411 Talks w/Marco Siedlemann About His Latest Book Stories From the Trenches
The B-Movie Interview: Marco Siedlemann
Marco Siedlemann is a film journalist, critic, and author from Germany who has collaborated on three books so far, notably The Untold, In-Depth, Outrageously True Story of Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment with Nadia Bruce-Rawlings (you can buy that book here). His latest book is Stories From the Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg, a book about the legendary director of Revenge of the Ninja, American Ninja 1 and 2, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, and many more. Siedlemann has created a Kickstarter campaign to help finish the book (you can check out the Kickstarter here).
In this interview Siedlemann talks about his book subject, book writing, and more.
Bryan Kristopowitz: When did you know you wanted to write a book about Sam Firstenberg?
Marco Siedlemann: At first I was going to put together a book about Avi Lerner’s company Nu Image, but the Shapiro Glickenhaus book showed me how many people are needed to be tracked down for a proper book about a whole company – and Nu Image (similar to Cannon or PM Entertainment) had such an enormous output that it was pretty clear to me to instead focus on a separate filmmaker’s career. My idea was an interview book influenced by the legendary Hitchcock/Truffaut book, or the one by Cameron Crowe when he interviewed Billy Wilder. So the conception has changed several times, but it was my goal in a very early status of the project that it should be a conclusional book, a journey through more than three decades in the movie industry, starting in the very early days of Israeli cinema and experiencing the uprising of Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. I was sure that a very rich and lively career as Sam’s would be more than enough to fill a whole book which would also reflect – just like the SGE book did – on the era of mid-budget commercial independent films in Hollywood, the home video boom, and the decline of the independent companies.
BK: How did you convince Sam Firstenberg to participate in Stories from the Trenches?
MS: That wasn’t a big deal, because Sam is a very generous, supportive and nice person; very open to ideas and suggestions. He helped a lot to shape the structure of the book. Truth is, I saw Mark Hartley’s documentary about Cannon (Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films) and immediately I was confident to reach out to Sam: It was just obvious that he’s a very friendly character, a good storyteller, and – maybe most important – a man looking back on his career without any kind of regrets or bitterness. Naturally he was a little skeptical in the beginning, but during the process he got more and more excited about the project. I think one reason for that is that I’m not the typical “fan” of his cult-favorite movies, but much more interested in the whole picture – we obviously talked about American Ninja and Revenge of the Ninja, but we also talked, in extended length, about his lesser known films. We discussed his first feature One More Chance (starring Kirstie Alley & John LaMotta), his Hebrew-language romantic comedy The Day We Met (starring Zachi Noy), his work as an assistant director, and his very last film, the obscure sci-fi-parody The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Woman From Outer Space.
BK: How was putting Stories from the Trenches together different from your previous book about Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment?
MS: Doing the SGE book was more of a collaborative process. I worked with two co-editors on that book, Stephen A. Roberts and Nadia Bruce-Rawlings. Both of them worked for many years for Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment back in the day, so it was a trip down memory lane for them. Another significant difference is the focus of the interviews: SGE was a production and distribution company, so the interviews naturally are much more dedicated to the producer’s view. There are detailed conversations about the film markets, pre-sell methods, marketing ideas, legendary parties, the whole financing side of filmmaking. Even the directors interviewed in the book – among them Christian Ingvordsen, Jalal Merhi, William Lustig, Frank Henenlotter – are talking about their very own companies (Sultan, Film One, etc.), and/or the circumstances the projects came along under. However, Sam Firstenberg was never interested in a producer’s career of any kind, so the conversations are focused on his philosophy of filmmaking, his influences, his childhood, youth and education. I cover all career steps and many private thoughts, so it’s more intimate and personal. The SGE book includes lots of company ephemera, artworks, and film stills, because we were allowed to use them. Sam’s most popular films are in the hands of MGM now; that’s the reason we’re using film stills for just a few of his work. Sam opened up his private archive, so the book will be loaded with private snapshots, behind the scenes images, private held pieces (including pictures of Sam as a kid or a teenager) and other never-seen-before stuff from every single movie.
BK: How long did it take to write/put together Stories from the Trenches? Who was your hardest interview to track down?
MS: Well, it’s hard to say how long it did take to put it together, because naturally as a writer and publisher I’m working on more than one project at a time. But it’s more than 1 and a half years now since we got in touch, and we recorded countless interview hours together. Sometimes there were a couple of weeks without progressing with it, but in other weeks we talked almost every day. A few movies were pretty hard to find, same with some of the additional interviewees. I hope that I will track down a handful of people that are not interviewed yet, but even if they won’t be available I can promise dozens of different voices for the upcoming book – actors, producers, writers, crew members of all kind, stunt & fight coordinators, etc. The hardest interview partner to track down? A lot of them were tricky, but probably I needed the longest time for some of the retired Cannon veterans who are back in Israel. Among them cinematographer Hanania Baer (American Ninja), Rony Yacov (Head of Production in Cannon during the 80s), and some of the very busy people who still work on huge film projects, like stunt coordinator BJ Davis (American Ninja 2: The Confrontation), or Michael J. Duthie (supervising editor on numerous Cannon films).
BK: What did you learn about Cannon and the kind of low budget movie Cannon put out that you didn’t know before writing Stories from the Trenches?
