By: John M Jerva Back in April of 2017, which were much happier times by the way, I got the extreme privelege to interview legendary action director Sam Firstenberg who […]
By: John M Jerva
Back in April of 2017, which were much happier times by the way, I got the extreme privelege to interview legendary action director Sam Firstenberg who is responsible for some of the 80’s and 90’s best action films including Revenge Of the Ninja, American Ninja 1 and 2 and Avenging Force. Firstenberg has blazed a trail for all future action dirtectors and really set the gold standard for an era that was ripe for picking with action fans. You can check out the first interview in full right here! At the time, his book Stories From The Trenches which he collaborated with author and creator Marco Siedelmann, was in the prelimunary stages of being made and a successfull crowd funding campaign was in fiull effect. Now the book is out and it is everything action fans could hope for with insightful interviews from Sam himself as well as action stars Michael Dudikoff, Bryan Genesse and much, much more.
Now Sam is back and this time we delve into the second stage of his career where he was transitioning from working with Cannon Films to the newly formed Nu Image which took up the mantle of distributing high-octane straight to video actioners. In this exclusive interview, we talk the arrival of David Bradley and Mark Dacascos and we also dig deeper into his 90’s filmography with movies like Delta Force 3 and more. Read below and check out our second all exclusive interview with legendary film director Sam Firstenberg!
1) Hi Mr. Firstenberg. It’s great to do a second interview with you! The last time we talked, the book was in development and the crowd funding campaign was ongoing. Tell us how it feels to finally have the book out.
Sam: It’s great, the author Marco Siedelmann worked hard for three and a half years to complete his work on this book. I helped him along the way with short stories and anecdotes I wrote for the book and writing all the captions under the 1,470 photos included in the book. I also fill that the results are terrific as I expected the book definitely captures the spirit of independent, low budget, genre moviemaking in the 1980s and 1990s in Hollywood and some of the history of the Cannon Films company.
2) How have the fans responded to the book?
S: From what I see in the internet, reading reactions and reviews the fans of the Firstenberg directed movies and genre movies fans in general are enthusiastic about the book and giving it a great reception.
3) The last time we talked, I asked you about your earlier films in the 80’s for Cannon and the Ninja films. Tell us about the transition of doing films for Cannon to doing films for Nu Image in the 90’s which were basically filling the void as Cannon was fading away. How did it evolve and was it a good experience in your life?
S: I met the heads of Nu Image in South Africa way back when I directed American Ninja II over there. At the time the name of their company was Nu Metro and they were partners with Cannon Films in producing that movie. After the change of regime in South African when Nelson Mandela became the president they sold the company and created a new production company named Nu Image and moved part of the operation to Hollywood. At that point they approached me with the idea of making the first movie for the newly created company whit the intention that it will be an action oriented film. The only idea at that point was that the title will includes the words Ninja and Cyborg. I was hired to develop a script and then direct the movie from it. When the writing of the script (by writer Greg Letter) was done the Ninja element was scraped and we had Cyborg Cop. Following that movie I directed for Nu Image four more movies (Cyborg Cop II, Operation Delta Force, The Alternate, Spiders II) in South Africa and Bulgaria. There was a difference in style between the two companies, Cannon headed by Menahem Golan was more creative driven company while Nu Image headed by Avi Lerner was more financially driven company. Budget and filming schedule were smaller and shorter in the latter and so the creative opportunities were restricted. But all in all I achieved plenty working for both.
4) The 90’s saw a boom in the action Film Market on home video. How do you think that altered the industry? Especially doing lower budgeted and indie films like yours?
S: In the beginning of that boom when rental shops popped up in every street corner of every neighborhood the major studios did not pay attention to the profit that can be generated in that market. The small independent film companies like Cannon Films, PM entertainment, Carolco Pictures and others stepped in and exploited that market. With the profit that they generated by selling the movies rights to the rental companies they were able to produce movies relatively bigger movies with decent budget, that’s the reason that those so called “low budget” film had higher production value and better look.
5) The first film you did with David Bradley was American Samurai. How did that project come about and tell us about meeting David for the first time?
S: Some time after the fall and bankruptcy of Cannon Films company a new Cannon Film was created, it was much smaller than the original. The first movie they produced was Delta Force III and I directed it. The second movie they wanted to produce was American Samurai hopping to replicate the success of American Ninja. I was hired to direct that movie as well and at that point the heads of the company introduced me to David Bradley. At that point he was already attached to the project as the star of it. Later on in the future we become friends and I directed him in three more movies.
6) That film also introduced the film world to action legend Mark Dacascos. How did he become a part of it and how was it to work with him?
S: I was introduced to Mark Dacascos by the casting stuff of the movie. We were looking for the villain that is also a great martial artist just like David and Mark was the perfect choice. Mark was a very disciplined actor and fighter with great abilities and therefore working with him was a pleasure.
7) You mentioned in the book that American Samurai was the only film you were involved in that was met with studio interference. Talk about that experience and how it shaped you doing films after that.
