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

NINJA III: The DOMINATION UNTOLD Q & A with Director Sam Firstenberg

We have been fans of Ninja films for a very long time, in fact, well before Ninja III: The Domination made its way to our screens. There is just something about the Ninja sub-genre that makes for compelling viewing. From the suspense, to the action, to the stunt, to the general mysticism surrounding these "deadly assassins", Ninja films have always offered viewers ultimate escapism. In Ninja III, the genre as we know it, is turned on its head and set on fire, with the introduction of a female Ninja. Yes, the original "men in black", who were trained in the ancient forms of martial arts, finally meet their match in Ninja III, a bizarre, supernatural action film, who some consider to be one of the most unique Ninja films of all-time. Getting the opportunity to talk to Director Sam Firstenberg about Ninja III: The Domination, the film that sparked the actin career of Breakin' star Lucinda Dickey was an absolute thrill. Thanks again, Sam.

Q. Prior to Directing Ninja III you worked with Sho Kosugi on Revenge Of The Ninja, the 2nd film in Cannon's Ninja Trilogy. It has been reported that you knew very little about Ninjas going into this project. How did you deal with the imposing challenge?

A. Even "very little" is an exaggeration the truth is that I knew nothing about Ninjas or Ninjitsu absolutely zero. The first time I saw a Ninja was when I viewed the movie "Enter the Ninja" but when we started working together Sho Kosuki took me under his wings, sort to speak, and introduced me to the subject. I purchased few books and got to understand what a Ninja is. It is important to note that I was a great admirer of the Samurai movies of Akira Kurasawa and therefore familiar with the ways of the cinematic Samurais which are not too far from the cinematic Ninjas.

Q. The success of Revenge Of The Ninja opened the door for another Ninja film. Why did Cannon feel the need to change the successful formula for the 3rd film and whose idea was it to include a female in the starring role?

A. I believe (but not sure) that the reason that Cannon changed the formula was rooted in distribution philosophy they probably felt that it will be more marketable if the hero in an American based movie is American and not foreigner. This is my assumption and I was not involved in making that decision. The idea to have a female heroine was Golan's and again I don't know way, he just told me to go ahead and write a script (with writer Jim Silk) for a woman Ninja. I liked the idea and just followed his instructions.

Q. Were you involved in the casting process of Ninja III and if so, did you have any say in choosing Lucinda Dickey for the lead role? Also, were there many other actresses considered for the part?

A. Yes as a director, together with the casting person, I was very involved in the casting process and I recommended to Menahem Golan to have Lucinda in the lead role. Many actresses came in to the auditions for this part, one of them was Heather Locklear which we liked very much and even offer her the part but her agents declined and so we went with Lucinda which was the second choice.

Q. Were there any repercussions of casting Lucinda Dickey and making her the face of Ninja III, considering that Sho Kosugi was the star of the previous film?

A. The Ninja franchise was Menahem Golan's Baby not mine and In number three he wanted to replace Sho Kosugi with a female heroine so that's what we did I was actually exited to work with an actress in the lead. but Sho Kosugi was still involved. He was not going to be the hero, but still involved and I think that he was very disappointed. The whole idea of a female Ninja bothered him a lot. He didn't like it at all and he voiced it According to him it was too far-fetched, a woman doesn't have the necessary power to be a lead ninja. He predicted a disappointment in the box-office and he was right. Ninja III was not as popular as Revenge of the Ninja.

Q. Could you shed some light on how TV actor Jordan Bennett managed to score the role of Billy Secord and what was it like working with Jordan?

A. Jordan Bennett came in to audition for the part and we just liked him the best, that's how he got the part. Working with him was fine he is a good actor and during the filming came up with many ideas to improve the character of Billy. I embraced Some of them and some of the I rejected but it is always great to work with a creative actor like Jordan that pours his heart into the project. The chemistry between him and Lucinda worked very well.

Q. Whenever we watch Ninja III we can't help but make a subliminal comparison to the cast of Flashdance. It seems that Lucinda Dickey & Jordan Bennett were your Jennifer Beals and Michael Nouri. Had you seen Flashdance before making Ninja III and was their casting based somewhat on the Flashdance formula?

A. Of course I saw Flashdance it was a hot movie and everybody saw it at the time. I loved it and it definitely influenced Ninja III: The Domination but not necessary the casting of Lucinda and Jordan.

Q. Reports suggest that Lucinda Dickey knew nothing about Ninjas when she was cast in Ninja III. How did she cope with the challenge & did she have to undergo special training for the role?

