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I was destined to be a storyteller
Interview with Sam (Shmulik) Firstenberg
By Erez Pery - Cinema South

I grew up on the films of Sam Firstenberg without knowing his name. As a child I watched them in the legendary cinema "Orda" in Ramat Gan in matinees, and later on VHS tapes I rented from the video store. Those were the merry days of "Canon." "Canon" the production company owned by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, which operated in Los Angeles in the 1980s, represents a fascinating period in which Israeli filmmakers produced entertainment films in Hollywood without a sense of inferiority. These films were a successful alternative to the high-budget Hollywood movies that ruled Hollywood till then. They also created movie stars such as Michael Dudikoff, Sho Kosugi, Chuck Norris and others. Firstenberg quickly became Canon's in-house director, and dished out financially successful hits such as Revenge of the Ninja, Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo, American Ninja and others.
Firstenberg is a storyteller in his soul and his films show innocence and fascinating aesthetic elements, reflecting a struggle between cinematic concepts and approaches. The drama in his films is reflected through frames that are designed for urban landscape and wooded landscape in continuous action sequences. The action scenes in his films combine Western perceptions and Eastern concepts and each tell a story with a beginning, middle and end. Although his films are successful all over the world, Firstenberg had not received yet the place he deserves among the cinema establishment. It's hard to think of the movies of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and many others without mentioning the name of Firstenberg. His contribution to the martial arts film genre is considerable, and his films are a major link in the chain that begins with Bruce Lee's films and continues all the way to graindhouses films of the s. But Firstenberg's story begins actually in the small neighborhood of Talpiot in Jerusalem.

***
Erez: I want to start with your biography. At what age did you arrived in Israel?

Sam: Look, I'm a Jerusalemite. I was born in Poland but I can't remember anything from there because I came to Jerusalem at the age of five months. Raised in Talpiot, and then moved to the German colony. At that time it was a neighborhood of working class immigrants, all of them were immigrants. It was a beautiful and interesting mixture from all over the world. In the German colony, in Emek Refaim Street there is a very special movie theater, cinema "Smadar". Nowadays it is going to be demolished, too bad.

E: And you went to see movies in this cinema?

S: As a kid I went to the movies in "Smadar." Every day, in the afternoon they screened two movies for the price of one, for about 35 cents. Those 2 films ran for one week, and in the following week, two others were shown. I went every week to see those films.
I remember that they mostly screened Westerns, American war movies of post World War II, crime and gangsters movies that were common in the 1950s. Occasional a Turkish film would pop up, and yes - many Tarzan movies and adventure films as well.
In every group of people there is a storyteller, the one that everybody likes to sit around and listen to his stories. In those days one of us would go to see the movies and upon returning would tell its plot to the rest of the children. I was this kid, telling the stories. I guess I was meant to be a storyteller. I remember at a very young age, five or six years old, I use to cut out pictures from books and paste them on paper strips that I rolled in front of a carton box with a window cut out in it and a lamp inside sort of a primitive TV set, back then we did not have one. I'd invite the neighborhood kids and roll the paper strip and so the pictures would pass in front of the lit small window and I'd tell the story. Each of us is born with some kind of a mission in life; one is born to be a doctor and another to bake bread. I probably must have been "sentenced" to be a storyteller.

E: It's interesting that you are using the verb "sentenced " that has also a negative connotation;is this what you have been sentenced to do, for good and for bad?

S: It's my philosophy; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born to be Mozart, he didn't choose to be Mozart. He did not wake up one morning at the age of 13 or 20 and said from now on I want to be a music composer. No. He was born Mozart, he had no other choice. Nature selected him to be Mozart and write music for us. The same way the physician was born to be a physician; he has an internal urge to help other people when they're sick, he feels it. Some people escape this fate, but most accept it because for that fate they have been Sentenced, thats the way I see it.

E: Did you know how to tell the movies well?
Fascinatingly?

S: I think that there are two types of storytellers: there are those who invent stories like Amos Oz, A.B. Yehoshua and others they invent stories, write stories; and then there is the one that tells the story, he does not necessarily invent stories but rather takes stories invented by others and retells them very well. When the tribe was seated around the campfire there was always one who told stories and the entire tribe sat around the campfire fascinated. It wasn't necessarily a story he invented, he might have heard it from another tribe, but he had a knack for telling stories in a fascinating manner. So to answer your question, the answer is apparently yes. I know how to tell the movies in a fascinating way.

E: So you claim that also in your cinema you are a storyteller of the second type.

