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But while Austen’s beloved book focuses on Regency England, “Fire Island” casts its gaze elsewhere.
The romantic comedy follows a tight-knit group of queer friends over the course of a weeklong sojourn on Fire Island, a legendary gay holiday destination. Hijinks and misadventures ensue. The friends, many of them Asian American, confront how class, race and gender can divide queer communities.
“There’s a universality to how Austen depicts class struggles,” Booster, who wrote the screenplay, told CNN. “Especially in a place like Fire Island, where suddenly there are no straight people around to oppress us and we have to find ways to oppress one another, we recreate the artificial class systems and other hierarchies that exist in the rest of the world but are just magnified and felt so much more viscerally in a place where it’s only gay people.”
Cho echoed some of Booster’s sentiments, and underscored that “Fire Island” approaches these issues with rigor and sensitivity.
“The movie talks about how Fire Island has been this place where gay men have historically gone to feel safe, and it asks what you do when you feel unsafe there, among your ‘own kind,'” she said. “I like that the movie deals with these subjects very gently. It’s not really angry. It’s not really accusatory. But it’s just sort of showing how it is and how we manage to love the place anyway.”
Crucially, “Fire Island” is also downright funny.
Part of its power is that it skillfully balances the more serious themes with a distinctly gay sense of humor: Be on the lookout for a hysterical scene involving the game Heads Up! and fierce adoration of Marisa Tomei.
I recently spoke with Booster, Ahn and Cho about “Fire Island.” During our conversations, which have been edited and condensed for length and clarity, we discussed the thrills of putting a queer spin on “Pride and Prejudice” and the significance of the on-screen visibility that the movie offers Asian Americans.
Audiences are already embracing “Fire Island.” Why do you think that a riff on “Pride and Prejudice” is an effective way to explore some of the fault lines that run through queer communities?
Andrew Ahn: I think that there’s something about the way Jane Austen describes judgment and assessment that feels really gay. I think that, as queer people, we had to learn very quickly how to assess someone, because it’s a survival skill. We have to be able to tell if someone’s going to accept us for who we are or potentially want to harm us because of who we are. And I think that, in some ways, we’ve almost taken it too far. We use that skill of judgment against one other, and that can keep us from forging really significant relationships, whether they’re romantic or platonic. What Austen explores in “Pride and Prejudice” is how class distinctions keep apart people who actually feel so perfect for each other. That Joel decided to do an adaptation of “Pride and Prejudice” within the queer community is brilliant.
Joel Kim Booster: There’s a universality to how Austen depicts class struggles, and specifically how we organize ourselves into different classes, communicate across those class lines and break free of the restrictions that those classes bring. Especially in a place like Fire Island, where suddenly there are no straight people around to oppress us and we have to find ways to oppress one other, we recreate the artificial class systems and other hierarchies that exist in the rest of the world but are just magnified and felt so much more viscerally in a place where it’s only gay people. I remember reading the book on Fire Island and feeling that it still resonates so much today.
Margaret Cho: I think that even the title, “Pride and Prejudice,” could be “Gay Pride and Gay Prejudice.” A lot of times in the queer community, we feel like we can’t possibly have other biases, because we’re discriminated against so much by society. But that’s really untrue. Our class structures, our ideas about race, gender, homophobia — all of those are very rigid, almost as rigid as Regency England. “Fire Island” shows all of that, but it also shows how permeable those boundaries are when it comes to matters of the heart. When you’re armed with love, you can conquer so many things. Also, Austen’s female-centric point of view really works for all these guys. (Laughs) You’re really going to the island with your sisters.
While watching “Fire Island,” I was struck by how the main cast is made up largely of people of color. How do you hope that the movie might help shift the conversations we have about representation?
Ahn: In some ways, it’s kind of shocking to me that we were able to get this movie made. I made a very small, gay Korean American movie called “Spa Night” back in 2016, and I just assumed that the independent film world would be where I’d stay for my entire career because of the types of stories I want to tell. When I found out that Joel had sold this project to Searchlight, I was kind of shocked by it. To this day, I still say, “I don’t know how Joel Kim Booster bamboozled Searchlight into green-lighting this film.” I think that it’s a sign of changing times. But also, it’s not lost on me that our three lead executives at Searchlight are two Asian American women and a gay Latinx man. If it weren’t for them, I don’t know if this project would’ve been picked up. I think that it can’t be on the filmmakers alone. It can’t be on the actors alone. Every aspect of the industry has to work toward equitable hiring so that the whole art form can shift. There’s still so much work to be done, but I do feel optimistic.
Booster: I wanted to create something that felt real to me and my experiences. What I hope is that people are going to be willing to take more risks — not that diversity is a risk. I wanted people to see Bowen and me as separate entities and prove that even though we may check some of the same demographic boxes, there are many differences between us. I hope that the industry takes notice, like, “Oh, we don’t have to put them in the same bucket all the time.” One of the main reasons I wrote the movie was because I’m so used to going in for the same parts as Bowen, but we’ve been friends for eight years and I don’t think that we’ve ever been in a project together, because I don’t think that the industry sees that there’s room for both of us in the same project.
Cho: The movie talks about how Fire Island has been this place where gay men have historically gone to feel safe, and it asks what you do when you feel unsafe there, among your “own kind.” As a queer Asian American who’s gone to Fire Island since 2008, I know that those biases are there, but I can still enjoy it. I can still really love the island. I can still really love my time there and not feel shut out. I like that the movie deals with these subjects very gently. It’s not really angry. It’s not really accusatory. But it’s just sort of showing how it is and how we manage to love the place anyway.
The scene where the boys play Heads Up! and flip out over Marisa Tomei is a perfect distillation of the protectiveness that many gay men have over cult icons. The scene feels so accurate. It reminds me of the time I was at a party and a gay guy became furious when another gay guy forgot that Elizabeth Berkley is in “Showgirls.” What are your thoughts on that scene?
Ahn: I just think that it’s so accurate to my friend group. We play Heads Up! and Celebrity a lot. And it’s always so heated because I think that, as gay men, we often assume that we’re all consuming the same culture, and that’s actually not true. I’m glad that the film has Will (Conrad Ricamora) as kind of an outsider to show that. It was such a fun but also weirdly important scene to have in the movie.
Booster: It’s one of my favorite scenes in the movie, and it was one of my favorite scenes to write. For me, this movie is such an amalgamation of little bits and pieces from all the corners of my life. And I’m a big game night guy. Like, all my friends in L.A., we have semiregular game nights. The way that the scene sort of devolves into actress talk just feels so real to me. I know that I share that experience with you and with many other queer people, and I just wanted to take a moment to honor the gay inclination for diva worship. I don’t want to delve too much into the psychology of it. I really don’t know what the reason for that is. But I wanted to give people a peek behind the curtain of what those gay game nights can be like.
Margaret, there’s a scene in the movie where your character, Erin, talks about how when she was the boys’ age, she had a life of her own on Fire Island. It’s a touching acknowledgment of the fact that there’s a generational difference between her and everyone else in the group. Could you tell me a little bit about what your character means to you?
Cho: I think that character is really about growing old, gay. It’s a hard thing when you alienate yourself from your generation of queers. My character is sort of like a cautionary tale. She’s trying to teach the younger generation not to do that. Also, gay men of this generation don’t have direct elders because many of those men died of AIDS. So, in a sense, they’re flying blindly, with no immediate elder to coach them. I think that my character is good to have in the movie. She sort of plays that role for the group.