Joel Kim Booster’s Fire Island Would Make Jane Austen Proud
“The answer is not to try and make one movie that represents everybody. The answer is to make more movies.”
Joel Kim Booster used to bring a different Jane Austen novel with him to Fire Island each year. It was eight years ago, the year that he brought Pride and Prejudice, that he said as a joke to his friend Bowen Yang, “What if I made a gay Pride and Prejudice, set on Fire Island?”
He noticed the themes of Jane Austen novels – issues of longing and class and judgement – mirrored what life was like for a gay man on Fire Island. It didn’t matter that Austen’s stories dealt in heteronormative traditions. As the saying goes: the more specific something is, the more universal it is.
This was back when Booster and Yang were flat broke doing open mic nights, and when going to an increasingly expensive Fire Island was a difficult, but necessary annual experience. Now, Booster’s beachside idea has become a feature film for Hulu starring himself and Yang, alongside their comedian pals Matt Rogers, Tomás Matos, Torian Mille, and Margaret Cho.
Booster and Yang are no longer scrimping to go to Fire Island: Booster is starring in his first Netflix special called PsychoSexual, and in the upcoming Apple TV+ series Loot starring Maya Rudolph. Yang is a Saturday Night Live star.
Eventually the project was picked up by the now-defunct Quibi (RIP) and eventually by Searchlight Pictures, who produced the film for a much larger audience: Hulu, and internationally, on Disney+. And to have an unapologetically queer film made by queer people on a major platform is a big deal.
It’s a responsibility that Booster understands, but also didn’t have the pressure of taking on: He wrote the script as if nobody would ever see it. He got to tell a story about his and Yang’s friendship, a story that centered queer, Asian identities in a few that too few stories do. What he created is an unapologetically gay, joyful romantic comedy that’s as sweet and vulnerable as it is a party – where the characters do ketamine and have game nights and sing karaoke, where they’re broke but have everything they need: each other.
“I just really hope that people are able to find their own chosen family and watch this movie together,” says Booster to NYLON over Zoom. “I do encourage people to watch it with their chosen family and not just on their laptop alone. That's my hope.”
Fire Island is out on Hulu on June 3.
I loved the film for so many reasons. It's so funny, it's vulnerable, and it's very gay. One of the things I liked is that it didn't feel like it was toned down for straight people to feel comfortable, which was really refreshing. I'm wondering how it felt to have that freedom when writing this, and if maybe there was ever in the back of your mind like, "Is not everyone going to get this joke?" Or was it important to you to have it be unapologetically gay?
In a way it's sort of lucky that it started as a Quibi project, because to be quite honest, when I was writing it, I was like, "Well, no one's going to see this, so I can just really go balls to the wall, write exactly in my voice and exactly what I want to write, and not worry too much." Because I just knew it was going to be on such a niche platform that the people who wanted something like that would find it, and now I had no way of knowing that eventually it would end up at Searchlight and Hulu.
I really lucked out with those creative partners too, because they had basically a completed script. I had to make some slight adjustments to make it non-Quibi, but they loved it. I think it's a testament to, if you trust people, it's almost condescending to write, to try and explain every reference and every joke. I don't think people want that. I think they want specificity, and that's what I think I've learned through this process and from the reaction to the movie.
Kind of on that same line, I think I read a quote where Andrew said, "We can't write this movie for Twitter," and I'm wondering did it ever feel like a responsibility to make a film for all kinds of different queer people?
That was sort of Andrew's refrain on set, when I would freak out about the responsibility of making this movie, he was like, "We just can't write this for Twitter." And he reminded me that when I set out writing this, I didn't set out to write a movie that was supposed to represent everybody, that was supposed to represent every queer person in existence. I wanted to write a deeply personal story about my friendship with Bowen, and in that specificity, I think people have really found themselves in it.
But the goal was never to represent everybody. And that, I think, is because of the scarcity of media for queer people, a lot of people bring that expectation to movies. I think a lot of creators respond to that preemptively by trying to get every viewpoint, every identity, make sure everyone is represented, and it's just not feasible to do in a movie. The answer is not to try and make one movie that represents everybody. The answer is to make more movies. And that's my hope, is that if this movie is successful, that it creates a million clones, and that if you don't see yourself represented in this story, that it sort of lights a fire underneath you to write your own or find a creator that you do relate to and support them until they're able to have an opportunity to tell their story.
Totally. It always is the more specific something is, the more universal it ends up being, no matter if you're trying to or not.
Always. It's a weird lesson that it hasn't quite been absorbed by Hollywood quite yet, but it's almost always true.
Can you talk to me a little bit about where you guys were in your life and in your creative process? How did this idea come to be?
Back then, these were very early days for me and Bowen in terms of our careers. We were both still at miserable day jobs, we were both grinding it out. I was doing a million open mics and unpaid bar shows, and Bowen was doing midnight shows at The Peoples Improv Theater to audiences of seven. We were dirt poor and it was very difficult to get out to the island, and so everything, every idea that we had back then was just pie in the sky, and so it started as a joke. It really did.
I remember joking with Bowen while I was reading the book. I was like, "Wouldn't it be funny if I wrote gay Pride and Prejudice set on Fire Island?" And everyone would boo and throw things at me. We kept coming back to the island, and I kept bringing Jane Austen books with me to read. And it just slowly began to crystallize in my brain, how cleanly that story maps onto the experience of going to Fire Island as a gay Asian man. Again, in the specificity of Jane Austen's story, I saw myself and I was able to just make those tweaks and adjustments to scan it onto my story.
I love that. Were there other Jane Austen books that you were gravitating towards?
