Monday, April 24, 2017

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With Filmmaker Sam Firstenberg Part 2




Our epic interview with legendary action movie specialist Sam Firstenberg concludes with Part 2. Mr. Firstenberg discusses his varied film career from 1985 to 2003--covering his remaining Cannon works, post-Cannon, Nu Image--and what he's doing today. I would like to extend an immense thanks to Mr. Firstenberg for donating so much of his personal time for this interview. There are links at the bottom to his website, and to the kickstarter for a 600+ page book about his entire career, and many of those who worked at Cannon.

Venoms5: We're at AMERICAN NINJA (1985). Do you recall if, prior to Michael Dudikoff being selected, there was anyone who came in to read for the part of Joe Armstrong that was already a big name or became an established name later?

Sam Firstenberg: This was an open-call. Anyone could come. Some of the casting sessions are only through agents. This one we decided to do an open-call. We sent messages to martial arts schools, acting schools, agents... many, many people came for the part. We saw anywhere between 300-500 people. Mike Norris came and I made a movie with him later on, DELTA FORCE 3 (1991); and Chad McQueen who had a career later. Those are the two that I remember.

V5: What was the working relationship like with Yamashita compared with Sho Kosugi?

SF: Both of them are masters of their arts. Tadashi was a little more established because he had done THE OCTAGON (1980) and had been making movies a bit longer. Both men had their own students and both had their own aura of being a leader and the ego that goes along with it. Sho Kosugi was a very flamboyant character. He showed off more with the big aspirations to be a movie star. Tadashi was more humble, stuck to the principals of how a martial arts fighter is with the quietness and self-discipline. I am still in contact with Tadashi. We call each other just to talk. He would help in any way on the set. It was a real pleasure to work with him. 
We had many martial artists working on the set of this movie. Mike Stone was the choreographer; Tadashi was on the set; Richard Norton, an accomplished martial artist, he was on the set; Steve Lambert and Steve James were martial artists... so there was a lot of martial arts camaraderie on the set. They all respected each other.

V5: For AMERICAN NINJA, there was something very special about this production. Compared with your other action films, the atmosphere is more family-friendly. Was this the intention from the beginning?

SF: We talked about the party atmosphere on BREAKIN' 2--the atmosphere on AMERICAN NINJA was even more jubilant! In the beginning Michael Dudikoff worked with Mike Stone for two weeks preparing him for the fight scenes. Immediately upon seeing the first dallies we knew we had something special with two strong leads in Michael and Steve James. On the first day you could see it. Those two guys were charismatic. They both had a great amount of movie star appeal. Plus, it was so cheap to shoot in the Philippines there was no limit for the budget. We could accomplish any crazy idea that came to mind. The Filipino crew were all very capable. We had anything we needed. Whoever had an idea we could accomplish it... try to do it, at least. There was no pressure for schedule since we had three big units working together... it was pretty luxurious. There was this feeling immediately that something big was happening. We all stayed in the same hotel--the entire cast and crew. So we were shooting together, eating together, on Sunday going to the pool together... we all had a fabulous time. There was a camaraderie between us all. It was hard work, too. It was very hot in the Philippines; over a hundred degrees everyday, 110-115 degrees. Michael Duthie was editing back in LA and we saw the sequences and they all looked good so we felt the magic.

I directed 25 movies. None of them compare to the popularity of AMERICAN NINJA (1985). People still talk about it today. Young people see it and enjoy it; it's really a phenomenon for a low budget movie. Sometimes I think about what makes this film different from others. Once in a while there are movies that, for whatever reason, clicks with people. ROCKY (1976) , for example; it was only a one million budget but it became a classic. Nobody believed in it in the beginning and it became huge. Another example is CASABLANCA (1942). It was a low budget movie. The director, Joe Cortez, was a 'B' movie director. He did Tarzan movies. The entire film was shot in a studio, but the magic was there. 

We can be a little bit humble and say AMERICAN NINJA is not in the same league as those (laughs), but number one, it's the actors. There is a chemistry between them. And then, AMERICAN NINJA is a very innocent movie. It's very much like a western with its reluctant hero. His values compel him to act just like  Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON (1952), I'd say. He doesn't want to fight anybody but the circumstances and his moral values compel him to become part of the action. So this is a good type of hero that people easily identify with. Michael had this James Dean face that feeds this type of hero. Then, there are two love stories. There is a romantic story between Michael and Judi's characters; and there is the strong friendship between Michael and Steve James. So those are universal values. It's not all about action. All of those people are very innocent looking, young, handsome, they have charisma on the screen... you add to this the character of Tadashi Yamashita the villain and Don Stewart as Ortega and beautiful scenery; we tried to get the most beautiful places in the Philippines on the screen, so the magic works. The stars aligned with this movie.

V5: Why do you think Michael Dudikoff never became the next big action star like Stallone, or Norris, or Bronson?

SF: In my opinion it's only technical. It had to do with the movement in Hollywood. Sometimes a person can jump into stardom but more often it takes a lot of coordination to become a big star. What I mean by that is a lot of public relations, advertising, and doing the gossip magazines. The big studios had the time, the money, and the knowledge to create a star; you know, to make sure he or she goes to the right parties, has the right escort, etc, etc; so there is a lot of work involved in making a star. I think Cannon didn't have the knowledge and the resources to do the same with Michael. This is my speculation, of course. They just employed him in one movie after the other without investing in the PR machine for him. At some point they became very busy with Chuck Norris. He was exclusively contracted to Cannon at that time. Despite the fact they made 200 to 300 movies they didn't have big hits; not even the Superman they made was a big hit. They had a decent success with THE DELTA FORCE (1986), the two BREAKIN's, and the two AMERICAN NINJAs. And a little bit with Bronson and the DEATH WISH movies.

V5: Did you ever meet Norris or Charles Bronson while at Cannon?

Bronson in DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN (1987)

SF: Yes, I met both of them. Bronson I only met on the set. I went to visit J. Lee Thompson and they were shooting outside on location. I was introduced to Bronson. He was a very quiet, private man, He was in his RV, comes out to shoot, then goes back to his caravan. He was not socializing... he was not that type of person. He was reclusive. He didn't talk with anyone except for the director. I don't remember the film he was making.

Now Chuck Norris, I was supposed to make a movie with him. I was supposed to do MISSING IN ACTION III (1988). I met with him a few times to discuss the picture, but it didn't happen. He was busy with something else. My wife became pregnant; they moved me to another movie and eventually Aaron Norris directed that film. I would see him on occasion in the corridors at Cannon. I would see virtually everyone there from Chuck Norris to Tobe Hooper to Joseph Zito... but not Charles Bronson.

V5: AVENGING FORCE (1986) was originally a Chuck Norris picture. Do you recall why Norris didn't do the film?

