Affable is the best way to describe Fire Island filmmaker Andrew Ahn. We met in 2016 at New York City’s Metrograph Theater after a screening of his first feature film, Spa Night, when he agreed to let me interview him for my blog. We met again in 2019 when his second film, Driveways was part of the inaugural Critics’ Week at the Tribeca Festival. He’s always outstretching a hand to welcome people into his queer creations.
Fire Island is set in the iconic Pines, off Long Island, New York. Initially written by comedian Joel Kim Booster as a show on Quibi, Booster pivoted and turned the series into a feature when the app shutdown. But Ahn was skeptical before he signed onto Searchlight’s first movie with an all-queer cast.
“I’d actually never been [to Fire Island] before getting this job, but for the many reasons why the characters in this film feel discriminated against on the island were reasons why I chuckled at it,” says Ahn. “Why would you make this film here?”
Fire Island, it turns out, is the perfect place to dramatize a multicultural clash between gay men. Joel Kim Booster recently told me that when gay people gather in our cultural enclaves, we judge each other. Even without the world’s judgment bearing down on us, we find a way to do it to ourselves. It’s all so human.
Fire Island lays its queer context on the framework of Pride and Prejudice to explore the social norms of 21st-century gay men: Noah (Joel Kim Booster) resolves to help his lovelorn best friend Howie (Bowen Yang) find the man of his dreams. To prove Noah takes his mission seriously, he promises Howie that he will remain abstinent until he succeeds. The natural sexual tension inherent to absitence—on Fire-freaking-Island of all places—sends Noah on a journey narrated by his internal monologue with biting wit, ruthless self-judgement, and gentle reflection. The film shows that humor and self-loathing is often the Janus face of gay people’s wounds.
We spoke with Andrew Ahn for the occasion of Fire Island dropping on Hulu for Pride Month. He told us about making a different kind of Disney princess, the gay community’s reaction to the movie, and how to depict gay movement on screen. Ahn also gave MovieMaker the first substantial preview of GAMEBOI, a movie he’s developing.
Joshua Encinias: You said your first cinematic memory is Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and now you’ve made a movie about a different kind of Disney princess.
Andrew Ahn: I love this idea that Joel Kim Booster is like my Aurora, is my sleeping beauty. It’s really funny to make something that is for a big audience. I am freaking out a little, actually, that within hours of Fire Island being released on Hulu more people will have seen Fire Island than have seen Spa Night and Driveways combined. Like that’s weird to me. More people are going to know me for Fire Island than my first two films. That’s kind of an odd feeling as an indie filmmaker. I’m excited by it but I’m also a little scared by it. Because it’s a responsibility and it’s a platform and with this platform I really want to be able to advocate for more queer artists of color. So it’s Spider-Man — “with great power comes great responsibility.” So I don’t take this opportunity lightly.
Joshua Encinias: When the Fire Island trailer dropped there was a small cynical reaction by gays on Twitter. Then Film Twitter learned that you directed it and lightened up some. Did you anticipate a little blow back from the community?
Andrew Ahn: I’ll be very honest, I remember hearing about Joel’s adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and setting it on Fire Island. I kind of laughed a little because of what I know about Fire Island. I’d actually never been before getting this job, but for the many reasons why the characters in this film feel discriminated against on the island were reasons why I chuckled at it. Why would you make this film here? But I think Joel is very aware of that, and actually not just aware of that, but wanting to shine a light on it and use that as a part of the adaptation. So, for me, I don’t know if I could say I was expecting the reaction that we got, but it doesn’t surprise me, and I’m really glad to use my name to have people see this film in a slightly different light and maybe get them more interested to actually give it a watch. It’s a very strange culture of media and marketing and I think, especially as a queer person, we’re often very critical of how we’re portrayed because we’re worried about how it’s going to make our community look. That’s very natural. At the same time, I hope that people are curious enough to engage with the work instead of dismissing it.
Joshua Encinias: Before you read the script were you like, “oh god, a Quibi show wants to become a movie?”
Andrew Ahn: [Laughs] I mean, I had my doubts about Quibi in general. I remember being part of a group of young queer film professionals in Los Angeles, and there was a junior executive who was touting Vine as the future of cinema. I just had to roll my eyes, and I think that there’s a constant desire to find what’s new and what’s going to be the future. I ultimately think there’s something about an hour and a half to three hours in a dark room with friends with other people communing with a story that is almost biological. I think we just love that experience. I don’t think it’s ever gonna go away. So I was so happy to hear that Joel’s project got picked up by Searchlight and they were looking for a director, and I was very happy to get to meet with them about it.
Joshua Encinias: The magic of moviegoing notwithstanding, what do you think about Fire Island only being available on Hulu? I’m not asking you to bite the hand that feeds you, but I noticed Searchlight is submitting Fresh for Emmys instead of theatrical awards.
