Intervju med Sam Firstenberg

 
(Eftersom Sam tänker dela den här intervjun på sin hemsida och Facebook har jag valt att skriva inledningen på engelska.)
 
It's been close to a year since I started this blog and when I knew that one of the things I wanted to offer my readers were interviews, Sam Firstenberg was one of the first names I wrote down on a list of possible subjects. I did so because I'm a huge fan of his work, which represents everything I love about the action genre. I wrote him about three months ago, telling him about my plans for a future Sam Firstenberg theme week and asked him if an interview would be possible. It took less than a day before I received a kind reply from him where he granted my request.
 
Now, my mom did a good job teaching me and my brother manners, to be polite, at a very young age. For instance, if a family member or friend of the family ever took us out to buy ice cream or McDonald's, we always took the cheapest option, or closest to. We didn't ask for the Big Mac meal, we chose the small meal. We didn't ask for the biggest ice cream, we got the (only Swedes will get this) Piggelin instead. So I don't know what came over me when Sam granted my request, but I started writing question after question after question. When I was finished, there were 69 of them.

Against everything my mom taught me and my brother, I sent the questions to Sam, all 69 of them. This is the equivalent to ordering the biggest meal at McDonald's or getting the most expensive ice cream at the store when being offered. I wanted to provide my readers with a good interview, sure, but it was just as much for selfish purposes. I live for the kind of movies Sam perfected making during his years with Cannon Films and I guess I just couldn't help myself, there was just too much I wanted to know and provide my readers with.
 
I basically apologized off the bat for the overwhelming amount of questions, telling him he only needed to answer the questions he wanted to. About a month later, I received the questions back, answered. All 69 of them. I couldn't believe it. Maybe he admired my chutzpah, or, more likely, that's just the kind of man Sam is. Either way I am forever grateful and it is now my honor to present you all with this interview with the one and only - Sam Firstenberg. Enjoy.
 
 
Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to work in the movie business.
 
I grew up in Jerusalem during the fifties, and the country was very poor. It had a very lefty, socialist kind of atmosphere, In my neighborhood there was this little theatre that used to play double movies, and we used to go as kids to see whatever was playing, whether it was war movies, Tarzan, that kind of films, so I had a great love of films, an attachment to films, from a young age. So, when I was 21, after finishing high school and serving in the military, I came to America with a purpose. Filmmaking was my goal.
 
I was born in Poland, but grew up in Jerusalem, and obtained my higher education in Los Angeles, California where I now reside with my wife and three daughters. In 1972, I worked my way up the ranks, starting as a stagehand and production assistant and then as an assistant director. During this time I completed my higher education, earning my B.A. and M.A. in Cinema, and at the same time directing numerous shorts which eventually led to my first full feature directorial debut.
 
In December of 1973, as a twenty-three year old film student at Los Angeles’ Columbia College, I met Menahem Golan at a New Year's Eve party, suddenly found myself in the room with him, and during the party I learned that he was about to embark on the production of Lepke. I expressed my desire to be part of it, or more exactly, just to be around. Learning that I was willing to work even without a salary, I was invited to join the production the next day. For the next few years I worked for Golan and Globus off and on as general “go for” office runner, second assistant director, and finally my first AD job. Golan was pleased with my enthusiasm and dedication, and kept me on to work on future productions and office chores. Working on films and studying at the same time, I earned my Bachelor's degree in 1975, and I continued to work, now as an assistant director, in fifteen pictures over five years.
 
 
In an earlier conversation with me when I mentioned the blaxploitation theme I was having on my blog, you mentioned you had worked with Richard Roundtree on Diamonds as a second assistant director. Naturally I'm very curious, what was Shaft himself like?
 
After producing ”Lepke” Golan was trying to produce another movie in Hollywood but without success. At some point he put together the cast for his script Diamonds with Robert Shaw and Richard Roundtree to be filmed in Israel, I was the runner of his office then and he agreed that I will come with him to Israel to be a second Assistant Director and that is how I met Shaft. This was many years ago, to the best of my memory he was a very gentle and pleasant man. In Israel the movie ”Shaft” was not a very popular one so some people recognized him in the street but mostly not.
 
 
Could you tell us about your first two movies as a director that most are probably not very familiar with, the dramas For the Sake of the Dog and One More Chance?
 
After completing the work on the movie Diamonds I became Assistant Director in many Israeli movies but as time passed by I realized that that was not what I wanted to do, my goal was to direct so instead of just waiting for some producer to give me a check to do so I took an initiative. I wrote a script for a short film named ”For the Sake of the Dog” and using my own money and many volunteers from the industry I set to shot and edit this 30 minutes short. The movie was screened in the Israeli television and later on invited to participate in the Los Angeles ”Filmex” international film exposition in 1979.
 
