When stand-up comedian, writer, and actor Joel Kim Booster had the genius idea to rework Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a modern-day rom-com set on Fire Island centering queer Asian American characters, he turned to Andrew Ahn to direct his screenplay. The queer Korean American filmmaker caught the attention of critics and the entertainment industry at large in 2016 when his beautifully delicate yet searing debut feature Spa Night premiered at Sundance. It was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and won a Special Jury Award for its star Joe Seo, before the film went on to win the 2017 John Cassavetes Film Independent Spirit Award. Ahn built on that success with his follow-up feature, Driveways, written by Somebody Somewhere’s Hannah Bos and Paul Thureen, which premiered at Berlin and was nominated for Independent Spirit Awards for both Best First Screenplay and Best Lead Actress for Hong Chau. He’s also had a busy few years directing major television series, including episodes of FX’s Pride produced by Christine Vachon and HBO’s Genera+ion created by Zelda and Daniel Barnz.
Ahead of Fire Island’s world premiere at NewFest Pride on Wednesday, June 2nd, and its streaming debut on Hulu on Friday, June 3rd, Andrew Ahn spoke exclusively with The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann about his collaboration with Joel Kim Booster, tackling his first rom-com as a filmmaker, what Margaret Cho’s involvement meant to him, his approach to the sex scenes, and the lasting impact that Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet had on him. Read our ★★★★ review of Fire Island.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: congratulations on the film, I had such a good time watching it. I’d expected to laugh a lot, but I hadn’t expected to be moved, especially by a scene set in the Meat Rack! When you were first approached about directing this, what were some of the things in Joel’s the screenplay that drew you in and made you want to devote your time to it?
Andrew Ahn: “I got the script about a year into the pandemic. By that point, I hadn’t seen my friends in a long time. I hadn’t gone out to a bar to drink and dance and be stupid, and I really wanted to go on vacation with my friends too! I saw in Joel’s script for Fire Island everything that I was missing. I love that the screenplay focuses on queer Asian American friendship. I love that it celebrates queer joy and chosen family and it feels really special and meaningful to me to make a film like this in this moment.”
One of my favorite scenes is where Noah and Howie, played by Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang, are sitting on the roof talking soon after they’ve arrived on Fire Island. It essentially places their friendship at the heart of the movie doesn’t it?
“Yeah, and it’s the first scene where we really get to sit with our characters, because the opening minutes of the film are a whirlwind as they’re getting to the island. With that scene, we finally get to see who they are and how much they care about each other. Being real-life friends, Joel and Bowen brought a lot of that friendship to the film. It’s really hard to fake that kind of authenticity and I think they’re fabulous throughout, but especially when they’re with each other. Joel and Bowen are such amazing actors, they’re so vulnerable and generous, and I love their scene work together. That rooftop scene is one of my favorites too.”
I know that you hadn’t been to Fire Island before you agreed to make the film, but I think you’ve captured the vibe of the place brilliantly. It’s such a wonderful escape from the constraints of heteronormativity’s glare in our everyday lives, but of course it has its own social tensions. What did you want to convey about the Fire Island experience?
“Joel and I both felt it was super important to not sugarcoat the experience. We didn’t want to make Fire Island a fantasy vacation. We wanted to address the discrimination that happens within the LGBTQ community, especially amongst cisgender gay men, and a lot of that is brought into the film from Joel’s own personal experiences being on the island. I’m so glad that we didn’t shy away from that. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that and then to understand how we can rely on chosen family and on our friends to bounce back from it and to not care about it. It’s important to find the people who love you for who you are and who value difference, as opposed to the people on the island who are going to judge you for being different. I’m so glad that there’s a hopeful message in the film.”
What were some of the things that you wanted to capture, such as the subtle and sometimes not so subtle manifestation of racism and other social behaviour that has its equivalents in the source material?
