Q&A with Joel Kim Booster of “Fire Island”

Joel Kim Booster (center) in “Fire Island.”
Searchlight Pictures

“Fire Island,” out June 3 on HULU, is the crowd-pleasing comedy about a handful of gay guys summering on Fire Island, aka, “Gay Disneyworld.” Noah (Joel Kim Booster, who also wrote the screenplay) only wants his bestie Howie (Bowen Yang) to get laid. And Noah’s mission is such that he won’t sleep with anyone until Howie does. Noah sees relationship material — or at least hookup potential for Howie — in Charlie (James Scully), a doctor, but Noah is a bit put off by Charlie’s pal, Will (Conrad Ricamora). Will anyone have sex? Will love win out? Gay City News spoke with Booster about “Fire Island” to find out. 

What can you say about adapting Jane Austen into “Fire Island?” What adjustments did you make to the source material?

The genesis was really simple. I brought “Pride and Prejudice” to read on my first trip to Fire Island with Bowen. Reading it there — in the kind of environment Fire Island is — it struck me how really relevant Austen’s writing were about class and how people communicate across class lines. Being on Fire Island, I saw how we create these artificial classes amongst ourselves. When no one is around to oppress us, how do we oppress each other? Specifically, the way Austen rendered characters who were awful to one another without being awful to one another spoke to me in the ways that gay men communicate every day. It was fun to find the analogs between Lydia and Luke and who is Darcy and how is all this privilege going to be translated to gay life.

Can you talk about how you flipped the script and took a straight, white, 19th-century European novel and made it a gay Asian rom-com?

I’m in the midst of my first relationship ever and I’m 34. I was really writing from a place I knew — my friends have always been the central relationship of my life. I wanted to honor that journey for myself. I was falling in love when we were rewriting this movie, so it was a mix of me figuring out what kind of person I was in a relationship and being in love and balancing that with my love and friendship with Bowen.

What observations do you have about how these gay men view one another?

I wanted to write what I knew, which is, this is the way my friends and I communicate — especially the kind of gay man I am, who couldn’t hide being gay growing up. You either learn to tell a joke or you learn to be invisible. You see that play out and the way the gay men interact with one another, and I think the core group of friends that Noah has are all men who couldn’t hide; they are “faggots” through and through, dyed in wool, and they all had to find a way to survive in this world and the way they found out how to do that was by being caustic and funny and sarcastic and clever. This is how they are going to navigate this world.

What decisions did you make about the various settings on the island to film and did you create set pieces around particular events/parties?

Part logistics and part finding the Austen analogs — the big ball and the dances at Netherfeild, I thought: What is the equivalent of that on Fire Island? And it is the underwear party. Ultimately, it was logistics. Filming on the island was very difficult. We had to cut locations and condense locations and find a way around inclement weather and E.coli in the water — production issues we never could have predicted when I was writing the story.

I like that Noah and Will almost kiss a handful of times. Your film is more romantic than erotic. Was that deliberate?

I’m a foreplay guy. That’s why I wrote the story the way I did.

What observations do you have about the Greek chorus that are Noah and Howie’s friends — Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos), and Max (Torian Miller) as well as Erin (Margaret Cho)?

I was finding that dynamic of this big boisterous family that loves each other and knows all of the pain points — that lived-in friendship. They all tease Max about not doing drugs, but they still love him and are there for him when he accidentally does them. They are there for you when push comes to shove, but day-to-day, they will read you to filth. That was trying to find parallels between what I read about [Austen’s] Bennet family and how that would scan to a modern-day friend group.

What experiences have you had on Fire Island?

A lot of them are in the movie. The part where they enter the party and someone says, “I think you’re in the wrong house” — that’s happened to me twice on the island. The countdown at the sunset is something Bowen and I and our friends do, and people hate it just as much as they hate it in the movie, but we will never stop. There is good and there’s bad, but it’s all experience.

“Fire Island” | Directed by Andrew Ahn | Available June 3 on HULU | Distributed by Searchlight Pictures.