Later on in the fall of 1979, I was working towards a Master's degree in Film at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. Walking down the hall during a break between classes, I spotted a fellow film student dressed as he was, in typical Israeli garb - shorts and sandals. This was the beginning of my partnership with David Womark, which would lead to the student production of a full-length feature film, the first in the history of the film school. With school facilities, equipment and classmate crew available to us and plenty of chutzpah and ingenuity, David and I convinced the faculty to let them expand my half hour master's thesis into a full-length movie. Based on my own script, I recruited then-unknown actors Kirstie Alley (of Cheers), Johnny LaMotta (of Alf), and Michael Pataki.
 
Everyone volunteered their time and the project took off. Now we had to somehow find money for developing the negative. We took $15,000 in student loans, and deposited it in the bank as credit against the cost of processing the negative. As soon as the lab checked with the bank and gave us a line of credit, we withdrew the money for shooting costs, and started depositing film in the lab. We figured out that if we didn't pick up the negatives, we wouldn't be billed. Using this ploy, we shot without looking at the dailies, depositing miles of film, until one day a call came from the head of the lab's warehouse - "Either you come pick up this film or I'm throwing it out!" We went down to the lab where we found seventy cans of film and an angry manager who presented us with a bill for $30,000 and a demand for the money. After he calmed down a bit, we explained the situation to him, we convinced him that the only way we could pay the bill was for him to release the work-print to us so we could edit it and find a producer to bail us out. I think at some level he must have liked our chutzpah - at any rate, he agreed!
 
At this point, after one year of shooting weekends, and living on sandwiches and coffee, we had an unfinished film on our hands and no way to continue. I turned to Menahem Golan, an Israeli film producer who had just become the head of Cannon Films. Although I had only worked as an assistant for him, Golan was impressed with my energy and ambitious drive, and seeing potential in what had been shot so far, agreed to finance the rest of the movie. Both of the movies are social dramas dealing with the struggle of an ordinary citizen against the authorities.
 
 
You then went into a different direction and started making action movies, the first one being Revenge of the Ninja. Talk about taking a fish out of the sea, throwing it on land and tell it to start walking! I mean that's one of the wildest action movies I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot. Was the transition from making drama to action an easy one for you?
 
I just finished the work on my first directorial film ”One More Chance” when producer Menahem Golan was preparing to produce ”Revenge of the Ninja” a sequel to ”Enter the Ninja” he produced and directed earlier on. Since he did not want to direct it he was looking for someone to replace him. Golan was willing to take a chance on me. He knew I could put a movie together; I had proven that I could construct a scene, shoot, and edit logically.
 
The big question was whether I could handle action, could I tackle a fight sequence or a chase. Clearly I did not have experience in these areas, but when he asked if I could do it, with utmost confidence I gave a positive yes. I knew I was not going to let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip away. Apparently my self confidence assured them so the next question was what kind of salary I would demand. I told Golan to pay me whatever he saw fit and so the deal was made and I was given the script and asked to start pre-production immediately, with David Womark as line producer.
 
It is true that directing action takes some expertise but in my opinion any director that understands the cinematic language, filming and editing should be able to put together an action sequence. I had good teachers to usher me into the world of action cinema and I learned fast and found it challenging and yet satisfactory to direct action.
 
 
So, you got to work with the man who has become the symbol of the word ninja – Shô Kosugi. What can you tell us about him? Is he as impressive as the movies make him out to be?
 
So here I was, ready to tackle the challenge of my first big action flick. I was handed the script and introduced to Sho Kosugi, the tallest Japanese person I had ever met. Sho was the spirit behind the project, an accomplished martial arts fighter and Ninjitsu expert who had come a few years earlier to Los Angeles with Hollywood on his mind. Although I was familiar with Japanese samurai movies - I love the films of Akira Kurosawa, I knew very little of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre and nothing about Ninjitsu.
 
Sho introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu. We bought a few books and together watched many Chinese movies, without subtitles in theaters full of Chinese speaking audience members. Trying to digest all the information as fast as I could, I started to work on the script and construct a story board. Sho was working with the writer, Jim Silke, and me. He was the Ninjitsu advisor and in this capacity he made sure that every known Ninja weapon and every Ninja fighting trick, method, custom, ceremony, and accessories, would be included in the script.
 
 
Kosugi's real son, Kane, plays the son of his character in the movie. Was that a demand from his side, to get his son a part?
 
I don’t know, when I got involved the script was already written and the character of Kane was in it.
 
Kane's skills were pretty amazing; did he need a lot of prepping before filming the fight scenes?
 