A. Lucinda was a trained dancer and it was part of our consideration in choosing her for the part. The idea was to either fined a female martial artist or a dancer that can be thought the moves and gestures. So the process was that sometime she had a stunt or body double in wider shots some other times the experts on the set showed her what to
do in short segments and because she was a dancer she picked it up easily and repeated those moves efficiently and very well. The final results on the screen are great.

Q. Ninja III contains the infamous V8 tomato juice scene. Was it unscripted as some have suggested and if so, whose idea was it for Lucinda to pour the juice down the front of her neck?

A. The V8 juice was not in the script but rather an improvisation on the set. In the script it was described as a seduction situation but on the set the actors; Lucinda and Jordan worked it out and I liked the idea. V8 vegetable juice were available on the craft service table all the time and Lucinda’s character was into aerobics and healthy life style so it fitted in. In addition it was also funny and satirized the many TV commercials ads for that product that saturated the television programs at those years.

Q. With her dance background, Lucinda's casting as an aerobics instructor was a neat fit. Were there any other aerobics or dance sequences filmed that were left on the cutting room floor?

A. Not that I remember

Q. What was the budget for Ninja III and was it greater than Revenge Of The Ninja? Also, how long was the Ninja III shoot?

A. The budgets for both Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination were probably similar. At the time (1981-82) it was about two million (2,000,000) dollars and both had a shooting schedule of eight weeks of six working days every week so it was 48 days of 12 hours shooting every day. At all times we had a second unite working in parallel either together with the main unite in filming action sequences or "cleaning up" and doing auxiliary shots after the main unit moved on to shoot dramatic scene. In some stunt and action scene we had additional third and even fourth camera unites to help "cover" the action.

Q. Was the production on Ninja III smooth sailing or were there some hiccups along the way? We have heard that there were some re-shoots required for the ending and is it true that Lucinda had to wear a wig to maintain continuity?

A. The filming of the ending was problematic and, as I remember it, Sho Kosugi had some reservation about the way it was originally written in the script he voiced his objection and refused to do it. I had a dilemma on my hand so I called Menahem Golan for guidance and he suggested to stop filming the ending and deal with it later on after completing the editing of the rough cut, and so we did. After we saw the first edited version without an ending we rewrote a new ending that appeased everyone including Sho and went on to shoot it in an additional week of filming, The same was true to Revenge of the Ninja in terms of adding another week of shooting to fix the ending so in actuality the shooting schedule of both movies was nine weeks. This was not in the low budget category anymore but put them in the, so called, medium budget range.
The wig story is probably correct since, at the time of the reshoot, she was already involved in the filming of Breakin' were her hairstyle was short and not long like it was in Ninja III.

Q. Ninja III kicks off with an elaborate massacre on a golf course. Was the location of this fan-favorite action sequence scripted and could you shed some light on how it all came together?

A. Usually action, fight and chase sequences are not highly detailed in filming scripts, they are just described in general terms. Once the director and production team chose and finalize an appropriate filming location for a certain scene or sequence the action team moves in to start the planning phase. The fight choreographer, the stunt choreographer, the stunt coordinator and the special effects supervisor work together with the director to present to him a proposed action sequence. The ideas they come up with are usually inspired and determined by the topography of the location in conjunction with the needs of the storylines. At that stage the imagination runs wiled with everyone wanting to contribute their knowledge and experience to create an elaborated, spectacular and highly exiting showpiece. The next stage is putting words into action materializing the ideas executing and filming them. The sequence you are referring to was inspired by the golf course we secured for filming it. It was then mostly conceived by my right hand man, our stunt coordinator Steve Lambert he coordinated the various elements together with other stunt men, special effect supervisor, vehicle and weapon providers, safety personal and camera operators. My contribution was to guide him; make sure that his creation is exiting, spectacular, makes sense to the story, keeps in character, and that it is filmed in a way that will come together neatly later on in the editing process.

Q. Aside from the golf course sequence, Ninja III contains a lot of outrageous stunts and general mayhem. What was the most challenging sequence to shoot and why?

A. Every action-like element presents its own challenges and problem solving needs, even simple things like the Lucinda's shaking room or the floating sward, or the much more elaborated scenes and sequences like the ending. I do not recall that any particular portion presented an insurmountable challenge but all required either skills, bravery and some mechanical solutions. The shaking room was a set mounted on top of four huge springs. The spinning Ninja descending into the ground at the end was achieved with a special mechanism invented by special effects. The Japanese temple on top of the hill was a combination of real physical gate with an optically created structure, no digital optics at the time and so on and so forth. Every situation we concocted in our imagination needed a different a unique creative solution to be able to execute it.