Andrew Ahn: In some ways I can’t complain about it because it was part of the project even before I signed on. When I interviewed for it, I knew that it was a straight-to-Hulu release. I think it’s how the film was financed. If this deal wasn’t in place, I don’t know if we would have been able to make the movie with the resources that we had. I’m a little sad that we’re not gonna get a theatrical release because I think it plays so well for an audience. But at the same time, I’m also very aware that theater accessibility is a big issue. And if more people can watch this from the comfort and the safety of their own home, I’m all for it. I think that there are pros and cons to each situation. But I think this is the right path for Fire Island. I’m looking forward to the few special screenings that we’re having in Provincetown, and we have a screening at the Castro Theatre as a part of Frameline. I think those will be fun and fill my spirit.
Joshua Encinias: You asked your stunt person to make Bowen Yang’s meet-cute fall down the stairs look gay. How do you create and capture gay movement on screen?
Andrew Ahn: I’ll say that Bowen did his own stunts so that pratfall that leads to the meet-cute with Charlie, played by James Scully, that was Bowen. There was a stunt double just in case it felt too daunting for Bowen, but he was so good at it and he’s such a great physical comedian. But the stunt double was a straight guy, and if we used the stunt double, I wanted to make sure that he could look gay falling, because I think queer people have a different lived experience and we have a different set gestures. That’s all part of the texture of the film. The fabric of the movie is how we move and speak and express ourselves. This film is an expression of the queer community, so I wanted it to feel as honest as possible. I think the queer community would be able to tell if something felt a little bit off in how people like to move or speak. So I stand by it, and in the future, if I do a movie with queer people, and we have stunt doubles, I’m going to tell them we need you to fall like a gay person. That sounds ridiculous, but I think there’s a truth to it.
Joshua Encinias: Five years ago, Metrograph had a program about movies based on Fire Island, and I saw a few of them like My Hustler by Chuck Wein and Andy Warhol, Frank Perry’s Last Summer, and Wakefield Poole’s Boys in the Sand. Did any of those movies inspire how you filmed Fire Island?
Andrew Ahn: Yep. Boys in the Sand was a big inspiration. My cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey and I watched the film and and we found a copy on the internet that included a commentary from Wakefield Poole, which is really cool. It was a terrible transfer, unfortunately, but I think we could get a sense of it enough. There’s something about that film… it’s very different in its depiction of Fire Island from our film, but what I loved about it was that its priority is to show the beauty of the male form and the landscape and try to merge those together. That was part of what we were trying to do with our film. We’re also really inspired by photographers. There’s a photographer named Matthew Leifheit who did a series of photographs on Fire Island that I was really inspired by. Tom Bianchi and his polaroids obviously are a big inspiration for me and Felipe. I was also thinking about “the gay gaze” and was looking at the work of that queer photographer Wolfgang Tillmans. So it was a bunch of different random references and then we obviously had to adapt it, fold it into the genre of a romcom, but I think we had a lot of fun in that process.
Joshua Encinias: Was Fire Island shot on film?
Andrew Ahn: No, we shot on digital, but we did shoot actually on a medium format digital camera, and so it’s a different sensor and it gives it a slightly more filmic vibe. It’s very subliminal but it definitely feels a little bit more nostalgic, which I really like. I really wanted this film to have a sense of nostalgia because of the fact that this is the last summer on the island for our characters and I wanted it to remind audiences of summers that they’ve had. So Felipe found the right camera for it and we worked with our colorist Roman Hankewycz at Harbor to bring out that kind of filmic color quality. We also added a slight grain to the film to soften that digital sharpness. I think the overall effect is really romantic.
Joshua Encinias: Will you talk about your experience directing two episode of Genera+ion for HBO Max? That show was incredible but criminally missed by audiences.
Andrew Ahn: I feel so honored that I got to be a part of that project. I think their cast is astounding. Justice Smith is giving such a cool performance, it’s very layered, very emotional. I think Chase Sui Wonders is a star. She’s so great and I was really lucky to work with her a lot in one particular episode. I thought it had so much to say about queer youth culture and it did it with a lot of style. I had a lot of fun with that one. In some ways, it was a really great warm up to something like Fire Island, because it does have a more comedic tone, but it’s also very emotional. I wish that it could have gotten a second season. I think it really would have shown people a lot of cool things.
Joshua Encinias: What can you tell us about GAMEBOI, the film you’re developing about a gay Asian party in West Hollywood?
Andrew Ahn: I’ll say that there are members of this Fire Island cast that I would love to work with again on that project. I’m really interested in portraying the gay Asian American experience as very mythic, and I’m thinking a lot about the film Chungking Express. So that’s as much as I can say that feels concrete enough. It’s still very early in the development process, but it’s something that I’m really excited by and really want to make.
Fire Island is now streaming on Hulu.
Main image: (L-R) Erin (Margaret Cho), Keegan (Tomás Matos), Howie (Bowen Yang), Noah (Joel Kim Booster) and Luke (Matt Rogers) in Fire Island. Photo by Jeong Park/Searchlight.