old Jews sitting around talking boogaloo and ninja
with the Cannon Group’s Sam Firstenberg
Across the room
at Cinema Society
60th birthday party stood Saundra Saperstein, Chair of the San Diego Jewish
Film Festival. When asked what celebrities would be attending SDJFF 23, she
mentioned Theodore Bikel — so memorable in Taxi
— and someone named Shmulik Firstenberg.
My Uncle Sam’s
Hebrew name was
Shmuel, but the chances of cultured Saundra having any knowledge of Sam
Firstenberg, whose Ninja III: The Domination and Breakin’
2: Electric Boogaloo, purveyor
of fine fodder for the Cannon Group canon, seemed
remote. Saundra not only knew Sam, she invited him to introduce The Go-Go
Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films when it plays this year’s festival.
have two chances to catch
this delightful time trip through the bowels of ’80s cinema — 4:30 p.m. on
Sunday, February 8, at Edwards San Marcos and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 15,
at Reading Cinema’s Clairemont Town Square. Mr. Firstenberg will in attendance
for both screenings. For more information on this and the 49 other features and
50 shorts to be showcased, visit sdcjc.org/sdjff.
This small portion
of the interview
pertains strictly to the history of, and Sam’s involvement with, a nascent
Scott Marks: How is it that
Saundra Saperstein was able to snag you for
this year’s Jewish Film Festival?
Sam Firstenberg: When I made
my first film for Cannon, Revenge of the
Ninja with Shô Kosugi, we were looking for locations. Saundra was the head,
or something, of the Utah Film Commission. One of the locations we considered
was Salt Lake City. Saundra showed us the city and we discussed the
possibilities. We wound up shooting there because it fit the location we
needed. Yom Kippur fell during pre-production and she took us to a Salt Lake
City synagogue, which in itself was an experience.
It’s a city not known for playing home to a burgeoning Jewish population.
Exactly. All of the different types of Jews — reformed, orthodox, etc. — all
congregated in one place. And it looks like a church. (Laughing.) There’s organ
music! There was a group of Israelis — Cannon itself was from Israel. The
cameraman, the grip, the makeup man...a bunch of us were from Israel. She took
care of us. We kind of kept in touch, but had lost touch after 30 years.
Suddenly I get this letter from her asking if I would come and help out with
the Go-Go film. She knew of my contacts with Golan & Globus and
Did you have any contact with Hilla Medalia while she was directing the film?
I knew her before Cannon. I worked with her even before there was Cannon. Hilla
mainly interviewed people in Israel and I’m here in Los Angeles. We were in
contact, but somehow our schedules never worked out and she did not interview
me for the movie.
and Yoram Globus
Do you remember the first time you encountered Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus?
Absolutely. I came to Los Angeles in 1972 to study film. At the time it was not
very customary because an Israeli who wanted to study film generally went to
England or to France. Nobody went to Hollywood. Hollywood was beneath us. We
were artists! We made films like Fellini, not Hollywood movies. (Laughing.)
I landed a job
at Channel 13 here in
Los Angeles. At the end of 1972, I was invited to a Hanukkah party. The host
told me that Menahem Golan would be at the party. He had just finished selling
the movie Kazablan to one of the majors. We started to talk, and he told
me he was producing a movie here, Lepke, starring Tony Curtis. In my
childhood I knew the name Menahem Golan. Everybody knew the name! He was the
moviemaker in Israel. I expressed a desire to come and work with him. The first
question: “How much do you want?” (Laughing.) I didn’t want money. I just
wanted to work. “You’re hired,” he said. “Come to Culver City first thing
Monday morning.” And that was it.
The name of the
company at the time
was Ameri-Euro Pictures. It was before Cannon. So my first picture was Lepke.
They gave me the job of schlepper. I ran around getting coffee and setting up
chairs. Whatever needed to be done.
When did it first dawn on you that these guys were the McDonalds of Hollywood
(Laughing): When Lepke finished, I continued with them, working in the
office as a runner. The little office on the 20th Century Fox lot consisted of
four people: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus, their secretary, and me. Not knowing
whether they’d make it in Hollywood, at that point all they had was aspiration.
