Jane Austen might be surprised that her Regency-era comedy of manners could be so applicable to the contemporary queer experience. Yet Hulu’s Fire Island, which earned an Emmy nomination for best TV movie, takes inspiration from Austen’s masterwork. It’s a contemporary update set on the New York 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 queer 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 “house mother” Erin. The centerpiece is the friendship between Booster’s Noah and Bowen Yang’s Howie, with the former pledging to bring the latter out of his shell — and get him laid before the week is through.
But like in Austen’s novel, romance becomes complicated when it crosses class lines, with Howie falling for a handsome doctor staying with a group of wealthy pals — one of whom is the surly Will (Conrad Ricamora), the Mr. Darcy to Noah’s Elizabeth Bennett. As the groups intermingle, sparks and barbs fly in equal measure between Noah and Will, who must look past their own senses 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 film’s stars.
Did you think, when Fire Island dropped on Hulu last summer, that you’d still be talking about it a year later?
I love that audiences are still discovering it. It just goes to show you that there is a lack of queer films out there, and people are searching for more. But I’m ultimately so thankful that everybody who worked on Fire Island is being recognized [for their work]. For me, that is the greatest joy as a director.
This was originally developed as a Quibi show. When did you come on board?
I wasn’t the first director attached; when it was at Quibi, it was Stephen Dunn, who had done the reboot of Queer as Folk. I love Stephen’s work, and I’ve never had the chance to meet him. I had interviewed for the job back then, and I was bummed 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 are not the only one who was confused by Quibi.
I remember they told me, “You’d have to shoot this so that you could see it both vertically and horizontally.” When it came back my way as a feature, I was extra excited because that felt like something I knew I could do and could sink my teeth into. Even more significantly, I was in a different kind of emotional state. We had lived through that early part of the pandemic, where we weren’t really seeing friends. It hit harder for me, this story about chosen family. It’s a celebration that we needed, and I wanted to do it even more.
Did you have to familiarize yourself with Pride and Prejudice?
I reread Pride and Prejudice. But I will say I was familiar enough with the story because Joe Wright’s 2005 adaptation [starring Keira Knightley] is one of my favorite movies. I’d seen it a bazillion times. I remember reading the script, being like, “So this is the Mr. Wickham part …” It was all very clear — to the point where I remember when we cast Matt Rogers, I was like, “Yes, he’s my Jenna Malone.” (Laughs.)
The conceit gives the script a great structure, but it doesn’t feel weighed down by the fact that it’s an adaptation.
That’s the brilliant thing about Joel’s screenplay: He found all the gay parallels to Jane Austen-era England. The fact that the Netherfield Ball is the underwear party is just brilliant. Joel really found the story in this kind of beautifully organic way. We could sprinkle in fun nods to the novel, but I never felt hindered by it. It really started with a super smart observation about gay culture.
Joel wrote the script with a lot of the actors in mind, right?
The story was inspired by a Fire Island trip that Joel went on with Bowen. There’s a lot that Bowen could bring to that role, and Joel knew it. I love that Joel took Pride and Prejudice and shifted the focus of the narrative away from the romantic relationships and onto the friendships, the [connection] between Lizzie and Jane. In doing that, it sets the priorities of the movie in a way that feels really queer to me, with chosen family being such a special and important thing for queer people.
Joel told me that part of the reason he wanted to make this movie was so that he could hang out with Bowen for a summer. That broke my heart. They had both been getting so busy that they hadn’t been able to connect in this way. I took that to heart, and it really was a guiding philosophy for me. I feel so gratified when people tell me, “You look like you had so much fun making this movie.”
Fire Island is so small. Was the community amenable to your presence?
Bowen was set to go back to SNL and Joel was starting to film Loot. We could only get Fire Island after Labor Day; the island and the businesses were really welcoming, but they just asked us not to be there during peak season. We [shot a lot on Long Island], and then when we were finally able to get to Fire Island, we shot every fucking exterior we could — every iconic location. Once we were on the island, we had to move equipment around in little golf carts and walk everywhere. Many of the crewmembers had to ferry in each morning. It was very tricky.
But what was so awesome was that the cast and I got to stay in a house together on the island. There was that extra bit of camaraderie, kind of like gay summer camp. I remember being in my room and hearing through the air vents the cast watching Real Housewives and cackling. I knew I had to capture that when they were on camera.
The camaraderie onscreen makes me want to ask a hacky question: Was there a lot of improv on set?
Oh, yeah. One 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 fun. I remember we were doing the scene where Margaret Cho has to tell the, you know, the group that she has 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.)
A lot of the fun one-liners came from the actors. There’s a great line about trading 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 to collect them in a bin. Every time we felt like there was a little humor missing, we would add something in. It was a lovely, organic way to highlight the cast’s comedic talents.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.