Firebird’s Tom Prior & Peeter Rebane Talk Adapting Real-Life History for the Big Screen

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It was nearly a decade ago that Firebird first took flight. The gay Cold War military drama started with director Peeter Rebane, who, as he mentions in our interview ahead of the movie’s theatrical release, spent an entire weekend immersed in Sergey Fetisov’s memoir The Story of Roman. “It made me cry,” Rebane says. “It was such a touching, tragic, beautiful, at the same time, and sad story — and then, I started writing.” Armed with a first draft, Rebane was introduced to a producer in LA and to Tom Prior, who would become Firebird‘s lead actor, producer, and co-writer.

“There were lots of different elements that all kind of clicked into place for me,” says Prior, referring to the Cold War backdrop of Firebird‘s story and the “line between friendship and something more” in particular. From there, the pair shot some scenes together as a proof of concept to present to potential financiers. With financial backing secured, they moved on to finalizing the script. “I started making some suggestions on how we could improve the dialogue in some places, and [it] dug me into a really deep hole of two and a half years’ worth of rewriting together — which was an absolute joy.”

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Firebird tells the romance between Sergey (Prior), a soldier on the tail-end of his conscripted service who dreams of becoming an actor, and Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii), a talented and charismatic fighter pilot who hopes to climb the military ladder. The story is set at the height of the Cold War on a Soviet Union airbase, where Sergey is tasked with being Roman’s chauffeur and guide during his visit to the base. The pair find themselves drawn to each other, and their acquaintance quickly turns into a friendship that, soon after, blossoms into something more. To make matters complicated, Roman becomes the target of the KGB’s anti-gay investigation. Considering his military ambitions, he decides to marry an unknowing Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), the air base’s secretary, effectively kick-starting a tense love triangle that both men must grapple with even after Sergey’s military service comes to an end.


Prior and Rebane Met the Real-Life Sergey Before Filming Began

“We had very little requests from Sergey about what we could do with the story,” says Prior of his and Rebane’s meeting with Fetisov in Russia during Firebird‘s pre-production stage. “But he did make one specific request, which was: make the story about love, not politics.” This is, to a certain degree, a tall order, particularly at a time when, as outlined by Human Rights Watch, Russia’s 2013 “gay propaganda” law has since incited — indeed, empowered — homophobia and social hostility towards those in the queer community. “We knew [Firebird] would be seen in the eyes of politics, but we never wanted to make a political statement with it. It was more about telling this amazing story about two people who just really care for each other.


Prior and Rebane nonetheless accomplished exactly that: watching the film, Firebird is foremost an intimate and sensitive look at what it means to love and be loved, period. “That was our intention: to tell a love story between two people, regardless of sexuality,” says Rebane. “It’s really about two souls caring for each other.” The idea of the universality of love ultimately informed his and Prior’s approach to shooting the film. “We decided to make sure they were character-driven and that it was really about this intimacy of two souls coming together,” Prior says of Firebird‘s more intimate scenes. “It wasn’t necessarily about the physical elements of it, but [instead] the experience [of] when you just want to be so close to somebody.”


Related: Best Period Movies with LGBTQ+ Characters

Unfortunately, some people in Russia didn’t align with that purview. In fact, during Firebird‘s screening at the Moscow International Film Festival in 2021, the movie was met with protesters, who condemned the film for its gay love story and went so far as to write a letter to the state prosecution office to stop the film from being seen, alleging it to be “gay propaganda.” According to Rebane, the festival was forced to “play the film to an empty audience.”

As “staggering” as the experience was for Prior and Rebane, the pair are, in a way, fired up by it and are more determined to make sure Firebird is seen. Queer films changing the mainstream has, after all, always been an uphill battle: LGBTQ+ movies in the 2000s fought to be seen, paving the way for those of the 2010s — all of which couldn’t have been possible without the historically underground efforts of the independent and seemingly niche films of New Queer Cinema.


“This is the very film that Russia really hopes to ban, would really like to ban, and has already banned from their festival in Moscow. So, if anybody has doubt about why they would go see a film about Russia, right now especially — [Firebird] is the very film they want to ban,” says Prior. “There’s no Russian money in the film — it was a British Sterling co-production — and just to hammer that in a little bit: this is a vote of progression against everything that’s going on.”


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