In the fall of 1979,
Sam Firstenberg 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, he spotted a fellow film student dressed
as he was, in typical Israeli garb - shorts and sandals. This was the beginning of a 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.
facilities, equipment and classmate crew available to them, and plenty of chutzpah and ingenuity, Sam and David convinced
the faculty to let them expand Firstenberg’s half hour master's thesis into a full-length movie. Based on his own script,
Firstenberg recruited then-unknown actors Kirstie Alley ("Cheers"), Johnny LaMotta (of "Alf"), and Michael Pataki. Catching
his contagious enthusiasm, everyone volunteered their time and the project took off.
and David had to somehow find money for developing the negative. They proceeded by taking $15,000 in student loans, which
they deposited in the bank as credit against the cost of processing the negative. As soon as the lab checked with the bank
and gave them a line of credit, the two withdrew the money for shooting costs, and started depositing film in the lab. They
figured out that if they didn't pick up the negatives, they wouldn't be billed. Using this ploy, they shot without looking
at 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!" They went down to the lab where they found seventy cans of film and an angry manager
who presented them with a bill for $30,000 and a demand for the money. "After he calmed down a bit, we explained the situation
to him," recalls Sam with a chuckle. "We convinced him that the only way we could pay the bill was for him to release the
work-print 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!"
this point, after one year of shooting weekends, and living on sandwiches and coffee, the duo had an unfinished film on their
hands and no way to continue. Sam turned to Menahem Golan, an Israeli film producer who had just become the head of Cannon
Films. Although Sam had only worked as an assistant for him, Golan was impressed with Sam's indefatigable energy and ambitious
drive, and seeing potential in what had been shot so far, agreed to finance the rest of the movie.
The association between
Firstenberg and Golan had started six years earlier, in December of 1973. Firstenberg, then a 23 year old film student at
Los Angeles’ Columbia College, met Golan at a New Year's Eve party. Golan was
about to direct “Lepke” with Tony Curtis, and Sam asked to
work with him. "He asked me what I wanted to do. I said 'Anything, just to be on the set and learn.' Since I was willing to
work for free, Golan hired me." Sam started from the bottom, driving, serving coffee, cleaning... and thrilled to be on a
real movie set. The director of photography on "Lepke" was Andrew Davis, (who has since become a director of such films as
"Fugitive" and "Under Siege") who encouraged young Firstenberg to move up to a position of assistant director as a step towards
was pleased with Firstenberg's enthusiasm and dedication, and kept him on to work on future productions and office chores.
Working on films and studying at the same time, Sam earned his Bachelor's degree in 1975. He continued to work, now as an
assistant director, in 15 pictures over five years.
mind set on becoming a director, working as an assistant director was not enough. In his spare time and with limited funds,
Firstenberg made short films, engaging the help of volunteer fellow workers, actors and crew. Sneaking in and out of editing
rooms to use the equipment during down hours for free, he completed six short films. One of them, “For the Sake of a
Dog," was invited to participate in Filmex (Los Angeles Film Exposition) in 1979.
But even arrival in
Los Angeles was an odyssey, a fulfillment of a dream. Sam was born in Poland in 1950. The same year, he emigrated with his parents and sister from war-ravaged Europe to Jerusalem, Israel. From an
early age, Sam became addicted to movies. His home in Jerusalem was next door to
a movie theater. Each Tuesday afternoon, from the age of five, he and his friends would go to the weekly double feature. Like
many youngsters around the world, he thrived on a steady diet of American movies: westerns, war pictures, and Tarzans. "Not
understanding English, and too young to read the Hebrew subtitles, I would sit for hours, mesmerized by the moving images
on the screen."
young age Sam also began to "create" movies to entertain his friends. Horrifying his mother, he would cut up books, stringing
together the pictures and rolling them up. He would then put the roll into a box with a cut out window, shine a flashlight
from behind, and manually pull the roll, revealing the pictures through the window in sequence. Sometimes he would plan a
special show in which his sister narrated the "film" based on a script Sam would concoct, and his father would accompany on
the violin. As he grew up he found a hobby in photography and by high school had turned his bedroom into a darkroom where
he would earn pocket money by developing pictures for his friends.
After serving three
years in the Israeli army, Sam came to the US in 1971, began
to study and work in films, and culminated his studies with “One More Chance," the graduate film thesis which turned
into a feature-length film. "After Golan bailed us out," recalls Sam, "our film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981,
then went on to become the official US entry at the
prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and won a Silver Plaque at the 17th Annual Chicago Film Festival. This film became my
calling card, and launched my career."
By then Menahem Golan
and Yoram Globus had acquired Cannon Films. They hired Sam to direct “Revenge of the Ninja." Sam knew nothing about
martial arts, but learned quickly and the film, which starred Sho Kosugi, was shot in Salt Lake City,
Utah. Distributed by MGM to a great box-office bonanza, it set the stage for Sam's next directing
assignment, “Ninja III - The Domination," also starring Kosugi. The film was shot in Phoenix, Arizona and was also tremendously successful.
films directed by Sam were sequels to the highly successful “Enter the Ninja” directed by Golan. "Then came a
pleasant opportunity," Sam smiles. "Golan wanted me to direct ' Breakin 2 - Electric Boogaloo," another sequel, which then
made me the king of sequels, but also gave me a break from directing Ninja action films."
