Queer film has seen its share of dark tragedies and repressed character studies. Firebird, the new film from Estonian writer-director Peeter Rebane and British writer-star Tom Prior, throws the conventions of a Cold War-era thriller into the mix, and foregrounds the kind of soaring, aching romance that gay audiences could surely use more of. Even more remarkable is that this story of a young private falling for a fighter pilot in 1977 Soviet-acquired Estonia is based on an actual love affair, as remembered by the late Russian actor Sergey Fetisov.
Rebane and Prior, who began drafting their adaptation of Fetisov’s memoir years before filming, were able to meet their real-life protagonist throughout the process, combining his experiences with their own as gay storytellers. The two filmmakers sat with The A.V. Club to talk about Firebird, which has picked up film festival awards and can be seen in theaters, as well as their cinematic inspirations—hints of Almodóvar, Wong Kar-wai, and even Titanic are evident in the film—and how they approach intimacy on camera.
AVC: Firebird is such a beautiful and intriguing story. What was the process of bringing Sergey Fetisov’s real-life romance to the screen?
Peeter Rebane: A friend of mine was at the Berlinale festival in Germany which was showing around this book [A Tale About Roman], the autobiography of the actor Sergey Fetisov. And I read it and I literally cried at home and felt I had to turn this into a film. So we acquired the rights and it was actually a long process of learning to properly write a feature[-length] script. And then when I thought it was ready, I was introduced to Tom Prior by a mutual friend with the intention of him playing the lead role.
Tom Prior: I was in Los Angeles doing some work and taking a lot of meetings in 2014. And a producer had just read Peter’s first draft of the script, which then was called Roman. And she just said to me, I think it’d be really good to play the lead in this story and it sounds kind of interesting. And he then sent me the early draft of the script, and I fell in love with the story and also saw some great potential in it as well.
PR: We shot two scenes as a proof of concept for financiers and started discussing them. And then he made suggestions and we became co-writers—and spent another two years on the script.
TP: I just started making some suggestions of how those scenes might be improved, some of the dialogue. And then that really led to years’ worth of rewriting, restructuring, redrafting. And meeting the real Sergey in Russia. It was a really amazing process to learn what our strengths were as writers. I was kind of going toward sort of emotional truth and dialogue, and Peeter was very good at structure. It worked out incredibly well, and we ended up becoming producers and being part of the distribution team. So it’s been kind of a wild journey... I mean, God knows how many drafts we made. And it was a lot of brutal feedback from some people, we threw in new characters, we took a whole load of them out again. And more and more, we were just coming down to the crux of the real story and the truth behind it.
AVC: Did your perception of the fictional Sergey change during the process adapting this real person’s story? Meeting the man himself must have been the most important piece of the puzzle.
PR: Definitely. I think in the first draft, I was putting a lot of myself into the character. And then we began to integrate, when we had that amazing chance to interview the real Sergey for several days, many hours of audio recordings, that brought kind of the third dimension to it.
TP: It was totally invaluable. It was just incredible to be able to spend the time with him. And it wasn’t even necessarily what he said, but more about how he was and who he was. That really informed me as a performer... I mean, the version of the script that I started working on with Peeter—we kind of laugh about it, but Sergey was much more low-key and a bit more, like, depressed. And it was more about understanding growing up in the Soviet Union during this time, as a repressed gay man sort of discovering himself. But it was so amazing to find that actually, when we met him for real, he was such a warm, humble, sunny, deep-feeling soul. [The story became] much more about following courage rather than following a very dark or kind of internal process—because we’ve seen so much suffering in such stories. And it’s obviously not to say that’s not important, but it’s like, let’s show a different color.
PR: The most important thing that we took away from meeting him was the way he remained positive and light and joyful and forgiving, despite everything that’s happened in his life, despite all the repression and all the pain and all the suffering. One of his last wishes was: “Please make this film about love, not politics.” To be so full of compassion to others, I mean, that’s an amazing, amazing example of that. And I think Tom embodies that well in the film, of really having this transformation from Sergey as limiting himself and repressing his wishes and dreams, to then really following his heart in both his professional life and personal life... For me, it was clear to see from the first moment that [Prior] embodies these qualities of Sergey, which is this very strong sensitivity and nuance. I would say they have common energies.
AVC: In terms of cinematic inspirations, for this film and beyond, do each of you have a favorite?
TP: I definitely say that my film style is informed very heavily from Tom Ford’s first film, A Single Man. That was a massively important film for me in terms of cinematography, in terms of emotional performances. I think Colin Firth’s performance in that film was, like, phenomenal. He’s a very good actor, but this was like a whole other level. I really love what they do with the edit in that film, and the lighting, but also the use of sound design. It’s so amazing when he gets this appalling news that his love has been killed in a car crash and he runs across the street and all you hear is the rain. Like you don’t hear him sort of screaming in grief, about Julianne Moore’s character. It almost makes me emotional now, it’s actually just so powerful, all you have is that noise, the rain. It’s so moving... There’s definitely even, I mean, Titanic. That influenced me in places on this film. And there’s Romeo and Juliet; Shakespeare is a huge influence to me. Shakespeare was hugely influential to [Fetisov].