S: Yes, absolutely, also in the cinema. There are several film directors that make up stories, they have some stories to tell, and they have the talent to also invent the story and tell it as well, that is to direct to tell the story in pictures. But most Directors in history, even the best known, were people who never wrote a story. John Ford never wrote the script. But he had the talent to take someone else's script and tell it through visual means in a way that even the script writer himself was unable to do. I feel that I am the same. I don't make up stories, I have no narrative ideas, not my own stories generated within myself, but I feel that I have the talent to retell someone else's story, using visual means in the most effective way possible, to control the emotions of the moviegoer.

E: It's interesting, because usually the "Authors" are also writing. Even in the Israeli film industry the director has to write the screenplay in order to get financing and we have very few directors now days that don't write their own script.

S: Absolutely, I am familiar with this problem in many places including Israel.

E: And at what age did you understand that you are interested in immersing yourself in movies? Was it at that very young age?

S: Not yet. But back then my passion for cinema started. At an older age, at the age of 13 - 14 I loved cinema so much that every Friday after school at ORT where I was specializing in electronic engineering, rather than go home, I had this habit of going to the movies. This way we were able to see one more movie before everything closed for the Sabbath. I loved the movies. I liked the darkness that drapes the theater when the film begins. It is kind of a private ceremony that, within a few minutes the force of the film transforms you into another world and you forget who you are, where you're living. When you get older you realize that there is a reality in which you live and fictional realities, the one on the screen. In any case, I guess I liked cinema very much and I was very attracted to it. It played a major role in my life.
In those days there were no video cameras, we were unable to make movies, so I occupied myself with photography. I had a little laboratory, a darkroom at home, but I didn't know that I was going to make movies. Who even thought of being engaged in making films, there were no Hebrew speaking, Israeli films in the country back then. The first Hebrew-speaking film I saw was Blazing Sand what an event this was It was one of earliest Hebrew speaking films. Then came "Eldorado" by Menahem Golan; do you know what an event this was? It's hard to fathom today what the meaning of a Hebrew speaking movie was then. Then came Hill 24 Doesn't Answer - I can count maybe five Hebrew speaking movies from that era. Imagine, who thought back then that movies could be made in Hebrew.
I am reminded of an interesting thing now. In the 1960s, before the Six Day War, two big foreign films were filmed in Israel. One of them was Exodus and the other Cast a Giant Shadow. In the days that they filmed in Jerusalem, I wouldn't go to school. I used to toss my backpack and go instead to see the filming. It was the first time that I saw how a movie was being made. I was immediately hooked.

E: Tell me about that experience.

S: These were great scale movies even by Hollywood standards. In Exodus 40 to 50 crew members participated. As a 12-year-old boy I think that I was just overwhelmed by operation, the technical aspect, the organization. I didn't realize that this is a movie camera and that is where the sound is recorded. Back then I didn't understand how movies were made. Most of the people, even nowadays, don't know how films are made. They think that filming starts with the first scene and then the second and so on. Back then obviously I didn't know.

E: So you remember those two events, both productions, as significant events to you?

S: I remember two scenes that are particularly branded in my memory: in Exodus the scene where Paul Newman sneaks into the Ethiopian Church in Jerusalem. I sat all day and watched how they were moving the camera, how the Director gave instructions. In Cast a Giant Shadow there was a scene where the convoys with armored cars entered into Jerusalem. To do this, Ben Yehuda Street was shut down and decorated to look like it is 1948; lots of extras were brought who wore period hats. The convoy was coming in and suddenly I saw that everything was stopped and reversed back to square one, and then they started again one more time for a second take, and then a third one and so on. I thought to myself, are they crazy? What? They’re rolling again, and again. It seemed crazy.

E: Did you see European cinema at that time?

S: Yes, like everyone else. Art movies began to arrive in the country, films of Fellini, Godard, Ingmar Bergman and others. In the 1950s many Italian films were screened in Israel, but gradually it stopped. Also French films were very popular in the country. But I, in a natural way, loved American movies. The gangster movies for instance, movies that are organized in a literary fashion like a story with a beginning, middle and end, with a clearly defined hero, an obvious protagonist, an obvious antagonist, a goal that the hero strives to achieve and obstacles he had to overcome and a baddie that tries to hamper and stop him. In other words, the traditional story structure. The more avant-garde cinema, more experimental, didn't appeal to me, despite the critics that praised the films of Ingmar Bergman. Movies, as we know, come in many flavors. I realized that I was attracted to American cinema, Hollywood type movies.

E: That means that at that same time your cinematic taste began to crystallize.

