Andrew Ahn on the Burning Desire Behind “Fire Island”

"Fire Island"
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It was a year into the pandemic when Andrew Ahn was sent the script for “Fire Island,” and although it might’ve been difficult at the time for the director to imagine himself anywhere but the four walls of his home for the rest of eternity, a trip to the gay enclave that sits off the Eastern Seaboard in New York quickly swept him into paradise.

“I was really lonely, sheltering in place and not seeing my friends and it had been a long time since I had gone out with them to a club to dance and drink and be stupid,” said Ahn, who’s now made a comedy as breezy as he flipped the pages of Joel Kim Booster’s screenplay. “So to see that on the page was so exciting and inspiring for me, I knew I had to be a part of it. I loved how the script really focused on queer Asian-American friendship and joy and it hit at the right time and place for me.”

Everything Ahn was feeling in that moment hasn’t lost anything in translation to the screen, a tropical excursion that becomes an escape as much for its humor as its setting with Kim recasting “Pride and Prejudice” inside summer beachhouses over the course of a hot and heavy weekend. Although Noah (Joel Kim Booster) and Howie (Bowen Yang) show up with high expectations, the longtime friends from waiting tables together in the city couldn’t possibly know what’s in store for them when they show up with buddies Luke (Matt Rogers), Keegan (Tomas Matos) and Max (Torian Miller) for a debaucherous stay at their pal Erin’s (Margaret Cho) fabulous spread on the island, with plans to forget all about anything that happens there by the Monday they return. However, the most wild thing that could happen in the land of nightly underwear parties is that Noah and Howie find potential partners for life in Will (Conrad Ricamora) and Charlie (James Scully), though wondering how they fit into the world of their wealthier love interests becomes a cause for concern.

At first glance, Ahn, who previously helmed the delicate yet uncommonly spry dramas “Spa Night” and “Driveways,” might also have seemed out of place on the comedy that may skimp on clothing, but doesn’t hold back anywhere else. However, “Fire Island” fully flourishes because Ahn is able to deliver big laughs without sacrificing his distinctive style or tenderness, telling the story on his own terms just as Noah and Howie are able to find romance on theirs. The shards of blue light that once illuminated the mixture of ennui and excitement that a teen looking to break away from his cloistered life as a first-gen son of Korean-American immigrants in “Spa Night” cuts across to the dance floors of “Fire Island” where there are equal parts reverie and introspection as Noah and Howie realize that there’s more fun to be had by being who they are rather than what others would like them to be.

With “Fire Island” arriving on Hulu today just in time to give everyone a much deserved vacay, the director spoke about how he could make a departure from his previous films while staying true to his roots, the adventures he had location scouting and how the film’s ending had to be entirely reworked when the water conditions were less than ideal.

I never had any doubts, but when you signed on to make this, it raised eyebrows considering the tone of your first two films and ultimately, it isn’t that much. Still, was it intimidating to do something different or at least adapt to your sensibilities?

Yeah, I was making a comedy and it’s a big challenge. My previous work “Spa Night” and “Driveways” have funny moments, but are much more dramatic in tone and this was a romcom that had jokes and I had to really lean into that. I knew that if I fought against that, it would just make a muddled film. It wouldn’t know what it wanted to be. I was really excited for that challenge of working in a different genre. I really love filmmakers that experiment with genre like Ang Lee and Todd Haynes — Ang made “Sense and Sensibility,” I’m going to make “Fire Island,” [which is] based on “Pride and Prejudice.”

But I always look for moments that feel a little closer to my own natural tendencies. There are these quiet moments with Joel’s character Noah behind a door, eavesdropping on people shittalking him and his friends, and when Noah gets back at the crack of dawn after a terrible night where he gets into an argument with Howie, these little moments, they felt really profound to me. I wanted to treat them as seriously as I treated the character in “Spa Night” and “Driveways.” Just because it was a romcom doesn’t mean that these aren’t people, and it’s that balance in the film of the heart and the humor that allows it to hopefully transcend the limitations of the romcom genre and really actually push them forward.

When Joel is the writer behind this as well as your lead, does that make for an interesting dynamic?

Yeah, it’s always really interesting to work with an actor who’s written the words. And Joel took the liberty to change his lines every now and again because he could write on set, which is also just known as improv. [laughs] But I was really happy for that relationship because he knew the character and the subtext of the scenes so well that my job wasn’t necessarily to have to communicate that. As a director, I did have to look for options and maybe show Joel another way that this scene could work that could be really interesting. Sometimes they made it into the film and sometimes they didn’t, but for me, the biggest challenge in working with Joel, who is the writer and the actor and also an EP is to make sure he felt supported because he has so many things to do, so when he was on set, I really just had to tell him, “You’re an actor here. That’s your main focus. Don’t worry about your responsibilities as an EP. That’s a really different thing.” So we had to build a really strong relationship so that I can trust him and he can trust me and we’re here working for the same goal to make a great film.

What was it like to get to location scout Fire Island? I understand this was your first time there.

Yeah, I went to the island as much as I could during preproduction to just get to know the place. Fortunately, Fire Island is very small, or at least the Pines, the area we were mostly shooting in, is, so I got to know it very, very quickly, at least geographically, but I really relied on hearing stories from Joel and the rest of the cast who had been to the island. I wanted to soak in as much as I could, but also keep in mind that I’m always going to come at this from an outsider’s point of view. That was actually really helpful for the film [because] these characters feel a little outside of the culture of the place, but they really make it their own and that mirrored my own experience there.

I remember my cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey and I went to an actual underwear party on the island and we were shotlisting while we were in our underwear, trying to get the kind of authenticity of the space and the energy. Funny enough, we ran into Joel Kim Booster at that party and we took a really ugly drunk selfie that I cherish. But we wanted the island to feel like a character, so it was a collective process/collaboration to articulate that on screen.

I’m never going to get to ask this in a serious context again, so I’m going to take my shot – how many pairs of underwear did you have to look through? That tiny piece of fabric ends up saying so much about all of these characters you’ve got.

We worked with a really wonderful costume designer David Tabert, whose work I’ve followed for years. He was the costume designer on “Martha Marcy May Marlene,” and he’s a gay man who has been to Provincetown and Fire Island, so he knows the world and the community and the culture. He got tons of options and we would ask the actors, “What do you think he would wear? What would be the outfit that you think is fun and sexy for this party?” So it was a real fun moment for the cast to really start to understand their characters even more and more, just how they dress to impress.

Was there anything that happen that you couldn’t have expected, but it made it into the movie and you really like about it now? [SPOILERS AHEAD]

Gosh, so much. There’s a lot of great writing, but also a lot of great improv. There’s a little jab at Quibi — that wasn’t scripted. That was an improv line from Margaret [Cho]. There is a lot of fun ad-libbing between Matt Rogers and Tomas Matos, who play Luke and Keegan [Howie and Noah’s friends]. When they get to the fancy party, there’s a lot of talk about cheese that wasn’t scripted. [laughs]

And then the big romcom moment where Charlie and [his] group of friends come storming in on a water taxi to stop Howie from leaving, that was all a last-minute rewrite. Originally, Bowen Yang was supposed to jump off the ferry into the Fire Island Pines Harbor, but then we tested the water and it had ten times the safe amount of e-coli, so I didn’t want to kill Bowen Yang. I didn’t want him to shit his pants at the Emmys. So Joel had to rewrite the moment and I think it’s a really beautiful, fun moment [now]. In the process of making a film, you get these obstacles thrown your way and you just have to find solutions. That’s the difference between a good filmmaker and a great filmmaker is that a great filmmaker will find better solutions.

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