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 it 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 then 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 do 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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