SF: We were making AMERICAN NINJA and Norris was making INVASION USA (1985) with Joseph Zito at the same time. Norris was more established than Michael was so they were looking for another project for Norris. James Booth, the actor, had this script called 'Night Hunter' that was fitted for Chuck Norris. It was offered to him but I am not sure what happened as I was not there. I was doing the sound mix for AMERICAN NINJA and Menahem Golan came to me and asked me to read this script and decide if it was good enough for Michael and Steve James. The script blew my mind. I'd never read a script like this before. It was perfect for them. There was only one thing that was changed. In the script Matt Hunter had a daughter; it was a father-daughter story. Michael was too young to have a daughter so we changed it to a sister. We had just finished AMERICAN NINJA and two weeks later we were preparing to do AVENGING FORCE. It was a much better script and didn't have any of the innocence of AMERICAN NINJA but the script was tight, the dialog was strong, the action was good... James Booth put together a good script. Cannon tried to persuade us not to shoot in New Orleans because it is an expensive city but it was written for New Orleans. They eventually gave in and told us to go and make the movie.

V5: Do you have a story of working with James Booth? He had just worked with Sho on PRAY FOR DEATH (1985)--a film he also wrote.

Writer, actor, James Booth
SF: When I started to work on pre-production for AVENGING FORCE (1986), I worked with James on some things but we became really good friends. He was a very nice man, a gentleman. He had just worked at Trans World; he was trying to get me a job there. As I said before there was a rivalry between them so Cannon hired Jim. He was so helpful on the set. It was a luxury to have a writer like him on the set. Of course, he also played a part in the movie. He went back to Britain but every time he came to Los Angeles he would come to my house. He did this until he died. We made a few more movies together. We went to South Africa to make AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987). We tried to put other projects together but they never materialized.

V5: Steve James had an enormous screen presence. He seemed to throw himself into his action roles. He died far too young. Do you have some stories of working with him you possibly haven't told before whether film-related or otherwise?

Steve James in AVENGING FORCE (1986)
SF: What he had in mind was to be the next big black action hero. He was a martial artist with this tremendous body. He kept in shape all the time. He wanted to be the next John Shaft. He was working on it and he was on his way. We became very good friends on AMERICAN NINJA. Now on AVENGING FORCE he hated the idea that he had to die in that movie (laughs). He told me, "Sam, Steve James is not in the movie business to die; I want to be a hero, not somebody who dies." But the part was too good for him to reject. I told him, "Steve, you are advancing your career; you'll have many more parts so don't worry." Everything Steve did he did it with 100% of his heart. Before we started work on AMERICAN NINJA 2, he went to Israel to make THE DELTA FORCE (1986) for Menahem Golan. While he was there he met an Isaeli woman and fell in love... Nava was her name. When we went to South Africa to shoot the second AMERICAN NINJA Steve was concerned because it was an apartheid state, but it was coming to an end. He would call me and ask if I thought it was safe for him to come there. So when he came, AMERICAN NINJA had already played in South Africa. It was a big hit. So you couldn't walk with him in the streets in South Africa. People were swarming around him. They saw a hero in Steve James. So when I walked with him to the market or shopping he was always surrounded by admirers. 

Steve James in AMERICAN NINJA 2 (1987)
Anyway, he brought Nava down there; she has a little part in the movie. After we finished Steve went back to Israel and he and Nava got married and came back to LA. I stayed in touch with them for a long time and we made RIVERBEND (1989). Steve was ecstatic because this was his movie. He wasn't playing second fiddle to somebody else. He was the star. We filmed that in Texas. We didn't get to work together again after that. He got divorced and married somebody else so by that point our contact was dwindling. Then he got sick. Somebody told me Steve was very sick. I wanted to go and visit him but he wouldn't accept guests because he didn't look as robust as he wanted to look. 

What I'm about to tell you is part of the story but when we were shooting AMERICAN NINJA Steve figures into the final scene. He came to me and said, "I want to rip off my shirt and throw it away (laughs)". I ask him why and he tells me "I am not working this hard for this body for nothing. I want people to see this body (laughs)!" And he did it again in AVENGING FORCE and in the second AMERICAN NINJA. He did it in RIVERBEND, too! So to go back to when he was sick with cancer, he didn't look good and he didn't want guests to come and see him. I never saw him again. I went to the funeral and talked to his father. It was too bad. He was a rising star. Now I am in contact with his daughter from his first marriage--Debi James. She is running a campaign to try and get him a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She has a Facebook page called 'My Dad Steve James'.

V5: Cannon tends to get a lot of flack in Hollywood, but they were unafraid to give people chances. What would you say was Cannon's greatest strengths and their greatest weaknesses?

SF: The people who ran Cannon were outsiders. Hollywood operated under rules that had been established through the years. The studios were very powerful. A lot of money is running through Hollywood. It is bigger than just making movies; it is about the glitz, the fame, the parties.... It is a big machine that feeds itself with certain rules. The heads of the studios and agencies are very powerful people with big money exchanging hands. Then there are the independent companies not part of the big machine like Roger Corman, Carolco, Coppola's Zoetrope company and Cannon. The other people I mentioned tried to emulate Hollywood and wanted to become part of it. Steven Spielberg makes Amblin to be a part of Hollywood, not to fight it or be different from it. Those two guys--Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus--they wanted to defy the establishment. They wanted to do things their way; no big parties, no big lunches, no golf clubs or flying all over the world; yachts and spending tons of money entertaining the stars, etc. Instead they invested all their energy, resources and money into making movies; and taking chances along the way. 

Menahem Golan (right) and Yoram Globus (left)
If they saw somebody, like say John Cassavetes, who wanted to make a movie and the establishment wouldn't give him a chance, then Cannon would reach out to him and make him an offer. So they took a lot of chances while spending all their time making movies. This is part of their strength; but because they were making so many films they didn't have the time or patience for quality control. They didn't have the best movies or the most successful ones. Adding to that they started to irritate the Hollywood establishment which eventually led to their demise. They weren't careful with money, spending more than they made. On the other hand, they had a lot of product. They loved making movies. They tried to get into other areas of exhibition, theaters, and distribution but were unsuccessful. Still, they left behind a legacy with a big library of movies with a specific look; some people call it 'The Cannon Look'--low budget with an international appeal. This was Cannon in a nutshell.

V5: How did you meet David Bradley? You did a few movies with him after the Cannon period.

SF: When Cannon came to an end it was a bankruptcy case. There was a split between Menahem and Yoram. Menahem took some of the money, some of the scripts, and some of the developmental properties and created his own company called 21st Century. Yoram Globus with Giancarlo Parretti took some of the remaining properties and created another Cannon which was run by Christopher Pearce. MGM got most of the library because Cannon owed a lot of money to them. All the movies I directed ended up with MGM. So I got a call from the new Cannon. They owned the rights to THE DELTA FORCE (1986) and they wanted to make a part three. They decided to shoot it in Israel since Yoram Globus had studios there and it would be cheaper to do so. I was already in Israel making an Israeli comedy and had just finished the film. The same story from before happened again. They had a director from Australia who wasn't working out for whatever reason. After two or three days they stopped and turned to me and asked me to start over on the picture. The budget was bigger than my other movies. It was a big military movie. They sold it to Warner Brothers. 

