Cannes latest: new doc on Carrie Fisher and mom Debbie Reynolds -- 'a survivor of a type that doesn't exist anymore'
Alexis Bloom and Fisher Stevens direct intimate portrait of famous mother and daughter; HBO to air
Cinema is revered perhaps more fervently in Cannes than anywhere else in the world. So it's appropriate that a new documentary about Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds -- two women indivisible from Hollywood history -- should debut at the Cannes Film Festival.
Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds held its world premiere in the Palais des Festivals, a screening attended by Fisher and the film's co-director, Fisher Stevens [Stevens explained that his girlfriend Alexis Bloom, who co-directed, stayed in the U.S. to take care of their newborn baby].
I thought, I would like to capture her performing and also capture her off stage, off screen as herself, which is hard to do because she has a persona.
The film is an intimate and at times heartrending exploration of the relationship between Fisher and her mother, who -- at 84 and in uncertain health -- finds herself more dependent on her daughter's help than she likely would wish.
"My mother, she was getting more frail," Fisher told Nonfictionfilm.com of her decision to initiate the documentary project. "She'd been in a lot of pain for a long time and she still was performing, but it would cost her a lot [physically] so I thought, I would like to capture her performing and also capture her off stage, off screen as herself, which is hard to do because she has a persona."
That persona owes much to the rigorous training Reynolds underwent as a young star in the 1950s. Like all up-and-comers in the studio system she was drilled on how to behave for the public -- to remain upbeat no matter the circumstances. Being "on" for the cameras became second-nature to her to such an extent that it still happens automatically when the lights go on.
"I knew that was going to be a challenge," Stevens told Nonfictionfilm.com regarding his hope of capturing the veteran star "off-script." "She never let us film her without her wig." But in the end he said Debbie "let us get a little bit more 'there,' you know."
There are many poignant moments in Bright Lights showing the vulnerabilities of Debbie and Carrie -- Reynolds struggling with physical decline and Fisher agonizing over her mother's health and reluctance to accept her limitations.
"I mean my mother would perform forever if she could. She really would. She wants to do it again now," Fisher told NFF. "My mother's an incredible woman, a survivor of a type that doesn't exist anymore."
"That's the psychology of Debbie," Stevens echoed. "Debbie's tough. Debbie's a tough broad, man."
Over lunch at the Majestic Hotel in Cannes, Fisher sounded uncertain even now over where to draw the line when it came to filming.
"We wanted to make a family movie -- a movie about a family. And we didn't really want to exploit the family. We just wanted to record the family as much as possible," Stevens said. "We didn't want to hurt them in any way. Why? What do you gain on that? Nothing. So there's an element there where you have to kind of be tasteful."
To borrow a term from screenwriting, Bright Lights is a "two-hander," a story with a pair of main characters. An equal portion of the film is devoted to Carrie [her brother Todd is a warm and sympathetic presence as well]. There is charming vintage footage of Debbie and her kids frolicking about the house -- charming, that is, until we learn the kind of psychic pain it caused Carrie to be cast in cheery home movies that seemed to have more to do with public relations than reality.
"Carrie's been very affected by being in show business since -- basically she was being photographed since she was born," Stevens said.
"The studio raised [young stars] to really work from 5am," Fisher told NFF. "I mean, I didn't see my mother for years except on the weekends and she'd sleep. So [to experience her presence] we'd go to smell [her] aloe vera makeup remover and the l'Air du Temps perfume."
I'm filming and the book is due in less than two months so I have to get out of here.
By the time Carrie was three her parents had divorced, after Eddie Fisher famously left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor. The absence of her father proved emotionally damaging to her and as an adult she would struggle with drug addiction and bi-polar disorder.
It's all the more touching then to see footage in Bright Lights of Carrie caring for her elderly and frail father in the last years of his life. The video was actually shot for Fisher's HBO special Wishful Drinking, but was never used.
"I don't think [Carrie] was happy we put that in at first," Stevens said, presumably because it shows her father at his most vulnerable.
But anyone caring for aging parents may be deeply moved by that scene and many others of Carrie patiently and lovingly tending to the needs of her mother. In that sense the Bright Lights story is incidental to Hollywood -- it could be about any Baby Boomer doing their best to cope with elderly parents.
"That's what I was interested in. I was interested in that as well," Fisher said.
Stevens told NFF Fisher may have gotten more than she bargained for when she initiated the film.
"I think she got buyer's remorse at a certain point while we were filming. I don't think she had any idea like what it really entailed to make it, really," he said. "When you make these docs you've got to dig in. You've got to go deep. You've got to get in there and I don't think she realized that."
If she had an issue with the finished product it wasn't apparent in Cannes. She interrupted work on the next Star Wars film -- and a book project -- to support the documentary.
Her upcoming book, to be called "The Princess Diarist," is based on journals Fisher kept while filming the original Star Wars in the 1970s.
"I'm filming [the latest Star Wars episode] and the book is due in less than two months so I have to get out of here," Fisher said. "But I did keep diaries and I was 19 years old. They're very adult in a certain way but there's a little girl too."
Star Wars: Episode VIII is expected to come out in 2017. Coincidentally, Bright Lights is tentatively scheduled for a 2017 debut on HBO. In the meantime it will compete for L'Oeil d'or ["Golden Eye"], the top prize for documentary at the Cannes Film Festival.
Stevens and Fisher said Reynolds has seen the documentary and liked it. And Carrie said her mother's health has recently improved.
"She's rallied now. She's much, much better. She looks fantastic."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.