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First off, Sam Firstenberg is one of my favorite directors. You’re not sure who that is? First, go to the Kickstarter page and watch the video and read about the new book. Then put money down for the book. Then come back here. Or read this first and go there. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, Sam rose to prominence during the ’80s as a director for Cannon, helming such classics action fare like American Ninja (1985), Revenge of the Ninja (1983), the sequel Ninja III: The Domination (1984), and the street dance movie, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984). However, his entire filmography is peppered with gems, so I decided that it was time to revisit some of them. And who better to discuss them than the director himself?
Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Sam to discuss his legendary career and future plans. Enjoy.
First off, I’m a huge fan of your body of work. A very eclectic mix of action, dance, violence, comedy, choreography and most under the watchful eyes of Golan and Globus themselves.
Thank you for being such a huge fan of the movies I directed. It is good to know that even some 30 years after they were made some viewers still find t
How did you get your start in film making? I remember seeing a feature film, I believe your first, called One More Chance, starring a young Kirstie Alley and the boxer Jake LaMotta’s nephew, John LaMotta. How was it getting to expand a student film into the film it became?
In the fall of 1979, I was working towards a Master’s degree in Film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Walking down the hall during a break between classes, I spotted a fellow film student dressed as he was, in typical Israeli garb – shorts and sandals. This was the beginning of my partnership with David Womark, which would lead to the student production of a full-length feature film, the first in the history of the film school. With school facilities, equipment and classmate crew available to us, and plenty of chutzpah and ingenuity, David and I convinced the faculty to let them expand my half hour master’s thesis into a full-length movie. Based on my own script, I recruited then-unknown actors Kirstie Alley (of Cheers), Johnny LaMotta (of Alf), and Michael Pataki.
Everyone volunteered their time and the project took off. Now we had to somehow find money for buy film and developing the negative. We took $15,000 in student loans, and deposited it in the bank as credit against the cost of processing the negative. As soon as the lab checked with the bank and gave us a line of credit, we withdrew the money for shooting costs and started depositing film in the lab. We figured out that if we didn’t pick up the negatives, we wouldn’t be billed. Using this ploy, we shot without looking at the dailies, depositing miles of film, until one day a call came from the head of the lab’s warehouse – “Either you come pick up this film or I’m throwing it out!” We went down to the lab where we found seventy cans of film and an angry manager who presented us with a bill for $30,000 and a demand for the money. After he calmed down a bit, we explained the situation to him, we convinced him that the only way we could pay the bill was for him to release the workprint to us so we could edit it and find a producer to bail us out. I think at some level he must have liked our chutzpah – at any rate, he agreed!
At this point, after one year of shooting weekends, and living on sandwiches and coffee, we had an unfinished film on our hands and no way to continue. I turned to Menahem Golan, an Israeli film producer who had just become the head of Cannon Films. Although I had only worked as an assistant for him, Golan was impressed with my energy and an ambitious drive, and seeing potential in what had been shot so far, agreed to finance the rest of the movie. It is a social drama about an ex-con just released from prison, trying to mend the broken relationship with his son whom he has not seen for six years.
With the financial burden lifted we set off to produce the remaining third of the movie and start editing. The operation moved from the university to the Cannon offices on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of old Hollywood. The production was upgraded from student film to semi-professional, with a budget, schedule, and more. We had money to rent needed police cars, pay for locations, feed the cast and crew, and even get a huge crane. A professional editor started cutting the material and after nearly two years it was shaping up to look like a movie. There was one more hurdle we had to overcome before reaching the end, and it caught us by surprise. Upon viewing the first rough cut of One More Chance Golan and Globus lost faith in our movie and decided to pull the plug which meant no more salary for the editor and her assistant, and no more rented editing machine. I was not ready to give up at that point when we were so close to finishing.
After some begging, it was agreed that we could keep the office and editing machine if the editor would agree to stay on and reedit the movie without pay, which she did. A few weeks later, after reshaping the film at a new screening, Golan saw a potential in the new cut. We were sent to the MGM lot in Culver City to prepare the sound while a young composer, looking for his break, wrote and recorded the score and three songs. The film was mixed and color corrected at the MGM studio, and in its film lab it was blown up from 16mm to 35mm. Everything was falling into place; after all the hopes and hardships we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was finally privileged to view the final print. This in itself was a happy ending and quite an achievement for a novice young director, and to top it off, I was working in a legitimate Hollywood major studio lot, MGM.
