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By Ewen Millar published in Summer 2003 issue of FIRELIGHT SHOCKS the magazine of cult and off beat cinema

American Ninja director Sam Firstenberg speaks about completing the last ever Ed Wood movie!

In an exclusive interview, the director of (just about) every ninja film and action-b movie that got you through your childhood talks to Firelight Shocks about his career on the B-Movie fringes, and how he ended up completing a long lost  Ed Wood film… by Ewen Millar

You’ve just turned up a couple of reels full of what you believe is long lost Ed-Wood footage rotting in the bottom of an archive room. The question is ‘what are you going to do with it’? This was what Sam Oldham, a B-Movie buff, asked himself. His solution was to assemble a seasoned crew of filmmakers to shoot a movie around the existing footage - all of whom worked on minimal salaries and back-end pay deals in order to complete the project. This guerrilla filmmaking and juxtaposition of old footage with new can hardly be accused of not keeping in the spirit of Ed Wood himself. But if you were going to do it, who would you call to finish the job, and fill in the shoes of the veritable master of high-camp filmmaking?

            Enter Sam Firstenberg, director of, amongst others, Revenge of the Ninja (1983) and cult martial arts classic American Ninja  (1985) as well as the inevitable American Ninja 2 (1987) and a whole host of other films that defined Cannon films output in the eighties. Firstenberg’s life-story is as interesting and varied as his eclectic body of work, begging the question - ‘How does a Jewish man go from being an assistant director on a film about Christ in Israel to making films about Ninjas and break dancing, and finally finishing off an Ed Wood movie?’

            “I grew up in Jerusalem during the fifties, and the country was very poor. It had a very lefty, socialist kind of atmosphere,” states Firstenberg. ”In my neighbourhood there was this little theatre that used to play double movies, and we used to go as kids to see whatever was playing, whether it was war movies, Tarzan, that kind of thing, so I had a great love of films, an attachment to films, from a young age. So, when I was 21, after finishing high school and serving in the military, I came to America with a purpose. Filmmaking was my goal (laughs). ” 

            The path to B-Movie guru status is however, rarely straight forward. After finishing film school, Firstenberg went back to Israel to work on, amongst other things, the film Jesus (1979). “Actually, that was very interesting. Talking about the Christian angle, I grew up in a mixed neighbourhood, called the Greek colony, as it was a mixture of Jews obviously, but a lot of Greek orthodox, so I was familiar with the Christian symbols. It was a very big production, nine months shooting, and they insisted that the shooting was done as much as possible in the original locations where things were believed to have happened. So we travelled all along the country, wherever the events we were filming, we went to the location where things were traditionally supposed to have happened. It was very interesting, historically, archaeologically.”

His return to the States in 1979 to complete a Masters degree in Film saw him hiring an unknown Kirstie Alley for his Masters project. “Kirstie Alley is an interesting story. In ‘79 I came back to Los Angeles for a Masters degree. I decided to make a full feature movie, and so we started casting, and we were looking for actors who would come and agree to work for no money. Kirstie Alley was a young acting student, not from my school, but from another, and she came in to audition. She was very good. So we made the drama film One More Chance (1981).”

“When I finished the movie with Kirstie Alley, someone came up with this idea – ‘let’s make a martial arts movie about Ninjas.’” But what does a recent film school grad from Jerusalem know about pesky, pyjama-clad, oriental bad-asses? “I didn’t know anything about Ninjas at all. They asked me if I had any experience with action, and I tell you man, the truth is I didn’t know anything about action (laughs). But hey, I’m a young director, what do I say? So as we started to prepare to movie, Sho Kosugi (the Japanese actor most singularly associable with the Ninja phenomenon in the eighties) introduced me to a lot of Chinese martial arts movies, but I realised that those movies are very heavy on the martial arts side, that is why they had not been very successful with a general audience. So my idea was to take this kind of movie and fuse it with a general action film, like a regular action movie, but with a Ninja slant. We’d make it look like a Burt Reynolds kind of a movie. So there are chases, there are guns.”

