Andrew Ahn has a talent for allowing a feeling to linger onscreen like an afterglow on the water. His films, from his short Dol (First Birthday) to indie features Spa Night and Driveways, allow small intimacies to build with glances and gestures. Even though Fire Island is his first major-studio movie, with a budget at $10 million, there are stretches that are purely Ahn — like a dance scene at the Underwear Party, where our anti-monogamous lovers Noah (Joel Kim Booster) and Will (Conrad Ricamora) get pushed together by the crowd; a hand moves onto a shoulder, abs press onto abs, and time slows.
In person, Ahn is warm and inquisitive. We’re sitting in Tokki, a “modern Korean” restaurant in Los Angeles where the menu is divided into “small” and “less small.” When he arrives, he tells me about how he went to a Korean hairdresser who told him, “Oh, I thought you were much cuter before you took your mask off.” “I hate us,” he laughs. “We’re the worst.” Love for Asian Americans ripples inside his work. His advice to young queer Asian American artists is to find one another. “I just wanted to meet as many queer and/or Asian American people as possible,” he says. “Because I think that’s how you feel less lonely.”
My understanding is that the first time you went to Fire Island was to shoot the film. What was that like?
It was always colored by the fact that this was a job. So as much as I tried to tell myself to relax and just experience it, I was always thinking about how to portray it. The ferry ride over is magical because there’s a sense of anticipation. You’re like, We’re going, we’re going, it’s coming. So that primes you for a certain experience where you feel like you have to take advantage of it. There is a little bit of desperation, and for me, that was like, I need to learn as much as I can about this place so I can make a movie here. For other people, it’s like, I need to get laid. I need to find connection. I need to have fun.
What did you observe about the people around you?
I remember thinking the people on the island all felt like the most evolved form of their Pokémon. The bears were bear-ier, the twinks were twink-ier.
The Machamps were Machamp-ier.
Charizards and Blastoises.
There’s no Squirtle here.
No Squirtles. I felt like Squirtle, you know?
I was fascinated by it. I was inspired by it. There’s also no denying its natural beauty — the flora, the fauna. It really inspired the soundwork I wanted to do on the film where it’s like, Yeah, it should be buggy, and windy, and ocean waves. It was that kind of dichotomy of something that felt so organic and then people that felt so created that was like, Oh, this is part of the film. The ultimate conclusion I wanted to drive at was, How can we stop worrying about the image that we’re portraying and just connect with humans organically?
Did you go to the Underwear Party?
I went to the Underwear Party with my cinematographer, Felipe Vara de Rey. He got hit on more than I did. The person at the door stamps your hand and makes a judgment call, and it’s top, vers, bottom. They just do it. They stamped me vers and then they stamped Felipe top, and I was like, Wow, actually probably right. Unless Felipe has a kinkier sex life than I know of.
What underwear did you wear?
I was a little shy, and I ended up wearing swim trunks.
You were the Darcy!
I was the Darcy, and I find it really funny. Felipe and I were shot-listing in our trunks and then we ran into Joel. I loved seeing him out in the wild because he looked so happy. That was one of those moments where I was like, Oh, this is what the movie’s about — it’s to see this person happy. It was lovely to get that coincidental moment.
To backtrack a bit, you were first potentially going to work with Joel when Fire Island was at Quibi and it was called Trip. What happened?
I didn’t get the job; it went to Stephen Dunn. I met with an exec at Quibi, and I was fully prepared to do the full pitch. Then they just talked to me about their app. It made me think that I got the job because they didn’t ask me questions about my vision for the show or anything. When I didn’t get it, I was bummed. I wasn’t necessarily surprised; they had told me that they wanted these shows to be superfast, really frenetic — and it’s not my natural pace. I do think that, considering the priorities of Quibi, it made sense that they didn’t want to hire me. It just feels like vindication that I got it as a movie once it got set up at Searchlight.
How did that happen?
Stephen Dunn couldn’t do the movie version because of Queer As Folk. Joel had remembered our conversation, felt I would be really great for it, and reached back out to me. I was a little bit anxious. I was like, They said no to me once. Maybe it would happen again. But I do think that as a film, the production had different priorities, and those aligned with my sensibilities better: a sense of cinema, humanity. I always wanted the project to have heart underneath the comedy. I think Searchlight responded to that. For Joel, it was having another gay Asian American who could deal with the nuances of that challenge of representation.
Would you say you and Joel come from similar worlds?
I don’t think so. I have an extreme love and bond with Joel because of this project. Had I not done this with him, I don’t know if we would be hanging out on the regular. We have different social lives. We have different ways of going out. That doesn’t mean that we’re super-different people, but we have a connection because of the conversations we had about this project. There’s a line where one of the friends, Keegan, in the group tells Noah, “No fats, no femmes, no Asians. No, boo-boo, you’re still two out of the three.” I had a conversation with Joel where I’m like, “Are you femme? I’m not totally sure if that’s true from my perspective.” And he’s like, “No, it’s really true for me.” And I was like, “Okay.”
Also Keegan is actually femme, so I feel like they probably wouldn’t say that.
