KRISTANNA LOKEN ON 'BLACK ROSE'

Kristanna Loken is best known as the female Terminator (aka T-X) in TERMINATOR 3: RISE OF THE MACHINES (2003). She is also an experienced model and actress, making her modelling and acting debut in 1994, at the age of 14. Her first role was as Meg Ryan's daughter in the long-running TV series As the World Turns, and prior to T3 she was a regular on the Mortal Kombat: Conquest TV series and appeared in the movie GANGLAND (2001) and PANIC (2002). Since T3 Loken has worked regularly in film and on TV, expanding her range as an actress on projects like the TV series The L Word and Painkiller Jane, and the indie drama LIME SALTED LOVE (2006), whilst also cementing her status as an action heroine in films such as BLOODRAYNE (2005), IN THE NAME OF THE KING (2007), and MERCENARIES (2014). I spoke with Loken about her new release, the thriller BLACK ROSE, in which she plays a cop who has to team up with a Russian Police Major (played by new action star Alexander Nevsky) to hunt down a serial killer preying on women. We also talked about how having a young child affected her experience making the movie, her experiences on TERMINATOR 3, how she enjoys action roles and how she has navigated her career since starting so young.
     
What was the most challenging aspect of playing your role in BLACK ROSE?
To help better understand losing the victims and what they, themselves were going through, I watched actual female beheading videos. This was extremely painful and difficult.

What gave you the most fun?
I really enjoyed shooting the film in Moscow, and getting to experience Russian culture. My father was there with me, and this was very special.

Given that you are now a mother, did the subject matter of BLACK ROSE affect you more deeply than it might have before you became a mother?
Yes, I think death itself has more gravity than before. I keep thinking that this is someones child. My whole awareness of humanity has deepened.

How did you enjoy working with Alexander Nevsky?
Alexander is a wonderful man, a true gentleman and now a good friend.

One of Alexander's heroes is Arnold Schwarzenegger. What did you learn from the experience of working with Schwarzenegger on TERMINATOR 3?
Arnold is very gracious with his fans, a jokester on set, and I learned a lot about shooting fight scenes.

How did you prepare to play a robot in the film?
I did extensive training. I studied Israeli martial arts called Krav Maga, weapons training with the LAPD to get comfortable with the Smith & Wesson .45, weight training, I worked with a nutritionist to help achieve the best physical fitness possible (I put on 15lbs. of muscle mass), and the icing on the cake was working with a mime coach to help eliminate any human traits.

Did TERMINATOR 3 instill in you an interest in playing empowered females, like you have in films like BLOODRAYNE, and MERCENARIES?
 I think strong, female roles work well with who and how I am. My physical stature (I’m nearly 6’), I have a deeper voice, and I grew up on a farm and have always liked getting down and dirty.

Do you enjoy the challenge of making physically demanding action films?
Yes, I do. "No pain, no gain” There is something rewarding about getting a "battle bruise” or feeling a little stiff the next day. I feel like I’ve really done something.

Has the experience of being a model and an actress from an early age given you a mental edge in the world of Hollywood? By the time of T3 did you feel you had already learned a lot about that world?
Yes, In many ways I had learned a lot by the time I did T3 as far as navigating the world as a young professional in front of the camera. However, it wasn’t until after T3 and the years that followed that I really saw a whole other side of the business that one can only gain knowledge from by experiencing.

Which of your co-stars before T3 did you take advice from and observe closely?
There were a number of people. Someone who really sticks out in my mind is Barbra Streisand. I played James Brolin’s daughter on a TV series called Pensacola: Wings of Gold. James is married to Barbra and I met her on a few occasions and she gave me great advice like you would receive from a dear Aunt.

What advice would you give to actresses just starting out and trying to build a career?
Believe in yourself, work hard at being the best you can be from the inside out. Keep your eyes open and pay attention around you.