“We had to talk about that judgment and we had a great framework in Pride and Prejudice. Austen had great insights into Regency era society that we were trying to find the modern-day queer parallels for. Joel really loved looking for them and exploring them. There’s definitely the class distinctions of wealth and race in the film, but then there’s also the kind of manufactured, arbitrary distinctions about bodytype, or being a top or a bottom. There was a lot that we wanted to address, but we never wanted to be preachy about it or too obvious with it. Also, in showing what is difficult and ugly about the experience, it allows us to feel the joys that much more.”
It feels like a reluctantly romantic movie, partly because of the lead character’s nonconformist take on love and monogamy, and it’s somehow all the more romantic because of that. I love how literate the film is about rom-coms, what’s your own relationship with the genre?
“I’ve never made one before, but I’ve watched a lot of them and love them! I particularly love Ang Lee’s The Wedding Banquet and Alice Wu’s Saving Face, and I’m such a big fan of Pretty Woman. I actually watched You’ve Got Mail on a flight a few months ago and I remember thinking how well-crafted that movie is. It hasn’t aged very well, but I think that’s a sign of great filmmaking. I have a lot of respect for the genre and I think it’s really difficult to do, so I was excited for the challenge. There are different perspectives on romance in Fire Island. You’ve got Noah’s more cynical version and then you’ve got Howie’s more traditional version and I think it’s nice to have both in the same movie.”
What was your approach when it came to sex in the film? It feels like you weren’t shying away from anything; we get the underwear party dark room scene and then there’s an orgy happening at a house party that Noah stumbles into.
“It was really important for us to show sex in the film. Sex happens on Fire Island, so we couldn’t avoid it and we definitely wanted to have it be present in the film. We wanted to do it in a way that was respectful of the actors and so we hired a really great intimacy coordinator, Lizzie Talbot, and her team. She’s also the intimacy coordinator for Bridgerton and it was really wonderful working with her. We wanted to show sex in a way that wasn’t sensationalizing it. We never show a dick just to be like, ‘Wow, look, we’re being edgy!’ It’s men having sex in a dark room, and that’s sexy, that’s what happens here and that’s part of our culture. I think that perspective comes from Joel and I both being gay. If I was a straight director, I might have tried to sensationalize it and been like, ‘Look at what we’re doing!’ Gay sex is real sex and I don’t need to prove it. It’s just there. That was how we wanted to treat the sex scenes in the movie.”
I love Margaret Cho and her character Erin, what did her involvement in the film mean to you?
“Margaret Cho is an icon and she’s a trailblazer, especially for queer Asian American talent. The fact that she plays a mother in this film, a mentor and a friend, feels really special to me. She was so sweet, the nicest human being. She could have been a diva and spat in my face and I still would have been thankful, but the fact that she was actually so kind really inspires me as a filmmaker, as an artist, to pay it forward and continue this legacy of queer Asian American talent that she really trailblazed.”
What did you want your score and song choices to bring to the film?
“With the score, written by Jay Wadley, we wanted to balance this fun, exciting queer adventure with a little nod to Jane Austen and a little nod to classical music. That was a really fun blend. With the songs in the film, we worked with our music supervisors at 20th century, Patrick and Natalie, on the selection process and they were wonderful in helping us find some awesome music. I’m really glad that we have a lot of queer Asian American artists on the soundtrack. We have Madame Gandhi and we’ve got Wills. I think it’s really special that I got to show the depth of our community’s talent. Then of course, we’ve got iconic songs like Donna Summer’s Last Dance. I’m thrilled that we could put a song like that in our film. That’s the kind of song you can only get with a studio budget and it feels really special because so many people love that song. It feels like a great celebration.”
One final question for you, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture; or a person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you resonated with you over the years?
“The Wedding Banquet is really special for me. I watched that film when I was eight years old. My parents rented it from a Blockbuster not knowing that it was gay! It showed me, as a nascent gay boy, what my life could be like. I’m glad that I don’t have a baby with a woman that I fake-married, but I think it’s been a real inspiration for me and I hope that Fire Island can serve as someone else’s Wedding Banquet and that they can make their own movies.”
By James Kleinmann
Fire Island receives its world premiere at NewFest in New York on Thursday June 2nd and debuts on Hulu on Friday June 3rd, 2022. Read our ★★★★ review of Fire Island.