I brought a Jane Austen book with me every year that we would go to Fire Island. The second year was Sense and Sensibility, year three was Emma. One of the last years we went was Mansfield Park. It just became my tradition to read Jane on the island. Each year it just became clear and clearer how those themes really did translate so well onto a queer narrative.
I love to hear more about what Fire Island means to you personally.
For me, it's really about how I don't think a lot of people realize the weight that queer people carry around with them every day, navigating a world made for heterosexual people, and it's a lot. And you don't realize it until you go to a place like Fire Island where suddenly that weight is lifted and you feel sort of a freedom that you didn't even know existed. And it's replicated in other places, other gay destinations, certainly other gay spaces, even in on smaller scales, like Reed Space here in New York, was a really important queer space for me as well when I was living here. But there is something just really unique about Fire Island just topographically, I think. And also just the history that comes with that space.
You step off the ferry and you can feel it. It's tangible in the air. And so despite all of the barriers and the problems that you can face while there, the toxicity, the classism it's extremely expensive to go, and it only keeps getting worse and it's oppressively white at times, but despite all that, I think it's still such an important place to go if you have the opportunity. Because the thing is if we cede the island to just the homogenous, white, upper class, gay guys, then we've lost something really valuable.
And so there is a shift that I've seen over the last couple of years of more queer people, more gender non-conforming people, more people of color, sort of storming that place and bringing their found families with them. And I think that's really beautiful. And I think it's a sea change for who we consider that island belongs to.
I thought that it was cool that you incorporated some of that history into the film, too, in a way that wasn't a history lesson. It was just like how someone going would talk about it.
We never wanted it to feel pedantic. And so I hope that we were mostly successful with that.
Did it hit different to be on set with a cast and a director that was queer?
Yeah, absolutely. There was just such an incredible shorthand that I have never had with other directors or collaborators before that weren't queer. I've worked with a number of lovely directors, but especially working with Andrew, who's a gay Korean guy like me, he just understood the story and the story I wanted to tell on a really intrinsic level, on a cellular level. He understood it and he saw it.
And I think getting to work with not only another queer Asian person, but also someone who is one of my best friends in Bowen, it was an incredible opportunity because I don't know if I've ever trusted a scene partner as much as I was able to trust Bowen. It was a really, really wonderful experience that I'm so sad, as the movie is getting ready to premiere, it feels like we're closing the loop on this period of my life. And it's really sad, but I'm really grateful to have had it.
Were you kind of just like, "I'm with all my best friends on Fire Island. This is what I'd be doing anyway?"
It was a bit like summer camp. We only shot on Fire Island the last two weeks. And by that point we were all very close and it was, when you shoot in New York or LA, there is this sort of energy of you clock in, you clock out, you go back to your home and you're done for the day, like any other job. But when on Fire Island, it was very much like, "Okay, we're wrapped. What are we doing now? Where are we going? What are we eating? What are we watching?" It was very summer camp and it was a really wonderful way to end a really tough process of shooting post-lockdowns.
Obviously as a comedian, you are your own subject material so much of the time. You have levity and humor, but this role was also very vulnerable. What was it like for you to kind of step into a role that was more vulnerable?
Bowen definitely had the heavier job than I did. I certainly gave him the tougher material. But for me, I was looking to write a character that I think is pretty similar to me in a lot of ways, obviously heightened in specific ways, but I think people are so used to seeing me as a standup and seeing me as sort of this hot idiot that I've crafted this character. And so it was almost a relief to just get to play somebody who was a little bit more grounded and a little bit closer to who I am as a person. And so I didn't necessarily find it that difficult. I think also writing for myself, whenever you're doing that, there's less hurdles to get to where you need to go in the process.
With this himbo persona, I think I read that you want to be ahead of the culture and that almost feels like we're peaking at that in the culture. But where do you go from there if you decide you're no longer as interested in this persona that you've crafted?
That's the question, right? And in my new special, I want the representation of it all to be less emphasized in this next phase of my career, because it is a double edged sword. I'm very proud to represent the communities that I represent, obviously, and I take that responsibility very seriously. But all of my success is tied to this idea that if I'm successful on one hand, it's because I'm diverse. And people discount my success all the time and say, "I'm only successful because I'm a diversity hire." And then if I fail because of scarcity, people say, "Now everyone's going to think that gay Asian people are X, Y, Z, because of you."
And so I want to be able to break free a little bit of that because the pressure is really overwhelming sometimes. I've been doing standup for 11 years and every time I walk on stage, I know that I have to be the funniest person on the lineup. If I am not the funniest person on the lineup, then I know that everybody's walking away from that show saying, "Oh, gay guys aren't funny." Or, "Asian guys aren't funny." I would love to sort of be able to step into this next phase of my career as an entity unto myself and not necessarily just an archetype.
Do you have any favorite jokes, favorite scenes, stuff that you were watching and you're like, "I can't believe we got to put this on Hulu?"
The Marissa Tomei scene is a marquee scene. It was my favorite day to shoot. It was just sitting back and watching Tomás and Matt be fools was really fun. I remember writing that scene and just thinking about the game nights that I have with my gay friends in LA and just how seriously we do take it, and wanting to honor that because game culture is big in gay culture. And especially actress culture, I think is something that I wanted to really sort of highlight in the film.
I'm really proud of the rain scene, too. I think that was one of the most miserable days I've ever shot in my entire life. It was an overnight shoot, Conrad and I were both so cold. In fact, we had to stop shooting at one point because my temperature got too low that the thermometer wasn't registering it anymore and so we had to cut a lot of coverage because it was just untenable to continue to shoot for both the crew and myself and Conrad. And Andrew managed to get all the shots that he needed. And it looked so beautiful. I'm so proud of that scene.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.