This post was written by Eli Sands.
Director Andrew Ahn brings his sensitive, gentle touch to the first great rom-com of the summer in Searchlight Pictures’ Fire Island. Written by comedian and actor Joel Kim Booster, the film carries Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice into the contemporary social mores of summering on Fire Island, a longtime haven for the LGBTQIA+ community.
On the most recent episode of our director-focused film podcast Deep Cut, my co-hosts Benjamin Yap, Wilson Lai, and I spoke with Ahn about his approach to directing what has become one of my favorite romantic comedies.
Here are some of the best takeaways from our conversation, which you can hear in full below:
On bringing his indie-born patience to a comedy
Ahn spoke about how he and his collaborators used an organic, breathable approach to supporting comedic performances, while still “trying to surprise an audience with every joke.”
Ahn cited an extreme wide shot of Howie (Bowen Yang) walking from Charlie’s (James Scully) friend group back to his own after getting invited to a house party:
“I don’t know how to play that joke in coverage actually. It’s not as effective if you break it into mediums and closeups… it just felt natural. It felt right.”
A lot of Ahn’s precise, intuitive choices stemmed from having a large cast of talented comic actors.
“Oddly, especially with an ensemble like this, when we moved the camera less, when we cut less, it was funnier. You saw more of the people, more of the reactions, and the ensemble is so good that we relied on it. We felt like it gave it that sense of family.”
This approach runs against how other comedies might cut and frame for laughs.
“Even if it wasn’t necessarily what you might expect from a comedy, I think the humor worked better sometimes just letting things play out, letting things hold.”
'Fire Island'Credit: Searchlight Pictures
On organically nurturing an ensemble cast
Ahn told us that his favorite part of production was living in a B&B on Fire Island with the cast, where everyone bonded and gave each other gifts. Ahn’s main goal was “to bring as much of that energy from the house onto set.” That objective tied in with Ahn’s direction.
“I didn’t want to reign people in because so much of the film is about family dynamics and seeing a very organic connection between all the characters so I tried to keep a very loose and fun set… I let them play and kept the camera rolling and was very gentle in my direction.”
Ahn’s considerate care is part of his overall approach.
“I’m very wary of trying to force [actors] to do something that they’re not naturally coming to themselves, and instead I try and find the most compelling or engaging version of the performance that they’re giving.”
On respecting queer audiences by avoiding over-explanation
We’ve all heard the adage, which Ahn himself backed up: “The more specific something gets, the more powerful its universality. The power of a film comes from its insights. Insight is only achievable through specificity.”
Ahn maintained this specificity in part by steering clear of explaining concepts and lingo that a queer audience would already understand.
As Ahn asked himself, “If some people don’t understand the details, is that okay?”
Ahn gave two examples of moments when it wasn’t necessary to explain to a straight audience—when Noah (Booster) references the anti-HIV medication PrEP and the term “kiki” for party. Ahn summed up the reason for these choices.
'Fire Island'Credit: Searchlight Pictures“We had it pretty clear for ourselves," he said. "We want to make this for queer people, even more specifically we wanted to make it for queer Asian Americans, and then for me… I was making this for Joel Kim Booster.”
When we heard that, my co-hosts and I all said, “Aww!”
There is a lot more insight and advice in our fun discussion with Ahn, so check out the full episode above, on Deep Cut’s site, or wherever you listen to podcasts. You’ll also find humorous, analytical conversations on arthouse, international, and independent directors such as Bong Joon-ho, Wong Kar-wai, the Coen brothers, Éric Rohmer, and Lynne Ramsay.