Pulling double duty this year as an Emmy contender for two equally powerful and entirely different documentaries—including NatGeo’s climate change doc Before the Flood—Fisher Stevens teamed with his partner Alexis Bloom on HBO’s Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, a look at the unique and enduring love shared by two of Hollywood’s most beloved icons.
Premiering the film at Cannes last year, the pair could scarcely imagine that at the close of 2016, each legendary screen presence would be gone—bringing an abrupt end to a conversation they had cherished. Speaking with Deadline, the documentarians explained how Bright Lights came about, and how they found their way into the “essence” of natural-born performers.
How did Bright Lights come together?
Alexis Bloom: It came about very organically and fortuitously. We didn’t plan to make this film—it found us through the creative whim of Carrie. She thought it would be wonderful to film her mother; she thought her mother was both crazy and inspirational for still performing at 83, and said in a moment’s exasperation, “Oh God, I can’t believe she’s doing this, somebody should be filming her.” That started this journey.
We met, we got to know each other and we decided to do it. After filming for a bit, Carrie was like, “Maybe you’ve got enough now,” and we were like, “I don’t think so. We need to get more.”
We had to then persuade her—once she realized what a documentary entailed, she was a little more hesitant about it. But by then, we were all in, and then we got into the swing of it. It evolved like a friendship does, gradually and in fits and starts.
Fisher Stevens: I had known Carrie, but not that well. Lexi and I had just had our first child, and we really wanted to do something together as filmmakers. We were pretty much sold within 15 minutes of talking to Carrie and being in their house.
Naturally, actors can be concerned about the way in which they come off on camera. Did you have final cut on the project?
Bloom: We did have final cut.
Stevens: That was one of the conditions upon making the film, for us.
Bloom: They had to trust us. But we showed the film to them, and we were receptive to things that they felt awkward or uncomfortable about. Luckily for us, those things were pretty cosmetic; they were not fundamental to the storytelling at all. It didn’t take more than a day and a half in the edit to address.
Many times, they told us to switch off the camera. We were sometimes welcome, and sometimes not, as was their right. Sometimes, we’d film for a while, and then Carrie would go, “I’m just not feeling very well,” and we’d turn off the cameras, and go and have a cup of tea.
Stevens: Debbie was really doing this for Carrie. She didn’t quite understand what we were doing, I think, for quite some time, and didn’t really understand the form of documentary. In the end, she seemed quite happy with the film, and participated in our Q&As, even from her house, by Skype. It was an interesting journey with her, as well.
Actors are used to presenting vulnerability on screen, but perhaps not in the way your subjects did in Bright Lights. How did you cut through to something that was true, and sometimes painful?
Bloom: I think hanging around for a long time helps. They are total performers, and I think only over time did they let their guard down. Debbie probably spent more time on stage in her life than she did off. She was a performer.
I bet you when she woke up in the morning and she went to the mirror and brushed her teeth, she’d do it in a theatrical way, regardless of whether there were cameras there.
Carrie, as well. People said to me, “She was always performing, always witty, always with the throwaway one-liners. Always singing.” Honestly, you could hear her singing in the other room, even if the cameras were not on.
Stevens: You could hear her on your microphone.
Bloom: Carrie would sometimes brush off sadness with a joke. I think hanging around her for a long time helped to get beyond that. She got to know you, and trust you. I think it’s just time.
Stevens: Part of Carrie’s charm is that she is on a lot, and her wit kept her going. She loved entertaining, just over a cup of coffee, all the time. I think that’s how she grew up—having to do that, competing with her mother and trying to make her own stand…
Bloom: …And her father. Competing for oxygen, I’d say.
Stevens: We really did try to capture the true essence of the real Carrie, and that was always in the back of Lexi’s and my mind, and Debbie’s, as well.
Bloom: The good thing is that people who love her, when they saw the film, they said, “This is Carrie”—people who grew up with her. We were really pleased with that, that they told us, “You got them.”
This mother-daughter pair makes for an interesting character study—their relationship is difficult to sum up in any simple way.
Bloom: There’s a fierce love between them. The idea that love is some linear, unfolding, healthy reward is a sham, and they called that out better than anyone else.
