For Joel Kim Booster, Making ‘Fire Island’ Was a Real Trip
The writer and star of “Fire Island” reflects on making the rare romantic comedy that puts gay Asian American men at its center.
June 3, 2022
Joel Kim Booster had a thought: Why do we even need movie trailers? Sure, they give people a bite-size look at a film they might find intriguing, but couldn’t we just … not?
This was the theory Booster advanced to me one evening in late April, just hours after the trailer was released for “Fire Island,” a gay romantic comedy he wrote and starred in. Booster had anticipated this moment with a not-inconsiderable level of anxiety, so he met the morning with a plan: After posting the trailer online, he would go back to bed, then keep himself distracted with a trip to the gym and several palliative episodes of “Real Housewives.”
A few hours into this plan, as his phone blew up with text messages and Twitter began to pick the trailer apart, he texted the “Fire Island” director Andrew Ahn to announce that he was having either a heart attack or a series of mini-strokes.
So consider this his mea culpa: “I’ve done it, too — I’ve made massive judgments about a movie based on two minutes,” said Booster, who is 34, bleached-blond and possessed of a voice so NPR-smooth that a microphone almost seems superfluous. “But now, being on the other side of it, I’m just like, ‘Well, that’s the most ridiculous thing in the world!’”
A modern, same-sex gloss on “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, “Fire Island” (streaming on Hulu) stars Booster as our narrator Noah, who makes knowing observations about the titular gay enclave and its social mores. (Think of him as Elizabeth Bennet in a pink Speedo.) Noah didn’t come to Fire Island to look for true love, but as he attends to his insecure friend Howie (Bowen Yang) during their vacation gone wrong, he also takes the measure of a stiff and arrogant suitor who just may be his Mr. Darcy.
After Booster was done dodging internet comments and replying to his friends’ texts about the trailer, he met me at Akbar, a storied Los Angeles gay bar with amber lighting, strong cocktails and kitschy, beaded bamboo curtains. (Booster, who moved here from New York a few years ago, picked Akbar because it was one of the few gay bars in town “that didn’t feel like WeHo or a Chipotle.”) We were joined by Ahn, who initially drew Booster’s attention after directing the 2016 indie “Spa Night.” They met years ago and bonded over being gay and Korean in an industry that rarely makes room for their stories.
“We were supposed to split up and do our own things so that we’d take the burden off each other,” Booster said as Ahn chuckled into his tequila soda. “But then we decided to do one project together that now has the same problem of having to represent everybody.”
Though there have recently been more gay rom-coms from big studios than ever before, that’s not exactly saying much: They still come around as rarely as comets, and none of the other ones — not “Love Simon,” “Happiest Season,” or this year’s forthcoming Billy Eichner vehicle “Bros” — have a leading cast that is comprised mainly of Asian American actors. So there’s an extra layer of scrutiny that Booster expects from people who’ve never seen themselves in a film protagonist before.
And he totally gets that, but it’s all superseded by the fact that he’s the protagonist in question, and he can never be all things to all people because his own story is so specific. Booster was adopted as an infant and home-schooled by white parents in Plainfield, Ill., before he came out as a teenager, studied musical theater in college and moved to New York to become a stand-up comedian. Even now, his conservative family is barely aware that their son is making gay rom-coms that the entire internet is determined to weigh in on.
So you’ll have to excuse Booster if he can’t take on everybody else’s concerns right now — not when he’s still got plenty of his own to grapple with.
“The night before we started shooting, I was like, ‘This is either going to change my life or it’s going to be the biggest flop of my career,’” Booster told me. “And I don’t think there will be anything in between that.”
THE FIRST TIME that Booster and Yang went to Fire Island, it was with a certain amount of trepidation. In those days, both men were still clinging to their day jobs (Booster was the project manager for an internet sock company), and to make the trip economically feasible, they fit 11 impoverished friends into a house with three bedrooms. They knew that the island had a reputation as a haven for rich, white gay men with muscles, but it still unnerved Booster when someone would fix him with a hard stare that all but declared, “You don’t belong here.”
Still, the more time he spent with his friends on Fire Island, the freer he felt. “You don’t realize the weight you carry every day by just walking around in straight spaces,” he said. And even the peculiar prejudices of the island became grist for the mill once Booster read Austen’s novel and realized that her story of social stratification would map neatly onto his own experiences.
Over the next few years, while Booster’s star began to rise as a stand-up comedian, he kept going back to Fire Island and plugging away at a script about the place that would star him and Yang. And in early 2020, Booster’s breakthrough finally arrived when the project was greenlit … by Quibi.
Don’t laugh. Yes, Jeffrey Katzenberg’s short-form streaming app has since become one of Hollywood’s most infamous flameouts, but at the time, Booster was all-in. Every other studio had passed on “Fire Island,” and Booster’s other big break — a supporting role on NBC’s 2019 sitcom “Sunnyside” — had capsized, leaving his career in a precarious place: “People were like, ‘It’s going to be huge, it’s the next “Office,” you’re going to be able to buy a house with the residuals once it gets to five seasons.’ And then we were canceled after three episodes.”
