Talking with Sam Firstenberg (American Ninja, Avenging Force) part 1

In Interviews by Corey2 Comments

The films of Sam Firstenberg have been a huge influence on me. Growing up, films like AMERICAN NINJA, AVENGING FORCE, and BREAKIN 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO were on constant rotation in my home. It’s so great to see that these same films are finally receiving the attention they deserve. With Blu-Ray releases and notice in books like THE GOOD, THE TOUGH, AND THE DEADLY: ACTION MOVIES AND STARS 1960-PRESENT. the resurgence has only just begun. A new book that’s on the horizon, STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES is Sam’s story as told to author Marco Siedelmann, currently has a pre-order campaign on Kickstarter. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Sam about the book, his films, and the notorious V-8 scene from NINJA III: THE DOMINATION.

Corey Danna: I wanted to let you know that one of the reasons I first began to write was because of your films. When I was in grade school, we would have to write short stories. I was writing AMERICAN NINJA sequels so thank you for inspiring me.

Sam Firstenberg: (laughs) That’s so nice to know. The target audience for those movies was young men and teenage boys. I get emails from people who tell me they got something out of those films or as an inspiration to write, like yourself. It’s so terrific to hear that my work means something to someone.

CD: When you were making those films, did you have any idea they would be regarded as classics?

SF: The truth is, we did not. I jumped into the business of making movies because I was fascinated with them when I was a kid, just like you. I consider myself a storyteller and love to tell them. I always wanted to directed movies and eventually I had the chance. The films I make aren’t serious drama or anything of that nature, they’re fun, exciting entertainment. It always felt to me like I was playing with all of my favorite toys and someone was paying me to do it. The way we approached them, we never felt like anything important would happen. I was making B-movies for the neighborhood theater. There was a feeling though between the crew and I that something was happening when we shot AMERICAN NINJA. We were working with Michael Dudikoff and he had this charisma, then we put him together with Steve James. They had a chemistry that was really powerful on the screen. We had the action scenes and the love story between Michael and Judie Aronson and I began to feel like it was going to be something special. But no, who could have predicted that thirty plus years later they would prevail and withstand the test of time. Most movies just disappear and become nothing but a piece of history but sometimes these little movies just make it. As an example, I’ll use ROCKY. It may have been an Oscar winning movie but it was also made for just $1,000,000. Who knew it would become what it has? Right now there is a resurgence for AMERICAN NINJA, with the Blu-Ray and Cannon Films documentary being released recently. Some people think BREAKIN 2: ELECTRIC BOOGLOO is the iconic film but AMERICAN NINJA is considered one of the classics of martial arts cinema. Who knew?

CD: You worked predominantly in action films prior to doing BREAKING 2. Why did you decide to do that film?

SF: The absolute truth is, I didn’t make the decision. At the time, I was working exclusively with Cannon Films. I enjoyed the situation but they would just assign me films. They would give me an idea or script and I would go and make it. It was never really my choice so first they gave me REVENGE OF THE NINJA, then NINJA III: THE DOMINATION. I’m not sure if you know this but we actually found Lucinda Dickey for NINJA III before she did BREAKIN. They were for the same company but for some reason BREAKIN was released before NINJA III. I had already knew her when we started BREAKIN 2. The first film was such a huge success that Cannon wanted to start on the sequel right away. I don’t know the whole reason but the director of the original Joel Silberg, chose not to come back for the sequel. I was in between films at the time and they asked me to do the movie. It was a dance movie, a musical, and I said I would love to do it. So that’s it! That’s how I came aboard BREAKIN 2, it wasn’t my choice. I was just happy to be working.

CD: NINJA III: THE DOMINATION is one of the most insane and bizarre martial arts films I’ve ever seen but it’s just so much fun! What were your thoughts when you had first seen the script and what was planned?

SF: This wasn’t a situation where I had read a script and didn’t really have a story. We did REVENGE OF THE NINJA with Sho Kosugi. He was the hero of that film and it was quite successful. It was distributed by MGM, there were something like 700 or 800 prints, so it was successful for this type of film. Menahem Golan wanted to make a sequel right away and for some reason, I never asked him why, he decided not to use Sho Kosugi as the hero. He wanted to move towards an American hero and he asked me if it would be a good idea to use a heroine, a woman. We had James Silke who wrote REVENGE and started to work on the idea. Kosugi didn’t like the idea at all, A) He wasn’t the hero and B) the hero was a woman and not a man. According to him, he was our ninjutsu expert, and he knows everything, he’s Sho Kosugi. He didn’t believe a woman could have the strength and power to do all the ninja moves. There was a conflict between him and the company over the idea, they went back and forth. I came up with the idea of having the woman not be a trained ninja but is possessed by some evil, bad guy ninja. So all the power she has was because of her being possessed. Everyone accepted the idea, even Sho was happy with it. The idea made sense to him and this was around the same time Tobe Hooper’s POLTERGEIST came out. This was one of the only horror movies I really enjoyed so when we started working on the script, there were elements of POLTERGEIST in there. I also enjoyed THE EXORCIST so some elements of that ended up in there as well. So, the script wasn’t given to me, I was responsible for the story (laughs). Of course, James Silke, the writer, did most of the work but then it just became crazier and crazier until we had the finished film. I get a lot of questions about this film and people are always talking about how crazy it is. In the last few years it’s played in four or five film festivals. I just received a phone call about having play at a film festival in Poland where it’s going to be screened in July.