Right. I get it: Joel is writing it from his perspective. That line is still in the movie; it’s not like I changed it. It’s part of my process to be able to have those conversations. We do come from very different perspectives as gay Asian American men.
Were there other moments when those differences were more apparent?
I remember him telling me a story about how he had hooked up with a white guy that he met in person and found out that they had been in the same city or area before but that he had never seen him on Grindr, and the guy was like, “Oh, maybe because you were filtered out.” Joel wondered, Oh, did I get filtered out because I’m Asian American? My first response was like, “That’s why I only date Asian guys.” I don’t want to have to deal with that world, and Joel is interacting with a different part of the community that I very judiciously don’t interact with that much in a close way. My group of friends here are gay Asian Americans. For the first three years I lived in L.A., I was exclusively going to [the gay Asian dance bar] GAMEBOI, and that was very formative for me. The first gay bar I ever went to while I was in college was a regular old gay bar in Providence, but I went with this group on campus called Pan-Asian Queers. So from the get-go, my gay identity was involved with my Asian American identity.
I avoided a white perspective completely with Spa Night, and with Fire Island, I had to dig into it because that is the reality of that space. We could have made an all-POC version, but it would be very inauthentic.
The movie did become very Asian American through casting, though.
It was the circumstances. When we cast Conrad Ricamora and Margaret Cho, it became really Asian American. I was rooting for it, but it happened organically. Will (Ricamora) was meant to be a person of color, but, as scripted, probably not Asian. We wanted to meet with Conrad because he’s a great actor. And he was the only actor that flustered Joel. Every other actor we chemistry-tested against Joel, Joel had the upper hand. With Conrad, Joel forgot his own lines. You could see him spar and struggle. That, for me, was a sign of, Oh, this is the right dynamic we’re looking for.
What was your social scene like when you came back to L.A. after college?
The very first group that I went out with in Los Angeles was an outing organized by a secret Facebook group called the Queereans, and it was a group of five gay Korean men. We went to Hamburger Mary’s and then GAMEBOI. I thought one of them was supercute. He had no interest in me, but two of the people I met that night I’m still friends with. That opened me up to a queer Asian American community that felt really exciting, safe. One of the guys invited me to a friend’s poker group that was all gay Asian Americans. I found my housemates through that social circle.
For ten years, I lived in this gay Asian flophouse in Echo Park where I paid $399 a month because five guys shared a bathroom. It was a shithole: We didn’t have central air; we had a possum living with us for a month that we couldn’t find. But we had stupid parties that were a big reason why I wanted to make Fire Island. We had a black-light party called Asian Glow. We had a Christmas-themed party called Homo Alone. We had a Shen Yun party. And when I pitched myself for Fire Island to Searchlight, I showed them photos of my group of friends, like, “This is why I want to make the film.” Joel really responded to that. I saw through the rom-com trappings to the fact that he wanted to make this movie because he loves his friends, because he loves Bowen [Yang], because he wanted to hang out with Bowen on Fire Island.
What kind of Koreans were you hanging out with?
A lot of us seeking out that community were people who grew up in very Asian American spaces. They weren’t like the Korean yoohaksaengs [international students] in college. Even if they were gay, they have such a firm sense of identity in their Koreanness that any talk of being part of the minority for them is a bit baffling. On Instagram, there are these beautiful Asian men from Asia, and the attitude that they’re projecting is like the white muscle gays in WeHo. I don’t actually think I could connect with them in the same way that I connect with my group of Asian American friends here.
Is there envy ever?
I’ll say there is a foundation they can stand on that Korean Americans had to create. I’ve talked about this in regard to my work for a long time, where my sense of Korean identity is very wrapped up in this notion of family, because I feel the most Korean when I’m with my parents. Whereas if I were Korean from Korea, my identity would also be defined by my nationality, the culture I consume. Because my Korean identity is wrapped up in family, it’s also very heteronormative. So if I can’t participate in that as a gay person, suddenly I feel at odds within myself, and that really sucks. I hate that. The early phase of my career was trying to navigate that by looking for themes, topics, places, spaces where this intersection of gay and Korean exists organically, like the Korean spa. I’ve had to find ways to transform Korean culture so that it sits well with my queerness. That’s why I loved GAMEBOI — because it just felt so uncomplicated.
Did you ever want to participate in white gay culture?
I saw it, and I existed within it. This is very annoying to say, but every boyfriend I’ve had has been Asian American. I don’t think it’s because I’m scared of white gays not liking me; it’s just because I legitimately think Asian American men are really hot, and I want to date them.
Oh, I know.
Yeah. I mean, this is also why I find it really funny when people on Twitter will be like, “Oh, Asian American men are so hot. They’re so hot.” And I’m like, Calm down. You’re protesting too much. And that’s totally fine. But it is just this thing where, especially in straight-land, that kind of dialogue can start to turn into very misogynist, very toxic masculine conversations.
One of the most emotionally impactful scenes of the film for me is when Noah and Howie (Yang) have a fight in the bathroom after Noah cockblocks him from hooking up with a rice queen. It really highlighted the differences between them — that even though they’re both gay Asian men, their experiences are totally different. What was that like to shoot?