What are some of your other upcoming projects?
I have started a production company called, Trio Entertainment. We have 10 films on our slate and a TV series. Think of Trio as an Independent studio of sorts. I am very excited to be producing more of my own content, and be in front of and behind the camera. I’d like to direct as well. 

BLACK ROSE can be seen at all Redbox locations across the United States.  

The trailer to BLACK ROSE.

MiL's interview with Alexander Nevsky on BLACK ROSE.
 
Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

AN INTERVIEW WITH JINO KANG

Jino Kang is an accomplished martial artist, holding Black Belts in Hapkido, Kyokushin-Kai Karate, Tae Kwondo and Gracie Jujitsu, and has been the Grand Master of his own Hapkido school in California since 1981. A lifelong fan of martial arts and samurai movies, Kang got involved in martial arts movies through circumstance in the late 80s, directing, producing, writing and being the lead actor in the independently financed BLADE WARRIOR in 2001, and following it up with FIST 2 FIST (2011) and his latest release FIST 2 FIST 2: WEAPON OF CHOICE (2014). I talked with Kang about his childhood in South Korea, moving to the States in the 70s, his love of Hapkido, the road to becoming a filmmaker, and the journey he is currently on as a filmmaker.      

What was your childhood like in South Korea? 
I don't remember too much of it because I came over to the States when I was 10, but it was a quite interesting childhood. I remember being 4 years old and being woken up to the sounds of people training at my Dad and Uncle's martial arts school, where my father was a Grand Master in Hapkido. They would get me dressed in my uniform and I would join in the training. That is the fondest memory I have of my childhood. I also remember that the elementary schools were tough in Korea. The corporal punishment was for real. I used to get beat all the time because I was always late.

What prompted your family to move to San Francisco? 
That was my father's idea. In the Korean War, he was given a Wrigley's Chewing Gum by a soldier, and we didn't have anything like that in Korea at the time. When he put the gum in his mouth and tasted it, he thought it was the best thing he had ever tasted. It was at that moment he decided that, when he was ready, he was going to go to the United States.

It must have been a culture shock for you coming to the States from Korea. 
Yeah, it was really tough. I didn't know the language. Back then there wasn't really any ESL program, and it took me a long time to understand what was going on. I was definitely ahead in Math, but not in English or Comprehension. Plus, back then there weren't many Koreans or even Asians in San Francisco. If we ran into a Korean on the street, we would be so happy.

What were some of your first impressions of the country? 
Typically Americans don't realise how good they have it. It's such a privilege to live here. It's a free country. Korea is supposed to be a free country but it isn't. It's very regulated and it's very authoritarian. I'm so glad my Dad took that piece of chewing gum! I will always be appreciative of all the things that come with living here.
 
Did you fall in love with Hapkido at a very early age? 
It was bred into me by my father and he continued to teach it to me when we came to the States. He taught me at home until he got a school in 1981.

What do you love the most about Hapkido? 
I love everything about it. It's so comprehensive and eclectic. It borrows from aikido, judo and jujitsu, so you have those strong joint locks and throws. We also incorporate the kicks and strikes from karate and tae kwon do. You also have the long distance weaponry using your hands and feet, and then if you're in a grappling situation, you can learn how to throw, and use joint locks for self defence and so on. The only thing missing is the ground aspect.

What does the discipline of hapkido bring to you? 
It really taught me discipline. It forces you to practice when you really don't want to, and you get from it a mental discipline that pushes you forward. In martial arts, if you don't best yourself, you get left behind. It teaches you to finish what you started. It's a very good goal-setting discipline. It also makes you feel good that you can take care of yourself if you have to. I train every day for that reason. I mean, look at the news. It's crazy.

Growing up as a teenager in the States, did you fall in love with movies? 
My father used to take me to all the Kurosawa samurai movies in Korea, and I loved them. When we came to the States there was a proliferation of kung-fu movies at that time, including the Bruce Lee movies and stuff like FIVE FINGERS OF DEATH (1972). When I was 12 or 13 I would go to Chinatown and watch all the movies, and in Chinese. I didn't speak Chinese but I would get the gist from the fight scenes!

