Cult Films Fanzine
I read that you became obsessed with
movies as a very young child. At what point did you begin to pay attention to directors and what their role in filmmaking
From an early age, I became addicted
to movies. My home in Jerusalem was next door to a movie theater. Each Tuesday afternoon, from the age of five, I would go
to the weekly double feature. Like many youngsters around the world, I thrived on a steady diet of American movies: westerns,
war pictures, crime dramas’ 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. But it took another ten years before I understood that behind
every movie there is a director. I was exposed to the role of the movie director only when I started my studies in film school
when I was 22 years old.
What were some of your early film
influences? How familiar were you with martial arts films prior to directing Revenge of the Ninja?
Until I went to film school my diet
of movies was very general main stream Hollywood production plus some independent, artistic and European movies. Once I started
to study cinema I become familiar with various directors, different styles and genres. I particularly liked then the movies
of Alfred Hitchcock and John Ford. Although I was familiar with Japanese samurai movies (I love the films of Akira Kurusawa,)
before directing "Revenge of the Ninja" I knew very little of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre and nothing about Ninjitsu. Sho
Kusogi introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu, together we watched many Chinese movies, without subtitles in theaters
full of Chinese speaking audience members.
You did a number of films for Cannon
Pictures in the early to mid 80’s, including some of their most well known titles like Revenge of the Ninja and American
Ninja. What was it like working with Yoram Globus and Menahem Golan at the height of Cannon’s popularity? How did your
working relationship come about?
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.
Few years later in 1980 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
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 this 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,
Globus and Golan were some of the
most prolific film producers of all time and were obviously handling several projects at once. How involved were they during
the production stages of the films?
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. I have proven myself and they trusted me so they left me alone and overall we had a very
good working relationship.
Your movies are perhaps best known
for their fight scenes, stunts and pyrotechnics. From the rooftop battle at the end of Revenge of the Ninja to the showdown
with the cops and the helicopter in Ninja 3: the Domination, each film features moments that helped set the standard for visuals
in the action genre. That being said, I would imagine that laws and regulations when it came to stunts were little more lax
in the 80’s than they are now. Do you have any stories of close calls or maybe even sequences that you are surprised
you were able to pull off?
I don’t know if the laws and
regulations regarding stunt changed throughout the years as a director I did not deal with that stuff it is the responsibility
of the stunt coordinator and the assistant director, but as a general knowledge I am aware to the fact that after few tragic
stunt and weapon accidents in the 90s the rules regarding safety on the filming sets were toughened.
When it comes to action in all the movies I directed I cooperated with two stunt coordinators or rather action creators
– Steve Lambert and B.J. Davis they both are innovators and brave and so at times we together came up with some crazy
stuff dear devil stunts. One day in American Ninja we came up with the idea that Joe Armstrong (Michael Dudikuff) will go
a-wall from his military base by jumping a motorcycle over the base’s well, The real wall was about 8 to 10 feet tall
and since at those days we did not have an access to any visual optical effects a stunt rider had to perform this jump for
real. Steve Lambert the stunt coordinator ordered a jumping ramp to be built at one side of the wall as a kicker that, at
high speed, will lift the motorcycle and its rider over the wall. In Hollywood Steve knew few motorcycle stunt expert that
are able do it but back there in the Philippines he did not know anyone. So one local guy came in to attempt to do it but
when he saw the height of the wall he got cold feet and backed off we had to pospond the filming of the stunt. The next day
another biking expert came in an actually took the motorcycle to the edge of the ramp but did not have it within him to take
it over the wall, on the other side there was a stack of hay for the landing. At that point Steve lambert looked at me and
said "just give me the uniform and the wig" (to make him look like Michael) he put them on mounted the motorcycle raved it
to the max (it was a Honda Ninja) four cameras rolled and he toke off onto the ramp and just flew over that damn wall landing
perfectly on the other side into the stack of hay bales. The honest truth is that I was not sure that he will come out in
one piece on the other side but as I have learned long before I just kept my mouth shut and hoped for the best. In the final
editing the shot is spectacular.
