The 80's just wouldn't have been the same without breakdancing, ninjas or righteously absolutist action films. Cannon Films was perhaps one of the studios to provide some of the best examples of guilty-pleasure aesthetics. Marco Sidelman interviewed director Sam Firstenberg and others associated with the studio for his new book 'Stories From the Trenches."
Q: How long did this book take to prepare and what was involved?
A: The whole process took almost four years, but there were several months in between without progress, because I was working on other writing projects and because there were numerous problems I couldn't solve right away. It took some time to get the right team together and also some technical issues were tough cookies. I'm giving huge credit to the brilliant layout by Mirjam Pajakowski, the flashy cover artwork by Ralf Krause, and enormous help by the rest of the team: Michael Gerhardt, Ewald Schulz, Tobias Gossen - and of course we wouldn't have made it without the editing and proof-read skills by my dear friend Nadia Bruce-Rawlings, who is involved in my publishing projects from day one. I love them all. Also my family and friends were always supportive and they encouraged me all the way through. Sam Firstenberg was a joy to work with as well and he was always patient and calm - even when things were taking forever. We did a Kickstarter campaign two and a half years ago and I'm thankful for every backer who believed in the project - so, a lot of people were involved into the making of the book. All the interview partners - first and foremost Sam Firstenberg, but also the dozens of guest interviewees - took the time to sit down with me for a trip down memory lane. I never would have made it without so much support from everybody - that's why the list of acknowledgements at the end of the book is pretty extended. Last but not least I want to thank David J. Moore for excellent marketing work, both with the crowdfunding campaign and the release of the book.
Q: You seem particularly partial to the American Ninja movies. What was it that you liked about those and what was it that made part three off-putting?
A: To be honest: I'm not a big fan of the American Ninja saga - I think Sam Firstenberg directed many films that are more interesting and fascinating for me, for example Ninja III: The Domination, The Day We Met, Avenging Force and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo - I even have more love for both Cyborg Cop movies than for the American Ninjas. But of course they are landmark films for Sam Firstenberg and they are important chapters for the home video boom, for Michael Dudikoff, for Steve James, and for the legendary Cannon company. What I appreciate most about those films is the excellent performance by the beloved Steve James - man, that guy got talent! What a bigger-than-life screen presence! I also think David Bradley had a lot more charisma for the b-movie world than Michael Dudikoff had, so I don't think American Ninja 3 is as awful as many people think. I think all of them are enjoyable cheese-fests and if I have to rank them I would do it in this order: 1,4,2,3.
Q: How influential do you think Firstenberg's films were? Guardians of the galaxy had a dance off as I recall.
A: That's a tough question because I think Cannon was very influential for my generation and the whole era of the VHS craze certainly was. Those films had a specific look, atmosphere and tone - and I think it's fair to say that Sam Firstenberg left his fingerprint in this era. He's definitely the most playful, most un-cynical filmmaker who worked regularly for Cannon and his films from the 80s are not forgotten. So I think they had a huge impact on many people, even if they don't know about him as a person and a filmmaker per se. He clearly was there at the right time and he put a lot of dedicated work into his movies.
Q: Do you see anything similar to the 80s action film making a return in the present?
A: No, not really - and I certainly don't like the retro-fetish that some of the action filmmakers today are into. I think every decade needs its own style and look and it's hard - and simply not necessary - to repeat such a formula. You know, the films produced by Cannon were done under different circumstances and with a totally different zeitgeist. There's no need to do something similar, because today we have a lot of great action, horror and exploitation filmmakers who bring their own voice into the genres - obviously people like Isaac Florentine, Roel Reine, William Kaufman and many more are directing great films for a new generation.