Love is pain, as much as it is joy—maybe not as much, but love is pain and joy. Loving each other not despite your imperfections, but because of them. They were intimately familiar with each other’s imperfections, and by this time in their lives, had accepted and embraced those imperfections. I don’t think it was anything that they talked about. It was just a place that they had gotten to.
We were like, “God, this is love in its fullest and richest expression.” With all the barbs and eye rolls and sighs of exasperation, at the end of the day, it’s Carrie in that limousine, dragging on her cigarette, saying, “Mama, I want your room cleared of everyone except for me, because I’m your favorite.” I think that she just wanted to be her favorite. And Debbie couldn’t live without Carrie. I don’t think they really knew how to express it beyond just being together.
Stevens: I was also really shocked in one way at how much Carrie, at this point in her life anyway, just revered her mother—which is why, I think, she wanted us to make the film in the first place.
She was always saying how beautiful she was—”I can’t get over it,” and, “My mother’s so talented.” There was a lot of mother worshiping going on. This was when the cameras weren’t rolling, by the way. It really was a love letter that I think Carrie wanted to give to her mother, and was the original impetus. She really adored and idolized her, at this point at least, in her life.
Bloom: She did, but it was never in a sycophantic way. You know how people talk about their children and they think they’re so wonderful and, “Oh, look at my child”? You want to literally take yourself off to the side and barf. Carrie was never like that. Carrie was very clear-eyed about Debbie and Debbie’s shortcomings, and yet she loved her.
Can you describe the process of combing through so much personal, archival family footage that we see in the doc?
Stevens: When Carrie first told us about this film, she said that her brother Todd had been archiving their family history and their performances. We called Todd, and we went to see him in San Luis Obispo, where he has a ranch. There’s an entire warehouse full of costumes, and archives of everything.
It was a bit overwhelming, but we knew that was going to be a major part of our film. It was a daunting task to have to choose because there was so much. It did help us shape the film, as well, because we would see something and it would inspire us.
Debbie was at an advanced age when you met her, experiencing health issues. It must have been difficult to watch her decline as you went about making the film.
Bloom: We were always very concerned for her health. She went through periods of frailty, but she did rally, so we always harbored the hope that she would rally again, although she was getting increasingly frail, and suffered a stroke towards the end of our filming. We just cherished the time that we were with her.
As much as Bright Lights is about the relationship between two Hollywood icons, do you consider the project to be a portrait of aging, as well?
Bloom: People, after screenings, come up to us saying, “Thank you for making a film about aging.” It’s obviously having that impact with people. When Carrie was interested in doing this, we were thinking, “[Debbie]’s aging, she’s still performing.” Really, this was about mind and matter, body and will, wanting to carry on doing things, and being physically unable to—or your determination overcoming your frailty, because she did used to perform, and then collapse afterward. It was a testament to how you can overrule your body, in some way.
Stevens: We were very conscious of that when we were making it. We would always be blown away, watching the old clips of Debbie performing, and then you cut to her in Foxwoods [Resort Casino] in Connecticut—it’s great to be able to have somebody who’s performing for 60 years. It’s rare.
Originally scheduled for March, the doc was brought forward to January after Carrie Fisher and Debbie Fisher both passed away in December, one after the other. What was it like to have your time with these two artists curtailed in such dramatic fashion?
Bloom: You feel like you’re having a conversation with people when you’re making a film about them. We felt like we were having a conversation with them, and they stepped out of the room to do something else, and they never came back. That’s what it felt like, this abrupt end.
When both of them died, people started asking us to release the film, so in some way, it was kind of out of our hands. People seemed to want it for catharsis. I think Fisher and I felt that we had made this celebration of them, a kind of love letter— a bittersweet love letter, but it was still a love letter.
We felt like it was appropriate for the film to come out. It wasn’t an exposé or anything, but in terms of the coincidence, I don’t know. Carrie always knew how to make an exit, is all I can say. Both of them did.
Stevens: We were completely shocked. We luckily got to spend a little time with them a few weeks earlier, but it was just bizarre. We felt so lucky that we got to spend the time and chronicle them in this way.
Especially with Carrie, it’s still very strange that we’re not texting, and we’re not talking, discussing a film festival or the release. It’s kind of hard to believe still, for me.