S: At the age of high school and military service I began to differentiate between different types of film. Prior to this movies were simply movies; there was no difference between a Jerry Lewis movie and a John Wayne movie. As I got older I began to distinguish and see that I love traditional American film: musicals, Westerns and crime films. It was only in the 1960s that the revolution in American cinema started, with the appearance of Woodstock and Easy Rider until then American films were very traditional.

E: So after the military service you started to flirt with the idea of making movies?

S: Yes, but I had no knowledge. Who made movies back then? A bunch of lunatics in Tel Aviv, a very small group. Once a year an Israeli movie would come out. But I knew even back then that movies are made in Hollywood, movies that ignited me and stimulated my imagination. I had a basic urge to express myself in a medium that interested me and I had the feeling I could do it to tell a story with pictures, with visual means.

E: And at that time there was no film school in Israel you could study in?

S: There was none. Only those crazy guys in Tel Aviv, Menahem Golan, David Gurfinkel, only they knew how to make movies. No one knew how to make movies at all.
In those days, I joined the band in the Jezrael valley called "Shumbatsal"; it was a band in the style of military bands with songs, sketches, etc. I found there an outlet and plenty of artistic expression.

E: You found your place there?

S: Yes. Very quickly, I realized that I'm not a great singer, I haven’t got a great voice, but I participated more in the sketches. It was interesting: stages, directors, writers. It was another connection point to cinema. So in fact I came to the movies from photography and from the theater. In 1972, at the age of 21 I felt the need to connect these two domains. I was lucky and the band was sent to tour the U.S. Some Jewish-Israeli officials decided that a tour of an Israeli band should travel and perform on all campuses of universities in the US and they chose us. We traveled to the USA, the whole band. It was an opportunity from heaven. I didn't have work hard to travel to Hollywood; I was invited, so I went.

E: It was your first time abroad?

S: First time, yes. In those days, who could afford to travel abroad?

E: You already knew that from Los Angeles you are not coming back?

S: When it all started to take shape I knew that I wasn't coming back. I am going there and not coming back. I even told my parents: "I'm going to study cinema, it's an opportunity."

E: Without knowing where, without knowing anything?

S: Nothing. But I knew that in Israel there is nowhere to learn cinema. Many Israelis went to study in England and France; that was the practice. Some went to study at the London Film School, or in France, but to study cinema in America was considered shameful, the American cinema was perceived as inferior. The only one who studied then in the USA was Menahem Golan.

E: So in 1972 you're flying with the band, the tour ends, they are all returning, and you stay?

S: Yes, after an amazing tour of three months all over the USA, I told everyone goodbye. In each city we arrived, our hosts took us to see tourists attractions. In Los Angeles, our host took us to Universal Studios. After five minute of being there, I knew that this is it.

E: What did you know?

S: That that is it. This is the place. Here I have to stop. I stood there on a hill viewing over the studios from above and I told myself, this is it, this is my place, and this is where I should be.

E: How did you finance your stay in the U.S.?

S: My parents gave me some money and I also saved the expense allowance I got during the band's tour. I didn't buy anything. I barely ate anything. Dwelling in New York didn't cost me, and when I came to Los Angeles I lived with my relatives from the Firstenberg tribe. The first thing I did was to seek work. I worked at a gas station, and at the same time I started to inquire about film studies. I asked some Israelis whom I met where can one study cinema? There were several options and I was accepted to Columbia College Los-Angeles. This is a branch of a huge school in Chicago, a college that teaches arts. One of its divisions is for film and television. Because it was a College the emphasis is more practical, but we also studied theory. In the College we indeed learned everything, but there were much more practical projects.

E: Did you receive a scholarship or funded the tuition from work?

S: First thing, I enrolled and that helped me to get a student visa. I got a few minor scholarships. But I also worked in various jobs: in a gas station, at a furniture store. At some point I also worked for a plumber. My needs were meager: buses, some food and the pay for a room I rented.

E: How are you recollections from the time in the college in terms of cinema?

S: It was as if I suddenly dropped into heaven, as if a blindfold was suddenly removed from my eyes. Suddenly you're in the right place where you were meant for. You're suddenly surrounded by 100-200 people, all interested in the same things you are interested in, they all speak the same language, all the teachers speak exactly about what you've been looking for all these years. I arrived ignorant and nave as to all matters regarding cinema, I had no idea that there was editing, that a movie is being filmed not in the sequential order of scenes. The part of the photography, I knew since I dealt with photography, but I didn't know basic things like lighting, like the fact that the sound is recorded separately from the image and it is combined later.

E: And it fascinated you, that knowledge?