In fact, each of the
sequels directed by Firstenberg resulted in better reviews and box office draws than the originals. “Boogaloo " was
a musical that featured major dance production numbers, filmed in Los Angeles.
Distributed by TRI-STAR it was critically acclaimed; and a box office success, one of the reviews hailed it as "The most exuberant
musical of the decade."
the release of " Boogaloo " Sam was on his way to the Philippines to direct "American Ninja" a major action picture starring
Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, who would team up with Sam for two additional motion pictures, "Avenging Force," shot in
New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana, and "American Ninja II"
Force’ was one of the most physically grueling productions I ever worked on," comments Sam. "We spent days and nights
in water, mud up to our waists, with snakes crawling between our legs." The film opened to rave reviews. The LA Times called
Firstenberg "... a rockin' young action director who's pulled off a series of
rave up pictures for Cannon including ' American Ninja ' and ' Electric Boogaloo,' and now in ' Avenging Force ' shows off
his savvy style, which combines a keen sense of pacing with brawny punch...it marks the emergence of a truly gifted movie
The next picture for
Sam was “Riverbend”, a controversial drama with Steve James and Margaret Avery from "The Color Purple." The picture
explored race relations in 1966 Georgia, and was an opportunity for Firstenberg to work with strong dramatic
material. In sharp contrast, Sam's next picture was an all-out comedy, “The Day We Met,” which proved to him that
his directorial talents were easily extended.
Force III” came next, a military action picture with Nick Cassavettes,
Eric Douglas, Mike Norris, and Matthew Penn, and was followed with a breakthrough approach to martial arts in “American
Samurai” introducing hot young martial artists David Bradley and Marc Dacascos.
Firstenberg then got his first taste of TV work with a nighttime crime show for CBS, directing six episodes of “Sweating
creation of Nu Image, principles Avi Lerner and Danny Dimbort recruited Firstenberg to direct their first production, "Cyborg
Cop," and then the sequel, "Cyborg Soldier," both sci-fi action flicks with David Bradley. In addition, Firstenberg completed
with Bradley and Frank Zagarino the action picture "Blood Warrior." Next came “Operation Delta Force” a military
style action / adventure with Ernie Hudson, Jeff Fahey, Joe Lara, Frank Zagarino, and Hall Halbrok.
Firstenberg to explore new directorial areas; “McCinsey’s Island” is a comedy for children, a treasure hunt
movie with Hulk Hogan, Robert Vaughn, and Grace Jones, and “Motel Blue” with Sean Young, Soleil Moon Frye, and
Seymour Cassel, is a psychological thriller with two women in the lead.
One of the latest
of Firstenberg’s action oriented pictures is "The Alternate" Political action thriller with Eric Roberts, Ice T,
Michael Madsen, and John Beck. In the year 2000 he directed "Breeding Ground" a horror Sci-Fi with Stephanie Niznik, Richard Moll, Daniel Quinn, Greg Cromer,
and few giant spiders. This movie presented Sam with the unique opportunity to master the craft of dealing with Animatronics,
Miniatures, Puppets, 3D animation and computer generated visual effects, which 160 of them are in that film. "Quicksand" a
mystery thriller With Michael Dudikoff, Dan Heday, and Richard Kien was produced in 2001 in India.
Lately Firstenberg has completed an independent
venture, a sci-fi spoof named “The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women from Outer Space”. A funny homage
to the old fashion low budget tacky Sci-Fi flicks. At the
2003 Fright-Fest Film Festival in Gainesville Georgia, "THE INTERPLANETARY
SURPLUS MALE AND AMAZON WOMEN FROM OUTER SPACE" won the award for best science fiction film.
Sam feels lucky to
be one of the busiest directors in Hollywood, having made 22 movies in 22 years. He believes that his success is due
to his persistence and his attitude towards his profession. "My pleasure comes not only from the final product, but also from
the process of creating the film. Coming up with solutions for the myriad of problems which arise daily gives me great satisfaction
and makes each day interesting."
particularly drawn to a style of cinema he calls “poetic realism" - telling realistic stories with poetic images. "As
opposed to an artistic, European type of filmmaking, I have always been attracted to mainstream American cinema - the type
of movies made by Hitchcock, John Ford, and Akira Kurosawa. I see my responsibility as a storyteller, using cinematic means
rather than lengthy dialogue. I like fast paced attention grabbers and dramatic, exciting stories."
Firstenberg is indeed a man who projects confidence and joy in his work. With his customary call for action on the set, "Ready
my friends?" Sam commands the attention and respect of his production crew with a laid back style not common among the thick-skinned
professionals. His camaraderie galvanizes a crew into a team, working together to overcome obstacles and create magic for
the hardships of shooting on locations which cause long separations from his wife and three daughters, Sam finds filmmaking
a pleasure: discovering new places, learning about different cultures, meeting new people. "There's never a dull moment."
lineup of movies for the coming years includes. "Marshall's Law," a political thriller set in Texas, "Boy Soldiers," a coming
of age drama set against the background of the civil war, “Johnny Blade”
franchise hero trilogy, and "Jersey” crime comedy, are all in various stages of casting and financing.
For a boy
from Jerusalem who was mesmerized by moving images on the screen, and then became a Hollywood director by the age of 28 creating
his own images for the screen, surely all dreams can come true.