Quibi didn’t last much longer. The app launched one month into the pandemic, tumbled out of the most-downloaded charts within a week, and was sold for parts to Roku by the fall. “Going into lockdown, everyone was depressed, but I felt like my career was kaput,” said Booster. “I was like, ‘Oh, this is done. By the time this is all over, people will have forgotten about me completely.’”
Luckily, Searchlight Pictures began to sniff around the project, provided that Booster could rewrite it as a feature film. And that’s when Ahn got into the ring.
“I don’t think I’m patting myself on the back by saying, yeah, I think I’m the only person that could have directed this,” Ahn told me. For the last decade, he has lived in what he calls “a gay Asian flophouse in Echo Park” — a building with cheap rent, no central air, plenty of party-throwing camaraderie and an invader opossum that took an entire month to capture. Ahn felt so well-suited for “Fire Island” that he could have been a character from it; in fact, for the movie’s mood board, he used images of himself and his friends.
Ahn was thrilled as the movie became even more Asian during the casting process: When a male actor dropped out, the comedian Margaret Cho came aboard as the characters’ destitute den mother, and Booster’s love interest, originally written for a non-Asian person of color, went to the Filipino American actor Conrad Ricamora. (“In the chemistry read, Conrad flustered Joel, and I loved seeing that,” Ahn said.) Though Booster happily signed off on both castings, he still had some reservations.
“It became suddenly not only a gay movie, but an Asian gay movie,” Booster said as we finished our drinks and set out for another bar. “It felt heavier, the responsibility of it.”
Still, he knows these sorts of opportunities are few and far between. Booster was crestfallen when he didn’t land the key role of Michelle Yeoh’s gay child in “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” which ultimately went to the actress Stephanie Hsu: “I went in for it and there was just me and a million girls, and I was like, ‘What is going on?’” he said.
Sometimes, Booster even feels like he has to justify being cast in his own movie. As we arrived at the Eagle — a leather bar boasting pinball machines, a pool table covered in red felt and TV sets playing vintage porn — Booster talked about the internet commenters who pronounced him too gym-fit to be plausible as a Fire Island outsider. “I think people are really naïve about how awful gay men can be sometimes,” he said, nursing a beer.
“I think there’s a lot of nuance in the fact that, yes, I experience gay racism, but I also look like this,” Booster continued. “I’m aware that I’ve done a lot of work to try and make myself visible in those spaces, and I’ve taken a very conventional way of trying to do that. But also, I had to feel good about myself before I started to do all of this — it wasn’t reverse engineered. The first time I sold a script, I was like, ‘Oh, I have so much more value than just if some rando thinks I’m sexually viable or not.’”
And ultimately, you can’t control what those randos think of you, whether they’re anonymous internet commenters or strangers who pass judgment in person. Ahn recounted a story of shooting the movie on the Fire Island boardwalk when two gay men walked by and noticed Booster standing there. “Oh, that’s the lead of the movie,” one said.
“Him?” said his friend.
Ahn was indignant, but as he told the story, Booster just nodded. “As a comedian, with everything I’ve done up to this point, I’m just supposed to be funny, you know?” Booster said. “But with this, I’m supposed to be a romantic lead, and it’s a lot for me in my life to be confronted with that and be like, ‘Am I that guy? Is this believable?’”
Booster had never been in a relationship before he started writing “Fire Island,” and everything he knew about love, he had learned from watching Nora Ephron movies. But as “Fire Island” headed into production, Booster met the video-game producer John-Michael Kelly, and something in him softened.
“I’ve just never met somebody that has made me want to not be alone until I met him,” Booster said.
He began to rewrite the scenes he shared with Ricamora, pulling from actual conversations he’d had with Kelly. And the film’s final beat between the characters, which initially culminated in a flippant joke, was tweaked to land on something sweeter and more romantic. “It was like I was doing drag when I first wrote the movie about love,” Booster said, “and then after experiencing it and doing the rewrites, it felt much more real and lived in.”
The movie has been earning stellar reviews, which has Booster breathing a sigh of relief: “When I was making it,” he said, “I thought, ‘If this movie is bad, I can never show my face here again. I just ruined my favorite place in the world.’” And yes, he and Yang both plan to go back to the island this summer.
“Do you think it’s going to be different?” Ahn asked. “Do you think it’s going to be weird?”
“It’s going to be extremely weird,” Booster said. “I’ll either be persona non grata or the mayor.”
And what will it feel like when Booster goes from “He’s the lead of ‘Fire Island’?” to “He’s the lead of ‘Fire Island’!”
Booster just shrugged: He’ll know when he knows. “I don’t think it’s hit me quite yet,” he said. “I’m not getting Grindr messages about it.”
Kyle Buchanan, a Los Angeles-based pop culture reporter, writes The Projectionist column. He was previously a senior editor at Vulture, New York Magazine’s entertainment website, where he covered the movie industry. @kylebuchanan