Fire Island Team on the Hulu Movie’s Queer Jokes, Villains and Romance – The Hollywood Reporter

About five minutes into Fire Island, the Joel Kim Booster-written and Andrew Ahn-directed film delivers one of its best needle drops: Kathleen’s cover of Willy Wonka classic “Pure Imagination.”

The moment is a clever play, serving as the background soundtrack to the arrival of the film’s core ensemble. Noah (Booster), Howie (Bowen Yang), Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomás Matos) and Max (Torian Miller) are all carrying their golden tickets to the candy factory that is the iconic island. But as the waves lap at the boat’s edge, the sun casting an almost rainbow glow upon the annual gathering spot, the song begins to mean something else for this modern queer take on Pride & Prejudice.

The lyrical narrative of “Pure Imagination” suggests Fire Island as a place that historically LGBTQ viewers have only been able to dream about when it comes to major studio films — queer-centric comedy, racially inclusive romance, with more relatability through (deconstructed) stereotype. But Booster’s modern spin on the rom-com classic makes that dream a reality onscreen with a take so effortless in its mixture of Austen and queerness that changing the world — at least of Hollywood big screen LGBTQ narratives — seems like “there’s nothing to it.”

During the movie’s New York red carpet premiere Thursday as part of Newfest’s opening night, Ahn told The Hollywood Reporter that was part of a larger vision he and the film’s LGBTQ-led creative team and cast were going for. “I thought a lot about how this was a film for my friends, for my queer community,” Ahn said. “I wanted it to show us as beautiful beings, that our stories are really important and worth telling. And that it can be fun and sexy and irreverent, all at the same time.”

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From left: Andrew Ahn, Joel Kim Booster, Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang, James Scully, Torian Miller, Tomás Matos, Zane Phillips, Conrad Ricamora and Nick Adams
Arturo Holmes/WireImage

Ahn pointed to the talent of writer and star Booster as the one mainly responsible for the film’s seemingly effortless genre and audience mashup. As a first-time screenwriter, the comedian and actor said he initially “just felt like this is not gonna happen,” when it came to getting the movie produced. But that’s what led to him just going “balls to the wall” in how he approached it, writing “as honestly as possible and not only trying to write to an audience that I don’t think would be interested in seeing it.”

Part of that meant that while the rom of the rom-com could be universal, sometimes the com wouldn’t be. “Writing a movie that has something for everyone is almost impossible and I think this really is working on so many levels, different genres, differences in the audience,” producer Brooke Posch said. “So every joke isn’t for everyone, but you can still engage with it.”

“This was something that sold itself and it’s not a monolithic audience either way,” producer John Hodges said about the film’s dual audience, Austen readers and LGBTQ viewers. “There’s a spectrum of characters here and we hope everybody can see a version of themselves.”

Booster said he had the support of Searchlight, who he noted “didn’t pressure me” around the film’s comedy, even when executives didn’t get the joke. “Sometimes they didn’t understand the joke and that was OK. As long as I explained it to them, they didn’t need the whole audience to know,” he said.

Part of that larger joke is something that is deeply entrenched in the film’s relationships and racial dynamics among its diverse ensemble. Something that’s no laughing matter? Fire Island is not only one of a handful of LGBTQ-focused rom-coms by a major studio, but one of a few big-screen romances that features two queer characters of color in a leading onscreen relationship. Having two gay Asian men leading the film was something Booster said “was definitely in the back of my mind” while making the film.

“We saw a lot of people including white men for that role, and it was definitely the hardest one to cast by far. Mr. Darcy is an iconic role and you have to hate him and then you have to love him,” he told THR. “But ultimately — it’s not even a line — we have the best actor for the role and I’m glad it’s Conrad [Ricamora].”

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Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora and Joel Kim Booster
Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Ketel One Family Made Vodka

But around those casting choices like Ricamora’s, Booster’s writing uses key comedic moments to highlight how general racism and microaggressions impact the film’s queer characters of color and the ways they navigate romance and friendships. More specifically, the film explores how racism casually permeates through the LGBTQ community, primarily through several of the film’s gay white villains.

That includes Nick Adam’s Cooper, inspired by a mix of Mean Girls and The Devil Wears Prada‘s Miranda Priestly, who the actor says represents the real social gatekeepers on Fire Island and “in the queer community in general.”

“I think that even outside of our community we all have met someone like this person, who relies on appearance and the perception of others to feel better than and to other people,” he told THR. “I’ve met this guy. I’ve met him on the island. I’ve met him at gay bars. I’ve met him at the gym. We all know who he is. And I think it’s important to show that aspect of our community and a slice of the island that exists out there, too. There are people like that, unfortunately, we all have to kind of navigate around.”

Ahn says this was something he felt comfortable comedically exploring with the film’s white actors, whom he had open conversations with about the issues the film was exploring through Austen’s original archetypes. “With each of the cast members, I had a conversation with them and I got to know a little bit about them as human beings and I remember feeling so confident that they understood the story and they understood our perspective and where the story was centered,” he said.

“If you really read books like Pride & Prejudice, [Jane Austen is] very biting and it’s so relevant,” Booster said about how easy it was to blend his comedic voice and the story he wanted to tell with Austen’s work. “Even today, the comedy in her novels holds up so, so well and it’s all about the ways in which we’re awful to one another without being awful to one another. It’s what’s not being said underneath the surface.”

Having a cast that understood that was something the director said “really relieved me” after a less than positive experience directing a white actor on the set of a TV show. “I directed an episode where there was a racist cop character and the actor playing the cop said to me, ‘I’m so excited to play this role. I want to say racist things,’” Ahn recalled. “I felt immediately so unsafe and I didn’t like that he was getting his rocks off on getting to say and do racist things. So for me, it was really important for our cast that are people of color to know that the people playing these villains aren’t villains themselves.”

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Zane Phillips and Nick Adams
Arturo Holmes/WireImage

That helped build Fire Island into the kind of safe haven for a queer love story — not just about romance, but about friends and family, found or otherwise — that allows it to resonate so deeply, regardless of who is watching.

“The movie shows how in a real group of friends, a sense of racial diversity, of body diversity and diversity of personalities is so important,” star Miller said. “And the real experience was I walked away from this movie cast and crew-wise with a full chosen family, which means so much to me, especially as a queer POC in this country.”

“I do think that nowadays if we’re going to adapt something like Pride & Prejudice and we have people of different points of view in this family, we must show a diverse perspective. Also, I don’t think it would reflect reality for me anyway if I was to go [to Fire Island] with a family and it looked washed out white, to be honest with you,” Rogers told THR about the film’s casting diversity. “We’ve been there. We’ve seen it.”

Fire Island is now streaming on Hulu. 

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