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Kevin Nickelson's Interview with Sam Firstenberg


Published 4/8/2024


A friend of the show Sam Firstenberg has directed films ranging from comedy to action, musical to drama, science fiction, thrillers and horror. Sam is a long-time filmmaker whose first break in American ninja movies is a testament to his creative ingenuity and courageous ambition. His unequivocal ability to capture the essential of martial arts is a direct reflection of his ability to migrate and culturally assimilate into American society.


The following is a sit-down Kevin Nickelson had the pleasure of hosting with one of Hollywood's most celebrated filmmakers, Sam Firstenberg.


The hot take is a decent tool to get highly-charged emotive reactions from society in general as it pertains to sports and politics. Even in film discussion it can rear up and get heated. Be prepared to shout if the subject comes up of “Who’s your favorite director?” or “Why do you hate this blockbuster?” It is a form of purposeful methodology designed to induce interest, debate or just response to a subject. Filmmakers have their own versions of this embedded within their own projects. It could be a theme, scene, formula or complete work that has been sculpted in such a way as to lure an audience in with dollars waved in hand. Maybe the picture has ample nudity, blood, big action or pratfalls employed to keep the eyes focused on the screen and word of mouth flowing. Industry artists have always been ever searching for the new baited hook to draw moviegoers. The devil in the details here is to always be unpredictable in approach as cinema tastes are both fluid and fickle at once. Since the rise of the multiplex along with the advent of home theater in the early 1980s, the need for difference in the product to create more box office ticket sales and video rentals was ever-present. Directors like Sam Firstenberg arrived just in time to put their hallucinatory (in a sense) visions on celluloid. Fans like myself, who were teens in the 80s always on the lookout for the next screen thrill, grafted on to helmers like Sam because they dared to be unique by mashing genres even as they grappled with low budgets. Without knowing storyline in advance, when a viewer walked into the theater and caught the opening credit “Directed by Sam Firstenberg” they just knew they were in for a wholly unreal ride. My introduction to Sam was due to my innate passion for Martial Arts movies and an opening run viewing of the 1983 Revenge of the Ninja. Mayhem, gore and Sho Kosugi are all I needed. Or so I thought. Years later, upon absorbing in features such as Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo and American Ninja, I came to realize that no other cinematic creator symbolized the decade of nuclear infusion of subject matter quite like Sam. In April 2023, I was floored when I was given the opportunity to interview the B movie maestro over the phone and simply could not pass on the opportunity to chat with him about his time in the director’s chair in the period of blown dry hair, Reaganomics and music videos!


KN: Okay, your first directorial effort for Golan-Globus was the indie feature One more Chance, co-starring a young up-and-comer named Kirstie Alley. This was expanded from a student film, and shot on weekends over an 18-month period, beginning in 1981, I understand. What are your recollections on making this one and on working with Kirstie?


SF: The question is correct. I was a student at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles and was in a master degree by then. You know, between undergraduate and graduate. I was working as an assistant director for five years. So, when I joined the graduate program I was the oldest student because there was five years in between. I had a lot of experience, five years. In graduate school, at the end everybody, every student there, had a project. Usually like 15 minutes of film. Something like this. This is the graduation project. I made the decision that I wanted to be a director. I was assistant director for for five years. I directed a few short movies. I decided, here I am in the school. They have all the equipment. They have everything. I am going to make a feature film. Full feature. There was a script for a 20 minute (short), One More Chance, that was the beginning of a script and idea. It was approved. Then I met a fellow student. His name is David Womark, and he was interested in producing such an endeavor of a full movie, full feature. I expanded the script to one and a half hour to full script, 99 pages. And this was the story, one more chance kind of story about the ex-con coming out of prison, trying to put his life together back together, looking for his son who disappeared along with his ex-wife. I went to a friend of mine, Michael Pataki, an actor here in Los Angeles. I said “Michael. Can you help me cast the movie?” I actually offered him the lead part. He didn't want to do it, but he suggested John LaMotta, who later became famous in the Alf television series. Johnny was very experienced on the stage and a lot of appearances in television and so on. So we got him. Johnny liked the script. Then there are two female leads the ex-wife who disappears, and a neighbor that helps Johnny when he comes out of prison and he comes to his house. The house is empty, but he needs the neighbor and She will help him and she helps him to find the ex-wife and the kid. We started the casting process. There was a casting director. I remember, you know, everybody worked voluntarily. We didn't have any money whatsoever. Just enough to buy film and pizza for the crew and as you mentioned, it was shot on weekends during a year and a half. So young ladies came in and young men for all the parts. Among them came Kirstie Alley. She was an acting student here at the time. She was in an acting school. She was a designer, you know. That was her profession. And at this particular point, if I'm not wrong, she was designing windows for shops, you know, like fashion show. So, window designer. She was excellent right away. When she was reading, I realized that she's a great actress and we wanted her. She was interested and took the part during the movie. She doesn't have many days of shooting. She doesn't have many minutes in the movies. You know that, out of 90 minutes, about 20 minutes of which you can see her on the screen. She had a limited amount of days coming and working with us. Very, very professional Nothing out of the ordinary. A disciplined professional, (Kirstie) did her job fantastically. I don't have any particular memories from working with her because of course we were...I was much more busy with Johnny LaMotta and other parts which are much, much bigger. Later on Cannon Film, headed by Menahem Golan, bought this movie for distribution. I was so impressed with Kirsty. Everybody figured she's going to have a future. So I brought her into the office to meet with Menahem Golan and they were talking about possibilities doing something but nothing never anything materialized. And she left immediately. She finished film school. She had an agent and manager, got the part and started work immediately on, I think the movie Star Trek (in fact, Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan) and I never met her again since then. 


KN: So ninja and martial arts action films seemed quite the popular sub-genre at the box office in the early 80s. John Frankenheimer’s The Challenge in 1982 and Cannon’s own Enter the Ninja a year earlier were huge hits. You get Revenge of the Ninja as your next project. I had read in an interview. that you did not want to do this in the style of Hong Kong Cinema, but rather as a Hollywood action story with the martial arts bent. Was this a feeling of what works better for you? 


SF: Exactly everything you mentioned is correct. You read correctly. I grew up….as a kid, I grew up on Hollywood movies like many of the kids around the world. Mainly westerns and adventure movies. Later on it was James Bond. So this was my model of an action movie and I had never seen a Hong Kong kung fu movie or martial art movie, Karate movie in my life. My only exposure when I was a film student was to Samurai movies. Akira Kurosawa, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai etc. This was my only connection to martial arts in a way, you know. Samurais but not the Hong Kong movies. I was presented with this opportunity to direct their action movie. I was busy with them (Cannon) with One More Chance. So I saw Enter the Ninja and understood what it is. When I was presented with this idea of can you direct it I said of course, I would be happy to. Why not? But in my mind, exactly like you are saying, I had no interest in making a Hong Kong style movie. I wanted to do James Bond. That's what I wanted to do. Hollywood action. I was introduced to Sho Kosugi. Sho Kosugi was my mentor. He took me through the ninja idea. He suggested the books to read. He showed me all the different movies and he introduced me to the Hong Kong style of movie-making and he showed me a lot of….enough of the Hong Kong movies. All of them in Chinese with no translation, but that's okay (chuckles a bit). All I needed to see is the action and how they put the action together. and we're very impressive. Some of them, Hong Kong movies are very impressive when it comes to action and in my mind, so I said, okay, let's let's make a fusion. Let's make some kind of a movie that will have martial arts. That will have guns, will have punches, will have car chases. So I will mix the two. Luckily Sho Kosugi was thinking exactly like me. We were in the same wave mode. He also wanted a Hollywood movie. He wanted a Chuck Norris movie. He didn't want to become a Hong Kong star. He wanted to become Chuck Norris. So it worked for both of us. Thereby, when people today see Revenge of the Ninja, it has everything. Car chases, hand-to-hand combat, martial arts swords, ninja weapons. And apparently it, it was a good formula. 


