When they began following Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds with a camera back in April 2014, documentarians and real-life partners Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom had no way of knowing that they’d be capturing the last years of both women’s lives. At the time, the project had a single mission, pioneered by Fisher herself: To chronicle her eightysomething mother as she toured the country, performing show tunes from her golden-age hits like Singin’ in the Rain and Tammy and the Bachelor and throwing off pithy bons mots in obscenely weighty dresses.
Over time, though, Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds became something else: a love story between mother and daughter; a portrait of best friends barreling and bantering through life together; a glimpse at a relationship so singular and strange and beautiful it occasionally brought the directors themselves to tears during filming. The final cut is a mix of archival home video – an adolescent Fisher scampering toward the camera in a bikini at a family pool party, Reynolds dragging a teenage Fisher onstage to perform at one of her earlier concerts – and more recent footage of the two going about their day-to-day lives on their shared Los Angeles compound. The footage is uncompromisingly honest, funny, and intimate: Fisher speaks frankly and hilariously about her struggles with bipolar disorder, even in the midst of a manic episode; Reynolds, ever the studio star, is less forthcoming, but more visibly affected, by her own declining health. “Age is horrible for all of us,” says Fisher at one point, “but she falls from a greater height.”
In the wake of both women’s tragic, unexpected deaths – Fisher on December 27 at age 60, Reynolds on December 28 at 84 – the film has transformed again, this time into a bittersweet elegy, a “love letter,” as Bloom puts it, to two of Hollywood’s most beloved women. Originally set to premiere later this year, Bright Lights debuted on HBO on January 7 to 1.6 million bereft viewers who, according to Bloom, were “clamoring” to see the film in hopes of finding catharsis. MTV News caught up with Bloom a few days after the film’s premiere to talk about how she gained Fisher and Reynolds’s trust, whether it’s true that Fisher “hated” the film at first, her last conversations with both women, and what it’s like to promote a film about people you’ve loved and lost.
Bright Lights is so intimate – you’re in Carrie and Debbie’s homes, you’re trailing them as they go about their lives. How did you gain their trust, and why do you think they trusted you in particular with their story?
Alexis Bloom: I have a great friend in common with Carrie, Charlie Wessler, who’s known Carrie since she was 15. Charlie is a producer who lives in New York, and he was staying with Carrie when Carrie was watching her mom go off to perform in Connecticut. Charlie happened to say, “You know, Fisher and Alexis are good filmmakers and you guys would get along, maybe they should do it.” We met with Carrie and we sort of had to feel it out on both sides: whether we thought it was a film, and whether Carrie really wanted to do this. We started shooting informally on our own dime and filming a bit of Debbie, a bit of Carrie. And as it progressed, we formalized things.
They’ve had a lot of people in their lives, and they’re somewhat wary. But because we had people in common, they knew that fundamentally we were good people, and not assholes who were gonna do a hatchet job on them. It grew. It wasn’t an immediate, doors open, “Come on in! Film whatever you want to film.” We filmed a little bit, a little bit more, and gradually got used to each other. They eventually did feel safe with us, and that was key with them.
I’m conscious that I’m using the present tense with Debbie and Carrie. I just do. It doesn’t bother me that I do. They sort of live on in my head. I imagine them in the film, so I know it’s a bit weird. I should [use] past tense, but if it’s OK, I’m going to carry on.
Tell me about the first time you met them.
Bloom: There’s a difference between Fisher [Stevens] and me. Fisher is both my co-director and my partner in life and the father of my children. He met Carrie when they did a film I think 10 years ago, but hadn’t kept in touch. I think the movie was called Undiscovered, and it wasn’t terribly good [ laughs]. For the purposes of the film, we got to know each other when we came to L.A. I remember sitting on the red crushed velvet sofa in her living room, Carrie sitting kitty-corner from us, and her regaling us with stories of her childhood, of Debbie. We had an amazing afternoon. I remember we drank a hell of a lot of Coca-Cola, and she told stories, and it was wonderful.