S: Fascinated me a lot. My eyes were opened I realized within three minutes that this is how it should be. It was so obvious that I immediately realized that this is it, that Ah, Yes, of course, that is cinema, that's how it should be, it is obvious, I just didn't see it." And then I learned something important, I learned that in film school you are being taught a lot, but you have to get out and do things by yourself. I realized that the place I need to be in as long as possible is the equipment storage room. Luckily three more Israelis went to the same school with me, and Israelis as Israelis do, we took ownership of the equipment storage room. They told me that it is easier to check out the equipment on weekends because usually it is being used when studying takes place during week days. I realized that I needed to make a short film, so I found a short story and decided to jump in the water. I sensed that this way I can advance; can improvise, can do things, not just wait for them to happen.

E: And in retrospect, it paid off?

S: Very much so. Even when I got a master's degree in cinema at the University later on I realized that film schools are good place, they teach a lot, but do not take care of the practical side. 80% of the students at film schools are passive, they come to study cinema, or learn how to make films, but they don't "do" movies. Only those who pull themselves by the boots straps and in film schools there are all the conditions to do so: the equipment, the students who will help you, actors, volunteers they are the ones who eventually end up working and making films and will become moviemakers.
While studying I met more Israelis in town, and one day I was invited to a Hanukkah party. Suddenly someone says to me, "You see this guy? That's Menahem Golan." Wow, for me he was a celebrity, a man who makes films, the greatest, Menahem Golan, here in this party. I went to him, introduced myself and we started talking. He told me that he was in the pre-production stage of an American film he was going direct. A movie called Lepke, starring Tony Curtis, a movie about the Jewish mafia in New York. I asked him: "Can I work with you?" he replied," How much do you want?" I told him that I don't want any money, just the opportunity to work in the film. He told me "Good, come in tomorrow." Of course, the next morning I showed up. Menahem Golan asked me into the office and introduced me to the production manager, telling him, "Take him, work with him, he is with us in the movie." It was still in the stage of building the sets; they built a section of New York City, so they made me a general handyman to help with whatever was needed. In English they call it "go-for" (Go for this, go for that); as I told you before, immediately I realized that this is the place for me. Here films are being made. This is the movies.
I quit all the jobs, I quit plumbing, and from now on it would be only this, that’s it. Of course, it was an eight hour workday and I received special permission from the college to only attend classes and go back to the set. When I was on the set, I felt like Alice in Wonderland; I looked left and right and I didn't understand what was going on there. Everything ran like a well oiled machine, they all were professionals. When the first day of shooting started, I became really a "go-for" the coffee bringer. All around me were actors like Tony Curtis, cameras, 100 people, cars and costumes, Wawa. And then the filming started, that lasted for 12 hours a day and afterward all the big shots and the important people gathered in the screening room to see the rushes. I sat everyday in a corner of the room watching with them the rushes. Of course in those days the shooting was done with film, it was then synchronized; we were watching what was shot the previous day. This was it, I was with them day and night, on weekdays, on the weekends, whatever they did, I did too, whatever was possible, wherever one could stick in his nose, I stuck in mine.
After the filming was over I stayed on to work as a runner in Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus’s office, in their little company before they purchased Cannon that was called AmeriEuro Pictures Corp. There was a need for someone to bring and take things, especially screenplays. Because I was very cheap, I stayed to work in the company. I had a motorcycle in those days, and the arrangement was good. I was paid a small salary, but I had flexibility; I was able to also learn and also work.
Wherever Menahem Golan went, I went too, to see edited sections, to see them reedited anew. In the meantime I learned, also in a practical manner. I roamed freely in Paramount, Universal, Colombia because I had to bring scripts to everywhere and take back. When I roamed around I felt like I'm in Hollywood." I went into the sound stages, saw filming of westerns, I would spend an hour or two in the Studio, then saddle back on the bike and go back to the office. I had permits to roam around in the large studios, in the large stages, to see how big films are being photographed. I had a great time.

E: When was your first leap in the motion pictures field?

S: In 1975, in the movie "Diamonds." Menahem Golan decided to make in Israel an international movie called "Diamonds" with the British actor Robert Shaw. I was in the midst of studying and I begged Golan to take me with him as his Assistant Director. He agreed that I would be a second AD - Assistant to the first Assistant Director, Zion Chen.
There was a lot of tension during the filming of the movie, which had a substantial budget, with long hours and many extras. Robert Shaw, a big star, behaved like a "Diva." At times he would show up on the set and some others would not. After six weeks of filming, a clash developed between Menahem Golan and Zion, and he left angrily. Menahem turned to me and said: "You are now the assistant director go ahead, run the set." So just like that, on the spot I became the Assistant Director of the film. In terms of American film, the role of an Assistant Director is to manage the set, unlike in a European film. He is the one running the set.