KN: Now reportedly, Los Angeles locations were sought for filming, but the fees for permits, protection and logistics were cost prohibitive. When the Utah Commission came in and offered to deal with no permits needed, no fees and lower salaries for using a local crew, Cannon jumped at it, and shooting was done in Salt Lake City. To me, this added a unique, somewhat rural atmosphere to the action. Was this what you saw as well and were there any headaches shooting there? 


SF: So it is a known fact that shooting films in Los Angeles is expensive. Because that's the place where films are done. Everything you mentioned...the permits. You must hire so many people, require so many policemen and so many fire marshals etc etc. Sometimes dealing with the unions. So it's expensive. Everybody knows every location, every place you intend to shoot they ask for a lot of money. Any store or any house because that's where people normally go. Cannon told us to go out of town. Go and find another place. The producer, David Womark, and myself went to a few cities, not only to Salt Lake City. We needed a very accommodating city. We needed twin towers. A big part of the story is twin towers. Utah just worked everything together. The film commission was very accommodating and, as you mentioned, the city gave everything for free. The fire protection, the police escorting. All the permits were free because they wanted to bring the filming in. They had these two towers that were just completed building and not occupied. Perfect for filming. Just perfect for filming. So everything worked. We chose Salt Lake City and, you are right it was a little bit, you know, this urban feeling. You will see in the next question when you ask me you'll I will explain how we ended little bit in Los Angeles. 


KN: All right, so now Revenge went through several revisions before it saw the theater screens. According to reports, the first cut was rather a narrative mess that prompted Golan to call a meeting where he suggested a prologue to be added, along with some nearly 30 minutes of cuts down to a 90 minute run time for U.S. theater release. The film would go on to make an estimated $14 million at the box office on a $700,000 budget project. Were you concerned at all that this may not succeed? Also, what are your thoughts on the uncut version finally getting its DVD release in it by MGM in 2011. 


SF: Okay, so a few subjects here. Number one, Menahem Golan, who was the head of Cannon and the creative force behind Cannon, was a director himself. He directed many movies (like) Delta Force etcetera. He had a kind of a rule for this company. The movies cannot be longer than ninety five minutes. This was a rule of this company. For Cannon, every movie was 95 minutes itself. It served few purposes. He believed in it as dramatic, as storytelling. You don't need more than 90 minutes to tell a story. It worked very perfectly for theater release because it gives enough….You know, movies of two hours, they (movie theaters) lose one showing every evening. Its excellent also for two two hours television. With commercials, 95 minutes is exactly two hours. We come back and cut the movie 95 minutes. 90 minutes. We look at it and it was a mess. Exactly as you were saying. The dramatic narrative didn't work.  It was not explained as to where the hero comes from, why etc. A few dramatic problems. The writer of this project was James Silke. He also wrote Enter the Ninja. We got together….all of us, you know, brainstorming. It was not only one meeting. Of course, Menahem Golan called us in and he told us go and fix it. I want a better movie that I understand the beginning, the middle, the end and the hero motivation etcetera. So Jim Silke, myself, Sho Kosugi contributed a lot. It was decided to add a prologue before the story in Japan. The hero in the story comes from the Japan to the U.S. So, we decided to add a prologue about his life in Japan before he comes to the U.S. We wanted to trump up little bit the kid Kane Kosugi. We added the fight scene between him and a group of school children in the schoolyard and the end scene, which is very complex with the two towers. Some of it was not very clear who is coming way into the building. It had to do with timing. When did Sho Kosugi arrive? When did the bad ninja arrive? Well, when did Keith Vitali (who plays the Dave Hatcher character) arrive? So we added a few little sequences, a little shot in Los Angeles. So all of this was done in Los Angeles. For the prologue we found this Japanese house that, according to rumors, belonged to Shirley Temple. It's an authentic Japanese house with a Japanese garden. So that’s where it was done. To the best of my knowledge, it once belonged to Shirley Temple and it was on Sunset Boulevard. Then we found the school...a few shots with the school, the boy coming out of school. And then the one in the park where you had the fight with the bullies and the children. We found some high-rise buildings on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and the bottom and the top (of the buildings) matched our Tower. So we could do all the entrances and arrivals, the police arrival etcetera. We got another one week of shooting. All in all we shot for nine weeks, eight weeks in Salt Lake City, one week in Los Angeles. We put together the editing again. The boss is coming in. He was happy and the movie was approved. Now, you mentioned MGM. So let me tell you a nice little story about MGM. Cannon wasn't, it's not a completely new company. Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. They bought the company that was (then) called Cannon Films. It was based on New York and they moved the company. It was a small company that they moved immediately to Los Angeles and they started to produce their own movies. In the beginning, they started with horror pictures and were so successful. Then, they moved into the ninja (formula) with Enter the Ninja. Now, what is happening with small companies, every one of those small companies, every movie they make, they wish that the major distribution studio will distribute the movie. It is very difficult to distribute movies in the U.S. or what they call domestic. Canada and the U.S. North America. It's very difficult. What they all wish is that a major company will pick it (the feature) up. Pick up the movie for distribution. Now, Cannon already produced real movies New Year’s Evil, Schizoid, a couple of movies and they shopped them around but none of those movies were ever picked up by a major studio, including Enter the Ninja. Now Revenge of the Ninja they showed around at MGM. MGM was in Culver City and was a big company at the time. They liked it. They liked Revenge of the Ninja and they decided to pick it up for distribution. This was a big celebration at Cannon. Finally, one of their movies was picked up by MGM. As you mention it, it was nice and they put the effort into distribution, the way it should be with radio ads and with television ads in English and Spanish. They knew how they know how to distribute and they created this beautiful poster. The classic poster with Sho Kosugi flying against the red sky, comes flying in there. That was all MGM graphics and they did very well you know. They opened in like, I think, six hundred theaters on the East Coast and West Coast, or east of the Mississippi and west of the Mississippi they're calling it, and they did well. On a small budget, they did good money and Cannon got some of it. I don't know exactly the arrangement between distribution and production company, whatever it is. Now, how did the movie ended up with MGM? Cannon, at some point, came to an end. There was a bankruptcy. Cannon was in financial trouble. There was a bankruptcy case with the court and many companies and entities who came to take from Cannon what they were owed. Creditors, you know. Warner Bros got some of Cannon’s movies, finished movies out of the library and MGM got some because they owed a lot of money to MGM. For some reason, all of the movies that I directed, the entire group of movies I directed for Cannon ended up in the hands of MGM. Now they own the movie. They own Revenge of the Ninja today. MGM released the video, the CDs and later on the DVD. Now, when you say the uncut it's not really the uncut because, when we finish the movie, it was like two hours. So there are many scenes which are completely not in the movie. These are not in any version, I don't know if, when we were through, they threw that in the garbage. When we released the print we had to deal with the rating commission to get the R. When we finished, the movie was so violent. Not the entire movie but there were a few instances so bad and they gave it X. And, in order to get the R, we had to cut out few things here and there. There is a policeman who gets killed. There is the little boy gets a ninja shuriken in his head. I believe that what you're talking about, the Blu-ray, the DVD, or the MGM Blu-ray somehow, it got back in. So they got some kind of different negative than was released in the theater. That's what I think it happened. It's not completely uncut. Some of the violence that was prohibited by the commission got in on the DVD. On the Blu-ray release. 


