Last week I posted the first half of my interview with AVENGING FORCE director Sam Firstenberg (you can read it here).The final portion of our conversation covers the little seen film RIVERBEND which starred the late, great Steve James as well as the upcoming book “Stories From the Trenches” from author Marco Siedelmann which will cover his exciting career in film. This was an exciting interview for me and I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed doing it.
CD: You directed a film called RIVERBEND which starred Steve James. It’s a film I’ve never seen and one I’ve been hoping to acquire for my collection. Can you talk a bit about doing this film and working with Steve?
SF: It’s a little bit complex and I can’t talk too much about it but myself and a few other people are trying to find out who owns the rights to RIVERBEND. This was an independent film, it wasn’t financed by a film company. I was approached by a group in Texas, one of them had a script, one of them had money, and they wanted to make a movie. They contacted me through the agency and because I had worked with Steve James before, they were interested in Steve James. I read the script written by one of the producers and he was a Vietnam veteran and after a few meetings, I was hired to direct the film and Steve was hired to star. It’s a period movie that takes place in Alabama during the Vietnam era but we shot the entire thing in Texas. Since the money came from Texas, the producers wanted to spend the money there. There’s an interesting element, it’s a small town in Alabama and the cast is predominantly black. It’s the story of these black soldiers who escape from military prison, because they had disobeyed orders, they’re trying to hide in this little town called Riverbend. The movie deals with segregation, relationships in the south at the time, and in a twist, the black population overtakes the white population. They revolt against the sheriff and the bigotry. The movie didn’t have a large budget, it was privately financed, it was a very different movie for me. When it was finished, the producers eventually sold it for distribution to one of the major companies, Paramount Pictures. The only distribution they gave it was a VHS and it was never transferred to DVD. I don’t know who owns the rights and it’s too bad, it’s a really interesting movie. Steve James and Margaret Avery star in the film and the rest of the cast are really good local Texas actors. I really like and appreciate the movie and there are some really beautiful scenes and the subject is very interesting. It’s too bad it didn’t find a wider audience but the producers were really protective of it and wouldn’t “go Hollywood” with it. What happened though is that they sold it to one company, who sold it to another company, then it was sold again so there was a long chain of companies who had owned the rights. Hopefully we can figure this out because I would love to bring it to disc.
CD: When Marco Siedelmann approached you about his book, what were your first thoughts?
SF: For a long time I was thinking that someone should come out with a book that would deal with this era in film, it’s a slice of Hollywood history. I’m not talking about artistic movies, I’m talking about genre movies. Low-budget, horror, sci-fi, and action movies of the 80’s and the 90’s and during that period, there was a boom in the production of these types of films. This was all fueled by how successful the home video market was at the time. People still remember when there was a video store on most every corner and there was a lot of money. The studios never really paid attention to the money but small companies like Cannon and Carolco, they understood this. They would invest very small amounts of money into their films and were very successful. I always thought this would be a great subject for a book, then Marco Siedelmann, who already wrote a book about Shapiro-Glickenhaus Entertainment, calls me one day and he wants to write a book about the era. He originally wanted to write a book about Cannon and asked me if I would like to participate. I agreed and I started to talk with him. He soon realized that Cannon would be a huge subject and one day he told me he would rather concentrate on the films I directed and my career. My films do partially represent this era and that, by itself, could be another book. I was thrilled and the title “Stories from the Trenches” was something I always had in mind and he really liked it. I always felt that making a low budget B-movie was like going to war because it was always so difficult to make a low-budget action film. I was happy to participate and I’ll do whatever it takes to help him achieve his goal. He’s working very hard and I gave him a list of about thirty people, besides myself, who have worked on my films he should interview. I don’t have a say in the content, it’s his book, but I’ve helped him with photos and some other things. I’m just happy that books like this and david j. moore’s book “The Good, The Tough, and The Deadly”, are coming out and giving recognition to this era of moviemaking. Some of those movies were really big, like the Stallone and Schwarzenegger films which were way bigger than what we did. They still belong in the same book.
CD: When you started working with Marco on the interviews, how thorough was he? Did he ask questions you never thought he would ask?
