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Meet the Filmmakers: Susan Morgan Cooper--'An Unlikely Weapon'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Susan Morgan Cooper, director/producer of An Unlikely Weapon.

Synopsis: Eddie Adams photographed 13 wars, six American Presidents and every major film star of the last 50 years. History would be changed through his lens. But the photo that made Eddie famous would haunt him his entire life. In 1968, he photographed a Saigon police chief, General Nygoc Loan, shooting a Vietcong guerilla point blank. The photo brought Eddie fame and a Pulitzer Prize, but he was haunted by the man he had vilified. He would say, "Two lives were destroyed that day-the victim and the general." Others would say three lives were destroyed.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Susan Morgan Cooper: During the Balkan War I met a 16-year-old Croatian girl named Mirjana. After her Mom had died, she'd been thrown on a plane to live with distant relatives in California. She was completly lost. She was bulimic and just wanted to end her life. I felt that if she shared her story with me, it would help her survive. We travelled back to Croatia together while the war was still going on. It was a catharsis for her and she slowly began to grieve. In the two years it took to make the movie, Mirjana healed. I went to her graduation from Cal State LA one month ago. She is now adjusted to the American life and is very happy.

Documentaries can positively change the lives of their subjects and their filmmakers. They also expand your family. Mirijana is like a daughther to me. Eddie's and my family are very close.

IDA: What inspired you to make An Unlikely Weapon?

SMC: I was sitting at home alone on a Saturday night like the major loser I am. My phone rang. It was my friend Armando, who had a restaurant down the hill in Hollywood. In a thick Italian accent he said, "Suzanna, there's a woman ere; she wanna make a documentary." The woman was Eddie Adams' sister-in-law, Cindy Lou Adkins.

I knew that Eddie Adams was the photographer who had taken the iconic photo, The Saigon Execution. Ironically, in a dramatic short I made some years ago about a photojournalist in Vietnam called Stringers, I used Eddie's photographs.

I flew to New York to meet with Eddie. At his studio, The Bathouse, we talked endlessly. He shared with me a 15-minute documentary he'd made called Mickey. It was a series of still photographs about a 10-year-old boy suffering from a rare, rapidly aging disease called progeria. Eddie and I cried together over the courage of this small boy, and our bond was forged forever.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

SMC: I had given my commitment to Eddie and his family that I would make the documentary. I went off to Italy for three months to work on Shadows in the Sun with Harvey Keitel. During this time, Eddie contracted Lou Gehrig's disease. By the time I returned to the states he was gravely ill and died soon after. I was devastated. I didn't know how I could possibly do the man justice. With my subject gone, how could I ever capture the larger-than-life essence that was Eddie Adams? What I did know was that I must honor my commitment to him.

A lesser problem was that the only footage I had on Eddie was shot by non-professionals-home movies, etc., with unworkable sound. At this period I felt a sense of hopelessness.

I found an interview that Eddie had given Hal Buell of The Associated Press. Hal could not find the original tape so I had to work with low-res VHS tape...but it was a start. Next I called an old friend, Jeff Wexler, the Academy Award-winning sound man, and asked if he could come and see my rough cut for the sound. Bless him, he came and said he would find a good sound editor for me. The man he found, Mark Stoekinger, turned out to be my knight in shining armor. He worked so hard on this film, for no money-far beyond the call of duty. He literally saved my life.

Isaac Hagy, my cinematographer and editor, was terrific. Even though he had just graduated from USC film school, he was smart and talented. We shared similar sensibilities about film, and it was fortunate that he was knowledgeable about photography.

The theme of the movie was built around the power of a photograph. In Eddie Adams' words, "Pictures are a lot more important than a lot of people think. They say [it's] the written word--Bullshit. It's the picture that does it." What fascinated me, too, was that the very photograph that defined Eddie Adams was the photo that haunted him his entire life. Eddie felt in taking that photograph he had vilified a decent man.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

SMC: Was it John Lennon who said, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans"? I try not to get bogged down by a firm plan. I stay open and flexible to discovery. For me, making a documentary is like panning for gold. Each day you pick up handfuls of mud and once in a while, if you're lucky, you find a small speck of gold and then another, and slowly, you begin to put those glimmering pieces together. My vision didn't change-only the pieces of gold that supported it.

IDA: As you've screened An Unlikely Weapon-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

SMC: In screenings at first when people would compliment me, I'd ask, "Are you a photographer? Do you study photography?" When they said, "No," I was happy and surprised. I began to feel that I'd made a movie about a man anyone could identify with.

Audiences fall in love with Eddie and want to know more about his work. They identify with his struggles, and I've even sensed a bit of national pride about him. Many people come up to me in tears. I don't think it's anything I did, or didn't do. It's Eddie's character shining through.

When Eddie's friends tell me Eddie would have loved the movie, I feel proud. When Eddie's teenage son August one day came up to me and said very simply, "Thank you, Susan, for making the movie," my heart was full.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

SMC: I'm inspired by the Maysles Brothers and Michael Apted, and I would have to include Eddie Adams' short Mickey.

An Unlikely Weapon will be screening at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Arclight Theater in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

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To view the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles, visit

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks, visit