The history of queer cinema is filled with its fair share of tragic stories and silenced character pieces. Firebird, the latest film from Estonian writer-director Peeter Rebane and British writer-star Tom Prior, incorporates the tropes of a Cold War-era thriller into its narrative while also emphasizing the soaring and aching romance that the LGBTQ+ audience could significantly benefit from seeing more of. This story is even more extraordinary because it is based on a real-life romance between a young Russian private and a Soviet-acquired Estonian fighter pilot that the late Russian actor Sergey Fetisov recalled.
Tom is best recognized for his stage and screen portrayals of engaging characters and compelling themes. His previous work includes such notable productions as “The Theory of Everything,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” and, most recently, “Firebird.”
During a recent interview with British Thoughts, Tom talked about Firebird, the seven-year filmmaking process, and how he thinks it encourages audiences to love more bravely. Read more on the Q&A below:
British Thoughts: On a more personal level, what is the movie “Firebird” about?
Tom Prior: It’s a love story at its deepest core and really what it means to follow love at all costs. It’s a story about a forbidden romance set in the backdrop of the Soviet Union, where LGBT relationships are illegal. This means that our two main characters must go after what they want much harder than it would be today, but it depends on where you are in the world.
BT: Have you ever experienced having a love so forbidden that you have to fight tooth and nail just to have that kind of love?
TP: Thankfully, no. I’ve never been in such a situation where it’s risking my very life. So within the film, I did as much research as possible and met the real Sergey in Russia to get to grips with what it was really like.
BT: You mentioned you’d met the real-life Sergey. What was it like when meeting him? How was it like bringing his real romantic life to the screen? And what was the process like? What impact did meeting Sergey bring to the film?
TP: I think meeting him in person created an instinct with how I wanted to play him and how me and Peter Rebain, my co-writer, were writing him. We didn’t want to portray shame, self-sabotage, or self-hatred for this part of his identity, but really to show his disposition as sunny, radiant, hopeful, and not giving up on love. When I met Sergey in Russia in 2016, that’s who he was.
He was unapologetic yet he still knew how to discern situations. He wasn’t foolish, but he certainly followed his heart at all costs. That was inspiring for me to find, meeting him got me to look at my own life by believing my truth and following the dreams and goals I have for myself.
We also wanted Sergey to show his ambitious side in the film. That’s why he dreams about attending acting school but doesn’t think he can do it. It’s through meeting Roman that he gets to follow his dreams.
BT: You emphasize the importance of really accepting one’s true self. Did that influence the concept or idea of the project itself while you were creating and filming it? Was that always at the back of your mind? To show the importance of being able to accept your true self?
TP: I’d say that that’s almost like my lifestyle. I have felt it’s very important to be radically honest with yourself and others throughout life. And that’s a process. But, you know, you can only really do what you can with what you have. But as an actor, I’m always looking for the truth. And I want to be able to show something truthfully. And that, for me, is always the kind of number one filter. Is this believable? And then after that, is this entertaining? Because it’s already doing something very realistic. But also, if it’s not interesting since it is subjective we might lose the audience and their attention.
So, it’s about searching for the truth as an actor. But also, I’d say that very much tips into my own life. I love to have very authentic and truthful experiences. Whether that means food or an encounter with another person, or when I travel, I love to go and have authentic experiences with the traditional culture and art.
BT: Did exploring the culture while preparing for the movie help you portray the character better?
TP: Yeah, very much so. I was fortunate enough to go to Russia at least three to four times since 2017 for the process of making the film from research and then going back for Sergey’s funeral. We went again in 2018 to film. I fell in love with Russian culture, the food, and the hospitality of many Russians we met. They were so amazingly humble, emptying their fridge onto the table and telling us to have more.
I went to where the Russian theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski was the one who pioneered modern acting techniques. I even went to the extent of listening to the Harry Potter books in Russian. Now, I don’t speak that much of the language. Still, it was more for me to feel it so that on a very subconscious, permeable level, it would affect me physiologically on how I would communicate.
BT: I understand that there was a little bit of a language barrier between you and Oleg. Was there any difficulty with that? Did it somehow affect the film? Was there any good side to having that language barrier?
