'Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher': The Story Behind the HBO Documentary

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'Briight Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher'

Filmmakers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens and HBO's Sheila Nevins look back at the making of the new documentary about a remarkable mother-daughter bond.

Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher debuts Saturday night on HBO. Directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom — the two are also a couple, with two children, in real life — the documentary, which captures the unique relationship between Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, debuted in May at the Cannes Film Festival. After a tour of the festival circuit, it had originally been scheduled to air on HBO in March, but the cable service moved up the air date following the deaths of Fisher and Reynolds.

The film was quite literally a labor of love — it began with Fisher remarking that someone should film her mother’s determination to keep performing. Sheila Nevins, president of HBO Documentary Films, describes how HBO, which had earlier filmed Fisher’s one-woman play Wishful Drinking, entered the project, while Bloom and Stevens, often still referring to the film's subjects in the present tense, recount what it was like to follow Fisher and Reynolds with their cameras.

SHEILA NEVINS: It started with [Fisher’s play] Wishful Drinking. I had seen the show and thought it would be perfect for HBO. I didn’t know Carrie at that point, but I thought it was the most honest and incredible portrait of one’s life that I’d ever seen. So we gathered around it and put it on HBO. I maintained a relationship with her after that because I just thought she was a remarkable person and a great survivor. Then Fisher Stevens mentioned he was thinking of doing a film with Carrie and Debbie. I thought, "What a brilliant idea," and that was the genesis of Bright Lights.

ALEXIS BLOOM: We had a friend in common, a producer named Charlie Wessler, who was staying with Carrie when Debbie was going off to Connecticut to perform. Carrie was saying, "I can’t believe my mother is still performing. Someone should be filming this." So Charlie introduced us to Carrie, we met and sat around talking and liked each other. It all organically came to pass and we mutually decided there is a film here, let’s go for it, and we started filming.

NEVINS: In my heart of hearts, I think Carrie wanted to memorialize Debbie. Debbie was getting older. It was harder and harder for Debbie to be Debbie and yet she insisted on being Debbie. Carrie wanted Debbie to rest on her laurels, and Debbie wanted to continue to be the Debbie Reynolds of yore.

BLOOM: We did find Carrie was not as super-comfortable about being filmed as one might think because she wasn’t in control of it. Carrie has a semblance of being totally expository, but actually she’s done her one-woman show, which was authored by her, and her books are very tell-all, but they are also by her. At certain points, she felt not in her comfort zone — but in a different way than Debbie did.

FISHER STEVENS: The first time we interviewed Carrie, I felt she was very comfortable. It was one-on-one, another interview for her. But then when she realized we were making a film and going deeper and deeper, you could feel her getting less and less comfortable, knowing we had all this footage.

BLOOM: Carrie is, what’s the word? — untrammeled, in a fiercely intelligent way. When you put a camera on her, even though she may regret what she said or not choose to say what she’s saying, she can’t help herself. She’s a truth-teller…

STEVENS: Unfiltered…

BLOOM: It’s part of her DNA. She is wired for truth. And her mother is wired for dignity above all else, from her training at MGM. Her mother reserves her private face, the Debbie without false eyelashes, without a wig. She can be cynical, she can be very arch. But she’s careful who she shows that, too. It’s normally for her family and close friends. So that was a challenge — getting through the sort of carapace with Debbie.

STEVENS: When we started with Debbie, she didn’t really understand the concept of documentary or cinema verite. She asked for lines. “What should I say?” Ultimately, she was doing it for her daughter, Carrie, and Carrie was doing it for her mother, Debbie, but for completely different ways.

BLOOM: Carrie has always observed her mother and basked in her brilliance. Carrie thinks her mother is the bee’s knees. She wanted to make the documentary because she thought, "What other ’80-something-year-old woman is getting out of bed, putting on the glam, putting on the sequins, going out there performing for her fans and giving it with such style?" Carrie recognized both the pathology and eccentricity of it, but the dominant emotion she had about it was, “Isn’t my mother kick-ass?” And I think that’s why she was doing the documentary. She didn’t have any sense that her mother would ail as she did over the course of the filming. She wanted us to film her mother being majestic. And Debbie did it because she knew, like many things in life, it was Carrie’s thing. “Carrie’s making this documentary about us, and she seems to think it’s pretty important, so I don’t want to disappoint her. I’ll do it. I don’t really understand it myself, but it must have substance to it, because Carrie and also Todd, my children, think it’s a good idea even though I’m not entirely persuaded by it.” At times, we did feel like we were a bit of an encumbrance. But even when she was feeling shitty, Debbie would call us up and say, “Look, I’m feeling shitty, I can’t do it today.” Somebody else would have said just go away. But she never did that.

