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'Firebird': meet Director Peeter Rebane & Actor/Writer Tom Prior

Firebird is an epic queer love story set in a tense Soviet Union. This unconventional film follows the romance of Sergey, played by Tom Prior, and Roman, played by Ukrainian hunk, Oleg Lobykin.

Set in the 1970's Cold War, Firebird is an incredibly stylish film. The visuals feel authentic and true to its setting. But surprisingly, there are bouts of action, adding more thrill to a story that is already anxiety-inducing.

Another twist is that the film explores a love triangle between Roman, Sergey, and Roman's partner, Luisa- played by Diana Pozharskaya.

This part of the world has always been incredibly hostile to LGBT+ people. Often, there is an attempt by governments to erase queer people from the histories and identities of post-Soviet countries. From the 'LGBT free zones' in Poland; the Gay Propaganda Laws in Russia, to the toxic political discourse in Hungary, 'Firebird' is a symbol of queer existence throughout history. It is a statement that queer love is not a modern and Western construct, but it is embedded in the fabric of humanity. 'Firebird' is a piece of history, and a shining example that the #TheNewEastisQueer, and it always has been.

In this interview, the writer/lead actor, Tom Prior and director/writer Peeter Rebane join us to discuss the true story of 'Firebird', the making of it, and what it was like to meet the real Sergey.

EAST: Where did you first meet each other?

TOM: I was doing some work in Los Angeles, and a film financier that I was meeting- by coincidence- mentioned that she heard about the story of Firebird- which was under a different name at the time- and promised to introduce me to Peeter. Then we basically connected and I read the script, and fell in love with it instantly. It was when the draft of the screenplay was at a very early stage, and that’s really where it began.

EAST: Peeter, when did you first discover the story?

PEETER: That was over 10 years ago. A friend of mine- who founded the ‘Black Nights Film Festival’ in Tallinn- she received the original story from a Russian journalist showing it around at the Berlinale, and she knew that I was looking for material for my first film. So I read it over a weekend at home, I literally cried and decided that I have to turn this into a film and then started writing for the first time ever.

EAST: ’The New East is Queer’ is a campaign to debunk the myth that Queer people don’t exist in Eastern Europe and Post-Soviet States. Yet here is a queer love story set in Soviet Russia. Were you conscious of this when deciding to make the movie? Did you feel a sense of duty to tell the story?

PEETER: Foremost, I was taken a back by the universal love story. I was also fascinated and really surprised when I read the original manuscript that such a relationship could have actually existed in the Soviet airforce. Then we went on to interview people who served in the Soviet military in the 1970’s and found out that many such relationships existed, and we were also fortunate enough to interview Sergey in Moscow. But at the same time I do feel also that it is important to share this story in light of the real horrors that are going on in Russia and especially in Chechnya today. It is important to remind people about the importance of love and how such relationships have existed throughout the ages.

TOM: For me its really important to share these messages. But we were very true when we said we made this film- not for political reasons- but for about love, love wins. Sergey’s character in the film is really about following his heart. There are terrible atrocities happening, but being able to make movies like this, we are effectively being that very change that we want to see in the world.

EAST: How was Roman cast?

PEETER: That was a really long process. We set a very clear intention to find the most authentic actors that are believable to the true story. So we did a world wide casting, and got 2,500 submissions for the role of Roman. For months we were casting in Europe and the UK, to Moscow. One day in Moscow, Oleg walked in the room and everyone was like: “That’s our Roman”.

EAST: How was it working with Oleg?

TOM: It was a really fascinating process as Peeter said. We just knew from the minute he walked in the room that it was right, this kind of presence. When you talk about casting in a film, you really are casting a person as you are a performer. He had this real presence and he was the nearest person that we felt was Roman, and so, our journey began. Because he is not a native speaker, at all, in fact he had a very small amount of English when we began the project. It has its challenges, and in some ways it actually helped, to a degree, because it meant that we couldn’t communicate as freely as we would, say in a modern day context in English- which serves the story in an amazing way. Because at the time there was no language around the subject matter. Today we are in a very liberal society where we can begin to scale that in a very easy and transparent way, but at the time there wasn’t that. So it bought a really interesting dynamic to the film. Working with Oleg was a real pleasure but it of course it had its challenges as well: cultural background differences, and things like that. But it was a really beautiful working relationship.

