“The idea kind of started as a joke, quite honestly,” says Joel Kim Booster, over the phone from Los Angeles, about his very real new movie “Fire Island,” which arrives on Hulu on Friday.
The film may have started as a bit, but it found its way through drafts, contract restrictions and even a failed platform of promise (that would be Quibi) before it made it as the movie it is today. The brainchild of Booster, “Fire Island” tells the story of a group of gay men who have traveled to Fire Island in New York every summer; the story is similar to Booster’s own experiences making annual trips to the island, but the joke of it all is the film is not just another streaming-service romantic comedy, but was inspired by “Pride and Prejudice,” and is itself a spin on Jane Austen and her themes.
“The first year that we went out to Fire Island, I brought ‘Pride and Prejudice’ to read with me,” Booster says. “And as I was reading it there, I remember I kept putting down the book and turning to Bowen [Yang] and being like, ‘This is so wild. What she’s talking about in her observations about class and the ways that people communicate across class lines are so relevant to what we are experiencing right now.’ And just sort of as a threat, I kept being like, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote an all-gay adaptation of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ set on Fire Island?’ and everyone would boo and throw things at me every time I’d bring it up.”
It launched a tradition for Booster, where every year when he’d travel to Fire Island he’d pack a different Austen novel, and every time he would see themes mirrored in the world around him.
“The more I kept doing that, the more this story sort of really came into focus for as a serious exploration of the ways in which gay men, especially on Fire Island, sort of separate themselves into different classes and the ways in which they communicate and are sort of awful to one another, in the ways that you see in the movie,” Booster explains. “And so it just sort of became a more serious idea as the years went on, but it’s been just gestating since 2016.”
Booster, who also releases his first comedy special “Joel Kim Booster: Psychosexual” on Netflix this month, as well as stars in the series “Loot” with Maya Rudolph on June 24, was introduced to Austen by his mom. Growing up they would watch the BBC miniseries of “Pride and Prejudice” together and he became obsessed with it. In college, he started on the novels which he liked, but it wasn’t actually until he was on that first Fire Island trip that Austen really clicked for him.
“I think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the funniest and it nails a lot of those themes really effectively, more so than some of her other books,” he says. “I love them all. But I think ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is so f–king funny.”
The movie stars his real life BFF, “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang, who has been onboard ever since the idea to make the movie came into focus. In 2018, Booster was feeling lost, having spent nearly two years working on a pilot only to have Comedy Central pass. He wound up writing an essay on Jane Austen and Fire Island that Penguin posted on their blog.
“My lit agent was like, ‘You should write a show based on this essay.’ And I was like, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Never speak to me again.’ And then I ended up on this plane and I was bored and I just busted out my laptop and I wrote what would be a half-hour pilot version of this movie,” Booster says.
He tried to sell that show for a while and couldn’t find interest in a “very niche gay show.” Once he booked a role in the NBC show “Sunnyside,” he then was further restricted from shopping his series due to the contract. And then came Quibi, which offered up some gray area given it wasn’t quite TV or a movie, although Quibi would fold before a single scene had been shot. Finally, the movie was greenlit by Hulu, and the cast was assembled.
“Bowen has been involved since the earliest iterations of it. So much of this is cannibalized from our friendship and based on real conversations we’ve had, and real experiences that we’ve shared. And so it was really important to me from the jump that Bowen be involved in this,” Booster says.
Booster will make his Fire Island return over the Fourth of July weekend, by which point the film will have been out for a month. He’s a bit nervous of the reception, he admits, but hopes that those who love the island as much as he does sees it as the love letter it’s meant to be.
“It’s one of those things where I hope people like it, and I hope that the people especially who are there, who appreciate the island really love it,” Booster says. “And I don’t expect to be mayor or anything like that, but I do hope that at the very least, people there won’t mob me when they see me at this.”
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