So I am back in Los Angeles doing the editing on DELTA FORCE 3 (1991) and they call me to the offices and tell me they want to make another ninja movie. They had a guy named David Bradley already lined up to star. I didn't know him at that time. I agreed to do the film even though we had no clear idea what it was supposed to be. They wanted to use the AMERICAN NINJA title but they couldn't since the property belonged to MGM so it became AMERICAN SAMURAI (1992). I was introduced to David Bradley and we began preparing the movie and shot it in Israel.

V5: Can you describe what happened with AMERICAN SAMURAI? Did the production run out of money or did someone get injured? During the last fight there are a lot of closeups and quick cuts of blades clashing that don't always match the ones David and Mark Dacascos are holding.

SF: AMERICAN SAMURAI was a bad experience for me. When we began shooting in Israel the script was changed so we began changing what we were doing. We finished and edited it in Israel with an Israeli editor. Meantime I had gotten another job directing a TV series in Israel called SWEATING BULLETS... for ABC, I believe. It was kind of a detective series shooting over there. Every second episode I directed. So on the week I wasn't working on the TV show I was working on AMERICAN SAMURAI with the editor. We finished it and sent it back to Los Angeles. At that point they formed a partnership with some famous producer named Jere Henshaw. Apparently, and unknown to me, this producer decided to bring in another editor to re-edit the movie without my knowledge. They also shot some additional scenes like the love scene between David and the woman. The fight we had for David and Mark didn't originally have a lot of choreography. There had been so many fights in the arena we decided to go for a traditional style samurai fight where the kill would be a single blow; like a showdown in a western. This producer who was put in charge didn't like it so he had the other editor create a fight from nothing.

V5: This is probably your goriest movie. There's an incredible amount of bloody violence in it. Unfortunately, the version that was released on tape was severely edited, but it was uncut on cable.

SF: That's what we were going for in this movie--it being in an arena with a lot of ugly characters so the goriness suited this atmosphere. Someone wrote to me recently about this movie; a guy who said his dad showed it to him when he was four years old and he remembered it (laughs).

V5: The two CYBORG COP films you made are a lot of fun. Were these pleasant experiences for you?

SF: Yes. I made them after the new Cannon went out of business. They only made two movies--DELTA FORCE 3 and AMERICAN SAMURAI and that was it. By then, the company that became Nu Image was a South African company that was called Nu Metro. I used them because they were providing us the services when we did AMERICAN NINJA 2 (1987). It was being run by Avi Lerner, Danny Dimbort and Trevor Shaw. It was mainly a theater company but they provided services for movie productions too. I knew them and Danny Dimbort was part of Cannon anyways. When the apartheid was over and Mandela took power with the National Congress I guess they were afraid the country would turn Communist and they sold the theater chain. They had a lot of money. One day I met one of the owners in LA and he told me they were switching from theaters to producing movies. The first one they want to make is 'American Ninja Cyborg', or something like that. They didn't have a script or an idea or anything of what it was supposed to be. The only things they knew was that they wanted me to direct it and for David Bradley to star. I agreed. We wrote a script with a South African writer and Boaz Davidson came along as the producer. So myself and Greg Latter the writer came up with some ideas for what would be my first time doing science fiction; or SciFi-Action. We hired a British company to make all the prosthetics. 

For distribution purposes, I didn't want to make a film that was about South Africa so, while we shot there, we gave the impression it took place in a tropical setting like Jamaica. The story was kind of similar to what we did in AMERICAN NINJA 2. We had a mad scientist creating cyborgs so you can't take something like this too seriously (laughs). We went for a lighter tone with the exotic setting, the music, and we were all conscious of this while writing the script. We sold it immediately, too. New Line Cinema bought it. For the sequel we went back to South Africa but this time, the setting was supposed to be America. We kept the same tongue-in-cheek tone as well. Plus, as our villain in the first movie we had John Rhys-Davies. You cannot have a serious movie with John Rhys-Davies (see insert).

V5: I take it you had a good time working with him?

SF: Oh, he was fantastic. What an actor. He was the traditional British actor. He came to me on the first day--we stayed in the same hotel in Johannesburg--and he says to me he is an actor's actor... "I'll do whatever you ask me to do. If you don't like my take I'll do it however you want. I'll do it exactly the way you tell me. For me it's a profession." That's how he was. He helped out with his character too, coming up with ideas. He had just done INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989).

V5: David Bradley took over as the American Ninja in part three and co-starred with Michael Dudikoff, who returned as Joe in part 4. Was it true there was some animosity between the two of them working on that picture?

SF: That's what I understand but I wasn't there. At the time Cannon decided to carry on the series but doing it much cheaper. Basically to ride the wave of the first two movies but with very low budgets. I think Michael didn't want to do part three because he wanted to try other roles and different ideas. He didn't want to be identified only as the American Ninja. So they made these other films in South Africa with a South African director and crew. When they came to part four they somehow convinced Michael to do it. I think Michael and David knew each other before they did the movie. David was a car salesman and that's how they met. Michael came to him to buy a car and Michael brought him to Cannon; but that is before what I am telling you. I'm not 100% sure what happened with them. David disappeared. He is in Texas teaching martial arts somewhere but nobody knows where he is. I tried to contact him but there is no response. I had a good relationship with him and I cannot find him. The guy who is writing the book now about my movies, 'Stories From the Trenches', tried very hard to find David but couldn't.

V5: Did you enjoy shooting in South Africa compared to either the Philippines or the United States?

CYBORG COP (1993)
SF: I love Africa. But the expertise of filmmaking was not there. I told you when we went to the Philippines they had really good crews there. Whatever they didn't have you just had to cross the water to Hong Kong; just a one hour flight. You had highly skilled technicians either from the Filipino's or from Hong Kong. In South Africa it was like the end of the world. Their only experience was with commercials or television. They had little experience with making movies. When Cannon came in it was the first real moviemaking they had there. So from a professional point of view it was not as good as the Philippines. Later on I also worked in Indonesia and it was same experience as South Africa. The best places to work from a technical perspective are Hollywood, Great Britain and Israel. Israel had a lot of film expertise. A lot of big movies were shot there like JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (1973), RAMBO III (1988), big, big movies. But I love Africa. The people there were very nice. I love the animals. But it is very hard to work there; no equipment and few people with experience. For example, when we shot AMERICAN NINJA 2 (1987) we brought a lot of people from here, while the two CYBORG COP movies were all done with local labor who were more accustomed to working on three day schedules doing commercials versus a nine week shoot on a movie set; six days a week and 12 hours a day.

V5: You showed a real knack for doing horror as well. You worked with Tobe Hooper on CROCODILE (2001) and directing SPIDERS 2: BREEDING GROUND (2001).

SF: Horror movies, like these slashers and things, it's a lot like doing comedy; you have to like it. I did not grow up with these kinds of movies. Americans grew up with horror pictures. It is part of the American culture. In Israel it is a tough society with the military, and many people participating in war; so we laugh at horror movies. They are not scared of them. It is a different culture. I never saw a horror movie in my life till THE EXORCIST (1973). I was a student here in Los Angeles. Somebody said, "Let's go see this movie", and we went to see it. Now, there are horror movies that are also science fiction like ALIEN (1979) and I really liked that one a lot. It was horror created through a lot of tension, which I prefer as opposed to the horror of the slasher variety. When I was offered to do the sequel to SPIDERS (2000) I saw an opportunity to do a SciFi movie with horror together. I was trying create an atmosphere along the lines of ALIEN (1979). Instead of a spaceship you're on a ship at sea... you don't see the creature till halfway through, and I enjoyed this a lot. This kind of horror isn't in the sense of killing young women.

