Shotlisting at the Underwear Party: Andrew Ahn on Fire Island
Opening with a cast rendition of the 20th Century Fox (now known as Searchlight Pictures) theme that accompanies its logo, Andrew Ahn’s Fire Island finds inspiration in group dynamics. Comedians Joel Kim Booster (Model Minority), Margaret Cho (All-American Girl), and Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live) lead an ensemble of queer friends on a weekend escape to the titular gay enclave. Although their financial prospects are dim, the tightknit group has lucked out these past few summers, crashing at the pad of their older lesbian friend, Erin (Cho). Something of a den mother, Erin greets her houseguests with “Bitch, I knew I smelled some bottoms!” As the story unfolds and begruding romances ensue between guests of different ethnic, financial and class backgrounds, some of Fire Island’s narrative beats begin to feel unexpected but familiar—the source text isn’t current pop culture but Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.
Ahn’s first feature, Spa Night, premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival; his second, Driveways, at the 2019 Berlinale, Fire Island is his third feature, first romantic comedy and arrives as a Hulu Original beginning today. Having also directed television (working on the Sundance Now series, This Close, with Oscar winner Siân Heder, the teen drama Generation for HBO Max and CBS’s MacGyver reboot), Ahn has quickly seen his career rise, his unfussy but polished style working to complement various collaborators and genres . Fire Island is a gay romcom that works primarily due to its director’s past experience working with sensitive, dramatic material; the jokes consistently fly as a sharper poignancy takes shape in the film’s shot selection, deliberate pacing and story beats.
A few days before the film’s streaming release, I spoke with Ahn about directing personal work that doesn’t necessarily originate with himself, learning the geography of Fire Island after signing onto the project and editing for maximum comedic effect.
Filmmaker: The last time we spoke was for the release of your second feature, Driveways, and you mentioned that you made the film in part due to, after the release of your first feature, Spa Night, having become tired of talking about yourself and about being a gay Korean-American. Driveways was a narrative departure for your career, with a screenplay that didn’t even originate with yourself. Now here’s your third feature, Fire Island, which feels like an amalgamation of your first two experiences, incorporating similar themes you’ve tackled in the past with a script that you didn’t write. Is that what interested you in the project? I believe Joel Kim Booster originally reached out to you on Twitter after seeing Spa Night, but that it’s taken years for you to officially collaborate.
Ahn: Yes, and when I received Joel’s screenplay for Fire Island, we were about one year into the pandemic! At that point, I hadn’t seen my friends in quite a long time. Since everything had [been closed], I hadn’t been able to hang out with friends at bars or clubs where we’d go drinking and dancing, and I found that Joel’s screenplay featured a lot of what I had been currently missing in my life. I loved that his script focused on queer Asian-American friendship, as that’s personally a big part of my life and one I wasn’t able to fully experience during the pandemic. As a result, I really wanted to make this film and loved that I didn’t have to write it [laughs]. Writing is really hard! I’d also never been to Fire Island before, so the script was a bit different from my own experiences, but I understood the heart of it. [Directing this script] felt a bit like the best of both worlds, where I could be objective (to a certain extent) to the material, while also having a very intense personal connection to it. It was the right project for me at the right time.
Filmmaker: Once you signed onto the project, were you able to visit Fire Island before filming began? Did you take trips with location managers to map out everything in advance or could you just go for fun to familarize yourself with the island?
Ahn: When I signed onto the project, I went to New York [Ahn is based in Los Angeles] and immediately visited Fire Island several times, just to experience it. We went to scout [locations], then we went for our own research trips. It’s funny, as when I say, “research trips,” this also just means that we were taking the time to enjoy ourselves on the island. My cinematographer, Felipe Vara de Rey, and I went for a weekend and attended a famous “underwear party.” We were shotlisting at the party in our underwear [laughs]. We even ran into Joel Kim Booster at the party, as he just happened to be there enjoying himself. It was fun seeing him in his natural habitat.
Filmmaker: And when you ran into him, you assured him, “We’re here to shotlist. We’re working!”
Ahn: “We’re working actually.” [laughs]. Even though my experiences of visiting other queer vacation-destinations like Palm Springs and Provincetown helped me understand the spirit of the trip portrayed in Joel’s script, the specificities of Fire Island were something I didn’t know and had to learn quickly. I relied on the cast and crew who had visited the island before, asking about each of their experiences. It was definitely a crash course for me, but I learned a lot about the island in a short amount of time.
Filmmaker: Was your cast and crew stationed off the island for the majority of the shoot? Did you have to travel to and from Fire Island by boat, much like the characters do in your film?
Ahn: For four weeks, we were actually shooting in the city off the coast of Long Island, opposite Fire Island, to double as locations for the island itself. And then for an additional two weeks, we were stationed on Fire Island officially. During those two weeks, the cast, producers and I lived on the island in a house with a little bed-and-breakfast—very intimate quarters [laughs]. My room shared an airvent with Joel Kim Booster’s [room], and I could hear him watching The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills with other members of our cast, giggling and cackling away. Every morning, our crew [who were staying off the island] would ferry over for that day’s shoot, and it was such a bizarre experience. It was a tough shoot in that it was mostly exterior-based and at one point [the island] encountered a hurricane [Hurricane Henri in August 2021]. Nonetheless, we had a wonderful team who remained super dedicated.
Filmmaker: While the influence of Jane Austen’s writing (and Pride and Prejudice in particular) over Joel Kim Booster’s character is acknowledged in voiceover at the film’s outset, your filmmaking also begins to incorporate elements of the author’s work as the movie progresses. In what ways did you see those stylistic devices, from the implementation of voiceover and romantic letter-writing between lovers (and even the classical influence on the score), take shape? Were you influenced by previous film adaptations of Austen’s work?