I remember meeting Debbie, and her being very charming and courteous, and slightly more at arm’s length. A beautiful, typical, perfect-weather day in this compound full of hummingbirds and teapots and twinkling lights and ice skates hanging from branches, just a kaleidoscope of toys and lights. It was like a wonderland, really. It felt like the sort of place you want to be in.
I know the film began as a chronicle of Debbie’s late-in-life career, but turned into a story about Carrie and Debbie’s relationship. Was there a particular moment when the film shifted for you?
Bloom: We always set out to keep it very open. We thought we were going to chronicle Debbie’s later performances, and how amazing that was, but we always thought of Carrie very much as a narrator or part of it. They were a bit of a yin-and-yang kind of act. But then Debbie started to get more ill and frail, and we thought, Maybe we’re really capturing Debbie’s last performances. Then she’d always rally, “No, I’m going back to Connecticut again!” It was the sort of film where we just wanted to hang around and see what happens. In some ways, that was difficult as a filmmaker, because you really didn’t know what the narrative was, but in other ways, that was a privilege. Because that is real life. We didn’t feel like we had to impose a narrative on it. And when Debbie was nominated for the SAG [Lifetime Achievement] Award, we knew we had an ending, and enough material to make a film.
Were they open to that nebulousness?
Bloom: There were many times when they didn’t want us to film, because they were tired – “Not today,” or “Haven’t you got enough material?” Even Carrie, who welcomed us at first – there’s a commitment [to] being part of a documentary, and she’d never done anything like this. I don’t think most people realize how many shooting days it takes to make a film. Debbie certainly preferred a script and a defined number of shooting days. But they were fairly patient with us. They have schedules and privacy issues, and sometimes they weren’t the easiest people in the world to schedule. They’re celebrities who have a bit of exposure fatigue. But they weren’t attached – we didn’t go over the narrative with them blow by blow, so yes, they were open.
Page Six had a typically Page Six-esque piece on the film the other day, claiming that Carrie and Debbie “hated [the movie] at first. They fought like cats and dogs with the directors, who had to kiss their asses to get it done.” Is any of that true?
Bloom: I thought that was completely barmy. That’s Page Six for you. It just wasn’t true. Debbie was always unequivocally fine with the film. Todd [Fisher, Carrie’s brother] was 100 percent onboard. Carrie was struck by the intimacy of it. But she didn’t hate it by any means. She did say, “Whoa, that wasn’t what I expected.” But by the end of the week, she was fine with it. It was complete bullshit, that Page Six article. Carrie came to Telluride, she came to Cannes. You can see her hand in hand with Fisher at Cannes.
“The filmmakers had to kiss their asses” – did we literally have to put our lips on their butt cheeks? No! Did we have to sit Carrie down and have a conversation where we said, “Trust us, it’s OK, people will love it, people will feel warm toward you, I promise you. In the scene where you’re manic, you come off as manic, yes, but wonderfully witty and exquisitely human.” It’s rare that you make a film about somebody and they have no comments. And if they do, it’s not a good film. It’s a kiss-ass film. Fisher and I were invited to her 60th birthday party in November, and she wanted us to stay with her on the compound. So it couldn’t have been that bad. I’m angry at the Post, but I think, Don’t be angry. Don’t waste energy. The Post is full of shit, but that’s how they sell papers. Let it go.
Did you ever think about halting filming or stepping away during Carrie’s manic episode?
Bloom: No, because she’s brilliant. She’s wonderful. Even when she’s manic, I find her incredibly compelling, and I knew other people would too. As a filmmaker, it’s your responsibility to film everything, and you make decisions during edits. In this conversation now, would you ever say, “Stop talking, Lex?” You wouldn’t. If you thought I said something I’d regret terribly or that wasn’t true to the piece, you could choose to not use it. That’s my attitude about filming. But I always felt, even when she was manic, she’s marvelous. I love the eccentrics in life. She was always interesting to me, and always fantastic. She always had a kind of magnetic effect on me. That’s Carrie.
