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Director Sam Firstenberg On His Involvement With Stories From The Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies

March 19, 2020 | Posted by Bryan Kristopowitz
Stories From The Trenches

The 411 Interview: Sam Firstenberg


For B-movie nerds like me, director Sam Firstenberg is nothing short of 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 and Steve James (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 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 B-movie excellence with movies like Cyborg Cop, Cyborg Cop 2 and Operation Delta Force. Firstenberg is now the subject of a book chronicling his entire career, Stories From the Trenches: Adventures in making High Octane Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg by Marco Siedelmann. In this interview, Firstenberg talks with me about collaborating with Siedelmann on the book, why he thinks his cinematic career is being lauded and re-examined, what he’s been doing since he retired from making movies, and more.



Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you first meet Marco Siedelmann? When did you know that you wanted to co-write a book with him?

Sam Firstenberg: One day the telephone in my house rang and on the other side Marco was on the line. He introduced himself and told me about his intention to publish a book about the Cannon Film company. He explained to me that the books he publishes are collections of interviews on a certain subject and asked if I would be willing to participate and be interviewed for his upcoming project. I agreed and that’s how it all started. I didn’t physically co-write the book with Marco but as his project evolved I contributed a few stories that I wrote earlier on my own.

BK: Before collaborating on this book with Marco, did you have any interest/intention of writing a book about your life/your time in Hollywood?

SF: Yes. For a few years before meeting Marco I mulled over the idea of writing such a book that would highlight the world of low-budget independent genre moviemaking in the 1980’s and 1990’s at the time of the home video entertainment boom.

BK: Describe your collaboration process with Marco.

SF: As mentioned before I did not write anything together with Marco. He conducted all the interviews in the book with me and with others by himself without my involvement except answering his questions. My only contribution was that I went over all the interviews to see that there were no gross mistakes that needed his attention. I did not suggest any editorial changes or changes in content. All the short stories and anecdotes in the book on the other hand were written by me alone, most of them before I even met Marco and a few later.

BK: What was the best part of working on Stories from the Trenches for you? What was the hardest?

SF: The best part of working with Marco on this book was looking up and finding all of my old behind-the-scenes and production photos, arranging them for Marco and the designer Mirjam Pajakowski to insert into the book. The hardest part was writing all the captions to appear under those photos, 1460 of them. It took me about three months to complete that task.

BK: What do you think has led to the re-examination/celebration of your work over the last several years?

SF: It is a difficult question to answer. The fact that there is a renewed interest in the movies I directed almost 40 years ago is a mystery to me and a miracle all by itself. A nostalgia for the old fashioned style of action movies done without any optical or digital effects, where all the action on the screen was actually preformed physically, might be a factor. Also, the simplicity of storytelling of that era, straight forward dramatic lines that are easy to grasp and identify with associated with those movies are probably contributing factors.


BK: Why do you consider Avenging Force the best movie that you made?

SF: A good movie is a good movie. In a good film all the cinematic elements merge together to effectively create a compelling, engaging experience to the viewer. That’s it. The script, the actors, the delivery of the lines, the visual elements, the cinematography, the action choreography, the suspense, the empathy with the hero, the catharsis feeling at the climax, they all work together in perfect harmony to transport the viewer from one reality to the alternate reality for the duration of the movie in a compelling, satisfying way.

I believe that from all the action movies I directed Avenging Force comes the closest to this definition. Hopefully my directing and my striving to fulfill a unique cinematic vision are contributing factors to this achievement.

BK: Out of the twenty three movies that you directed which one would you like to go back and maybe re-work or remake?

SF: I believe that the movie Riverbend can benefit greatly if I had a chance to work with a good writer. To sharpen the dialogue and add authenticity to the location and the characters and their back stories. The music in this movie can definitely be improved.

BK: How did you get involved directing the TV show Tropical Heat? Was directing TV something that you ever wanted to try before doing it?

SF: I happened to be directing the movie American Samurai in Israel when the producers of the show approached me and asked me to join in as one of the directors of Tropical Heat. Throughout my directorial career I was so involved in directing full length feature films that trying television was never a consideration for me. But when the opportunity knocked on the door I was actually curious to try it, and I’m glad I did.

BK: What was your favorite movie making location? What was your least favorite?

SF: As far as overseas goes I love Africa and therefore enjoyed very much working there. I directed four movies in various places in South Africa. In the US I really enjoyed working in New Orleans directing Avenging Force. I did not have any bad experiences in any location I worked in but because of a different methods of production and moviemaking, directing a Hollywood style movie in India was difficult.


BK: You worked with Sho Kosugi on two movies. What was he like to work with?