In the meantime, the Cannon publicity department got working on the artwork and publicity materials. The people involved believed that they had a sleeper in their hands and that is how they conceived and presented it. It was 1981, and the heads of Cannon decided to premier the movie at the Cannes Film Festival. They agreed to take the producer and me with them to help promote it in France. I found myself in Cannes that year doing screenings and interviews and then invited to bring the movie to the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The most exciting festival I attended was the Chicago International Film Festival, where One More Chance won the silver plaque.
Cannon sold it for distribution to ten countries around the world but in the US it never opened theatrically and home video was not a player at that time. So, since we did not win any critical acclaim, the movie quietly slipped into oblivion and did not become the sleeper as predicted. It would take some time before Kirstie Alley would become a famous star and before I established a reputation as an action director. Thus came the end of the first chapter of my directorial career. At that point, I did not even imagine the direction the career would take me.
How was it working with the cousins Golan and Globus at Cannon Films? They have a reputation but also seem to give chances to plenty of directors and would continue to work with them if they shot at the budget they were given. How did you meet them initially?
I met Menahem Golan when I was 22 years old and a film student at Columbia College in Los Angeles it was 1972. By then Golan was the most famous and most prominent filmmaker in Israel, a household name. Like every other Israeli, I had heard his name and saw his Hebrew-speaking movies, but I had never met him before. He had just arrived in Hollywood with his partner and cousin Yoram Globus, to produce and direct his first American movie, “Lepke” with Tony Curtis under the banner of AmeriEuro Pictures. At a New Years Eve party I suddenly found myself in the room with him, and during the party, I learned that he was about to embark on that production. I expressed my desire to be part of it, or more exactly, just to be around. Learning that I was willing to work even without a salary, I was invited to join the production the next day. For the next few years, I worked for Golan and Globus off and on as general “go for” office runner, second assistant director, and finally in my first AD job. AmeriEuro Pictures did not last long and they moved back to Israel, so did I. I worked as an assistant director on many of their films, even one that Menahem Golan directed (Diamonds with Robert Shaw). The way they worked was that Yoram Globus was in charge of finances, and had little input on the creative side; Menahem Golan was the creative producer, involved in all the stages of making the movies. His main interest was in the script and in the editing. During the shooting, I was basically left alone. I would say that in this sense, it was very easy to work with them, as long as we did not go over budget or exceed the schedule – which I never did. I have proven myself and they trusted me so they left me alone and overall we had a very good working relationship.
You went right out there and had an insane 4-year tear with some amazing films, the first of which was the ‘sequel’ of sorts to Enter The Ninja, called Revenge of the Ninja. This time with Sho Kosugi as the star as opposed to Franco Nero. How was it going right into an action film, especially a ninja film? And then working with a top tier talent in Sho Kosugi?
Although I was familiar with Japanese samurai movies (I love the films of Akira Kurosawa,) I knew very little of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre and nothing about Ninjitsu. I started to work on the script and at the same time, Sho Kosugi introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu. The script was full of Ninja weapons and every Ninja fighting trick, method, custom, ceremony, and accessories, but my first decision right away was not to follow in the steps of the Hong Kong flicks, but rather to approach the movie as a straight Hollywood action movie with a martial arts slant, and the Ninjitsu mysticism the icing on the cake. I felt that western moviegoers have a hard time following the Eastern way of telling a story and its movie style. The Hollywood formula of action was the right way to pursue such a subject making it ready for a western audience to digest. I must give credit to Sho Kosugi for going along with it; he understood we weren’t making a Bruce Lee style film and he saw the commercial potential in the fusion.
You followed that up with the, excuse my language, batshit insane sequel Ninja III: The Domination, which is a cult film staple among genre fans. How was it working with a film so far removed from the simpler, so to speak, ninja film and taking it to Exorcist levels of insanity?
After the release of Revenge of the Ninja Menahem Golan head of Canon Film wanted to produce a third sequel to the Ninja franchise but this time with a female heroin at the lead. I just saw the movie “Poltergeist” and since we knew that women did not receive Ninjitsu training I come up with the idea that the main character the actress Lucinda Dickey will be possessed by the spirit of a dead Ninja and this possession will propel the plot of the movie. Since we already dealt with that general we throw in also some elements from the movie The Exorcist that I saw years earlier and impressed me a lot. All in all it turned out that I had a lot of fun trying my hand in directing all those different film genres.
Was it hard to balance the supernatural element with the tried and true ninja action element?
Not at all while filming every day the director deals with a different scene, so that is what I concentrate in. Only in the editing stage I have to deal with mixing and balancing the different elements of the movie, and even then it is not hard if you know what you are doing and I do.
