Bel-Air Director Morgan Cooper On How His Creative Vision Led To Will Smith’s Endorsement – Exclusive Interview
When Morgan Cooper’s fan-made trailer for “Bel-Air” hit YouTube in 2019, the dramatic modern-day re-telling of “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” quickly went viral. In less than four minutes, the trailer vividly reimagined the sitcom’s familiar story and viewers responded, including one especially important viewer: the Fresh Prince himself, Will Smith. The original star of the sitcom saw the creative potential in Cooper’s vision, and shortly afterward the pair began the process of developing Cooper’s concept into an hour-long series, which was soon picked up by Peacock for two seasons.
It’s been a remarkable journey for Cooper, who has worked as a producer, director, writer, and cinematographer. He brought all that experience to “Bel-Air,” creating a grounded tone and immersive visual style that sets the new show apart from the sitcom, even as it organically incorporates knowing winks to the original series. As a result, “Bel-Air” arrives as a reboot that nods to the past but is very much addressing the present.
In an exclusive interview with Looper, Cooper explained how he came up with the idea for “Bel-Air,” shared the story of how Will Smith got involved, and discussed why he set the show in 2022 instead of in the 1990s, when the original sitcom took place.
Following through on a creative vision
It’s an amazing trajectory you’ve been on with this show. It came into the world as a YouTube short film seemingly out of nowhere. Where did the inspiration for the idea come from for you?
Man, I was driving down 71 highway in my hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, and the entire vision hit me at once. Honestly, I’m not sure where it came from. I grew up watching “The Fresh Prince.” It’s always been something that was a part of my life, my family’s life, my friends — everybody I roll with, we love “The Fresh Prince.” The vision hit me at once and said, “What if we grounded these characters that we know and love from the sitcom in modern day life in America? What would that look like?”
The groundwork and the framework of that original story from the sitcom lends itself so well to a drama. It was a crazy creative idea, and I always say, “What happens if you actually listen to that idea and you follow through with it?” That’s what I decided to do, and several years later, we’re six days out from releasing our show to the world. I’m very, very thankful for everything that’s happened in the process. I’m full of gratitude.
Collaborating with Will Smith
Will Smith picked up on the YouTube short early on and wanted to collaborate. What was the collaboration that led from the YouTube short into the series?
Will’s company, Westbrook, reached out under 24 hours from the time I released the short film. I was in Calabasas the next day and I met Will’s manager and I’m FaceTiming Will. Will was down in Miami filming “Bad Boys 3.” He was on FaceTime, he still had prosthetics on, from a fight scene, and he’s like, “Yo, ‘Bel Air’ [is] crazy. What do you want to do with it?” I gave him my quick pitch of the vision for the show and he was so excited about the vision.
I go down to Miami a few weeks later and we start discussing what this thing would look like and jumpstart the development process for the show. At the end of the trip, we shook hands and decided to get into business together and bring this thing to life through this show. It’s been an incredible journey, and Will is the best guy and so supportive of my vision, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.
Nodding to the sitcom
One of the things that we saw in the short and then carried over into the full show is there are lines from the pilot that are from the theme song of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air.” Why was that important for you to include?
I’m not sure if I would necessarily call it, at least from my perspective, “important,” but it was … fun. You know what I mean? It’s fun to have those nods to fans of the OG sitcom. Listen, I’m a huge fan of “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” we all are, this entire cast and crew, we love that show. From a personal perspective, I can really speak to how much that show has had an impact on me and my upbringing. That was a show that raised me, you know what I mean? It was so iconic, and to throw those fun nods in every now and then, whenever it’s organic, you know what I mean, was always a lot of fun. Hopefully, it’s fun for fans of the original series.
2022 vs. the '90s
Was there ever a discussion of putting the new show in the ’90s when the original show took place?
Nobody’s ever asked me that … Really cool question. I’ll be honest with you, when the vision hit me, it was always set in modern-day life, but there was a part of me later on that was always like, “What if I grounded it, but it was in the ’90s?” Honestly, I don’t think it would’ve had the same type of flavor and energy that the vision that hit me really called for, ultimately. It’s all about creating from an honest place and the vision hit me as something that was a modern drama, you know what I mean? Something that people today can relate to, and we have so many pressing things in the world, socially and economically, that I felt like this was a show that could allow us to speak to those things in a way that’s super fun, super entertaining and following Will’s journey as a fish out of water in this new world.
New episodes of Bel-Air are available on Thursdays on Peacock.
This interview was edited for clarity.