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Director Andrew Ahn Tries His Hand At A Rom-Com With ‘Fire Island’

“Okay, if there’s no dick in the movie, can I have as many butts as I want?”…
 
By Paul Gallant
 
Back in the 1990s, when gay cinema was starting to go mainstream, my friends and I would complain that what kept lovers apart in these films – the plot’s main engine – was always homophobia. Straight people’s falling-in-love was interrupted by careers or misunderstandings or an ex or whatever, but gay love was always “forbidden love.” The lead would meet a cute guy, but then they had to hide or abandon their love because nobody would ever accept it. It got tiresome. Trick, a 1999 romp with Tori Spelling, Christian Campbell and John Paul Pitoc, is noteworthy because it broke this formula: the rom-com obstacle was simply the two guys finding a place to be alone together.
 
In Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island – a rom-com written by Joel Kim Booster, and starring Booster himself along with Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, Matt Rogers and Margaret Cho – there is no homophobia in sight. In this gay holiday setting, there’s barely even a straight person to be shocked by the hilariously naughty dialogue (“Why would you say hello to someone you don’t want to fuck?”), the cruising through the Meat Rack or the dark-room mishaps. Based on Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the obstacles to love are, well, pride and prejudice, particularly the human habits of self-doubt and misreading other people’s desires. It’s also a fish-out-of-water story with a sassy band of brunch waiters dropped amid the monied (and mostly white) body fascists of New York gay society.
 
While Ahn’s first two features, Spa Night and Driveways, could be described as artsy festival faves, Fire Island is a snappy carnival of gay friendship, eye candy and saucy commentary on modern queer life. “I knew I smelled some bottoms!” declares Cho’s character, Erin, when her gaggle of gays arrives to spend a week in her Fire Island beach home. Streaming on Hulu/Disney+ starting in June, it’s a major studio release that, like its characters, doesn’t care what straight people think of it.
 
I talked to Ahn while he was in New York doing a final edit of the film.
 
Fire Island is definitely more, um, rambunctious than your first two films. Did you have to adapt your directing style?
I’m always trying to find the emotional truth of the scene, and I don’t think something is funny or moving unless it feels authentic. So in a grand philosophical sense, I don’t think I did. But on a micro level – directing comedy is super hard. Sometimes the difference between a joke working and a joke not working is a quick reaction shot or a couple of frames in the edit. When I think about filmmakers that I really love, like Ang Lee, he hops genres and tries different things, which is what I really hope to do in my career.
 
The film is a bit racy and it’s certainly blunt about casual sex. Did you wonder if you went too far, especially since it’s essentially a Disney release [Disney owns Searchlight Pictures, which is releasing the film]?
With Spa Night, I showed a lot of nudity because that’s just the world of the film. I knew with Fire Island that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to go super, super far. I basically negotiated: “Okay, if there’s no dick in the movie, can I have as many butts as I want?” So that was the arrangement. But on Fire Island, a lot of sex happens, so we didn’t want to shy away from that.
 
You must have felt some additional pressure because this film is much more high profile than your first two films, with wider distribution and bigger stars.
I was and am very aware of that. I wanted to focus on the story of friendship and I wanted to have as much fun making the movie as the characters have in the film. That was a big guiding principle. Joel told me he wrote this movie because he wanted to spend time with Bowen and to have a fun summer with his best gal pal, and I adopted that philosophy to making the film.
 
How much did you know about Fire Island and its unique gay culture – with its shade-throwing muscle boys – before you read Joel Kim Booster’s script?
I will fully admit that I had never been to Fire Island before. I had heard about it a lot. But I’m from Los Angeles. I’ve been to Palm Springs a lot; that’s my gay mecca. I’ve been to Provincetown. So I was wary of it because the island has a certain reputation that it’s for a certain type of queer person. But that’s all in the script and the story doesn’t sanitize or avoid the bad stuff that happens there, like racism, classism. I liked that I had an outsider’s perspective. I see it with a certain kind of objectivity, while relying on Joel and the cast to make sure the film felt authentic.
 

Did you watch a lot of rom-coms before you started this? Read a lot of Jane Austen?
I’m a romantic at heart. There’s nothing more compelling on screen than seeing people fall in love. For me, the romance was a lot easier than the comedy. I grew up watching a lot of those popular rom-coms, like You’ve Got Mail, Sleepless in Seattle. That was my coming of age. The Pride and Prejudice of it all – I love the novel, I’ve watched the BBC series. The Joe Wright adaptation is one of my favourite movies. I was in awe of how Joel’s adaption mapped onto gay culture.
 
You got some of the biggest Asian-American Hollywood stars in the lead roles, but you’ve also got actors from lots of diverse backgrounds. What was your thinking around casting?
Maybe this sounds a little selfish, but as an Asian-American I love putting Asian-American people on screen. Working with Conrad Ricamora and Margaret Cho was a dream come true, but you know those characters weren’t written as Asian-American. They just fit the roles. I joked on Twitter that everything I touch becomes a little gayer and more Asian. Then to cast other actors of colour, when it’s set in a space where they may not feel totally represented – that felt really valuable, meaningful and truthful.
 
There’s such a burden on queer filmmakers and filmmakers of colour, and I think it really hinders creativity. It’s important to be mindful of how we’re representing the community, but at the same time, we need to give ourselves freedom as artists to be able to tell one perspective. This is one perspective of Fire Island. Are there other perspectives of Fire Island? Definitely. I’m excited to see those and happy to support them as long as they’re respectfully made.
 
Because the characters, most of the cast members themselves and the situations are all so queer, did you worry that straight people wouldn’t have an entry point into the film, aside from their curiosity about this bubbly world you’re showing them?
As a gay person, I’ve watched so many straight movies and I don’t necessarily think that it is difficult to connect to those films. So I hope that straight audiences watch this and still connect to these characters because we made a great movie. Ultimately I didn’t make this movie for straight people. I made this for my group of gay Asian-American friends in Los Angeles, and that’s the audience that I really care about.
 
Joel and Bowen are friends, so I’m curious if that was noticeable while making the film.
Every time they acted in a scene together, I could see this extra layer of friendship, experience, history. It was special to watch the way they could be vulnerable with each other, the way they could joke around with each other.
 
Was Margaret Cho just ‘one of the guys’ or was she a mother figure on set?
Like her character in the movie, a little bit of both. When we were on Fire Island, the cast and I stayed in a compound together. It was like summer camp. We could hear each other, we could knock on each other’s windows. I realized very quickly that my air vent led directly into Joel’s bedroom, so I could hear him watching Real Housewives with Bowen and Matt. Margaret was there with her dog Lucia. She was giving clothes to Tomás. She was going to the Blue Whale with us, telling us stories about performing comedy in Cherry Grove. The story she tells during the dinner scene in the movie is a story that we adapted from her own life. Every time she was in a scene, the cast, if they weren’t in that shot, would gather around the monitor because they wanted to see what funny shit Margaret was going to do.
 
Obviously you have six sequels lined up.
I joke that, yeah, Fire Island 2: Now We’re in Provincetown. Then there’s Puerto Vallarta. With this cast of characters, there are definitely places we could go with this.
 

 
PAUL GALLANT is a Toronto-based writer and editor who writes about travel, innovation, city building, social issues (particularly LGBT issues) and business for a variety of national and international publications. He’s done time as lead editor at the loop magazine in Vancouver as well as Xtra and fab in Toronto. His debut novel, Still More Stubborn Stars, published by Acorn Press, is out now.
 

 

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