All the preparation of Kane was done by Sho, so before filming his fight scene he was always ready.
 
 
That final fight at the top of the building is quite thrilling and very elaborate. How long did that sequence take to shoot?
 
It took more than a week to film that entire scene on the roof from beginning to end.
 
With Revenge of the Ninja, you actually made history as that was the first Hollywood movie with a Japanese man in the leading role. Do you feel that's a fact that often gets overlooked?
 
It is true that I directed the movie but the decision to make a Hollywood film with a Japanese leading man was Menahem Golan’s not mine. But since I directed it I guess it makes me also part of this historical event.
 
 
As impressive as that final fight in Revenge of the Ninja was, it doesn't compare to the first 15 minutes of your next movie – Ninja III: The Domination. I have to tell you, that intro is absolutely crazy! If the movie had ended after those 15 minutes, it would have been the best movie ever made, I'm sure of it, screw Citizen Kane! With that said, kicking off the movie with such an explosive start, did you find it hard to keep up that kind of entertainment for the 75 remaining minutes? I mean nothing could top that opening.
 
First of all thanks for the compliments but more to the point when making a low budget movie the director with his producing team have to make a decision how to allocate the limited budget. I like to open the action movies I directed with a bang; big action sequence to set up the tone but to keep up that pace for 90 minutes a much bigger budget is needed so for me it is big opening, big ending, big sequence in the middle and at least one big chase.
 
How many days did you spend shooting that epic opening?
 
We usually allocate to every major action sequence one week with two filming units and the a second unit stays behind to complete a shooting list I leave behind while the main filming unit moves on to shoot the next scheduled scene. Once in a while I like to check in on the second unit and see if they are advancing according to my vision.
 
 
With Ninja III, Lucinda Dickey took a break in-between shooting Breakin' 1 and 2 and tried her hand at becoming a ninja. As an experienced dancer, did she handle the fight choreography well?
 
The truth is that we cast Lucinda Dickey for the lead part of Ninja 3 before the first Breakin’ movie was even conceived. After we finished the filming Menahem Golan suggested her for the Break Dance movie the company started to prepare. In the order of distribution the first Breakin’ came out before Ninja 3.
 
Kosugi returns for the final part of the trilogy, but doesn't appear until around 30 minutes into the movie. Compared to his screen time as the lead in Revenge of the Ninja, he has a significantly smaller part in Ninja III: The Domination. Why was that decision made?
 
The producer Menaham Golan decided to move the Ninja franchise away from an Asian hero toward an American lead, for some reason in Ninja 3 he preferred it to be a woman. Sho was against it and agreed to participate in the movie only if he plays an expert that comes in and resolves the problem that a female Ninja cannot resolve by herself. Because of the nature of the story structure his character appears only 30 minutes into the movie.
 
 
Do you know if this upset Kosugi? I ask because he never made another movie for Cannon Films and made entertaining ninja movies with companies like Crown International Pictures and Trans World Entertainment instead.
 
My impression was that the fact that Menahem Golan decided not to have him in the lead part upset Sho Kosugi very much and therefore at the first opportunity he had to work with other companies, he left Cannon Films.
 
There are pictures from the movie floating around which shows that Kosugi actually had a lot more scenes in the movie which were cut. Do you know roughly how many minutes of his scenes were cut and if they still exist somewhere? It's a shame they weren't added as a special feature on the Shout! Factory Blu-ray release.
 
The rule in Cannon Films was that the length of all the movies we made was 95 minutes. Because of this restriction almost in every movie we had to keep some scenes out. Usually we left out scenes that were not as strong as the once that made it into the final cut. I don’t remember today what was cut out and I don’t think that when MGM took over the Cannon material they also took over the extra material of outtakes and unused scenes.
 
 
Other than the fighting scenes which I'm sure was all him, did Kosugi perform most of his own stunts?
 
Sho Kosugi was a very capable martial artist and accomplished athlete so in all action and fight scenes he performed his own stuff unless it was dangerous or called for special skill, only then a body double or stunt double would step in and take his place.
 
Apparently, you weren't satisfied with having made the craziest ninja movie ever, so you went ahead and made the craziest dance movie ever with Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. How did that come about and was it a refreshing break in-between making ninja movies?
 
The director of Breakin’ was Joel Silbert and as far as I know he was supposed to direct the sequel. I don’t know why he did not, and I never asked, but at some point after the release of the movie Ninja III: The Domination that I directed with the same actress of Breakin’, Lucinda Dickey (Kelly), I was asked by the head of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan, to take over the directing of Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo. It was as simple as that and yes it was very refreshing to direct it.
 
