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There's No Stopping Us The Untold Story Of Breakin'

Exclusive Q & A with Director Sam Firstenberg

Before we start this Q & A on Ninja III, we would like to take a moment to say that we are big admirers of your craftsmanship as a filmmaker and we view this opportunity to discuss your contribution to cinema as a real privilege.

Q. Now, to kick things off, we feel it would be fitting to ask you a few general questions about your early days. As we understand it, you were born in Poland, grew up in Jerusalem and as a child, you were captivated by American movies. When did you first realize that you wanted to make movies yourself and was there one particular film that marked that turning point?

A. I decided that I want to get involved in moviemaking only at the age of 21 after I finished my compulsive military service in the Israeli army. I cannot think of any one movie that caused me to make this decision but it was rather a process that took some time. Once I made the decision I put myself on an airplane and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking.

Q. How old were you when you acquired your very first home movie camera and what was the first footage that you shot with it?

A. I never had a movie camera, so I never shot any footage before I went to film school. As a matter of fact prior to that I knew nothing about making movies. As a teenager my hobby was photography so I used a regular still camera a lot back then.

Q. What was the first feature movie that you ever worked on and what impact did you have on the final cut of that film?

A. In film school I made few short movies and with them I was in full control at all stages of making it; writing, filming, editing and sound mixing so they were basically my vision. The first theatrical feature movie I worked on was Lepke staring Tony Curtis, directed by Menahem Golan. On the set I was a general assistant just doing whatever I was ordered to do; bring coffee, move the actors chairs and so on. I had no impact on the outcome of the movie whatsoever but I tried to stay next to the director as much as possible to learn the craft.

Q. Cannon mogul Menahem Golan played a big part in the development of your career as a filmmaker. How did you come to meet him and how did you manage to gain his confidence so that you could begin directing films for him?

A. in December of 1973. As a twenty-three year old film student at Los Angeles Columbia College, I met Golan at a New Year's Eve party, suddenly found myself in the
room with him, and 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. Seven years later, while at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, working towards a Masters degree in film, I directed my first full length feature film One More Chance and Golan as head of Canon Film took it for distribution. While I was busy editing One More Chance Golan got involved as a producer and director of the first of a new breed of action movies. It was Enter the Ninja the first martial arts movie to introduce the Ninja phenomenon to western viewers. The movie enjoyed a moderate success in the international and US markets so Golan decided to produce a sequel entitled Revenge of the Ninja. Golan was busy running the company so he decided not to direct it himself but rather, to hire someone else to direct and that someone else was me. After the completion of One More chance when Golan realize that I can put a movie together with a beginning, middle and an end and the movie is coherent he was willing to take a chance on me. I guess that after that he fully trusted me to direct movies for him.

Q. In the press, Golan has been described as a larger than life character. What was it like working for him and could you share a personal story or two about your collaborations with him?

