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Thorsten Hanisch Interviews Sam Firstenberg


American Ninjas and Michael Dudikoff ... Sam Firstenberg probably sweetened some reader’s childhood with his two American Ninja movies. But dramas, musicals and erotic thriller are not foreign to the Polish-born director, as it became evident recently. The name of Firstenberg is inseparable forever with Joe Armstrong and his adventures. We wanted to know: how was it like back then with Dudikoff, Cannon, and the Ninjas?

The Talk

1) You where assistant director (2^nd Unit) on “Operation Thunderbolt” with the incredible Klaus Kinski. Did you met him? Can you tell us a little bit about the work with him?


A. Yes I met Kinski and you are right he was incredible. I did not work directly with him but had the chance to observe his acting and indeed it was very intense, he was all the time totally in character fully concentrated almost in a state of trans. That is the way I remember him.


2) As your first movie there’s a short film called „For the Sake of A

Dog“ listed. I didn’t find any info about it, so can you please tell us

a little bit more about “For the Sake of the Dog”?


A. For The Sake Of A Dog is a 30 min. short TV movie that I wrote produced and directed. It tells the story of a stubborn holocaust survivor that prefers to go to prison in Tel Aviv rather then pay a municipal fine for walking his dog in a forbidden public park. It is the story of a man of principals defying ridicules arbitrary rolls. The movie played on Israeli TV and in Filmex Los Angeles film festival of the 80s.

 3) In “One More Chance” you worked with John LaMotta (unforgettable as Trevor Ochmonek in “Alf”) and Kirstie Alley, who later became very popular with Cheers” and “Look Who’s Talking”. How was it to work with



A. LaMotta was a stage actor that have just moved from NY to LA to try his lock in the movies I was introduced to him by the actor Michael Pataki. Johnny is a passionate actor and was perfect for the part in “One More Chance”. It was pleasure to work with him and we become very good friends, he acted later on in many of the movies I directed. . Kirstie Alley was a young acting student, when she came in to audition for the lead female part. She was very good, and perfect for the part So I immediately cast her. It was her first movie and she was very serious about the work and very professional the results are great.


4) 1983 you did your first ninja- and first Cannon-movie “Revenge of the

Ninja”. Had you seen ninja-movies before? How did you get prepared for

your first action movie? How was it to work with Sho Kosugi?


A. Although I was familiar with Japanese samurai movies (I love the films of Akira Kurusawa,) I knew very little of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre and nothing about Ninjitsu. Sho Kosugi introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu. We bought a few books and together watched many Chinese movies, without subtitles in theaters full of Chinese speaking audience members. Trying to digest all the information as fast as I could, I started to work on the script and construct a story board. Sho was the Ninjitsu advisor and in this capacity he made sure that every known Ninja weapon and every Ninja fighting trick, method, custom, ceremony, and accessories, would be included in the script. It was exciting and I understood it was important to the success of the movie, but my first decision right away was not to follow in the steps of the Hong Kong flicks, but rather to approach the movie as a straight Hollywood action movie with a martial arts slant, and the Ninjitsu mysticism the icing on the cake.


5) I read that Kosugi is doing a new ninja movie called “The Return of

the Ninja” together with Steven E.de Souza. Could you also imagine to do

a new ninja flick? Maybe a remake of “American Ninja”?


A. I would love to direct another A. Ninja movie but the question is, is there any producer out there that is willing to invest the necessary money in such a production.


6) In “Breakin’2 : Electric Boogaloo” you worked with the young Ice-T.

Any memories of the work with him?


A. I think that Ice-T was the original rapper, he was definitely one of the first. He always was very professional and easy to work with. Many years later I directed him again in “The Alternate” with Erick Roberts.


7) How did you come to direct “Breakin ‘2”? Before and after that you

did almost solely action-movies, was it a personal wish of you to do

this one or did they offer you the project and you did it because you

had no other project at this time?


A. Menahem Golan head of Canon film offered me to direct Breakin 2  I excepted his offer because I believed that directing dances is probably not very different from directing fights and because I knew that doing a dance musical movie is going to be a lot of fun and great enjoyment and I was right it was indeed a great experience.


8) The IMDB states, that “American Ninja” had a budget of $1,000,000 and

Part 2 a budget of only $350,000? I almost can’t believe this...is it

really true? And if it is, why such a small budget for the sequel of

such a moneymaker?


A. I also think it is a mistake the budget of the second American Ninja was about the same as the first one.


9) I think “American Ninja” was Michael Dudikoff’s first leading part in

a movie. Was Dudikoff your first choice or where there any actors in

talk for Joe Armstrong? How was it to work with him? Did he do his

action-scenes self or did he use a double?


A. For the part of Joe Armstrong I interviewed more than 400 young actors and martial artists, but when Michael Dudikoff walked in and did the reading I felt that he is the American Ninja. After few call backs we hade 5 finalists with Michael one of them. He already had some credit to his name including “Bachelor Party” and “Radioactive Dreams” in the lead. After putting them all on tape and viewing it we all agreed that Dudikoff is the American Ninja. Michael was not a Martial Artist but very athletic and US champion Michael Stone prepared him for the movie. Richard Norton which had a part in the movie was also Michael’s stunt and fight double, but he did a lot of the action and the fights himself and he was very good at it. American Ninja was Dudikoff’s first important lead part in a major theatrical release and of curse the rest is movies history.


