Bel-Air is a content creator’s dream project. In 2019, filmmaker Morgan Cooper released a dark and dramatic trailer that reimagined The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s story. The video made social media waves, quickly racking up viral numbers in views with people declaring that they’d love to see it. One of those people was none other than Will Smith, the real Fresh Prince who is now an entertainment king. Through a partnership with Smith and his Westbrook Studios, Cooper’s trailer went from being a powerful vision to a fully realized television show with Cooper as the executive producer. On the heels of Bel-Air’s release, we spoke to Morgan Cooper and Bel-Air showrunners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson about aligning their ideas, “a-ha” moments, and what this show will bring to TV.
Bel-Air is one of many shows that are rebooting, reviving, or, as Morgan Cooper describes his vision, reimagining an existing property. It is easy to toss them all into one category but he believes this series brings something truly fresh to the table because his idea was birthed completely different than most network shows.
“What I really wanted to do through my vision is to reimagine the spirit of these characters and ground them in modern day life,” Cooper tells Nerdist. “And I think our take is interesting because we tap into very specific and niche cultural components that give the show a deep layer of authenticity. This project was birthed from a very honest place. It wasn’t birthed in some corporate boardroom. It was birthed in my car driving down 71 highway in my hometown of Kansas City. And I think people will feel that grassroots component of it.”
One of the more difficult aspects of having an idea come to fruition in such a major way (the series is already greenlit for two seasons at Peacock) is a slew of opinions. A single person’s concept suddenly has hundreds of voices and opinions behind it. For Morgan Cooper, it was a balancing act of retaining his creative vision for Bel-Air but also understanding that some control would have to be relinquished. Yes, he is the executive producer but he also needed to come into agreement with a lot of people to make it come to life.
“First, having the short film that we released in 2019 as our North Star creatively was so helpful to get everyone on the same page with what we are making, the tone of the show, the feel and look of it,” Cooper affirms. “So that eliminated a ton of guesswork to get people inside my head because we had a very real and successful proof of concept. Also, the business of television is so incredibly collaborative. You’re working with Westbrook and Universal and the network and stakeholders and there are a lot of different opinions so you have to be able to relinquish some control and give others a chance to voice their opinions. I think that enriches the art. I’m so thankful that everyone involved really believed in my vision fundamentally.”
Two very important opinions were Bel-Air’s showrunners TJ Brady and Rasheed Newson. The duo has a working relationship that is longstanding but this is their first time taking the showrunner reins. Thankfully, Cooper’s overall vision gave them something dynamic and easy to align with. “Visually and musically, [Bel-Air] is almost the exact same vision that Morgan laid out in that trailer,” Brady confirms. “Knowing that it was our guiding light was a great advantage. And then creatively, it was taking what he did in that trailer for Will and peeling back the layers and doing that with every character.”
As smooth sailing as that sounds, there were indeed some challenges for Bel-Air’s showrunners in terms of expanding the trailer into a much larger project. “The challenge was there’s this very clear vision that’s almost cinematic, it is movie paced,” said Newson. “How are we going to do a television show where we’re going to have nine days to do it? How do you duplicate that cinematic look? That affected how long the scripts were and how we produced the show because we didn’t want to compromise the look and vision.”
TJ also admits that as first time showrunners, it was very stressful and they didn’t want to somehow ruin Bel-Air. Thankfully, they had their creative partnership and strong friendship bond to carry them through. Like true blue friends, they were able to pull a “divide and conquer” on many tasks, which is easier when you know how another person ticks and can anticipate their thoughts.
Yooooo feeling so much gratitude. It's hard to find the words, just thankful and very proud to present the official BEL-AIR trailer!!! Big S/O to this amazing cast and crew, can't WAIT for ya'll to see the show on Super Bowl Sunday (2/13) - only on @peacockTV! pic.twitter.com/u7zxTGDu6q— Morgan Cooper (@cooperfilms) January 11, 2022
Bel-Air also brought many lessons for its creator and showrunners alike. When asked about their first day versus the last day on set, they had plenty to say. Here’s a snippet of the things learned, challenges accepted, and wisdom acquired.
Rasheed Newson: “You spend a lot of time before you become a showrunner saying ‘Well, when I’m the showrunner, I’m gonna do it better. These clowns don’t know what they’re doing.’ And then you are a showrunner and become awfully sympathetic to all the people who were a boss before. Especially during this pandemic. There were a lot of things we wanted to achieve that just weren’t meant to be. And you’ve got to figure out how to make the best of what you can do here and now.
TJ Brady: “In the beginning, you say ‘This is what I want and we will fight to get it and oh my god if we don’t get, then it’s a disaster.’ Well, it was COVID. We’d lose locations and actors…things just wouldn’t happen. But when you’d take a breath and think about the larger reason you’re telling a story, there’s always a way to rewrite and communicate the same point…it’s about the big picture.”
Morgan Cooper: “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is always stay true to your creative spirit. That’s so important when there are 300 people involved in what you’re doing and there are so many different opinions. But you have to stick with your creative vision and trust your gut and don’t let it get lost in the sauce amidst all the chaos. Always stay grounded. I’m from Kansas City and we always keep our feet on the ground and stay locked into the art.”
It’s always exciting to see creatives get a chance to shine, whether it’s taking on a new role in the industry or watching their dreams come to fruition. Will may get to sit on the throne on television but he wouldn’t be there this time around with these brilliant minds calling the shots.