MS: I’m not very much into gossip and anecdotal stories (of course there still is space for both in the book), so I’m not sure how to answer that. I learned a lot about the atmosphere and the spirit of Cannon, the practical way they operated in, and most important: I learned a lot about the people who made the movies, on & off camera. It’s very hard to tell the story about a production company of that era, just because everything happened at the same time, and many different points of view have to be respected. I’m really enjoying getting to know those guys (and girls) who worked on those movies I grew up with. It’s very rewarding to talk about their work, and their personal stories. Sam told me, “You don’t need to be positive all the way, you can include the ugly stuff as well. “ And I swear, if there would have been at least one person who would have said the slightest negative word about working with Sam Firstenberg, I would have used it. But no matter if they worked together 40, or 20 years ago – literally no one had anything but love for this man. That sounds sappy, but it’s true. Still, there are some anecdotes about Cannon, Golan & Globus, and the film industry in general included which are not only positive – and just like in any other career there were unfulfilled dreams & passion projects that were a) never released, or b) buried and forgotten.
BK: What do you attribute the current re-examination of Cannon’s output to? How much, do you think, is nostalgia?
MS: A lot, which isn’t a bad thing at all. I think most of the fan base & worldwide audience nowadays has an emotional connection to the usual Cannon films – in case of Sam mostly for the ninja movies, and for the iconic performances of Michael Dudikoff or Steve James. I am not really driven by that. I never was specifically devoted to martial arts films, action movies, or the typical 80s cult favorites. So I am not really a “fan,” as I mentioned before. Actually I delved into the work of Sam Firstenberg during the production process of the book. I think cinema is and was very much connected to nostalgia, childhood experiences, so it’s no surprise that these films are still well and alive, backed up by a huge international community. Also, there are a lot of people who started martial arts because of American Ninja and other movies like that one, so it’s not only important for film buffs. Last but not least, there’s a smaller part of the audience, but a very important one to keep the Cannon heritage alive: curators, critics, bloggers, film historians, academics, and (genre) filmmakers from a younger generation. For me it’s important not to watch the Cannon films in a “so bad it’s good” way or as “trashy, no-brainer entertainment.” I really think they did some outstanding work, and I’m not only counting the obvious “artsy” movies like Barfly or Love Streams. Cannon and Menahem Golan – this was a larger than life epic story of an obsessed cinema lover, a visionary producers team, and a unique company history which changed the face of American filmmaking. I think Cannon hardly did one uninteresting movie.
BK: What do you hope to achieve from the Kickstarter campaign?
MS: I hope to get one step further in the world of publishing. The Shapiro Glickenhaus book for example – please don’t get me wrong, I’m very proud of it – not only had some difficulties during the production process, it was also not very well marketed. Because there wasn’t a real budget for it I wasn’t able to get the book a bigger release. Many people wrote nice things about it in German & English (online & print) magazines, so all in all it was a success for us. For the Sam Firstenberg book I would love to put in some more money for the layout process, the refreshing work on many of the photos, and I would love to have a few more weeks for additional interviews and transcriptions. If the campaign succeeds I can put the money almost directly into the design and manufacturing process. Another wish of mine is to put in more money for the book jacket. I already hired the gifted poster designer Ralf Krause for the front cover artwork, but if I receive the money from the crowdfunding I would be able to hire him again for completing the book jacket, so there will be additional eye candy on the back cover of the book! The Kickstarter campaign is also important because I want to introduce the book to a wider audience, so I need to send out a lot of review copies, marketing material, and some significant advertisement.
BK: When should we expect to see Stories from the Trenches available for purchase?
MS: A lot of the main work is already covered, so I just need some extra time to try again on the missing interviewees – besides that there are some more transcriptions to do, a lot of proper editing and proof-reading (which will be done by Nadia Bruce-Rawlings). Again, if I am able to pay for the last steps – instead of doing the transcriptions, the layout and the editing totally on my own – the book will be ready for being put together in summer, which would mean the book will be completed and internationally available in the fall of 2017, probably September/October. If the crowdfunding campaign doesn’t succeed I will not abandon the project, but then it will probably take until sometime in 2018. Plus it would be not that much extended in terms of featured pics and interviews. So I hope the Cannon fan community will help me give this project dedicated to Sam Firstenberg’s body of work the well-deserved release by pre-buying the book, or supporting it in some way and sharing the link everywhere they can.
BK: What’s your favorite Sam Firstenberg movie?
MS: Well, since I watched all his films and became friends with Sam it’s not easy to answer that question. I think Avenging Force is his best film in terms of directing, pacing, and storytelling. Almost as good and tragically forgotten, Riverbend, starring Steve James, where we can find by far the best acting in all of Sam’s movies. I also love the insanity of Ninja III: The Domination, Cyborg Cop 1 and 2 – great pieces of pop culture cinema. The cyborg films are beloved guilty pleasures for me. Also underrated in my eyes would be The Alternate which probably should be mentioned as the best Nu Image production directed by Sam. All in all, once you start serious research and deep focused discussions with the filmmaker, there’s almost no film experience which isn’t fascinating in some way. Sometimes the things that were not meant to be – or got out of hands in some way – are the most interesting in the film business.
A special thanks to Marco Siedlemann for participating in this interview and to david j. moore for helping set it up.
Please check out the Stories from the Trenches Kickstarter here
All images courtesy of Marco Siedlemann