SF: I have learned a lot from Sho Kosugi. Everything I know about the Ninja or Ninjitsu genre comes from him. On the professional side I respected him and his knowledge and he respected me and my craft. We trusted each other and luckily both of us saw eye to eye on the type of movie we wanted to make, a hybrid of martial arts and “regular” Hollywood style action.

BK: How did you get involved making Cyborg Cop and Cyborg Cop II? Did you always intend to direct the sequel?

SF: None of the movies that I directed, except for one (One More Chance), were initiated or conceived by me. I was always hired to direct movies for producers with ideas and at times with a completed script. The Cyborg Cop concept was the brain child of producers Danny Dimbort and Avi Lerner, founders of the production company Nu Image and later Millennium. They invited me to direct the original and after it was successfully sold they called me again to direct the sequel.

BK: Why are there two versions of American Samurai?

SF: After the fall of Cannon Films there was a sort of second Cannon, let’s call it Cannon II. Some of the same people were involved but not the legendary Menahem Golan. It lived for a short period and produced only two films, both of which I directed. The first one was Delta Force 3 and the second was American Samurai with David Bradley. My approach to martial arts movies was that they need to be full of mystery and some uncertainty in the storyline. Such was the structure of the story of American Samurai with flashbacks and the key secret of the hero and villain revealed toward the end of the movie before the final resolution.

When the director’s cut, the final edit that I approved as the director, my vision of the movie, reached the company’s offices while I was involved with directing episodes of the TV show Tropical Heat in Israel, the producers apparently did not like it. They believed that the story had to be linear starting with the childhood of the adversary forces going straight forward until the final confrontation between them at the climatic end. Without notifying me and without my knowledge they hired another director and instructed him to change the structure of the editing, including the filming of some additional material to accommodate this different approach. Luckily they could not, and did not, destroy the fight sequences but the revised storyline, in my opinion, is childish and does not respect the audience’s intelligence to interpret a slightly more complex tale.

BK: What have you been up to since you retired from making movies in the early 2000’s? Do you ever get the itch to make another movie?

SF: In my private life I am involved in many hobbies and activities. One of them is designing and making furniture. I have a woodworking workshop where I do the milling and construction. Some of the projects I do are of considerable size, (tables, cabinets, decks). Another hobby of mine since the age of 12 is photography. I love taking photos and then editing them in Photoshop. I spend hours doing so. My wife and I travel all over the world as much as we can. I participate as a guest of honor in film festivals that screen movies I directed and that takes me to faraway places. And I also organize two or three times a year public sing-along events in Hebrew for the Israeli community in Los Angeles with a musical band, singers, slides and stories I tell. I am also active on social media in the field of preserving the legacy of my moviemaking career and the independent low budget genre films of the 1980s and 1990s in general.

BK: What do you hope readers and fans get out of Stories From The Trenches?

SF: I truly hope that this book will increase the awareness of film buffs and movie lovers to this segment of Hollywood history called the “independent low budget genre movies of the home video entertainment era” and the many directors that contributed to this field. A lot is being told, written and discussed about the major big movies, but as far as visual entertainment goes the low budget movies we made deserve, in my opinion, a great deal of respect. Lately there is a renewed interest in these movies and I hope that the book Stories From The Trenches will greatly contribute to the preservation and understanding of this genre of films and the people involved in making them

BK: You’ve probably been asked this a million times, but what, exactly, does “Electric Boogaloo” mean?

SF: I have no idea and I was not involved in choosing this title. When I was hired to direct Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo the name was already in place. There are a few conflicting stories and explanations that I was exposed to detailing the origin of that title and they all sound fine but there is no logical explanation that I know of to the mining of this phrase. In December 2014 the prestige sport and pop blog Grantland published in its “Hollywood Prospectus” section an investigative article trying to answer this same question. The title of the article was “How Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo Became a Movie and Then a Meme.” It’s a wide-ranging article that traces the origin of the words to the pop culture of the 1950’s. All we know is that nowadays it is one of the iconic phrases that represent the 1980s and is synonymous with the word sequel like in “The Bible 2: Electric Boogaloo”


A very special thanks to Sam Firstenberg for agreeing to participate in this interview and to david j. moore for setting it up.

Pick up a copy of Stories From The Trenches: Adventures in making High Octane Hollywood Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg here

Check out the Stories From The Trenches: Adventures in making High Octane Hollywood Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg Facebook page here

Check out Sam Firstenberg’s official website here and his Facebook page here

Stories From The Trenches: Adventures in making High Octane Hollywood Movies with Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg cover image courtesy of Marco Siedelmann. All other images courtesy of Sam Firstenberg.