WP Magazin En
Home | The Movies | Biography | Interviews | Stories | Reviews | Posters from the 80s | Posters from A. Ninja | Posters from the 90s | Posters from 2000s | Hot News | Photo Gallery | Contact Us

WP Polish Virtual Magazine - Film WP

American Ninja from Poland: Director Sam Firstenberg Interview for Virtual Magazine Poland

by Grzegorz Kłos

My name is Grzegorz Kłos (or Klos if you prefer). I'm friend of Krystian Kujda, the mastermind behind Cult Film Festival in Gdansk. I write for Wirtualna Polska (www. wp.pl) – the one of the biggest web portal in country. I'd like to ask you few questions about your life, career and your visit to Gdańsk. And yes, my English sucks. Hope you understand

Hello Gregor, If your English sucks what can I say about my Polish?

You were born in Wałbrzych (I would love to hear you pronounce that ;) in 1950. When your family decided to move to Israel? Why? Who were they? Krystian told me, that you don't speak polish, but maybe You've some memories related to Poland? Or maybe your parents spoke polish in home after moving?

I know how to pronounce Valbzhich correctly; my parents kept saying it to me. My parents moved from Poland to Israel in the same year I was only 5 months old. They were originally from Sochaczew but spent the war years in Russia in Siberia. Upon returning to Poland after the war like many other Jews they settled in Wroclaw are in Walbrzych. They actually enjoyed good independent middle class life out there; my father was a well known music teacher in few schools in the area.
My parents decided to leave Poland when they realized that the Soviet styl communisam is starting to chock up the country, they had einough of this system back in Russia and knew what is comming. They did not to experiance communisim again.
Of cours I dont have any memories of Poland from when I was a baby but my parents spoke with us Polish until I was about 5 yeras old. My older sister speaks good Polish, the problem is that becaus I did not use it for over 60 years I forgot most of it (99%) I just remember basic words and one song. May be the mingling with the locals of Gdansk will re ignite my memories of the language. Last time I visited Poland ten years ago I realized that the more I listen to Polish the more I remember.

What's the story behind your visit to Poland? You want to meet with fans of your movies or maybe pay visit to your ancestors’ country? How you feel about it?

This time I am comming to Gdansk as a guest of the film festival, just lik i did last year in Madrid, I love meeting fans and be amongs film lovers. Ten years ago a big grop of my family (40) visited our ancestors’ town Sochaczew with my 95 years old father we were officialy welcomed by the city magistrat to a grand tour. Then we also visited Warsaw, Krackow and Auschwitz. I am excited to visit Gdansk the cradel of the Eastern Europian revolution against communisem.
In the Cult Film Festival in Gdansk, like in most other film festival, I will do an introduction to any one of the five movies I am associated with, that will be screened there. Ninja 3 the Domination, Breakdance 2 Electric Boogaloo, American Ninja number one and number two, and the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Untold Wild Story of Cannon Films. Before and after the screening I am available to meet with the audience answer questions and if they want to take photos and singe posters.
There is also one special event of organized meeting on June 12 at 17:30 in club B90 to discuss my career and low budget film making in Hollywood with whoever is interested. I am always excited to meet and talk with movie lovers of all nationalities and ages and to watch movies with then, either the ones I directed or others. Experiencing the magic of many people going through the same transformation and experiencing the same emotions at the same time it a dark hall with images running on a screen is dear to me.

Why did you decided to move to USA? There was something about your love to filmmaking? When did you realize the filmmaking is the thing you want to do for a living?

All my boyhood and adolescent life I liked Hollywood made American films, I was never crazy about European cinema. So when I had an opportunity to travel to Los Angeles in 1972 (22 years old) and I saw the Hollywood operation I felt as if I finally came back home. Yes, because of my love to cinema this was the place for me to stay.
The truth is that when I started with moviemaking, going to film school and working as assistant director I did not consider career in cinema as a way of livelihood or producing income. Most of true film makers pursue this craft because they love to tale stories with images through cinematic means, and I was no exception. But to answer your question it happened at the same time I arrived in Hollywood when I was 22 years old.

Before You started directing movies that changed life of a little boys all over the world (in early 90s., during the VHS boom in Poland, every, I mean EVERY of my school buddies wanted to be a ninja), You worked as AD. During that era you shoot with Klaus Kinski (he was born in Sopot – it’s near Gdańsk, we can show you where – there is a pub in the house he was born) and Sybil Danning. How was to work with them? Did Kinski was real son of the bitch, as everyone told? How about Danning?

The movie Operation Thunderbolt was big, so there were two units. Menahem Golan was the director of first unit and Boaz Davidson was the director of the second, I was the 2nd unit Assistant Directyor. Sometimes the two units worked together with all the military hardware being used. Sometimes Klaus Kinski would work with us the second unit as opposed to the main unit. Sybil was always very nice and we became friends. I met her again not long ago in a screening. My interaction with Klaus Kinski was very different... quite a case. This man was quite crazy (laughs), but his acting covers for everything. He had a lot of clashes with Menahem Golan and pretty much did what he wanted, but when it came to acting he delivered.