I really wanted to direct the shit out of that scene. I’ve always thought of that scene as super-important. It’s interesting that Noah says, “We’re the same, like, you and me.” I love that Howie calls him out on it, like, “We’re not the same. We are seen differently in this world. We have a different set of priorities.” That one scene does a lot of work that I haven’t had the opportunity to explore. Spa Night was such a solitary portrayal of queer Asian identity, and in this one, you get to see the contrast.
That was the first week of shooting. We took our time with it. I wanted Joel and Bowen to keep digging deeper. With Joel, it was about having your emotional rock be taken away. For Bowen, it was a question of confidence and self-worth. For Howie, it’s a pretty low moment, but he’s also finally able to push back on Noah’s assumptions. I remember telling Bowen, and he mentions this in a Las Culturistas episode, “I want you to look at yourself in the mirror when you walk into the bathroom and ask yourself, ‘Am I pretty?’” When you’re faced with your own image, you’re always thinking about your value.
There’s a quick moment earlier in the movie where Noah is in the bathroom at a party. He washes his hands, and he looks at himself. We had many different takes that ranged from sexy to worthless, and we went with a take that was really complicated. You don’t know how he feels about himself. When you’re in a place like Fire Island where you’re trying to construct an image of yourself in these private moments in bathrooms, they’re so significant.
How did you decide on the camera framing?
I really wanted to see the space between them. We’re not in close-ups that often in that scene because I didn’t want to separate them. I wanted to see Joel and I wanted to see Bowen in the same frame. It was an important thing to get done early because it set the tone for the rest of the film. It’s like, This friendship has to get there.
Was there a struggle with the notes process with the studio?
Yeah. I mean, the studio has a different set of priorities: entertainment, first and foremost. And I get that that is what studio filmmaking is. I could complain as much as I wanted to, but I can’t begrudge them their notes.
Faster, funnier, basically. But I also knew it was my job to protect what is really special about the film. The film has heart because of the authenticity of the friendships, and in cutting it faster, I was afraid of what you would lose. I really wanted to hold on to those moments. One of the sequences the studio thought was slowing down the movie was the beach scene between Will and Noah, set to Perfume Genius. It’s one of my favorite parts of the movie, but the studio was like, “Nothing happens in the scene that we don’t already know.” I get that note, but I also was like, “This scene shows us how they can fall in love.” And so I held on to it for dear life.
I’m really thankful the studio ultimately was like, We get it. But it was a tough process. They had a certain kind of expectation of what a gay film should be. There were music cues where they were like, “Do you want to throw in Dua Lipa in there?” And I was like, “I love Dua Lipa — I don’t know if this fits in that moment.” I get that’s, like, the one gay music icon you’ve like latched on to, but there are more.
Which Dua Lipa song did they want?
“Levitating,” of course. Which is totally a banger. But Searchlight is way ahead of the curve because they just green-lit this thing. I wasn’t used to every actor, every location being scrutinized. I had to explain every choice because it was their money, and that slows you down. It makes you second-guess yourself. So you really have to have your head on straight, know who you are as a filmmaker, before you enter that arena. I’m so glad I got to make two indies before doing that.
What if this had been your first?
I would’ve gotten chewed up. It’s that uncomfortable balancing of art and commerce. I love that people are pushing for super-independent film, but I’ll also say those movies are very unsustainable to make and don’t pay people living wages. So if you want certain art, it does need to play with the capitalism we exist in. At the same time, I think it’s really scary when something’s made just to make money and doesn’t have an artistic purpose or point of view. For the rest of my career, it’s always going to be this odd tension and balance.
Did the studio want “stars”?
Sure. I mean, it’s their job, right? They were pushing every fancy, popular gay actor, celebrity, reality star our way. They wanted this to feel sparkly, but it’s really difficult for me as a director to be like, “Let’s cast this person, even if they’re not right for the role, because they’re going to help me market the movie.” That’s not my job as a director — that’s the studio’s job. Joel and I had to really fight for who we felt was right, for even the smallest roles.
Did they fight you on the gay-sex scenes?
I was like, “I want a dick.” It’s Fire Island. It’s sex scenes. It’s orgies. Like, you’re going to see dick. I understood that erect dick was going to push us into NC-17 territory, which would seriously limit who could see the movie. But I remember asking, “Can I have two soft penises, one for each orgy?” And to their credit, our producers were like, “How many? Where?” Then, finally, they came back to me being like, “We’ll give you as many butts as you want.” And I was like, “You know what? I’ll take that deal.” I could have put more butts in it.
Although dicks are all the rage right now.
Where are they showing up?
Like every HBO show.
Oh yeah. That’s true. Euphoria. I’m dying to put taint on the screen. I just want a good taint. It’s such an underrepresented erogenous zone. Representation matters.
Working on Fire Island really makes me want to make a gay Asian American film that feels closer to my own experience. It makes me want to make a GAMEBOI movie. I want Cascada and Kesha and Vengaboys all over the soundtrack — I want “Boom, boom, boom.” The beauty of what Joel did with this project is that it’s going to inspire other people to tell their versions of this gay Asian American experience. The impact of this film won’t necessarily be seen until many years down the line, but I think it’s going to be there.