V5: This was for Nu Image as well, yes?

SF: Yes. Nu Image moved from South Africa to make movies here. They used the same formula as Cannon, but many of them came from Cannon already. Boaz Davidson, Danny Dimbort, Avi Lerner... they started to make a lot of movies only Nu Image is a privately owned company as opposed to a public company. I made the two CYBORG COP pictures for them, THE ALTERNATE (2000) with Eric Roberts, and OPERATION: DELTA FORCE (1997) so I was doing the same sort of films I had done for Cannon. The difference is that in Cannon it was bigger and Nu Image was a smaller company but they have grown into a company that makes big movies now.

V5: Do you recall the first time you met Tobe Hooper? You mentioned POLTERGEIST being influential on NINJA III.

SF: I first met him in the corridors of the Cannon Films office building. There were many editing rooms back there and if I am not mistaken, he was working with his editor in one while I was working with my editor in another; so we bumped into each other on occasion. Small talk led to mutual appreciation. Of course, he was already famous for TEXAS CHAINSAW and POLTERGEIST. Years later we both worked for Nu Image and at one point they needed me to join Tobe on CROCODILE (2001) as a 2nd unit director to handle some of the action sequences. I was more than thrilled to lend a hand in conjunction with Tobe. A year later I was invited to a horror film festival where he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award. He could not be there in person so I accepted it for him and gave an acceptance speech.

V5: You said earlier you weren't much of a horror fan but did you see TEXAS CHAINSAW? If so what did you think of it?

SF: I did see it. But like I said before, living in Israel I didn't grow up with these kinds of movies. I didn't find it scary but rather campy and even funny in places.

V5: When you were making SPIDERS 2 (2001) did you find it problematic at all working with the giant spider as opposed to a lot of CGI which was very popular for those types of films at the time?

SF: Working with that giant mechanical puppet spider came right after I did 2nd unit on CROCODILE. I worked with a mechanical crocodile on that one so I already had some experience in doing so. It was a challenge at times but this is the type of professional challenge that I welcome because it breeds new ideas and allows me to come up with new cinematic solutions; the type of tasks I enjoy conquering. We had some CG shots too, so I had that to deal with as well.

V5: If there was one movie you could change or not do at all what would it be and why?

Sam with Robert Vaughn and Hulk Hogan
SF: McCINSEY'S ISLAND (1998), with Robert Vaughn and Hulk Hogan. It was all done hastily. When I got involved it was only half a script. They had a writer but all the way through it was unclear what sort of movie we were making. There were a few different entities involved and they all saw the movie in a different light. For instance the distribution company wanted us to make a straight action picture. The production company wanted to do a children's comedy film. The direction we were going was unclear the entire time. The main force was Hulk Hogan; the deal hinged on him. He wanted to shoot the movie in Florida so he could be close to his home; so the whole production moved next to his house because he didn't want to travel. Actually, despite it all, it was a lot of fun making the movie. Working in Florida was very nice. Hulk Hogan was fantastic to work with. A very nice man. Everyday he was on set hundreds of his fans came to watch him work. Children would come to get his autograph. So we had a good time, but the script was developing as we were going; when we started the script was not finished. We were trying to salvage it all the time, trying to figure out what to do. Hulk Hogan appeals to kids so we wanted to keep it for kids; then we were pressured to make it an action picture... then suddenly Grace Jones is added to the movie. She was not part of the cast when we started (laughs). There was too many factors conflicting with each other. I don't feel I did a good job on it. I can live without it but sometimes people ask me--very seldom--about this movie so it has its own fans.

Now the strangest movie I ever made was NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984). It's the most bizarre, crazy movie but it has a lot of fans and I can't understand it. I am very surprised by how many people write to me about this movie... and they love it! Somebody just wrote me saying it was their favorite movie; and I'm like, "Are you for real?" (laughs).

V5: So were you satisfied with your work on NINJA III?

SF: It's a mixture of too many genres. There's horror, exorcism, action, martial arts, dancing... too many things together for a 95 minute movie. But it became a cult classic. A guy called me from England about this festival, 'The Best Worst Movies in the World'. One of the selections is NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. I was at a film festival in Madrid called CutreCon and it featured NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. I got a call to appear at a festival in Holland in June, the International Cult Film Festival, and they are showing.... NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (laughs)! So this movie started something. As a ninja movie it was not successful. Sho Kosugi was right. The audience was not willing to accept a ninja heroine. From a box office point of view, both REVENGE OF THE NINJA and AMERICAN NINJA enjoyed much better box office. The audience for these movies is young men... that's it. Women don't go to see ninja or martial arts movies. There are exceptions, of course. So this movie wasn't accepted at first but years later it is embraced by the cult audience (laughs)!

V5: What is your opinion of action films made today compared to when you were making them?

SF: There is a big shift in action. The genre today caters to kids who grew up with video games. Their mental interpretation of what action is comes from the video games they play. In a video game, the action is moving very fast. The editing in these games is also very fast. Modern action movies are all about fast cutting and a fast pace with action that defies reality... which is spectacular. This is what the young audience expects. So what you get with Spiderman and Superman is action that is not real. Even when you see something like THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001), you're seeing cars that can fly like an airplane between two buildings. With the use of computer graphics, you can do whatever you want today. There is no limit anymore. When we made action movies, and had limited budgets, the action had to be performed physically. Either the actor or his stunt double would perform the action for real. Two people would stand in front of each other and have a fight. If somebody fell from the top floor of a building to the ground, somebody did it. Therefore we didn't need fast cutting. We could stay on the actors with a long shot and show the action. You mentioned earlier the van chase from REVENGE OF THE NINJA... we had Sho Kosugi flying through the glass from the roof of the car. We had to do it physically. We had no electronic means to do it. 

Nowadays you would have Matt Damon fly through the glass and he wouldn't do anything because he's standing in front of a blue screen with cables, and the cables would lift him; and later on it would be altered digitally. I believe that you can sense it. In modern action sequences you know the actor is not there. There are lots of inserts and cuts that give the impression that a fight is taking place. The action today is much more spectacular than what we did. We couldn't have done these things back then. Cinematically, it's breathtaking but it lacks the punch--you don't feel the pain. When we would jump a car or motorcycle it was done for real. This is painful. You can feel it on the landing. Today it's slow motion and flying, flying, flying with a soft landing... you can tell it's computerized. You get less involved in these action sequences. 

The medium budgeted action pictures have disappeared. So now you have the big event movies--150 million to 200 million budget; or for economical reasons, you have a very low budget where you cannot possibly deliver on the action. You can't create 45 minutes of action on a one million budget. You can see in the action movies Nu Image is making or the ones Isaac Florentine is directing in five weeks. It's a pity as it's impossible to produce enough action in five weeks. This is the economic reality of movies these days. They come either very cheap or very expensive. That is what is happening in the world of action today (laughs).

