‘Fire Island’ Director Andrew Ahn on Queer Relationships and Keeping Up With Pop Culture

Andrew Ahn tries to find something to relate to in every film or series he works on. 

His debut film Spa Night, which he wrote and directed, centered a queer Korean American teen from a conservative family and reflected his own upbringing. After receiving so many praises and accolades for Spa Night, Ahn wanted to work on a film that didn’t center on sexuality as to not be limited to just queer stories. His follow-up feature Driveways told the story of a young boy and his friendship with an elderly neighbor and reflected Ahn’s feeling as an outsider in a small town. But, of course, as one of the only queer directors of color in the industry, many would analyze his work as a reflection of his life. 

“In many ways, I think if the script were directed by a non-queer director, some of these subtleties wouldn’t exist,” Ahn tells Queerty regarding his film Driveways. “But because I am a queer director, I am a gay man, some of these subtleties come to the surface.”

Still, Ahn embraces those analyses in his films, because it is a part of who he is. When he received the script for Fire Island, Ahn felt moved by the story and how it celebrates not only queer romance, but mainly queer friendships. He knew he had to direct the film. 

“That kind of love story, not necessarily the romantic ones, but the platonic ones is something that everybody can relate to is really cherished,” Ahn tells The Nerds of Color. “A lot of times people get into a relationship and they forget their friends. I hate that. Don’t forget your friends. They’ve been with you for a long time. That for me is a big part of the story.”

Written by Joel Kim Booster and inspired by Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, Fire Island focuses on  two best friends Noah (Booster) and Howie (Bowen Yang) as they spend what looks to be their last summer together on Fire Island with their group of eclectic friends. Noah is determined to hook Howie up with a fling –even if it means Noah remaining celibate until Howie finds someone. Of course, hilarity ensues when the group meets Charlie (James Scully), a kind-hearted doctor who takes an interest in Howie. Unfortunately, Charlie’s serious best friend Will (Conrad Ricamora) is wary of Howie and his group of friends, including Noah. Noah takes offense to the snooty Will, but is determined to bring Howie and Charlie together. 

Ahn was excited to tell this unapologetically queer story — starring an all queer cast — and to normalize gay relationships. We got to chat further about how far Disney allowed Ahn to go with the sex scenes, gay Asian identity in the film, and all the pop culture references from the film. 

Check it out below:

I loved your work on Spa Night, which was your breakout movie, but I also understand your departure from the topic by filming Driveways to showcase your storytelling away from being queer in America. But, with Fire Island, which touches on being a gay Asian American man, what drew you to this project and the return to this topic?

Yeah, I received the script a year into the pandemic alone in quarantine and was sad because I wasn’t able to go out with my friends to a club or go dancing and drinking and having fun. So I read the script and was so moved by how it celebrates queer Asian American friendship. I thought what Joel [Kim Booster] did to make this film feel modern and queer and also more personal was to take this story of Pride and Prejudice and kind of shift the focus a little bit away from the romance and onto the friendship — the chosen family narrative, and that really touched me. I wanted to be part of it because I wanted to show how important friendships are to us and how important community is and who we are as people. So that was my main reason for wanting to come back to this topic. 

Obviously, directing a comedy is vastly different from your previous arthouse films, but I did notice you kept some of the lighting styles from Spa Night with Fire Island — the sex scenes, the sunsets, etc. How was your creative direction different or the same compared to this film to your previous ones?

That’s a great question. I think whether you’re directing a drama or a comedy, there’s always the same job for the director and that’s to find emotional authenticity. Whether it’s to get the audience to cry or laugh, you need to make sure that it feels truthful because if it doesn’t feel truthful, it’s not going to work. People are gonna be like, I think you’re trying to manipulate me, so I had the same kind of working process working with Joel trying to interpret the screenplay [and] working with the actors to get great performances. That’s all the same. I will say, comedy is its own craft. And I had to learn a lot of new things. There’s a lot of ad-libbing and improv on set and that was really new for me. I was working with our editor, Brian Kates, cutting the comedy [and] figuring out a few extra frames here or a few less frames here to make a joke really pop. You know? That was a new lesson for me. I did surround myself with the funniest, smartest people and listened to them a lot [and] collaborated a lot, and not get in the way of the madness.

The film has a lot of pop culture references that seems very much like you have to be in the know. Fortunately, I understood all the references, but these kinds of things make it difficult to remain timeless rather than dated. What was your approach when it came to adding these references and nuances that are so current?

I think it’s super important that films feel like a document of their time. It’s cool to have things that feel emotionally timeless, but I think trying to make them fit any timeline is gonna be a fool’s errand. It’s just so hard.  I really leaned into [using] the references of the day. For Joel, a big part of making this movie was to have a great summer with his friends [and] to make something with people that you love and care about. Some of those jokes are inside jokes between him and the cast that no one else is gonna get and understand but that’s totally cool because we made it for each other. We really loved the experience. Even though the movie hasn’t come out yet or how the [audiences] are going to respond to it, I feel so fulfilled by the experience already because of the time that we had on set together making the movie.

I love how unapologetically queer this movie is. It normalizes gay sex, because we’ve seen SO many heterosexual sex scenes that we become numb to it. Was this important for you to have? What were the discussions with Searchlight (owned by Disney now) about it?

It’s Fire Island. It’s a vacation movie – people are gonna have sex. I didn’t want to shy away from that. It’s a part of this world. It was never gonna be fortuitous. I’m always worried about gratuitous sex scenes because I just think you’re putting actors in an uncomfortable position just to make it more titillating. For me, these moments have to have a story reason. They’re gonna feel like a part of the tapestry of the film in a really organic way. They wanted to make sure that it wasn’t alienating for people and I agreed. They told me I can have as many butts as I wanted in the movie and I felt happy with that. But it’s one of those things where Joel, and I understood the tone of this and it’s not an erotic thriller. It’s not 50 Shades of Grey. It’s a rom-com! So we really found the right balance.

There are a lot of references that many Asians, especially gay Asian men, will understand about “no fat, no fags, no Asian” and the desirability of Asian men. I love that you added that insecurity and confidence regarding that reference to the film. I’m interested to hear what the conversation was to include that into the story?

Joel wrote the screenplay with his perspective and Bowen’s perspective in mind. [There are] definitely things that have been fictionalized and kind of emphasized in different ways, but the general feeling for each of these characters is there. Joel told me [during a] moment in the film where his group of friends walked into that fancy house party and they got clocked and asked, ‘can we help you? We think you’re in the wrong place.’ That actually happened to Joel on Fire Island. He has a lot of observations, experiences, and understanding as an Asian American person and how you’re seen and how you’re desired. At the end of the day for me, I really love being able to show different Asian Americans. You don’t have to worry about how you’re being perceived or desired as long as you have people who love and care about you and you feel secure about yourself. I think that was a big part of the story of the movie that these people understand who they are a little bit better and that kind of love for yourself will allow you to move about the world more confidently. 

Other than finally having a queer romantic comedy that isn’t surrounding coming out or coming of age, what is the biggest message you want this movie to send out there?

My hope is that people go and have fun with their friends. That’s really important for us to not take our friendships for granted. It’s really easy for us as queer people [and] people of color to really protect ourselves from the world. It’s a scary, dangerous place. And there’s a lot of effort that we need to take to practice self-care. My hope is that, through this film, people remember that part of self-care is also community care. We cultivate our relationships because of our relationships. We can support others and they can support us. I hope people go on vacation with their friends and get to dance and be stupid. It’s an important element of how we take care of ourselves.

Fire Island premieres on June 3 on Hulu.