It was a matter of faith or luck that led my filmmaking career to intersect with the world of martial arts, and thus I was handed the opportunity to experience a whole new field of art and discipline that I knew nothing about. Along the way I was fortunate to meet great Martial Arts masters, the likes of Sho Kosugi, Mike Stone, Tadashi Yamashita, Steven Lambert, Keith Vitali, Alan Amiel, Richard Norton, Isaac Florentine and many, many more. Each of them introduced me to another artistic, disciplinary or philosophical element from the world of Martial Arts. Through the movies I directed I was instrumental in spreading the word of Martial Arts all around the world many times over, and for this I am thankful and grateful. By virtue of my creative work I became part of this world. It’s been an exciting and rewarding ride.
Sam Firstenberg was born in Poland in 1950. The same year, he emigrated with his parents and sister from war-ravaged Europe to Jerusalem, Israel. From an early age, Sam became addicted to movies. His home in Jerusalem was next door to a movie theater and, beginning when he was five years old, he and his friends would spend Tuesday afternoons at the theater watching the weekly double feature. Like many youngsters around the world, he thrived on a steady diet of American westerns, war pictures, and Tarzan films.
Not understanding English, and too young to read the Hebrew subtitles, I would sit for hours, mesmerized by the moving images on the screen. Sam said.
At this young age Sam began to “create” his own movies to entertain his friends. It horrified his mother, but Sam would cut up books, stringing together the pictures and rolling them up. He would then put the roll into a box with a cut out window, shine a flashlight from behind, and manually pull the roll, revealing the pictures through the window in sequence. Often he would have a special show with his sister narrating the “film” based on a script Sam concocted, and with his father providing the music, by accompanying them on the violin. As Sam grew he found a hobby in photography and by high school had turned his bedroom into a darkroom where he would earn pocket money by developing pictures for his friends.
After serving three years in the Israeli army, Sam came to the US in 1971, began to study and work in films.
In 1979 Sam was working towards a Master’s degree in Film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles where he met David Womark, and the two students would produce the first full length feature film in the film schools history.
Students Sam Firstenberg and David Womark convinced the faculty to let them expand Firstenberg’s half hour master’s thesis, One More Chance (1983), into a full-length movie. Using school facilities, equipment, and their classmates as crew, Sam and David recruited then-unknown actors Kirstie Alley (“Cheers”), Johnny LaMotta (of “Alf”), and Michael Pataki using Sam’s script.
To finance their film Sam and David took out $15,000 in student loans and deposited the money in the bank as credit against the cost of processing the negative. As soon as the lab checked with the bank and gave them a line of credit, the two withdrew the money for shooting costs, and started depositing film in the lab. They decided that if they didn’t pick up the negatives, they wouldn’t be billed. This forced them to shot without looking at dailies, and they deposited miles of film, until they got a call to pick of the film and pay bill or else. They found seventy cans of film and an angry manager who presented them with a bill for $30,000 and a demand for the money. They convinced the manager that to pay the bill he would have to release the work-print to them so it could be edited it and so they could find a producer to bail them out.
After a year of weekend shooting and living on sandwiches and coffee, Sam and David had an unfinished film and no way to continue. Sam Firstenberg turned to Menahem Golan, an Israeli film producer who had just become the head of Cannon Films. Sam had met Golan at a New Year’s Eve party six years earlier, in December of 1973, when he was a 23 year old film student at Los Angeles’ Columbia College. At the time, Sam had offered to work for Golan for free and he was “hired”. Sam worked as an assistant on the set of “Lepke” starring Tony Curtis, directed by Menahem Golan. So when Sam came to Golan for help, Golan was impressed with Sam’s indefatigable energy and ambitious drive and he saw potential in what Sam and David had shot so far, so he agreed to finance the rest of the movie. While working on “Lepke” the director of photography, Andrew Davis, (“Fugitive” and “Under Siege”) encouraged young Firstenberg to move up to a position of assistant director as a step towards directing.
After Golan bailed us out,” recalls Sam, “our film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981, then went on to become the official U.S. entry at the prestigious Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, and won a Silver Plaque at the 17th Annual Chicago Film Festival. This film became my calling card, and launched my career.
Golan was pleased with Sam Firstenberg and Sam’s enthusiasm and dedication got him work on future productions as well as working in Golan’s office. Sam worked on films and studied for and earned his Bachelor’s degree in 1975. Sam continued to work, now as an assistant director, in 15 pictures over five years.
With the goal of becoming a director, Firstenberg used his own time and money to make short films. With the help of volunteer fellow workers, actors and crew and by sneaking in and out of editing rooms to use the equipment during down hours, he completed six short films. One of them, For the Sake of a Dog (1979), was invited to participate in Filmex (Los Angeles Film Exposition) in 1979.
Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus acquired Cannon Films and they hired Sam Firstenberg to direct Revenge of the Ninja (1983). Sam knew nothing about martial arts, but he learned quickly and the film, which starred Sho Kosugi, was shot in Salt Lake City, Utah. Distributed by MGM to a great box-office bonanza, Revenge of the Ninja (1983) set the stage for Sam’s next directing assignment, Ninja III – The Domination (1984), also starring Kosugi. The film was shot in Phoenix, Arizona and was also tremendously successful.