 
Had you seen the first Breakin' before making the sequel?
 
Yes I did.
 
Whose idea was it to make it so different in tone from the previous Breakin' movie?
 
The crew responsible for Breakin’ 2 namely the art director, the dance choreographer, the wardrobe designer, cinematographer, and myself as a director did not feel compelled to adhere to the tone and look of the first movie so in a way it was a cumulative decision. The “look” of the film is a result of the talks I conducted with the production designer during the pre-production period. It was our intention to exaggerate it to a point of saturation to create excitement, youthfulness and hope.
 
 
The first Breakin' was reportedly made in only 3 weeks, in order to be released ahead of another movie about breakdancing from Orion Pictures, Beat Street. How long was the shooting schedule for Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo?
 
It is absolute nonsense; it is impossible to make a movie the size of Breakin’ with its many dance numbers and other large scenes in 3 weeks. In any case it took us nine week of six working days each with two cameras units to complete the filming of Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo.
 
There's a nice tribute to Fred Astaire's infamous ceiling dance in it, which two years later Lionel Richie also did a version of. Was that scene hard to set up and shoot?
 
It was not simple but with the knowledge and equipment we have here in Hollywood it was sufficiently accomplished. The idea to add a scene of Turbo dancing on the ceiling was Menahem’s. It was indeed inspired by a similar scene of Fred Astaire in the movie Royal Wedding. The way a tricky dance like this is done is by building a room that can be rotated a full circle upside down all the way. The camera is anchored to the floor and goes up when the ceiling comes down and the dancer on it. In the final shot it looks like the dancer is on the ceiling dancing upside down. The only difficult part is that everything in the windows and all the lighting setup has to rotate with the rotating room. The dancer also faces a challenge in reorienting himself every second to the revolving reality around him.
 
 
A nice surprise for me as a long time fan of Ice-T was to see him have a role in it. I think shock is a better word to describe it, because the outfit he wore in his first scene would probably ruin his image if he, the Godfather of gangsta rap, ever wore it out on the streets in real life. Do you have any memories of Ice-T to share?
 
Not in particular. Ice T was one of the first rappers and he was there when needed, doing his performance on stage as needed. I did not have to give him any directorial directions unless they were technical like where to stand and when to start. Other than that all we had to do is film his performance the best we could.
 
 
There are pictures of Muhammad Ali visiting the set at one point. Tell us about that.
 
One day while filming on location in Los Angeles, out of the blue, the legendary Muhammad Ali popped up on the set to see what we are doing in his neighborhood. It turned out that his house was next door to the one we were shooting in (former house of silent films star Mary Pickford) The Champ was very gracious, playful and friendly to everyone. It was quite an excitement and so we took a photo with him to commemorate the event.
 
 
Was the choreography set in stone or did you allow the dancers to improvise their moves?
 
I don’t understand anything in choreographing dances, we had a great chorographer Bill Goodson and he was in charge of the dancers, I am sure that he allowed the dancers to also improvise some moves here and there.
 
What do you feel is the harder thing to shoot - fight or dance choreography?
 
A dance number can be filmed uninterrupted from beginning to end again and again several times and all that is really needed are good dancers. Fight sequence in the other hand is very technical, segmented and at times dangerous, so it has to be filmed in segments and with extra care. Each of them presents its own unique challenges when it comes to filming them.
 
 
After Breakin' 2, you went back to making ninja movies, this time with Michael Dudikoff and Steve James in American Ninja 1 and 2. Dudikoff was not a martial artist when you made the first one, though I gather he got into martial arts later. Was it hard coming off of Revenge and The Domination where your lead actor could do every possible thing you wanted him to, while now having to rely on doubles and using certain angles that made it less obvious Dudikoff was being doubled for some shots?
 
First of all in Ninja III: the Domination, Lucinda Dickey was not a Martial Artist but rather a dancer and the people in charge of the fights choreography taught her all the necessary moves and being a dancer she picked up on them very fast. Michael Dudikoff was in top physical shape when he started American Ninja and for two weeks prior to filming he trained with top Martial Artist and our fight choreographer Mike Stone. Most of the stuff that you see him performing in the movie Michael did by himself guided by the fight choreographer and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. Naturally at some dangerous points and when specific expertise was needed we used stunt doubles the way it is done in every action movie.
 
 
Steve James on the other hand, was an accomplished martial artist. This created some tension between them according to Steve, since that made Michael somewhat insecure. Do you remember any of this tension and did it create any problems on the set that you as the director had to handle?
 
Not at all.
 
