Joel Kim Booster on Writing Gay Rom-Com ‘Fire Island’

Call it fate, or luck, but whatever you call it, Joel Kim Booster was vacationing on Fire Island when he first picked up “Pride and Prejudice.”

The 34-year-old comedian and actor grew up watching BBC’s miniseries of the same name and later fell in love with the movie starring Keira Knightley. But it wasn’t until he devoured a hard copy that he noticed the striking similarities between the beloved gay mecca off the coast of New York’s Long Island and Jane Austen’s classic novel about high society, hasty judgment and haphazard romance.

“I remember putting the book down and being like, ‘Man, her observations about class are not only so funny, but relevant to what we’re experiencing right now on this island,” recalls Booster, who has written for “Billy on the Street,” “Big Mouth” and “The Other Two.” “The whole thing started as a joke: ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I wrote an all-gay “Pride and Prejudice” set on Fire Island?’”

Some years later, Booster delivered on that joke in the form of “Fire Island,” a romantic comedy that debuts June 3 on Hulu. Booster wrote the movie and plays the Elizabeth Bennet-esque character alongside “Saturday Night Live” star Bowen Yang and comedian Margaret Cho. The film, one of the rare studio movies to spotlight gay characters, follows a cadre of queer friends who embark on a weeklong getaway to Fire Island.

Of Jane Austen’s texts, why did you want to riff on Pride and Prejudice?

I’ve loved “Pride and Prejudice” since I was a little kid. Jane talks about her class in all of her books, but it’s so crystallized and the characters are so vivid in “Pride and Prejudice.” And it’s her funniest work from her, by far.

How would you describe Fire Island to people who have never been there?

It’s a gay paradise. The marquee headline is there are no cars and there’s barely any cell service. All you can do is sit in a hot tub and contemplate your life. That is why I love it so much.

Matt Rogers, your long-time friend who also stars in “Fire Island,” described the movie as “slutty and soulful.” As the screenwriter, how do you find that balance?

Sex is a big part of my reality. I find a lot of gay media, especially when it is produced by big studios like Searchlight, to be fairly sanitized. I really pushed back against… sugarcoating it. I don’t think the movie is especially explicit. It’s just a matter-of-fact about the ways in which some gay men have sex. I didn’t want to shy away from that, especially in the interest of making it more palatable for certain people. But at the end of the day, the movie is about this friendship between Bowen and I. That brings a lot of heart to the movie. A lot of people are probably going into this movie thinking it’s a big sex romp. There is sex in the movie, but at its core, it’s sweet and a little sappy.

You’ve said you didn’t think you and Bowen would be able to work together because you check a lot of the same boxes. What did it mean to co-star with him?

We go out for similar parts, and we have for years. There are news outlets who have used our pictures interchangeably when talking about the other, and it’s frustrating. It was really nice to finally be able to work together in a way that demonstrates how different we are as performers and as people.

Joel Kim Booster, Bowen Yang and the cast of “Fire Island.”

Aside from Bowen, a lot of your close friends are in the movie. What was your experience like filming together?

Oh my god, I spoiled myself for the rest of my career. I don’t know if I’ll ever have as much fun as I had shooting this movie. Bowen and Matt are two of my closest friends, but we also really hit the jackpot with the rest of the cast. I didn’t know Tomas [Matos] when we started filming, but Tomas changed the way we all spoke by the end of the six weeks. We were all aping their vocal pattern because they are so funny and specific. The week we got to shoot on Fire Island and stay in the same house together was unbelievable. It was so silly. So much of shooting in New York or LA is punching in and then punching out and going home. But being able to end the shoot day and say, “What kind of pizza are we getting? What movie are we watching tonight? It felt like summer camp.

Are you a writer who makes the actors follow every word in the script?

No no no. There were certain lines that were important to me to remain as written, but it was a very loose set by design. My writing lends itself to improvisation, and there’s plenty of ad libbing going on. I wanted everybody to feel like they left their mark on this story. Some of the funniest lines in the movie are improvised. There’s a monologue at the end that I fully made up each take because I wasn’t happy with what I had written. These actors brought a lot of themselves to the characters, and I wanted to honor that as much as possible and not feel like they were beholden entirely to what was on the page.

What was your favorite scene to shoot?

It’s like asking me to choose between my children. My favorite, and I don’t even think I have a line, is when we were filming the Heads Up scene. Watching Matt and Tomas do the Marisa Tomei scene from “My Cousin Vinny” literally never got less funny. We probably spent two hours shooting that scene, and it cracked us all up every single time. That day was a moment where I was like, “OK, I think this is going to work.”

I hope Marisa Tomei watches the movie, because that scene is so funny.

And I hope Alicia Vikander does not watch the movie.

Margaret Cho’s character says she’s broke because she was an early investor in Quibi. That’s a layered joke because “Fire Island” was originally set up at Quibi. How did the movie end up at Searchlight?