EAST: Tom, you were a writer as well as an actor in ‘Firebird’. How did this come about?

TOM: When Peeter and I met- and fell in love with the story- at that time we didn’t have the financing in place to make the film. So we made a teaser for the film, and the scenes that we selected for the teaser. I made some suggestions about how we might improve the script a bit, and the lines and the nature of the lines. I have a real sensitivity to being able to produce texts or language of how people actually speak- as oppose to how people one would think people speak- this is something I am quite sensitive to. So I made these few suggestions on how we might improve the script and that ended up several pages of notes and ended up as several weeks of work, which ended up being overall significant rewrites and redrafts and restructures- and doing lots and lots more research. Then by that point, the script was completely a different animal to what I first came to. So we took the strong elements of that and then imbedded in a lot more research.

EAST: Thats an interesting point. After stalking your Instagram its quite clear that you are a spiritual person and quite centred. Did these qualities help you in your writing or acting?

TOM: Most definitely. For me this project has been quite extraordinary, in the sense of the level of depth that I have been able to get to. Writing the content, for sure, is a whole other level as a performer. Then also meeting the real Sergey, we interviewed him in Moscow, we also very tragically went to his funeral. He passed away in the time that we were developing the story, and it was a very surreal moment for me, to be at the funeral of a person whose life you have extended in the literary form, and who you will play in real life. So there were very strong moments during the time filming that there was this awareness that Sergey was with us, or certainly the energy. For me, having a real level of emergence within the project meant that the emotion came easily, or the stream of conscienceless, lets say. It was very profound and beautiful for the opportunity to do that as a performer.

EAST: And when you met Sergey Fetisov, what were your impressions of him, and did these impressions influence the way you played or wrote about him?

TOM: Very much so. It was an honour to meet him, and he was so very full of heart. He was a very heart-led man. You could tell that he had such a sunny persona, and despite having had a lot of trials and tribulations in love, he was bold and happy. So I bought that level of following your heart, and that bounciness to the performance- where I could - without making it seem to out of context at the same time.

EAST: And for you Peeter, how was it meeting Sergey Fetisov, and did this impact the way you directed the film?

PEETER: As Tom said, he was an amazingly warm and heartfelt person, considering what he had gone through in his life, and how these experiences had made him loving and not hating. I think he definitely informed how we developed the character, and it was an amazing treasure trove speaking to him about actual details, like: what were their favourite pieces of music; what were their favourite foods; which music they would play to each other; which books would they read; which theatre plays they went to see. It all kind of built a world, and helped us to be very authentic in directing and staging the film.

EAST: Peeter, being from Estonia, was there anything about your heritage and personal identity that you bought to the project?

PEETER: Definitely, when I was a very young boy I still recall the Soviet occupation, and our summer house was actually the airforce base where this story takes place. I have this distinct memory of my friend being on this bicycle and these two MiG’s (Mikoyan-Gurevich) flying overhead at maybe 150 feet, and us literally falling off the bicycles because the noise was so deafening. So I have a very strong personal connection, besides having grown up with this feeling of shame about ones sexuality, having to hide your true identity, and the surrounding environment lacking understanding and being ignorant. So, a lot of parallels for me.

EAST: How much history is in the story?

PEETER: I think its, well I don’t dare to say 100%, but I think its 99% historically correct. The events happening, the small details of the airforce base, the setting, we really made our upmost to make a film that looks and feels like the 1970’s could have looked and felt like.

EAST: And there seems to be a big military presence in the film.

PEETER: From the directing perspective, we had amazing consultants. We had a retired airforce base, a retired Soviet airforce base commander, flight pilot, a person who worked in the command centre, who directed all the flights. We had a lot of people who literally went through the script, went through the dialogues, who were on the set with us, telling us to do it like this, or do it this way. We put trust in not making a Hollywood version of what someone envisages, but in thorough research.