Sam and Frank Zagarino; BLOOD WARRIORS '93
V5: It's like these pictures today are all special effects with less attention paid to the characters.

SF: I used to always maintain that each action sequence would tell a little story. A beginning, a middle, and an end--even within the action sequence. I would discuss this with the action and stunt coordinators. I would ask them what is the beginning and the conclusion of your fight; give me a little story. They would show me and sometimes I would encourage them to change some things; like we couldn't have the hero winning all the time; there would need to be obstacles to overcome... the action sequences would be a little story by itself.

V5: What are you doing today? Do you have any projects you're working on now?

SF: The only projects I am working on now is building furniture. I haven't directed a movie in many years now. The last thing I directed was a SciFi parody called THE INTERPLANETARY SURPLUS MALE AND AMAZON WOMEN OF OUTER SPACE (2003). I have no film projects coming my way because the type of movies I was known for aren't made anymore--with this type of budget. Back then we made those movies for like 5 million dollars which would take 15 of 20 million today and these aren't being made. I was part of the Hollywood establishment and I was branded as a director of medium budget movies as opposed to big pictures or very low cost ones. So basically I am out of the directing business. I have a very beautiful hobby of designing and building furniture.

V5: If someone were to approach you about directing again would you do it?

SF: I would do it, but I would not do it with a low budget as you cannot deliver. I don't want to break my rule of 45 minutes of good action. But in reality I would do a low budget movie but on a different subject--something more dramatic like a love story. I love all kinds of movies although I am not crazy about horror. If it were a big budget action-adventure, then yes, I would do it. But at 67 years old I would much rather do a movie about relationships, a social drama, something like that. I have done a lot of action already. But I've done a bit of everything. I've done musicals, comedies, SciFi, horror... so I'd like to go back to where I started and do a social drama like ONE MORE CHANCE (1983) a film with social relevance.


V5: What advice would you give any young filmmaker wishing to become a film director?

SF: Today it is very simple to make a movie. All you need is a camera and a computer and a few lights. Cameras are cheap. You can buy a 4K camera for $2,000. They are so sensitive to light you need some lights and you can rent those. You can do your editing on your computer. So for $4-$5,000 you have your own studio. Get yourself a good group of people. Then, you're a young director who wants to showcase what you can do. Of course, don't try to make some big action movie unless you get the chance. Robert Rodriguez said something like, "If you decide you are a director then you are a director, but what are the means around you that you can use to showcase your talent?" If you have an uncle who is a butcher, you make a movie about a butcher and shoot for free in your uncle's shop. You're a storyteller... you don't have to make Indiana Jones to prove that you are talented. Get together with a writer and together one of you writes and the other directs. Physically, it's easy to make a movie today. And you don't need to live in a big city, either. You don't need a lab for sound mix; you can do it at home. You shoot, you load to your computer, you begin editing, you can correct color by yourself.... It's limitless. Exhibition today is unbelievable too; the streaming, all the different websites like Vimeo. You don't need distribution. When we made movies we had the big camera, the lab work, we needed a distribution company... this took a lot of money just to put the movie together. It was like a war sometimes. That's why the new book from Marco is called 'Stories From the Trenches' because making every movie was like a battle. Today it's easier; you only have to prove you understand the cinematic language to tell your story in a compelling way. Good storytelling is key no matter the means with which you realize it.

V5: Before we wrap up this interview, Mr. Firstenberg, I must tell you that when I was a kid whenever I would be in a video store, or if I was watching cable television, and one of your movies came on, as soon I saw your name in the credits I would say to myself, "I have gotta watch this".

SF: (laughs) You know, Sam Firstenberg is not my real name. My name is Samuel in Hebrew and the biblical pronunciation of my last name is Shmulik. It was Cannon that decided my name to make it sell.... to make it sound like a Hollywood name (laughs). Listen, I want to say one last thing. Those movies I directed were violent. But those movies have a feeling of a fairy tale... tongue in cheek. You have this feeling that it's not taken seriously. There are some movies that are too real. Like the Clint Eastwood movie, AMERICAN SNIPER (2014). There is no kidding around, no fairy tale feeling in this movie. The action is so real. I was shocked. When I left the theater I was shaking. And this is the difference. The action and violence in my movies is not for real. They have a resilience through the years that appeals to a younger audience. You will not show AMERICAN SNIPER to a seven year old but you can show them AMERICAN NINJA. 

And speaking of that film, I'll tell you one last story for a conclusion. When I was in Spain last January at the CutreCon International Film Festival, people were bringing books, posters, movies for me to sign; before the screening there was a Q&A; after the screening they'd come again with a few more things to sign, take pictures... and one day--I told you they screened NINJA III--a young woman comes up to me with a big original poster for AMERICAN NINJA (1985). By now it's rare, it's the one with the flag on it. Most people have these small posters or photos and she has this huge poster. She opens it up and asks me to sign it. I gladly signed it for her but I said to this lady, "I have a question to ask you... everybody who came up to me today was a man. You are the only young woman, and you are young--you weren't born when the movie was made. What's the story?" She tells me she is crazy about ninja movies, martial arts pictures, and her fiancee is into the same thing. This was the common subject that they have in common (laughs)! So they fell in love over action movies! And they had made a vow to name their first two children Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson... and they had already put it in the contract (laughs)! This old movie from 35 years ago has this sort of influence over a young, loving couple only 22 years old.

Sam and the women of NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984)
I would like to once more thank Mr. Firstenberg for being so gracious with his time for this interview. I wish him only the best in all his future endeavors.

Sam Firstenberg: "There are many more stories, photos, articles, and interviews at my website by clicking HERE."

If you would like to contribute to the Kickstarter of Marco Siedelmann's exhaustive volume on Mr. Firstenberg's career and Cannon alums, you can find all the details about this book by clicking HERE.

If you missed Part 1 of this interview--covering Mr. Firstenberg's early years, and his film work from 1971 to 1984--you can read it by clicking HERE.

***All behind the scenes and assorted production stills courtesy of Sam Firstenberg***


Friday, April 21, 2017

Cool Ass Cinema Presents: An Interview With Filmmaker Sam Firstenberg Part 1


If you grew up in the 1980s and you loved action movies you will know the name Sam Firstenberg; a name that will immediately bring to mind images of ninjas and the Cannon Group founded by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Responsible for some of the finest, some of the most memorable action pictures of the 1980s and 1990s, Sam Firstenberg made his name on such martial arts classics like REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983) and AMERICAN NINJA (1985); and the musical comedy favorite BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984). Prior to his success as a director, he toiled away as an assistant director on many Israeli productions and American financed features. Throughout his lengthy career, he worked with many of Hollywood's biggest names like Robert Shaw, Shelley Winters, Richard Roundtree, Eric Roberts, and even Hulk Hogan. Having been closer to Menahem Golan than any other filmmaker, Sam Firstenberg (Samuel Shmulik) divulges many memories of his time making movies for Cannon and other film companies over the course of three decades. I would like to thank Mr. Firstenberg for giving so much time for this interview.

