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Entertainment out of explosions and ninjas
An interview with Sam Firstenberg

11-24-2018

If there's one thing I've learned from watching 80s action movies, it's that the only way to escape the ninja is being a better ninja or owning a significant quantity of firepower. As I arrive to interview director Sam Firstenberg, visiting Finland for the Night Visions Film Festival, I am not equipped with either of these abilities. His Cannon-centric filmography covers four ninja films consisting of Revenge of the Ninja, a true 80s action classic, Ninja III: The Domination, arguably the most lunacy-filled film of the subgenre with its possession-centric plotline, American Ninja, and its sequel, both films with a notable tail due to being more or less live-action G.I. Joe films made decades before Stephen Sommers showed up.

I couldn't dodge asking about these films, even though I know the topic has been covered thoroughly over the decades by hundreds of writers. "I knew nothing of ninjas when I was offered Revenge of the Ninja. I did however love the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa" was Firstenberg's response to the question of what drove him to direct all these films about the ninja after his directorial debut, the drama One More Chance. Sho Kosugi, star of Revenge, introduced Firstenberg to the concept with books and Hong Kong action films. This never exactly became a passion for him, though. "I never initiated any of these ninja films. They were offered to me."

Passion however was a large part of the project I decided to really go hard on. The 1989 film Riverbend, nowadays only available on old VHS tapes or bootleg digital copies thereof, discusses racism in the Jim Crow south, as a Vietnam vet played by Steve James escapes a court marshal transport bus with his friends in 1966 into the nearby town of Riverbend. In town, a racist sheriff terrorizes the local colored population by raping them and shooting them, in broad daylight no less. James trains the locals to fight back, and eventually the state troopers and army gets involved as a city-wide hostage situation takes place, with James and his troops kidnapping white residents from their homes in the dark of the night for ransom. The topic is a delicate one, but the film occasionally feels like exploitation. The problems seem to spur from the screenplay. "I didn't write this movie. It wasn't my idea. Two men from Texas approached me." One of them was Sam Vance, the screenwriter, a black Vietnam-vet himself (though Firstenberg never managed to validate the latter part of that statement). He never names the other Texan during our interview, but he was a white man, the financier of the film. The reasons for why he remains nameless become clear during our interview. "Riverbend was a privately financed film. The studios had nothing to do with it."

"When I received the screenplay, it was finished. I didn't write the film at all. I do think I brought something of my own to it when we were shooting it." This is the beginning of the director's answer to how present he was during the creative process. What follows is a monologue about his upbringing. He grew up in Jerusalem until he was 21 years old, and describes this environment as a cradle of tolerance. There were nationalities from Hungary to Morocco, and race didn't seem to matter. You can see the telling of his childhood of a 68-year old man as something colored with nostalgic, rose-tinted glasses, but it's clear that this is his experience of his life, and as such it shouldn't be downplayed. This environment significantly differs in contrast to the milieu of Riverbend. "The racism of that era was born through history. When the slaves were emancipated there were still two groups: Owners and slaves. Change came gradually when the slaves received more equal rights with the white populace."

The end of Riverbend is among the most perplexing in film. After a hard night of action scenes Steve James with his troops surrender on the condition that the media can arrive to town to record the story of those oppressed. The black citizens meet the white citizens in the middle of main street, hug and shake hands. An uplifting song plays. "I had nothing to do with the music." Firstenberg retorts. When he was offered the project, the screenplay was around 140 pages long. The financier and screenwriter had no experience in filmmaking, and they didn't want to cut a page. "The financier wanted to see every page on screen because he was paying for it." The shooting was a pleasant experience, but the editing ran long. There was footage for a film well over two hours. Riverbend stands at 96 minutes. "During the editing process Vance and the financier started fighting. When I finished editing they were no longer speaking to each other." After the editing, they just needed the music. At this point the financier let it be known he was an aspiring composer, and he took the film with him to San Francisco. "After he and Vance started fighting he no longer trusted me." The financier didn't want to sell the film to distributors with the aid of Firstenberg's agent, but rather wanted to do everything on his own.