TP: In the long run, it had ended up being helpful to the film because when Peter and I were writing the film, we struggled with how to write the language of how these two guys meet. Because there was no language to be able to describe that at the time. You’re not allowed to talk about it. Nobody suspected anybody else of being in love with the same sex. It just wasn’t a thing. When we cast Oleg, I was a little concerned. I didn’t speak much Russian, and he didn’t speak much English, but we worked it out from a physical chemistry point of view. And it becomes about stealing glances, looks, small physical gestures, and the space between the two of us that becomes more of the language than speaking.
There were a few times on set it was difficult to communicate how to understand something intellectually, but from a trust point of view, we just had to go there. We had to fall into the arms of each other and go, “I trust you.” Because it doesn’t matter how much trying talking we did. Otherwise, it wouldn’t make much sense.
BT: I discovered that this project took seven years to finish. Not only that, you are the lead role for this film, but you are also one of the producers and the music supervisors. How challenging was it to do all these things while filming simultaneously?
TP: The production process was complicated at the beginning, considering the fact that we had to work on the screenplay and come up with the funding for the film. I was already approached to be the lead actor in 2014. By the end of December, we were already putting up a couple of scenes.
Peter graciously allowed those changes to happen, and I gave him more feedback after. We rewrote the entire script for the next two and a half years. I implemented some changes and wanted it to be a bit different, but I think it would be a very different film if I hadn’t been a part of the writing. It would not, for better or for worse — I hope it’s for the better — be what it is now.
We had to raise more money than initially intended. And then, I did the acting in 2018, and thankfully our lead producer Brigitte Rosenbrooker, took over most of the production while we were filming.
Peter and I also went to Warsaw and worked with our music composer, and the three of us created a musical score for the film. So I ended up doing quite a lot, simply being approached to play the lead in the movie, and then everything else kept clawing me back in, and it was, for the most part, a real pleasure.
BT: After this seven-year-long joyride of a process, how does it feel that the movie is finally out and everyone in the world can finally see it?
TP: It’s amazing to hear that people enjoy it because there’s this big moment where I was in the cinema — just Peter, myself, our editor, and cinematographer. We might’ve been watching the film how many times alone during the pandemic. But we rented a cinema to show the movie just to look at the colour grading and technical edits. I was thinking, “what if nobody likes this film?”, “what’s going to happen?” six years of work nobody wants to watch at this point. So I’m very grateful to see that people are enjoying it. That’s a massive payoff.
And it’s been amazing to receive messages from people saying how the film impacted their lives. It’s made them have a greater understanding of others who are more open about their sexuality. It made viewers open a discussion about identity. One of the biggest highlights for me was the time someone wrote to me saying that Firebird felt like a massive hug and saying things will be okay.
BT: Throughout the filming process, with all the scenes that you guys took and shot, what is the most unforgettable scene you ever did during the filming process?
TP: The final scene of the whole film was unforgettable. It was a combination of acting and technicality because there’s nowhere to hide as an actor. It’s just me, the other people around, and the music. And I’m looking as if I’m acting on an empty stage and just letting go completely. It was one of those moments where I had to get out of the way as an actor. It was very surreal to make like I experienced my life flashing before my eyes. But obviously playing Sergey and seeing how the relationship with Vermont unfolded, was extraordinary. For me, that’s the most extraordinary and the most memorable part of making the film.
BT: As you mentioned earlier, Sergei passed away before actually being able to see the film. If he were still with us right now, how do you think would he feel watching his own life story on the big screen? How do you imagine him watching it?
TP: Honestly speaking, I think he’ll be happy with it. We made it with his only stipulation: that we make the film about love, not politics. And I think he would be proud of it and be very moved by having his life story told in such a way. I had a fantastic team who researched everything down to the last detail. The film’s colouring, sound design, and attention to detail are amazingly authentic, like the pen, cars, and everything we use. People who have lived through that time have said it’s somewhat scary how accurate the film is in terms of the richness of that world. And so I think he’d be delighted.
BT: Before I end this interview, what exciting news do you have for your fans? What do they have to watch out for, and what do they have to stay in tune for? And what’s your message to your fans also to our LGBTQ friends as well?
TP: The message for fans would be, firstly, thank you so much for your support, belief and honest and humble sharing. I think for me, it would be like there is so much you can achieve when you go after what you’re most afraid of. I didn’t play this role after writing and all the work for several years because I got such a confidence crash just before we were supposed to start filming that. So I thought maybe we should get somebody else to play the character and I didn’t want fear to get the best out of me. It’s about learning from your greatest fears and from there the most wonderful opportunities come forward.
For more on Firebird: