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 first part of our interview I spoke to Firstenberg about his early love of cinema, moving to the States to study film and become a filmmaker, his early experiences working with Menahem Golan (Cannon's co-founder) and Andrew Davis, and the whirlwind ride of directing films for Cannon.

Growing up, what were some of the most memorable movies for you? 
I was born in Poland but I grew up outside the city of Jerusalem. My neighborhood had a local theater and I used to go and see a new double-bill every week as a kid. The most memorable films for me were the Westerns, but the film I remember the most vividly was the war film THE BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI (1957). The first film that I ever saw, as a kid, was BAMBI (1942). I must have been 5 or 6. I remember the fire sequence. I also liked private eye movies, musicals like THE KING AND I (1956), and Hollywood films in general. Once in a while the theater showed non-Hollywood movies like Italian or French or even Indian movies. I would come home and tell all the other kids on the block the story of the film I had just seen. I loved telling stories so much that at one point I made my own movie. I cut some pictures from a book and I glued them together in a strip with a box. I made a little window in the box and I rolled the pictures and told a story.

When did you start thinking about becoming a filmmaker? 
I grew up in the 50s and 60s and there was not a lot of information available about how to become a filmmaker. I had no idea how movies were put together. Most people thought movies were shot like a play in the theater – you start at scene number one and then you go and shoot the movie in sequence. I knew that I wanted to tell stories, and that through film was the way to do it. I loved the big screen and the moving images.

Directing BREAKIN' 2. 
It's mandatory to do military service in Israel. So after high school I did three years in the military. By the time I got out I was 21 years old. Though I had studied Electrical Engineering and received training, I knew I didn't want to pursue it as a career. At this time, anybody who wanted to learn how to become a filmmaker went to London or France to study how to do it. Very few people from Israel had studied film in the States. Menahem Golan had studied in New York, but he was one of the few. There was no film industry in Israel at that time. There were sporadic films here and there. The only person who was making movies was Menahem. It was not my goal to get involved with an industry that didn't exist, and I loved Hollywood movies. That's why I decided I was going to the States to study film.

When you arrived in the States from Israel was it much of a culture shock for you? 
Yes, definitely. America is so big, and the distances between places are unbelievable. Even today, with all the information people have about places, America is a big culture shock for foreigners. There's the amount of cars and the amount of food as well, and the prosperity. I came from a tiny place in Jerusalem. We didn't have that many products. Even our cars were really small. Most people were riding Vespas.
How long was the road to your first film, ONE MORE CHANCE? 
When I arrived in the US, it was 1972. I was in New York at first. I did a Bachelor's Degree, and then through meeting people, I became an assistant director and worked on many movies, some of them quite big. I made some short films. One of them was half an hour long and was shown on Israeli television. In 1979 I decided to do a Master's Degree because I was tired of being an AD. I was accepted in California and I was the oldest student on the course, and also the most experienced in film. As part of the thesis, students had to make a half hour movie. I was desperate to make a full-length movie and so I decided to try and turn the half-hour movie into a 90 minute movie. I teamed up with a fellow student, David Warmark, who is now a big-time producer, and I convinced the school that, with my experience, it would be a great idea to take some students and get them involved in making a movie. The school agreed and gave us the soundstage to use, and equipment. We worked on it for two or three semesters, one and a half years, shooting only on weekends, and we managed to shoot the whole script. Luckily the actors were loyal to us. We had John LaMotta as the lead, and Kirstie Alley making her first film.

How did you finance the movie?
Nowadays, it is much easier to make a movie. All you need is a video camera and a computer for editing, and this equipment is getting cheaper and cheaper. But we were shooting a movie on 16mm , and although the school was supplying the equipment, we had to buy our own film and pay to have it developed. David and I took all the money we got from student loans and used it to buy the negative. While we were developing the film I started to realise that we were not getting the bills from the lab, but we just kept developing and didn't say anything. When we had developed an hour of the film we finally got the bill. We didn't have any money because we had spent it all buying the negative and also food for the crew. At this point, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, whom I had worked for as an assistant director on previous films, had bought Cannon Films and had moved operations from New York to Los Angeles, which was where I was. So I went to them and told them that if they gave us money to finish the film and pay back the lab costs they could have the film for distribution. Luckily, they said yes. It was quite an adventure!

Golan and Firstenberg. 
What kind of person was Menahem Golan? 
He was a bigger than life character. Within his heart he was a storyteller. He was directing movies, he was directing theater, he was telling stories to reporters. He was also a bit of a megalomaniac. He felt that because he was telling a story it gave him the right to do anything he needed to do. Nothing would stand in his way. He worked very hard to make sure his name was associated with everything he was involved in. Even as a kid I remember that when he was making Hebrew language movies in Israel, his name was always above the title as if he was Spielberg or someone. So when you worked with him you had to accept that you were always going to be under his shadow. The nice thing about working with him was that if he believed in your talent, he would leave you alone to do your job. Every time he assigned me a project he didn't bother me, even if I was shooting in The phillipines or somewhere. He'd say ''Go and make your movie. '' He usually got involved in the last stages of the editing. If he ever came to the set, it was only as a guest. Then, if he spotted in the editing that the story wasn't working to his standards he'd just say ''OK, go out and shoot another week. I want a better ending. '' It was fantastic. On REVENGE OF THE NINJA we spent another week shooting a new ending because the original ending didn't work. On BREAKIN' 2: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO he gave me all the means I needed to finish the movie.

One of the things I quickly learned about him was that he would not allow any movie to be longer than 95 minutes. Which was eventually a good lesson. He'd say ''Keep cutting. Keep cutting. I need 95 minutes and not a minute more. '' Menahem was firstly really motivated by storytelling and making movies. And secondly by his own fame. Nothing would stop him. His nickname was 'Menahem the Bulldozer'.

Do you consider Golan to be a mentor? 
He was a mentor in that he gave me the chances. He didn't mentor me in the filmmaking sense. I was a student here in Hollywood in 1972. I met him at a party and I already knew his name because he was famous in Israel. He had just finished a movie called KAZABLAN (1973) in Israel and was shooting a gangster film in L.A. with Tony Curtis called LEPKE (1975). I asked him if I could come and work with him, and he accepted. This was my entry into the world of moviemaking. Of course at first I did the most lowly, menial jobs like moving chairs and serving coffee but I didn't care. I was next to the camera all the time. After about two or three films I asked him if I could be an assistant director, and he made me the second assistant director on a film called DIAMONDS (1975) with Robert Shaw and Richard Roundtree. I think he responded to me being enthusiastic and a hard worker, and later on he promoted me to first assistant director, where I was running the set. I would work on films that Menahem produced but didn't direct, so I also got to work with people like Boaz Davidson. Then, after taking ONE MORE CHANCE, he gave me the chance to direct my first real movie, which was REVENGE OF THE NINJA, the sequel to ENTER THE NINJA (1981). Menahem always gave chances to people who wanted to prove themselves. And he kept on giving me more and more chances.

What kind of a company was Cannon?
It was a company that was budget-conscious but there was a real enthusiasm for making movies. It was an independent company, and they didn't have unlimited resources. Especially with Menahem, it wasn't really about the money. It was about the story, the stars, the publicity. I know there are stories about people not getting paid or budgets getting cut, but I personally can't complain. I had no problems. I did well financially, to be honest. All in all, though the thing that was greatest was the fntastic working atmosphere.

Andrew Davis.
Was Andrew Davis something of a mentor for you too? 
Andrew was very influential to me in the process of becoming a director. When I worked on LEPKE, Andrew was the cinematographer. We kind of bonded. I think young people who are enthusiastic about filmmaking spot each other easily on a film set. Andrew took notice of me as the kid who was running around the set, bringing coffee but always near the camera. He was a kid himself really. He said to me ''I can see you want to direct. You have to work hard to get to the assistant director position. That is where you will really learn how to make a movie. '' Later on, Andrew was filming a very low-budget horror movie called MANSION OF THE DOOMED (1976) and he called me and an electrician friend and said ''Why don't you come and work on this with me?'' I was the grip on the film, part of his crew. We stayed friends and our paths crossed again and again over the years. When I was making ONE MORE CHANCE, he was struggling to make his first film as director, STONY ISLAND (1978). When I made BREAKIN' 2, he also did a breakdancing movie. He was important because he gave me confidence right from the start, when I was only 22 years old. Sometimes I see him in the Director's Guild, and it's always great to see him. He does not live in Los Angeles. He went on to make some big, big movies like THE FUGITIVE (1993) and UNDER SIEGE (1992).

What was the downside to working with Cannon? 
Menahem was not interested in making high quality movies. They were aimed at a low common denominator. We were just told to make films with good stories, that made sense and were entertaining, and could be sold in America and around the world. We weren't expected to make highbrow, artistic movies. This was all fine but when you told people you were working for Cannon, they saw you as part of a machine that made trashy movies. It was hard to break out of this mould and move to the next level, which was Hollywood studio movies, and I didn't succeed.

Recently, interest in Cannon has resurfaced. 
After the company went bankrupt and was dismantled, there was ten or fifteen years where nobody remembered Cannon. Then suddenly in the last five years there has been a kind of resurrection of interest. It probably has to do with the two documentaries (2014's THE GO-GO BOYS: THE INSIDE STORY OF CANNON FILMS and ELECTRIC BOOGALOO: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF CANNON FILMS) and the fact that Menahem recently passed away. The movies are coming out on Blu-ray and now there is this sense of nostalgia for the Cannon 'look', which is really the Menahem Golan look, because everything in Cannon came under the final control of him. I was in Madrid a few years ago for a film festival that was showing two of my movies and I met with a Spanish company that had published two books about Cannon and were working on book number three! I was originally approached by Marcus Siedelmann because he too wanted to write a book on Cannon, but he changed his mind and decided to write a book about my career instead after seeing how much material he had that I could give him.

Maybe part of the attraction about Cannon is that they made their films physically. They didn't use digital effects and they shot in real locations. The movies are just fun, comic-book stories. You're not meant to take the violence seriously. The audeience always felt that the guy who just got shot with the arrow was going to get up and go home after the movie was finished! It was violence with a wink. Cannon made few serious movies. Most of them were set in this kind of euphoric world. 

Part two of the interview. 

Photos, except Andrew Davis photo and posters, 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.

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