When they pulled into the driveway of the Beverly Hills compound that day in February 2014, filmmakers Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens could only communicate their dumbstruck awe through raised eyebrows.
There were twinkly lights on trees. Pink-painted coffee pots hung from branches. Ice skates lay by the pool. A nativity scene and gnomes dotted the landscape. There were even parking meters.
There lived Carrie Fisher and, just down the hill a few yards away, Debbie Reynolds.
“We just looked at each other like, ‘What is this place?’” Bloom recalled in a recent telephone interview with partner Stevens. “I think we never left that sense of marvel. They lived in a wonderland. They were a wonderland.”
Bloom and Stevens attempt to capture that wonderland in the documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” airing Saturday on HBO.
Fisher had been looking for filmmakers to chronicle her mother’s unwavering drive to perform her nightclub act as an octogenarian — “She wanted the world to see how incredible her mother was,” Bloom said. What took shape, instead, over the course of about 10 months, is a tender portrait of a mother and daughter with a complicated but loving relationship. The final portrait, as it turned out.
Reynolds was a product of the studio system, charming audiences in such films as “Singin’ in the Rain” and “Tammy and the Bachelor,” while Fisher was a student of Hollywood’s uninhibited era in the ’70s with her breakout role in “Star Wars.” Two Hollywood icons to the world. But to each other, as the film highlights, they were mother and daughter; to each other, they were caregivers.
After showings at several film festivals, including Cannes and Telluride, “Bright Lights” was slated to make its debut on HBO this summer. But in the wake of the tragically poetic deaths of the dynamic duo over the holidays — Fisher at 60 from a heart attack, Reynolds at 84 from a stroke — the premium cable network moved up the premiere date.
“We discussed it pretty thoroughly,” Bloom said. “There was no discussion when Carrie died. It’s when Debbie died that talks happened because people were asking. We wanted to make sure it was OK with the family. We checked with Carrie’s daughter, Billie Lourd, and Carrie’s brother, Todd Fisher. They gave their approval.”
The filmmakers acknowledge the documentary, which began production in April 2014 and culminated in January 2015, now has an added layer of poignancy. Moments of vulnerability and quips about death now carry extra weight and can feel like foreshadowing rather than happenstance. (There are many from Fisher, like when she sees a sign at an antique shop reading “prepare to meet thy god” and says, “Uh-oh, when?”)
“It’s tough for us to watch, to be honest with you,” said Bloom, noting the shock the pair felt when they learned of Fisher and Reynolds passing within a day of each other. “I haven’t seen it since they’ve died. I started watching it [Wednesday] with my parents and couldn’t finish it. You replay the lines in your head. Things that you found funny before are now heartbreaking. The thing is: You have your heart broken, but you also feel the love. It has this whole other dimension to it.”
The process of gathering footage was slow and steady. Even getting a commitment from Fisher wasn’t firm.
Things that you found funny before are now heartbreaking.
“With Carrie, you can have conversations with her, but they’re not necessarily 100% binding,” Bloom said. “We talked her through what we wanted to do and she was like, ‘Sounds good.’ Carrie wasn’t somebody who wanted to go examine every grain of sand.”
Reynolds, meanwhile, didn’t quite understand what the filmmakers were aiming to capture.
“She didn’t really know that we wanted to just film her being Debbie. She thought a documentary was more like a presentation,” Stevens said. “She, at one point, asked us for lines. She was like, ‘Well, what are my lines?’ We said, “No, no, we’re just going to ask you questions and follow you and watch you perform.’ She was like, ‘OK. If that’s what Carrie and Todd want, I’ll let you do it.’”
In addition to what was shot by Bloom and Stevens, the documentary— which some have noted is “Grey Gardens”-esque at times — features vintage home movies and archival movie footage.
It captures the pair’s starkly contrasting, adjacent homes: Fisher, with her eccentric array of oddities — in one scene, she points to her collection of “ugly children portraiture,” likening one painted child to “Shia LaBeouf as a young Dutch prostitute”; Reynolds with a more traditional house that could double as a vintage Hollywood museum of memorabilia (e.g. Harpo Marx’s wig from “Animal Crackers” and Dorothy’s iconic ruby red slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” are on display).
Viewers see Fisher making meals for her mother, helping her pack for those imprudent nightclub acts and worrying about her mother’s health. Reynolds often gets emotional talking about her daughter —whether it’s reflecting on her daughter’s mental transformation or Fisher’s singing. Both frankly discuss their relationship and the hardships the family has endured — they also break into song here and there.
While “Bright Lights” is revealing, Stevens and Bloom note that there were restrictions, and adjustments were made to filming — particularly as Reynolds struggled with her health.
“The truth of it was, we did have access but we didn’t have no-holds-barred access,” Bloom said. “There were always limits. We’ve always felt like we were there by privilege and not by right. They are not the Kardashians. They might be incredibly exploratory with their feelings and their narrative, but they are very private people. They have boundaries, and Debbie was never going to show up looking awful. She always wanted to put on a good face. That would have been true 20 years ago too.”
We didn’t set out to make a love story, but we ended up making a love story.
The film’s final minutes provide an element of tension. Reynolds is due to receive the 2014 Screen Actors Guild Life Achievement Award, but her frailty puts her attendance in question. It’s a reality that weighs heavily on Fisher. At one point, she falls into a manic episode — her first in a while.
“You know what would be so cool?” Fisher, who had bipolar disorder, says in the film. “To get to the end of my personality. And just like lay in the sun … I’m sick of myself.”
Bloom said of capturing the moment: “You just keep filming, you don’t stop filming. Carrie would have told us to stop filming if she felt very strongly about it.”
That sort of intimacy made it hard for Fisher when she first viewed “Bright Lights,” the filmmakers said, but she came to love it and supported its festival rounds. Reynolds, meanwhile, is said to have been particularly delighted by the archival footage and family movies.
“We didn’t set out to make a love story, but we ended up making a love story,” Stevens said.
One for the ages.
‘Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds’
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14)