Director Sam Firstenberg Talks w/411 About Stories From the Trenches & More
The B-Movie Interview: Sam Firstenberg
For low budget movie nerds like me, director Sam Firstenberg is a cinema God. He’s the man who directed four classic 1980’s ninja movies, two with Sho Kosugi (Revenge of the Ninja and Ninja III: The Domination) and two with Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja and American Ninja 2: The Confrontation). Firstenberg made those four movies, along with several others (Avenging Force and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo are two of them) for the now legendary Cannon Film Group. In the 1990’s and into the 2000’s, Firstenberg made movies for various low budget “Cannon” like outfits, continuing his action excellence with movies like Cyborg Cop and Operation Delta Force. Firstenberg is now the subject of a book chronicling his entire career, Stories From the Trenches by Marco Siedelmann. In conjunction with a Kickstarter campaign for Trenches, Mr. Firstenberg was nice enough to participate in an interview with this writer about the book, Cannon Films, and his movie career in general.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you become involved with author Marco Siedelmann? Did you think anyone would ever want to write a book about your movie making career?
Sam Firstenberg: One day I got a phone call from Germany and Marco Siedelmann was on the line, he introduced himself and asked me to participate in an interview for a book he is planning to publish about the Cannon Film company. I agreed and subsequently he started to conduct a set of interviews with me. At some point he told me that he finds our interviews so interesting, vast in scope, and rich in content that he is thinking of concentrating on my career and the movies I directed only. Publishing a book about my movie making career was always on my mind and I already had the title Stories from the Trenches but writing is not my forte so Marco’s proposal was a pleasant surprise.
BK: You directed several action movies over your career, mostly for the Cannon Group. Did you ever consider yourself an “action director” because of those movies or did you consider yourself just a movie director?
SF: I never considered myself an “Action Director.” This term, in my opinion, describes what is known as “second unit director.” The way I see it a film director is a story teller that uses cinematic elements to convey a story and that’s what I always considered myself to be.
BK: Was your tenure at Cannon an asset or a hindrance in trying to get potential movies made outside of Cannon?
SF: The answer is both. On the one hand the association with Cannon gave me the opportunity to direct many movies one after the other, totally free of any corporate pressure. On the other hand, working for them stigmatized me within the Hollywood labeling system as a medium budget director and prevented me from moving up into the big budget studio produced echelon.
BK: You made four ninja movies in your career. Which one do you think is your best ninja effort? And out of your entire Cannon Group career, which do you think is your best movie?
SF: In my opinion and that of most of the viewers and fans the first American Ninja with Michael Dudikoff is the best but still some will say it was Revenge of the Ninja with Sho Kosugi. I feel that that in American Ninja the storyline is more compelling and the characters are stronger. Out of my entire career I think the best movie I directed was Avenging Force, also with Dudikoff and Steve James.
BK: Were you ever considered for directing American Ninja 3 or were you sort of “ninja”ed out by the time Cannon wanted to make a part 3?
SF: No, I was not offered to direct the American Ninja sequels. The company decided to dramatically reduce the budget of the installments of the franchise and as a unionized director my salary became too expensive for them to pay and still achieve that low budget target. Instead they hired a South African director and made the movies there with a much shorter schedule and lower budget.
BK: This may seem like a weird question, but, to your knowledge, was there ever any interest in making a Sho Kosugi/Michael Dudikoff team-up movie at Cannon?
SF: I am not aware of such an attempt.
BK: How did you get the directing job for Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo? After making Breakin’ 2 were you offered similar movies to direct or was that, more or less, a one-off for you?
SF: The director of Breakin’ was Joel Silbert and as far as I know he was supposed to direct the sequel. I don’t know why he did not, and I never asked, but at some point after the release of the movie Ninja III: the Domination that I directed with the same actress of Breakin’, Lucinda Dickey (Kelly), I was asked by the head of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan, to take over the directing of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It was as simple as that and it was very refreshing to direct it. Right after finishing the editing Cannon offered me to start preparing to direct American Ninja and thereafter Avenging Force and American Ninja 2. Directing another dance movie never came up either in Cannon nor in an offer from any other film company.
