Joel Kim Booster and ‘Fire Island’ Team on Crafting the Hulu Movie’s Queer Romances, Comedy and Villains

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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” paints Fire Island as a place that historically LGBTQ viewers have only been able to dream about in major studio films — queer-centric comedy and racially inclusive romance, with authenticity through its deconstructed and reconstructed stereotypes and archetypes. But Booster’s modern spin on the rom-com regency 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 for Hollywood big screen LGBTQ narratives — seems like “there’s nothing to it.”

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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.”

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

Arturo Holmes/WireImage

Ahn pointed to the talent of writer and star Booster as the one mainly responsible for Fire Island’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 on this, noting the studio “didn’t pressure me” around the film’s comedy, even when executives didn’t get the joke. “Sometimes they didn’t understand 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. But first, something that’s no laughing matter: Fire Island is not only one of a handful of LGBTQ-focused rom-coms by a major studio. It’s also one of a few big-screen romances that features two queer characters of color in a leading onscreen relationship. Having two gay Asian men as the movie’s central romance 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].”

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

Monica Schipper/Getty Images for Ketel One Family Made Vodka

Around those casting choices like Ricamora’s, Booster’s writing uses comedy to highlight how general racism and microaggressions impact the film’s queer characters of color as well as how they navigate romance and friendships. More specifically, the film explores the ways racism casually permeates 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 discussions with in terms of their characters and Austen’s original archetypes. “With each of the cast members, 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 Ahn 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,'” the director 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.”

Zane Phillips and Nick Adams - Credit: Arturo Holmes/WireImage
Zane Phillips and Nick Adams - Credit: Arturo Holmes/WireImage

Arturo Holmes/WireImage

That helped build Fire Island into a kind of safe haven for a queer love story — not just about romance, but about friends and found family — on and offscreen.

“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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