And that was the first time you got to work with Lucinda Dickey. Her career was short and sweet, but she had a definite presence on screen. How was it working with her?
Lucinda came into the field of movie making with enthusiasm and determination to succeed so on the set she was a disciplined hard working actress. She mastered the action moves and as much as possible performed it herself so it was demanding on her part but she was a trooper and a excellent collaborator.
Speaking of Lucinda Dickey, you then made the breakdancing sequel to the mega hit Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. How was it working with so many talented dancers? You got to work with two of the best in the scene, Adolfo ‘Shabba-Doo’ Quinones and Michael ‘Boogaloo Shrimp’ Chambers. How was it working with them in particular?
When it came to the dancing part there was very little I had to do, they were the expert after all, and together with the movie choreographer we had a winning team. All I had to do is direct them regarding the cameras requirements, and then work with the cinematographer and camera operators regarding the way I wanted them to film it. When it came to the dramatic scene, after we went over them, and discussed the content they just toke my direction and executed them.
I’ve never understood the reason why, but did you hear about people using the title ‘Electric Boogaloo’ to describe a bad sequel? It’s always confused me, because Breakin’ 2 is a fantastic sequel, especially for a dance film.
I don’t know why either but in 2014 Gratland blog published a very good article exploring this subject “How Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo Became a Movie and Then a Meme”
So after those three rather different and eclectic films, you directed the first in a widely popular Cannon series, American Ninja, starring the fantastic Michael Dudikoff and Steve James. How was it working with Dudikoff, and did you see the star power he was capable of that Golan and Globus also saw in him?
Your question should be reversed “Did Golan and Globus see the potential star power that Michael Dudikoff was capable of that you saw first?” When I was casting American Ninja, we saw about 2000 kids, actors, martial artists, and we narrowed them down to 200. In the next step, we brought them to a studio to see if they could move, if they look good on screen, if they were martial artists. The story was already written with this James Dean type of character, someone who doesn’t talk a lot, someone who has a chip on the shoulder, So we read them one after the other and then in walked Michael Dudikoff. I must confess that the minute I saw and talked to him I had this gut feeling that he is the one to play the American Ninja. I actually had to fight for him since Menahem refused to hire him once he learned that Michael’s agent was asking that his salary would be more than the minimum pay. Once the movie came out, and was very successful, Cannon decided he has this look, and they signed him to a long-term contract. I made two more movies with him before he went on and made many more movies. Our working relationship was excellent and we maintain contact until today.
It’s crazy to think that he was almost Spider-man in the Cannon version of the film, but you worked with Dudikoff a total of 3 times. Would you have worked with him again? Because the three he did with you, to me at least, are his best films.
I did work with Dudikoff one more time outside Cannon in 2002 on the movie Quicksand.
Steve James is another favorite of mine. How was it working with who I’ve heard was one of the nicest guys around? I know you captured it on screen, but it always seemed he and Dudikoff just got along so well, becoming friends through the films they did together.
Yes Steve was a real gentleman and pleasure to work with. And yes he and Michael became good friends on and off screen, we all did.
Going back to the Dudikoff/James connection, you next did one of my favorite films growing up, Avenging Force, which was originally supposed to be a Chuck Norris feature. Were you attached when it was supposed to be with him, or did you suggest Dudikoff for the role? I think the film works amazingly well with Dudikoff as the lead.
After Chuck Norris rejected the project the script was given to me. I was not told and had no knowledge about that rejection, and was not involved in it then. Menahem Golan asked my opinion to the idea that Michael and Steve will star in it and my answer to him was that it would be perfect for them. Only then I was asked to direct it.
The film is darker than most action films of the time, with a mean streak, especially with some stuff that happens to James’ family in the film. How was it working those elements into the film?
Everything that is in Avenging Force comes from the original script by James Booth; we did not change one word in it. I embraced the script as is, and was adamant to stay loyal it its spirit. All I had to do is interpret the darker elements correctly, which I did.
And working with the one and only John P. Ryan as one of the villainous hunters, Prof. Elliott Glastenbury. How was it working with that powerhouse of an actor?
It was a privilege and professional pleasure. I was awed with his performance especially since in everyday life he was not villainous at all but rather a sweetheart of a man
You returned to the world of the American Ninja with the sequel, which I believe you topped with the action and the friendship between Dudikoff and James. How was it re-entering that world again?
For me and, I might say for us, returning to the American Ninja franchise was actually a joyous occasion, a happy reunion of a sort. By then Michael, Steve, and myself were a cycle of friends just regrouping to keep creating. It was fun.