E: And how did you manage with the last week of production?

S: I had been on enough sets previously. It wasn't my first movie. Also, I came from the background of American filmmaking, and I knew somewhat of how a movie set was operating in America, how should an actress like Shelley Winters be treated, one of the film's stars, like Robert Shaw. To Israelis it was much more difficult because they didn't know how to run an American set. They were not familiar with the quietness and order.
Here started the period that I worked a lot as an assistant director, mainly in Israel in many "Burekas" genre films; "Tzanani Family" "500,000 Black" "Let's blow up a Million" and more. I did it for nearly four years. One of the bigger films I worked on was "Operation Thunderbolt," a big movie; it made a lot of money.
While working in the country, with the connections I made in the industry and with self-financing, I wrote and directed a short film, thirty minutes long, named "For the sake of a Dog" from a story by Yigal Lev. It was a short, melancholic film about the loyal relations between an elderly Holocaust survivor and his dog.
After four years I felt that I exhausted the "Bourekas" genre films and I was tired of being an Assistant Director so I decided to return to the United States to study for a graduate degree program.

E: What is it like to return to study after a break of several years?

S: I think that studying cinema is a good thing. Although it is possible to become a great filmmaker without studying at all, when you study in an orderly manner, you realize that in cinema there's methodology, there's history, there is a structure to film studies, and it's not filming and making films alone.

E: Your final graduate project movie was a feature named "ONE MORE CHANCE" a social drama about an ex-con, which was presented at the Cannes Film Festival. Tell me about it.

S: Also here there is an interesting story. I studied for an MA at Loyola Marymount University - Los-Angeles. The film required as a final project for the master's degree is typically 30-minute in length. But as usual, I said to myself - if there is equipment, there is a department, I am going to make a 90 minutes film. It was always my attitude: to exploit the system, as much as I could. I wrote a script and then convinced the department's head to turn my project into a class in the academic program and that the participating students would receive credit, and so it was. During school I was always aware of directors like Steven Spielberg, who began directing at the age of twenty five. I too wanted to make a feature film before the age of thirty.

E: How long did it take you to finish the movie?

S: We were able to shoot only on weekends because people weren't available at any other time, and so it took a year and a half. There was also the problem of funding, because the equipment and the resources that the University can give are limited. Me and the production team working with me on the movie, we took student loans. But at some point we ran out of money. And then I discovered that the film lab that was developing the negative charges you only when a copy is being fetched, therefore in the last year of filming we only photographed and developed, filmed and developed, but we did not fetch the copies so we never saw what we shot.

E: It means you didn’t see rushes?

S: We didn't see a thing. If we were to see, we had to pay, and we had no money.

E: It means you couldn't finish your movie?

S: Right, I was stuck. But what a miracle at the same time, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, bought a failing production company called Cannon, which specialized, until then, in erotic films, and moved it to Los Angeles. I decided to go with the material I had, half an hour of movie, to Menahem to get him interested. Menahem was impressed with the material and saw that it had potential. He offered to pay the lab to release all the material that we had sent in but was not yet paid for. We started working in their little office on Sunset Boulevard. When I started to edit the movie we realized that there was a need for more filming and Cannon agreed to sponsor that too. Eventually the film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and a few other festivals worldwide, including the Locarno Film Festival, Chicago International Film Festival and others.

E: And then what?

S: During the two years that I worked on the film, Menahem and Yoram worked on their first film. The movie is called "Enter the Ninja" and it was filmed in the Philippines.

E: I must stop you at this point and ask how did Menahem Golan discover this world of the Ninja?

S: You know that in Hollywood it often happens that someone comes in with an idea; people and ideas are circulating around Hollywood all the time. One day a guy named Mike Stone showed up at the office, and he was a karate champion, a personal trainer of Elvis Presley, and was friends with Bruce Lee, who back then made the Kung-Fu movies. He told Menahem that in Japan there is something more interesting than Kung Fu. It's called Ninja. He described to Menahem the black rags, all the costumes. Menahem Golan has this attribute that he lights up when he sees the potential, when he identifies a possibility of a commercial success.

E: And following it he is making "Enter the Ninja"?

S: Yes. They decide to shoot the movie in the Philippines. During the filming Menahem was not satisfied with the Director and began directing the film himself. Also with Mike Stone, who was supposed to play the movie hero, he wasn't satisfied and replaced him with an Italian actor: Franco Nero. The film premiered and gained some recognition. Canon wanted to immediately make a sequel named "Revenge of the Ninja." Menahem did not have the will to direct again and he decided to look for a director. At that period of time I was roaming the corridors of Canon and one day caught his gaze in the office and he muttered toward me: "Can you make an action movie?" I answered automatically that yes, I could. His response was very short: "Here this is the script."