S: The filming and the editing of American Samurai was all done in Israel. The reason was that the company owned a studio and editing facilities there so it was probably financially viable. After I finished the filming and the editing of the movie all the material was sent to the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles. I stayed in Israel to direct several episodes of the television show Sweating Bullets (also known as Tropical Heat) that was produces over there. At that point of time the company was not producing or preparing any other movie and apparently they had nothing to do but to mess around with American Samurai. Apparently someone with a decision making power did not like what he saw and wanted to change it so without my knowledge they hired an editor, changed the order of the story and injected few new scenes into it. In my opinion those changes and additions subtracted from the overall quality and effectiveness of the film and its impact but in the Hollywood way of filmmaking the producer is the final authority and can do with his movie whatever he or she want. Despite the fact that this experience was disappointing it did not change the way I approached directing movies I kept doing what I believe is the most effective way of telling compelling cinematic stories.
8) Can you tell us how the film was supposed to look and feel before it was altered?
S: The way I see it a martial arts movie most have element of mystery and suspense in it with some unknown portions which are only reveled at the end of the story. This was the way the movie was originally structured, It started with a mysteries dream and only at the end of the movie the big secrets of the hero and his nemesis is reveled. In the new edit the story was alteration to be totally linear with nothing of mystery and no secret to be reveled at the end and without living it to the viewers to guess and add his or her interpretation to tall. It is rather childish way of storytelling but luckily the main fights and action sequences could not be messed with and the staid as was.
9) You also directed Delta Force 3. I enjoy that film to this day. Tell us about that experience how was it working with the next generation of such great action stars.
S: As it happened I was thrown into directing this movie without any preparation. My first day of working was a filming day without having a chance to read the entire script. Luckily I know some of the crew and had an excellent stunt team with Guy Norris as stunt coordinator so they all eased my way into the production. The first scene I directed was with Mike Norris (the son of) which I knew previously so it made it smother and within a day or two I was comfortably integral part of the team. The fact that I was working with what you call “the next generation” did not make any difference, I was an experienced director by then and they all hard or were familiar with American Ninja so they trusted me to lead them in the right way. It was quite a big and sophisticated production that involved a lot of military hardware in complicated action sequences in some exotic location so it was definitely challenging. In conclusion the results are not bad at all and the action is actually spectacular.
10) Going back to David Bradley. I really love the Cyborg Cop films and consider them a great guilty pleasure as I feel they pay homage to Terminator. Tell us how you got involved with them and how was the experience?
S: As I mentioned before the Nu Image company wanted to create a brand name when they started. They approached me and together we developed the Cyborg Cop concept. They wanted David Bradley to star in the franchise and we used my friendship with him to bring him in. I was involved in writing the script of the first Cyborg Cop and very much involved in the writing of the second one. Both Cyborg cop movies were filmed in South African but the first one was made to look like the location is in some exotic Caribbean island and the second to look like it was taking place in America. It was great to work along the way with the legendary actor John Rhys-Davies in number 1. Later on the company produced more sequels to Cyborg Cop but without me. Generally speaking I love Africa so in addition to the pleasure of making movies I also had fabulous time being there.
11) Going back to the book, what’s the one thing you would want the readers and fans to get out of reading it?
S: The book “Stories From The Trenches” includes not only 55 very informative interviews but also many entertaining short stories and anecdotes and 1470 unique photos, documents script and storyboard pages. Combining all it is a rear collection of wealth of information regarding the field of making indipendent low budget genre films during the 1980s and 1990s in Hollywood. The main thing that I would like the readers and fans to get out of reading this book is the understanding of this specific period in Hollywood’s history and a newly acquired appreciation of the love and dedication that went into making those movies by all professionals involved.
12) A lot of time had gone by since you’ve directed. Fill us in on what you’ve been up to and do you think you’ll ever helm a movie again?
S: In my life cinema is not the only interest, I am very busy man involved in many fields of interest. Besides being very active in preserving the legacy of my work very active in social media and participating as a guest of honor in film festivals I am also a prolific wood worker designing and building furniture. My hobby since boyhood is photography so I spend a lot of time with Photoshop. My wife and I love to travel and we do so all over the world and in addition I organize few times a year mass gathering for sing-along of Hebrew songs for the Israeli community here in Los Angeles and the vicinity. I do not believe that at this point of time in my life I will be directing another movie but you never know, there are always surprises in life. So we’ll see.
13) What do you contribute to the cause as to why these films and others from that era have become popular again? What makes them stand the test of time?
S: To me, the growing popularly of the genre movies of the 1980s and 1990s, the renewed interest in the movies of Cannon Films, is a total mystery. I stand in awe watching it all happening and more so being part of it. This phenomena is beyond my understanding. I am receiving tons of communication with comments and questions regarding the films I directed back then. I am invited for retrospective sections in international film festivals all over the world where fans come to watch the screenings of the old movies and then meet take photos and ask me to autograph cassettes, DVDs posters and other memorabilia items. Now comes this book whit so much interest in it and we are talking about none major movies more than 35 years old. I am totally amazed at what is happening and cannot explain it except for maybe the facts that those movies have a lost quality of being made in a straight forward fashion without any digital gimmicks and any optical effect. What you see on screen is what really happened on the set. Every piece of action was physically preformed and executed for real and the viewer can sense it. It has a different fill from the newly made movies and the audience appreciate it. This might be the explanation but I’m not hundred percent sure.
I hope the readers will find the book interesting, informative, and entertaining just like I did when helping author Marco Siedelmann creating it.
A big thank you goes out to my awesome PR guy david j. moore for once again setting up another great interview and a special thanks to Mr. Firstenberg for taking the time to chat about his life and career. Make sure to check out the new book Stories From the Trenches which is a must read for any serious action cinema buff. You can order the book from Amazon.com right now!