10) After “American Ninja” you did the very, very good “Avenging Force”,

which is unfortunately not so popular as “American Ninja”. Was it a

success for you? How was it to work with the incredible John P. Ryan?

Why do you think hasn’t “Avenging Force” gain such a cult status as

“American Ninja”?


A. Avenging Force was written for Chuck Norris but he didn’t want to do it, so after American Ninja’s success Canon decided to give it to me to direct with Michael Dudikoff and Steve James as leads. I saw John P. Ryan in Runaway Train and wanted him for the part of the lead bad guy. Canon had the contact with him and they arranged a meeting between us. Johan is a very intense actor with a great ability of transformation into the character he portrays, so working with him was magical. The mystery of the taste of moviegoers is impossible to decipher or understand, I also agree that Avenging Force is a better movie but the audience liked the American Ninja more. It is a great fun movie: well balanced with good main plot some mystery, good secondary plot, nice romantic story, great back story, a handsome innocent hero and a terrific sidekick. But best of all lots of exciting action beautifully choreographed and executed in an exotic location. So that the way it is and that is a fact.


11) After “American Ninja 2” (1987) you didn’t do another movie till

1990. What did you do in this time? Why didn’t you direct the other

Sequels to “American Ninja”? Have you seen Part 3-5 and what do you

think about them?


A. After the second A. Ninja I was preparing A movie with Chuck Norris which never materialized meantime the company decided to capitalize on the popularity of the market value of the American Ninja title and produce very cheap sequels. Since I am not good in directing very cheap movies the job was given to a South African Director.


12) Could you tell us a little bit about “Riverbend”? I read on an

internet-site the supposition that this movie is intended to be a bit of

an excuse to the great Steve James, because he almost never got a

leading part in a movie. Is this true? Unfortunately I haven’t seen

“Riverbend” because it isn’t available anywhere.


A. Riverben was financed by privet investors from Texas, they loved the script and after seeing him in Avenging Force they wanted him for the lead part. I also got the directing job after they saw Avenging Force. It is a good movie but a difficult subject. Paramount released it on video but never in theaters.


13) Your next movie “The Day We Met” you returned to Israel. Can you

tell us a little bit about it?


A. The Day We Met was the first Feature I directed in Israel. It is a very funny local comedy in Hebrew. I was invited to direct it by the lead Israeli comedian and producer Yehuda Barkan. There is no English Version of it but may be there are other languages translations of that movie which I don’t know about.


14) In “Delta Force III” we have Nick Cassavetes, the sun of John

Cassavetes and Gina Roland, Eric Douglas, the sun of Kirk and

half-brother of Michael Douglas, Mike Norris, the sun of Chuck Norris

and Matthew Penn, Brother of Sean and the late Chris Penn. Was this

curios cast intended or a coincidence? How was it to work with them?


A. The deals for Delta Force 3 was done before I was invited to direct the movie so all the cast was in place when I came aboard. All the actors were fun to work with.


15) How did you come up with the idea to “Cyborg Cop”? Was it an answer

to “Universal Soldier”? How was it to work with John Rhys-Davies?


A. The concept for Cyborg Cop was invented by Nu Image production Company but I worked on the script with Greg Latter the writer and we invented the story. Working with John Rhys Davies was a dream he is very funny and loves improvisation, but at the same time disciplined actor.


16) The Soundtrack of “Cyborg Cop II” uses very much the organ, which is

very unusual for such kind of movies. Was it your idea or Composer Bob

Mithoffs? What did you intend in using such strange music for an



17) How was it to work with Hulk Holgan and Grace Jones on “Mc Cinsey’s



A. Both Hulk Holgan and Grace Jones are not actors in a classical way but both are great iconic performers with tons of energy and enthusiasm. Both are bigger then life and very similar in many ways. It was blast working with them.


18) I was very surprised to find out that you did an Erotic-Thriller

called “Motel Blue”.


How was it to work in such a different genre? How was it to work with

Sean Young?


A. I love movies of all kinds. Erotic thrillers are wonderful and the script for Motel Blue was very good, so I was happy to get involved with it. The different between the genres is that in action I mix a lot of fun and lightness into the formula and in thriller everything is taken more seriously more realistic.


19) Is there one of your movies you don’t like so much and why?


A. In retrospective I don’t fill connected to Mc Cinsey’s Island I fine it disjointed, unsuccessful attempt to bring together humor and action.


20) What do you think of today’s B- action movies? Did this genre went

through a positive or negative development since the 80’s?


A. In the 80 with the explosion of the home video the low budget B action reached it’s pike, we had decent budget and made good movies. After the 80s the studios have discovered that genre of the B action and adapted them to big budget (Van Dam movies for instant) this development killed the low budget Bs which can not compete with the big boys.


21) What are you currently working on? What can we expect in the future

from Sam Firstenberg?


A. As in all my crier I am in constant search to direct more movies that will bring joy to viewers like your readers. So what the future will bring? We will just have to wait and see.

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