Was it easier to just get back into that saddle as opposed to a brand new story/film?
You followed that up with the Steve James starrer Riverbend, which I believe is an underrated action drama film, dealing with racism. How was it mixing that up with an action film, which must not be an easy task for anyone.
Riverbend was a hybrid of a movie, in the one hand it is a serious comment on racism in the American South in the 60s. In the other hand it is a dramatic fantasy within social reality, and as an added element there is also some limited action. For me directing is an easy task any way you look at it the only difference between the movies is that they pose a variety of challenges and questions to resolve.
You returned to Israel to make the film The Day We Met? How was it stepping away from the action and violence with a film that was less crazy looking on the outside?
Stepping away from action was a welcomed relief but The Day We Met was not less crazy. It is a sentimental comedy with some very funny and wild scene and toward the end of it there is even a dramatic chase. In many ways it was not unlike the movie Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo. Invited to direct in Israel was important to me, it meant reuniting with many local actors and crew members from my days as assistant director in the Israeli film industry.
You then directed the sequel to the popular Delta Force movies, Delta Force 3: The Killing Game, with a Norris in it, Mike Norris and a Cassavetes, Nick Cassavetes. How was it working with the both of them?
I was launched into directing Delta Force 3 in the first day of filming, replacing another director, and without any preparation so the first few days were a little bit awkward. I knew Mike Nurris from before; he was one of the candidates to be the American Ninja so it was easy working with him. With Nick Cassavetes I felt that at first he was resentful to the idea of changing the director. A new director meant forming new relationship and may be that bothered himץ But as days passed we learned to adjust to each other. In any case the entire big cast was very cooperative and we did not have any delays or interruptions on the set. The results speak for themselves.
You worked with two of my favorite action stars, David Bradley and Mark Dacascos in the film American Samurai. Was this an attempt at a new franchise, just like American Ninja?
Yes it was, but not by me. Things like this are rather initiated by the production company. I was only hired to direct the movie which they hoped will spearhead a new franchise but shortly after the movie was completed the company was dissolved and all operation ceased.
I know this started a series of working with David Bradley as well. How was it working with him on films such as Cyborg Cop and it’s sequel Cyborg Cop II and Blood Warriors, How was working with him and I know I question it, but why didn’t he make it bigger as an action star? He had the look and the feel, just never sure why he never took off as much as others.
Working with David Bradley was fine we actually became friends off work as well. I don’t know the answer to your question, after we made the four movies together we kept in touch on and off and then he just vanished from Los Angeles and basically disappeared. All efforts to locate him by Mark Hartley the maker of the documentary “Electric Boogaloo’ and by Marco Siedelmann the author of the book Stories from the Trenches and they tried hard, yield no results. As far as I can tell no one knows where he is today.
You then did a TV movie called Operation Delta Force, in the same world as the films. Starring a great cast of character actors, such as Hal Holbrook, Ernie Hudson, Frank Zagarino and Rob Stewart, just to name a few. How was it working in the TV medium? Was there much difference, because I have my own podcast about Made For TV movies and that’s a question we ask a lot, if it is hampered by the TV formula or surpasses the format.
The truth is that the movie Operation Delta Force was produced as a regular theatrical movie in mind. As a film director, I did not do anything different then what I did in all of the other movies I directed.
In the Cannon Films documentary Electric Boogaloo, you are one of many featured people in the film who had a huge part of the success of the company. How was it to reminisce about Cannon recently? Especially with your new book, it seems like there’s a new appreciation of the company, especially from film fans.
Yes, you are right, there is a new appreciation to Cannon Films as a production company and I surely don’t know why it is happening. Yet it is nice to be a bit nostalgic and reminisces at times about our time in the Cannon entity. There are tons of documentaries, books, articles, and web activities surrounding the company which is hard to explain but it is a fact. I know that the Ninja movies I directed are part of the company’s success and its resurrection and all I can say is that I am happy that I have a part in it. After all they gave me the chance to do what I like and even paid me to do it, so in retrospect it was all good.
Are you working on anything new as of late? I think the world is in need of some Firstenberg magic again.
I am flattered to know that the world would like to see some Firstenberg Magic and thank you for the compliments but the answer is no. I am not involved at the moment in any cinematic project but you never know what the future might hold.
There are more stories, anecdotes, news, and photos on my website www.samfirstenberg.com on my Facebook page and in the photo album Tales from the Movies at: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10153449238562155.1073741828.602792154&type=1&l=fa29d1acb7