'Fire Island' is Joel Kim Booster's queer twist on 'Pride and Prejudice' : It's Been a Minute The first time Joel Kim Booster vacationed on New York's Fire Island with his friend, comedian Bowen Yang, he brought with him Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice as a beach read. Over the years, he'd often joke with friends about making a gay version of the novel. Today Booster is the writer and star of Hulu's Fire Island, a queer, Asian romcom based on Austen's classic, set in the titular gay vacation spot. Booster talks with guest host Elise Hu about how the film honors his queer friendships, subverts hetero romcom norms, and tells a personal story that feels universal.

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Joel Kim Booster on making a queer, Asian American 'Pride and Prejudice'

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ELISE HU, HOST:

You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Elise Hu. Before we get to the show, NPR is doing its annual survey to better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts. Help us out by completing a short, anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey, all one word. We would so appreciate it. And thank you for your support for NPR podcasts. Again, it's at npr.org/podcastsurvey.

"Pride And Prejudice." It's maybe one of the greatest love stories of all time - right? - and certainly one of my favorites. Jane Austen's classic has everything - humor, heart, insight on class and gender that was before its time and that irresistible tension between central characters Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. I'm there for it every time. The story has been adapted every which way, from the classic BBC miniseries...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE")

COLIN FIRTH: (As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy) The relative situation of our families is such that any alliance between us must be regarded as a highly reprehensible connection.

HU: ...To the 2005 movie starring Keira Knightley.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE")

KEIRA KNIGHTLEY: (As Elizabeth Bennet) Are you too proud, Mr. Darcy? And would you consider pride a fault or a virtue?

MATTHEW MACFAYDEN: (As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy) That I couldn't say.

KNIGHTLEY: (As Elizabeth Bennet) Because we're doing our best to find fault in you.

MACFAYDEN: (As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy) Maybe it's that I find it hard to forgive the follies and vices of others for their offenses against me. My good opinion, once lost, is lost forever.

HU: Even "Pride And Prejudice" zombies - yep.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES")

SAM RILEY: (As Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy) This is your opinion of me? Then I thank you for explaining it so fully.

HU: Now there's a new twist on "Pride And Prejudice," and it's set far, far away from Regency-era England. You'll find the latest version of the story on present-day Fire Island, and the Elizabeth- and Darcy-inspired characters are played by two queer Asian men.

JOEL KIM BOOSTER: I've loved "Pride And Prejudice" since I was a little boy. I grew up watching the BBC miniseries with Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle with my mom since the time I was like, you know, 8 or 9 years old. That story has been deep, deep, deeply imprinted on me.

HU: That's Joel Kim Booster, writer and star of the new movie "Fire Island." He said the idea for his take on the story came to him while on the island with his friend and co-star Bowen Yang.

BOOSTER: I just remember going to Fire Island for the first time with Bowen and bringing "Pride And Prejudice" with me to read as my beach read. And it was the first time I'd ever read the story, and I just remember putting down the book and looking at Bowen, you know, throughout the week, and just being like, wow, like, everything that she is talking about in this book is so relevant to what we're experiencing on this island.

HU: I talk with Joel all about how "Fire Island" subverts rom-com norms, honors his queer friendships, and tells a specific story that still feels universal. And just a heads-up, y'all - in this interview, we do talk about drug use and sex. I loved the movie and really enjoyed the chat with Joel, and I hope you do, too.

The film is called "Fire Island." It's set on Fire Island. Give us a sense of the place. Paint a picture for us.

BOOSTER: Yeah. So Fire Island is a teeny, tiny sliver of an island off of Long Island in New York. And it is for - you know, for a generation now, it's been sort of a safe haven and an enclave for queer people, gay men and women and trans people during times when it was illegal for us to gather.

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: People have been going to Fire Island to feel safe and to feel a sense of community. And now it's - you know, it's transformed in sort of modern-day culture into sort of just another gay destination vacation spot, but it really is so one of a kind and unique. There's no cars...

HU: What?

