Skip to main content

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

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.

Jason Struss
Section Editor, Entertainment
Jason is a writer, editor, and pop culture enthusiast whose love for cinema, television, and cheap comic books has led him to…
Slash/Back director talks homegrown horror and the film’s amazing score
Tasiana Shirley sits on top of a shipping container with a rifle in a scene from Slash/Back.

It's typically a bit cliché to describe a movie as a "labor of love" for its filmmaker, but that really is the case for Slash/Back director Nyla Innuksuk and her story of teenage girls in a remote Arctic community battling an alien invader.

Set and shot in the Inuit hamlet of Pangnirtung in Nunavut, Canada, Slash/Back features a cast almost entirely composed of local residents -- including its teenage (and preteen) stars -- with the community they live in serving as the focal point of the film's fictional invasion by terrifying, tentacled creatures who wear their victims' skins. Innuksuk, who grew up in the Inuit hamlet of Igloolik, shot the film in "Pang" (as it is informally known) with a crew of 50 people in 2019, determined to showcase the beauty of the people, place, and culture of the Arctic region.

Read more
Director K. Asher Levin on genre filmmaking and his new horror movie, Slayers
Thomas Jane and Kara Hayward point crossbows in a scene from Slayers.

K. Asher Levin is first and foremost a fan of cinema. What started as a conversation to promote Slayers quickly turned into a discussion about genre filmmaking and the legendary filmmakers of the1970s. For the record, it's hard to disagree with Levin's point about how Martin Scorsese is the greatest genre filmmaker of all time. Nevertheless, Levin is a student of the game, and Slayers is his attempt to inspire a new generation of genre fans.

Written and directed by Levin, Slayers follows Elliot Jones (Thomas Jane), a vampire hunter whose sole mission is to hunt down the creatures who killed his daughter. After years of hunting, Jones has found those responsible for his daughter's death, but needs help infiltrating their layer. Enter "The Stream Team," a group of clout-chasing social media superstars who lack self-awareness and humility. When the team is invited to a billionaire's estate, they quickly learn the compound is a breeding ground for vampires. Forced to team up with Flynn (Kara Hayward), a gamer on the team, Jones conducts the hunt of a lifetime inside the house to avenge his daughter. Framed as a vampire movie, Slayers is also a unique takedown of the media and its capitalistic principles.

Read more
Director Ti West discusses the making of Pearl, his horror prequel to X
Mia Goth presses herself against a scarecrow in A24's Pearl.

Not many filmmakers are having as good of a year as Ti West. The writer-director made waves March when he released X, his A24-produced love letter to 1970s slasher flicks. Now, he's back with Pearl. The new film, which is a prequel set 60 years before the events of X, reunites him with star Mia Goth, who reprises her role from the first film and plays Pearl's titular killer. Together, the two films have cemented Goth and West as one of the most exciting director-actor pairs working in Hollywood right now.

Despite their obvious similarities, Pearl is also strikingly different from X. Unlike West's previous directorial effort, Pearl boasts a vibrant, colorful look that makes it feel, as West recently remarked during a conversation with Digital Trends, like a "live-action Disney movie from the 1940s, '50s, or '60s." The film's playful Technicolor aesthetic, when combined with its tale of madness and murder, helps cement Pearl as the second great horror movie that West has released this year.

Read more