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Interview with Sam Firstenberg Directing Ninjas!

Sam Firstenberg, who we have come to know, has directed four Ninja films for Cannon, including Avenging Force, a pearl in the B action movie series that has unjustly been forgotten.  Today he is retired in LA where he spends his days, and we have asked this “cult” director to share with us his experience collaborating with Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus in the 1980s.  We spoke with this charming man of few words that has a contagious sense of humor, and asked him to recount his memories and anecdotes…. he gave us an exclusive interview which is featured in the following pages.  Thanks to him, and may the power of Ninjutsu be with you!

Zone52 : How did you get the job consisting in directing "Revenge of the Ninja”?


S.F. I met Menahem Golan when I was 22 years old and a film student at Columbia College in Los Angeles. He had just arrived in Hollywood, to produce and direct his first American movie, “Lepke” with Tony Curtis and I was invited to join the production. Seven years later, while at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, working towards a Masters degree in film, I directed my first full length feature film “One More Chance” and Golan as head of Canon Film took 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 phenomenon to western viewers. The movie enjoyed a moderate success in the international and US markets so Golan decided to produce a sequel entitled “Revenge of the Ninja.” Golan was busy running the company so he decided not to direct it himself but rather, to hire someone else to direct and that someone else would be me. After the completion of “One More chance” Golan was willing to take a chance on me. 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 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. The rest is history.

Zone52 : I like very much the way the action scenes are shot in it. It's got a good rhythm and even more than 30 years after it was released, it is still very dynamic and punchy. How did you learn to shoot this kind of action features? What references did you get?

S.F. Before directing Revenge of the Ninja I graduated from two film schools first with a BA degree and the second time with an MA and in addition also worked for 5 years as assistant director. I acquired theoretical knowledge, practical experience, and the understanding of the cinematic language, on top of it I love the films of Akira Korosawa and John Ford, those movies are full of action, and I watched and studied them carefully. Combining all of this taught my how to direct action futures.

Zone52 : This rhythm, I mean the non-stop action, is one of the things I really love in many Cannon films. I find it very generous for the viewer who is actually waiting for this kind of dynamic when he paid a ticket to watch a movie like a ninja one, for example. Was Menahem Golan, as a producer, very concerned with this rhythm? Was he asking the directors to make such dynamic films?

S.F. Yes, Menahem Golan definite influenced the rhythm of the action films he produced. He never bothered me during the shooting period but got involved in editing. His first request was that the movie should never be longer than 95 minutes. My formula is that an action movie should have at least 45 minute of action in at least five sequences or more therefore the rhythm had to be fast he liked it this way and so did I. We were also lucky to have a great editor Michael Duthie that was responsible of the fast cutting.

Zone52 : I guess Revenge of the Ninja was a little bit less budgeted than the other that will follow. However, I didn't feel it very much while watching again the movie a few weeks ago. How much time did you have from the first day you were hired, and the release of the feature?

S.F. At the beginning we worked two months on the script with the writer Jim Silk and Sho Kosugi and preparing a story board. Next we transferred to Salt Lake City to start preparation for four weeks. The shooting was eight weeks and then the editing sound and colors is about five months, ll in all about nine months. It was a low budget movie but we had all the time and miens to do it right.

Zone52 : Shô Kosugi appears to be a very good martial fighter and a charismatic actor. I think he's pretty brilliant in "Revenge of the Ninja". How was he during the shooting?


S.F. 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.

Zone52 : His son's also playing in the movie and seems to be a good martial fighter too. Was it easy to shoot with a 11 or 12 years old child? Was he really as good as we can see on screen?

S.F. Kane was a student of his father Sho and for a child he was very competent Marshal Artist. On the set he was guided by Sho on fights he choreographed earlier and they rehearsed earlier so when we start shooting he was prepared and ready. I directed Kane in the dramatic scene only and he was very responsive to my directions and gave good performance. As you know today he is a successful  actor in Japan and Hong Kong Television shows and movies.

