At the start of the film, Noah (Joel Kim Booster) drops his phone in his friend Erin’s (Margaret Cho) swimming pool, which means a week without Grindr during what could be the last of his annual visits with his chosen family in the gay destination. But Noah is more focused on finding connections for his best friend Howie (“Saturday Night Live” Bowen Yang), despite Howie’s protests that the kind of intimacy he seeks is less physical than emotional.
“Fire Island,” now streaming on Hulu, is a love story made by hopeless romantics. Booster, who also wrote the film, grew up partially home-schooled in suburban Chicago “worshipping at the altar of Nora Ephron.” He watched the 1995 “Pride & Prejudice” miniseries starring Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth every year with his adoptive mother, and is a fan of the 2005 film adaptation with Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen (also a favorite of director Andrew Ahn). Loving rom-coms as a boy gave Booster “really inflated expectations of what love would be like,” he told The Washington Post. “That’s probably why I was single until I was 33.”
In the movie (as in real life), Fire Island can be a gay utopia – or a walled fortress. Noah, Howie and their friends (Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos and Torian Miller) are on its periphery, marked as Others in a social hierarchy that once proudly proclaimed “No fats, no women, no Asians”. “Fire Island” may well be the first mainstream film to explore anti-Asian prejudice within gay circles – as well as its inverse, the fetish “rice queens”. Sexual racism is so prevalent that “it would be a miracle if an Asian American person didn’t face discrimination in the queer community,” Yang said. “We are the only ticked race in this small trio.”
“It hurts you,” said Booster, who repeatedly saw anti-Asian sentiments as a young person finding his place in the LGBTQ+ community. Times are changing, he claimed, but only in that now “a lot of people are keeping these kinds of messages behind the curtain”. Booster’s own boyfriend, who is white, has heard complaints about Asian Americans from gay men who don’t know he has an Asian partner. “That’s why I wrote this movie,” Booster said, “to shed some light on some of that.”
But “Fire Island” is also a story defined by queer joy. Ahn first read Booster’s script about a year into the pandemic, when he hadn’t seen his friends for a long time. “I hadn’t hung out with them in a bar to dance, drink, be stupid,” he said, “and I saw in Joel’s script everything that I missed in my life.”
Making a steamy romantic comedy was a departure for Ahn, whose first two feature films were quiet, well-received independents. “I’m very proud of my work on ‘Spa Night’ and ‘Driveways’,” he said, mocking himself, “I know some people fall asleep in it.” Booster, a “huge fan” of “Spa Night” — a coming-of-age sex tale set in Los Angeles Koreatown steam rooms — said Ahn “always felt like the most obvious choice for me”.
While “Fire Island” depicts a common queer Asian American experience, Booster doesn’t want the film to be seen as a definitive encapsulation of that community. “It’s not a movie [where] I was trying to represent everyone,” he said — an escape from the burden of representation that he repeats in his upcoming Netflix stand-up special, “Psychosexual.”
The film revives a trend among romantic comedies of the 1990s, when classic texts were reshaped into modern stories. (Booster and Yang both cite “Clueless,” based on Jane Austen’s “Emma,” as a childhood touchstone.) and star of the 1994 sitcom “All-American Girl,” the first prime-time comedy about an Asian American family.
“I think every gay man on set had a moment with Margaret where they pulled her aside and told her how important she was to them,” Booster said. “It was a gauntlet of little gay boys telling her how much she had changed their lives – and I was one of them.”
Review: ‘Fire Island’ puts a steamy spin on Jane Austen
Yang admired the way Cho believed his idiosyncrasies would speak to the masses. “She was this bisexual Korean from San Francisco who was able to put out so much relatability, humor and pathos, and yet always ended her sets with a message about self-love before it was even a concept. current,” Yang said. “This movie wouldn’t exist without her.”
Somewhat shockingly, the role of Cho – the surrogate mother with whom the 30 gay friends live – was originally written for a man. The script had swapped Mrs. Bennett’s gender from Austen to “Aaron”, but when the actor dropped out and Cho asked if there could be a part for her, Erin was born. “It was really special that she could be part of this project to support and usher in this new generation of queer Asian American talent,” Ahn said. It turned out that Cho also had side experiences on Fire Island, though the biographical tidbit that made it into the storyline was one in which Erin checks a lover for crabs with the light of a flip phone.
While casting Cho was a foregone conclusion, the toughest role to fill was Will, Darcy’s aloof, snobby character who eventually reveals a source of decency and suppressed passion. It’s the “hardest job” because “you have to start out not really liking him…and then you have to fall in love with him at the end,” Booster said. To complicate the casting process, it was possible that Yang and Booster’s characters would end up with white men, which would send a mixed message for a film struggling with the desire and desirability of Asian Americans.
“Will wasn’t written with a specific race in mind,” Booster said. “How to Get Away With Murder” star Conrad Ricamora, who is Filipino and white, was the only Asian American actor seen for the role. “He happened to be the best,” Booster said. “He was the only person I tested with who made me [forget] my lines because I was so pissed off. It’s so easy to fall in love with him.
But the film’s most compelling relationship is the platonic one between Noah and Howie. It’s probably on purpose, since the film is a tribute to queer Asian American solidarity. Booster was careful to include aspects of his eight-year friendship with Yang in the script, such as the “ET”-like fingertip touch that their characters use as their own private expression of love. As in the film, the duo sometimes communicate across the room with a glance. It’s “something a lot of Asian men share with their gay Asian friends, this deep, intrinsic understanding of our experience, our hurts and our desires,” Booster said.
Yang, who admires and covets the Asian American gay community that Ahn cultivated in his hometown of Los Angeles, said he hopes to find one as consumed around him. “I always tell Andrew that I need an Asian boyfriend. I don’t have to explain so much about myself, the way working on a queer Asian movie was so freeing. in terms of weight loss that I walk around with every day. The relief is palpable.