E: How did you start to work on "Revenge of the Ninja?"

S: Except for the films of Akira Kurosawa I had never seen nor known the martial arts films created in Hong Kong. The star we cast in the movie, Sho Kosugi, who was a heavy duty grand master of martial arts, recommended to me what movies to watch, and that way I was able to get into this world.
At first, I started to draw a story board, and then I realized something significant: the film must be different from the traditional Hong Kong’ish style films, where the action is tremendous, nonstop combat scenes. Instinctively I understood that the proper way to do this is to combine half drama and half fights and action. I also realized that if we make martial arts action such as in the Hong kong’ish movies, we wouldn’t reach the Western audience. In other words, it should be a film in the James Bond style, but with a Ninja in it. The story of the Ninja will be incorporated in action of a James Bond type. Like a Western action flick, but with the Ninja stuff instead of cars and guns. Of course, Sho Kosugi being a grand master swayed toward purity of martial arts and wanted to keep it close to the tradition of the Hong kong’ish movies. But I decided that it wasn't going to be that way and pulled it towards my direction. The film ultimately is indeed a combination of both.

E: Weren't you afraid to make a first movie in the industry, in a domain you are not familiar enough with?

S: No. In all frankness it's not something to think about. You are within the making and want very much to succeed. By the way, one of the ways to control the concerns in action film is to make a Storyboard as detailed as possible. In addition, it was agreed that Sho Kosugi will choreograph the fights. He will put them together. We also had a choreographer for the doubles. It means that two choreographers worked with me in the movie and I didn't have to deal with the fights. I worked with them on the storyboard, and in the process I understood, again by instinct, that every action scene has to tell a story by itself. It should be a story with a beginning, middle and end. Two people just fighting to beat each other and it ends when one of them falls – there is no interest in it. It means that every action scene should be a little story within itself, and behave like every other dramatic scene, with ups and downs, with peaks and depths - it is a little story. The protagonist is in jeopardy; he needs to get out of it.

E: Isn't it complicated to dissect the whole story to shot by shot?

S: Action movie is constructed of small screws: the wheel is turning on the road, the hand is changing gear, the foot is breaking glass, long shot, and a man comes through glass. That’s how action is being built, from lots of small screws. An action scene of one minute could be three hundred, four hundred shots.

E: Is there any room at all for improvisation on the set of an action movie?

S: Yes and no. In a dramatic scene with two, three, four actors it is possible to change lines on the spot, change the script, it is possible to improvise. However, an action scene depends on so many technical things and on so many people: the fighters, the participants, their stunt doubles, the cars, alternative cars in case something happens, pistols of different kinds, machine guns, etc. If everything is not ready in advance, you immediately see it in the filming. It means that an action scene should be prepared perfectly in advance for the work to be successful, it’s impossible to improvise.

E: Are you able to enjoy the set?

S: I enjoy it tremendously. Once again we're returning to the subject of "telling a story." My job is to tell a story, and now I am building it, building the elements: inserting this letter and that word and so on.
In making a movie the director is the only one who knows how all of this is supposed to work in the editing room. Everyone on the set has only one interest: to capture this specific scene. They won't come into the room. Only the Director, he's the only one who will eventually end up in the edit room and make sure that all the sections, all the fragments will connect to each other. I really have a good time during the production period.

E: How important is it to you in an action film, the dramatic shifts of the heroes?

S: With no dramatic shifts, nobody cares about the hero. If you do not sympathize with him and you're not worried that he will not succeed at the end, all the action you're working on is for nothing. I've seen such movies. You see another action scene and another action scene and you don't care about anything the viewer doesn't identify emotionally with the protagonist, it's not important to him if he wins. However, because we work with low budget, we don't have the luxury to spend days and hours on the drama as we do invest in action scenes. Therefore, sometimes directors cut corners here and there. But it shouldn't happen. I try to give the same status and the same amount of resources to the dramatic part and the action part.

E: How was "Revenge of the Ninja" received when it hit the screens?

S: For a small movie it was an enormous success. It was presented right away on 400 - 500 cinemas. At that time it was a lot, for a low budget film this is a wide distribution. In the first few weeks the movie was one of the top ten, for a small film this is a huge thing.

E: How did you feel about that?

S: Not much. I was so naive, I had no idea how Hollywood works.

