NEW YORK >> HBO thought its documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds” would be perfect for Mother’s Day. Instead, it has turned into a television memorial service.
“Life took over and changed the rules,” Sheila Nevins, who runs the network’s documentary unit, said Friday.
The deaths of Fisher and her mother on two successive days last week compelled HBO to swiftly schedule the film’s television premiere for Saturday night at 8 p.m. EST/PST. While nothing good comes from such a tragedy, those who see the documentary will find comfort knowing that the two Hollywood stars who loved and depended upon each other would not have to spend much time apart.
“Debbie was so strong that she seemed almost in control of what was going on,” said Fisher Stevens, who made the film with his wife, Alexis Bloom. “She held on for a long time. She went through a lot of pain while we were filming and it seemed like (she said) ‘OK, I held on long enough. I’m not going to bury my daughter.’”
Fisher, of “Star Wars” fame, was the film’s instigator.
Learning her mother, at age 82, insisted upon performing some final nightclub shows, Fisher thought the experience should be preserved on film and contacted Stevens through mutual friends. The idea intrigued the filmmakers; Reynolds was the last of the MGM contract employees still performing and was a link to a disappearing world.
Fisher became known as much for her humorous writing as acting and, in the film, is a one-woman one-liner machine. Both women found the process of making a documentary difficult. Reynolds was used to being on-camera, but not without playing a role; she would request a non-existent script. Fisher didn’t understand how much filming would be necessary.
In the process, a story the filmmakers didn’t necessarily expect made itself clear.
“Carrie said, ‘I’m my mom’s best friend,’ and that’s when we knew we had a love story,” Stevens said. “I wasn’t sure about that before. Then it just started unfolding as Debbie got more and more ill and Carrie started coming apart emotionally” as a result.
The film depicts Reynolds’ frailty, her good days and bad days. One day she wasn’t up to being interviewed and called to apologize. She also had the capacity to bounce back; filmmakers thought Reynolds’ final Las Vegas appearance would be their endpoint. Instead, it turned out to be the actress receiving a lifetime achievement award.
The archival material is rich, some shot by Reynolds herself. A 15-year-old Carrie sings “Bridge Over Troubled Water” at one of her mom’s shows, years before she met, married and divorced the song’s author, Paul Simon. One memorable passage catches Fisher visiting her father, singer Eddie Fisher, three months before his death in 2010. HBO happened to have that footage, never-used outtakes from a previous Carrie Fisher project.
Bloom and Stevens took “Bright Lights” to several film festivals last year. Pleased by the outcome, both stars helped to promote it.
Stevens said he last saw them at a birthday party for Fisher at the end of October. Fisher was in good spirits and Reynolds seemed healthier than she was during much of the filming; she even walked up to Fisher’s house for the party. The two women lived in adjacent houses in a Beverly Hills, California, compound.
He and his family were in South Africa, where Bloom is from, when Fisher fell ill.
“It’s still weird to me, it’s still surreal,” he said. “I’m still kind of unsettled.”
Fisher’s death didn’t change HBO’s scheduling plans, but Reynolds’ death did. There was some discussion of whether HBO would seem ghoulishly opportunistic by airing it so quickly, but that consideration was dismissed. Stevens said he requested that HBO seek the blessing of Fisher’s daughter and brother.
He said he hoped the film would inspire viewers to call family members they don’t speak to often enough.
“Yes, it’s on the bandwagon of a lot of publicity,” Nevins said. “But it’s our own special thing. We didn’t create it for the events that happened the past two weeks. We created it a year ago and it became relevant in terms of giving you a reason for turning the page.”
Follow David Bauder at twitter.com/dbauder. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/david-bauder