KN: Now, next on the docket is one my favorites. That rare combination of ninja mysticism, martial arts action horror and Flashdance with the 1984 Ninja III: The Domination. It did struggle some at the box office with an estimated estimated $7,610,785 take on a budget of $2 million but has gone on to very much a cult hit status over the years. You have been on record stating that you felt it a failure and yet Scream Factory released the film with a brand-new transfer and extras in a 2018 collector's edition Blu-ray. So it still seems to resonate with fans. Fans still buy into this. Have your thoughts changed on the film and can you explain why the fans connect to it? 


SF: Okay. Ninja III: The Domination is, of course, the biggest, surprise of my career. Let me tell you what happened historically. When we finished, Revenge of the Ninja did very well in theater. Well enough for independent, low-budget, movies. Of course...Hollywood...Cannon. What do they do? They need a sequel. So they already had Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja. They wanted to do Ninja III: The Domination now. Something happened between, I don't know, until today. Something happened between Show Kosugi and Golan or the company that... for us, for everybody it was obvious that Sho Kosugi was going to be, again, the hero of the third movie in the trilogy, but he didn't want it this way and they (the studio) wanted somebody else at the top. Menahem Golan called me for a meeting. Said let's do another one. This was successful. Let's do a Ninja III. I don't want, you know, Sho Kosugi. But let's do it with a woman, you know. It was after Flashdance was a big success or maybe after even Sigourney Weaver. So he was into it for some reason. I did not object. I said okay that's fine with me. You want to do it with a woman, with a female? That's fine with me. They hired again James Silke the same writer. When Sho Kosugi found out, he was very unpleased. I don't want to say furious...maybe it was furious. He wasn't pleased that A) he is not the hero, the main protagonist, and that it's a woman. so he told us right away, all of us. He said a woman cannot be at the head, at the top of a ninja movie. She doesn't have the power. She doesn't have...it's not customary. It's not right. In many ways he was right. Despite the fact that, in the movies that he showed me, in the Hong Kong movies, I saw a few times a female ninja but, of course, they were not the lead of the movie. Not the heroes.  The bunches of ninja females were very evil and they were sent to do stuff. So it's not completely out of the question. Still, he said he was against it. He said I'm not participating in this movie. It is like, okay, so now Jim Silke and myself were facing a dilemma. They (Cannon) really wanted Sho Kosugi. They had a deal with him. How do we resolve it? At the time, you know, Poltergeist was a big movie and a big influence on me. We came up with the idea. I said, okay, Jim, she is not a ninja. She's possessed by a spirit of a real ninja. And so, there is some kind of a real ninja within a story. The spirit passes to her and she needs to revenge, his revenge. The dead guy revenge. He is the real ninja. And only Show Kosugi can come in and resolve the problem, because he's really fighting a spirit of a real ninja. We presented it to Sho Kosugi. He liked it. He said fine. It's a good idea. That's how we got into this. Now we had to start to write it. I say we. Jim Silke wrote it. I did not write the script. We were under the influence, as we say, of Flashdance and Poltergeist etc. And that's how it became this hybrid concoction of a story. A little bit ninja and a little bit Flashdance because she's a dance instructor. We hired Lucinda Dickey. She was a dancer and she picked up the ninja moves very quickly because she was a dancer. And a little bit of exorcism, taking out the spirit, and a lot of ninja. It fits into the ninja mythology in general. Now, let's come to the release of the movie. Eventually, Sho Kosugi was right. The audience of this kind of movie did not accept a female as a lead. There was, there was a, what was her name? Rothrock. Cynthia Rothrock was doing...was making a lot of martial arts  movies. Her movies were not very popular. They did well. She did well. Cynthia Rothrock. And there are two or three more martial art ladies who did movies but, apparently, Sho was right. They did not accept the fact that the woman...maybe they expected to see Sho Kosugi, of course. By then his status already was established. So this movie did not do as well as Revenge of the Ninja. And the fact that it was not a straight action movie, having spirit exorcism etcetera. Here we come to the surprise of my life as I mentioned, okay? The movie died...played in the theater...went on cassette and DVD. Never made it as big as Revenge of the Ninja. Never. Let's jump 20 years later. We are now in the 2000s. Suddenly, I start to get requests to do interviews about Ninja III: The Domination. I'm invited to screenings of Ninja III: The Domination and it grew and grew and grew. I started to to see on the internet, to feel on the internet that it entered this section of cult movie. It became a cult movie with followers. The rest is history. Today it is a cult movie with followers and websites and discussion groups etc. The movie is so out there, so outrageous, so silly. I was invited to a screening….there is, in Los Angeles some club, which is called the Secret Movie Club. Something like this. They have their own screening room and they screened from prints...from 35mm prints. This is the rule of the club. I was invited to a screening of Ninja III:The Domination. Okay. To do Q &A….the usual. So I come there. I was astonished. People come with dresses, dressed like ninjas, to the screening. The theater was full and they know the lines. They talk to the screen. They scream the lines. There were all kinds of funny lines. It was an amazing experience! Unbelievable. Just before the film. So yeah, you're right. It's unexplainable. It's very difficult to explain how an audience will react to any movie. I'm lucky. I'm happy. I don’t dwell on it. No, no problem. Silly movie! (He chuckles again)


KN: Having done two features as we've talked about with Sho Kosugi, do you have any remembrances of working with this master Ninpo practitioner? Are there funny moments? I'm leading to….I want you to tell the story about the dubbing. 


