“Whether it's our day-to-day life, whether it's art… I think the action can only really be meaningful if there's intention to it.”
Morgan Cooper remembers the exact date that his life changed forever: Friday, November 26, 2010. An 18-year-old Cooper had just bought his first camera at a Best Buy in his hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. This moment is one of the stories the producer, director, filmmaker, and Bel-Air creator retells most when asked how “it” all began.
“I remember taking [the camera] out of the box,” Cooper, now 30, tells Teen Vogue via Zoom, looking down at his hands that have since held the bodies of countless cameras. “The first time I ever racked focus, I caught the bug. I said, ‘This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.’ I became obsessed.”
From the outside looking in, Cooper’s story could be considered somewhat of an overnight success. He unwrapped that Canon T2i, shot a viral four-minute short film a few years later that spun The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s comedic plot into a drama, and scored that coveted Will Smith cosign. But that narrative omits the most interesting parts of Cooper’s career adventure, and his character. Over the past decade, the Teen Vogue New Hollywood inductee’s insatiable imagination drove him to put in “the 10,000 hours,” referring to Malcolm Gladwell’s theory of mastering an expertise.
“In every frame and every second of [the Bel-Air short film] is 10 years of craft to execute the vision,” says Cooper. “In every single frame is hours and hours and hours and hours and hours alone, back when I was 19 years old, in my 500-square-foot apartment in South Kansas City, practicing lighting. Just to get better. [People] see the end result, but they don’t see the lab work. They don’t see the 10,000 hours.”
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As a lifelong Fresh Prince fan, Cooper believed he had an impactful new perspective to offer by reimagining the groundbreaking '90s sitcom as a drama. In 2019, Cooper and his team decided to take a grassroots approach to filmmaking. “I started investing my own money into the spec projects that I was doing,” Cooper explains. “And one of them was Bel-Air.” They spent no money on marketing or publicity, and chose to upload the short film to YouTube to prioritize accessibility. “I didn't want there to be a barrier of entry to watch the short,” says Cooper. “I wanted people to be able to experience it no matter where they are, because I made this for the people.”
And the people flocked to it. According to Cooper, Will and Jada Pinkett Smith’s production company, Westbrook Inc., reached out to him within 12 hours of the short’s release. Over the next three weeks, Cooper met Will, traveled with him, and joined forces on developing Cooper’s project into what is now the Peacock one-hour drama Bel-Air.
Cooper’s long-awaited breakthrough in the industry was more of a skyrocket, but years of imagining that very trajectory helped him avoid being overpowered by the immensity of the experience. The absolute of his dream is a promise he’s kept to himself after all these years. “I decided early on this is what I'm doing,” says Cooper. “There is no backup plan. This is it. All in. That’s the only way you can do it. You can't be half in, half out. You got to be with it all the way…. I've never broken that promise.”
Cooper invested immeasurable time being a student of the game; the two-time Tribeca Film Festival winner never went to college, or a traditional film school. He didn’t grow up around filmmakers, or have anyone in his community to look to for filmmaking guidance. He chose immersion.
For a few hundred bucks, the self-taught cinematographer started out shooting music videos for rappers from around the way, learning how to shoot, direct, and edit, all in real time. He went on to shoot commercials, then pivoted to writing and directing his own projects.
“[I] learned a lot through a lot of crazy situations, a lot of crazy stories of those days,” Cooper reflects. Offhand, he mentions high-pressure instances in which his bank account read two digits and the rent was due, and times where he was scammed or nearly robbed. “But I learned how to lead a set and work through very, very stressful situations, and be resourceful and creative when you don't have a lot at all.”
As Cooper grew up, the homespun, authentic essence of rap, jazz, and Black film began to influence him more as an artist. The Kansas City native came to understand storytelling as more than just his purpose, but a right. “I wanted to go deeper with it in terms of the types of stories I wanted to tell,” he says. “Who’s going to tell my cousin’s story? Who’s going to tell the story of people in my city if I don’t do it, of [the] people in my community?”