AVC: Because you mentioned Shakespeare, correct me if I’m wrong: were the film’s scenes of Sergey studying silly performance exercises based on your firsthand knowledge of acting conservatories? Did I sense a tongue-in-cheek score you had to settle?
TP: Oh, yeah. [Laughs.] I trained at the Royal Academy in London. I found it very difficult. I didn’t have a very good time at drama school and I actually wanted to stick it to them a little bit. Just like, this is the reality of what you get to do at drama school. It definitely was always going to be in the film.
AVC: Peeter, what films have inspired or guided you?
PR: I’ve always loved Pedro Almodóvar and Wong Kar-wai’s works, where it’s very strong colors and very strong contrast in lighting. You can notice [that in Firebird], there is multicolored lighting and obviously not as theatrical, not as contrasted as in those directors’ work, but that’s an aesthetic which I personally very much cherish... Pedro Almodóvar has been one of the all time favorites. There are so many amazing filmmakers, I would do an injustice by putting them in any kind of ranking. But probably the top filmmaker that I really respect and would name first is Stanley Kubrick. The way that he could tell each story in a different language—because a lot of filmmakers, I think, fall into one visual language. They know what works and then they turn out one or two movies every year, and it often becomes a copy of the last film. And I’m just amazed at how different his films are in terms of pace, in terms of tone, in terms of styling, everything. I love some of Steven Spielberg’s early work. I really love the directors who have managed to create work which is truthful, authentic, and at the same time, reaches wide audiences. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge for a director.
AVC: That’s fascinating, because I can see those influences in Firebird: the romanticism of Wong Kar-wai, the thriller aspects of Kubrick—and the queerness of Almodóvar, of course. There aren’t enough other queer directors, are there?
PR: Not that many, but hopefully more and more.
AVC: Going off of that, talk about the sex scenes—not to titillate, but because examples of intimacy between gay characters in film are obviously few and far between. How did you all approach filming those moments, and were there precedents that helped inspire you?
PR: As writers, we really discussed how we need that moment to be not about the sexuality of the people—we didn’t want it to be a stereotypical, let’s say, queer sex scene, which is, to be very blunt, that there is a top and there is a bottom. And, you know, they do something and it’s over. We didn’t want it to be about the physical act, but more about the connection between the characters and the love between them.
TP: Yeah, intimate scenes in films must always be character-driven first and foremost. And if they’re not, then it’s a different genre of filmmaking, which is also fine. Of course, everybody kind of acknowledges they want to see something! So it was not to shy away from it either. But really, my strongest intention around the intimate scenes in the film was to make them as, dare I say, relatable as possible to as many people as possible. Make them about love, make them about their souls merging. Rather than it being about, you know, who does what to who first. That’s not really what love is about.
PR: And when we shot it, we really gave free range to Tom and Oleg [Zagorodnii, who played Roman] to discuss it. We did a kind of rehearsal where I let them choreograph it so that they would be comfortable and it would be natural. And then we made a decision with the [director of photography Mait Mäekivi] that we’d shoot in close-ups to keep the intimacy and not get into graphic, you know, what borders on pornography. And also not to shy away, to really go into the scene for several minutes so that you are immersed. Because also a lot of films, even “straight love stories” show the start, 10 seconds, and then cut. And you imagine everything else, which is just kind of funny. We show people being killed in every possible way, and that’s okay for children to watch. But two adults having sex is not okay to watch, which I find bizarre, honestly.
AVC: What else did you learn in this process? What have you learned about yourself as a filmmaker?
PR: Oh, I learned to trust myself more fully. The feeling that whatever anybody says to me, if something doesn’t feel right, you just have to keep going until it feels right and you find what’s not working in a scene... Secondly, [we need] 50 or 100 percent more time than industry standards for [filming]. It’s just mind-blowing for me; I don’t understand why everybody thinks that you should do more and more in a short time. Even editing—I had the amazing, amazing opportunity to screen the film for Pietro Scalia, Ridley Scott’s editor for many years. We had lunch with him and he was giving some amazing advice. And he also said that they always edit their films for at least one year. Because you need the time to go off and think about it and come back and try out different things. And I totally don’t believe in this industry standard that in three or four months, it should be done. So I think that’s my mantra for the next film, more time. And we were lucky that COVID gave us that extra year! We were supposed to finish in April 2020. And literally before we could go into final mixing and editing, we were given an extra year, which in hindsight was amazing.