SF: Sho was a master, of course. He dojos. When he came to filming he walked around with a group of five, six, seven people around him all the time. His devoted students. They were the most devoted of his students. They were hired to be on the set all the time. He used them as wherever they needed, doubles on screen/off screen. So he came already established at a certain level in martial arts that I don't understand. I don't come from the world of martial art. I didn't ever practiced martial art, I don't know. So, here comes the master, the teacher. They (the students) all give him respect. And I didn't understand. I did not give him this kind of respect, because what do I know about whoever he is? If I had to work with, I don't know, with Charles Bronson. Maybe I understand the hierarchy of movies. But there was a lot of mutual respect between me and him. I did not get involved in, let's say, choreography. The martial arts choreography. Really I was sitting back in the chair and he was coming up with the choreography, putting it together. He presented to me every piece of choreography before we were shooting it. If I had a comment or two about the drama of the fight, I would tell him, I would discuss it. He would change the choreography. In this way, I gave him the respect. On the other hand, I did not address him as some kind of master or some kind of a teacher. But this was fine. We worked together. He was all the time with his students. He was busy with the action. I was busy, you know. I helped him, of course, when it came to a dramatic scene. He trusted me. I told you he really walked me through. He took me to Tokyo...Little Tokyo here. He did. He told me about the food, all the ninja. He recommended the book. He told me about the Japanese food. I didn't know any of this. It was very nice of him. Very, very nice of him. He accepted the young director who never directed. But his accent was a very heavy Japanese accent. When we finished the movie, here and there it was hard to understand him. I'll tell you something that was very interesting to me. A revelation. He had his two children on the set all the time, Kane and Shane, because they had parts. He like them to be with him all the time. They were sitting with us for lunch. One day, I was sitting with him and the two kids and there was food. The kid, Kane, didn't want to eat the food for some reason and Sho wanted him to. He says to Kane “you must eat the food. Otherwise, you shame the lady who prepared the food.” For me, being a westerner, this was a revelation. The logic of why you should eat or not. Not that you'll be healthier or bigger or stronger, but that you cannot shame the woman, the cook who prepared the food. Fantastic for me. We finish the movie and we screen it here and there and it's very, very hard to understand Sho Kosugi’s English because his English is not good. For us in the movie business, it's a no-brainer. You bring in another actor and you dub it. We don't think about it twice. Of course, if something is not clear we bring….it's called ADR, Automatic Dialogue Replacement. So we brought in an actor with a Japanese accent but clear English. Nobody even thought that we needed permission from Sho Kosugi to revoice him. We are doing him a favor in our mind, you know. This is a standard of the industry. It's nothing. So we did it. We finished. The movie is ready to release. We invite Sho for the press screening of the finished movie with the music. He sits there. We go out. It was in the MGM Studio. I remember it like today. The screening was in MGM after the sound mix. He walks out. He's kind of….I see he's not pleased. I said “Sho, it's a great movie. It looks good.” He said “Shamurek”...My name is Shmuel in Hebrew but he kept saying it in Japanese...”you can’t change my voice without asking my permission!” He was so hurt. I mean, it had to do with pride, not with the practical. Nothing to do with the practicality. It was his pride. I am the master. You don't change my voice without coming and asking my permission first. So there are a few days of no talking to each other. Then, later on, we did another movie later. We kept in touch for many years. But that is part of Japanese culture. You don't do it in Japan without asking permission. 


KN: I know your career really takes a twist at this point. At least a twist in subject matter. For your next work, the American dance-musical-drama, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. This is a follow-up to the hugely successful Tri-Star entry Breakin’ just a few months prior. It was a big success, grossing $2,921,030 while in its first five days of release and collecting a sum total of $15.1 million in the US and Canada. But it's still paled in numbers compared to the first. Were the diminishing numbers due to an audience fatigue to this new break-dancing trend? Some of these trends can be very fleeting. What do you see about that? 


SF: Yeah, I think so. I think you're right. You know, Cannon, while we were busy with Revenge...actually, while we were shooting Ninja III: The Domination, they had this idea of Breakin’. But Cannon was not unique. At exactly the same time there were a few companies that were already working on a breakdancing movie. One was them was Beat Street. Cannon, they produce the movie Breakin’ very fast with the Shabba-doo, Boogaloo Shrimp and Lucinda (Dickey). They sold Lucinda Dickey. They needed a girl who is not a break dancer...that's part of the story. They're teaching her breakdancing in the story. They saw Lucinda in Ninja III: The Domination and they liked her. She was a dancer. So there was no problem. They liked her. She was a dancer. She was recruited right into the movie Breakin’. When Breakin’ came out, it was such a huge success. They came out first before Beat Street, before all the other break-dancing movies because Cannon had this capability of very fast-turning movies and it was the biggest success for Cannon up to this point. You know, as you said millions and millions at the box office. MGM distributed it. Tens of millions of in box office and a huge success. The biggest success for Cannon up to this point. Immediately, they knew there will be the sequel. This was beginning of the hip-hop, break-dance, rap trend and they wanted a movie for some reason. Again I don't exactly know. They did not employ the same director. For some reason, they did not place the sequel into his hand and they called me. We’d just finished mixing and everything on Ninja III: The Domination. They (Cannon) say “quickly quickly! We have to make a sequel to Breakin. It will be Breakin’ 2. Would you do it?” I was delighted. I love music. I love musicals, I grew up with Hollywood musicals. Wow, what a chance to make a Hollywood musical. So, of course, I accept it immediately. The truth must be said that there is not, despite the what people might think, a big difference between directing action and directing dance. Both of them are choreographed. This is this type of choreography with violence. The other one is without violence. The task of the director is to film that choreography in an exciting way. An exciting, compelling, interesting way that's all. I was already a sequel director. I did Revenge of the Ninja and...okay….another sequel. It was a nice budget. By then the three of them (Shabba-doo, Boogaloo Shrimp and Dickey) were big, known stars because of Breakin’, and there was a lot of anticipation for this movie among the followers of the first movie. One thing that happened in the middle, while we were filming, the budget was boosted. The reason was that everything was distributed through MGM. At this point they got Columbia...Tri Star Columbia interested to buy the movie in a bigger better deal than with MGM. They really wanted to impress Columbia. Maybe they would move from MGM to Columbia in distribution. So they gave us more weeks, more money to really do it. The movie, all in all, was pretty long with two hours, more than two hours. But, again, we cut it down. We shaped it. We kept only the pieces that we wanted. Yet it might have been fatigue, as you say because, by then there were already four or five break-dance movies out in the market. This was the last one. The way we did it. It was the same thing. Well, there was a story, a different story but we had, like, five editors working simultaneously. They really wanted the movie within the same year out, and it's unprecedented. I don't think, in the history of Hollywood, there is a movie, a sequel, that came within the same year is the original. A sequel and original within the same one year. At some point we had, like, five editors working around the clock 24 hours. I went crazy. But the shooting was no problem. They did not put the pressure on us while filming the filming was nice. Eight weeks, with the addition of a few...almost nine weeks with some additions that we needed and no pressure. Actually, the budget was lavish in the production. A lot of pressure in post-production. The movie was edited in two weeks after the end of filming. 


KN: Now, what was fascinating about the film is there's an unusual sequence, at least for the time, of break-dancing on the ceiling. I understand from my research that this was an homage of sorts by Menahem Golan to the Fred Astaire scene in the 1951 film Royal Wedding. How was it constructing the set-piece for this kind of elaborate scene? I imagine it's a bit tricky. 