Zone52 : Let's talk about Ninja III: Domination. Seriously, who did get the idea to cross a ninja feature with a kind of The Exorcist's / Horror movie (which is a good idea indeed)?


S.F. 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. Apparently the Ninja audience was not crazy with that combination and they did not accept the idea of a women ninja in the lead part.

Zone52 : The movie's introduction is amazing: about 15 minutes of a gigantic fight sequence. This kind of opening sequence was also used in the previous Cannon ninja features. Was it like written on a kind of bill of specifications to keep the spectator's attention from the start? How many times did it take to shoot this long and terrific battle? How many actors?

S.F. Every action movie I directed starts with a big action sequel you are right that it was the Cannon philosophy to do so and I believe that it is an attention grabber and also sends a message of what kind of a film you are about to see. This tactic gets the audience in the right mode before the story starts’ and it is true to many Hollywood action flicks like Jams Bond for instance.

Zone52 : The unusual thing about Ninja III is that the main character is a woman, which is actually a good thing for ladies are not very represented in ninja films. Why this choice and how did the public react?

S.F. As I mention before it was Golan’s idea to have a female heroine in the third Ninja installment, and I think that the audience was not crazy about this idea.

Zone52 : You shot then American Ninja. Why did Cannon decide to have again, several years after Enter the Ninja, a white American man as the main ninja hero in this movie?

S.F. Despite the lukewarm reception of “Ninja III, The Domination” Cannon Film decided to keep the Ninja series alive. The producer Menahem Golan wanted to switch from an Oriental Ninja to an American Ninja. It was his idea and I think he did so because he believed that such a switch will be more appalling to Western audience. I embraced the idea and ran with it all the way, apparently he was right and American Ninja was the most successful of all the movies in the Ninja series.

Zone52 : I heard a rumor saying that Chuck Norris should have acted the hero, but he didn't want to appear with a balaclava hiding his face. Is it true?

S. F. That is true; there is an early poster of American Ninja with Chuck Norris on it. I don’t know exactly why he rejected the part but as you say the rumors are that he was not interested to cover his face.

Zone52 : Was it difficult for Michael Dudikoff to act as a ninja? I guess he was not trained like Shô Kosugi was, for example. Did he have to work hard? How was he on the set?


S.F. For the part of Joe Armstrong I interviewed more than 400 young actors and martial artists, but when Michael Dudikoff walked in and did the reading I felt that he was the American Ninja. After few call backs we had 5 finalists with Michael one of them. He already had some credit to his name including “Bachelor Party” and “Radioactive Dreams” in the lead. After putting all candidates on tape and viewing it we all agreed that Dudikoff is the American Ninja.

It’s true he had no previous Martial Arts training prior to being cast. But he was very athletic and disciplined. Our fight choreographer was Mike Stone a very famous Martial Artist that was associated with Bruce Lee and served as Elvis’s personal Karate teacher. Stone started to work with Dudikoff rehearsing fight sequences four weeks prior to filming. During this time I would check in with Stone and he assured me that Dudikoff was very good in taking directions and executing them them. During filming of a fight sequence it was broken into sections Dudikoff was given six to eight move segment of a fight and I would film that, cut and then shoot the following set of movements. Michael was extremely good in executing the martial arts moves but when it came to dangerous staff we had two stunt and action doubles, Steve lambert and Richard Norton.

Zone52 : Steve James is bringing a cool touch to the movie. Michael Dudikoff and he seem to have a complicity which is coming out from the screen. They have shot many features together after this one. Why do you think this partnership was working that fine?

S.F. Steve James had a great presence on the screen physically as well as personally; the great chemistry between him and Dudikoff is one of thus magic things that often happened on screen that is hard to explain. It just happened and was so perfect that later they kept doing more and more movies together. The death of Steve James was a big loss to the world of action films he was one of the greatest black actions stars.

Zone52 : I guess American Ninja was the biggest success of the Cannon ninja movies, right? How do you explain that it worked better than the 3 other ninja movies Cannon released before?