What was your goal after graduating high school? Did you want to be a Grand Master like your father, or become a filmmaker? 
Filmmaking was not on my mind. My goal was to open up a school. My father didn't want me to do it until I was old enough. After graduation I stuck around local junior college for a bit, and then when I turned 21 my father said ''OK, I think it's time for you to open up a school. But first, I want you to go out and get a black belt in another style. '' So I started studying karate, and in less than a year I got my black belt. In 1981 I opened up my own school, and in 1988 we moved out of San Francisco and we have been pretty successful.

How did the idea to start making films come along? 
In junior high school, a bunch of my martial arts friends and I would run around with Super 8 cameras and we would make little films. Whoever had the film would be the star of the film, and get to beat everybody up. They were fun times. This may have planted the seed, but it wasn't until 1988 or 89 that I started thinking of making films. Grand Master Leo Fong and Ron Marchini had a martial arts tournament and the winner got a part in a movie, which ironically was named WEAPON OF CHOICE. The film never got distribution, and I thought to myself ''One day I'm going to use that title!'' My part in that film was a FBI agent named Josh. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed the process of making a movie and I got to choreograph my own fight scenes. I thought ''I can really do this. '' A few years later I enrolled in a college in Marin and they had a great film program there. We actually did everything on film, not digital. I wrote my first screenplay and we shot the first ten minutes of it at the school. It took us a few years after that to get the film finished because it's all expensive. The film was called BLADE WARRIOR (2001).  The film is currently out of circulation and I may bring it back once I redesign the sound.

When you created your own persona as an actor in your films, what other actors were you thinking of? 
I'd have to say Toshiro Mifune, who is one of my deepest heroes. That cool, calm, anti-hero type.

How much is there of you in your screen persona? 
It's pretty close to me, except I am much funnier! If you put me in a sparring match, I am the guy I am onscreen. I keep fighting until my opponent submits.

Is it important to you to have strong roles for women in your films? 
In my other films, I guess I didn't see it as important at the time, but on WEAPON OF CHOICE I made a conscious choice to have strong female characters like Jaime, played by Kelly Lou Dennis, and Ash, played by Katherine Celio. I hoped it would make females at home feel empowered and want to fight like them.

Do you like to have ensemble casts? You don't overly dominate your films like some action stars do. 
Yes, it was important for me to tell a story involving multiple characters who developed during the course of the film, and I enjoy sharing the films with other actors.

Are there any particular action-oriented stars you'd like to collaborate with? 
Gina Carano would be great, as would Ronda Rousey, and guys like Michael Jai White and Scott Atkins. I'd love to work with Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren too.

What are the main challenges of making your films independently? 
Apart from getting enough money, it's getting the right actors and getting the films to the right audience, to the people who would really enjoy them. You just have to focus on delivering the goods each time and make the best film you can with the money you have.

Was the finale to your latest film, WEAPON OF CHOICE, a conscious homage to GAME OF DEATH (1978)?
Yes it was, except in place of a five-storey tower we had a warehouse. I liked the idea of the opponents getting stronger and stronger the further I made my way through the warehouse. I also wanted to bring in fighters with different kinds of fighting styles, and build up the climax to the end fight with two master swordsmen.

What mix of actors and martial artists did you use in the fight scenes? 
The only actors that I used in the fight scenes were Katherine Celio and Kelly Lou Dennis. They trained for four months. It's generally really tough to train an actor because you would have to have a body double. Most of the fighters were local martial artists. 

As a martial artist you are continually setting yourself new goals. What are your goals as a filmmaker? 
I feel like I'm learning all the time, and getting better. My goal is to have higher budgets, more shoot days, have more well-laid out and detailed fight scenes and so on. 

What kind of films do you like to watch? 
I pretty much like everything but I love action films obviously. Recently I loved the two JOHN WICK films. I love Beat Takeshi's crime films and the Korean crime dramas. I love the new Indonesian crime films, and French films. They aren't formulaic, and they are so original. 