SF: Correct. This was not in the script. The dancing of the ceiling was not in the original script. One day, during lunchtime break, we were shooting in Los Angeles in Boyle Heights. Boyle Heights is in East Los Angeles. It's really the birthplace of hip-hop. That's where it was, on the west coast. I know there are different….Chicago...other places. But this was the west coast. In this neighborhood, in the west coast, this was the place. He (Golan) calls me one day. I get an order...”you have to go to the office at lunch time.” I go to the office at lunchtime and Menahem says “I have an idea. I want the Shrimp (Boogaloo) to dance on the ceiling.” Mechanically, I knew immediately, what has to be done. It's no problem. We had a music producer...a big company was behind... Polygram. Polygram music was behind the music in this movie. Everything was well organized and good. So they gave us a song and say it will be his solo. I knew what to do. The way you do it is called Gimbal. There is a big metal drum, a huge metal drum. I'm sure it was done with Royal Wedding and Fred Astaire for sure. The room where this dancer isis built within this huge metal drum and the drum can go around and around like a...drum. The dancer really dances always on the floor. But the cameraman is cemented to the floor. When the floor is upside down, the cameraman is upside down. The dancer is dancing on the ground, which is now the ceiling. It's goes around. Somebody, not long ago, put...they put a video...one of the crew members filmed it. You see the drum. You see everything. It's floating around on the internet and for what, I know this is the same Gimbal that was used in A Nightmare on Elm Street, to the best of my knowledge. So it was easy for the art department. This Gimbal already existed. When he turns around he turns around with the lights and everything. In the windows, there is background like trees and, of course, pictures. Everything turned. To make it convincing the windows are open supposedly. The lights are turning with the Gimbal. The sun always shines from the same direction. The illusion. We added one more thing. Of course, Fred Astaire was the originator of this trick. It was used extensively in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Kubrick used it extensively in Space Odyssey.  We added the one trick that I didn't see in any other movie while he is on the ceiling. The girlfriend walks in through the door. This was tricky, and technically challenging because, actually, she's upside down on the floor, which is now up and he is down and dancing. I never saw it in any other movie that somebody walks in through the door when the dancer is on the ceiling. 


KN: You've got two break-dancing cons among the cast: Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quinones and Ice-T. What were those two like? They were at the beginning of their careers then but they're now legendary rap icons. 


SF: So, as you mentioned, this is the beginning of rapping...1984...1983 and 1984. Beginning of rapping. Ice-T, one of the original rappers, of the famous rappers. He has one song in the movie Breakin’ and they (Cannon) contracted him. They told me you have to put him in...me and the writer. There were two ladies who wrote the script. So...you find a place for him somewhere. He must be in. So we did. He has two scenes, one in the club and one at the end sequence. He was not a huge star then but it was the beginning. He’d already played on the radio. People knew about him. Shabba Doo was the king of break-dancing. People followed him on television. There was a television show and he was with Lionel Richie. People who were interested in the hip-hop culture already knew him. They already knew that...he came with...he had this...like...his protege was Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, They were a duo already. You can see there are a lot of video clips from the 70s. They are appearing in television shows in the 70s, in all kind of bands, shows etc. So people knew about him. It was, again, like the Sho Kosugi situation here. I'm working with the king of Hip-Hop. At this particular moment, he was bigger than Ice-T. At this particular moment, Ice-T was beginning. They were friends. All the Hip-Hop characters knew each other. People came to visit the set, like famous dancer Debbie Allen, because they all knew Shabba Doo. He was friendly with all of them. So all those famous dancers are visiting the set. He was a little bit like Sho Kosugi (chuckles), now the master. I did not have anything to contribute to the dances. Nothing. He (Shabba Doo) was there and there was a choreographer, Billy

 Goodman. Between Shabba Doo and Billy Goodman, they put all the dances together. My job was just to film it in an exciting way and he was the big boss whenever it came to action. He was the guru, he was the big boss. Everybody looked up to him. Ice-T was only two days on the set. One day and one night. But I have a nice story about Ice-T. Also about Shabba Doo. Years, years, years later, Ice-T became a big rapping star and then he became big with his television show Law and Order. One day, I'm directing a movie with Eric Roberts. There was a two-day part for a head of the FBI, head of agency or something, and somebody called me. “We contacted Ice-T and he's interested.” I said Wow!Terrific! Ice-T! By all means.” As I said, in Electric Boogaloo he had two numbers: one in the nightclub...in the famous club...the very famous club and then, in the end scene, is trying to recruit the people to donate more money to the club. This is, like, 20 years later. He walks in, kind of a long hair. He said “Hi, Sam. How are you? What is my part?” I said you are kind of the head of the agency. He said “For a head of an agency the hair is too long, right?” I said “yeah, I guess you're right.” He said “Okay, I'm going to makeup. They will cut down my hair.” He just went to makeup and they cut down  his hair on the spot. He comes back. He said to me “You are responsible.” He turns to me. “You are responsible for the worst song I ever recorded in my life!” He said “Remember the end scene on the stage? I'm there and I'm trying to entice people to give more money to save the...the miracle?” Sure. “This is the worst piece of music I ever recorded in my life. It’s because of you! Okay, let's go filming.” 


KN: Now, let's switch again to the next step in your ever-changing career. I'm going to tell you, you can search the world, but you would be hard-pressed to find a more intense actor than Michael Dudikoff. You worked with him on three pictures, beginning with American Ninja in 1985. Now, I’d read where he suffered a bout of Malaria while filming but he just soldiered on and pretty much said I want to do this. What was he like? He seems to be just a star needed to carry this type of film. 


SF: Correct. Correct. American Ninja is a huge success. A huge success, usually, in the movies has to do a lot with the star of the movie. Movies is business of stars. You know, Sean Connery is James Bond. That's how it goes, historically. From the days of Charlie Chaplin. From the days of the silent stars. Douglas Fairbanks. This is the business of stars. A success of the movie….many times...of course there is the story, the filming etcetera. At least 50% in most of the cases are because of the chemistry. The chemistry between the star and the audience or between the different stars on the screen. So, we were given this task again. It was the brainchild of Menahem Golan. Not the story, just the idea. He called me one day and said let's make now another ninja movie. But this time it will be an American ninja. Enough with the Japanese. Enough. This was kind of a crazy, revolutionary idea. Not only were we stealing the ninja concept from Japan to America, we are stealing the hero, the essence. The ninja suddenly becomes American. He's not Japanese anymore. At the time we thought it was a crazy idea. A suicidal idea. But he was right and we were wrong anyway. The question was who will be this American ninja? So we had the writer Paul De Mielche, who wrote the script, come up with a certain character….a chip on the shoulder type of character. A very elusive, very mysterious guy. You don't know where he comes from, what he is doing, why he's there. He’s a reluctant hero. He doesn't want to get involved until a point in the drama that he has no choice but to get involved. Now we have to find the guy. I’ve told this story many times. We saw about 300 to 400 young men. Actors, martial artists. Young people from all walks of acting and action. The minute he walks into the room. You know...first, they went through Mike Stone. Mike Stone was the choreographer. If they (the auditioners) pass this….they didn't have to be martial artists, just athletic and talented enough….they came to me for reading. When Michael Dudikoff walked in, I really had this feeling that he's the guy. Maybe I would see more people but, to me, he was the character that we wrote on the script. We went through a few more tests and videos. Eventually, Cannon agreed to hire him. I fought for him a lot. He became the American Ninja. Without him, I don't know. You know this movie was written for Chuck Norris. They really wanted Chuck Norris. Chuck didn’t want to do it. I don't know if it would have been successful with Chuck Norris as is. (Michael) was just the right character, the right actor and the right intensity. He picked up all the action very quickly. This is one of those instances of cinema where everything just locked in perfectly. Judy Aronson. Of course, Steve James and Michael Dudikoff. What a duo. What a chemistry. What a combination. Then Judy Aronson, who is his love interest. She worked in fantastically. He grasped this character of the reluctant hero, the The loner who doesn't want to get involved in anything but yet, at the end of the day, he saves the day. 


KN: Well, such an actor that he gets Malaria and he just works through it!