E: How were the famous Break-dance films of Cannon born?

S: The same way Menahem Golan was hooked by the Ninja, so someone entered his office and hooked him up on the break-dance idea. The first film in the break-dance series was directed by Joel Silberg, and the movie became a surprise hit. Of course, in Cannon they wanted to immediately create a sequel and here again I was approached. Menahem asked me, "Can you do dances?" I replied, "What, dances? Action and dances is the same thing!" So he said: "Go ahead, go and do it, you will direct it"

E: Was the film was made in the same budgetary scale as "Revenge of the Ninja"?

S: The budget was significantly bigger, about five and a half million dollars which today is like fifteen million. In Cannon they wanted the outcome to be a good movie, not to pinch pennies, to make a great movie. We filmed for nine weeks, there was a choreographer, there was a music supervisor, and a big record company was involved in the project from the beginning. There were also four, five Assistant Directors. This is quite a large movie in terms of its complexity. There's one scene with three thousand extras.

E: When I am watching "Breackdance 2," I truly see elements from the "Bourekas" film genre in it. How do you explain this?

S: It's true. Do not forget that both I and also Menahem come from the "Bourekas" films genre. There's a scene in the movie that Menahem wrote himself - the scene where the kids are coming to dinner and the lead character sneaks his food to a cat and a dog. It's a similar scene to one from "Kazablan" when Yehoram Gaon comes to eat at the home of the Ashkenazi Jews. The whole scene is taken from "Kazablan."

E: Did Menahem do it on purpose?

S: Yes. Of course, he worked with us on the script. In the Ninja movies Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, were not pestering producers, they allowed me to do whatever I wanted, and most of them were not even filmed in Los Angeles but far from their sight, but in this movie that was as mentioned filmed in Los Angeles, Menahem was very involved. One of his daughters was just then a teenager and this movie was set in advance to target this age. Don't forget also that Menahem loved musical films.

E: How was the reaction to the film when it hit the screens?

S: Here there is also a very special story regarding the release of the movie in theaters. The film was distributed by the well oiled distribution company TriStar (Columbia Pictures). They planned for it to be the second most important film in the summer of 1984. The most important for that summer was supposed to be a movie called Supergir that came out a week before "Breakin" in a gigantic distribution of 1100 cinemas. After three days it was apparent to TriStar that Supergirl was a resounding flop. People weren't coming to theaters. They did the calculation and decided immediately to print eleven hundred copies of "Breakin' 2 Elactric Boogaloo" and switch between the movies in the same eleven hundred movies theaters. That's how business is done in Hollywood.
Very quickly it was apparent that it was a tremendous success. The kids, "went nuts" over this film. It is a film for youth, boys and girls. In this summer, everyone was break-dancing.

E: How come you didn't seize on the success and move to direct in the major studios?

S: In those days, back in the 1980s, such a move was dangerous. The studios, back then, would develop 100 scripts a year, only 20 of which were filmed. Under this system only a handful of directors would direct, and the rest of them continued to work on developing new films, hoping that their bids would proceed to the stage of production. I decided not to enter this system. I knew that if I stayed with Menahem and Yoram, every year I would make a movie, while in the studios I could get stuck and not make a movie even in eight years.

E: What was the next project after "Breakdance 2"

S: In Cannon they decided to return back to Ninja. Menahem Golan thought then that the Ninja should become American. He wanted that way to conquer the American market and asked me to work on a script for such a movie.
We've been working on it, three Israelis: Gideon Amir, Avi Kleinberger and me. We found an American writer and began working with him from scratch. Gradually a story was formulated. We had to film in the Philippines due to budget considerations; therefore the story became a story about an American soldier serving in a base in the Philippines. The main idea was to build a story around an antihero, sort of like some kind of a James Dean, who doesn't want to get involved in action, but always had to succumb to be pulled into it.

E: Michael, Dudikoff, the movie’s hero, is very similar to James Dean.

S: He's a kind of hero of rebel without a cause, that's the kind of hero we were looking for. In the casting stage we saw four hundred actors amongst them was also Michael Dudikoff.

E: Did he have experience in the Martial Arts?

S: No! But he lied to us. As soon as he entered we understood that this is the guy we're looking for, this is the guy that we wrote the story about. He had a captivating charisma; he was very athletic and very sporty and learned the fighting moves very quickly.

E: You were going to shoot the movie in the Philippines?