Venoms5: What was your childhood like growing up and was there a film or films that made you want to become a filmmaker?

Sam Firstenberg: I was born in the holy city of Jerusalem. At the time, growing up in the 1950s the city was divided between Israel and Jordan. It was just like Berlin with walls and fences cutting the city in half. There was a local theater in the neighborhood where I lived. In the afternoon, you could see a double feature. I used to go there all the time. I love cinema... love movies. I was one of the boys who would come back from the cinema and tell the story of the movie to my friends in the neighborhood. The first movie I remember leaving an impression on me was BAMBI (1942). My father took me to see it. This was 1954 or '55. We had no television. This was the only visual means afforded me at this time. I was very impressed by the Disney movie. In Israel we saw more American movies than anything else. Occasionally you'd get a French movie, an Italian film, sometimes one from India or Turkey, but mainly it was Hollywood movies; big ones like war pictures, gangsters, Tarzan, musicals, westerns... things like that.

V5: What did your family think about your aspirations to become a filmmaker? Were they supportive of your decision?

SF: They were not supportive at all (laughs). When I was in high school and after I studied electrical engineering. I never worked in it, but I have an education in it (laughs). My parents assumed I would continue in this field, with electronics... then suddenly I tell them this crazy idea that I want to work in movies. They believed that engineering was the better choice, which it was. But once I became more established as a director--as opposed to struggling to make as was the case with other directors--they accepted it. It was my hobby, my passion, and later it became my profession.

V5: When did you first meet Menahem Golan?

Menahem Golan and Sam at Cannes
SF: It was 1971. I had just finished my military service in Israel. Everybody serves. I came to Los Angeles and went to college. I got lucky and got a job immediately at a television station. I knew a bit about photography so I got a job as a camera operator for channel 13 here in LA. I found the job to be boring. So one day, I meet Menahem Golan. He was already a famous producer. I knew his name. Everybody in Israel knew his name. He was the type of man who made sure everybody knew who he was. In his movies his name was above the titles, above the stars (laughs). He had just finished a movie, KAZABLAN (1973). I met him at a party by accident. He told me he was making a movie here in Hollywood called LEPKE (1975) with Tony Curtis. I asked him if I could work with him and he eventually agreed. I was doing work as a production assistant. Golan and his cousin Yoram Globus, they had this company here at the time called AmeriEuro Pictures. When they finished LEPKE they made this movie called THE FOUR DEUCES (1975) with Jack Palance. I got to work on this movie as well, getting closer to the camera while helping out with set decoration and other things. So they produced these two movies before opening a small office in LA. I became a runner for them. I had a motorcycle. I met a lot of people at this time.

V5: One of your early film credits is the exploitation picture MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976) directed by actor Michael Pataki. Do you recall how you got on that picture?

SF: One person I met during that early time with Golan was Andrew Davis; who later became a famous director. On LEPKE, he was the cinematographer. Then he got the job as DP on this little movie for Charles Band and Michael Pataki. He asked me to come along with him to work on the picture. It was a very, very low budget... tiny budget (laughs). I had a friend who was an electrician who worked on some of the films I did, and he came too. My friend did the lighting and I was the grip.... and, aside from some other technicians, that was pretty much it. That was the crew! At the time I think it was called THE EYES OF DR. CHANEY. It was the first film that Charlie Band produced before he went to produce many low budget movies. It was a five week schedule.

V5: How was it working under Michael Pataki?

Michael Pataki in DRACULA'S DOG (1977)
SF: We eventually became good friends. I didn't know at the time that he was an actor. He did so many movies; mostly small pictures than later some big ones like RAISE THE TITANIC (1980), ROCKY IV (1985), etc... he was a very nice man. Jump forward five years, I had finished graduate school with a masters degree. I decided to make a movie that eventually became ONE MORE CHANCE (1983). I had written the script and really believed Michael Pataki should play the lead role. I went to his home to show him the script; at the time it was a 30 minute script. He read it and said, "Listen, this is not for me. I am not this character but I know an actor who will do it for you who is right for this part... Johnny LaMotta." So he introduced me to him and he became the lead co-starring with Kirstie Alley. Michael Pataki did take a part in the movie, though. Of course, everybody was volunteering, including Michael. He died several years ago, but a very nice man.

V5: You discussed how you first met Menahem Golan. Can you elaborate on your time working with him in those early days prior to the forming of Cannon?

SF: Menahem is a legendary character in the movie industry. When they opened their office I became a writer for them. It was a very small place with only four people working there--Menahem, Yoram, a secretary and myself. I was a runner and I had to deliver scripts or whatever needed to be done at that time. So we got to know each other very well. At some point he was trying to put together more productions, one of which was called DIAMONDS (1975) with Robert Shaw, Richard Roundtree, and Barbara Hershey. Shelley Winters joined the cast later. The idea was to shoot the movie back in Israel. They also had a production company in Israel. So, since I had been more or less working for him the last couple of years I asked to go with him and be his assistant director on this movie. He agrees but tells me I have to pay for my own ticket. Since this was a pretty big production they didn't trust me with the responsibility of an AD right away so I was 2nd assistant director. So we're halfway through filming and Robert Shaw gets into an argument with Menahem Golan. He was a very strong-headed man, as was Robert Shaw (laughs). The AD was caught in the middle and he left the picture. We had two weeks of shooting left so Menahem turns to me and says, "Now you're the assistant director." We finished the movie and I came back to LA to finish my studies.

Golan and Globus came back to the US and put together another movie and it, too, was to be shot in Israel. It was called '52 Pickup'. At the time it was to be done with Joe Don Baker. They ended up producing it later with Roy Scheider in 1986. There was also another film with the same story called THE AMBASSADOR (1984) with Robert Mitchum. So I am back in Israel to work on this first version of '52 Pickup' as the AD. Something happened and the production fell apart; Joe Don Baker didn't come, the money didn't come and I'm out of a job. But at the very same time, they're ready to produce another movie to be shot in Israel with Boaz Davidson as director. In English it was called LUPO GOES TO NEW YORK (1976). I got the job on that picture as the AD. This was all under the same umbrella that would later be Cannon only at the time it was Noah Films; like Noah's Ark. I did other Israeli movies with Boaz like TZANANI FAMILY (1976) and then did some additional pictures for other producers and directors outside of the work I was doing with Golan and Globus.

So in 1979 I came back to LA. I was an assistant director for five years on many movies. I was tired and I didn't want to be an AD in the first place. It was not my goal in this business as I wanted to be a director. In a small industry like in Israel, it was very tough. So I came back here, I was married by then and me and my wife both went back to school and got my Master's Degree, which I mentioned earlier. While in school I produced ONE MORE CHANCE with my friend David Womark who later became a famous producer. We couldn't finish it. Later we expanded it from 30 minutes to 90 minutes, shooting on the weekends. You can read the details on my website, it's such an involved story how we made this over the course of a year and a half. Between school, tuition, we spent everything we had.