 
You've probably been asked this a bunch of times before, but for those of my readers who don't know, could you tell us about that infamous scene in American Ninja 2 where Michael Dudikoff is in a room with Steve James, talking to a superior officer, but when they leave the room it's clear that Dudikoff's stand-in is walking out? Why was his stand-in in that scene when James didn't use one, and how could that mistake possibly not be spotted by the editor?
 
That particular day Michael Dudikoff was sick but he still stayed and did the scene in the office. Once we finished all his and Steve James on camera angles it was time to shoot from behind their back, since we had a very good body double for Michael to stand in for him, I sent him back to the hotel to rest. In the final editing we were supposed to see the double only from his back but because at the time the editors used editing machines with a tiny screen he did not notice that it was not Michael and used his exit by mistake.
 
 
Having already done American Ninja 1 and 2, what was it that kept you from continuing with the franchise, which went on to make another two sequels? Were you just tired of ninjas?
 
No, I was not offered to direct those two sequels. The company decided to dramatically reduce the budget of the installments of the franchise and as a unionized director my salary became too expensive for them to pay and still achieve that low budget target, instead they hired a South African director and made the movies there with much shorter schedule and lower budget.
 
While it was Chuck Norris' The Octagon that first brought the ninja to the attention of moviegoers in the west, there's no doubt the ninja movies you were involved in is what made the ninja huge. Do you take pride in knowing things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles probably wouldn't have brought so much joy to kids all over the world if it wasn't for you, Shô Kosugi, Michael Dudikoff and Cannon Films?
 
Yes it is quite flattering.
 
 
Believe it or not, during this ninja craze of the 1980's, there were a couple of Swedish ninja movies made. Most notable is Mats Helge Olssson's The Ninja Mission, which was a huge hit around the world and one of Sweden's highest grossing movies ever. Apparently, the producers even approached Golan & Globus and asked them to distribute the movie. Did you know about this and have you seen the movie? I could send you a copy if you'd like.
 
No, unfortunately I never heard about that movie.
 
 
I'm sending you a copy. You also made Avenging Force with Dudikoff and James, which is a sequel to Invasion U.S.A. with Chuck Norris. Could you tell us why Norris didn't reprise his role as Matt Hunter?
 
I was never told why Chuck Norris did not want to do Avenging Force (than it was called Night Hunter) but there are few different speculations floating around in the internet.
 
 
I think it would have been better if they had changed the name of the character, because they weren't very similar in my opinion. While Chuck Norris' Hunter was this unstoppable killing machine, Dudikoff's Hunter was much more human and vulnerable. Was the script changed to suit Dudikoff's on screen persona more when it was clear that Norris wouldn't be involved?
 
The only change that was made to the script was that instead of the little girl being Matt’s daughter she became his sister. Michael was too young to have a daughter.
 
 
Would you agree that it is the most brutal movie you ever did? I mean except for Hunter and his little sister, basically every other character we got to care for ended up dying, including two kids.
 
Yes you are right, but at the same time it is the best action movie I directed.
 
The way the movie ended opened up the door for more entries in the franchise, do you know if there were plans to make another one?
 
James Booth the writer planned it that way but we were sent by Cannon films to do American Ninja 2 right away and for some reason the company never perused that option.
 
 
The man who wrote the script for Hard Target seems to have borrowed some stuff from Avenging Force, namely the hunting aspects of the movie and the location, since both of them take place in New Orleans. Have you thought the same thing?
 
The men hunting idea is not totally original it appears in movies and literature in many variations for a long time, so you might be right but only to a certain degree.
 
I think you hit the nail right on the head when you said in Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films that Dudikoff should have been put in bigger movies with bigger budgets, not smaller ones. I think he has that natural charm and charisma that worked so well for Jean-Claude Van Damme. Do you think he deserved a similar career to the one Van Damme had in the late 80's and into the 90's?
 
Of course he deserved a greater career, Michael has the charisma and on screen presence of a great action hero. He should have been involved in much bigger budget movies.
 
 
You worked with Steve James in a total of four movies before he sadly passed away at the age of 41 in 1993. Could you tell us a bit about Steve James the person as well as the actor?
 
Steve James was a sweetheart of a man a real gentle giant. Our work together was pure joy; he loved action movies and was always enthusiastic to do his part on the set. His aspiration was to become the next black action star kind of the new Shaft and the way his career developed he was on his way to achieve that goal. He was an avid collector of “black” movies from all the way back to the beginning of cinema. His collection consisted of more than 4,000 disks and cassettes and in some cases even 16mm prints. Steve was very proud of his chiseled body and in every movie we made together he insisted on taking his shirt off at least one time during a fight or action scene.
 
R.I.P.
 
Another actor you worked a lot with is John LaMotta, who kept getting cast in your movies. Were you the driving force who kept casting him for roles in your movies?
 