Kang's website.  

FIST 2 FIST 2: WEAPON OF CHOICE is available digitally and on DVD through Amazon, I-Tunes, Google, Vudu and XBox, and will be premiering on The Fight Channel in the UK in the summer. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

KEVIN ALLEN ON 'TWIN TOWN'

Kevin Allen is the director of the irreverent comedy thriller TWIN TOWN (1997), the Hollywood satire THE BIG TEASE (1999), the action comedy AGENT CODY BANKS 2: DESTINATION LONDON (2004), and the drama UNDER MILK WOOD (2015), based on the Dylan Thomas play. Allen has also directed episodes of the acclaimed TV series Benidorm and TV documentaries that uncovered corruption in sports and in the Glasgow Crime Squad, as well as being an actor on TV in shows such as The Thin Blue Line and The Comic Strip. Allen also acted on stage in Ben Elton's Silly Cow opposite Dawn French, and opposite Diana Rigg in Howard Brenton's Berlin Bertie, directed by Danny Boyle. With TWIN TOWN celebrating its twentieth anniversary and a sequel soon to enter production, I spoke to Allen about the making of the film.
 
TWIN TOWN was inspired by your TV documentary about the Glasgow ice cream wars and the corruption of the Glasgow police department. What made you decide to make a comedy out of the material? 
I had also made documentaries about the corruption behind sports, so I knew the kind of things that were going on, but it was scary learning how bent and out of control the Glasgow Crime Squad was. A lot of the time, you couldn't tell who was a cop and who was a villain. It was a real eye-opener for me. It felt like a good landscape to have a crack at a feature film, but I didn't want to do a Ken Loach film, and telling a story like that as a comedy would be more accessible and wider reaching. When we released the film we did a global junket and it was the post-Communist Eastern Bloc countries whose journalists saw the politics in the film more than any other country. They were used to having to shroud serious issues in comedies through the medium of film. That was an interesting realisation. I never want to just make comedies that don't have anything in them. It's quite a dark film really. It's got a fairly unorthodox structure and is a film of two halves. I wanted to lull the audience in with a comedy and then hit them on the head with a baseball bat with the nihilism of the second half.

Was the decision to set it in Swansea an early decision? 
I seriously considered Bristol at one point, and Southampton and Portsmouth. I was brought up a lot in Swansea so it just felt right to set the film there. When people think TWIN TOWN is a film about Swansea, they couldn't be more wrong. It could be any city in the UK. Having said that, the film does have an authentic Swansea feel.

In the process of writing it and making it did you come to any conclusions about your relationship with Swansea? 
I kind of knew Swansea really well, although I had been away for a bit in London. The Bryn Cartwright character, for example, was an amalgam of about five villains I knew quite well as a teenager through my parents, who were in the restaurant game and came across such people. They were just old school fucking bent idiots, who were in the city council and ran nightclubs and casinos.

What elements did Paul Durden, the co-writer, bring? 
Sleep, a lot of sleep! He likes to doze. He was terrific when you could keep him awake! Paul was the great cynical man about town. He was a great sounding board. He had lived in Swansea his whole life and he was great for anecdotal references. He had great little stories that came ideas.

The villains in TWIN TOWN are pretty dangerous and corrupt but they're also funny because they're really not that smart. 
I think the film is more Bryn's film than the twins' film to be honest. He is the idiot villain that you kind of love! He's such an idiot and funny with it. These sorts of villains, though, have obviously become more dangerous nowadays. It's a whole new thing now. The likes of Bryn couldn't survive in the environment we currently have.

Do you still feel the film is an 'acid love letter to Swansea' as you said at the time? 
Absolutely! In the same way that UNDER MILK WOOD has an acerbic, love/ hate relationship with its roots. Swansea isn't perfect, but that is what I like about it. I fucking hate the place sometimes, but then other times I really love it. It's like anybody's hometown, I guess. It would be shit living in paradise, wouldn't it? You don't get punk music on the Maltese Coast, do you?