"The music is terrible. It clearly lacks the steady hand of a composer, to uphold continuity from one scene to the next." I can't disagree. The film begins with a banjo and harmonica. In the climax it features a lackluster mix of James Bond music and Goblin. The combination is far worse than that comparison implies. The final scene features a song with vocals, stating that if we just forgive and forget we can leave the past behind. "The financier did it all himself. He saw himself as a white liberal Texan, who wanted to make a film about the mistreatment of black people in the south. Unfortunately he came from construction, not art."

Among the finest details in the film is the collar of Tony Frank, playing the sheriff. He is constantly swimming in his own bodily juices from the collar all the way down to the beginning of his stomach. "I wanted to make it clear that the south is always hot and humid. I made Avenging Force in New Orleans prior to Riverbend, so I know the atmosphere there. It's sweaty even at night, when we see the sheriff harassing black patrons in a local bar. This is why we sprayed Frank with a spritzer."

A slightly less explainable detail is the love life of our heroine, Belle. Her husband dies in the beginning of the film, and within the film's chronology, it takes no more than 48 hours for her to be petting a mound of dirt within which her husband is buried, confessing her true love for Steve James. It's a weird, abrupt message of true love. "In terms of the story, it's longer than 48 hours. In the film it might seem like a smaller time. I haven't seen the film in a while, but I remember this being the one scene I was not happy with. It just doesn't work." A character confessing his or her new love on the grave of their former beloved is a classic American scene. "Even John Wayne visited his wife's grave in westerns before retiring. It's a Hollywood convention about love being the ultimate force. It's the goal of everything ever since Casablanca. We believe in love because it's part of Hollywood's cinematic language. It's what happens in American films."

"Riverbend clearly isn't based on reality. Nothing like that ever happened in the U.S. in the 60s. We did want the mood of that era in our film. Vance wanted to explore the racial tensions and injustices of the south." I can't help but feel that Vance also tries, with little success, to say something of the primal nature of man. In one scene, the mayor and sheriff are forced into a knife-fight by their black captors. The mayor shouts "We're not animals, we're white men!", implying that their black captors are animals within his racist mind. The interesting thing about the scene is what immediately follows, as Steve James has a fight with his subordinate that's at least as animalistic as the prior knife fight. "When we're making a movie we don't think about things this philosophically. Sam Vance was an interesting man. He was a very tall man, always wearing cowboy boots and a Stetson hat. Big belt buckles and all. He called himself a black cowboy. He had the air of a con-man and showman. I never really understood him during the time we worked together." One day Vance rode a horse to the set. "Now that I think about it, that scene does fit Vance's ideology. He thinks of men as macho, people who have something to prove and fight for."

Speaking of ideology, Riverbend showcases Firstenberg's ideology of creating antagonists. Within the context of the film, it's downright nasty and gross. In other films the method is more successful, though it's always interesting to hear why, for example, the murder of little children in a film like Avenging Force is the correct way of making a great bad guy. "In my films there is 45 minutes of action and 45 minutes of plot. I need to efficiently create a villain, that my audience hates as much as possible. The easiest way of doing it is to make him do bad things, that hurt our hero. Spending time wisely on a simple narrative is important in my films, and simple heroes and villains aid it."

Firstenberg has a keen sense of the type of films he made. "I don't make heavy movies. My movies have the feel of a comic book. The characters are over the top from the heroes to the villains. If the villain had strong motives, which carried the same weight as those of our hero, the film would be a deep drama. My films are entertainment, not deep drama." This explanation does open up Firstenberg's cinematography successfully. I still don't quite understand what Revenge of the Ninja's archetypal cowboy, paired with a native American, is all about. "They're in that scene for comedy. We wanted a fun scene, where Sho Kosugi gets to showcase his martial arts."

History will remember Firstenberg not only as a director of ninja-centric cinema, but also as the man we can thank for the existence of the defacto silly sequel name, the Cannon-production Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. "I love it! I don't know why the name has held up so well, but I love it, and the film itself. It's become part of the iconography of the 80s." He tells the story of a young filmmaker who he was introduced to as the director of said film. "That's impossible, you can't be the director of Breakin' 2. Everyone knows he's black!" was the response. Firstenberg has always treated this as an immense compliment, a sign of him successfully tapping into the cultural zeitgeist with his story of kids saving a community center with the power of dance.