CD: There’s no denying just how fun the movie is. When I sit there watching it I just have this stupid grin on my face the whole time. I have to ask you about the V-8 though.

SF: (laughs) If I remember correctly, it was Lucinda’s idea. In most of the movies I directed, people don’t smoke, there’s no foul language, and this was sort of a clichéd thing in Hollywood. You would have a woman with alcohol and she would pour it over her body. We were thinking, with her character being a health freak, a dancer, etc. She was all about health so, this was all improvised on the set. The V-8 was a promotional product and we got it all for free. At the time there were a whole lot of V-8 commercials and they were really pushing it hard. Lucinda wanted to use it and we were making fun of those commercials. There are so many now but in the 80’s it was the only health drink on the market. We made it into a joke and people always remember that scene (laughs). It was all improvised on the set, it wasn’t in the script.

CD: One of my personal favorite films of yours was AVENGING FORCE. It wasn’t received in quite the same way as AMERICAN NINJA even though it had much of the same creative team as well as Michael and Steve, why do you think it wasn’t quite as successful?

SF: In general terms, it’s very hard to pinpoint exactly why a movie is a success or failure. If the studio knew the answer, everyone would be millionaires. I agree with you, purely as an action movie, it’s better than AMERICAN NINJA. As an overall package, AMERICAN NINJA was far more successful, it’s a fact. But something happened that may have contributed to the whole thing. In the beginning, Cannon Films was a very small company and they had a relationship with MGM. They would use their labs, soundstage, and Cannon was trying to convince them to distribute all their movies but it was not successful. Early on, Cannon produced some very low budget horror films that MGM looked at and wanted nothing to do with. Then they saw REVENGE OF THE NINJA they said they wanted that one. That was the first movie from Cannon that MGM agreed to distribute. Later on they formed a distribution relationship. Cannon sent them movie after movie and they weren’t very successful. Eventually they made BREAKIN and that one was a major success for both MGM and Cannon. The sequel came along, then AMERICAN NINJA, and they both did very well. At that time, there was some sort of conflict between them over money. Cannon was expecting MGM to give them the money from distribution and MGM wanted to take out of the profit, all the money that Cannon owed them. It was a big mess that ended up with Cannon deciding not to use MGM anymore for distribution. They went on to create their own distribution company for domestic releases. Distributing movies domestically is a very tough business but the studios know how to do it. Cannon created their own company, they hired all these new people, and the first movie they distributed just so happened to be AVENGING FORCE. They didn’t have the knowledge or the power to distribute a movie domestically. So maybe, just maybe AVENGING FORCE suffered from this conflict, the breakup between Cannon and MGM. Maybe if MGM had distributed it at the time, it would have been a bigger success. This is my speculation and AMERICAN NINJA is more of a feel good action movie while AVENGING FORCE is much darker. It was just released on Blu-Ray so hopefully a new audience will find it now.

CD: I hope so. I actually think AVENGING FORCE is one of Dudikoff’s best performances as an actor.

SF: I do to, I feel exactly the same. It was a peak performance and he was surrounded by very good actors. We had James Booth, John P. Ryan, and so many other really good performers. This really helped to elevate his level of acting.

CD: At that time, there was no other duo who could match the chemistry between Dudikoff and James at that time. Can you talk a bit about working with them?

SF: After we developed the script for AMERICAN NINJA, it was clear to us that we had a very good idea of what we wanted for Joe Armstrong and Curtis Jackson. At the time, we decided to have an open call for auditions. We didn’t just have actors from agencies trying out, we had actors from everywhere. We sent letters to martial art schools, actors with agents, actors without agents, and everyone was invited. We had like four hundred people show up to audition for the lead. I must admit that when Michael came in, I really felt he was the guy. He had all the characteristics I had envisioned and eventually he was cast in the movie. The same thing happened with Steve, when he walked in with his impressive body and persona, he was the guy and we got him. Once we started filming, they were both very hard workers, enthusiastic, and they really wanted to see the film succeed. Luckily enough, their friendship began to blossom off screen as well. So this began to show while we were filming, on the screen. We were filming in Manila, working together, living together, so the friendship was forged through all of this. It’s very hard to put your finger on the success of something, the magic just seems to happen on the screen. The chemistry between Steve and Michael was just there and it was repeated several times in other films and they just enjoyed working together.

Be sure to check back for part two of our conversation which covers more obscure films as well as his involvement with the upcoming book STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES which you can learn all about here.

You can learn more about Sam Firstenberg by visiting his official website.

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