The long journey of getting “Fire Island” to the screen began with some vacation reading. In the summer of 2015, comedians and friends Joel Kim Booster and Bowen Yang went to Fire Island, the gay mecca off the coast of Long Island, New York. Booster brought a copy of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice” to read during the trip.
“As I was reading it on the island, it really struck me that Austen’s observations about class and the ways in which people interact with each other across class lines felt really prescient and really current to me, especially in the setting that we were in,” Booster said in an interview.
Austen’s characters are often subtle and petty in their cruelty, “in ways that leaves them plausible deniability about how cruel they’re actually being,” he said. “I think it’s very current. I mean, it’s shade, you know?”
Once Booster saw the parallels between the rigid social dynamics and unspoken rules that Austen critiques in her novels and the ones that play out every summer on Fire Island, he couldn’t unsee them. That became the basis for “Fire Island,” which Booster wrote and stars in as Noah, a character inspired by Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet.
Noah is also the movie’s narrator, guiding the audience through the island’s social scene, which is rife with classism and racism. As he explains at a party early in the movie: “A lot of people think you have to be successful, white and rich, with 7% body fat, to vacation on Fire Island. Those people are all at this party.”
“Fire Island,” premiering on Hulu on Friday, continues the great tradition of movies that cleverly remix Austen tropes into modern retellings, like “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “Clueless.” The latter was a north star for Booster when writing “Fire Island.”
At the same time, the movie is charting a new path. Released just in time for Pride Month, “Fire Island” is a rom-com with four queer Asian American stars: Booster and Yang as best friends Noah and Howie, Conrad Ricamora as Noah’s Mr. Darcy-like love interest Will, and Margaret Cho as Erin, who serves as a matriarch to Noah, Howie and their friends.
Erin has fallen on hard times and is about to lose her modest house, where Noah and Howie’s friend group stays every summer. By contrast, Will and his mostly white, finance bro friends have much fancier digs.
The movie’s release marks the beginning of a big June for Booster, who joked: “It’s going to be the month of Joel. If I make it to the end of the month, if I survive it, it will be a miracle.”
He also co-stars in the new Apple TV+ comedy series “Loot,” premiering June 24 and created by TV comedy veterans Alan Yang and Matt Hubbard. Maya Rudolph stars as the ex-wife of a tech CEO. She decides to apply her massive fortune toward charitable causes (à la MacKenzie Scott). Booster plays her loyal and long-suffering assistant, helping her navigate her new lifestyle and redefine her public image. That same week, on June 21, Netflix will release “Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual,” his first filmed stand-up special since 2017.
“Part of the reason I think I waited so long to do another special was because, for me, stand-up specials are really tricky because I didn’t want it to just be, like, my show with three cameras,” he said. Instead, he wanted to try “making it feel almost like a meta-commentary on the idea of shooting a stand-up special,” such as showing his interactions with the crowd and talking directly to the camera crew. “I didn’t want to just pretend the cameras weren’t there.”
“It might work. It might be a huge failure,” Booster said. “But I think comedy specials are, for me anyways, the perfect place to experiment with stuff that’s not just your regular show.”
In some ways, “Fire Island” also began kind of experimentally. At first, the idea was a running joke. Every time Booster and his friends returned to Fire Island, he continued noticing the parallels between the social mores on the island and those of Austen’s world.
“I kept jokingly being like, ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote a ‘Pride and Prejudice’ adaptation that took place on Fire Island?’” Booster said. “And everyone was like, ‘That sounds really dumb.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, but like, it would be funny, right?’”
A few years later, Penguin Random House asked him to write an essay about Austen’s enduring power, in which he wrote about those observations he’d collected on Fire Island. When Booster was between a couple of stalled projects, his agent suggested writing a movie or TV show based on the essay. Booster initially bristled at the idea, thinking he’d “get dragged so hard for writing ‘Gay Pride and Prejudice.’” Then, one day, while bored on a long flight, he opened his laptop, and out came a half-hour pilot script.
No one was really interested in it, except for Quibi. At the time, he was starring in the sadly short-lived NBC sitcom “Sunnyside,” and according to Booster, his contract delineated he couldn’t do other TV work. But because Quibi “technically wasn’t TV, it technically wasn’t really a movie, there was a lot of gray area in terms of my contract with NBC,” Booster said. “So we went with Quibi, and the rest is history.” (RIP, Quibi.)