BOOSTER: ...You know? Yeah, it wild. And, you know, in that way, it just feels so magical. And it's - you're never more than a few steps away from the beach. And the history of the island, too, I think, is so tangible. When you step foot on the island, you can really - you know, if you know what that island means - has meant to this community, you can feel it in the air.

HU: What does Fire Island mean to you?

BOOSTER: You know, Fire Island means a lot of things to me. But ultimately, and most importantly, it's been this place where I really have galvanized my chosen family, you know? Like, my closest gay friends and I have really, like, had some of our most, you know, transformative experiences and where I've felt sort of closest to who I am and my most authentic self. I think that there - you know, as a gay guy in this - in a heterosexual world...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...You don't realize the weight you carry around with you day after day sort of navigating the heteronormative, you know, society...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...Until you go to a place like Fire Island. And suddenly, all of that weight is lifted, and you can be, you know, a much freer version of yourself than you were before.

HU: Is there a transformative memory that sticks out for you?

BOOSTER: Yeah, it was probably the second trip that I ever took to Fire Island with Bowen, and we did acid on the beach. And it was the first time I had ever done LSD, and I did the one thing you're not supposed to do when you do LSD - I looked in the mirror.

HU: Oh, God.

BOOSTER: I know. But for me - and I've done it since, and I have not had a similar experience. But for me, it really was - like, it was healing. It was, like, the first time I ever looked at myself with a sense of objectivity, you know? Like...

HU: What did you see, Joel?

BOOSTER: I just saw sort of myself as a beautiful person for the first time. I think, you know, I was so used to feeling invisible and undesirable in our community and letting that sort of have a power over me...

HU: Oh.

BOOSTER: ...Having - letting other people have power over me in that way. And it was really sort of the first step towards accepting myself for who I am and not letting that - sort of all the bull**** sort of poison my mind and let it affect my sense of self-conception.

HU: Some of this magic that happened for you translates in the film, too - in the fictional "Fire Island," the movie. So talk to us a little bit about the film. Set it up for us.

BOOSTER: So yeah, the movie is about my character, Noah, going for an annual trip to Fire Island with his chosen family, his group of friends, which include Bowen Yang's Howie. And Howie and Noah are very close. They have a very deep relationship. And, you know, Howie - I think it represents sort of a more - the version of queerness that, like, is in that sort of pre-acid, you know, version of myself...

HU: OK.

BOOSTER: ...That is, you know, afraid of going around these places and letting sort of that invisibility of being Asian and gay affect them. And my mission becomes - my character's mission becomes to - by the end of the week, to fix my friend, basically. And his way of fixing his friend is by getting him laid.

HU: Right.

BOOSTER: And he thinks that, you know, that would solve all his problems if he could just get him laid once or twice, or even more times than that. And so he sets out to find his best friend a sex partner, basically. And then, you know, chaos ensues.

HU: Coming up, Joel talks about portraying an honest version of Fire Island. Stick with us.

What I so enjoyed about this film was that it was both a group trip comedy, with parties and high jinx, but it's also a rom-com. It's a "Pride And Prejudice" adaptation.

BOOSTER: Yeah (laughter).

HU: Classic Jane Austen, only gay and on Fire Island.

BOOSTER: Yeah. Yeah.

HU: (Laughter). So as the writer, how did you approach it?

BOOSTER: I think that Jane Austen, you know, really writes so beautifully about class and the class differences...

HU: Yes.

BOOSTER: ...And the ways in which people communicate across class lines and how people, you know, eventually dismiss some of those class lines and sort of break out of them and ignore them completely. And I thought it was so beautiful because, as wonderful and as transformative as Fire Island is, it is a really great example of what happens when, you know, there's no one around to oppress us. We do begin to oppress each other and create sort of artificial class lines, you know, that have to do with money, sure, but also, you know, body image and masculinity and race. And so it just - it started a little bit as a joke. I kept saying, wouldn't it be funny if I wrote a gay "Pride And Prejudice" set on Fire Island?

HU: (Laughter).

