It takes a lot of guts to be a wartime photographer. It takes almost as much guts to be an independent documentary filmmaker. So maybe it’s no accident that the great Eddie Adams and Susan Morgan Cooper found one another.
Through a series of happy accidents and, what Cooper describes as “a strong compulsion to get Eddie’s work out there,” Cooper’s award winning documentary, An Unlikely Weapon, is finally hitting the screens to get Eddie’s story out there.
Eddie Adams is the photojournalist whose singularly stunning shot, Saigon Execution, is credited as the definitive photograph of the Vietnam War. You know the pciture: it‘s the one showing Saigon Police Chief General Nygoc Loan shooting a Vietcong prisoner point blank in the head. Brutal, shocking, unforgettable.
But, as Cooper’s documentary shows, Adams’s legacy is far greater than that one photograph. ‘Eddie showed the world the plight of the war’s refugees with a series called The Boat of No Smiles and, in so doing, persuaded Congress to allow 250,000 Vietnamese refugees to enter the United States,” Cooper points out.
After swearing he’d never work for Parade Magazine, Eddie went on to shoot iconic covers and layouts for it, as well as for Time and Penthouse. His subjects ranged from Presidents to entertainers, from Mother Teresa to sexy sirens. When hailed by journalists and fellow photographers, Eddie, maybe not so jokingly grumbled, “They really piss me off, because they’re so fucking good.” His is a complicated legacy, one that’s too precious to lose or forget.
That’s what his sister-in-law, Cindy Lou Adkins thought. And so, one Saturday night, when Cooper was sitting at her home in Los Angeles, “like the major loser I am,“ she says, laughing, “the phone rang. It was a friend of mine who’s a restaurateur up the street. ‘Come over here,’ he said. ‘There’s a woman at the bar who thinks a movie should be made about her brother.’ I was intrigued, so I went to meet her–and then I was really intrigued.”
So, Cooper flew to meet the woman’s brother–yes, it’s Eddie–in New York and, while screening the short doc he’d been working on and downing a few beers, the documetarian and her subject bonded.
But Susan had a previous commitment and took off to Italy for a few months. When she returned, she learned Adams had just been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and that the devastating illness was progressing quickly. “I’d given my word about the film,’ she comments, “and that’s what I live by.
She began the search for archival footage immediately and other pieces of the puzzle. Her interviews with Adams’ war correspondent colleagues Peter Jennings and Gordon Parks were filmed months before both men died.
“But the real miracle was the unmarked tape I discovered,“ recalls Cooper. “It’s that grainy footage of Eddie, still healthy, walking the streets of New York City and talking about his life and work. Using that footage was a challenge. I had to play enormous tricks with it,“ she confesses, “to get the quality fine tuned. But I call that tape ‘Eddie from God’.“
Sadly, Adams passed away before the completed film began touring the festival circuit, winning several awards from juries and audiences alike.
Still, Cooper felt she never met the “right” distributor. Frustrated, she picked up the phone and called the Quad Cinema in New York. “After viewing a DVD of the film, they said yes, we’ll open your movie. Then, things took off–kind of like the chicken and the egg,” she says, laughing. “Vanity Fair and Parade said they’d do features on the film if it was going to open in other cities. So I said, well, heck, let me make it happen.“
And happen it has. An Unlikely Weapon is scheduled to debut in almost two dozen cities, with more on the horizon. A TV deal is in negotiations. So, too, are plans for DVD distribution.
But Cooper isn’t resting on her laurels: she’s already at work on her next piece: a feature film based on a documentary she made a few years back about Hispanic rollerbladers in Los Angeles. Cooper will send the screenplay, which is almost finished, to Javier Bardem, Benicio Del Toro and Antonio Banderas, to gauge their interest.
Although she is quick to name several men who helped in the process of getting Weapon this far, Susan admits one of the highlights of the whole four year saga has been the friendships she has made with a few really strong, good, female friends she has met along the way. “It’s been women like Cass Warner at Warner Brothers, film festival programmer Theresa Hayes and filmmaker Penny Peyser who’ve been so supportive. I love that I’ve found them through all of this. We can laugh and cry together. Believe me,“ she swears, “it really helps.“