SF: I must say, he is very thorough. When some people do interviews, they concentrate on the gossip behind Cannon. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews lately and there has been some really good questions, but normally it’s the story and gossip people want to know. In a standard interview, most people won’t ask about what it takes to make a movie. People won’t ask me what I bring into the picture as a director. With Marco, well he has spoken with me for like twenty hours (laughs), he dove right into those uncharted areas and questions. Was it possible that things from my childhood would surface in the films I make. It’s an interesting subject and he brought up some ideas I had never thought about. He goes into and beyond the mechanics of making a movie. He really digs into what it means to be a director. He goes much deeper into these subjects with me. He goes much deeper than what I call a superficial interview. On the surface interviews for a paper or something has to be done because that’s what the public wants. In a book you can go much deeper into the process and I think Marco did a great job of doing that.
CD: I think he took an interesting route by using Kickstarter. What are your thoughts on crowdfunding?
SF: Marco is very committed and dedicated to finishing the book. He already has one book under his belt so I truly believe he will make it. It takes money to publish a book, I don’t know much about publishing, but he has expenses and he will need this money for completion. The more money he raises with crowdfunding, the easier it will be for him to complete the project. With this, most people are paying $30 and they are basically pre-ordering the book. He will use the money now to complete it then later he will have to send out the completed product. It’s really a win-win situation, people who want the book will pledge their money and the money will be there for Marco to complete it. Hopefully he raises the money he needs but one way or another he will finish it. He already had the cover art finished, he has collected the pictures for inside, and he just needs the money for the mechanical part of it.
CD: When the book is eventually released, what are your expectations for it? Do you hope it brings more attention to your work or people will look at it with a new perspective?
SF: I’ve directed about twenty five movies and not all of them are famous. In fact, most of them are unknown. It so happens that a handful of the movies I’ve directed made it, so to speak. Some have gone on to withstand the test of time, especially AMERICAN NINJA and BREAKIN 2:ELECTRIC BOOGALOO. I know for a fact from the mail I’ve been getting and the residual reports from the Director’s Guild that those movies are very popular all over the world. There are millions of people all over the world who love these films. In a way, they represent the best of the low-budget genre films from the 80’s and 90’s. When the book comes out, I hope it’s a legacy to the films I’ve done, shows fond memories, and a commemoration. I also hope it helps people to understand the time period, the era, and how these films were financed, produced, distributed, and shows just how differently they were made from the major studios. It was there for a short period of time but that type of filmmaking just doesn’t exist anymore. It came in for about twenty years and then it just disappeared. It was a very special moment in Hollywood history and this book may only cover my films, but it represents this entire era. Maybe one day someone will come along and write a book about Albert Pyun or Sheldon Lettich because they made the same types of movies. There was a group directors and they were never really recognized, who made those types of movies, and did it successfully. They’re looked over right now and hopefully this book will raise awareness and more books will follow. Maybe even documentaries, this is what I hope it will achieve.
CD: Of all the films you directed, what’s the one film you feel most represents everything you hoped to achieve as a filmmaker?
SF: When I started, I had no idea I would be considered a so-called “action director”, it was never my intention. I did a couple of those movies and they turned out pretty well so I was offered another and another. I really started to enjoy the process of directing action movies because they really are a cinematic challenge. Putting together action scenes, chases, takes a lot of dealing with cinematic elements. So I think I reached my peak with the movie AVENGING FORCE. There were so many things brought together like the tension, scenery, the atmosphere, and the action itself. It had some political messages and racial injustice, etc. so when it comes to action, I’m really proud and happy with this movie. On the other hand, it’s a really dark and violent movie and it’s also nice to be remembered for BREAKIN 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (laughs). It’s a happy movie, there’s music, everyone is dancing, and no one gets hurt. It has a really happy ending and people remember it fondly. Those two are really the best but, I must admit and it’s undeniable, the most popular of all the movies I directed is AMERICAN NINJA. I know it was a tremendously popular movie for thirty five years and young people today, who weren’t even born yet, still watch the film. So, I will always have that one film everyone will remember.
CD: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and thank you for making all these great films that had impacted me growing up.
SF: Thank you, it’s always a pleasure to meet people who my films have impacted in a positive way. Until next time!
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To learn more about Sam Firstenberg and his films, you can visit his official website.