SF: Now let's come to the work ethic, Michael is very hard worker. He would...day and night...no 8 hours or 12 hours….whenever you need him he was on set. Whatever difficult thing he needed to execute and to do. I was not aware of the Malaria. It was in the jungles in the Philippines. We were shooting in the jungles of the Philippines and it probably happened. As director, I'm so busy that it does not come to my attention. There are people there, medical or doctors, but I didn't see anything. Same thing happened again in the movie Avenging Force. He got some bacteria in the ear. We were shooting in a swamp in New Orleans and some bacteria enters his ear where he's losing the balance. Again, he never complained to me. I never knew anything about it between him and the medical staff. No problem whatsoever. He always cared and was always there. 


KN: You talk about shooting in the Philippines. Did you have issues with that? Was there any trouble shooting there?


SF:  No. Just very, very hot filming. Working in the jungle in 120, 125, 130 degrees, that's an everyday occurrence. So it's grueling, hard work. Luckily we had a good crew because Francis Ford Coppola had finished his movie (Apocalypse Now) in the Philippines years before and we kind of inherited the crew from it. We inherited a good crew. We had some crew that we carried with us to the Philippines. It was a 300 people crew, three units….we were shooting...two and a half units and there was a lot of enthusiasm. We were shooting, you know shifts both day and night. I was working something in the day and then going to the night. with another crew. With another cameraman. So, the crew was good and the equipment was there. Anything which they don't have in the Philippines they can bring from Hong Kong in like two hours. They fly it from Hong Kong to the Manila. In 2-3 hours it's there. So there were no equipment problems. The level of enthusiasm there was a good feeling. There was a feeling that we are doing something which is going to be successful. It's stupid to say that you're going to be successful. You cannot predict the success of the movie. But there was a feeling that we are doing something different, that we are doing something that has such a feeling. So I accepted, as I said, the heat and the size of the crew which is, unbelievably, like 300 people. KN: Steve James once said that Michael was afraid to work with him, at first, because James had so much more experience in martial arts than he did. It was so much so that James requested much of his fight scenes be filmed away from view of Dudikoff to not make the situation worse. Yet, both became good friends during the shoot. Do you think that this somewhat charged chemistry helps the film? 


SF: Yes, listen. They were cast separately. Completely separately. We didn't put them together during casting. The important thing was the romantic. We put the romantic interests together. Just a few scenes with Michael and Judy. Judy was already established with Friday the 13th, right? Steve is a martial artist. Now, on the set with a group of martial artists, we had our stunt

 coordinator Steve Lambert. We had Mike Stone, who is a famous world champion. From Australia, Richard Norton also joined us. There was a group of martial artists. Michael picked it up very quickly. He had two weeks training with Mike Stone before the filming started all together. The first time Steven and Michael met was probably the first day on the set. There is a dynamic of which the director is not aware. A director is very busy and doesn't leave the set. Many crew members have time. A director is on the set 12 hours. He doesn't have time to leave the set. Then on to watch dailies and to meetings. So, there are things which go on in the background of which I'm not aware. It's true that they did not warm up to each other in the beginning. That’s what I understand. I don't know more than what Steve told. Maybe there was a tension between actors, like who is going to overshadow each other. As the movie progressed, as the production progressed the story of the movie, so to speak, became exactly like what was happening off-screen. They became better and better and better friends eventually. When we got to America Ninja II, they were really good friends, Michael and Steve. Really good buddies. American Ninja just worked as is. It works in the story. In the beginning, they don't know each other and they ended up being good friends willing to sacrifice their life for each other. KN: So this film is huge hit at the box office for a company like Cannon. Ten million dollars worldwide in the take. Is this the film, in your mind, that kind of checks all the boxes for what action fans would want? SF: Two parts to this question. In terms of success, financial and….not only financial but the amount of people who see a movie. Not necessarily tickets or dollars but how many tickets or how many video, or how many views per video. Through all the movies that I directed, about 25 movies, this is the most successful. So the number, 10 million or 20 million, doesn't make any difference because we believe today, according to the Directors Guild in the examination of this movie, that more than 100 million people saw this movie worldwide. More than 100 million people, definitely. Now, this particular movie, many people have watched 5 times, 10 times. I get letters from people who saw it 20 times. So, in viewing we are talking about hundreds of million times over the world. It was a breakthrough. It was a new Tarzan, a new Shazam, a new character. American Ninja. A character that did not exist in the pop culture of the world. Before, it wasn’t American Ninja. It was G.I. Joe. It was a new pop icon character. I had a chance, back to the second part of your question, I had a chance to direct, right after this, another movie with Steve James and Michael called Avenging Force. It was not as successful as American Ninja. In my personal view, Avenging Force is a better action movie than American Ninja But my opinion doesn't matter at all. It's the audience. The opinion of the audience is important. What they see. So this American Ninja has a combination, again, as I told you. All the stars align. Everything. The innocence of the story, the mysticism. There is illusion. Everything just works fine. that young male audience….and young we can define between eight and forty-five...is the prime audience for this movie worldwide. Here and there, also, female. Not as much. This is the prime. I just got a video this week. Somebody sent me a video. Two children, 10 and 12, today sitting in a room and both of them are mesmerized. You can tell they're watching a movie and the telephone camera pans and they're watching American Ninja. Nowadays.10 and 8-year old kids. This movie resonates. This movie has something which is beyond time, beyond the location. Worldwide. Everybody. Every place. The kids are...the young male...they identify with this character, with this American Ninja character. It does have some spectacular action, no question about it. Rich. We didn’t skim. Budget was plentiful. Whatever we needed we did.


KN: I think, too, part of it is because Michael Dudikoff has a certain chemistry or charm with the audience. He's this really likable kind of guy.


SF: The charisma, which is undefined. You cannot define. If you could define that you could be a millionaire because you’d make only successful movies. So there is something between Michael and the audience. Between Michael Dudikoff and the audience. His charisma, his character and, with the character, the plot of this particular drama. Everything just aligned. Absolutely right. More than 50% of of the success is due to Michael Dudikoff. 


KN: We talked about Avenging Force. It's one of my favorites, in part because it still has this timely plotline involving a right-wing paramilitary group as the heavy. Now, this one was yet another that was set for Chuck Norris or he was asked to do it. It was a sequel to the Chuck Norris starrer Invasion USA. Norris wasn’t interested. It was then rewritten for Cannon’s rising star, Mr. Dudikoff. Dudikoff, once again, endured some difficulties while working on location. This time it was in the Louisiana bayou Apparently, there were a number of number of spider webs that he had to run through. He contracted a skin virus, got an ear infection you said, and far too many cuts and bruises to count. Is this kind of rugged locale and hero something that appeals to you as a filmmaker on the certain level? 