S: Yes, the consideration to shoot in the Philippines was economic. It’s very cheap to shoot there. The economic consideration is crucial because we had to shoot with three separate filming units; a unit that shoots the main movie, a unit that shoots the secondary part, and a unit that shoots in the jungle, without actors. We filmed between eight to nine weeks. This was a very big production, but we saved a lot of money because we shot in the Philippines. For example, there is a big battle scene that was filmed during two weeks; this is a very complex scene with lots of explosions and a massive fire. In the movie the scene lasts for just seven minutes of intense action.

E: I feel that with American Ninja you brought to realization everything you had done up to that point in cinema.

S: Right. Many things came together in this movie to enable its success. In fact, it started from the first day of filming. The people were the right ones, the choreographer was the right one, and the chemistry on set just worked. There was this feeling that the magic is happening.

E: There is this feeling that in American Ninja you had much more freedom than in the rest of the movies you've done before.

S: We were completely independent in the Philippines, far away from the nerve center in Los Angeles. Menahem and Yoram were busy with another movie they had, that started to get messy, and left us alone.
Moreover, usually movies need some completion and additional filming, but we got instructions from Cannon to shoot as much as we want. Not to hold back in filming. We shot so much that there was no need for completion or additional photography.

E: How was the movie received when it hit the theaters?

S: It was madness. The film became a humungous international success. It was in the blockbusters hit parade for a few consecutive weeks, not only in the U.S. but also in countries like France. It was the golden age of Cannon.

E: American Ninja's plot is very critical towards the United States. It's a movie about corruption in the military, the sullied of the American imperialism. Did you intend to criticize American foreign policy during the Ronald Reagan period?

S: It's simply a good story. Antagonists, protagonists, good guys bad guys, there was no intention of a subversive political message. It's a simple story about a boy who becomes a hero.

E: Didn't it interest you to convey in your films any political or social critique?

S: The truth is that it was not really important to me. The only movie of mine that was very political and social was RIVERBEND. Also here there is quite an amazing story. In the 1980s a multi millionaire producer from Texas approached me, with an exceptional and interesting screenplay, which dealt with racial discrimination in America's South in the 1960s. The plot dealt with a civil rebellion of black residents against the white patrons, in a small racist town in Alabama, led by a black army officer from California, who just returned from Vietnam. It was different and very radical in its content. Although some companies considered the possibility of distributing it, it was never shown in theaters, probably because of the sensitive topic. There is a scene in it where the black folks take their white neighbors, lock them up in a church, and threaten to execute them unless their demands are met. This is a very powerful scene and exceptional in the cinematic landscape of those years.
The investor demanded that the movie be filmed in Dallas and surrounding areas. In the production all of the technical staff were white Texans, all the actors were Southern blacks, it was filmed in small-towns where some of the residents were still racist… In one of the scenes hundreds of black extras are marching in the town's main street, a very rare sight in Texas, and in the center of it, with a loudspeaker in his hand, conducting it all an Israeli director with a foreign accent. It was definitely an extremely surreal sight.

E: Throughout the whole interview you keep repeating and saying that all you want is to simply tell a good story in the best possible way?

S: Yes, for me it is important that people will walk into the cave and for one and a half hour will forget that they are sitting in a cave.

E: One last question, now that you no longer direct movies, how and to whom are you telling stories?

S: It's a very good question and I have for you a good answer as well. I did not stop telling stories I probably can't do without them and that's why I created for myself in Los Angeles where I reside and live new frameworks where I continues to fascinate audiences with stories. As you know the Israeli community in the City of Angels is not a little one and within it I set up together with a musician friend a sing-along group, only Israeli songs “Lea’s Hebrew Singing Club." She is responsible for the musical part and I took upon myself to add transitional words, anecdotes and stories between songs. All the stories relate to the chronicles of Hebrew songs, historical events, biography of the writers or artists, commentary and sometimes gossip, depending on what I find. We meet once every few months for the singing gatherings that last for two hours with between 80 to 250 enthusiastic participants. Hebrew and Israeli songs are my second passion right after cinema, when I listen to an Israeli radio in the internet it is only to the station that plays none stop Hebrew song.
In addition, from time to time I am invited to various gatherings where I am provided the opportunity to tell a crowd some longer stories such as the history of Jerusalem, or how the financial side of Hollywood operates and some other stories I have in my arsenal of tales. My stories are always accompanied by a presentation of pictures and photos making them verbal and visual at the same time. And most important is that there is audience and when they listen to me and enjoy, it gives me great pleasure and I'm happy.
Like I told you before, I was destined to tell stories.

(Translated from Hebrew closely resembling the original. Published first in the June 2012 issue of Cinema South publication, associated with the Sam Firstenberg tribute that took place in the 2012 Cinema South International Film Festival in Sderot, Israel)

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