The world lost two of Hollywood’s most towering figures in little more than the blink of an eye with the shocking deaths of Carrie Fisher, on December 27, and her mother Debbie Reynolds the next day.
As is so often the case in the career of Sheila Nevins, head of HBO Documentary Films, her cameras will be the coda to the story.
On Saturday at 8 p.m., HBO will air the documentary “Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.” Directed by Fisher Stevens and Alexis Bloom, it gives an intimate final look inside the lives and professions of the two legends who have been dominating the news and your social-media timelines for weeks.
This is familiar ground for Nevins. When the West Memphis Three were finally let out of prison in 2011 after decades of being on death row for a crime they didn’t commit (a story brought to light by the HBO documentary “Paradise Lost” and its sequel), her cameras were there among the throng of press to recount their release. The event would later be fleshed out in Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s final chapter, “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory.”
From the shocking conclusion to the true-crime miniseries “The Jinx” to director Laura Poitras’ encounter with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden in the Oscar-winning “Citizenfour,” Nevins has made HBO the home for getting the deeper story behind news that’s captivated the country.
But the death of Carrie Fisher was different because Nevins was a close friend of the actress and writer.
Nevins first became captivated by Fisher while sitting with an audience to watch her one-woman show “Wishful Drinking” in 2009. She went to Fisher so HBO Documentary Films could tape a version for the channel. That led to a friendship between the two until Fisher’s sudden death.
“It was instant love,” Nevins recently told Business Insider over the phone while getting emotional. “I so admired her honesty and her intelligence. I mean there was nothing about her that was phony.”
Nevins recalls that Fisher was the same to everyone, whether they were going to stores together, having lunches, or Fisher was signing autographs at New York Comic-Con.
“Carrie was no different with those people on that line than she was with celebrities,” Nevins said. “She was one person fighting to be alive, fighting to have fun, fighting to survive mental illness.”
Then two years ago Nevins got a call from Fisher Stevens with the idea of doing a documentary about the lives of both Carrie Fisher and her mother Debbie Reynolds, an icon in her own right going back to her starring role in the 1952 musical “Singin’ in the Rain.”
“Bright Lights” follows the two through their everyday lives, which often started with Carrie walking the path to her mother’s house, as the two lived beside one another in separate houses on the same plot of land they called “the compound.” When the two aren’t having back-and-forth repartee similar to the leads from the landmark Maysles brothers’ documentary “Grey Gardens,” they are on the road giving the fans what they want. For Reynolds, at 83, it’s doing a lounge act in a casino in Connecticut while Fisher goes to a comic convention or is in London shooting “The Force Awakens.”
“I was always interested in that house. I was always bewitched by the relationship, but it didn’t occur to me that it would be something to make a documentary about,” said Nevins, who gave complete credit to Stevens and Alexis Bloom for convincing her it could be a movie.
“Bright Lights” has been completed for a while and played at the Cannes and New York Film Festivals in 2016. It was scheduled to premiere on HBO May 8 (Mother’s Day) and even when Nevins got word of Fisher’s death she was wasn’t going to change the airdate.
“When I found out she died, I almost couldn’t speak because I thought she would be ok,” Nevins said. “I didn’t realistically face what could happen and we weren’t given information that she wasn’t responding. If she’s breathing she’ll come back.”
Nevins made the decision to keep the Mother’s Day airdate as the film would now be for Reynolds to remember her daughter. But then when Reynolds died, Nevis felt it had to air immediately.
“It seemed like a piece of memorabilia that needed to be shared with the public,” she said. “This movie was them, unadulterated, this was the way they were. From Debbie not wanting anyone to come in because she didn’t feel well, Carrie losing weight and drinking Coca-Cola — that was the life as I had seen it and it seemed like it was time to share it because it couldn’t be given to someone like Debbie, but it could be given to the audience.”
The passing of Debbie Reynolds is another step away from the old Hollywood royalty that was born and bred within the studio system. But Nevins said she could never see an end in sight for Fisher and that’s what’s most painful about her death.
“Carrie still had a million books, a million shows, a million wisecracks,” Nevins said. “There were many, many more songs that Carrie had to sing, and I don’t mean just music. I think she still had a lot of things to talk about. She wasn’t the end of anything — she ended too soon.”
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