Yes, Johnny LaMotta was the lead actor in the first full length movie I directed in 1980 “One more chance” He did it voluntarily and stuck with us throughout the entire filming schedule which was on and off one and a half year long. I always felt that I owe him for being loyal and thereafter cast him in every movie I directed whenever he was available. John LaMotta was a busy actor working all the time in movies, theater, and television.
 
As someone who grew up in the late 80's watching ALF at a very young age and then seeing him in your movies when I got older, he's always been an interesting actor to me. What was he like? Did he always have a cigar in his mouth like so many of his characters did?
 
Johnny LaMotta was a friend of mine until he recently passed away. He was a talented actor, singer, and piano payer so it was always fascinating to watch him perform, and yes, he loved cigars. In the Philippines while filming American Ninja he went to visit a famous local cigar factory to see how they are being rolled and buy them fresh right there.
 
 
Ultimately, Cannon Films went under due to money problems. How did you react to the end of this legendary company?
 
At that point in time when Cannon went away I was already directing movies for other producers and companies so it did not influence me personally. Luckily for me when all of the company assets were divided amongst various creditors all the movies I directed for them went to MGM that is a major distributor. Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo ended up with Columbia Pictures and then Sony Entertainment.
 
What was it like working for them and how do they compare to other studios you've worked for?
 
I have known Menahem and Yoram for many years as mentioned earlier, many years before I directed Revenge of the Ninja - I worked as an assistant director on many of their films, even one that Menahem Golan directed (Diamonds with Robert Shaw). The way they worked was that Yoram Globus was in charge of finances, and had little input on the creative side; Menahem Golan was the creative producer, involved in all the stages of making the movies. His main interest was in the script and in the editing.
 
 
Were Golan and Globus easy to get along with, or did you have a lot of disagreements over some projects?
 
When it came to business Golan and Globus were not easy people to get along with and at times we probably had some disagreements but there were not too many of them. In most of the times we saw things eye to eye and in general I was eventually able to execute my vision in directing movies for them.
 
Did they give you a lot of leeway when you were shooting your movies, or were they more hands-on, making sure the movies came out just the way they wanted them?
 
During the shooting I was basically left alone. I would say that in this sense, it was very easy to work with them, as long as we did not go over budget or exceed the schedule - which I never did. They trusted me and we had a very good relationship.
 
 
There were lots of movies that Cannon was supposed to make that never ended up happening. Were you attached to direct any of those movies that never got made?
 
No I did not, but I was attached to some of Cannon movies that were eventually directed by other directors.
 
When you look back at the huge list of movies made by Cannon Films, is there a movie you wish you could have gotten to direct?
 
Out of all cannon movies I guess Runaway Train and King Solomon's Mines.
 
 
This is a cheap question, and I apologize, but I simply must know. Since you worked for Cannon for so long, did you ever run into Charles Bronson, who is one of my all-time favorite actors?
 
I visited once the set where J. Lee Thompson was directing one of the Charles Bronson movies; out there I ran for the first and only time into Bronson, he was actually a very private and reclusive man, most of the day he kept to himself so no words were exchanged between us.
 
When Cannon Films were no more, you moved to Cannon alumni Avi Lerner's Nu Image/Millennium Films, a similar company to Cannon that is still alive and well 25 years later. Would you say they've kept the Cannon spirit alive?
 
In many aspects, yes Nu Image is the continuation of Cannon Films, some of the key figures just moved from the one to the other, but on the other hand there are of course differences in style and motivation in the way the two companies are run and in their product.
 
 
While you were with them, you worked with David Bradley on several movies. I think I see a pattern here. You seem to enjoy working with actors you are comfortable with, who know how to give you what you want. A lot of great directors have done this, John Carpenter, Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Winner and Quentin Tarantino, to name a few. Am I on to something here, or was it just a coincidence that you often worked with so many familiar faces?
 
It was partially coincidental but also has to do with the good relationship I have and maintain with the actors.
 
 
For the first time in your career you worked in television in 1992, on the TV-show Sweating Bullets, which you directed six episodes of. How did you get that gig and what about the project interested you?
 
I was in Israel directing American Samurai when I was invited to meet the producers of this show and after a short interview they offered me to direct few episodes. I was happy to accept the offer since I was always interested to learn how directing for television is different from directing movies.
 
Was it a drastic change from directing a movie and did you adapt easily?
 
Telling a story through visual means is the same in any media be it a huge screen, a television set, or a Smartphone but directing episodes for a television series has a different discipline, working habits, and pace than directing a theatrical movie. In television the director is not an important member of the creative team as he is in films.
 