TOM: The intricacy of the details is very particular, I mean, even when it comes to the radio announcements, and things like that, and the calling in’s to the planes and the lights from the command centre and everything- its all very accurate. We did the best research to our knowledge, to make sure that it was as real as possible, and the same really with the job titles, the job roles. The military consultants in particular were very useful and an intrinsic part of the training for the performance: the way we would walk; the hand salutes; all this military realism that actually happened, and making sure that the attention to detail- our costume department were really great around that also. So, the military aspects of the film, even this accident, there was an accident sequence within the film as well, which was in the original story, and I was absolutely adamant we had to put it into the film, to give it this military flare, instead of having it simply as a backdrop, but actually as an action sequence, this was really paramount and important to me, to ground it into the real world.

EAST: Any personal highlights from onset?

Peeter: I think for me one of the most amazing shots was the last shot of the film. Without giving away too much, it lasts about 1.5 minutes, and the camera is going into Sergey, and technically it was huge challenge for our team to pull it off, but also performance wise, for Tom to act out all the different emotions, truthfully, being surrounded by 50 or 60 extras, and knowing that we can’t cut, and that this is all real time, one very long take.

TOM: Its a very unforgiving shot, lets put it that way. I’m very proud of that moment, and what came through. It was one of those moments that I was speaking out earlier, where there was this profound connection. I started experiencing some very curious things, emotionally. It was like being show the end of ones life, but I was experiencing it in the real time, which was quite curious. For me, the highlight and more significant highlights of the film was really my personal growth. That to me is a huge success. As a measure of success, it challenged me emotionally, physically, spiritually, and now its a sort of standing point, as a physical manifestation of what one can achieve when there are so many odds against you and challenges and time limiting factors, and all those kind of things. So yeah, we can have a whole other discussion of that for the highlights. But we were so blessed, to have such a wonderful committed and loyal team who were willing to go way above standard hours, the commitment was astounding.

EAST: Peeter, did you learn anything about yourself personally or professionally during this project?

PEETER: Absolutely, first of all it was my first full length feature. I have done documentaries, but that’s a whole different game. Learning all the nuances of directing on the set of the feature, and actually doing a pretty challenging script. We shot in the air, under the water, in the baltic sea, staged Hamlet in theatre, staged the full production of Firebird, including costumes and choreography, dancers and sets- a lot of very specific scenes. It was very challenging and I had a lot of personal growth during this process, over the last couple of years.

TOM: I think for me also, as I mentioned, the physical challenges, the stamina, keeping up your health, mental clarity and sharpness through longer days, and resilience through that. Some days there would be, 5, 6, 7, 8 costume changes, multiple different set environments, we would have to change them very quickly as well. I would be sitting on the train, where we would shoot the train sequences, and moving from one emotional state to another, within minutes, and the whole world of the character has changed and gone upside down in that time. So, to be able to tune in to that energy, that emotional change very quickly, was really amazing. And to also play a lead in a film, there is this overwhelming pressure that you can put on yourself, and to scale that, was for me, a real joy and a real challenge, at times. To stay centred, to stay focussed, and to know what we have got to do and what we are there to do, and yeah, this was a really beautiful example of change and growth, and long hours, knowing that you can do it, and you have got to get through it.

EAST: How relevant do you think the story is for todays audience?

Tom: For me, the story is very relevant in terms of following your heart. We live in a world which is probably more divided than ever, with regards to health, with regards to beliefs and perceptions. It is a standing point for following your heart. Actually, if you choose to walk that path, its not necessarily going to be the easiest route, but its probably somewhat the most rewarding- in terms of being able to feel and develop as a person. The film is about following ones heart and ones desires against all the odds, and against the laws of the country and the environment in which somebody grows up in. I hope this is a standing point of inspiration to follow your heart, to love daringly, that would be my wish and hope for its relevance today.

EAST: Do you have any plans to show this to Eastern audiences?

Peeter: Absolutely, we will distribute the film across the world. We trust we will be at some festivals in the summer, also Autumn, late October- and end of the year we will have a wider distribution across the region. So, I guess we will see how the world is as we open, and depending on how much we will be in cinemas. But definitely, we will be on all major platforms across Europe.

'Firebird' premiered at the 2021 BFI Flare Festival on 17th March 2021 and is available to stream on the BFI Player until 28th March 2021.

The movie is soon to be released on further platforms. Find more information on Firebird here.

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