It may surprise Jane Austen that her Regency-era manners comedy is so applicable to today’s queer experience. Still the one from Hulu Fire Island, which earned an Emmy nomination for Outstanding TV Movie, takes inspiration from Austen’s masterpiece. It’s a contemporary update set on New York’s barrier island, which for decades has served as an enclave for gay and lesbian visitors to the hamlets of Cherry Grove and The Pines. Here it’s the backdrop for a charming gay rom-com that also explores the complex social mores within the gay community.
Starring Joel Kim Booster, who also earned his first Emmy nomination for writing the film’s screenplay, Fire Island revolves around a group of friends vacationing on the island, an annual tradition hosted by Margaret Cho’s “housemother” Erin. The centerpiece is the friendship between Booster’s Noah and Bowen Yang’s Howie, with the former promising to bring the latter out of his shell – and get him fucked before the week is out.
But just like in Austen’s novel, romance gets complicated when it crosses class lines, with Howie falling in love with a handsome doctor who’s staying with a group of wealthy friends – one of them being gruff Will (Conrad Ricamora), the Mr. Darcy from Noah’s Elizabeth Bennett. . As the groups mingle, sparks and barbs fly in equal measure between Noah and Will, who have to look past their own feelings of, well, pride and prejudice to recognize the attraction between them.
Director Andrew Ahn spoke with THR about how Fire Island went from a pitched series to Quibi to an Emmy-nominated movie and how he captured the organic camaraderie among the movie stars.
Did you think when Fire Island fell on Hulu last summer, that you’d still be talking about it a year later?
I love that the public is still discovering it. It just goes to show you that there is a lack of queer movies and people are looking for more. But I’m ultimately so grateful to everyone who worked on it Fire Island is recognized (for their work). That is the greatest joy for me as a director.
This was originally developed as a Quibi show. When did you come on board?
I was not the first director; when it was in Quibi it was Stephen Dunn, who had done the restart Strange as Folk. I like Stephen’s work and I’ve never met him. I had applied for the job at the time and I was disappointed that I didn’t get it. But I was also maybe a little relieved because the quibi of it all confused me, you know?
You’re not the only one who got confused by Quibi.
I remember they told me, “You should shoot this so you can see it vertically as well as horizontally.” When it came my way as a feature I was extra excited because it felt like something I knew I could do and sink my teeth into. More importantly, I was in a different kind of emotional state. We had been through that early part of the pandemic where we didn’t really see friends. It hit me harder, this story about a chosen family. It’s a party we needed, and I wanted to do it even more.
Do you have to get to know Pridee and Prejudice?
i reread Pride and prejudice. But I will say that I was sufficiently familiar with the story, because Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation (starring Keira Knightley) is one of my favorite movies. I’d seen it a billion times before. I remember reading the script and thinking, “So this is Mr. Wickham’s part…” It was all very clear — to the point where I remember when we cast Matt Rogers, I thought, “Yeah, he is my Jenna Malone.” (laughs.)
The conceit gives the script great structure, but it doesn’t feel weighed down by the fact that it’s an edit.
That’s the brilliant thing about Joel’s screenplay: he found all the homosexual parallels to Jane Austen-era England. The fact that the Netherfield Ball is the underwear party is just awesome. Joel really found the story in this beautiful organic way. We could sprinkle funny nods to the novel, but I never felt bothered by it. It really started with a super smart observation about gay culture.
Joel wrotee the script with many actors in mind, right?
The story is inspired by a Fire Island trip that Joel took with Bowen. There’s a lot Bowen could bring to that role, and Joel knew it. I love that Joel took Pride and prejudice and shifted the focus of the story away from the romantic relationships and towards the friendships, the (connection) between Lizzie and Jane. In doing so, it prioritizes the film in a way that feels very strange to me, with the Chosen Family being so special and important to strange people.
Joel told me that one of the reasons he wanted to make this movie was to spend a summer hanging out with Bowen. That broke my heart. They were both so busy they couldn’t have connected this way. I took that to heart and it was really a guiding philosophy for me. I feel so relieved when people say to me, “You look like you had so much fun making this movie.”
Fire Island is so small. Was the community receptive to your presence?
Bowen would go back to SNL and Joel started filming Booty. We couldn’t get Fire Island until after Labor Day; the island and the companies were very welcoming, but they just asked us not to be there during peak season. We (shot a lot on Long Island), and when we finally got to Fire Island, we filmed every damn exterior we could – every iconic location. Once we got to the island we had to move the equipment in little golf carts and walk everywhere. Many of the crew had to take the ferry every morning. It was very inconvenient.
But what was so great was that the cast and I got to stay together in a house on the island. There was that extra bit of camaraderie, like a gay summer camp. I remember being in my room and hearing the cast watching through the vents Real housewives and cackled. I knew I had to capture that when they were on camera.
The on-screen camaraderie makes me want to ask a tough question: Was there a lot of improvisation on set?
Oh yeah. A hundred percent. Because Joel wrote it and he’s performing it, there was a certain amount of respect for the script – that was always the foundation. But we wanted to find moments of pleasure. I remember we did the scene where Margaret Cho has to tell the, you know, the group to sell the house, and she’s always been bad with money. There was an opportunity for a joke and I asked Joel and Margaret, “What bad business decision did she make?” Their answer: Quibi. As someone who didn’t get the job when it was a Quibi show, I really appreciated that. (laughs.)
Many of the fun one-liners came from the actors. There’s a great line about swapping a Crest Whitestrip for a PrEP pill – that’s just Matt Rogers being Matt Rogers. There were so many great lines from the cast that our editor, Brian Kates, started collecting them in a trash can. Whenever we felt that a little humor was missing, we added something. It was a beautiful, organic way to highlight the comedic talents of the cast.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a standalone August issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.