BOOSTER: And people would boo and hiss and throw things at me and tell me to shut up, but, you know, Bowen and I kept going back to Fire Island, and every summer I would bring a new Jane Austen book with me to read. And it just - you know, slowly, over time, it just began to crystallize this story of these artificial class lines and about two people who would fall in love across them and how that might play out in contemporary gay society.

HU: Yeah, I think that's really fascinating that you're able to address - right? - because there are those dynamics at play in which there are social hierarchies among gay men. You mention in the film the classic no fats, no femmes, no Asians bigotry in Grindr profiles.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No fats, no femmes, no Asians. Noah, boo-boo, you still 2 out of the 3.

HU: And then Fire Island, for all of its magic, also has a reputation for being very white and very rich...

BOOSTER: Yeah.

HU: ...And somewhat fatphobic (ph). So...

BOOSTER: Yeah.

HU: I take it from your explanation that this was intentional to address these desirability politics. Is that right?

BOOSTER: Well, yeah. I mean, for me, it really was about reflecting my honest experience on the island and Bowen's honest experience on the island. And, you know, it would - I'd be remiss if I didn't sort of show everything - the good, the bad and the ugly, you know? And that is a reality of vacationing on that island. And the thing is is, like, I don't want people to not go because of that. It's very easy. If you go with your chosen family - if you go with your best friends, like, you can have whatever kind of experience you want on that island. But, you know, there is real discrimination that occurs and that I've experienced myself. I mean, there's a scene in the movie where a guy says to the group as they're entering a party, I think you have the wrong house, and that is something that has happened to me a number of times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah, hi, is Charlie here?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I think you may have the wrong house.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Why would you think that?

BOOSTER: I wanted it to feel like a real trip. And those - unfortunately, those elements are, you know, always sort of running in the background.

HU: So there was that painful element, but also a lot of good.

BOOSTER: Yeah.

HU: Because another big theme throughout is the queer Asian best-friend pair between your character of Noah and Bowen Yang's character, Howie. How has that kind of friendship - and maybe even your real-life friendship with Bowen 'cause I know you two are good friends - how has that been meaningful to you?

BOOSTER: It's been sort of really life-changing having Bowen in my life. You know, I grew up in a predominantly white community. My family is white. I'm adopted. And so, you know, I didn't grow up with a lot of close Asian friends. And to have Bowen now - since the moment we met, it just felt like being seen by another person for the first time, you know? Our experiences - while our backgrounds might be very dissimilar, you know, like, our experiences as queer Asian men navigating this community have been so similar. And navigating Hollywood, too - I mean, to have someone who understands that, I cannot tell you how many times I've communicated with Bowen from across the room or across the bar or - without saying anything. And he just understands.

HU: Yep.

BOOSTER: And to have someone in your life that just sees you in that way is so powerful. And, you know, I hope that, if you don't have that in your life now, that, like, this movie inspires you to find it. I think this - the movie, as much as it's a rom-com and it's a romance between, you know, two sets of couples, like in "Pride And Prejudice"...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...It's also a love story between two friends. And I really wanted to celebrate that friendship that I have.

HU: Talk us through the love stories a little bit. What were you wanting to say with the two pairs - Howard and Charlie and Noah and Will?

BOOSTER: I had the blueprint in "Pride And Prejudice," you know?

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: And what I always loved about that story is that you have Jane and Bingley, who are so pure and so, you know, immediately...

HU: Yes.

BOOSTER: ...Right for each other and in love, and it's all this sort of artificial stuff around them that keeps them apart.

HU: (Laughter).

BOOSTER: And it's such a classic rom-com trope, you know? And so what I wanted was to really honor sort of all of the rom-coms that I grew up loving with that story.

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: You know, like, I grew up worshipping at the altar of Nora Ephron. I...

HU: Same.

BOOSTER: You know, "When Harry Met Sally"...

HU: Same.

