The world got a little dimmer last month when actress and author Carrie Fisher died after suffering a heart attack at the age of 60, followed just one day later by the passing of her mother, showbiz legend Debbie Reynolds, at 84. But those stars will shine together again when Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom’s documentary, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, premieres January 7 on HBO — moved up from its original March airdate.
The film, which features old home movies and old Hollywood anecdotes, drops in on the dynamic duo several years ago as Reynolds prepares to perform in Las Vegas and Fisher readies to revisit her iconic role of Princess Leia in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Before paying their respects at a joint memorial for the late greats, Stevens and Bloom illuminated the highs and lows of celebrating two of the biggest, most beloved personalities in Beverly Hills.
By Brandon Voss
Out: You both spent a lot of time with Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher in recent years. How are you processing the cosmic one-two punch of their passing?
Fisher Stevens: It feels surreal. It’s still a bit shocking.
Alexis Bloom: Yeah. It’s probably fair to say we’re devastated. These women were such a big part of our lives for almost three years. It feels like a wave just washed ashore and wiped out the people we loved.
Debbie passed so shortly after Carrie, as if she couldn’t go on without her daughter. Now they’re being laid to rest together. After observing their relationship, do you see the beauty in that?
AB: They lived as a duet, so there is some poetry to their exiting together. It’s a tragic poetry for the rest of us. I don’t know that Debbie died of a broken heart. I just think she made the decision that she didn’t want to live anymore. She’d battled through a stroke previously, and I think she decided to stop battling when Carrie died. For the last year of her life, I think she was hanging around for Carrie.
FS: If this had to happen at all, I think Carrie would’ve wanted it to be around the holidays, in a strange way. They loved Christmas. They both had Christmas trees in their houses year-round.
AB: Fisher and I are pleased that Debbie doesn’t have to live with her sorrow. No mother should lose her daughter, but especially not Debbie, because she and Carrie were the greatest show on Earth. In that sense, it’s a blessing for Debbie but a double-tragedy for everyone else.
As we see in your film, shot largely at their storied Beverly Hills compound, there was also something beautiful about their codependency.
FS: They did live side by side, separated by one daunting hill, as Carrie would say.
AB: I wouldn’t call it codependency as much as a symbiosis. They had an unconventional relationship. Yes, they sang together, they finished each other’s sentences. They were defined by each other, in a way, but they were also fiercely independent women with their own trajectories. They were supremely conscious of the other’s strength and magnitude. When you have personalities that big, you can’t spend too much time together.
Carrie says in the film of Debbie, “Age is horrible for all of us, but she falls from a greater height.” Of course, the same could be said for Carrie. It seems like both women were acutely aware of their mortality.
FS: Yeah, they were. You know, Debbie was healthy when we started filming. She was still performing in her 80s and Carrie wanted to document that. Then the illness happened very suddenly.
AB: Of course, they’d known so many amazing people who’ve died. Fisher and I used to say that they knew the red carpets and the back alleys. They were intimately familiar with that duality of fame and obscurity, love and heartbreak, life and death.
You’ve previously made documentaries that explored more serious, socially relevant issues. Fisher, you most recently directed Before the Flood, which is about climate change. Alexis, you notably produced We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. What made you turn your attention to two Hollywood broads?
AB: Well, Fisher and I had just had a son. He was six months old and I couldn’t travel. So we wanted to do something local, and a film about a family felt very resonant. These women were extraordinary, and I would in no way compare ourselves to them, but they were also very relatable. When we met them, they were magnetic and immediately compelling. Even though we hadn’t done this kind of film before, their exquisite humanity spoke loudly to us.
FS: I think Carrie really wanted us to make this movie because she wanted people to see how incredible her mother was. Debbie agreed to participate because Carrie and her son asked her to, but she didn’t really understand what we were doing until later in the filming.
In quick response to their deaths, HBO bumped up the movie’s premiere date from March. How will those tragedies, still so fresh in everyone’s minds, alter the way people perceive the film?
FS: I don’t know. It’s all happened so fast. It’s weird, because we haven’t seen the film as an audience since their passing. It’s going to be interesting to see the response. Personally, though, it’s going to be sad for me to see it again.
AB: The film was always a bittersweet tribute, but now it’s just heartbreaking. This film was a love letter, but now it’s a love letter to women we can only love in memory. The film is now sort of defined by their absence.
As a fan myself, I think it will bring comfort and joy to those grieving the loss of their beloved icons.
AB: That’s good to hear. I hope it’s therapeutic and not maudlin. We discussed this a lot with HBO, because we didn’t want it to be seen as exploitative or mawkish. We didn’t want it to seem in bad taste, but a lot of people were calling HBO directly, asking, “When can we see this?” Fans wanted a catharsis, so we felt compelled to release it now.
FS: Comfort and Joy would’ve been another good title.
As you mentioned earlier, you were dealing with two very big personalities. What challenges did that present for you as filmmakers?
FS: It was definitely challenging. Debbie was always aware of the lighting and her hair. Sometimes she wouldn’t let us film her without her wig and full makeup, but sometimes she’d put a hat on. A documentarian wants to get the wrinkles and all, and that wasn’t always easy with Debbie. And Carrie’s used to being in control. She was very open at the beginning, but then she realized she didn’t have final cut and control of the movie. She realized that she couldn’t edit out a line or a blemish. That made it more and more difficult for her as we went on.
AB: But we always had the sense that we were there by privilege, not by right.
Debbie’s fading health seemed to create its own set of obstacles for you. She was especially frail by the end of the film, when she’s seen accepting the Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award in 2015. Did you ever worry that you’d be unable to complete the project?
AB: We never had a clear sense of when or how the film would finish, so it wasn’t like her illness was truncating some larger narrative that we had in mind. We worried for her health, but we were just along for the ride.
FS: Originally, we thought we’d interview a bunch of Carrie’s and Debbie’s friends, everyone from Shirley MacLaine to Zsa Zsa Gabor. After the first interview, we realized that wasn’t the film we were making. We were making a verité film about Carrie and Debbie now, in the moment, including everything they were dealing with.
AB: It’s rare, actually, that you get to make films like this, where you just go spend time with people and don’t know what you’re going to get. We knew that the film was about their relationship — the push and the pull, and the fact that the umbilical cord wasn’t completely cut. Beyond that, we tried not to attach too much expectation.
The film addresses but doesn’t dwell on their history of personal hardships — their failed marriages, Carrie’s bipolar disorder and struggles with substance abuse. Was that a conscious decision?
AB: Yes, because we didn’t want to do a biography. We had to provide enough context so that the audience felt grounded and understood how special these women were, but we didn’t want to be entirely retrospective. It was like a dance between the past and the present, which they danced in their everyday lives.
How did the women feel about the finished documentary?
FS: We screened it quite a bit at film festivals with Carrie there for a Q&A, and a few times with Debbie phoning in or joining in on Skype at the end.
AB: I’ll just say that Carrie had a long period of processing the film. Initially, the intimacy took her by surprise. She loved how her mother was portrayed, but she had a personal reaction to the way she came across sometimes. But we talked her through it, and then other people in her life reassured her that it was respectful and everything was OK. So she grew to love it.
Out.com, January 2017.