To date it's the only directing job you've ever done on a TV-show, though you did direct the TV-movie Operation Delta Force. Was it a conscious decision on your part not to work in the TV business?
 
Not at all, I just did not persuade a television career and was not offered again a job in directing for television. I just kept directing movies.
 
 
One oddity in your career that has me curious is that after directing movies for 21 years, you took a small step back and worked as a second unit director in the underrated Tobe Hooper horror movie Crocodile in 2000. How did you happen to work on that movie?
 
I knew Tobe Hooper from the Cannon days and at that point I was directing for Nu Image. Tobe was directing Crocodile for the same company and they needed a second unite director to handle some action sequences in the movie. I was between projects and asked by the producers to take it upon myself. I gladly agreed firstly because it was a chance to be around Tobe Hopper and secondly it was a chance to be involved in a horror picture which I never had an opportunity to do earlier. Consequently it was also beneficial observing and understanding the way giant mechanical puppet operate that came in handy when I directed next the movie Spiders 2.
 
 
 
As previously mentioned, you appeared on the documentary Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films. It has gotten some criticism for focusing too heavy on the bad things people had to say about the company. Do you agree with that criticism? What were your feelings when you first saw it?
 
Mark Hartley, the maker of the documentary, did a fabulous job. He presented his point of view, another film maker might have presented in a different way, and we have to respect it. The movie is getting a lot of praise for the deep research and thorough job that went into the making of it, quite an achievement.
 
 
It's too bad we didn't get to see you in the other documentary produced about Cannon Films, The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. What's the reason behind that?
 
I was approached to participate but schedule wise it did not work out.
 
You've directed movies with some very memorable villains in them. One of the biggest villains in real life today, according to a lot of the media anyway, is Donald Trump. If you were to make a movie with Donald Trump in one of the roles, would you have him play a hero or a villain? I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess you'd make him play a hero, because if I'm not mistaken (and you can correct me if I'm wrong) he's one of the most pro Israel presidents the US has had in a long time.
 
I tell stories in a fantasyland and it has nothing to do with my political points of view, they are just stories. If someone would pay me well to direct a movie with Donald Trump as a hero or a villain and the script is half decent, I would agree right away, it sure would be an extraordinary experience.
 
"I tell you, Sam, if you'd put me in one of your movies, it would be yuge, I'm talking trillions of dollars at the box office, OK? My cameo in Home Alone 2 made it the greatest success ever. Guardians of the Galaxy, Fast and the Furious, Avengers, they're all fake movies, OK? I'm the real deal and the perfect hero, I tell you I'm great. Just give me a call, it will be great. Oh, and I'll totally use the profits to build that wall."
 
How would you describe your directing style?
 
I follow the old Hollywood classic way of making movies. In every scene, after visually introducing the viewer to the geography and relationship within the scene, and after establishing the mood I strive to place the viewer in the heart of what is happening on the screen, action or dialogue. I achieved it by filming from many various angles and frame sizes from wide “long shots” to “tight” close ups so later on in the editing the editor and me can create visually exciting scenes that gets the viewer emotionally involved.
 
In Electric Boogaloo, you mention that Golan and Globus had that Israeli temperament. Do you also have that and does it affect your actions as a director with the cast and crew? Somehow, you don't strike me as the Michael Winner type...
 
No, strangely enough I do not suffer from the hot headed Israeli Attitude or temperament, maybe it can be contributed to my European upbringing (my parents are from Poland) As a director I always try to be polite never explode and not to be drawn into arguments. I constantly try to maintain a cheerful set keeping the cast and crew happy and positive.
 
 
One thing a lot of your movies have in common is that they are so fun, wild and crazy. Did that tone in the movies rub off on the cast and crew? Did everyone have a good time making the movies?
 
I want to believe that you are right. Making movies is a group effort and we spend so many hours together every day that it is better to have fun while doing it rather than a miserable time. This way we enjoy the process and yes, it rubs off and shows in the final product on the screen.
 
What do you think it is that turns a movie into a cult movie over time and why do you think so many of yours have reached that cult status all these years later?
 
You are asking here the million dollar question. If we knew the answer, if we knew the formula to a successful movie we all could have been millionaires now. But no one knows, it is only that sometimes all the stars are aligned, all the elements come and jell together; the story, the actors, the cinematography, the choreography, the editing, the music, and the right director that ties it all together and the magic happens. It is undeniable that there is some talent involved in the process and the approach. I believe the reason that some of the movies I directed stood the test of time and even gained cult status is that the story is solid, the characters are determined, the path is clear, the action is exciting, it was all taken lightly, it is never boring and the viewer is having fun with what is happening on the screen. It is 90 minutes of good entertainment and escapism.
 