Both Ninja films directed by Sam Firstenberg were sequels to the highly successful Enter the Ninja (1981) directed by Golan. Golan then had Sam direct Breakin 2 – Electric Boogaloo (1984) another sequel, which made Sam the king of sequels.
Each of the sequels directed by Sam Firstenberg resulted in better reviews and box office draws than the originals and the Boogaloo musical that featured major dance production numbers was critically acclaimed and hailed by one reviewer as “The most exuberant mu
sical of the decade.”
Soon after the release of ” Boogaloo ” Sam was on his way to the Philippines to direct American Ninja (1985). This major action picture starred Michael Dudikoff and Steve James, who would also team up with Sam for two additional motion pictures, Avenging Force (1986), shot in New Orleans and the swamps of Louisiana, and American Ninja II.
Avenging Force was one of the most physically grueling productions I ever worked on,” comments Sam. “We spent days and nights in water, mud up to our waists, with snakes crawling between our legs.
The film opened to rave reviews.
The LA Times called Firstenberg “… a rockin’ young action director who’s pulled off a series of rave up pictures for Cannon including ‘ American Ninja ‘ and ‘ Electric Boogaloo,’ and now in ‘ Avenging Force ‘ shows off his savvy style, which combines a keen sense of pacing with brawny punch…it marks the emergence of a truly gifted movie talent.”
The next picture Sam Firstenberg made was Riverbend (1989), a controversial drama with Steve James and Margaret Avery from The Color Purple (1985). The picture explored race relations in 1966 Georgia, and was an opportunity for Firstenberg to work with strong dramatic material. In sharp contrast, Sam’s next picture was an all-out comedy, The Day We Met (1990), which proved to him that his directorial talents were easily extended.
Delta Force 3: The Killing Game (1991) came next. This is a military action picture with Nick Cassavettes, Eric Douglas, Mike Norris, and Matthew Penn, and it was followed with American Samurai (1992) with a break through approach to martial arts films. It introduced hot young martial artists David Bradley and Mark Dacascos. Sam Firstenberg then got his first taste of television work on a nighttime crime show for CBS called Sweating Bullets (1992), directing 6 episodes.
With the creation of Nu Image, principles Avi Lerner and Danny Dimbort recruited Sam Firstenberg to direct their first production, Cyborg Cop (1993), and then the sequel, Cyborg Cop II (1994), both sci-fi action flicks with David Bradley. In addition, Sam Firstenberg completed the action picture Blood Warrior (1993) with Bradley and Frank Zagarino. Next came the TV movie Operation Delta Force (1997) a military style action adventure film starring Ernie Hudson, Jeff Fahey, Joe Lara, Frank Zagarino, and Hall Halbrok.
In 1997 Sam Firstenberg began directing different types of films including McCinsey’s Island (1998), a comedy for children about a treasure hunt which stars Hulk Hogan, Robert Vaughn, and Grace Jones. Next is Motel Blue (1997) starring Sean Young, Soleil Moon Frye, and Seymour Cassel. It is a psychological thriller with two women in the lead.
Next comes a Political action thriller, The Alternate (2000), with Eric Roberts, Ice T, Michael Madsen, and John Beck. Then Breeding Ground (2000) a horror Sci-Fi starring Stephanie Niznik, Richard Moll, Daniel Quinn, Greg Cromer, and few giant spiders. This movie presented Sam with the unique opportunity to master the craft of dealing with Animatronics, Miniatures, Puppets, 3D animation and computer generated visual effects. Quicksand (2001) a mystery thriller With Michael Dudikoff, Dan Heday, and Richard Kien was produced in India.
Sam Firstenberg completed an independent venture, a sci-fi spoof called The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women from Outer Space (2003). A funny homage to the old fashion low budget tacky Sci-Fi flicks. At the 2003 Fright-Fest Film Festival in Gainesville Georgia, The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women from Outer Space (2003) won the award for best science fiction film.
Sam Firstenberg made 22 movies in 22 years. He believes that his success is due to his persistence and his attitude towards his profession.
My pleasure comes not only from the final product, but also from the process of creating the film. Coming up with solutions for the myriad of problems which arise daily gives me great satisfaction and makes each day interesting.
Sam is particularly drawn to a style of cinema he calls “poetic realism” – telling realistic stories with poetic images.
As opposed to an artistic, European type of filmmaking, I have always been attracted to mainstream American cinema – the type of movies made by Hitchcock, John Ford, and Akira Kurosawa. I see my responsibility as a storyteller, using cinematic means rather than lengthy dialogue. I like fast paced attention grabbers and dramatic, exciting stories.
Thank you Sam for your compliment on this article:
You did a great job with this article summarizing the relationship between my movie career and the world of martial arts and action flicks on your “Martial Arts & Action Entertainment” website. Laced with so many quotes, photos and videos it is very enjoyable and informative. As mentioned in the article, it was a great, exciting and fulfilling ride. Thank you for this nice tribute.
~ Sam Shmulik Firstenberg (שמוליק פירסטנברג)