Would you agree with Dylan Thomas that Swansea is an 'ugly, lovely town'? 
Yeah, and as we say in the film 'a pretty, shitty city'. We're actually going to use those taglines in our bid for Swansea to become a City of Culture in 2021.

Was Hot Dog the proposed title for the film for a long period? 
No, not for long at all. Pretty Shitty City was the favorite before we decided on TWIN TOWN. It would have been a great title but the distributors wouldn't have it.

Danny Boyle
Danny Boyle was an executive producer on TWIN TOWN with Andrew Macdonald. You first met Boyle when you worked with him in the theatre. What was your experience like? 
He was an excellent theatre director, very good technically. As a person he can be a little remote and cold. We did a Howard Brenton play called Berlin Bertie at the Royal Court, with Diana Rigg. Brenton was one of the last bastions of left-wing writing. He worked with David Hare. I loathed the Royal Court, to be honest. I had just done a play at the Haymarket with Dawn French. That play was for people who had never been to the theatre before and would sit there watching with a box of Maltesers. I loved it. The Royal Court was just bourgeouis bullshit, and the play we did was rubbish. Funnily enough, the right-wing press loved the play and the left-wing press hated it!

How did Boyle and Macdonald get involved? 
I knew Andrew Macdonald, and he really liked the script. He was partners with Danny obviously, and Andrew got me the deal with Polygram, with whom they had a strong relationship. Danny and Andrew were making A LIFE LESS ORDINARY in America at the time.

You had a small role in TRAINSPOTTING. Do you have any strong memories of working on the film? 
It was just a lark, going up to Edinburgh. It was like any other movie set, any other little indie film where you worked for a day. ''Just stand over there. '' Nobody had any conception of what TRAINSPOTTING was going to be. We were all mates, so they didn't have to pay me!

Did Danny Boyle give you any directing advice? 
He told me ''Everything cuts, and don't let anyone tell you any different. '' Also, ''Don't watch any TV when you're prepping a movie. Watch classic movies. '' I always give this advice to other filmmakers. TV is really poisonous film language. And he also said ''Always try to think on a big, fluid scale. '' I've always tried to do that.

How was adapting to directing a feature film after directing documentaries? 
We were incredibly well prepped, which is everything, and because I had already made quite a few documentaries, everything wasn't that new to me. As a theatre actor I had been in front of 3, 000 people for seven months so I knew how to perform in front of an audience. Directing is a bit like that. You're performing in a way. I had a passion to direct films, and I really thrive on it. I love the collaboration element of directing, the challenge of needing to have good communication skills. I learned a lot on TWIN TOWN. Bloody hell. I always thought I was more of a performance-based director, but I actually think I am more of a visual director now.

What was the shoot like? Was it a happy set? 
Unbelievably happy, yeah. There was amazing energy, and it is reflected in the film. Everybody worked hard and played hard, just at the right level. The energy has to come from the front, and generally, crews will do anything for you if you're nice about it, and I'm not a shouter. It was a really fun shoot.

What films or filmmakers had an influence on the film? 
Not many really, although there are references to Kubrick, Coppola, De Palma, Lynch, and British gangster films. I suppose there's a Spaghetti Western feel to it, because there's definitely a Morricone pastiche going on there with the music.

Did you enjoy creating the imaginative deaths for the villains? 
All I remember is wondering how far I could push everything in terms of their nihilistic flourishes. The film wasn't for everyone. The best review was from Alexander Walker at The Evening Standard. I really should have framed it and put it in my toilet. His review was a classic. It was so deeply scathing that it had a brilliance about it. He finished the review with something like ''If this is the future of British film, I'd rather see it die. ''I found out many years later that he actually lived in a flat below one of my best mates in Maida Vale. I always fancied putting a turd through his letterbox with some reference to TWIN TOWN that would have made him think ''Who the hell did this?''