Ahn: I’ve always loved the story of Pride and Prejudice, having read Jane Austen’s novel and yes, having watched the 1995 BBC miniseries and Joe Wright’s 2005 film adaptation. I’ve even seen Burr Steers’s adaptation [of Seth Grahame-Smith’s parody novel], Pride and Prejudice and Zombies [laughs]. As a result, i didn’t want to abandon the Austen inspiration in Joel’s screenplay. We wanted to [add to it], going back to the original Austen text and looking for certain lines and words between Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth and thinking of how they could be applied to the relationship between Noah (Booster) and Will (Conrad Ricamora) in our film.
Beyond the script, other elements [of Austen] were super important to bring to the project. For our locations, we found a mansion on Fire Island that looked like a giant estate [similar to Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s country estate] and our production designer, Katie Hickman, found little ways to bring in Austen’s Regency-era decor to the home that Margaret Cho’s character, Erin, owns. Our costume designer, David Taber, even sprinkled in nods to Pride and Prejudice specifically, as the character of Dex (Zane Phillips), based on George Wickham from Austen’s novel, wears these military boots throughout the movie as a nod to Wickham being a militia officer in the novel. On the film’s score, I worked with my composer from Driveways again, Jay Wadley, searching for a fun balance between a modern sound with aspects of classical music. It was fun bringing in little touches that reminded us that this was a Pride and Prejudice story, after all.
Filmmaker: I assume this film provided you with the largest cast you’ve worked with, at least as far as your three features are concerned. I was curious if your recent experiences working in television helped you on this film in instances of shooting coverage or ADR looping. The film is very busy, with multiple speaking roles always in sight (and in ear’s reach).
Ahn: In Spa Night especially, the camera was so trained and set on one character [David, played by Joe Seo]. My cinematographer on that film, Ki Jin Kim, found a visual language that purposely kept us within a very limited scope, as we wanted the viewer to share in the lead character’s claustrophobia. However, Fire Island is about friendship and one’s chosen family, so Felipe and I wanted to group those dynamics within a single frame. And while we definitely made sure to get coverage for comedic purposes and performance beats, we always wanted to identify the best master shot. We wanted to locate the wide that featured the entire cast, as we knew that we’d frequently return to those shots in the edit, primarily due to the wide showcasing the different relationship dynamics between the characters. We even shot the film in a slightly different aspect ratio [than standard], shooting in 1:76:1. We did this so that the frame would be narrower and allow us to push everyone closer together for the viewer, essentially to observe more body language. If we had gone super, super wide, it would’ve isolated the characters in an odd way that we didn’t want. These were all aesthetic, cinematic choices that were made to help tell the story of a group of people who can’t live without each other.
Filmmaker: Since the film features a diverse cast and tackles the issues of racism and classicism within the gay community, I was curious as to how your work with Felipe trickled down to lighting choices. How did you to take to lighting the often very bare bodies of your cast, an ensemble made up of very different body types and skintones?
Ahn: Felipe was very on top of that, wanting to film each actor in a way that showed off their beauty. And for a film where many of the characters are discriminated against for how they look or act, it was important to show our chosen family as the beautiful people that they are. Felipe was aware of how to light these wides [shots] and how to shape light around the actors. We used a lot of practical lighting, especially in the Ice Palace underwear party sequence, where we employed party lights to identify and sharply define our [main] characters in the frame from the rest of the crowd. We even did a lot of backlighting to give the actors’ [bodies] a kind of beautiful glow. For daylight exteriors, we were always very careful about knowing where the sun was, so that we could position and capture the most flattering, romantic depictions of these characters’ summer vacation. It was important that we show (and light) this summer as nostalgic and romantic, as opposed to uncomfortable and very sweaty.
Filmmaker: On a film like this, you’re working with some very talented comedians who come to the table with their own comedic aura, or comedian-ness, if you will. Was your experience directing them any different than directing actors on your previous sets? For example, is there a different approach one takes to directing Brian Dennehy (a co-lead in Driveways) and Joe Seo as opposed to directing a professional comedian? Or is the experience more or less streamlined?
Ahn: On a macro level, I think directing is the same regardless of the medium or genre you’re working in. You’re always trying to find the emotional truth of the story. I’m always searching for the authenticity and honesty of each scene, and that’s as true on Fire Island as it was on Driveways and Spa Night. However, I will say that a difference in directing comedy as opposed to drama is that you have a slightly different set of priorities. Since I was working with an insanely talented cast that featured amazing comedians like Bowen Yang, Joel Kim Booster and Margaret Cho, I made sure to rely on them a lot, observing what they were doing and trying to enable them to have fun and to feel loose and vulnerable. A lot of my “directing of the comedy” on this film was to just create the right environment where my cast could do that. I wanted to support them.
Much of the film’s comedy comes from the work that was done in the edit. I worked with an amazing editor, Brian A. Kates, and he’s previously edited films for John Cameron Mitchell [Shortbus and How to Talk to Girls at Parties[ and Tamara Jenkins [on Private Life and The Savages]. It’s so interesting to see how a joke can improve if you trim away a few frames or make one syllable in a word slightly louder. Editing for comedic effect is a very precise craft and it was a learning lesson for me. I put in a lot of work with this crew in post to enhance the comedy as much as we possibly could.
Filmmaker: I love the comedic quip Margaret Cho’s character gives about Quibi’s rapid demise and the reaction the line receives from the other actors in the wide shot.
Ahn: Oh, that was a fun ad-lib. I think Joel had thought of that line for Margaret to say [on set] and she went with it. I love that line [laughs]. It’s so much fun.