Cultural zeitgeist, though with less effort, has been something the director has tried to tap into later on in his career as well, such as with the 1993 Cyborg Cop. David Bradley, the titular cop, wears a fanny pack for most of the film. It's almost a Checkov's fanny pack, as it is never opened or acknowledged. "David wanted to wear it. It was fashionable, everyone had one. I think he brought it from home. I thought it was a nice detail, something that built the character." The mere thought of the possibilities of a David Bradley fanny pack filled with David Bradley -themed items makes me salivate, but the truth is somewhat less exciting. "I think he kept his sunglasses in there."

Cyborg Cop is also notable for being the pinnacle of Firstenberg's almost-fetish towards explosions. Several things explode, as usual, but each of them also explodes a second time. "If there's a deeper meaning to my explosions, leave it to Freud. I worked for Cannon. Nowadays people call it the "Cannon look," which is a result of two things they placed upon me: The film needed a helicopter and explosions. They loved explosions." Firstenberg thinks the audiences for his films look for them in his films. Friday, two days after holding this interview, American Ninja will be screened in Kinopalatsi. He already knows the reaction to the scene in which John LaMotta slowly drives his jeep into a palm tree, which leads to a huge explosion of said jeep. "They'll cheer and clap! Cyborg Cop has one of my favorite explosions, where a gas station blows up. We blew up another one in Cyborg Cop 2, and it was beautiful too."

The still operating Nu Image was behind the Cyborg Cop -films. Danny Dimbort, former of Cannon, founded the company that has gone on to produce films such as The Expendables. "Same thing with more money," Firstenberg proclaims. Nu Image sells to the same audience as Cannon did. "The mid-budget B-movies died in the end of the 1990s. The studios took over." The director places a number of the blame upon James Cameron's True Lies and other studio-produced Schwarzenegger-films. "They made B-movies with big money. Then it's no longer a B-movie but an A-movie. The content is the same. The Fast & The Furious -films are a good example of this. There's non-stop explosions and cars jumping from one building to another. The films are technically gorgeous. The explosions are digital though. At least we really blew things up."

Firstenberg believes the reason behind Cannon and companies like Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment disappearing (save for Nu Image) was financial, but two-folded. "The video boom of the 80s was great for companies like this, because the studios didn't care about home media. They got their money from the cinema and television channels. 10-12 years later it was different as audiences in cinemas diminished. The VHS market had more money than cinema did. The studios could make the same films better, so they pushed out the mid-budget production companies from that market, because the audiences got better films from the large studios." The second reason is related to television. US companies made a lot of money by selling foreign TV-rights for their films, and there was a lot of space on that marketplace. "Foreign channels needed something to air. We sold to Germany a film for 1AM something that would air in Italy at 2AM. The buyers paid well. 400,000 dollars for one film, 800,000 for another."

As technology evolved companies like Cannon turned out useless for these TV companies, though. Anyone can make a film with a digital camera. Peter Von Bagh's interpretation of digital video as the mere shadow of film wasn't the issue for directors like Firstenberg though. "Film became a paper bag business. Anyone could make one. You no longer needed Los Angeles or a film laboratory. TV channels no longer paid 400,000 dollars for a film when they could buy one for a tenth from the local production companies. This took out the bottom from the mid-budget film. B-action films are still made for a million or a million and a half, but they present 15-20 minutes of action. They don't have high speed chases, big stunts or explosions, relying more on martial arts fight scenes." You can sense a certain wistful air from Firstenberg's voice when he thinks about how the big studios looked at people like him. "We don't need those guys anymore. Why should we let them make money we could be making?"

The director ends our conversation thinking of the circle of life in the movie business. "Now a new era is here again. Home media is a thing of the past. Streaming is here now. Netflix and Amazon are coming to power." Perhaps they will blow up the traditional studios to bits. Several times.

The interview questions were made by Miikka Mononen and Tuomas Porttila. The text was written by Miikka Mononen.

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