They should have put that quote on the poster! 
I know! If Polygram had had the guts to do that it would have been amazing. As it was, they only went half way with their campaign. If they had pushed this idea of the film putting two fingers up to Hollywood to the limit, it would have pre-empted a lot of bullshit. Danny and Andrew were due for a backlash anyway, and Polygram's campaign copying TRAINSPOTTING just made it worse, and turned journalists against us even more. The posters made me want to puke. TWIN TOWN was never a film you could market on a platform release. That was insane. They could have done it so much more cleverly.

With the unique tone you were aiming to achieve, did the editing and the fine tuning of the soundtrack take time? 
No, it was eight weeks, with no hitches. We finished it in time for Sundance. I used the composer Mark Thomas, who was fantastic and really pushed the boat out. I have used him on everything I have done since. He's from Swansea and we have a very close working relationship. He had to call in a lot of favors to get the Royal Philharmonic to do the nice, big orchestrations. I have tried to maintain that standard on all the things I do. I never skimp on music and sound production.

Was it hard to find actors to play the twins? 
Yes, it was. It was quite a hunt as you can imagine. I remember the Evans brothers (Rhys and Llyr) coming to see me in Notting Hill a second time and they had been to a charity shop and bought identical shirts, which was a nice touch. They were great.

Was there much improvising from them in the film? 
No, I never allow any improvising or paraphrasing. The language is like music to me. If something isn't quite working in rehearsals, I might allow improvising and write it into the script.

Was Dougray Scott at all influenced by Liam Gallagher in his performance? 
I've never realised that there is a sort of Liam thing going on there, but I really don't know if he was influenced or not. I auditioned the likes of Tom Hollander, Michael Sheen, and Richard Harrington, who were all trying to break at the time, and have since broken. Hollander was good but I didn't think the London accent was a good fit. And then Dougray came in and I thought there was something about having a Glaswegian in Wales, a Jock in Taffland.

How did your brother Keith Allen's cameo come about? 
He came in for a day, and he got to Swansea from Manchester by the skin of his teeth. When I look back, his part was the least prepared and to me it sticks out a little bit out of pattern. It's a little over the top. But we had no time to rehearse, and we had limited time.

How did you feel about the Welsh BAFTA for Best Original Music? 
Oh, don't get me going! I couldn't care less about the Welsh BAFTAs. It's all politics. It used to be just a piss-up years ago but now it takes itself really seriously. We should have gotten more nominations, but the Welsh establishment and the Welsh Nationalists didn't know what to think of the film. I would get into fist fights with people over it. They would accuse me of taking the piss out of Welsh culture.

After twenty years, how do you feel about the legacy of TWIN TOWN? 
It's lived on. People always want to talk to me about it. It's weird how some people know every single line. It took a while for it to get accepted here in Swansea but now I come across the straightest people who like it. I'm surprised how it spans across the generations and classes.

What can you say about the sequel you are working on, TIN TOWN? 
It's more of a companion piece than a sequel. The twins come back. Bryn (William Thomas) is back from his hanging. It's more political than the first one. Strangely, it's more uplifting and not nihilistic. It's sort of a surreal Ealing comedy, but still dark. It's very funny and more commercial. I think we have managed to come up with something that will satisfy fans of the original and appeal to an older, straighter audience as well. We aim to start shooting next month. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

AN INTERVIEW WITH SAM FIRSTENBERG (PART 2 OF 2)

Sam Firstenberg is the director of such cult action favorites as REVENGE OF THE NINJA (1983), NINJA III: THE DOMINATION (1984), AMERICAN NINJA (1985), AVENGING FORCE (1986), and AMERICAN NINJA 2: THE CONFRONTATION (1987), as well as the hit musical BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO (1984), all produced by Cannon Films. With interest in the output of Cannon growing and with the forthcoming publication of the interview book Stories from the Trenches: The Official Sam Firstenberg Book (written by Marco Siedelmann, and part of a Kickstarter campaign), in the second part of our interview I spoke to Firstenberg about the challenge of having to quickly learn about martial arts when he took on REVENGE OF THE NINJA, whether future action stars have easily identifiable qualities, what he enjoys the most about making action films, what was his toughest shoot,  how he feels about the way low-budget action films are received by critics, and how he himself feels about his legacy as a filmmaker.  