How did you meet Menahem Golan? Why he wanted you to direct "Revenge of the ninja"? Is it true that you had no idea about Ninjitsu and martial art movies? Did You had good cooperation with Sho Kosugi?

The association between me and Menahem Golan started in December of 1973. As a twenty-three year old film student at Los Angeles, I met Golan at a New Year's Eve party, Just like that I found myself in the room with him, 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, Globus, to produce and direct his first American movie, Lepke with Tony Curtis.During the party I learned that he was about to embark on the production of Lepke. 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 as a first AD. Golan was pleased with my enthusiasm and dedication, and kept me on to work on future productions and office chores.

Years later Golan and Globus acquired Cannon Films and shortly after they bought my first student film "One More Chance". The company had just finished a movie called Enter the Ninja. They were looking for a director for a sequel and asked me if I would be interested to take on the project, to make an action movie. The truth is that I had never before heard the word "ninja" in my life, but being young and eager I did not want to pass on such an opportunity so I faked my way in by letting them think that I knew what it was all about. The script was ready and Menahem Golan, the director of the first Ninja movie, decided not to direct it himself but rather, to hire someone else to direct, and that someone else was 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 deal was made and I was given the script and asked to start pre-production immediately. After watching the original movie, reading two books on the subject, I was knowledgeable enough to get started. I was introduced then to Sho Kosugi, the star of the movie, and he took me under his wing, so to speak, and gave me an in-depth introduction into the subject. I then realized that all I had to do was to make a good action movie with a Ninja twist to it.
When I was handed the script I was also introduced to Sho Kosugi, the tallest Japanese person I had ever met. Sho was the spirit behind the project, working with the writer, Jim Silke, on all the Ninjitsu and martial arts elements of the script. He introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu, with xplanations, stories, books and movies we viewed together. Sho was also in charge of fight choreography, creating all the major fight sequences in the movie using his students and utilizing Ninja weapons and every Ninja fighting trick, method, custom, ceremony, and accessory. While we were shooting the dramatic scenes he was rehearsing and preparing the fights and once we were ready to shoot the fights they were always ready to go. Sho himself was the utmost professional on the set, always prepared and ready every day. He would wake up with his fighters two or three hours before the working day to start to work out and prepare themselves, and then once on set he executed his moves to near perfection. It was a pleasure to watch him do his stuff

What did you love the most/ hated about working for Golan-Globus?

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. They trusted me and we had a very good relationship.

During your retrospective on Cult Film Festival in Gdansk we will see four of your films (American Ninja 1 and 2, Breakin’ 2; Electric Boogaloo, Ninja 3 the domination <3). Which one is your favorite and why?

Amongst those 4 movies I like the first American Ninja the best. It was an original idea that I was involved in developing from the beginning. It was exciting to discover Michael Dudikoff and Steve James that both fits perfectly the parts. The main character is a reluctant hero that is being pulled into the dramatic events of the story, and most important it is an innocent love story in its center.

"American Ninja" (polish title "Amerykański nindża") is cult classic in Poland and it was worldwide success. It was also the breakthrough for Michael Dudikoff. But he wasn't first choice. Some big star rejected the part. Tell me about it.

Cannon films the company that produced American Ninja wanted Chuck Norris to play the part of the American Ninja, I was not involved then and at that point there was not even a script but he rejected the idea. When I was approached by Menahem Golan to direct that film I did not know about that rejection, I learned about it And saw a poster with Chuck Morris in it many years later.

You directed few episodes of “Sweating Bullets" aka "Tropical Heat". This show was massive success in Poland in 90s. (first TV cables ect. Even now when I see guy with a ponytail, I think "Hmmm He looks like Nick Slaughter"). How you note working on that project?

I was directing American Samurai with David Bradley in Tel Aviv when the producers of the show approached me and asked me to join the directorial team of the second season. It was filmed in Israel in the city of Eilate, so I gladly accepted the assignment. For me to work in Israel was always a pleasure, the crew was fantastic and the actors very pleasant, but I found out that directing Television is different in many ways from directing movies.

You made your last film in 2003. What are you doing now? Do you miss filmmaking? Which part the most? Or maybe you consider back to business?

As you know I am not directing movies any more my creative energy is manifested in designing and building furniture. My hobbies include photography and gardening and I am also busy in organizing social event to the Israeli community in Los Angeles so I have another way to tell stories which is what I was doing in cinema any way. My plat is always full.

And the last one – How You find polish cinema? Maybe you have favorite movie/ director?

As you probably know here in the US especially in the West coast we don’t have any chance of seeing a Polish films or any other none English speaking movie, only in film festivals. The truth is that I am not familiar with the Polish film industry and the players in it; I have more interest and knowledge when it comes to the Israeli film industry.

There are many more stories, photos, and anecdotes that your readers can reach in my website at www.samfirstenberg.com and in my Facebook page under my name. A book with lots of interviews with industry colleges regarding my career entitled “Stories from the Trenches” will be published soon.

Have a wonderful day, Sam

- Next Interview -

- Back to Interviews -