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Firebird’s director and star on forbidden romance and Top Gun

Two lovers torn apart by forces beyond their control is a tale as old as Romeo and Juliet, but how many love stories incorporate 1970s Russia, a symbolic ballet dance, and jet fighters used as metaphors for sexual climax? Firebird is in a class of its own, a gay romance that can only best be described as All That Heaven Allows meets Top Gun. Did I mention it’s also based on a true story?

Digital Trends recently talked to the film’s director, Peeter Rebane, and the lead star and co-writer, Tom Prior, about the challenges in translating the real-life story to the big screen, what cinematic influences informed the making of the movie, and what viewers should take away from Firebird after the closing credits have ended.

Digital Trends: What compelled you to adapt Sergey’s story to the big screen?

Sergey takes a picture in Firebird.

Peeter Rebane: The human story. I received the original book and I read it at home over a weekend. It literally made me cry and I felt I had to turn this into a feature film. And then I started writing it.

Tom Prior: I was approached to play Sergey by Peter, and I read the original story of the first draft of the script, which he had started writing. I fell in love with the story and the combination of the genres that I love, which are action movies and Cold War-era dramas. But it also explores this line between friendship and something more. And it’s a true story. It’s really inspiring to see people following their hearts at all costs. So, it was a huge combination of different factors, which really appealed to me.

Did you read the memoir after you read the screenplay?

Tom: Yes. I actually read the memoir quite a lot after working on the script, because I wanted to have a go at the screenplay before being informed too much about the true story. Getting to meet the real Sergey in Moscow before he passed away was also invaluable to the whole experience.

When did you go into production with this film?

Peeter: We went into production in early 2018 and we shot from September till November.

Where did you shoot?

Peeter: Mostly in Estonia and then three days in Moscow for the exteriors and a couple of days in Malta for the Black Sea scenes.

Were you influenced by anything specific while conceiving of the film or when you’re when you were shooting it?

Sergey and Roman in the ocean in Firebird.

Peeter: Not really. Some people have said that it’s like Brokeback Mountain meets Top Gun, but that wasn’t intentional. I really cherish the work of directors who have been able to cross the gap between auteur and the mainstream like Stanley Kubrick.

What was it like collaborating with each other?

Peeter: We were introduced by a producer from L.A., and it was the intention for [Tom] to play the lead. It was clear to me from the first moment that he’s really perfect in terms of the subtle nuances of the character. He brought that also to the writing. Whereas I’m probably more structural, he’s very much in the moment as an actor and writer. He also brought this understanding of the wider context of what we need to explain to the viewer who is not familiar with the context of the 1970s and the Cold War.

Tom, how did you create the onscreen relationship with Oleg Zagorodnii, the actor who plays Roman?

Roman looks ahead in Firebird.

Tom: Well, that was an interesting challenge. When he first walked in the door during a casting call in Moscow, it was like Roman came through the door. Before he even said anything, it was like this quality which he had, just like who he is. Because he didn’t speak that much English, that presented quite a problem for him and for me because I didn’t speak that much Russian. It was very difficult initially to figure out how on earth we were going to create a dynamic and chemistry. But then we ended up trusting in the process and spending more time together, even if it wasn’t necessarily speaking, and exploring the physical presence of togetherness and space between the two characters.

What was the toughest scene for you to shoot on Firebird?

Peeter: Well, I was most scared about the intimate scenes, and those went very easily because of the chemistry and the choreography done by Tom and Oleg. I think the toughest scenes technically were the sea scenes where we were in 12-degree water for 12 hours, and the actors had to be there for hours and hours in the cold water.

Emotionally, the New Year’s Eve dinner sequence and the following scene with Sergey alone in his bedroom were so emotionally tough for everybody. And we had budgeted half a day for it and in the evening, we just stopped and we were like, “Look, we have to stop. It’s not there yet.”  We finally got to the point where it felt we were there emotionally and we could do the scene honestly.”

Tom: I agree. In the New Year’s Eve dinner scene, there are so many layers of the dynamic going on there, and it was very difficult to know how to react. The goodbye speech, which Sergey gives was really hard and actually is pretty much the only time in the whole shooting schedule that the exact next scene in the script was the one that we shot next when Sergey is alone in the room.

It’s a cathartic moment. As an actor, I didn’t really have to do anything there. I just literally went and sat in the corner of that room on that bed and the emotions just came through. It was like an amazing relief from having struggled through the previous scene.

What do you want viewers to take away when they see Firebird?

Roman and Serget sit in a theater in Firebird.

Peeter: To create a bit more compassion, understanding, and awareness that things are still quite tough for most of the LGBT community around the world. And even Florida, which is instituting all these horrendous laws, why is it anyone’s business? Like, why bother? Let’s focus on things that matter, which are education and health care and taking care of the elderly, not these endless laws and debates about who you can love.

Tom:  I’d really love it if people come out from the film feeling a little bit more courageous, a little bit more hopeful, and a little bit more following their heart and following their dreams. Kind of a bit like Sergey did in his life. Follow your heart, because, at the end of the day, it should be what makes you feel so much more alive when you are kind of aligned with that.

If it’s following the person who you really want to love and want to be with or Sergey does following his dreams to go to drama school, you should do whatever makes you feel complete. Hopefully, Firebird causes a greater understanding of the LGBTQ community, and what it really fundamentally means for love between two people to exist despite the odds against them.

Firebird is currently playing in theaters nationwide.

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