S.F. American Ninja is a movie of great fun: well balanced with tight main plot some mystery, good secondary plot, nice romantic story, great back story, a young handsome innocent hero and a terrific sidekick. It consists of lots of exciting action magnificently choreographed and skillfully executed in an exotic location and best of all it is also a beautiful love story. Young adults reacted to this combination favorably.

Zone52 : When you shot American Ninja 2, it seems that Cannon movie budgets were getting lower than before. Why do you think it happened and did it become harder to shoot and get a good result on screen?

S.F.  The way I remember it the budget of the second American Ninja was about the same as the first one, maybe slightly lower but we still had eight weeks of principal photography with two units, the story was smaller in scope. Later on Cannon decided to scale down the budget of the other American Ninja sequels it become South African productions with South African director and very low budget, the shooting schedule was only five week and all local stuff. I guess that Cannon was hoping to rid the success of the first two movies, make big profit with minimal investment, I had nothing to do with those movies and the new formula failed miserably.

Zone52 : I saw many pictures of the American Ninja 1 and 2's shootings. It seems to have been a great moment. How was usually the mood on Cannon sets, on these movies and on others?

S.F. You are right shooting the two American Ninja was a lot of fun, the atmosphere on and off the set was positive and everybody was enthusiastic, cast and crow. In all the Cannon movies I directed I enjoy total freedom to do my job the way I wanted to, so there was no pressure or tension on the set.

Zone52 : When you look back to the ninja features you directed for Cannon, which one makes you the most proud of and why? (You can quote several ones for different reasons, of course).

S.F. The one that I like the best is the original American Ninja, the reason is that my view it is an innocent love story together with a strong friendship story with a reluctant hero. It is full with emotions and feelings and the good guys wine at the end. As you know I directed another action movie with Michael Dudikoof and Steve Jemes Avenging Force, it is not a Martial Arts one but in my opinion a much better film then the Ninja movies in terms of story, the acting, and the action sequels as well, this is the one I am really proud of.

Zone52 : Cannon ninja films were not big blockbusters, even if the budgets of some of them were fine: however, the ninjas became very popular in the 80’s: they appeared in toys, video games, cartoons, comic books... do you think your movies and Cannon production started a kind of fashion, which is still long-lasting today?

S.F. Before we made the Ninja Films, Ninjitsu was only popular in Japan and in few Hong Kong movies but unknowen in the rest of the world. Cannon Films introduced the Ninjitsu and the Ninja worriers concept to the western cinema and to the boys of the Americas, Africa Europe and middle east. As you mentioned in the 80’s it become so popular and eventually inspired the creators of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that become a worldwide phenomena.  Today it is a cultural concept; there are Ninja motorcycles, Ninja toasters, Ninja food blenders, Ninja television show, and much, much more. I believe that we in Cannon Films started it all.

Zone52 : In that kind of idea, I heard Eli Roth talking in an interview lately (in "The Go-Go Boys" actually), and he and Quentin Tarantino are quoting Ninja III: Domination among their beloved movies. How do you feel regarding these famous directors who grew up with your movies and are using these influences to feed their own productions nowadays?

S.F. When I watch Tarantino’s Kill Bill for the first time I was surprise to see so many ideas inspired by our Ninja movies incorporated into it. Of course it was done much better, more elaborated and more expensive, after all it is Tarantino, but still, in my humble opinion, one can sense the influence and lasting impression of Sam Firstenberg films in it. If it is true then it makes me proud and happy that the low budget flicks I directed was slightly appreciated by such a great movie maker.

Zone52 : You stopped filming in the 2000's. However, if some producer would ask you to shoot another ninja feature tomorrow, would you do it again? (Please, say yes :) ).

S.F. Today’s independent action movies are made with a much lower budget and much shorter schedule then the way we did them in the 80’s and 90’s. Under such conditions it is impossible to make a decent action flick, however if someone approaches me today with a reasonable opportunity to direct any film I will gladly comply.

Zone52 : Thank you Sam. Would you have something to add?

S.F. It makes me happy and satisfied to know that after so many years, movies I directed are still appreciated today by fans and still bring theme joy and excitement.

Interview conducted by Jérémie Grima