BOOSTER: "Sleepless In Seattle," "You've Got Mail," all of them. I love them so much, and I wanted to, you know, really have my cake and eat it, too, I think, with these two relationships. Because Howie does get what you could say is a pretty traditional rom-com arc in the movie, and then you have my arc between Noah and Will, where it's a little bit more combative and a little bit more complicated and a little bit more ambiguous...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...What actually happens with their relationship. And I think it's a little bit more - I don't want to say realistic, but it is truer, I think, to many people's experience of falling in love on vacation than possibly meeting the love of your life, you know?

HU: Yeah. Yeah.

And we should mention the film is also super-sexy and includes fun sex parties with a real buffet of pairs or threes getting down.

BOOSTER: (Laughter).

HU: And I got to say, it was really refreshing - right? - because a lot of romance or rom-coms obscure the getting freaky part, so I really was - I was curious - how intentional was it to include scenes with gay sex as part of the larger, heartfelt main story?

BOOSTER: Well, you know, it's interesting. Like, it is all a part of the fabric of the island. You know, sex is a big part of Fire Island for a lot of people's experience with Fire Island. A lot of people go there and don't have sex. In fact, I have gone many times and not had sex.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) (Expletive) isn't the only reason some people come here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) No, that is the only reason that you come here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) No, I also come here to read. I contain multitudes.

BOOSTER: But I think that it is a part of that authenticity and the reality that I was looking to depict...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...You know? Like, I'm going to include all of the racism, and I'm also going to include all of the joy, and I'm also going to include all of the sex.

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: And so that was a big part of it for me. And I think, like, it feels like I pulled off the biggest scam in the world, that I've gotten, you know, Disney to produce two gay orgies now...

HU: (Laughter).

BOOSTER: ...On film.

HU: I was going to ask - did you get any pushback from Disney?

BOOSTER: We were told that we could have as many butts as we wanted, but no pole.

HU: Oh.

BOOSTER: And so that was the only real pushback that we received.

HU: I can't wait to use this as a pull quote.

BOOSTER: (Laughter).

HU: Be free with butts, but no pole.

BOOSTER: Yeah, exactly.

HU: Up next, Joel talks about subverting the traditional heterosexual rom-com formula. Stick around.

Let me ask you a more meta question, Joel Kim Booster.

BOOSTER: OK.

HU: Mainstream culture often holds up stories about marginalized people, right? Be it Asians, like the two of us, or be it queer people, as learning experiences for everyone else. Like, hey; look at how much we're trying to learn from these minorities. You know what I'm talking about.

BOOSTER: Yeah.

HU: But your film - and especially in Bowen Yang's character of Howie - that highlights the way those of us in marginalized groups also personally internalize mainstream cultural values and let dominant culture - usually white, usually straight - teach us a lot of things about ourselves and what we should want. So I'm curious how that's shown up for you in your life. As you mentioned, you're a Korean adoptee and grew up with white parents. And as you've gotten older, how has internalizing dominant culture maybe limited some of your assumptions?

BOOSTER: Yeah, I guess for me, the experience of being a transracial adoptee has sort of instilled in me this sense of never quite belonging in any space that I've occupied. And it's really jarring, and it can be dissociative, almost, sometimes, being in these spaces. And so when I experience dominant culture, you know, I think many minorities have the experience of having to project their experience onto experiences that aren't quite for them, you know?

And that is what I've had to do just on a life scale - not just with media but just in my life - having to project, you know, myself onto my white family or having to project my experience on my Asian friends who don't understand what it is to not have a connection to an Asian family, you know? And so it's a really - it's a tightrope walk, you know? And I think that it's an experience that I hope people are able to sort of see in the movie, and I also hope that, you know, there's a question of, like, will straight people be able to enjoy this movie? Well, you know, gay people have had to, you know, project themselves onto your experiences for...

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: ...You know, centuries now.

HU: (Laughter).

BOOSTER: I think that, you know, it's a skill that we've had to learn. And I think it's a good skill to have, and I hope that, you know, straight people are open to learning it while watching this movie.

HU: I got to say, I identify as straight, and I loved this movie.

BOOSTER: OK, thank you so much.

