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Interview Sam Firstenberg

Sam Firstenberg is an Action Icon!
His Name ist forever connected with the legendary Cannon Studios through movies like American Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja and Avenging Force.

Hello Mr. Firstenberg, first of all let me thank you for your time.It is really an honor that you will answer some of my questions.

You are welcome.

Let me start at the Beginning:When did your love for movies started and how did you entered the movie business?

I believe that I fell in love with movies at a very young age, when I was going every week to the neighborhood cinema where I lived, in Jerusalem to see double features in the afternoon. I remember that it fascinated me. I entered the movie business years later at the age of 21, when I moved to Hollywood to realize my dream of making movies and attended film school there.

You worked a lot for the famous Cannon Studios, how did you get into contact with Golan and Globus?

While going to film School I met Menahem Golan here in Los Angeles in a new year party and he agreed to let my work for him in a movie that he produced and directed in Hollywood. It was a gangsters movie named “Lepke”staring Tony Curtis, my job was a general assistant. Menahem’spartner was Yoram Globus. After the end of the production I continued to work for Golan and Globus on and off in various capacities but mainly as Assistant Director, but all of this was before they purchased Cannon Films.

What are your memories about working for them? In your time with the Cannon Studios did you have contact with other director who worked for them?

Golan and Globus bought Cannon Films in 1980 and I came to direct for them at about the same time, after they helped me to financially complete my first directorial attempt “One More Chance” and to keit for distribution. The following movies I directed for them were ofthe action genre “Revenge of the Ninja” and “Ninja 3; the Domination” and for me it was great experience personally and professionally. Usually after giving me the script they did not bothered me during the filming and only came with suggestions and request at the end of the editing process, so I was free to express my creativity and practice the craft of directing the way I wanted to. During my days in Cannon I did bumped in the office corridors here and there into other directors and even befriended some of them; Joseph Zito, Tobe Hooper, J. Lee Thompson, Albert Pyun, Sheldon Lettich, and others.

You are most famous for your ninja movies, but let me first ask you something about the Ninja movie you didn't directed. What is your opinion on Enter the Ninja and casting Franco Nero as the lead?

Casting Franco Nero as the lead Ninja in Enter the Ninja was a crazy idea but as I know it, it happened by chance when Menahem Golan, the director, met Franco in Manila in the elevator of the hotel he was staying in, during the filming of the movie there. I did not direct Enter the Ninja and had nothing to do with it.

You did Return of the Ninja and Ninja III: Domination with Sho Kosugi. When you think about these movies, why do you think Sho was the perfect actor for a ninja movie?

When I was assigned to direct Revenge of the Ninja Sho Kosugi was already attached as the lead actor, before me, there was another director attached to the project but for some reason it was handed to me. In any case Sho was the perfect casting for that movie because he was the real thing. Sho Kosugi is a master martial artist that knows what he is doing, he had the right appearance and the script was written around his persona. He was the right man at the right time to introduce the Ninja concept to the western audience.

With Michael Dudikoff and Steve James you then directed maybe your most famous movie: American Fighter! Why do you think these movie and the American Fighter movies in General are still so loved by fans?

American Fighter, also known around the world as American Ninja, is indeed the most popular movie I directed in my career. As you know it is very difficult, almost impossible, to determine why one movie is more popular and successful then the other. If producers knew the answer to this enigma they have all been millionairs, right? But yet I believe that the reason for the enormous success of American Ninja is A. the cinematic charisma of Michael Dudikoff as the American Ninja. B. The innocent nature of the story of the rightful reluctant hero wrapped up in a solid friendship plot and young love narrative. And C. The relatively rich look, the thrill, the excitement, and the audience involvement of the way the story is told.

Personally I like American Fighter II a little bit more (it is one of my alltime favorites), it is more of a buddy movie, it makes so much fun. What made, in your perspective, the duo of Dudikoff and James so special?

Again it is so hard to tell, but there was definitely a special chemistry on the screen between Dudikoff and James. The audience truly believed in and identified with the unique wonderful friendship between them. The magic happened on the screen, that’s the way cinema works.

In my humble opinion the best movie you did was Night Hunter a.k.a Avenging Force! Again with Steve James and Michael Dudikoff, this movie is much darker and grittier! What intrigued you the most about the script?

In my opinion you are right, Avenging Force is the best action movie I directed. The script was written by the British actor and writer James Booth and once I read it I fell in love with it. It was originally written for Chuck Norris but he passed on it, so it ended up in our hands and during filming we did not change even one word of the original script, that’s how good it was. What intrigued me most about it was the solid storytelling of it, the interesting characters, and in a way also it political warning message. In addition even by reading only I felt ist colorfulness and mystique.

Any special memories about the shoot?

There are many special memories from the filming of Avenging Force in the city New Orleans! It was a very difficult and challenging production, those that saw the movie will recognize that we recreated a Mardi Gras parade, we built an imaginary Cajun village, there was an action sequence in a burning house, and we spent many rainy nights in the swamps to film the long finale fight. All of those tasks were challenging to solve and rewarding to achieve. Personally I also fined great satisfaction in telling an exciting, compelling story and in my opinion Avenging Force was one.

Are you still in contact with Michael Dudikoff? Your personal opinion about him?

Yes, Michael lives not too far from me and despite the fact that he is very busy being a great father to two wonderful children, once in a while we are in contact.

Riverbend, the movie with Steve James as the leading actor, is a very rare movie. I would say that especially in Germany not many people saw that movie. What would you tell somebody who has not seen the movie, why he should definitely try to see it?

