How the queer summer rom-com ‘Fire Island’ found new meaning in ‘Pride and Prejudice’
Jennifer Ehle. Keira Knightley. And now, Joel Kim Booster: Into the pantheon of “Pride and Prejudice” adaptations, queer rom-com “Fire Island” has arrived to give Jane Austenites a summer to remember — and the next great Elizabeth Bennet.
Set on the titular resort off of Long Island, “Fire Island” (streaming now on Hulu) stars Booster as Noah, a happily single, perpetually broke New Yorker who finds more than he anticipated during one last getaway with his friends to the sun-soaked LGBTQ mecca: an attraction to a prickly lawyer from Los Angeles (Conrad Ricamora) who makes his blood boil and his pulse quicken.
Inspiration struck actor and comedian Booster (“Sunnyside,” “Big Mouth”) — who also wrote and executive produced in his lead starring debut — when he brought a copy of Austen’s 19th century Regency romance on his first visit to the island in 2016.
“Every subsequent year and pretty much every other gay vacation I’ve ever taken, I’ve read a Jane Austen book,” said Booster. He remarked to friend and “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang how the themes of “Pride and Prejudice” mapped onto the stark hierarchies of the island’s social scene, divided by wealth, looks and race.
Joel Kim Booster and especially Bowen Yang elevate a mixed attempt at turning a Jane Austen classic into a contemporary rom-com.
“Those early trips were pretty decently reflected in the movie in terms of where we were falling in the strata of the island,” Yang said. “We had each other there to check in and be like, ‘Is this weird for you too? Did that person give you a look when you walked into this place, or make a comment about whether or not we belong there?’”
Turning that idea into an original story — first developed for the now defunct Quibi, then reborn as a feature film for Searchlight Pictures — Booster also drew on his love of Nora Ephron films (“When Harry Met Sally...”) and other romantic comedies (“You’ve Got Mail,” “While You Were Sleeping,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding”). But he had deeper ideas in mind, commenting on the classist, racist and body conscious interactions he’d seen and experienced on Fire Island.
“I wanted to use the rom-com structure as a Trojan horse to talk about meaningful issues regarding the gay community — specifically, what it’s like to be gay and Asian in that community,” he said.
The Austen framework
As the Jane Bennet to his Lizzie, Booster wrote the character of the sweet and idealistic Howie for Yang. When Howie meets and falls for the privileged Charlie (James Scully as the film’s Bingley), friction ensues between their opposing friend groups even as sparks fly between Noah and Charlie’s buddy, Will (Ricamora).
Telling an unapologetically gay story in a landmark studio film from Disney-owned Searchlight Pictures, with a primarily LGBTQ cast, was an opportunity to explore themes of love, romance and chosen family, said director Andrew Ahn. Coming off his acclaimed debut film “Spa Night” and award-winning drama “Driveways,” Ahn felt a personal connection to the friendships and joy at the film’s core.
“We had the tried and true story of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to really lean on,” said Ahn. “That story is timeless, of making assumptions about people then getting to know them and seeing a different side of who they are. That, to me, is so human.”
Filling out the classic Bennet clan of “Fire Island” are Matt Rogers as Luke, the frivolous Lydia of the family; Tomás Matos as Keegan, their Kitty; Torian Miller as Max, the serious Mary of the bunch; and Margaret Cho as Erin, the mother hen whose cabin in the Pines is their home away from home.
Making over Mr. Darcy
There’s a Caroline and a Wickham too, played deliciously by Nick Adams and Zane Phillips, respectively. And of course, following Austen’s literary roadmap, “Fire Island” boasts another trailblazing new romantic icon. “I’m so happy that we can now say, as a community, that we have an Asian American Mr. Darcy,” said Ahn.
“How to Get Away With Murder” and “Little Shop of Horrors” alum Ricamora steps into iconic britches as the film’s own Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy — the stiff, successful and quietly alluring Will, who has begrudgingly joined his wealthy white friends for the week.
The actor landed the role by leaving Booster flustered in a chemistry read during the search for their Mr. Darcy. “Joel is a very confident person, but every other actor he read with he felt like he always had the upper hand,” Ahn said. “And Conrad was the only actor that made Joel forget his lines.”
Ricamora related to the ways “Fire Island” lends new meaning to “Pride and Prejudice.” “It matches really well to growing up in the queer community and growing up closeted for so long you develop these defense mechanisms and then you feel like once you come out, all your problems are going to be solved,” he said. “But the reality is that’s just the beginning.”
I’m so happy that we can now say, as a community, that we have an Asian American Mr. Darcy.
— “Fire Island” director Andrew Ahn
The sizzling tension between Noah and Will comes to a head one rainy night when both men reveal the hidden judgments and feelings they’ve been harboring.
“A line that Noah spits at Will — ‘People think you’re straight and I’m not’ — I think that’s a really important thing for the queer community, of passing privilege, that you can move about the world and people assume that you’re straight,” said Ahn.
With production pressures mounting on the day of filming, however, the filmmakers were urged to cut the rain for time and money. “Both Joel and I were like, ‘No! This is a rain fight. That is the point.’ They’re wet, they’re miserable. They’re finally being honest,” said Ahn. “We had to make other concessions, but we wanted that centerpiece of that sequence of the film.”
Without the rain — pouring down from machines that sent Booster and Ricamora’s temperatures dropping so low that medics worried they’d catch hypothermia — the scene wouldn’t have been the same. They managed to capture it in only two takes, nailing their torrid, GIF-worthy nod to Keira Knightley and Matthew Macfadyen’s 2005 predecessor.
“It just happened that it was also an amazing homage to Joe Wright’s ‘Pride & Prejudice,’” said Booster. “It’s such a rom-com moment!”
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