<I>Fire Island</I> editor Brian A. Kates
Issue: July/August 2022

Fire Island editor Brian A. Kates

Searchlight Pictures’ Fire Island began streaming on Hulu back in June. The original film is set in the Pines community on New York’s Fire Island and plays as a modern-day romantic comedy, showcasing a diverse examination of queerness and romance. Written by Joel Kim Booster, the film was directed by Andrew Ahn. In addition to Booster, the film stars Bowen Yang, Conrad Ricamora, James Scully, Matt Rogers, Tomas Matos, Torian Miller, Nick Adams, Zane Phillips and Margaret Cho.

Brian A. Kates, ACE (pictured), edited the project and recent talked with Post about his work on the film.

How did you get involved in Fire Island?
“I was introduced to the director Andrew Ahn through my agent at UTA who knew that the project existed, and so I watched his films Driveways and Spa Night. It was clear that Andrew was a really brilliant director, and I was actually kind of flummoxed as to why he would be doing this broad, summer rom-com, because it’s so unlike the genre of his other two movies. After I spoke to him about it, it became very clear that the things that make Fire Island more than just a rom-com are that it’s about racism, classism, lookism, fatphobia, and all sorts of endemic problems in the queer community. I had never seen or read a critique of Fire Island that went there, and even though having visited for many years, that is like a headline when you come here: it is a very exclusive place, a very expensive place, a place that is not very nice to people that don’t fit into the muscle-body aesthetic. So when I read Joel’s script, which really wanted to go there in terms of critiquing Fire Island, and I watched Andrew’s movies, which are beautifully observed and about intimate character development, about small moments, and about queerness in a way that doesn’t feel silly, but feels really deeply embodied and really genuine and has incredible sadness but also joy, I knew that we had a team that was going to make something really special.”
Can you talk about the production?

“Firstly, I was already on location by accident. In fact, I was on location the longest because more than half of Fire Island — the interiors and houses — were shot elsewhere. I had already rented a place on Fire Island with my husband for the summer, and I had never expected I’d be able to work out (on Fire Island) because the WiFi here on the island was terrible until last year in June, when they networked it with FIOS. So no one ever would expect to be able to cut a movie here, because the WiFi was too slow. But suddenly it changed and it created the opportunity to work out here, which really made it one of the most special experiences of my life work-wise.”

What was your editing set up?

“I cut on Avid Media Composer 2018.12, I believe, which was the version before they changed their user interface. The same version I used on Succession, my previous job. Everyone says you get used to the new interface, and it’s great, but it’s sort of like there’s this inertia where you’re used to this thing and you have a muscle memory. A lot of us are holding on to the older version as long as we can, knowing that we’re inevitably going to switch to the new one and it’s going to be fine.
“We shot with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, which is slightly more square. The logic behind that was that this place is connected by boardwalk walkways, and the boardwalks are tree-lined. It’s basically just forest and beach here. Because those walkways have those tree-lined pillars, you want to be in a format where you honor top to bottom. So it’s not a widescreen, it’s more square. The other reason is, and we’re pretty honest about this — if you’re looking at guys’ bodies, which the film does, lovingly, you want to be able to see head, chest, torso, ass, legs (laughs). You want an aspect ratio that will accommodate the various parts of the male body. So it was a very well-thought-out format. 

“We wanted the film to have a classy look that was inspired by a very famous book of photographs by Tom Bianchi called ‘Fire Island Pines: Polaroids: 1975-1983.’ It’s a series of Polaroid’s from the ‘70s to the ‘80s — a lot of people’s vision of Fire Island is from that book. There’s a sort of windswept, slightly faded Polaroid quality to the color that feels like you’ve been out in the elements. It’s a lot of sand and skin and sweat, and we wanted the palette to evoke that kind of history. Felipe Vara de Rey, our DP, was a really beautiful artist to do that.”

What was the time frame for completing Fire Island?
“Amazingly we didn’t ever get stalled because of COVID. We shot from August 9th, 2021, and we wrapped September 16th, which was a night shoot on Fire Island. Basically, we shot on Long Island and Brooklyn first, and then after Labor Day, we were allowed on the island. They wouldn’t let us shoot here during vacation season (high season) because it would have been too hard to secure the locations, but after Labor Day it slows down a lot. We locked picture in the middle of February. We had one preview screening in LA, and it was a really gratifying screening because you could tell that the comedy worked, and that people loved the characters. You could feel the energy in the room, and you could hear them laughing.”
The jokes start right after the opening Searchlight logo?
“Yes. That was the assistant editor’s idea, Matthew Buckley. The idea was to start the film out with a joke, and you can’t go any earlier than the logo. It was also his idea to end the last ten seconds of the credits with a reprise of the sunset countdown, which is a little Easter egg from the film. A joke at the very beginning, and a joke at the very end.”

Are there any sequence that you would point to as particularly challenging or interesting from an editing standpoint?
“The opening of the movie was tough, because we needed to figure out how much voiceover to use. Joel Kim Booster is a stand-up comic, and I personally think that his identity as a performer is very tied into the idea of being a stand-up comic with a first-person narrative voice. To me, the voiceover is important because it references his identity as a performer and the familiarity that people have with him as a stand-up comic. The voiceover is also educational in orienting people to the culture of Fire Island, but if there is too much of it, it would be annoying or redundant. It was fine balance and constant back and forth with Joel to finesse it until we felt like the balance was right.”

You’ve spoken in interviews about the importance of variations in the pacing of a film. Can you give us an example in Fire Island where employing variation was particularly powerful? 
“We do play a lot with one of the themes of the movie, which is that time works differently on Fire Island. The days seem to go on forever here, but the summers go quickly. There’s a really raucous, zany speed to a lot of scenes, like the ‘heads up’ scene. There’s a certain frantic quality to some of the scenes, but then there are other scenes, like the beach-date scene between Will and Noah, which is shot in slow motion. The details are small — opening a book, laying out a towel, slowly walking into the ocean — it’s the opposite. It’s extremely slow. It’s a little nod to the idea that time works differently.”
Fire Island’s writing is humorous and quick. Can you explain how your role as an editor contributed to the overall feeling this film has?
“I love the material, and I hope that it shows in the work. I don’t feel like you need to be a Fire Island resident, as I currently am, to appreciate the movie, but I do feel like there is an authenticity that is almost unconscious that helped me help make the movie. I think I was particularly attuned to some of the funny ad-libs that the actors performed. The film was highly scripted, but the actors were encouraged to ad-lib additional lines and jokes. One of my favorites is when Matt Rogers, who plays Luke, says ‘Can I trade someone a Crest White Strip for a prep pill,’ which I think is hilarious, and he did only in one take, off-screen. That line made me laugh so hard, and I put it in the first assembly of that scene, and it never left. Part of what I felt empowered and privileged to do was let my own sense of humor and authenticity guide my editing choices.”