In 2021, Searchlight Pictures bought the project, and it was reborn as a feature film, with Andrew Ahn coming on board as director. Ahn, who, like Booster, is gay and Korean American, loved how Booster’s script was all about queer joy and friendship.
“I really wanted to make something that showed the experience of being gay and Asian American and silly with your best group of friends,” Ahn said, noting that he had already “made my sad gay Asian American movie” with his directorial debut “Spa Night.”
“It’s something that I’ve done before and I think is really valuable and I’ll probably do again, because yeah, it’s important to acknowledge the difficulties. With ‘Fire Island,’ that’s definitely a part of the film,” Ahn said. “But the main focus really is the joy. And that for me is also so valuable, so I’m really glad that I could get this opportunity to really focus on that.”
In developing the look and feel of “Fire Island,” Ahn turned to stories about great friends and comedies that blend humor with “a lot of heart and humanity,” including “The Wedding Banquet,” “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion,” and “Broad City.”
While Booster and Ahn sought to make something new and one of a kind, it’s impossible not to be inspired by the many Austen adaptations and modern retellings. “The source material is so good, and the adaptations have been so good. It would be foolish of us to throw that out the window and try and, like, create something from scratch,” Ahn said.
In the all-important debate over the two most famous “Pride and Prejudice” screen adaptations, Booster said he’s a “BBC miniseries loyalist,” referring to the 1995 Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle version. Ahn prefers the 2005 film adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen and directed by Joe Wright. The latter was particularly influential in creating the will-they-won’t-they tension between Noah and Will.
For instance, another parallel between Austen’s world and the island’s social scene is that “the big marquee moments happen at parties,” Booster said. The “Fire Island” version of Austen’s Netherfield Ball is the movie’s recreation of the island’s famed underwear party, where Noah and Will find themselves dancing together, getting closer and closer.
Booster wrote the scene after he and Ahn remembered a moment from Wright’s adaptation “when Darcy is helping Elizabeth into a carriage, and it’s very subtle. They’re just touching hands. But it is this moment of such electricity,” Booster said. “And it’s so clear that despite what they might think about each other, there is an undeniable chemistry between these two people and undeniable attraction.”
Therefore, Noah and Will similarly needed that moment where they “feel a certain chemistry, even if they don’t totally understand it,” Ahn said.
In addition to Austen tropes, “Fire Island” also cleverly references classic rom-com tropes. There’s the enemies-to-lovers plotline. There are meet-cutes and pratfalls. Someone will write a letter. Someone will attempt a grand (and potentially colossally stupid) romantic gesture. There may be some kissing in the rain. As Booster said, there’s something classic about “the juxtaposition of feeling miserable but still feeling sexy.”
“I grew up and still do worship at the altar of Nora Ephron. I love classic rom-coms, I grew up watching them,” Booster said. “They completely colonized my brain in a very specific way that made dating and actually falling in love very difficult because I had such high expectations for what that should look like and what that should feel like.”
In “Fire Island,” Howie embodies that conflict, trying to fight his idealized rom-com impulses about love — but eventually giving in to them. By contrast, Noah, who’s a bit more cynical and pragmatic, represents “the more grounded side of myself,” Booster said. “It’s like, ‘Where is this going? What are we doing?’ And the magic of Fire Island is overriding those more logical impulses in the character.”
Howie gets his classic rom-com ending, while Booster wanted Noah and Will’s budding romance to end with more ambiguity. The two, who live in different cities, now have to figure out how to make their relationship work.
Ironically, as with the idea for the movie, real life intervened. Booster changed the ending after he, like Noah, met his now-boyfriend while on vacation. “I just thought it was a more honest way to end on the ambiguity of ‘What’s next?’” he said.
By giving its characters the best of both worlds, “Fire Island” nods toward the neat and pat endings of Austen novels, which typically end with happily ever after, and conventional rom-coms, which often end that way, too. However, it also recognizes that real life is more complicated. Magical vacations have to end — but they can also be new beginnings.
“Fire Island” premieres on Hulu on Friday.