Part one of the interview.
Firstenberg and Kosugi 
When you made REVENGE OF THE NINJA, you knew very little about martial arts. Was it fun having to do a crash course to find out all you could? 
All I knew about was samurai movies, from the films of Akira Kurosawa. I had never even seen a Hong Kong kung-fu movie until Sho Kosugi, who is a master of martial arts, showed me some of them and educated me about the world of martial arts, especially the world of ninjutsu, which was the topic of the movie we were making. He took me to his dojo in the Japanese section in L.A., and I watched him practice with his students, studying the choreography. When Sho was performing the moves it was so beautiful. I didn't have to go in to the disciplines of the martial arts, because I was just making a movie, but it was fascinating and fun learning from Sho.

Michael Dudikoff, for example, became a big star in your movies. Do you think there are very easily identifiable qualities that future action stars have? 
I will tell you the truth. There is no formula. If there was, many people would be millionaires! Both Richard Norton and Michael Dudikoff became action stars but for some reason that you can't put your finger on, Michael became bigger. Van Damme became even bigger. You shoot your star and when the film is projected on a screen, his face is 8 feet big and every nuance or line on his face is magnified. It is the secret of cinema why one actor is Brad Pitt and why another actor isn't. But when you saw Brad Pitt in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), everybody knew this guy was a movie star. Michael Dudikoff has a James Dean kind of charisma onscreen. He's the reluctant hero or the guy with the chip on his shoulder with something in his past.

Dudikoff and Firstenberg
What do you enjoy the most about making action films? 
What I find the most exciting about action is that it takes you back to silent cinema. Action scenes are like mini-films with no dialogue. It's a cinematic challenge that I love. The script usually only outlines the action scenes in broad terms. I have to build the scene with the second unit director and the stunt co-ordinator and also with the effects guys because of the mechanical and technical issues. There are hundreds of logistical and technical problems that have to be resolved on the set. Action scenes are of course shot one piece at a time so it is the director's responsibility to make sure that when all the footage is put together, it makes sense and is compelling and exciting. This is challenging because the director has to keep all the information in his brain and things are constantly changing because things don't always work the way you want them to work. On one movie Michael got hit on the head with an aluminium sword and was out for two days, and we quickly had to decide what we were going to shoot instead.

Steve James, Dudikoff and Firstenberg on the set of AMERICAN NINJA.
What was the toughest or most physically gruelling shoot for you? 
The toughest movie was AVENGING FORCE. We had a scene where we recreated the Mardi Gras parade. We had 3, 000 extras, 7 or 9 cameras, many assistant directors. Also, a lot of our action took place in the swamps of Louisiana, and for some crazy reason I insisted there would be rain, so we had rain machines. The whole cast and crew, including myself, were standing up to our knees in water and there were alligators and snakes around, and a rain machine dropping rain all over us. The actors and the stunt doubles were doing fight scenes in these conditions. We were there for days and days because a good twenty minutes of the movie is set in the swamps. When the real rain came, the tracks would fall into the mud. It was as you said, physically gruelling. On top of all this, it was a one and a half hour drive from the hotel just to get to the swamp, so each day would be 3 hours sitting on a bus as well as a 12 hour shoot.

Cast and crew of AMERICAN NINJA. 
How do you feel about the way action films are received by critics? 
As cinema has developed, drama has come to be the elite genre of film. When you look at the pyramid of cinema, it is always at the top. Serious topics, serious acting. Below you have all kinds of different genres – comedies and musicals, for example, and at the bottom of the pyramid are horror movies and action movies. Action movies can be serious movies, like FIRST BLOOD (1982) or AMERICAN SNIPER (2014), for example. Underneath these kinds of films, but above porno, are low-budget action or horror movies. It is just the way it is.

