The documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” was intended to be a look at a truly remarkable Hollywood family.
But it also ended up being a final look at Reynolds and Fisher in the months before both mother and daughter died, last week, within just days of each other.
The documentary was co-directed by Fisher Stevens and his partner, Alexis Bloom. The filmmakers were first invited by Carrie Fisher to chronicle her mother’s indomitable pursuit of performing. Even in her eighties, Debbie Reynolds was still hosting a lounge act.
While the mother-daughter bond in the film is undeniable, even if a bit bizarre, the conversations between Reynolds and Fisher about death and mortality make “Bright Lights” almost haunting — especially the moments when Reynolds’ health is clearly failing toward the film’s end.
Stevens visited The Frame recently and recalled his first impressions of the two women.
On the first meeting with Debbie and Carrie:
When we flew to LA to sit down with Carrie and then meet Debbie separately, I couldn't believe, first of all how entertaining both of them were, how different both of them were, and yet how much they spoke in a similar yet completely different language. They mentioned each other's names constantly in each conversation. They just had such love and admiration for each other. Debbie didn't really understand what Carrie was asking to do in terms of a documentary, but was open to it. We were sold.
On Debbie's professionalism:
We felt like this was an incredible privilege that Carrie had asked us to film. Carrie was very excited at first and we started to film. When we filmed Debbie doing her nightclub act, I was blown away by Debbie's professionalism. Here she was, 80 years old, maybe 81, and she was still prepping and getting ready and doing her little warm-ups. I'm an actor first and foremost, but to see someone at that age continuing that discipline — it just blew my mind. Then we were like, we have something special here. And it wasn't easy for Debbie. You can even see her assistant bending down trying to straighten her toes to fit into those shoes.
On Debbie and Carrie's difference in character:
She sees a camera and she starts performing. That's Debbie. At one point, she asked Lexi and I what her lines were. But when she sees the camera, yeah she starts to perform. And Carrie is the complete opposite, she's incapable of being anything but Carrie at all times.
On retaining editorial control over the documentary:
That was a big contract point that we had to have final cut. That took a bit of Carrie trusting us. When we screened the film for the first time for Carrie, it took a long time to get through the film. We stopped and started constantly. It's a very intimate movie and she forgot. We started filming a year and a half before and I think there were moments when she was like, what?! I look like that? And It took a long time to get through. Lexi and I really love these women. As we filmed more and more, we fell more and more in love with them. It was never our intention to do anything to make them look bad or harm them. We really wanted to make a love story about a mother and daughter and so that was kind of what we ended up doing. But of course there are still moments that freaked Carrie out. It's hard to watch yourself for so long.
On how Carrie and Debbie approached discipline:
[Carrie] loved her cigarettes and Coca Cola. She really struggled with the smoking. She had pretty much stopped the last time I saw her, which was like six weeks ago. She struggled with the weight thing and she hated working out. She loved the trainers and that trainer was a fantastic guy. He put up with Carrie's smoking and he poured the Cokes out constantly and Carrie just had them replenished on a daily basis. They were very different in that way. Debbie was always disciplined about working out and about dance training. It was a very different time back then as well when she was an MGM star. Part of her daily regimen was working out and training and dancing and singing. For Carrie, discipline was not her thing. So when Lucas called to say Star Wars was rebooting, they said, "We want you to train." Lexi and I were like, let's try and get that on film to see how tough it is for her.
On financing the film and finding footage of Carrie's father:
We really did do a throw of the dice in that we didn't have financing for the film. We decided to just keep going and film it. And another lucky thing happened is that we showed footage to HBO — Sheila Nevins and Nancy Abraham — because we thought they'd be a good partner because they did Carrie's one-woman show. They had this footage, this scene with Carrie and her dad, Eddie Fisher, at the end of his life. It was like gold to us because we thought, this is the way to include the father that we never thought we could get.
Sheila Nevins gave us the footage and said, "You guys can use it and we'll fund your film." Even though Carrie had seen that scene before and watched the film twice by herself or with me and Lexi — we were lucky enough to screen the film in Avery Fisher Hall (David Geffen Hall) at the New York Film Festival and Sheila Nevins and Lexi and I and Carrie were in the balcony watching the film and that scene came, between her and her father, and Carrie just completely lost it. Fortunately we had this little room off to the side and Sheila Nevins comforted her. Lexi and I went in and it was just a really rough moment for Carrie, but she was a trooper. It just shows that she still had this love for her dad. And this was a few months ago.
On how the film's significance changed after their deaths:
It's so bizarre to think about what's happened to them. Lexi and I never thought Debbie was going to, let alone Carrie. But Debbie just seemed to bounce back all the time — she fell and she had a stroke. We just kept thinking she was unsinkable, which was the name of her book. The one thing that I got from working with Carrie and Debbie on this movie was they really cherished each other. And it was at that point in their lives, which is why I think Carrie wanted this kind of document of her mother. Carrie had a daughter named Billie Lourd with a wonderful man named Bryan Lourd. Billie lost her mother and grandmother in a two-day span and it's hard for a 24-year-old kid to deal with. I hope people start to cherish their families before it's too late. They're lucky that even Todd and Carrie and Debbie, they really did get to cherish each other in their own way up until the end. So that's what I hope people take away from it.
"Bright Lights" premieres January 7th on HBO.