Sam Firstenberg is one of the directors that was ingrained in the heyday of Cannon Films. The man is a living legend when it comes to the B-movie working class action film. With films like American Ninja, he ingrained himself into American film history.
Marco Siedelmann Has worked closely with sam to finish the first book chronicling Sam’s life and films. There’s currently a Kickstarter campaign to finish the project’s final stages, which I highly recommend supporting. However, before you run over there, check out the brief interview I had the chance to conduct with Sam and Marco below:
Sam, you’re a B-movie legend. Your years at Cannon produced some true indie action classics and I loved seeing your contributions to the Electric Boogaloo documentary. What are some of your fondest memories of the Cannon films you worked on.
Sam Firstenberg: I was extremely lucky directing for Cannon Films, the reason is that once I was assigned to direct a movie for them they pretty much left me alone and gave me a free hand to do whatever I wanted to. The schedule and budget we were given to make those movies were decent and I was allowed to execute my vision and therefore direct some exciting films that entertained millions of viewers all over the globe. In the upcoming book Stories from the Trenches. I elaborate on the individual memories from those days.
Kirstie Alley, Ernie Hudson, and several other Hollywood A-lister types were in your films, but it’s B-listers like Michael Dudikoff that really get me excited to discuss. Who were some of the best (and worst) actors you’ve worked with? Who was impressive? Who was just a real class act? If you’re willing to divulge, who was a real jerk?
Sam Firstenberg: I was lucky enough to work through the years with some great actors and action stars. With Michael Dudikoff, Steve James, David Bradley, Sho Kusogi, and Tadashi Yamashida, I spent a great deal of time and [have a] great relationship. I had the good fortune to direct great actor the like of Eric Roberts, Michael Madson, Kirstie Alley, Margaret Every, Ernie Hudson, Hall Holbrook, Robert Vaughn, Sean Young, John Rhys-Davies, Seymour Cassel and many others. With most of them I had great experiences the only one that I can remember that was a bite difficult to handle was Jeff Fahey but even then it was not too bad. I would also like to mention the three stunt coordinators I worked with and learned a lot from: Steve Lambert, B.J. Davis, and Mike Stone.
Marco, what has it been like working with Sam and digging into the world of working class action films?
Marco Siedelmann: I can honestly say that the collaboration with Sam Firstenberg easily can be counted as one of the best working experiences I ever had. Sam is very generous and supportive, a very nice character and totally open for ideas. He shared a lot of time for the interviews, he helped me with contact information to several people, and he opened up his archive of private picture, many of them never been published before. Digging into the world of working class action films is a great pleasure for me, and – even it it sounds a little soapy – kind of a dream coming true. It’s very rewarding to get in touch with all those different people who worked on the movies that shaped my cinematic taste. It’s a huge honor for me to put all these anecdotes and stories into my book projects.
What go you into this project? How did the two of you meet and hookup for this project?
Marco Siedelmann: I already interviewed numerous people who worked for the Cannon Group and/or for Nu Image, and other independent companies specialized in genre films. After putting together a book about a production and distribution company (The Untold, In-Depth, Outrageously True Story of Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment) I was eager to continue my work as a chronicler of this particular Hollywood era, but instead of a company I preferred to focus on single filmmakers for my next venture. When I saw Mark Hartley’s documentary about Cannon (Electric Boogaloo) I recognized that Sam is a man without any regrets or bitterness. His personality shined through his interview parts in the documentary, so it was an easy choice to reach out to him first.
The site I run is about all types of art and culture, but one thing that I try to spend some time on is faith and belief. By no means is the site a “Christian” site, but I’m a pastor’s kid who has always been interested in the areas when faith and art collide. So, this is a question I’d love to hear both of you interject on, if possible. As far as your personal beliefs, the culture and faith your were raised in, your take on spirituality… does this impact the art you’ve made and/or currently make? Do you think it’s possible to make art in a vacuum, devoid of personal beliefs or worldview?
Marco Siedelmann: No, at least I don’t think you can do any piece of art – no matter if it’s a book, a film, a sculpture – without putting yourself into it, even if you don’t want to throw your personal beliefs in it. Every small decision you make reflects on your personality, in one way or the other.
Sam Firstenberg: The truth is that I do not consider the movies I directed to be art but rather entertainment, my goal was always to give the audience a good compelling story where good prevails over evil, an opportunity to identify with a hero that overcomes all obstacles to achieve his righteous goal. I do believe that every creative work will by default include some of its creator’s beliefs and values whatever they are.
