Firebird is a story as old as time; a young soldier is nearing the end of his mandated service and falls in love with the new and daring fighter pilot who joins their Soviet Air Force Base. Oh? Did I forget to mention that this was set in 1970’s Soviet-occupied Estonia against the backdrop of the Cold War? So maybe it’s not a story as old as time? Maybe this epic love story spanning years of having to remain hidden even in the more progressive city of Berlin, Germany is just a tall tale meant to inspire hope in the hearts of people fighting for the equality of love? Or maybe, just maybe, it’s real.
Based on the book The Story of Roman by Sergey Fetisov, Firebird serves as a mostly faithful visual representation of a story that many forgot was actually true. Fetisov’s personal account outlines a mutual but clandestine affair between Sergey and Roman. To further add difficulty to the mix, a young woman on the base named Luisa has secret feelings for Sergey, but decides to marry Roman when those feelings aren’t returned. Thus begins a years-long “triangle” of yearning, mistrust, and the semblance of love.
At the helm directing the film is first-time feature director Peeter Rebane. Rebane, along with the star of the film Tom Prior, together adapted the book for the big screen and took on production responsibilities. I was able to chat with Prior and Rebane to discuss the current importance of such a timely movie.
The Geekiary: When I saw the trailer for Firebird I thought ‘Oh no, this is gonna break my heart and I’ll love every minute of it!’ and I found that mostly to be true. Can you each take a moment and talk about how you became involved with the film?
Peeter Rebane: I am the producer/writer/director in no particular order.
Tom Prior: I play Sergey the lead character and I’m also the co-writer and one of the producers of the film.
The Geekiary: How did you find the story behind Firebird?
Rebane: It sort of found me! Sergey’s friend was showing the manuscript [The Story of Roman by Sergey Fetisov] at another film festival and a friend of mine found it, read it, and loved it. They thought it would be something that I resonated with. So I read it over a weekend at home in my broken Russian, cried and was just amazed at how could such a love story have happened in the Soviet military at the height of the cold war, it seemed almost unbelievable. I made the decision that I had to turn this into a movie and started writing.
Prior: I was in Los Angeles when the film found me. I met a mutual producer friend while I was here and she’d read one of the earlier drafts of Peeter’s script and said she’d just come across a story that I’d be great to play the lead character in. She introduced [Peeter and I] back in London and we decided we’d work together on a teaser for the film. During that period I made some subtle suggestions about how we could improve things starting with dialog and then going into significant structural things. Peeter graciously took some of the feedback and we ended up writing together for the next couple of years. We really dug deep into the sociological and political context and the thriller element of the story as well. That included going to meet the real Sergey in person.
TG: How did that meeting go?
Prior: It was great. Sergey didn’t speak any English so Peeter sort of translated all of the questions we wanted to ask. There’s something almost fantastical about the quality and reality of love in this specific environment. I really wanted to talk with Sergey about that and get down to the bottom of him as a character.
TG: I really thought the suspense was well done. Sometimes in true-to-life stories, it can be a letdown because of the nature of it being real life, things are rarely as grandiose as they appear in film. But I felt the suspense was built-in nicely, every time the Commandant would show up I would get tense, like ‘Let them be in love!’ When you’re building the story how do you go about choosing what will work?
Rebane: I think first of all it’s about staying true to the original story. One of the original scripts really leaned into it being a thriller and we thought it was a bit too fantastical. We really went back to the original story to find those moments of suspense in life instead of creating them. One of the main changes we made to Firebird was bringing in more of a physical threat. It’s possible that as a man in his 50’s and 60’s looking back he might have a tendency to remember the good things. We questioned could this relationship have been so open during this time? So we wanted to make sure to add in the resistance.
TG: Has Sergey had a chance to see the finished product?
Prior: Sadly he passed away during the creation of the film. We interviewed him in 2016 in Moscow. It was about a year later that he passed away. His best friend had us come out for the memorial to his hometown in Russia of Oryol. Attending his wake and the traditional Russian Orthodox burial of the person whose life we’re leading the legacy of was very emotional and an overwhelming experience. At that time I made a commitment that I would tell his story to the best of my ability.
TG: That’s lovely because not only are you writing his story, but you’re also righting his story. It’s easy to hear the pitch and think, ‘oh, that never happened’, but the way you’ve executed the script makes it real and very relatable.
Prior: We had a strong desire to show the story from all sides and give everyone a voice. It makes the world fuller.
TG: It’s very easy to be cliche and talk about ‘sad gay romance films’ but there’s something so unique about Firebird and that’s the truth of it all, that it really happened and it deserves to be told. LGBTQ+ tends to be erased from history. What’s a take-a-way you want the audience to have after watching the film?
Prior: It’s really about showing the level at which they have to hide in the film because they are not accepted. I hope people look at their own environments, countries that are the most progressive in the world and actually think about what behaviors and judgements do we still have to lose so we can allow people to be even freer. Ask what you can do to be more accepting to allow people to love who they want to love and to express themselves however they want to express themselves.
Rebane: I think it’s really important that people in Russia and countries where the situation is not as liberal as it is in the US – that people there see the story and can relate more empathically to others who are different. And become more aware of the government propaganda against human rights in many countries and resist that. If even a few people open up and understand that love is love and not a threat then the whole world would be a much brighter place to live.
Firebird is a sweeping and epic romance that shows LGBTQ+ visibility during a time when it was imperative to hide. It’s beautifully shot and passionately acted. Be on the lookout for screenings at the beginning of next year.
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