And there are also action scenes to be ripped off, as the Luc Besson-produced martial arts flop The Transporter (2003) indicates. If you’ve any interest in seeing this film, then skip ahead to the next paragraph, as there are spoilers ahead (or don’t bother, because the film’s rubbish). The culmination of this film has our lead character (played by Jason Stantham) doing a handstand flip on top of a truck, leading into a feet-first dive through said truck’s windshield, the illusion maintained by obvious CGI computer trickery. Which is great, although the exact same stunt was shot-for-shot performed in Revenge of the Ninja two decades previously, without any computers to make it easier. Rather than be perturbed by the blatant plagiarism, or boast about his own film, Firstenberg takes a Zen-like approach to these situations. “ I had an excellent stunt co-ordinator by the name of Steve Lambert. Of course, in action there is only so much you can do. So, you know, action directors, they look at each other’s movies… what can you do (laughs).”

So it’s the early nineteen-eighties. Possibly the only decade since the advent of film that could turn near Neanderthals like Van Damme, Schwarzenegger and Willis into movie icons, and Cannon films was spearheading this cultural devolution by churning out a seemingly endless supply of cheap, cheerful (and for the most part endearingly awful) action movies. “Cannon was the biggest independent company here in Hollywood, and was run by two Israelis, (Menahem) Golan and (Yoram) Globus. Cannon was doing a lot of low budget genre movies, as well as big budget movies like Superman 4 (1987; other failed blockbusters included Tobe Hooper’s 1985 fiasco Lifeforce , 1987’s Dolph Lungdren turd-burger Masters of the Universe). During the eighties, it was the time that low-budget action movies flourished. I directed a series of Ninja movies, one of them was very successful, American Ninja. I can measure it by the residuals - in Hollywood we get residuals from the Directors’ Guild, like in the record business. On this one movie, I still get residuals. Another movie that I did that I still get residuals from is Electric Boogaloo, the break dancing film. That is another movie that is still playing and playing - people seem to love it - it’s coming out on DVD in April.”

And in shooting American Ninja, Firstenberg launched the career of a young actor called Michael Dudikoff, who at the time looked like he could be destined for bigger things. It was rumoured that Cannon were grooming him to be the new James Dean. “We were casting for American Ninja. Revenge of the Ninja was a success, and we had made Ninja 3 - The Domination with Lucinda Dickey  (from Electric Boogaloo) but the audience didn’t like to see a woman Ninja (laughs), although she was very successful in the break dance movies. When I was casting American Ninja, I saw 2000 kids, actors, martial artists, and we narrowed down to 200. And we brought them to the studio to see if they could move, if they look good on screen, you know, if they were martial artists.  The story was already written with this James Dean type of character, someone who doesn’t talk a lot, someone who has a chip on the shoulder, and then in walked Michael Dudikoff. And so the movie came out, and was very successful, so Cannon decided he has this look, and so they signed him to a long contract, and I made two more movies with him before he went on and made some more movies. Aaron Norris, Chuck Norris’ brother, directed him in Platoon Leader, shot in South Africa. This was the idea, but it was not a great success (laughs)… He became the low budget James Dean. The poor man’s James Dean. It might have been (a mistake to sign).  The career of actors is very unpredictable… I was talking with someone about Demi Moore, where is Demi Moore these days?” She is reported to be making a comeback in Charlie’s Angels 2. “Right… things happen in a strange way. Bruce Willis was a bartender, next thing, he is the biggest thing in Hollywood. It is very hard to say what would have happened if Michael hadn’t signed with Cannon and went with another studio right after American Ninja, which was a big success, well, who knows?”

The success of American Ninja also launched the career of the black martial artist Steve James, who sadly passed away from cancer in the early nineties. Big, brash and charismatic, James was the antithesis to Dudikoff’s loner character, and for many fans of the series completely outshone Dudikoff’s character both in terms of presence and physical ability. “ American Ninja was a buddy-buddy movie. Steve James came in and he was strong, handsome, big. Michael Dudikoff, by the way, wasn’t a martial artist, so Mike Stone took him for a few months of training. Steve James was a martial artist. And so he was the side-kick for three movies.”

There was a lot of murmurings at the time about the fact that a black martial artist, who was also charismatic and a reasonably talented actor, had to play second fiddle to a non-martial arts trained white actor in a martial arts film. In an interview with Combat magazine in the late eighties, Steve James stated that when he came on board American Ninja he wanted to change a lot of the dialogue, as it was written like “no problems, whatever you say white partner,” although Firstenberg’s recollection of the events is hazy. “That might have been the case… it might be. American Ninja had two writers. The way I remember it, there was a writer for dialogue only. You have to remember it was fifteen years ago (laughs). So you might be right. “ To be fair to Firstenberg, the last time he directed Steve James was in Riverbend (1989), a film about black civil rights in a small town community.