STEVENS: The thing that was so amazing was her professionality. At 82, 83 at the time, she had the same discipline as when she was 16, 17 at MGM. She never let that discipline slip. It was really inspiring to see.

BLOOM: It was never conceived of as a film that was solely about Debbie and her final years of performing. It was always about how Carrie felt about that. We always saw them as a duet. Carrie on her mother is amazing. And her mother on Carrie is sort of amazing, too. We always knew it was a relationship film, but we didn’t realize the depths of it for a couple of months. It was always about the two of them. We also didn’t know what access we would get. But we had a sense about the magic of the two of them. We had no chronology, we had no idea what was going to happen. We were just going on a feeling. It was amazing to be in their presence. Fisher and I had just had a baby ourselves, and we wanted to do a story about a family. It seemed a perfect combination — a family making a film about a family.

STEVENS: To be frank, I didn’t know anything about Debbie Reynolds at all except Singin’ in the Rain. I knew Carrie a little bit, but not much. But the moment we sat down with Carrie and then met Debbie, we couldn’t believe their relationship. We had to do this movie.

BLOOM. Once we realized that we didn’t want anybody else but them onscreen, that we didn’t want a single sit-down interview, we knew we didn’t want to spend too much time away from Carrie and too much time away from Debbie. In the editing room, we knew we wanted to do this dance between them. We didn’t want to be cruel. We wanted to let the best of them breathe, but we didn’t want to shy away from their entanglement.

NEVINS: That relationship was such a complex and loving one. I think it was a love poem.

STEVENS: The other thing that was difficult, though a good problem, was that there was so much archival to sift through. Not only recorded by the media and the news, but Todd had filmed quite a bit as well. Actually, Debbie also shot some beautiful footage early on that we used in the opening. And then Debbie, she did start to get ill, and we didn’t know what was going to happen, where it was going. It helped us write the narrative in a way. We knew the SAG Awards would be the end. Once we filmed that, we knew that was the end of our film.

BLOOM: Debbie saw the film. She wasn’t terribly well, so she didn’t dive into it with a level of critical analysis that sent us spinning. But she enjoyed it. I think she passed over the bits that were a little bit uncomfortable for her and reveled in the old movies and her performing.

STEVENS: She called in to the New York Film Festival, and in San Francisco she skyped in to the screening. It was great she was willing to participate with her in that way. When we first showed the film to Carrie privately, it wasn’t the easiest thing for her to see. But she ended up loving the film, promoting it, going to Cannes and Telluride for us. It kind of was a tribute to her mother in her mind and she was proud of it. It was a nice moment for her where she didn’t have to be Princess Leia, but being herself.

BLOOM: It took her time to get to that point. It is an intimate film. And the footage of her father was a lot. She watched it and she cried. She had to sit down. We had lots of talks with her and lots of hand-holding.

NEVINS: I was with Carrie when she watched the movie. She would close her eyes when she thought she looked too fat, but other than that, she was watching Debbie. She was really looking out for Debbie. She thought Debbie was going to die way before her and therefore she was preserving what turned out to be a film about both of them, about aging and frailty in a place where neither of those are permitted.

STEVENS: She showed it to some people she trusted and they really liked the film. So that helped a lot. I got to spend a little time with both Carrie and Debbie about six weeks ago in L.A. It was one of the best conversations with Debbie that I had. She seemed in a great mood, so strong, like she was bouncing back. And Carrie seemed so happy. Her career was going well and she seemed really good.

BLOOM: And so it’s like a wave came and washed the people we love off the shore. We didn’t see it coming. Emotionally, we’re devastated. But Carrie lived her life in the most unconventional way, so that she would exit life in an unconventional way should not be surprising. I think when Carrie died, I think Debbie decided, “OK, this enough for me now. I don’t want to bury my daughter. I want to be with her.”

NEVINS: I think Carrie rose to the occasion of telling the truth of her frailties, which is a hard thing to do. But she loved you when you accepted her for being Carrie. She was such an unusual creature, very funny, she made me laugh all the time. She carried that fairy dust with her and she sprinkled it on you. She came to HBO one day. [Her daughter] Billie was working as an intern. And she sprinkled her fairy dust. It’s stuck in corners of the drawers. It doesn’t go away. And she used to do that to the audience, too.

BLOOM: We don’t want the film connected to their death. This is them in life. HBO is going to put up cards, separate from the film, that say Carrie died on Dec. 27 and her mother died on Dec. 28. But separate from the film. We don’t want the film defined by their death. It’s a film about their life. And they had so much to give in life.

NEVINS: Carrie wanted to live. Sometimes people say, "It’s better this way." Well, it’s not. It would be better if Carrie were here. Debbie had lived a life, but it would be better if she were here as well. Carrie had life to live and a lot left to say, and we won’t hear it now.