BK: Cannon had several “in house” stars like Michael Dudikoff, Chuck Norris, and Charles Bronson. Were you ever in line to direct a Charles Bronson movie?
SF: Bronson worked only with his approved two directors Michael Winner and J. Lee Thompson, no one else. I was slated to direct Chuck Norris in Missing in Action 3 and actually started preparation for it but for personal reasons I had to withdraw from doing it.
BK: You worked with Steve James several times. Why do you think he didn’t become a bigger star?
SF: I think that he was on his way to become the next black action star, something like a new Shaft, he just needed one lucky break but his early sickness and death prevented it from happening .
BK: What killed Cannon? Could a movie company like Cannon exist in today’s Hollywood?
SF: At some point Cannon Films had more expenses than income, the cash flow was negative, and in addition they never had one hugely successful mega box-office movie. The nearest company that comes to Cannon today is NU Image / Millennium but back then in the 80s and 90s there was prosperity in the home video market that fueled companies like Cannon and today this market does not exist.
BK: You worked with Nu Image several times. Did Nu Image sort of pick up where Cannon left off, or was it different? Was Nu Image a good company to make movies for?
SF: The way I see it Nu Image definitely picked up where Cannon left off. The heads of Nu Image used to work for Cannon. The difference was in personalities. Cannon was run by Menahem Golan, a man that was motivated by an urge to tell stories, and Nu Image is run by Avi Lerner, a man that is motivated by the will to succeed financially.
BK: You worked with David Bradley several times. What was he like on the set and, to your knowledge, why did he stop making movies?
SF: David Bradley was a charismatic trained martial artist. On the set he was a disciplined, hardworking actor. When living in Los Angeles we were always in touch and kept seeing each other but then one day he disappeared and I lost all contact with him so I don’t know the answer to your question.
BK: How has the movie business changed since you started working in Hollywood?
SF: The biggest change that happened to the movie making industry was the transformation from working with film to filming with digital video. The other is the financial changes of the business side that forces the industry to produce only either big budget movies or very low budget, independent films. Everything in between is not being produced anymore so we only have very few medium budget flicks the type we used to make in the 80’s and the 90’s
BK: Will Hollywood ever get back to making smaller movies in abundance?
SF: In the financial reality of today, in producing and distribution and all the new venues of entertainment available, I don’t think that it will happen.
BK: Why did you retire from directing? Have you thought about un-retiring?
SF: I directed about 25 feature films and some television as well. My retirement just happened, partially because the budgets for the type of movies I was directing had shrunk so low that it became impossible to make a decent looking one. I have no more interest in being involved in a film that does not deliver on its promises.
BK: What do you attribute the current re-examination of Cannon’s output? How much, do you think, is nostalgia?
SF: It is very hard to tell. Part of it is of course nostalgia but another part of it is attributed to what is referred to as “The Cannon Look,” a certain feel that existed in the movies produced by the company influenced by the creative taste of its head Menahem Golan. He was the final authority when it came to creative matters in Cannon Films.
BK: What would you like to say to fans of your movies?
SF: All I wanted to convey to the fans of the movies I directed is my thanks to their dedication in keeping them alive and relevant, watched and adored even today some 30 years and more after being made. I directed these movies with one thing in mind, I wanted them to excite and entertain movie lovers and hopefully I succeeded. There are plenty of more stories, photos, articles, and interviews at my web site at www.samfirstenberg.com/ and at my Facebook page and its photo album “Tales from the Movies.” Visit them and enjoy the content.
A very special thanks to Sam Firstenberg for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for helping set it up.
Check out Sam Firstenberg’s official website here and his Facebook page here
Please check out the Stories from the Trenches Kickstarter here