A. As you mentioned Menahem Golan was larger than life character he was loud, pompous, arrogant and grandiose in general but deep in his heart he was an avid storyteller. He truly believed that nothing should stand on his way to achieve his goal which was making more and more movies and so at times he was rude and vicious but when it came to talk about creative maters he immersed himself in the subject at point. The Menahem Golan myth includes the popular story about the incident in which he threatened to shoot a pilot who refused to listen to him while filming the movie "Operation Thunderbolt." Many of the stories regarding Golan are exaggerations that over the years have swollen out of proportion or fictional tales that have been repeated so many times until they turned into facts, but the story of the Uzi and the pilot is real and indeed happened; I was there and I was involved so here's what happened. One of the most logistically complicated scenes we filmed included four giant Hercules air freighters parked on a runway, lined up in single file. After all the actors and extras who played the soldiers and kidnapping survivors, along with Jeeps and equipment board them, they were supposed to taxi forward toward, take off, and pass by the cameras placed at the head of the runway. The distance from the cameras to the last plane in line was enormous and the preparations for filming a scene like that lasted several hours. Each plane had an assistant director sitting next to the pilot with a walkie-talkie to coordinate the plane's movement. I was one of them. Since Menahem was planning to shoot the scene only once, at twilight, with many cameras, we did some "dry" rehearsing without moving the planes from their places. The pilots maneuvering the planes on the ground were civilians assigned to the production with maintenance technicians; they were not excited to be involved in the movie making process like us.
Most of the time they talked to each other on their radios, and we conveyed to them the instructions we received regarding the filming. When their regular working shift time came to an end and they got annoyed by all of this, they began to lose their patience and started to grumble; they did not expect the work to prolong so late and they wanted to be done. The pilot that I was sitting next to was the angriest and he started to instigate the others to leave unless photography commenced immediately. But sunset was not happening yet and according to the instruction I got, I tried to calm the pilot down and asked him to consider the production difficulties and cooperate, but with no success. As the hours passed the pilots got increasingly irritated until they decided to shut down the planes, to abandon the movie, and go home. The pilot I was with decided to be the first and although I tried to stop him he left the cockpit, climbed out of the plane and began walking on the tarmac toward the cameras. I kept walking next to him, reporting what’s happening; I knew we were heading toward an inevitable collision. Throughout all his life Menahem Golan was convinced that all inhabitants of the world believe in the sanctity of cinematic endeavors; in his own mind there was no reason good enough to justify stopping the filming of a movie, not even one. "Operation Thunderbolt" was particularly dear to him and there was no chance that he would give up on filming the take off scene exactly as it was planned. When we approached him Golan charged angrily forward towards the defiant pilot and tried to stop him from leaving, a loud argument ensued between them which involved swearing and threats, pushing and shoving. Actors who were supposed to participate in the scene as commando soldiers in full battle gear with military weapons and ammunition, gathered around to see the escalating fight, then suddenly utterly enraged Golan turned to one of the actors, grabbed his Uzi, pulled a cartridge from his pouch, loaded it into the gun, cocked it and pointed it to the pilot's head with a finger on the trigger. Everyone froze, we could not believe our eyes, there was silence, and then Golan shouted, "If you don't return to the plane right away I will shoot you." The blood drained out of the pilot's face; all he saw in front of him was a lunatic capable of anything. It is more than likely that the cartridge was empty with no bullets in it and the Uzi gun was a "movie weapon" disabled and inoperative, but the poor pilot didn't know it and without a word turned on his heel and returned to the plane. The scene was filmed exactly the way Menahem Golan planned it, just as the sun was setting at the edge of the runway (in the movie it substitutes for dawn in Entebbe as the transport warplanes are taking off flying on their way back to Israel). Many are of the opinion that this was the most successful film and the best of all the movies directed by Menahem Golan. It was nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign language film in 1978.

Q. Wow, that is some story! Word is, Golan was notorious for pre-selling films based on eye-catching poster art Did you ever get involved in the marketing of your films and did you ever go to Cannes with Golan to promote any of the Cannon films that you were involved in?

A. Throughout my entire career of making movies I was never involved in anything else but directing. I went with Cannon once to Cannes to help in promoting the first feature movie I directed One More Chance but at this point the film was completed and I was only required to do press interviews. Interviews was really my only involvement in promoting the movies I directed.

Q. If you were given a huge budget to remake one of your low-budget films which one would it be and why?

A. Riverbend is a relatively unknown movie I directed in Texas with Margaret Every and Steve James in the lead roles. It deals with racial tension and social injustice in the South in the 1960s, very interesting idea and powerful story. With huge budget, a solid rewrite, powerful actors, lavish schedule and proper marketing this one can be a great winner.

Q. You have probably met many fans of your films over the years, do you have any special fan stories that you would like to share?

A. At the 2016 CotreCon film festival in Madrid right after the screening of American Ninja some young people approached me with posters, cassettes, discs and other memorabilia asking me to autograph it. Amongst them there was a young lady with a big full size original poster of American Ninja with the images of Michael Dudikoff and Steve James on it. Whenever I meet women in similar situations they usually ask me to autograph an item for their husband or boyfriend as messengers or for a gift. When I enquired about the poster she told me that it was from her own collection and when I told her that in my experience most of the Ninja movies admirers are men she reviled to me that she is an avid fan of the Ninja movies. She added then that also her fiancÚ that could not come to meet me is also a fan and they actually share a fashion to this subject and cherish their collection of Ninja movies, posters and photos. As a matter of fact, she told me, they are so fanatic that the decided that after getting married some they will name their two first borne sons; Joe and Curtis like in Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson the two heroes of American Ninja. Now that’s what I call dedicated diehard fans.

Q. We will finish off this Q & A with a triple pack of favorite films. Firstly, what is your favorite film of all-time? Secondly, what is your favorite film that you have directed? Thirdly, if you were given the opportunity to direct one of your favorite Hollywood films from the past, which one would it be and why?

A. This is a tough question! There are so many movie of different genres that I love among the, to only name few: Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, David lean's Laurence of Arabia, Akira Kurasawa's Yujimbo and Frances Ford Coppola's The Godfather and those are but very few. From all the movies that I directed my favorite are Avenging Force, and Breakin' 2. The answer to your last question is that I do not have a desire to direct any movie that was already directed by another director in the past but just hypothetically speaking it would probably be a musical.

Tony & Doug Pichaloff

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