HU: I thought it was a near-perfect movie. And I don't want to spoil too much about the ending, but there is no wedding at the end, no baby. In fact, there's a declaration from the characters against monogamy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "FIRE ISLAND")

BOOSTER: (As Noah) What about you? What do you want? You probably want some gay marriage nightmare...

CONRAD RICAMORA: (As Will) No.

BOOSTER: (As Noah) ...Joint Instagram account as a French bulldog.

RICAMORA: (As Will) God. God, no. It's - I don't think monogamy is for me.

BOOSTER: (As Noah) Yeah. I mean, same.

HU: What was behind giving the characters a different kind of relationship from what we see in a lot of straight rom-coms?

BOOSTER: You know, there's this thing, I think, about writing a queer, quote, unquote, "rom-com" is that I think a lot of the instincts we have and that we've seen from Hollywood previously is like, oh, just make "When Harry Met Sally," but make all the characters men or make all the characters women, and just tell that same story, but with, you know, different genders. And it just doesn't work that way. Like, you know, there are so much varied ways that queer people experience love and experience relationships, and I just - I wanted to honor that and especially honor my own experience, you know, as a person who doesn't want necessarily the traditional, you know, heteronormative - meet, you know, one person and marry that person and...

HU: Monogamous marriage.

BOOSTER: Monogamous marriage, you know?

HU: Yeah.

BOOSTER: And, you know, I'm not saying that that is everyone's experience in my community. Certainly, there are many people that I know who are gay people who are happily married and monogamous, and that works for them. But I think that, like, I wanted to honor the breadth of experience that, you know, our community represents. And, you know, there is a more traditional love story in the movie, and I wanted to sort of show the two poles, basically.

HU: What do you think it means for future generations if more of us people of color and more queer people call out untruths, actually challenge assumptions like marriage and monogamy, and stand in our unique perspectives or, like you, make films about those perspectives?

BOOSTER: I really - with this movie, I wanted to tell my story and mine and Bowen's story specifically. And really, you know, I've been asked several times, like, how does this represent the universal gay experience?

HU: Oh, God (laughter).

BOOSTER: And it doesn't. It represents mine. And what I hope is that, like, by doing a movie that is so specific to me and my story, that it'll show people that we don't have to water down our stories. We don't have to water down our narratives. There is room for all of us to tell, you know, the very specific stories of our lives without having to sort of filter it through what seems, you know, marketable or bankable anymore. It's almost a relief that this is a streaming movie 'cause I don't have to worry about the box office. It can find the audience it's going to find, and it can be as specific as this movie is without, you know, having to worry, necessarily, about appealing to a broad audience.

HU: Yeah. And there is something beautiful, though, that when there are very specific stories out there, it really touches something universal.

BOOSTER: Yeah.

HU: So they actually say that about writing - right? - that you're supposed to write very specific, and somehow it's universal. It's a paradox.

BOOSTER: Yes, exactly.

HU: Joel Kim Booster - we so enjoyed it. Thank you so much.

BOOSTER: Thank you.

HU: Thanks again to Joel Kim Booster, writer and star of "Fire Island." It is out right now on Hulu. All right. This episode was produced by Liam McBain and edited by Jessica Mendoza and Tamar Charney. We had engineering support from Robert Rodriguez.

Y'all, this is my last episode guest hosting IT'S BEEN A MINUTE for a minute. It's been so much fun, and I'm going to miss y'all. Of course, we want you to come back here for more IT'S BEEN A MINUTE on Friday, with the amazing B.A. Parker, who's going to be guest hosting. For that, we want to hear the best thing that happened to you all week. Record yourself and email the file to us at ibam@npr.org. That's ibam@npr.org.

And just once again, NPR is doing its annual survey. It is survey time so that we can better understand how listeners like you spend time with podcasts. Help us out by completing a short anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey, all one word. We would really appreciate your support - npr.org/podcastsurvey, all one word. OK, thanks, y'all. All right. And until Friday, thank you for listening. I'm Elise Hu.

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