Q. What was it like shooting Ninja III in Arizona and did you spend much time with the cast off the set?

A. Phoenix Arizona, like any other location, has its own unique look and typical landscape. In directing any movie I always try to incorporate the qualities of the place into the look and atmosphere of the film. So in this aspect Arizona was not different from Utah in Revenge of the Ninja or the Philippines in American Ninja. In any place we are working, we try to enjoy the place and have good times with the locals, visit the popular tourists destinations, try the local food and spend the free time we have to add extra value to our stay. Spending free time in remote locations is typically done in small groups according to friendship and mutual interests.

Q. The assassination sequence where Lucinda wipes out the crowd in the hot tub looked remarkably vicious. Was this scene difficult to shoot and how did Lucinda handle the carnage?

A. Let me remained you that what the audience see on the screen is merely an illusion that was created by the filmmaker it's not real. While filming even the most vicious brutal scene is very technical, actors covered in blood are joking and laughing until I call "action" and after I call "cut" the go back to joking and laughing, so on the set it doesn't look real at all. Most of the wide shots were not done by Lucinda but with a double in the ninja suite and she came in to only do her close-ups. So there was no issue of "handling" the carnage at all its all make-believe.

Q. Do you have any Ninja III memorabilia and is there any rare trivia about the shoot that you would like to share?

A. After the filming was over I bought one of the motorcycles used in the opening action sequence but few years later I gave it away. I also bought the boom box that Lucinda used while climbing the telephone pole but I don't know where it is today. Somewhere I probably have my copy of the script and maybe a copy of the storyboard, other than that I have few posters and some promotion photo cards. In general I’m not a big collectors and the only trivia story that I remember is the one with Heather Locklear that I told earlier on.

Q. As we know, Ninja III was shot before Breakin' but for one reason or another released after. Could you shed some light on why the movie posters for Ninja III didn't take full advantage of Lucinda's marketability by referring to her previous success in Breakin'?

A. I have no idea. In Cannon I was not involved in marketing and neither in MGM usually distribution and marketing executives make all the decisions regarding posters. Sometimes I think that they make great choices and sometimes I think they make stupid decisions but they never ask my opinion and in any case I am not an expert at this field.

Q. Was there an official movie premiere for Ninja III and if so where was it held? Also, were there any famous people in attendance that were not involved in the making of the film?

A. No in Cannon we did not have premiere screenings only cast and crew screening. The only one that I remember that they did was for Runaway Train.

Q. After Ninja III you became heavily involved in Cannon's American Ninja series that starred Michael Dudikoff. Was there ever any talk about bringing Sho Kosugi into that series as a sidekick or villain?

A. No. Not at all

Q. It is wonderful that cult movies like Ninja III are starting to get the high-definition treatment, post the video boom. How does that make you feel, knowing that a new generation of fans are now discovering your films for the very first-time on Blu-ray?

A. I love it and at the same time I'm stroke with awe witnessing this awesome phenomenon. As we all know with time passing by most of the films made each year are forgotten and disappear into the abyss of history but some of them survive the test of time in different degrees of success. Some of the remembered movies are low budget like Rooky for instance so it is a great feeling to realize that some of the movies that I directed are fart oh that club, they are reissued young audiences discover them and film festivals around the globe honor them with screenings in theaters on wide screen to large crowds. It validates my directorial work as a filmmaker and storyteller.

Q. Word is, Quentin Tarantino is a fan of Ninja III and he had a private 35mm screening of the film at his home with Death Wish Director Eli Roth in attendance. Have you ever met Tarantino and spoken to him about your films? Also, do you know of any other celebrities who have publicly admired your films?

A. I also heard this story, Eli Roth tells it in his interview in the documentary "Electric Boogaloo: the Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films". No, I never met Tarantino but I am sure that such a meeting might be very interesting and I don’t know about any particular celebrity that admires any of the movies I directed but I am pretty sure that American Ninja has its share of admirers and perhaps Breakin' 2 Electric Boogaloo as well.

Q. At this point in your life, if you were asked to direct another Ninja film or maybe even a Breakin' 3 would you entertain the idea?

A. If it was to be produces with a descent budget and reasonable schedule, yes. Otherwise, no!

Tony & Doug Pichaloff

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