Now, Cooper wants to tell more stories of Kansas City. But even more, he wants to inspire young K.C. natives to tell their own stories. As a writer, director, and cinematographer, Cooper flirts with the title of auteur. But one thing’s for sure: He’s already earned the title of hometown hero.
“To be able to be that voice, particularly for young Black boys and girls [in Kansas City], who can look at me and say, ‘Wow, Morgan did it, and he didn't go to film school,’” says Cooper. “'He bought a camera and told stories and really created his future….' My hope is that people in my city of all ages can see that and follow their dreams and chase their dreams with everything they have.”
Cooper is big on intention. Speaking about his work, he is thoughtful, pensive, and careful with his words — enough to even seem cautious. When asked whether he values intention over action, he leans forward to answer, fully engaged. “I think intention is absolutely everything. There has to be intention,” he says with certainty. “There has to be perspective, or else why are we... It's a hollow act. Whether it's our day-to-day life, whether it's art… I think the action can only really be meaningful if there's intention to it. You know what I mean?”
And just in case you don’t, he elaborates: “People act all the time without intention. It usually isn't meaningful or additive to people's lives," says Cooper. "But if it's intentional, we can really change people's lives through this art. Even in Bel-Air, with approaching the sound, with approaching wardrobe — every single thing was about intention and giving it a handmade quality. If you're going to do it, do it right.”
This commitment to intention seemingly colors the way Cooper interacts with the world, and people. He interrupts this interview about an hour in to say thanks and offer praise. He genuinely emphasizes his words in a way that makes you feel seen — no, valued — by a virtual stranger. It’s clear in how Cooper speaks that the stories from his Bel-Air cast are true: Cooper is a decanter of trust and respect, and for those that know him on an intimate level, like Bel-Air stars Jabari Banks and Olly Sholotan, his pour is never ending.
“Every moment that I spend with him, I'm learning something, whether it's on camera or off camera, or about life in general. I just love having conversations with him,” says Banks, who plays Will on the show. “He always says ‘iron sharpens iron.’”
Sholotan, Bel-Air’s new Carlton, recounts what it was like preparing for his first few scenes, when he was racked with nerves. “Morgan said to me, ‘Breathe it all in and take it all in. You deserve this, you are meant to be here,’” says Sholotan. “I think as artists, imposter syndrome is so prevalent, it's almost a rite of passage. And having someone else tell you, ‘Hey, you’re supposed to be here…' is permission to just take it day by day.”
Cooper is aware that his patience and ability to share authorship with his cast stands out on set, so much that he’s earned a reputation as an “actor-friendly director.” Says Cooper, “So often actors are treated as pawns in this bigger game. These are human beings who are trusting us to capture them in their humanity in a way that is honest and true…. So right away, it’s important for me to set the tone, because it’s in my heart. It's who I am to let Jabari [and the rest of the cast] know right off the bat: ‘I care about you and I want you to be successful. Our success goes hand in hand. More than anything, I care about you on a human level.’”
For years, Cooper worked right next to the threshold of where he stands today, so close to success as the one “who got next.” Cooper’s advice for the hungry, spirited folks waiting in the wings? “Own it,” he says. “Don't wait for permission. Don't look back. Own it. Take your space, take your place…. It doesn't matter how young you are, or [if] you got all these people telling you, ‘Oh, you've got to be in the business for 30 years to do this.’ No, f*** all that. Get it today. If you got the goods and you've put the work in and you've got the idea, don't let anything stop you. It's our time.”
With Bel-Air quickly taking reign as Peacock’s most-streamed original series, all eyes are expectantly on Cooper. He’s overcome the challenge of rebooting one of the most beloved sitcoms ever made, but must now face the pressure of building a lasting career. To Cooper, though, pressure is synonymous with blessings — therefore, he couldn’t be more thrilled.
“Here's the thing: I love pressure,” Morgan Cooper says with a grin. “To me, it's exciting. It's invigorating. I thrive in high-pressure situations…. I've got five movies I want to make and eight shows I want to make. I want all the pressure. Pressure is being 19 years old and you can't make your rent and the only thing that's going to help you make your rent is [a] camera.” He’s seen pressure. Now, he welcomes it.
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