Andrew Ahn has the fall of Quibi to thank for being Fire Island’s director.
The gay filmmaker — known for moving dramas that center on Asian-American families like Spa Night and Driveways — had previously interviewed for the project when it was set to be released on the short-lived, short-form streaming platform. He didn’t get the job at the time. But Quibi’s collapse and the production’s move to Searchlight Pictures for a feature-length release sparked a search for a new director. Fortuitously, this became Ahn.
“It just felt very gratifying,” says Ahn, who was drawn to the groundbreaking screenplay by writer and star Joel Kim Booster for its celebration of queer Asian-American friendship. This topic is “so much of who I am and what I’m about,” he says. “And so, to have this opportunity and to work with Joel and [fellow lead] Bowen [Yang], who are real-life friends, it just felt so perfect.”
Another attraction? The story was inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, a favorite novel of Ahn’s. But instead of upper-class courtship in England, the plot of the celebrated 1813 book was transposed to Fire Island, its own fertile soil for tackling queer cruising and dating in 21st-century America. “There’s just something about the romance and the dissection of class and wealth that all mapped to gay men on Fire Island really damn well. It just felt so smart and something I really wanted to bring to life,” Ahn asserts.
In Fire Island, Booster’s and Yang’s characters set sail to the legendary gay vacation spot for a week-long escape with friends — including a hilarious house mother portrayed by Margaret Cho — in search of love, lust, and adventure. It speaks volumes of Austen that her exploration of human relationships still resonates today with queer men. Austen’s work seeks “to get at the heart of who we are versus who we think we are, and I think that that search for honesty in ourselves and in our relationships is just a constant process,” says Ahn, an Austen fan. “I think we’re all looking for truth in our lives, and the way that she distills that in these stories is just so timeless.”
And Fire Island is no ordinary romantic comedy. Whereas Pride and Prejudice centered on the courtships surrounding the Bennet sisters, Fire Island is a “Trojan horse” in which the search for love becomes rooted in the strength of found family, a topic that for Ahn “feels so modern and real,” especially in the LGBTQ+ community. Also hidden in this horse are issues of intersectional identity, class, queer sex, and monogamy.
Ahn is proud to birth such an intricate, unique entry into the rom-com genre. He recalls watching You’ve Got Mail in his youth and wondering what it would be like to see stories of love and friendship that represented his own intersectional identities. Ahn “almost can’t fathom” that he’s helped birth this visibility for a new generation, “but I think it’s just so meaningful to me.”
Fire Island was also an opportunity to confront bias within the gay community. “No fats, no femmes, no Asians” — bigoted hookup criteria that unfortunately still lingers in dating profiles today — is referenced at the film’s onset. The topic was unavoidable. “Fire Island is a very white place,” acknowledges Ahn, who knows queer people who won’t venture there due to a perception of exclusion related to race and body types. The protagonists in Fire Island confront many of these hurdles head-on. Their presences are questioned in spaces habituated by the rich, white, and muscled, and a large part of their journey is defeating the dragons of discrimination.
In the real world, Ahn wishes for Fire Island to play its own part in their defeat. “I really hope that people within the community really stake the claim to spaces that have something magical to offer, but may have been just less available to us,” he says.
In fact, Ahn’s first visit to Fire Island was for the film, and it was there he discovered the magic of the destination firsthand. He speaks glowingly of trips to the Ice Palace nightclub and the famed underwear party. “It was such a new environment. And I have to say that the good and the bad, the complicated that Joel wrote into the screenplay, I really saw there,” he asserts. And then there were the wooded island’s natural wonders: “I was really obsessed with the deer on Fire Island. I couldn’t stop gasping every time I saw one.”
“There’s something about it that feels a little elemental,” he adds. “It’s like the waves and the wind and the bugs and the search for sex that makes it feel very human. You feel so grounded to the space that there’s just a kind of magic to it.”
But beyond cruising, Ahn’s wish is that Fire Island, which comes out June 3 on Hulu, becomes a reminder to viewers about the importance of community. “My hope is that queer audiences see this film and that they find extra value in their friendships. That this part of our lives that’s been taken away by the pandemic? That we’re reminded that it’s important. That it’s valuable. That it’s a big part of who we are,” he concludes. “I just really want audiences to understand how much we should all value our chosen families.”
This article is part of Out's May/June 2022 issue. Support queer media and subscribe — or download the issue through Amazon, Kindle, Nook, or Apple News.