prejudice to read on the beach. And while I was there, it really struck me how relevant Jane Austen’s work was, to me, as a 21st-century gay man. The ways she talked about class, specifically the way I think in which people communicate and interact with each other across class lines were laid bare. It reminded me of the ways in which gay men create these artificial classes in our own community.
It started as a joke: “wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote a gay ‘Pride and Prejudice’ in Fire Island?” And over the years as we kept coming back to Fire Island the story just crystalized.
Andrew, what drew you to the project?
ANDREW AHN: I received this script for the feature about a year into the pandemic, and I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time. We couldn’t go out to the club to go out and drink and have fun and be stupid, and I saw in Joel’s script this story about queer Asian American friendship that just reminded me so much about my life. I wanted to make the film because I wanted to honor that and celebrate that part of who I am and my community.
You can definitely tell the type of community you had in the film, and the chemistry you had with the rest of the ensemble. How did you build that camaraderie?
JKB: Bowen and Matt [Rogers] and I were all really good friends going on about a decade now. So that was pretty easy to replicate in the movie. With the others, I knew Torian [Miller] from Chicago since I had cast him in a play in 2014, but we weren’t super close. Tomas [Matos] was a complete discovery.
It really was lightning in a bottle. We all got along so well and slotted so seamlessly into our roles in both the movie and real life. We spent a lot of time together in this movie. Once we got on the island it really came to a head because we were all living in the same house. It wasn’t difficult at all; we got really, really lucky with who we cast.
AA: It was such a loving cast, you know? And part of it was because everybody knew how cool and important this story is. We had a table read before filming and we could tell in the room that this was going to be great. I think the spirit of fun and excitement and inspiration allowed us to enjoy our time together.
I loved our time on the island, it felt like we were the Bennett sisters living in this house. My room shared a vent with Joel’s room and I could hear him watching Real Housewives with the cast and they’d cackle. I could go to sleep knowing the girls were doing well. Everybody was so generous to each other because we knew it was special.
Growing up, the gay films I watched were almost always sappy coming-out stories or stuff to make straight people view us as human beings. But [Fire Island] feels like a shift in how mainstream gay movies are made. The last big gay film that was featured on Hulu was Happiest Season, which was very cute but also very much a coming-out story we’ve seen before. Was there any pushback from executives wanting a story that was more palatable to a straight audience, since this movie is so rooted in the gay experience?
JKB: We got very lucky. Searchlight was very supportive of us making a movie that was for our community but wasn’t didactic in any way. We weren’t trying to teach a straight audience what it was to be gay which was very frank. I think they understood that audiences know when they’re being condescended to. They were very generous with us and allowed us to tell a story that was really for us and they didn’t make us water it down. But while there are jokes that will go straight over straight audience’s head, there’s enough in it that is universal that anyone can key into.
AA: I love that the script makes references to gay life like PreP [Pre-exposure Prophylactics for HIV] but doesn’t explain what it is. If a straight audience doesn’t know, I think that’s fine; not every moment has to be understandable to them. Because ultimately, I made this because I wanted to make my gay friends in Los Angeles a movie just for them. I wanted Joel to have a movie that he can be proud of. And in focusing on these things, we made a film that’s great and the quality will allow it to be universally loved.
On the flip side of that camaraderie and family love were the mean gays. Obviously, there was inspiration from Austen’s characters but I was curious: Were any of the antagonist characters or awkward situations based on real-life?
JKB: So much of that movie is ripped from the headlines of my life and my experience on that island. The moment where we walked into a party and someone said “I think you’re at the wrong house” has happened to me twice on Fire Island. It is the dichotomy of that experience: going to Fire Island can be so transformative and wonderful and then you can encounter the moments of deep toxicity. It can really ruin the experience if you don’t go with the right people.
What would you say to a newbie who’s never been to Fire Island but is going for the first time?
JKB: It’s all about the people you go with. Everyone I know who’s had a negative experience has gone with people they don’t know well. For me, it’s always been about going with my chosen family. If you go with the right people it’s an amazing week. So choose the right people and it can be a transformative experience.