It was a quick turn around. We got the news that Quibi was folding, and I was in shock. I call my producer and I was like, “What does that mean for ‘Fire Island’?” Even when I was writing it at Quibi, it was always structured like a movie, just broken up into 10 chapters. I removed those chapter breaks, and we felt it out as a full screenplay. Searchlight was quick to jump at the opportunity. It was good timing because Bowen’s star was rising on “SNL,” and that was exciting for them. And Hulu had a huge success in “Happiest Season.” There was proof of concept that people would watch a gay rom-com.

Did Searchlight give you freedom with the script?

There was nothing content-wise they pulled me back from. They had story and pacing notes. There are definitely scenes I miss from the movie, but ultimately I’m thankful I didn’t make a two-and-a-half hour long movie. The world needs more 90-minute movies. But in terms of content, they knew they were making an R-rated comedy from the jump so they let me go there.

Did you want “Fire Island” to play in theaters?

It’s a complicated thing, right? I would prefer people to see it on a big screen. But at the same time, we’re not a Marvel movie. I don’t know that this movie is one that people would leave their houses to go and seek out. Its home at Hulu is really helpful.

Does “Fire Island” face more pressure since there aren’t many studio movies about gay people?

Gay and queer audiences are starved for content. When we do get something, especially when it’s touted as the first gay movies or whatever, the stakes are much higher. We don’t get a lot of movies that aren’t about trauma. If people can walk away from this movie and feel happy to be gay, I’ve done my job. I really wanted to stress that no one in this movie has any angst about their sexuality. That’s a rare thing to see in the media.

Is it fair that gay-centric movies have a higher level of scrutiny?

I don’t know about fair/unfair, but a straight white guy gets to make a movie and if people aren’t into it, they move on. With movies made for marginalized communities, the industry says “This is for you, and you will like it.” That is where people bristle… being told something is for them. They’re not able to ignore it in the same way. [“Fire Island”] isn’t necessarily made for every gay person to like. If people don’t like it, I hope the reaction isn’t to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to tear it down. wait for billy [Eichner]’s movie “Bros” to come out in September, which is great and different than mine.

Does it take the burden off that “Bros” is also coming out this year?

It’s such a relief. I’m friends with Billy. Billy was my first comedy boss. We’re both trying to do something really hard and not done often. I hope people don’t try to position these movies as oppositional at all, because they’re not. They represent a very wide breadth of experience within our communities.

Have you always known you wanted to work in the entertainment industry?

For a long, long, long time. It’s funny, having Margaret in this movie, because I can draw a straight line from “All-American Girl” to “Fire Island.” The only Asian person I had seen onscreen growing up with Jackie Chan. And I was like, “I’m never going to be able to do what he does, so I guess there’s no options for me.” Seeing Margaret’s show was a paradigm shift. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t know this was an option.” From that moment on, I wanted to be on TV like Margaret Cho. Eventually, I discovered writing and by the time I was out of college, I wanted to do what Lena Dunham, Issa Rae, Phoebe Waller Bridge, Mikayla Coel, all of these writer-creator-producers, are doing.

Your latest stand-up special debuts on Netflix in June. As a comic, does it make you nervous to see what happened to Chris Rock and Dave Chapelle on stage?

No. I’m a gay comic who’s been working as a stand-up for over a decade. I’ve had shit thrown at me on stage. I’ve had people wait outside the club for me. It’s not an unusual experience for me to work in clubs in areas that aren’t necessarily gay-friendly. This instance is two rich guys who have beef. It has nothing to do with stand-up comedy. It was this own special event that happened between two obscenely rich, privileged men.

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Joel Kim Booster says, “it’s really easy to use the power of having the audience on your side against [hecklers] and remind them they’re in the minority.”
Terence Patrick/Netflix

How do you deal with hecklers?

I’m very lucky in that I’ve only experienced hecklers when the rest of the audience is on my side. That’s a very different experience than having to deal with hecklers when you’re bombing, which I’ve blessedly — knock on wood — never had to experience yet. For the most part, it’s really easy to use the power of having the audience on your side against them and remind them they’re in the minority.

I read the comments on some of your YouTube videos, and they’re all shockingly nice considering people in the comments section rarely have anything positive to say.

wow. That’s so funny that’s your takeaway because I do read my comments — I’m enough of a masochist — and it’s the reverse of what Lady Gaga said during the “A Star Is Born” press tour where it’s like, “There could be 100 people in the comment section saying nice things, and one person says when something shitty, and that is the person that makes like my day a little bit worse.” That’s a big habit I’m trying to break.

Things you didn’t know about Joel Kim Booster

Age: 3. 4 Birthplace: Jeju, South Korea Favorite romantic comedy: “My Best Friend’s Wedding” Movie he’s seen the most: “Clueless” Most recent binge-watch: “The OA”

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