They had good dreams. Lepke, a film about the Jewish mafia, was not
entirely a bad movie. At least the intention was to treat it like a major
There were a
lot of big plans and I
was running around with scripts. I delivered a script for The Magician of
Lublin to Dustin Hoffman. They moved back to Israel and made Israeli and
American movies. I worked with them in Israel as an assistant director on many
productions. These weren’t small budget films. I made enough money as an
assistant director on Operation Thunderbolt to buy an apartment. It was
quite a big movie.
I decided to
come back to Los
Angeles and attend graduate school at Loyola Marymount. I directed a feature
movie, One More Chance, while in school. I didn’t know what to do with
the film once I had finished it. By then, Golan & Globas had purchased the
distribution company Cannon Films and moved back to New York, where it was
originally located. They bought it and immediately moved to Los Angeles. I
brought the movie to them, they liked it, and took it from me for distribution.
This was 1979
or 1980 when they
bought Cannon and turned it into the McDonalds of Hollywood. They started with
three or four horror pictures and immediately moved to action. They quickly
realized that they didn’t understand horror. They turned out one low-budget
feature after another. Like a machine.
SM: Golan & Globus would
sequels of established commodities — Enter the Ninja, Breakin’, Delta Force — and
each time you hit it out of the park by outdoing the original. Would it be fair
to refer to you as the Cannon Films cleanup batter?
SF (Laughing): Sure.
SM: For the most part, threequels
shit made so that the cast and crew can line their pockets with “f.u.” money.
The virtues of your sequels and threequels is they are so well made, funny, and
free or camp and irony. You have the courage of your convictions to play this
stuff straight. Essentially you were directing sequels to films you probably
otherwise wouldn’t have seen in the first place. At gunpoint.
SM: I’m fascinated by
one of the
concepts posed in the film: the Israeli-born team saw movies as a way of
assimilating with American audiences. Did you experience similar feelings?
SF: Yes. Menahem went to school
years before me. Take my love for American movies and multiply it by ten and
you’ll have Menahem. He worked as an assistant to Roger Corman in the 1960s.
The movies he made in Israel were all imitations of Hollywood movies. He wasn’t
trying to do any movies with a European accent. Both of them wanted to make
American movies that would sell all over the world. They wanted to become
moguls. The motto of the company was, “Let’s assimilate!” They wanted to pass
for Americans so nobody thinks they are anything else but from Hollywood.
SM: Revenge of the Ninja
fairly traditional take on the ninja legend, but Ninja III was
something quite unexpected. In the Pantheon of horror queens, Lucinda Dickey is
your Linda Blair and you wound up making, for lack of a better term, a feminist
SF: When Revenge of the
came into my hands, there were no ninja Westerns. There were a couple of
martial arts movies before...Chuck Norris…Octagon...whatever.
This type of movies was the business of Hong Kong. First they made Enter
the Ninja with Franco Nero, and it was a modest success. I was approached
for the sequel and was familiar with Kurosawa’s samurai films, not martial arts
movies. I met Shô Kosugi and he introduced me to this gene of traditional Hong
Kong martial arts movies. My intention was not to make another Hong Kong movie
filled with martial arts, my intention was to make a Western action movie. The
action scenes were martial arts, mixed with guns and cars and chases.
SM: And for the next one you
stakes by throwing in a little Flashdance and a
SF: Now comes Ninja III.
dominant movie at the time was Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist. The idea of
having a female lead rather than Shô Kosugi was Menahem Golan’s, not mine. He
said, “Let’s do this one with a female.” Great. How do we do a female ninja?
The idea sprang to our minds: she would be possessed by a ninja!
SM: And a mind-numbing video
violently interferes with the thought patterns of its users. How prophetic were
SF (Laughing): I don’t
know who had
this exact idea. When you make this type of movie, you cannot take it
SM: Forgive me, I disagree.
what makes these films such a joy to watch is that you do take them seriously,
with a straight face and a tremendous amount of conviction.
SF: No irony. But if I can
years after making the movie, there is this overall feeling of a fairyland, a
place where video games can possess their players. We played it straight but
SM: There you go!
SF: We played it as if it
SM: You are one of the few
Jews to have
made a living off of breakdancing.
