Meet the Filmmakers: Susan Morgan Cooper--'An Unlikely Weapon'
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
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.
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
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
called Stringers, I used Eddie's
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
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
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.
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?
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
What docs or docmakers have served as
inspirations for you?
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.
the DocuWeek schedule in New York City,
the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles,
purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Sherman Oaks, visit www.arclightcinemas.com.