Peeter Rebane and Tom Prior on the making of their powerful Cold-War drama, Firebird

Firebird tells the staggering true story of Sergey and Roman, two soldiers in the Soviet Air Force who embark on a dangerous love affair at the height of the Cold-War. It is a deeply affecting story, and one that director and co-writer Peeter Rebane felt immediately compelled to tell on screen. “I read it over a weekend at home,” he tells Outtake, referencing Sergey Fetisov’s memoir, The Story of Roman. “I literally cried and felt that I had to turn it into a film.”  

“I think for the whole of my career, I’ve kind of done things which I’ve been intrigued about,” Rebane admits, “what intrigued me personally about this story when I first read it, was how it was possible that such a relationship between a conscript and a fighter pilot could have actually existed in the Soviet Air Force during the Cold War. I mean, it just seemed unbelievable, but having researched it together, we found that there were actually many relationships and many people who had love stories come out of their time in the army.”

Tom Prior in Peeter Rebane film Firebird
Courtesy of BFI Flare

Tom Prior, who stars as Sergey and co-wrote the film, explains what led him to come aboard Firebird. “I fell in love with the project because it had been addressing the types of relationships which I was quite fascinated in telling, against a very interesting backdrop”.

Although Prior (who has previously acted in Kingsman: The Secret Service and The Theory of Everything) initially came on board as an actor, his role soon transformed into that of co-creator. “I started making some suggestions on how we might improve the script or how the dialogue would come across, and it kind of ended up with us basically becoming writer-collaborators.”

Navigating the switch from acting to writing came naturally to Prior. “I’m formally trained as an actor but through that, I’ve sort of found that I actually have quite a gift for writing as well… I realised when I finished drama school in London that I wanted to start writing. I took a break from acting just for a few months and spent time sort of feeling out what I wanted to write.”

We discuss whether he thinks his background in acting has helped him with his writing. “I think for me, yes, particularly because I realised that I have a sort of sensitivity to the way that people speak.” Prior cites British playwright James Graham as a personal inspiration in his writing. “He writes in such a way, it’s a bit like writing beautiful music… That was an example to me,” he acknowledges, “that if you get the writing right, then the lift that can happen with the acting is really, really incredible.”

BFI Flare film Firebird starring Tom Prior, directed by Peeter Rebane
Courtesy of BFI Flare

In terms of writing a part that he would go on to play, Prior discusses the creative reward of taking on the mantel of both writer and actor. “It’s a real joy and a gift to be able to write, to embody and then become it, in that process of being a writer and an actor.” He goes on to acknowledge that “it’s been a real, real privilege to be able to really act my own words.”

We discuss the collaborative process between Prior and Rebane and how the two worked together to create Firebird. Prior acknowledges that “for both of us as screenwriters, it was really fascinating, because I’m kind of obsessed with emotion, dialogue and detail and Peeter’s really great about seeing the bigger picture in terms of sequencing and structure. It’s a really beautiful synergy actually, co-creating together.”

Rebane credits the honest communication that the two shared as a reason for their successful collaboration. “We communicated very directly, and sometimes people might have interpreted this as arguing rather than as debating. We’d sometimes have to explain that we were just working it out, not having an argument about it,” he confesses. “I think that’s the most amazing thing, when you can be 100% honest on the set, and the other person, the actor or director, doesn’t get offended and doesn’t become protective about it.”

Rebane has previous experience in non-fiction filmmaking, but Firebird marks his feature film debut. Given his non-fiction background and Firebird’s factual origins, we spoke about his decision to tell the story as a feature and not a documentary. “I’m the type of documentary-maker who is looking for as close to a neutral point of view as possible,” he explains, “so it’s a pretty tough process of just observing, observing, observing, and then making a story out of what you observe. Whereas in a feature film, the fun thing is that you can tell your own story, and you can mould it exactly how you want to tell it.”

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in Firebird, Soviet-era LGBTQ gay romance for BFI Flare Festival.
Courtesy of BFI Flare

The story at the heart of Firebird is based predominantly on the memoirs of Sergey Fetisov, whom Rebane and Prior had the privilege of meeting during the writing process. “We flew to Moscow about a year and a half before shooting the film,” Rebane recounts, “and we interviewed him for days. We had really amazing in-depth interviews and we had hours and hours of recordings which informed a lot of the directing choices, even from small things like favourite pieces of music, or foods, or what they did together.”

Prior reveals that “it was really amazing to meet the man behind this very heartfelt, vibrant story and actually what I found was somebody even more heartfelt and vibrant and courageous, who just had so much love for his life. That was a real joy to be able to bring to the character.”

Fetisov sadly passed away while Prior and Rebane were finishing the script. “We attended his funeral, actually, in Russia,” Prior tells us, “and for me, it was a very cathartic experience to go to the funeral of the person whose life you’ve extended in narrative, and who you will then invariably play in a film.” Prior explains that this “gave a level of commitment to the character which kind of goes beyond space and time. There were many parts of the filming process during which, dare I say, he was there with us.”

In terms of getting into Fetisov’s mindset, Prior admits that, “having written so much of the content, that was a huge amount of the preparation in itself. On a very subconscious level, it opened me up.” He recalls that “sometimes I would literally sit down in one of the scenes and the whole thing would just come through me, which was a real joy and a privilege to be able to experience as an actor.”

Tom Prior and Oleg Zagorodnii in Firebird, Soviet-era LGBTQ gay romance for BFI Flare Festival.
Courtesy of BFI Flare

Prior also remembers moments during filming, however, that were significantly more demanding. “One of the most challenging days on set,” he recalls, “I basically broke down at one point. I felt like I was almost doing a disservice to Sergey, if I didn’t get it, you know, right”. We discuss the unique challenge of tackling a true story and the added pressure of doing it justice for those who were involved. “It did add another level of kind of care and commitment to the project, for sure,” Prior states, “because we wanted to be as authentic as possible, but also do service to the relationship and to the individuals by respecting that this was their real story, and that it was important to tell it in the most realistic way possible.”

We ask Rebane what he hopes people will take away from Firebird. “I think empathy towards others who are maybe different from you,” he muses, “and the understanding that such [LGBT+] relationships have existed through the ages. Maybe having a bit more tolerance come out of it, especially in Eastern Europe today, that would be the most amazing thing for me.”

Firebird is screening as part of BFI Flare: London LGBTIQ+ Film Festival, available UK-wide until 28th March.  

Megan Whitehouse

Megan is a recent graduate of the University of Birmingham who is staving off post-graduation anxiety by watching copious amounts of films. She previously contributed to The National Student as well as her university paper, Redbrick. She can be contacted at: meganwhitehouse0@gmail.com