By then, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had already produced another big movie which I was also a part of called OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (1977) about the rescue at Entebbe Airport. This was a big, big movie. They had just finished LEMON POPSICLE (1978) that was also a hit for them. They had enough money to realize their dream of purchasing an American film company. This company was Cannon, which was based in New York. The original Cannon was more about exploitation pictures. They bought the library and moved the operations to Los Angeles. So I had an unfinished movie and they needed new material. We showed them what we had, they liked it, and decided to invest additional money into the project and distribute it. This is how we met again--Menahem Golan and me. Now they are officially Cannon; in the beginning a very small company.

Klaus Kinski & Sybil Danning
V5: To go back a bit, can you discuss working on OPERATION THUNDERBOLT (1977)? Did you have toe opportunity to interact with Klaus Kinski or Sybil Danning?

SF: This movie was big, so we had two units. Menahem Golan was the director so he gave Boaz Davidson the first unit and I was the 2nd unit AD. The 2nd unit was really big; sometimes the two worked together with all the military hardware being used. We had a mockup of Entebbe Airport in Israel and Menahem would jump from one set to another. So sometimes Klaus Kinski would work with us as opposed to the main unit. Sybil was very nice and we became friends. I met her again not long ago. 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 he delivered.

V5: How did REVENGE OF THE NINJA come about?

SF: We still had about 20 minutes or so of the script for ONE MORE CHANCE to shoot; so while I was in the Cannon offices editing that film together, Golan went to the Philippines to shoot ENTER THE NINJA (1981). The movie turned out to be decent and bigger compared to the other pictures they were making at this time. They sold it around the world but couldn't secure domestic distribution. They made some money off of it and wanted to do a sequel. We had finished our movie and was making the rounds on the festival circuit showing our picture in Switzerland, France, places like that. Cannon already had a director lined up for the sequel but something happened and they lost the director. So I return from promoting my movie. I walk into the corridor at Cannon's office and I am offered the job as director of REVENGE OF THE NINJA (laughs). The script was already written, Sho Kosugi was already signed, so Golan asked me to direct and my friend David Womark to produce. Menahem Golan was concerned about me directing action. I had been an AD for years and made some short films, a 90 minute feature, and I wanted to do this film so I tell him I can do the action no problem (laughs). Menahem introduced me to the writer James Silke and star Sho Kosugi and I never heard from Cannon anymore after that.

Now, I never heard the word ninja before in my life. I never saw any of the Hong Kong style of martial arts pictures before, either. I did see a lot of samurai movies. I love samurai movies... Akira Kurosawa, etc. Sho Kosugi was an expert. He introduced me to the Hong Kong martial arts movie genre. He showed me a lot of those movies, took me to screenings and explained to me about Ninjitsu. That is how I was introduced to the martial arts part of the movie. 

It was agreed from the beginning that Sho Kosugi would choreograph the fights, but we needed a stunt coordinator. We had a guy at first, but ended up with Steve Lambert. He is an expert at action so I started to talk with him. I had studied cinema for eight years, being an assistant and directing, so if you as a filmmaker understand the language of cinema, basically you can put together an action sequence. The action choreographer and stunt coordinator design the action as it's described to them. My job is to put the visual elements together in the editing room to create an exciting sequence. So I started with storyboards. I was sitting in the office talking with Sho and Steve and I began drawing the action as I see it--wide shot, long shot, insert and so on. I had seen so many action movies as a kid it came very easy for me; it was like it was second nature. To direct action you need an understanding of how the cinematic language works.

V5: You really showed a knack for directing action in this picture. Seeing it the first time I never would've thought it was your first action movie. It's one of my favorite films.

SF: Thank you! Listen, when I was working with the writer and Sho Kosugi--who was very involved on this picture--I knew two things right away... number one was, after Sho had shown me so many HK kung fu movies, I decided this wasn't the type of movie I wanted to make--which was only martial arts. I wanted to make something closer to James Bond; not just martial arts, but a Hollywood style action film. So I made a decision to mix martial art action and Hollywood action. Number two, I wanted to have a big action sequence at the beginning, end the movie with big action, and a big chase somewhere in the middle. Another thing I had in my mind was we were going to have 50% action; around 45 minutes of nothing but action, which many such films don't have. We took our time doing it. We had everything we needed to do it. It was low budget, but certainly not a tiny film. We shot for nine weeks with two units.

V5: In my opinion, the van chase and the roof fight at the finale remain two of the greatest sequences in action cinema history. Which of those two were the most difficult for you to put together?


SF: The chase you mention starts off with a fight. From the gallery, to the outside, to the street, on top of the van, inside of the van... we shot this all together. I would say we took ten days to shoot this. We used two units, and even when the main unit left, I left the 2nd unit behind with a list of what was left to make the sequence complete. This was technically challenging but only in the sense of shooting all these small elements to make the sequence work.

 
Now the roof fight took a bit longer to do. The main challenge was we were working on a roof 25-30 stories high with limited space. The challenges were just technical; like a sword might break during a fight or somebody twists their hand and has to go to the hospital. Aside from these things there's not much difference in action sequences aside from the length of the fight and how spectacular you can make it. 

 
You remember the crossing between the two buildings at the end? This was just several seconds onscreen but it took us nearly an entire day to get that and when we finally shot it we just did the one take.

V5: This film was really bloody. I noticed there are scenes in the trailer that aren't in the movie. You mentioned a decapitation was removed in the commentary, but do you recall anything you had to take out whether for violence or pacing?


SF: As I told you before, I love samurai movies. In the Japanese movies the violence is very graphic. They don't have 'X' rating or 'R' rating in Japan. For them it's an aesthetic element. I love it. So when we made REVENGE OF THE NINJA there was much more graphic stuff than what made it into the picture. In cutting the film, Cannon stipulated a 95 minute movie. It made it easier to sell on the exhibition side of things. We also had to get an 'R' rating. We submitted the first cut and got an 'X' rating on it. I don't know how it works today but at the time they never gave us detailed notes as to what they found too graphic. The notes were very general in description; like 'too violent', or 'violence towards children'. Now you have to figure it out and send it back and hope it passes. We had already thrown away 20 minutes which was good as you only want to keep the best scenes. One of the scenes we removed was a decapitation at the end just prior to the roof fight. We submitted the movie three or four times. Moni Mansano (see insert photo) did the makeup effects in the movie.

V5: How was Ashley Ferrare to work with? She has only three film and TV credits.

SF: We cast the film in Los Angeles before we shot in Utah and hired some additional people there. We had an actress already signed. I can't remember her name. Something happened and she couldn't do the movie. I think she got a job on a television series. So we're two weeks before shooting and no actress. We began casting locally in Salt Lake City. Ashley was from Salt Lake City. She did her job efficiently. I mean, REVENGE OF THE NINJA isn't the greatest film from an acting point of view (laughs)! Our main concern was with action as opposed to the acting.

V5: At what point did you realize the movie was coming together for you? Was it after looking at the dailies or something else?