Another, much more absurd rumour surrounding this film, is all to do with an enormous portrait of Ronald Reagan hanging on the wall of a military office. Legend has it that, apparently, Cannon had it placed there as a means of trying to flatter Reagan so that if he lost the upcoming election, they could possibly tempt him back into acting once he’d left the Oval Office. Firstenberg, however, remains suitably coy on the issue: “It might be. American Ninja was shot in the Philippines. We wanted it to look American. Probably was the end of the Reagan regime… but maybe by the time it came out it was the end of the Reagan regime. I think… now that you remind me, there was something like this. I forget the story, but it’s true.  When we started shooting the movie one president was in, by the time we finished he was out. But the picture is on the wall, yes (laughs). “

Just as Michael Dudikoff threatened to break into the big league of Hollywood, Sam Firstenberg has flirted with real mainstream success thanks to a number of his movies. “They call Hollywood an industry… it is an industry. In the European system the director is more of an initiator of a movie. In Hollywood, it is not so much in most of the cases, 90 percent of the cases, of course there are exceptions, but in most of the cases the director is assigned to a movie and it is the studio that is making a movie. Now the director’s career might take some kind of shape because of things that happened. I never worked with actors who were known for their acting (laughs), they were known for their action abilities. So slowly, as it developed, I was kind of stranded as the director who worked in action. But it could have lead to a movie with Van Damme, who was, of course, still action... and not acting.  The big budget movies take a long time to put together, 1 or 2 years in development and the movie will not happen. In the eighties I wanted to make movies, I didn’t want to be buried in development. Whether the decision was right or wrong, I made 22 movies in about 22 years, so no regrets. A good record, even for the most prolific in Hollywood. None of them were really big budget, none of them were with Schwarzenegger, but some of my movies were very successful, I get a lot of fan-mail from all over the world. They are B-Movies. It is a legitimate branch (of Hollywood).” 

And so, in the present, Sam has just completed work on the Ed Wood film, Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women from Outer Space. “It’s one actor, and all the rest are women. It’s science fiction and it makes fun of all the old sci-fi movies, War of the Worlds, Forbidden Planet, that kind of thing. I met a friend of mine from a long time ago (Sam Oldham), and he is in the business of documentaries. I like a lot of technical gadgetry, and electronics. For many years I wanted to shoot on digital, and D.V. and I made many movies for a company called New Image, such as Cyborg Cop, and I was trying to convince them to shoot on digital. But most companies, at least until last year, didn’t want to hear about it.” Until, of course, George Lucas did it. ”That’s right, and Spy Kids 2 was shot on high definition D.V. I met those friends of mine who shoot documentaries, who shoot on digital. They asked whether I wanted to make a movie and I said, yes sure, let me see the script. I read the script Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women from Outer Space, a funny, funny script - and I say ‘okay, it’s fun’! We finished it, and it is in the optical stages now. The movie has a lot of opticals such as space ships flying. When you work in digital you can do a lot of optical effects. Hopefully, we will finish in March.”

And this feat has been achieved, of course, without any studio backing. After 22 years in the film industry, it must seem like things have come full circle for Firstenberg, going back to self-financing low budget films, and taking on the challenges that these endeavours invariably throw up on a “one day at a time” basis. There is however, one crucial difference nowadays: the advent of digital. “This is really independent, I wouldn’t use the term experimental, as that has different connotations. I formed a corporation with Elliot, Barbara and myself, we put together a little money. And we own the film. A lot of people came in to help us, some on minimal salaries, some on a deferred salary basis, even those who are doing the effects are on partnership with the movie, they are speculating (on back-end pay). This type of movie, a spoof, is hard to get together with studio backing. With the advent of the world of digital, it is changing the industry. What you would have said was expensive 2 years ago is not expensive today. You buy, not rent, a digital camera for 3000 dollars. For under ten thousand dollars you have all the facilities to make a movie. If you have a little bit of talent you can do the movie by yourself.”

            Sam Firstenberg is an easy person to like. His unassuming, friendly, even modest attitude (his reported “Action!” call on set is “Ready my friends?”) sits at odds with the cut-throat nature of the Hollywood machine, but, much like the ironic nature of his career, it takes an industry as brutal to prove that nice guys don’t always finish last.  It’d be nice to think that if Ed Wood as Hollywood is in heaven looking down (if he was allowed in) he’d be looking on approvingly. And maybe even laughing…