Some of the scenes suggest that Debbie was putting on a bit of a show for you – like she was incapable of completely dissociating from her Hollywood persona.
Bloom: You nailed it, yes. But that also is Debbie. And it isn’t a thin veneer. You can see during the scene when Debbie’s [house] alarm goes off – anybody else would throw up an act, like, “Oh my gosh, the alarm’s going off!” But not Debbie. She just said, “Goodness gracious. Not my day. Just one of those things.” She’s probably spent more time onstage in her life than she has offstage. So she’s comfortable in that. Does she have another face for her family and close friends? Absolutely. And she let us in a little bit; toward the end of the film, you can see her being vulnerable. But the other Debbie is the real Debbie, too. When she sees Carrie, do they hold hands and sing, does she say, “Oh, darling! You must look at my shoes!” Yes. She’s Old Hollywood. The grand old dame thing, the fluttering eyelashes – that’s her. It doesn’t mean she doesn’t have another face, but she’s an out-and-out performer. I imagine her getting up in the morning and singing to the cereal.
Their relationship comes across like a lot of mother-daughter relationships – albeit amplified – but sometimes it feels like something else altogether. It’s hard to pin down or explain easily. Having spent all this time with them, how would you characterize it?
Bloom: Very close. Very tender. Even on different continents. They may not speak every day – Carrie was shooting Star Wars in London, and probably spoke to her mother every other day. It’s push and pull. They get frustrated. It’s unvarnished. It’s honest. It’s not always easy, but there’s an overwhelming arc of love, even when they’re pissed off with each other. They’re very honest with each other in the moment, with a range of different emotions, some of which are tumultuous: Carrie going to Vegas, “Mom’s asking me to do this,” “Carrie’s annoying me because all her friends are here and I can’t get my car out of the driveway.” But the arc is one of love.
Watching them as you filmed, did you ever find yourself getting emotional?
Bloom: When Debbie fell ill. That was hard to watch. Them in the limo together [on the way to the SAG Awards]. That’s hard. I’m unable to watch the film now that they’ve died, to be honest. I think I’d be a bit of a basket case. I would just weep. I tried to watch it with my parents after [Debbie and Carrie] died, and I had to step out. There’s a different emotion now. When we were making it, we got emotional, but it was a sweeter emotion. “Shit, Debbie’s frail, but look at her, she’s rallying!” That scene at the end where they’re holding each other and singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business” makes your heart rise. But what I saw as bittersweet then now plays in my mind as heartbreaking.
Absolutely. The movie takes on a much sadder tone now that they’re both gone. What moments in particular stand out to you as being markedly different to watch?
Bloom: The “Prepare to Meet Thy God” sign [that Carrie finds at the antique market]. When Debbie says, “You can’t stop fighting, or you’ll drown.” Because she did stop fighting at one point. She was tired, she didn’t want to fight anymore when Carrie was gone. When Carrie’s in the car, she talks about how Debbie’s mother was really hard. She says, “My mother’s different. I both want to and have to help my mother. What happens to my mother lives on my grid.” And you realize what happened to Carrie lived on Debbie’s grid.
What was the last conversation you had with them?
Bloom: The last conversation we had with Debbie was when Carrie had had a heart attack. We called and it was Christmas. Carrie was very ill in the hospital, and we were speaking to Todd, and Debbie was in the background. She said, “Send my love, and tell them I say merry Christmas.” With Carrie, it was when she’d sent my daughter a box of the most beautiful clothes, little-girl clothes, the kind of stuff I’d never buy because I’m too cheap and I get secondhand hand-me-downs. I called her to thank her.
Some of the media coverage has been referring to their juxtaposed deaths as “poetic.” Does it feel that way to you?
Bloom: Intellectually, I know it’s true. There is a symmetry and a poetry about it. But mostly I just feel it’s profoundly sad for us to lose them both. Selfishly, I wanted one of them to stay alive. But for them – for Debbie – it’s better. She’d be so sad without Carrie. They were two extraordinary women individually. And magic together.