SF (Laughing): Sometime I
Americans and we get to talking, and I say, “I directed (Breakin’ 2).”
And he or she will look at me and say, “C’mon! It’s impossible.” He saw the
movie and knew for a fact that it it was directed by a black director.
SM: Whose idea was it to pattern
2 after an MGM musical?
The dreaded celluloid Dickey
First they made Breakin’. I was not involved at all except that I gave
them Lucinda Dickey after...the real events of production are that she made Ninja
III first. Then she went to do Breakin’. Because she was a
dancer. For some reason, when they came to do the sequel they did not hire the
original director [Joel Silberg]. I don’t know what happened or why. They
turned to me. We had just finished the editing on Ninja III and now Breakin’
2 was in my hands. I am a product of Hollywood films from childhood. Westerns,
crime movies, musicals — I was a genre kid. In my neighborhood theatre that’s
what they played. Once we started...again, I don’t come from a line of
breakdancers. I didn’t come from the hip-hop culture.
SM: I’m shocked to hear
you admit that.
Firstenberg directs Adolfo “Shabba-Doo”
Quinones and Lucinda
Dickey in Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
SF (Laughing): Despite the
Shabba Doo gave me a street name. My street name was “Shmool the Cool.” Some
directors, even in the martial arts movies, are trying to be purists. And here
I am making a Western movie. The same thing happened with Breakin’ 2.
If the director had come from a hip-hop culture, he or she would have been very
adherent to the culture and the dances, etc. I came from Hollywood musical and
wanted to make one. Either consciously or subconsciously we made it more and
more like a classic Hollywood musical. Then came the dancing-around-the room
number, which is really Fred Astaire.
SM: Royal Wedding.
You do up
the ante a bit by having your version of Sarah Churchill enter the scene. That
was quite a lovely touch.
SF: I’m so glad that
you noticed it,
because technically it was quite challenging. She was upside-down and he was
upside-right. We had to hold her hair down with glue. It was my idea to bring
her in at the last minute. I wanted to end this upside-down gimmick on a
People dump on Cannon films, and in many cases rightfully so, but these two
movies are the closest Golan & Globus came to capturing the spirit of Roger
Corman’s New World Pictures. What do you see as Go-Go’s blueprint for
success? What advice were you given before undertaking each picture?
The biggest success for me was actually American Ninja. The movie made
more than $100 million. The secret to Cannon was one man: Menahem Golan. Behind
him there was an operation and money, of course. The same with Roger Corman.
They’re the same type of people. They eat ideas and stories for breakfast. I
was pretty free while making the movies. We would have a meeting or two during
pre-production to go over the script. Once I was on location, he left me free
to direct. He was very involved in the editing room during post-production. He
would come every week, sit in the editing room with me, come up with a couple of
I must give him
credit. The original
ending to Ninja III didn’t work. He recognized it immediately and said,
“You’re absolutely right. Let’s shoot another ending.” Another producer, more
interested in money, would have gone with what we had. Storytelling was in
[Golan’s] blood. This was the secret. He was very charming. He got [John]
Cassavetes to work for him! This came out of the charm. He would sit Cassavetes
and the conversation would be what Cassavetes wanted to talk about. Not about money
or budget! Whatever it took to engage him. It was the same thing with Roger
Corman, except Corman was more of an intellect.
There’s a scene in Go-Go Boys where Golan has difficulty admitting to
failure. Why do you think that is?
It had to do with his ego. He had a huge ego. Even though Yoram Globus admits
that they failed, Golan cannot admit that anything went wrong. For him,
everything was fantastic. Towards the end, things went terrible, but in his
fantastic mind, nothing was wrong. Certainly not because of him. It was other
Do you still exchange Christmas cards with Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp?
Can we expect a new Sam Firstenberg film anytime soon?
I don’t know. In Hollywood they pigeonhole you. Our movies, the types of movies
that we made, were medium budget. The medium budget movie has disappeared
totally. The base for this was the home video market, which disappeared
completely. Today a director can enter the multi-million dollar huge action
movie, or they will ask them to make a small movie based on the economics of
cinema today. You’d have five weeks and less than $1 million to make something
like Ninja III. It’s impossible.