SF: There is this realization of the magic. Just watching the dailies we realized Sho Kosugi was charismatic on the screen. He really holds your attention. The editing began right away. Michael Duthie was the editor on ENTER THE NINJA (1981), on this one, NINJA III (1984), and many movies. He's a great action editor. He put rough cuts together. We started the production shooting just action first to impress the company. With Sho choreographing, his students, and Steve Lambert and his assistants, we realized the fights are really spectacular. When we came back to Los Angeles we put the whole movie together in the rough cut, we noticed we were missing something important in the story.

Menahem agreed--along with Sho and myself--that the film was missing something so we brought the writer James Silke back and we brainstormed to figure out what we needed to make the story work. So we added the opening sequence in Japan. We felt we needed to understand the background of Sho Kosugi's character before he comes to America. We added that and also the fight with Sho's son, Kane Kosugi in the park. This was listed as 'Additional Photography'. We also added some things at the end like the police arriving at the bottom floor. We had everything inside the building, just not what we needed going on outside. We needed additional shots of the ninjas arriving at the building, too. Menahem liked what we had done so he thought it was worth it to spend the extra money on this extra photography. They saw something in the movie. But still, I saw it as a low-budget 'B' action movie that looks good. 

 
The realization we had something special came when MGM decided to distribute it. Cannon had a relationship with MGM. At that time, MGM was in Culver City where Sony is today. Cannon had been pursuing MGM for a long time. They had been viewing Cannon product but didn't accept any of them. The first film that MGM was impressed enough to distribute was REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983). They took it under their wing, did a huge advertising campaign for this smaller budgeted movie, did 500 to 600 prints.... so then it was clear this wasn't your average low budget movie that comes and goes. It did very well, especially in New York where it was top of the box office for two weeks.

V5: Was the script for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION always intended to have that horror element?

SF: REVENGE OF THE NINJA had done very well around the world so a sequel was requested immediately. Menahem Golan hadn't an idea or anything, he just came to me and asked for 'Ninja number three'. But for some reason, I never asked him why, but he wanted to NINJA III with a Caucasian actor. He asked me if we could do it with a female actor. I don't recall why, but this was his request--to not use Sho Kosugi as the protagonist and go with a woman instead. Sho was not okay with this. He wanted to be the main character. But even more than this, he didn't like the idea of a woman being the main ninja character. He was arguing that a woman doesn't possess the power needed for this role. In one of the HK kung fu movies I saw, there was a group of female ninjas. Sho told me that historically there were female ninja assassins, but for this movie Sho was against it. We couldn't resolve the problem between us and Sho Kosugi because we needed him per the request of the company. There was a movie that had been very popular at that time called POLTERGEIST (1982) from Tobe Hooper. So I got this idea to make the female character possessed. So because her body has been taken over by a male ninja it would pacify Sho Kosugi in his belief that the woman was not strong enough; and he accepted this logic (laughs)! This is how that scripting angle was born. We all got so carried away with this idea (laughs).

V5: NINJA III had very little blood in it. Was there a reason this film was toned down compared to the previous entry?

SF: I think it was the nature of the story. We had a woman who is an aerobic dancer; we had a love story which we didn't have before so it just lent itself to being less bloody. We still got an 'X' rating, though. You're not going to believe this, but we had a scene where Lucinda Dickey's head spins around like Linda Blair's in THE EXORCIST (1973). This was in the sequence with the sorcerer. We had to cut it out for an 'R' rating. There were a couple of other things too, but I think the story lent itself to being less gory than the previous movie simply because we were dealing with evil spirits as opposed to the physical violence.

V5: Do you recall how you chose David Chung as the villain? 

SF: He just came to the casting call and we didn't need a super martial artist for this role. He knew enough for the role. We only see him in the beginning and a bit at the end. We just liked his look. He had a face that suited the evil character he was playing; and he knew enough about martial arts to do the beginning sequence.

V5: Was Sho Kosugi satisfied with the finished product and can you comment on why he left Cannon after NINJA III and went to work for Trans World?

SF: Sho didn't like it that we weren't going to use him as the main character, so he was already mad about this. He didn't like doing this movie, actually. Trans World was the rival to Cannon, a company established by two Israelis. Trans World was also run by an Israeli, Moshe Diamant. They were competitors... they hated each other (laughs). Moshe Diamant wanted to be another Cannon. They were very competitive. I don't know enough about it, but I think Moshe offered Kosugi a great deal of money. He was already mad at Menahem Golan and wanted to leave.

V5: Were you ever in contact with him after he left Cannon to possibly work together again?

SF: Yes. When he was working on the television series THE MASTER (1984) he invited me to the set a few times. We were in contact at other times afterward but he was busy and I was busy. But later when Menahem Golan split from Cannon to create 21st Century he invited both of us to his office to see if we would do another movie together and it never materialized. In the meantime Sho went back to Japan, then back to the US; he was moving back and forth from Japan to Los Angeles. We didn't keep a tight friendship but did talk occasionally on the phone.

V5: What can you say about BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984)? It seemed like everyone had a blast making this picture.

SF: We cast Lucinda Dickey for NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984). Meanwhile, Cannon had this idea for a break-dancing movie they made called BREAKIN' (1984) directed by Joel Silberg. They liked Lucinda Dickey. She was a dancer so that was how she was able to do the martial arts in the movie. BREAKIN' was released before NINJA III; and just like the story of REVENGE OF THE NINJA, Cannon started work on BREAKIN' 2 with the same director. Something happened and Joel Silberg left the production. Both men are dead now so I will never know what happened as to why he didn't do the movie. I had just finished everything on NINJA III--the music, the editing, etc, and Cannon turned to me and asked if I wanted to direct. 

Menahem, Lucinda, Shabba-Doo, Michael Chambers
I was delighted to do it. My whole life I loved music and musicals; and there's very little difference in musicals and action from a technical point of view; different content, of course. It was so much fun. We decided right away to make a fun movie. There was music on the set all day long. There was a music producer on set, Ollie Brown; dance choreographer Billy Goodman; and of course, Shabba Doo, which was the head figure when it came to dancing; Lucinda Dickey I already knew from the other movie; and so many little kid dancers... they came everyday to the set, even the days we didn't need all of the dancers. So yes, the atmosphere was very jovial; a lot of young people who were all very energetic. It was a very smooth production. Everything gelled and I think you can see it in the movie.


 
V5: So making this movie was like shooting a party that lasted for a few months.

SF: You described it correctly. There are a couple of dramatic scenes but the movie takes place out in the streets. We were outside on the real streets of East LA, where hip hop street-dancing was happening. I mean, it is work--you have to show up in the morning and make sure at the end of the day you have at least a few minutes of movie. So the director and producers had responsibility but the rest of the people could party all day if they wanted (laughs).

Click HERE to read Part 2.

Sam Firstenberg: "There are many more stories, photos, articles, and interviews at my website by clicking HERE."

There is currently a book project covering every aspect of Mr. Firstenberg's career, his time at Cannon, and many others who worked there. If you wish to contribute to the Kickstarter campaign, you can do so by clicking HERE.

***Behind the scenes photographs courtesy of Sam Firstenberg***
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