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SAM FIRSTENBERG INTERVIEW

by Andrew Parietti

1. In 1983 you directed Revenge of the Ninja, starring Sho Kosugi, a film widely regarded as one of the best ninja films ever made. How did you initially get involved with Cannon Films?

 

While at Loyola University I directed my first full length feature film. It started as a twenty-five minute student project and grew to become One More Chance starring Kirstie Alley and John LaMotta.

With about an hour of edited work print and a trailer, I started shopping around Hollywood’s production and distribution companies seeking completion funds. The turning point came when I walked into a meeting with Menahem Golan in the offices of Cannon Films. Earlier that year Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had purchased the New York based ailing production company with its considerable library of sexploitation movies. They moved the operation to Hollywood and started producing low budget horror flicks. I had known the two heads of the company as I had worked for them as an office runner and assistant director before they purchased Cannon. I was surprised and elated when I learned that upon viewing the material, Golan and Globus expressed a willingness to finance completion of the production and thereafter to take it for distribution. While I was busy editing One More Chance Golan got involved as a producer and director of the first of a new breed of action movies. It was Enter the Ninja the first martial arts movie to introduce the Ninja phenomena to western viewers. The idea to make a western style Ninja movie was presented to Golan by Mike Stone, a prominent American karate champion and formerly Elvis Presley’s personal trainer. Golan got excited and committed to produce the movie in the Philippines. Mike was the choreographer of the fight sequences and Franco Nero the star, with newcomer Japanese champion Sho Kosugi as the bad ninja. The completed movie enjoyed a moderate success in the international and US markets so Golan decided to produce a sequel entitled Revenge of the Ninja this time with the impressive fighter Sho Kosugi as the star. Just at this time I had finished One More Chance, and I was done with the festivals and with school. The script was ready and Golan decided not to direct it himself but rather, to hire someone else to direct, and that someone else would be me. Golan was willing to take a chance on me. He knew I could put a movie together; I had proven that I could construct a scene, shoot, and edit logically. The big question was whether I could handle action, could I tackle a fight sequence or a chase. Clearly I did not have experience in these areas, but when he asked if I could do it, with utmost confidence I gave a positive yes. I knew I was not going to let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip away. Apparently my self confidence assured them so the next question was what kind of salary I would demand. I told Golan to pay me whatever he saw fit and so the deal was made and I was given the script and asked to start pre-production immediately,

 

2. Were you familiar with any of the ninja mythology prior to working on Revenge of the Ninja?

 

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. Sho Kosugi the star of the movie introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu. We bought a few books and together watched many Chinese movies, without subtitles in theaters full of Chinese speaking audience members.

 

3. Revenge of the Ninja has a very elaborate ending fight scene between Kosugi and the evil ninja, consisting of martial arts choreography, pyrotechnics, helicopter shots, etc. How long did it take to film the climax?

 

It toke total of 9 week to film Revenge of the Ninja out of it we spent one full week on the roof of a high-rise filming the ending fight scene. It was elaborated indeed.

 

4. Rob Walsh’s soundtrack to Revenge of the Ninja has gained something of a cult following with original copies of the vinyl LP fetching some remarkable prices on eBay. Do you recall working with Walsh – and did you have any input on the music in Revenge?

 

I am not a musician so I don’t have the tools to talk about music in technical terms. The way it works is that I meet with the composer and we go over the entire movie and talk about the spots that we believe music is needed then we discuss the mode I would like to create in each scene, sequence, or transitional moment. The composer then goes to work and comes back with rough sketches of musical pieces for the specific scenes. Together we view it, listen to it, discus it farther and come to conclusions. This process repeats itself several times until we arrive to the final results. This procedure is the same to all the movies I directed.

 

5. Sho Kosugi has made an impressive career starring in ninja films – even today he’s still considered the foremost actor of the subgenre. What was it like working with him in Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: the Domination?