SF: Yes. Avenging Force was called Night Hunter in the beginning. The writer was James Booth. James Booth was a British Actor in movies. Zulu was his biggest. Established actor. He wrote the script. Now it was written, exactly as you say, as kind of a sequel. It's not direct sequel but it has the same character, Matt Hunter. I didn't know. We kept the name Matt Hunter. But not a direct sequel. It was not adapted in any way except the one thing that, with Chuck Norris, his daughter is abducted. Michael Dudikoff is so young we couldn't have his daughter abducted, so we change it to his sister abducted. That's the only difference in the adaptation. The script is as it was originally. We didn't touch it. It was a magnificent script. My….taste, yeah I love this rugged, realistic type of locations. You feel them. American Ninja is a superhero. He’s not real. American Ninja...the violence...you can feel it. Maybe this is part of the success. You can tell that the action, the violence and the death in American Ninja and ninja movies is tongue-in-cheek. It's not real. It's a game. It's a play. The knife, the Shuriken etcetera, all with a wink in the eye. Not so Avenging Force. Avenging Force is for real. Its violence, is for real. Yeah, I'm drawn to realism, to realistic movies, to locations. It was rugged. It was tough. But this was the atmosphere for the crew. We were on the bayous for weeks and weeks. We were there with the alligators and the Moccasins. Michael fell into the water. So did the other actors! Not only Michael but the five of them. All of them. We had a tough stunt crew. One day, not in the bayou but in the final fight that he's fighting, John P. Ryan got the sword...not a real sword but aluminum...hitting him right on the forehead and bleeding. We took him to a plastic surgeon. It was rough but, as we mentioned before, Michael is a fighter, a trooper. He works and he does whatever has to be done for the success of the movie. KN: The popularity remains even today for Avenging Force, Ninja III: The Domination and so forth. I think Avenging Force is even more so. It did well on the first run. Now Cannon, as we mentioned before had financial struggles at the time, dissolving just a few years later I think in 1990. The money problems forced them to limit the release of the film to just over 500 cinemas nationwide which seemed to me to stymie the profit potential. Was this a cause of frustration for you or just an acknowledgement that this is business? 


SF: I'll explain what happened. As I say, I believe it's a better action movie than, let's say, the ninja movie. It's good, well-written etc. Here is what happened. At this point in time, after American Ninja Cannon had a fight with MGM. Cannon was fighting with MGM just at this point, and they decided to create their own distribution company...domestically. It's very difficult. They liked Avenging Force very much. They saw it, you know, in the same line of Invasion USA, you know, behind enemy lines with Chuck Norris. They saw it like this and they decided okay, they're opening their own distribution company. They created, I don't remember, five regions around the country with head of distribution. This was to be the first movie to be distributed through Cannon Distribution and not MGM or any other major company. For the movie, it was a mistake for them. They tried it. They failed, by the way. The distribution company, Cannon, did not succeed. They could have done more after American Ninja. They could have done more to promote the actor, Michael Dudikoff. Saying this, we were not involved at all because I'll tell you what happened for us, historically. When we finished American Ninja, they sent us immediately to New Orleans to do Avenging Force. The movie was not released yet. Nobody knew that American Ninja would be what it will become. Nobody knew. We arein New Orleans, shooting Avenging Force. Nobody was in a promotion, not Michael, not Steve, not myself. We just opened. Just like this. So, nobody had a sense of the movie is going to open. Suddenly, we start to hear the news that it's a huge success and we are busy filming! Michael cannot go on tours, cannot go on any interviews, nothing. We were all busy filming. Meantime, the movie is doing so well. We finished filming Avenging Force. I came back to the editing room in Los Angeles. Editing, editing, editing. The minute I arrived back to Los Angeles they told me we are going to do American Ninja II. This is the big one. So, now I'm editing and I'm already busy working with another writer writing a script for American Ninja II while we were filming. The next day, after we finish the mix and everything of Avenging Force, I was on an airplane to South Africa. So, I was not involved. All the story I'm telling you is hindsight. I didn't know anything about distribution. I didn't learn of the open. I'm telling it to you now but, at the time, I didn't know that they created their own distribution company. I didn't know that they will not release it through MGM. At the same time, there was another movie with kind of a similar theme, Mississippi Burning with Gene Hackman, which is a studio movie, much bigger. This is a tough subject. It's a tough subject to distribute, this movie. It never made it to the level of American Ninja. Never. Did not. But I regarded it. In my opinion. James Booth was some kind of a prophet. He already saw what would happen on January 6 at the Capitol. 


KN: You mentioned South Africa for American Ninja II as your next exotic production base for yourself and with Dudikoff and the gang. This one was another one hit by the studio money woes. The first Ninja was a big moneymaker. Yet this follow-up surprisingly had a budget of three hundred fifty thousand dollars. I found that, even with the more limited budget, you're able to film in some lush locations, such as Cape Town and Boulder's Beach, in South Africa. For you, the director does a slashed budget become a real limitation, or does it simply open up your creativity and require you to think more outside the box?


SF:  What happened...when you talked about the U.S. dollar, the budget was smaller. South Africa, at the time was very, very, very cheap labor compared to the dollar. It was right at the end of Apartheid. The money of South Africa was still banned all over the world. The exchange rate between the dollar and the Rand was so huge that for us...like the workers, the local crew, they were paid well in South Africa terms. For us, in our terms, they were paid like $80 a week. So they were good. That's the reason why we consider the budget very low. It was still eight weeks. We were shooting eight weeks. We were shooting with two units. We had two camera units. We had everything we wanted. We had a very good art director who built most of the sets. He was a great art director. After this, he did the movie Stargate.Great art director. He built a lot of sets. Whatever he needed they gave him. There is one scene with, like, three hundred ninjas in this arena. I didn't feel a limitation whatsoever. The only limitation was that we were so far from a filming center. Here we are in Hollywood in Los Angeles. You're in Phoenix, Arizona. Whatever you need can fly from Los Angeles. Equipment-wise, crew member, specialists, anything. They come in one day. In Phoenix Arizona, we needed one guy. A special stuntman to flip a motorcycle. Thus, our stunt coordinator, Steve. He called Robbie Knievel, Evel Knievel’s son. He comes from Los Angeles to do one flip of a motorcycle. In South Africa, we were so far from any filming center in the world. So, this is, the only problem. 


KN: Does that make communication a problem? Communicating with studio heads?SF: No, no. The way it worked in South Africa, it was the beginning of the company that today is called Nu Image. Cannon struck a deal with the company. At the time, they were called New Metro. It was a production company in South Africa, and distribution...exhibition theater. They have a lot of movie theaters. New Metro provided all the services. Today it is called Nu Image Millennium (Editor’s note: Millennium Films is a subsidiary production arm). There was a company. There was somebody to deal with so we didn't have to deal with Cannon at all. Everything went through this company. Whatever we needed. I knew the head of the company, Avi Lerner. So we were going through them for whatever we needed. And we brought enough people with us from Los Angeles. The head stuntman B.J. Davis and the stunt coordinator Mike Stone came with us from Los Angeles to South Africa. The wardrobe came. The cameraman came from here. The cinematographer. So we had enough people from here and from the local movie, television crew, technical crew and including actors. Some excellent actors in the movie. Most of the actors are South African in the movie. Let me tell you about the popularity because you were already talking about it earlier. As I mentioned, it was kind of the end of Apartheid when we were there. Mandela was not yet in power. Steve James was worried. I was there already. Steve called to me in South Africa and said “How is the atmosphere? You know, I'm black and I'm coming to South Africa.” So I told him you know, it’s kind of the end of the apartheid. They don't keep the rules anymore. Anyway, all those Apartheid rules don't apply to visitors and foreigners. It's only for locals. Okay. Steve arrives, and Michael arrives. And let's say, in the weekend, we want to go to a market. We didn't know. Now, they were already huge stars in South Africa! We couldn't walk in the street with Michael and Steve! Especially Steve. Especially because it's in Africa. We are in Africa and Steve is a black American, African-American. He's huge! Steve is tall and big. Huge. His shoulders were….and we couldn't walk with him in the street! The children, everybody knew him! Apparently the movie American Ninja was already such a huge hit in South Africa, with the kids and in all the townships and everywhere. You couldn't walk with Steve in the street. So that's how popular it was already when we came to film Ninja II. To top this phenomenal success, of course it was a little bit less, like a sequel is always a little bit less than the original. 