As a second part to the last question,
what would you consider the most dangerous and/or complicated stunt you’ve ever put to film?
Must dangerous stunt ever performed in any of the movies I directed was definitely
crossing on a zip line (slid for life) between two high-rises buildings in my first one "Revenge of the Ninja" It was again
Steve Lamber doubling for the Bad Ninja (Arthur Roberts) way up from one window to another on the 20th floor
without safety net beneath him and no safety harness to the line since at the end of the slide he had to brake through the
glass of the window and enter the room. This was probably stupid and dumb but we were young then and didn’t know better,
Steve probably beloved that he was invincible and I was so eager to put that stunt on film that I did not have the brain to
stop him. Until today, more than 35 years later, I still don’t believe I did not prevent him from doing it. Some people
say that Chris Nolan ripped off
this sequence and incorporated it into the opening robbery sequence of The Dark Knight. Look for yourself
Fantasy is not an uncommon ingredient
in martial arts films, but the paranormal elements in Ninja III are very unique. What was the inspiration for the supernatural
part of the story?
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. This time Sho Kosugi was given a secondary role, he insisted that women did not receive Ninjitsu training
and have no strength for all the ninja action. We had to come up with a solution, I just saw the movie "Poltergeist" and was
very impressed and so in its spirit 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 as well.
Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo
was a pretty big departure from the rest of your filmography. How did that opportunity come about and how was your experience
making that film?
The director of Breakin’ was Joel Silbert
and as far as I know he was supposed to direct the sequel. I don’t know why he did not, and I never asked, but at some
point after the release of the movie Ninja
III: The Domination that I directed
with the same actress of Breakin’,
Lucinda Dickey (Kelly), I was asked
by the head of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan, to take over the directing of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. At that point I did not have any vision for the movie, it was developed later. As a matter of fact my background
as an action director helped a lot when it came to directing a dance movie. By that point I had gained vast knowledge and
experience in directing and creating sophisticated action sequences such as fights and chase scenes. When it came to directing
dance sequences I discovered that there is no big difference between the two.
I do not choreograph the dance (or fight) the choreographer dose, for me as a director it is all about deconstructing the
certain piece of action or dance to its elements on the set, in a way that later, in the editing room using the cinematic
language, it could be reconstructed in the most effective way, to enhance it to the delight of the potential audience.
Although it was in a different country,
did your time in the military inspire anything in Avenging Force, Riverbend, or Delta Force 3?
My military service was not full
of action; actually it was not that exiting. I never participated in any fighting or other dangerous operations but as a child
I saw many Hollywood war movies and that probably inspired me more. Delta Force 3 and Operation Delta force are military movies
and I enjoyed directing them. May be I felt comfortable among the military hardware because I am familiar with them
You have directed a few sequels to
movies that you were not originally involved with. Is there a different dynamic with a project like that as opposed directing
the first film in a series or a one off?
To me as a director every movie I
am about to direct, be it a sequel or not, is a new challenge to tell a compelling story through cinematic means. All the
sequels I directed are not a continues of their originals but rather a new independent story some of them with even different
characters. It is only the title and the franchise that’s all.
Our zine focuses on physical media
and its current place in the world of horror, action and exploitation films. The last few years have seen films like the American
Ninja series, Ninja 3: The Domination and Avenging Force re-scanned and re-issued on blu-ray by various releasing companies.
What’s it like for you as a director to see that films you made 30+ years ago are still resonating with people today?
It is actually amazing, I don’t
believe it myself. Hundreds if not thousands of movies are made every year and within 35 years it is tens of thousands of
flicks big and small, studio and independent, most of them are forgotten after a short wail. To be among the directors that
even only some of their works survive this disappearance in the historical abyss is unbelievably satisfactory. And you are
right, some of the movies I directed still resonant with people even today, I get a lot of fan emails, Facebook messages,
and requests for interviews they all reflect that sentiment, and then I fill that I have done my job right, tell exciting
My web site is www.samfirstenberg.com and I also have a Facebook page and they are full of photos and stories regarding