How do you feel about your legacy as a filmmaker?
When I started I didn't know that I was going to become a filmmaker associated with action movies. 35 years later I can look back at my career and see that some of my movies brought excitement and enjoyment to millions of people around the world. I always thought I'd eventually graduate to Hollywood studio movies and $80 million budgets and five month shoots, but it didn't happen. I stayed in the low-budget sector and became synonymous with low-budget action movies, as did the likes of Albert Pyun, Steve Carver and many others. I'm older and wiser now and I can see that I achieved what I set out to do in the beginning – I told stories that allowed millions of people, admittedly mostly males, to be transported from their everyday reality to a fantasy world and I gave them a form of escapism. I get emails sometimes from people who tell me that some of my films transformed their lives – that they took up martial arts and learned discipline because of the films and that they feel that they otherwise might have ended up being criminals. Or they tell me that the films made them decide to become filmmakers themselves. I am happy with my legacy. I am in a better place historically than some other directors, who have disappeared and aren't talked about anymore.

Stories from the Trenches cover. 
How did you feel about the prospect of having a book written about you? 
In the 80s and 90s there was a boom in low-budget 'B' movies, but the films have been ignored by people writing about the history of Hollywood. These films had their own style and their own look and were enjoyed by many many people at the time. This has bothered me for a long time. I was hoping someone would write a book or make a documentary about this period. Recently, it has been happening, with the Cannon documentaries and David Moore's book about action stars. I always had a good title for a book – Stories from the Trenches. Making low-budget movies is definitely harder than making big-budget action movies. It's a struggle. I tried my hand here and there writing my autobiography but I always gave up. Then suddenly I got a call from Marco Siedelmann in Germany who wanted to write a book about Cannon. He had already written a book about the Shapiro/ Glickenhaus company, who made films in the 80s and 90s with even lower budgets than Cannon. When we began talking he realised the wealth of material I had and he decided to focus the book on my films. I was thrilled to tell you the truth. The book is not only about me and the movies that I directed but also the era of low-budget action movies of the 80s and 90s that was fuelled by the home video boom. The reader will be able to learn about the films that were made, and how these films were financed and made and distributed. Hopefully the book will help this era get the recognition it deserves.

Firstenberg with a mask from REVENGE OF THE NINJA.
Has your life as a filmmaker changed you at all? 
Definitely. I may have ended up as an engineer, and not a storyteller. Every time you make a movie you are telling a different story with different people, different writers and in different parts of the world. It's amazing. I felt like I was just having fun. I have a T-shirt that says ''I didn't want to grow up, so I make movies. '' I was doing exactly what I wanted to do.

I remember one time on AMERICAN NINJA it was an off day and we were all sitting around the pool. Out of the corner of my eye, I suddenly saw a little girl was drowning in the pool, and that the lifeguard wasn't noticing it. I tapped Michael Dudikoff on the shoulder, and we jumped into the pool. The girl was already at the bottom when we dived. We brought her up to the surface and she was unconscious. We tried to resuscitate her but there was an American soldier there who was a medic and he managed to bring her back to life. This experience alone changed my life. And it would not have happened had I not been in Manila making a movie.

I didn't have any bad experiences. The process of making movies was always fun for me. I got to travel, meet new people and learn about new cultures. It felt like I was playing with my favorite toys and someone was paying me to do it. I'm a happy person, and filmmaking made me what I am. 

Photos courtesy of Sam Firstenberg. More material and photos can be seen on Firstenberg's website and on his Facebook page and Tales from the Movies photo album on his Facebook page. 

The Kickstarter campaign for the book Stories from the Trenches: The Official Sam Firstenberg Book ends on May 16th 2017. Please donate here. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.