 

Sho is an accomplished martial artist, knowledgeable in all fields of martial art; he was also a teacher (sense) with a group of dedicated students. When we first met we hit it off right away, I did not know a thing about the martial arts and did not pretend to know any so I rather adapted Sho as my teacher and gave him the necessary respect therefore eliminating any potential conflicts regarding that area he in return excepted my as the director the final authority on all cinematic matters. This mutual respect and appreciation lead to an actually friendship later on during shooting the years we worked together.

 

5. Ninja III: The Domination is a very different type of ninja film, throwing in horror elements of The Exorcist, the martial arts action of prior Kosugi films, and an aerobics instructor-turned-ninja played by Lucinda Dickey. Do you remember how the concept for such a unique concept came about?

 

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 genera we throw in also some elements from the movie “The Exorcist” that I saw years earlier and impressed me a lot.

 

7. There was a rumor that Chuck Norris had been set to star in American Ninja prior to Michael Dudikoff. Is there any truth to that? Was Sho Kosugi ever considered for a role in American Ninja?

 

Yes it is true. When Menahem Golan came up with the concept of continuing the Ninja franchise with an American hero this time, he offered the part to Chuck Norris, but Chuck did not want to do it, he declined and so luckily for Michael Dudikoff  I was entrusted with the task of finding “the American Ninja”. Sho Kosugi was never considered for that role basically because he was not American enough.

 

8. The trailer for American Ninja had the film titled as American Warrior. Was that the original title during production? And, if so, why was it ultimately changed?

“American Ninja’ was always the “American Ninja” right from the start but for some reason, upon release, in France and some other European countries it was called “American Warrior” I don’t know why. What you saw was probably a European trailer.

 

9. Many films in the 1980s had issues with the MPAA and had to cut certain scenes (usually due to violence) in order to achieve a suitable rating. Did you ever run into any problems trying to meet the MPAA’s standards and were there any scenes that had to be toned down or cut?

 

Are you kidding? I had a ton of problems with the MPAA all the time in every movie I directed and very often we had to cut out ant tune down the action scene especially graphic visuals of violence like decapitation and dismembering, excessive blood spruces and so on.

 

10. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus were notorious for keeping their films under a tight budget. What was your experience like working for them? Were there ever any budget issues with the films you worked on?

 

I have known Menahem and Yoram for many years, in fact many years before I directed Revenge of the Ninja - 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. They trusted me and we had a very good relationship.

 

11. It seems that many films today take a more serious approach to the action genre, whereas much of the ‘80s action films tended to be more outlandish and fun – yet still were able to tell an intriguing story. A good number of Cannon’s movies were gloriously over-the-top – and were great because of it! For instance, American Ninja 2: The Confrontation focuses around a villain who intends to create an army of genetically-engineered ninja warriors. It was pure fun entertainment and is still as enjoyable today as it was back in 1987. Further, films seemed to accomplish much more back in the ‘80s with modest budgets, memorable characters, and ‘reel’ choreographed action, as opposed to some of Hollywood’s current crop of films, backed with more money, littered with CGI, and filtered with a sense of ‘realism’. Do you have any thoughts on the current state of the action genre? In your opinion has it improved or has it lost something since the 1980s batch of action films?

 

You are right. In the action movies I directed in the 80s I always tried to create and maintain a sense of fun. Everything on the screen was not “real, reality” but rather “movie reality” but still the story had to be solid, traditional structure of beginning, middle, and end with a good hero and a over the top nasty villain.

The budget was modest but the action was real happening right in front of the audiences eyes. Today’s action movies are very elaborated and spectacular inspired by video games, they are exciting and that how the young audience wants them. But nowadays when I see a fight sequence, I don’t fill the pain when the hero gets bitten up the way it was in the 80s because then the chorography was for real and in today’s movies it is all editing and CGI something is missing but still you cannot beat the spectaculars of Spiderman.

 

12. Any final words you would like to share with our readers?

The greatest satisfaction of my work is to know that there are people all over the world who enjoy the movies that I have directed. This is the reason I make movies - to entertain audiences, and take them into a 90 minute journey of fantasy, thrill, and excitement. If all of this works, then I am grateful.

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