Thanks for indulging me on that. Sam, I have had the chance to see some of your more recent output (well, early 2000s, more recent than the classic Cannon days) and it still has that vibe and flavor that attracted me to your stuff in the past. Do you have any other projects that you are particularly fond of and/or proud of?
Sam Firstenberg: Outside the Cannon stuff, I love the movie Riverbend with Steve James and Margaret Avery, A Hebrew language Israeli comedy named The Day We Met and The Alternate with Eric Roberts and Michael Madsen.
Marco, what’s your favorite of Sam’s films?
Marco Siedelmann: I don’t think that I have a favorite film among Sam’s body of work, more or less I enjoyed every single movie, although I wouldn’t necessarily consider all of them as… good. Avenging Force probably can be named as his best film, judging by conventional standards. But how can one not love the insanity of Ninja III: The Domination? His undeniable most loved film perhaps would be America Ninja, which is obviously because of the priceless chemistry between Michael Dudikoff and Steve James. An iconic movie, without a doubt a key film of the Cannon heritage. Both Cyborg Cop films are guilty pleasures for me. The Alternate – starring Michael Madsen, Eric Roberts, and Bryan Genesse – is my favorite film Sam directed for Nu Image, and Riverbend starring Steve James is tragically forgotten and worthy to dig out for every serious action fan.
I’ll go ahead and say that my favorite are the Sho Kosugi Ninja films. Of course the America Ninja films are classics too, so it’s hard to just choose one series over the other. Do you have any fun stories about working with Sho, Sam? For that matter, Marco, are there any stories about Sho or any of the cast of characters that Sam has worked with that stood out for you during the writing of this book?
Sam Firstenberg: Indeed there are such stories and plenty of them but this space is too short to contain them all. In the upcoming book Stories from the Trenches, Marco included many of them so I urge the people interested in the subject to pre-buy the book in the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign.
Marco Siedelmann: I can say that there are a lot of stories involving Sho Kosugi in the upcoming book – not only Sam shares details about working with him, also there are anecdotes by actors like Lucinda Dickey, or Jordan Bennett. Sadly I wasn’t able to track down Sho Kosugi himself, because he doesn’t seem to be interested in more interviews about his Cannon films. Although I’m not going for anecdotes and gossip there’s still a lot of space in the book for this.
Thank again to you both and thank to David for making this interview happen. It’s always great to talk about my favorite films. Anything you’d like to say about the book, how folks can support it and where/when they can get it?
Sam Firstenberg: The subject of low budget genre movies is close to my hart, within the story of Hollywood’s history they are neglected and seldom mentioned, but yet they have millions of fans and enthusiasts followers all over the world. The story of those films in particular of the 80s and 90s, in my opinion, should be recorded and preserved and the more that is written about them the better. One of the people (among others) dedicated to that cause is Marco. For this book, Marco interviewed me extensively as well as many other people associated with the films I directed. The journey of this interview collection starts even before I made my way to direct box office hits just like Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, America Ninja, and several others. The conversations he recorded with me are very thorough, and they shed light on my origins and influences, including childhood memories, private biographical chapters, my years as a film student in Los Angeles, and my early work as an assistant director and technician for people like Menahem Golan, Charles Band, Ephraim Kishon, Boaz Davidson, and many more. The interviews are not totally chronological, but focus on every career-step, just as well as on every single movie I ever directed. The memories about all the projects I was involved in are packed with adventurous stories about ninjas and break dancers, about directing action entertainment in exotic countries, and about working with numerous stars, among them Michael Dudikoff, Eric Roberts, John Rhys-Davies, Hulk Hogan, Grace Jones, Nick Cassavetes, Zachi Noy, Richard Roundtree, Sean Young, Steve James, Sho Kosugi, Shabba-Doo, and so many more. At the same time it’s also a book about the Hollywood star system and the no longer existing mid-budget movies. It’s about the home video boom, about the uprising and the decline of Cannon, but it also discusses the rules and traditions of the industry. Other topics are the practical way a film was put together in that era, the technical changes through the years, the different market situation compared to nowadays – and last but not least it’s a inside story about the early years of Nu Image (The Expendables, Conan, the Undisputed franchise) and how Avi Lerner’s company continued the spirit of Cannon, but under different circumstances and times.
The world of publishing books nowadays is a though business and financially very hard to master so any help from the fans is important and rewarding at the same time since this book with its wealth of knowledge, photos and facts will shed a new light on that era of film making and since participating is actually pre-buying a copy of the book it is a win, win situation.
There are many more stories, photos, articles, and interviews in my web site at www.samfirstenberg.com and in my Facebook page and its photo album “Tales from the Movies” visit them and enjoy the content.