KN: Michael Dudikoff has mentioned in interviews that there's a scene where he and Steve are to jump off of a boulder into the ocean at the end of the beach fight, and that it almost didn't happen because James whispered to him, right as they're about to do it,  that he couldn't swim. It also turned out that the stunt man who would replace him couldn't swim either. Can you corroborate? Did this moment require several takes? 


SF: The scene starts in the shallow water. First, they don't go to the boulder. They start in the shallow water, in a boat. They arrived in a boat. The motor of the speedboat doesn't work. Then they have to jump into the water. Steve told me right away. He said “Sam, you remember. I don't know how to swim, so be careful with me.” I said “of course. We are surrounded by stunt people. You know, we have all these stunt and safety people around. Don’t worry.” And we are in shallow water. No problem. In the boat, Steve was kind of little bit freaking in  the boat that maybe the boat will capsize or something. I said “Steve, we’re surrounded by stunt people, by safety people. You fall in the water, they will come get you out.” Now it comes to jump from the boulder into much deeper water. He’s not going to do it. He cannot swim to the other side. But this is Africa. We had enough doubles. No problem. Stunt people. We are in Africa. There was another guy. Apparently, he didn't know how to swim, but he was a stuntman. He said “okay, they will save me. I don't care.” 


KN: I get a smile on my face because I'm thinking, according to the story that I read is that not only did Steve say that he can't swim but the first stunt guy that you asked to step in for him said he also can't swim. It seemed as if  you had to go through two or three or four stunt guys.

SF: There is an interesting phenomena in Africa. Africans, domestic, local, native Africans who don't live around the shores. They don't know how to swim. Most of them. I don't want to generalize. Nowadays it maybe different. When we were filming, not at the time but later, Nu Image they were...Avi Lerner...you know he likes real estate. He buys and sells. He bought a water park at one point in Johannesburg. The water park went bust because nobody came. They don't know how to swim. So the water park doesn't work. I'm sure there are fishermen and people living along the shores and other parts of Africa that I'm sure know how to swim. Inland they don't know how to. Eventually we found the local stuntman who did the jump. Funnier than this was the motorcycle jump in American Ninja. We had five different motorcycle guys. Came one after the other. They took the motorcycle all the way to the fence and they didn't do it. This is the beginning sequence. Two motorcycles are chasing the ninja. Eventually Steve, Steve Lambert, the stuntman, our stuntman said “okay, the hell with it. I'm just going to do it.” Steve Lambert did the jump in American in the Philippines? There was no motorcycle guy who was really brave enough to really go through it. Nowadays, with blue screen etc,  nobody will jump from a real motorcycle from such a huge height to the other side of the fence. Back then, we did everything mechanically. We did everything physically. 

KN: For your last project of the decade, sir, I present the last question. Steve James gets the headlining gig in a movie called River Bend, which I saw as a gut punch actioner. It's got a strong vibe on racial strife and those involved, who are driven to extremes as they fight on each side. It's a very racially divisive movie. It's a study of basic human rights being oppressed. You also have the terrific Margaret Avery, still fresh from her game-changing performance just a few years earlier in Spielberg's The Color Purple, co-starring with James as the iron-willed heroine Belle Coleman? Was this a film where you were trying to present a statement about race relations on top of the fights and the derring-do? 


SF: I'm not a writer. So, this is an important point. It was written by Samuel Vance. He was one of the producers. He wrote the script. He’s a black producer. The script was his idea. Saying that, in the movie Avenging Force Steve James has to die. His character dies. He falls into the fire in the house. Steve hated the idea. Steve wanted to be the new Shaft. He wanted to be the New black American hero. So, you know, in American Ninja, always heroic. Here, the script called for him to die. He hated it. He hated it so much. He said “You owe me. Sam, you owe me. I'm doing it for you.” Okay. One day, years later, I'm approached by independent producers with this script because I knew Steve James. They wanted Steve James and they gave me the script. I read the script, I flipped over it. Now, it was a huge script. Usually our scripts are ninety pages to a hundred and twenty pages. This was like two hundred pages with a huge story. Huge script. I grew up watching this cinema even when I was a kid in Israel, later on here in America when I was a teenager. To Kill a Mockingbird. I saw all of these racial inequality movies that affected us very strongly. We grew up in a socialist country. Everybody equal. Everybody. Of course, we studied. We saw movies like Tom Sawyer. We read the books. We studied about Civil War, about slavery in school. It was a big deal, us being raised in a socialist atmosphere. And here, I'm getting this script that not only deals with a subject that is very interesting to me personally, but it's a reverse. The ending is surprising. It's reverse discrimination. It turned to a point that the black minority are imprisoning the white majority in this imaginary script by Sam. Yeah, so I was taken immediately. I really wanted to do this movie. I was lucky that they hired me to direct this movie. We worked in Texas, who is kind of, you know, a prejudice state. We were shooting in small towns. The story is not (set) in Texas. The story takes place in Alabama, one of the deep south states. The producer was from Texas. He insisted on us shooting into Texas. It has the same look. There are many small towns. Small, little places in Texas that have the look of the deep south. We didn't encounter the major discrimination like in the South, the bigotry. Still, in this small, little place that we were shooting, around Waxahachie and DeSoto, Texas. And the crew was all white. You cannot...you don't get black crews in Texas. The entire crew white. Almost the entire cast is black. A very interesting Dynamic. The guy who played the sheriff as a mean bastard was a sweetheart. Tony. He was a sweetheart of a guy, you know? Totally sweet and nice, and not bigoted at all. The whole dynamic was interesting. It was good atmosphere on the set. Very good. Excellent. You were mentioning Margaret Avery. It was an honor to work with Margaret Avery. Later on, I worked with Eric Roberts. Two actors which are really transformation actors. John P. Ryan also. They are one person before you call action. They are totally….she's a totally different person the minute I call action. Total psychological transformation as great, actors are. And cut, she's back to Margaret Avery. Not the character. So, really a pleasure to work with this level of actors. We had a good cast because in Texas, once we were in Texas, once you're away from Hollywood….in Hollywood, to get the better actors. they are more expensive. That wasn't such the case in Texas. We got the best theater actors, the best television actors. Really the best of the best in this movie. The only people who came with us from here (Hollywood) are Margaret and Steve. All the rest are local Texan actors, from Dallas, from Austin, from Houston.  As I ruminate one final time on the career and work life of Sam Firstenberg, I think I will take a stab at the dreaded hot take trend. Sam Firstenberg encapsulates the essence of the 1980s filmmaker as no other could. He tackled even the most bizarre of hybrid genre mashups and gave them his own unique spin, replete with dizzying action, game actors and talent behind the scenes, and an innate ability to make the patently absurd story at least somewhat coherent. For bringing me into the world of ninjas both Asian and American, dancers, demonic possession, break-dancing and Michael Dudikoff, I owe Sam Firstenberg my ever-lasting gratitude.




Kevin Nickelson


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