The truth is that also here in America not many people saw this movie Reverbend. It was produced by a person with no experience in making movies with his privet money and then sold by him to a small Distribution company that did not know how to handle it. It is avery unique movie with a racial oppression theme such that was never told in the American cinema before it or after. It was released in a limited way only on VHS not even on DVD but if any of the Readers have a chance they should see it for a different point of view of the deep US South (story takes place in Alabama) in the 1960s.

I think Steve James would have deserved a bigger career. He was so full of charisma, what made him special in your opinion?

It is just what you said, he had a big screen presence with a great cinematic charisma. He was on his way to become a big black Action hero but tragically enough his life and career was cut short, very early in his life.

Have been there ever plans that you should direct a movie with other famous Cannon stars like Chuck Norris or Charles Bronson?

Charles Bronson worked only with directors that he knew; J. Lee Thompson and Michael Winner no one else, but I was slated to direct Chuck Norris in Missing in Action III. We met few times in pre-production but at some point I decided not to direct this movie because of family matters and so Aaron Norris directed it instead.

What do you think is the lasting legacy of the Cannon Studios and Golan and Globus?

Cannon Films created in Hollywood mainly genre B-movies for the consumption of the entire world of this kind of movie enthusiasts and they did it in big volume. They left a lasting stamp on the world’s cinematic pop culture.

You were interviewed for the documentary film “Electric Boogaloo; the Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films” about the Cannon Studios, have you seen the complete documentary?

Some people say it was too superficial and that it mocked to much Golan and Globus. Your opinion on that?
Yes I saw this documentary and it is true that it dealt with the darkside of the history of the company but at the same time it also painted a comprehensive picture of what Cannon Film was all about. Maybe one day someone will make a documentary about the glory of Cannon and the joy that its products brought to so many B-movies lovers around the world.

How does the demise of the Cannon Studios changed the movie landscape? And was it difficult for you to get directing jobs afterwards?

The movie landscape in Hollywood changed at the end of the 1990s not because of the disappearance of Cannon Films and similar companies like Carolco Pictures, but because of economical reasons. These companies relayed heavily and thrived on the success of the homevideo market of the time. At one point the major studios stepped in and started to produce with big budget the same type of movies that the small companies produced with low and medium budget and by doing so ended the era of low and medium budget movies. Because I was not a director of big budget major movies in the first place so me and other directors found themselves being offered only very low Budget very short schedule movies. I chose not to get involved in this kind of moviemaking and stop after directing about 25 features.

You worked also on television, you directed multiple episodes on the show: Tropical Heat. What are the biggest differences between shooting a movie and for television?

In directing Television there are different challenges. The main object of the director in television is to make sure that the production is on schedule and on time. Because of the nature of filming one episode after the other there is no room for being late and shooting beyond the designated timeframe, in television show the writer producer is the king and not the revolving directors. So, for me directing the episodes for Tropical Heat was a professional challenge and a lesson in solving vast amount of problems in very short time.

American Samurai is also a kind of cult movie. It marked the debut of Marc Dacascos and it also started your working relationship with David Bradley with whom you did four consecutive movies together. What do you like about American Samurai?

The truth is that I am not so crazy about American Samurai, the reason is that it was the only movie which I directed that was radically changed in concept by the production company after I finished the editing process. Because they changed the narrative and the curse of the story by switching around the scene and adding scenes the movie lost it mystique element that is a crucial key element in all my Martial Arts films.

What made your relationship with David Bradley so special?

The main thing is that David Bradley and I had good understanding about the kind of movies we were making and good cooperation in executing them. He trusted me in the directing and I knew that he will deliver in performance.

I watched Operation Delta Force some months ago and it has quite a great cast. You did this movie for Millennium Films before they started to make big budget action movies like Expendables. What are your memories about that time?

Working for this upcoming movie studio.
Before becoming Millennium Film the company was called Nu Image specializing in low budget action films. I was with them from the beginning when I directed for them Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 with David Bradley and then Operation Delta Force with Ernie Hudson and Jeff Fahey. We made all those movies in South Africa where the principals of the company originated from. I love Africa but the work over there was much more challenging then the work I did for Cannon. For Nu Image I also directed later on The Alternate with Eric Roberts and Spider II: Breeding Ground.

A rather unusual movie was McCinsey's Island with Hulk Hogan, Grace Jones and the great Robert Vaughn. Hogan and Jones are not typical actors, how was the collaboration with these two? What do you think in general about this movie?

The movie McCinsey’s Island was unusual all around from the storyline to the casting. Yes it was not an orthodox production but because its oddity we had a lot of fun during the filming. It was all done in Florida and at the time Hulk Hogan was a huge wrestling star so every day throngs of young boy would wait in lines to see him and get his autograph and he was very nice about it. As you mention he is not a film actor but it was fun working with him and Grace Jones as well, it was also a great opportunity to meet Robert Vaughn. As you probably know there was also a German actress casted in this movie, Anya Hoffmann.

You worked with a lot of famous and very good actors. Who impressed you the most? Do you regret that you not had the chance to work with somebody?

I was immensely impressed by the professionalism and craftsmanship of Eric Roberts and Margaret Every but of course I would have loved to work with any great actor or actress in the film industry. The actors are the most important elements the director has in his disposal to tell his story and convey emotions so every director loves to work with great actors.

When you think back on your long career, what is the movie or achievement you are most proud of?

American Ninja is the most popular movie I directed and it brought enjoyment to the biggest number of viewers all around the world, it also has the biggest number of devoted enthusiastic fans but Avenging Force is in my opinion a better action film. In another spectrum of the cinema field Brakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo is in my opinion an iconic musical of the 1980s that I am also proud of.

Are any future projects planned, maybe with you as a director?

Not that I know about.

Thank you for your time Mr. Firstenberg! It was an honor and a pleasure!

Pleasure for me as well.

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