 
Do you keep in touch with any of the people you worked so closely with for so long? Like Yoram Globus, Michael Dudikoff, David Bradley and so on?
 
Regretfully not, from all the actors I worked with I only keep in touch regularly with Michael Dudikoff , Judie Aronson, and Tadashi Yamashita. I was friend also with Steve James until he passed away and David Bradley until he disappeared. Also with crew members and producers I keep in touch with only a few like Frank DeMartini, Steve Lambert, Boaz Davidson, Gideon Amir and few others thanks to Facebook.
 
 
Have you kept any props from your movies over the years? If so, could you name some and which one your favorite is?
 
Regretfully not, I wish that I have kept some items from the movies I directed but unfortunately I did not. At the time of making them we did not know that those movies would become cult classics and have so many followers. The only item I kept is the silver mask of the evil Ninja from Revenge of the Ninja and that only because it was the first big movie I directed so for me it has some nostalgic value.
 
 
Having made several very successful action movies, especially on the international market, with very little budget to work with, you'd think big movie studios would take notice and offer you some bigger project to sink your teeth in. Do you think that being involved with Cannon Films did the opposite and restricted you from making bigger movies with bigger studios, because of Hollywood snobbery?
 
I think so, but I am also partially to blame since I did not vigorously persuade this rout. In Cannon I was guaranteed to direct one movie after the other and in the studio system a director can be stuck in the “development” purgatory working many years on developing scripts and projects that never materialize. So I chose the path of doing and not waiting but yet it is too bad I never got the chance to direct a big budget studio movie.
 
You haven't directed a movie since 2003, but I'm sure you could easily still be making them if you wanted to with Avi Lerner and Nu Image/Millennium Films. So, why did you decide to hang up your director's chair?
 
The budgets of the type of action movies I used to direct have shrunk so much that it is ridiculous, directors are asked to do them in five weeks and we used to make them in 8 or 9 weeks with two units. I don’t know of a way that one can direct a decent action movie with such a low budget and short schedule and I rather not be involved in this kind of film making. On the other hand I am not being offered to direct big budget movies or even low budget non action films so I concentrate on other creative activities like designing and building furniture which might not be that exciting but very satisfying without the aggravation.
 
 
It's safe to say your career has been dominated by action movies. Was it always your hope to become an action director?
 
Not at all; at the beginning I saw myself as a director that will direct social dramas maybe adventures but not action. It just came my way and then I was offered to direct those action movies one after the other and I did. But as I was directing them I embraced the challenge and enjoyed doing them.
 
You directed 23 movies in 24 years, which one would you say was the most difficult to make?
 
Avenging Force was physically draining, the most challenging and demanding movie I directed. Day after day in the Louisiana swamps directing action in the rain many times all night long in a location that was one and a half hour drive from the hotel we stayed in. This one was difficult to make but it looks great.
 
 
Which one would you call your favorite and why?
 
It is hard to say I love Breakin’ 2 Electric Boogaloo for its fun good filling atmosphere, I like Riverbend for it controversial subject. Avenging Force for its excellence in story and execution, and American Ninja for its sense of innocence.
 
Which one is your least favorite and what happened during the process of making the movie that it ended up being so disappointing?
 
Let’s say that I am not crazy about McCinsey's Island. During the making of it I was not clear about the storyline, the end goal of the characters, and the type of movie I was directing so all in all I am disappointed with the results.
 
 
Finally, how would you like to be remembered as a director?
 
Hopefully as one that succeeded in directing movies that brought joy, excitement, and thrill to the viewers that watched them. Enabled them to transform for 90 minutes from this reality to another reality where the just overcomes the evil, where dreams and wishes are fulfilled and there are always happy endings. Movies that are fun to watch.
 
Mission accomplished, Sam. Anything you'd like to point my readers to?
 
In my website www.samfirstenberg.com the readers can find more stories, photos and related material. I have a Facebook page with updates and a photo album “Tales from the Movies” with many photos, each accompanied by a short story, a memory, or anecdote. All worth visiting.
 
All the best to everyone, Sam.
 
Thank you, Sam.
 
Sam, the family man
 
If those of you who read this interview found it interesting, I'm sure you'll love Marc Siedelmann's upcoming career-spanning interview book with Sam Firstenberg, promised to be loaded with unique badass film history. The book is called Stories From the Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies With Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg, which just a few days ago reached its Kickstarter goal and will be available within six months after the campaign ends on May 15th.
 
You can still visit the Kickstarter page and pre-order the digital book version for 16 Euros or the actual book for 30 Euros. You think this interview was long? The book will be an estimated 600 pages! I've got my copy pre-ordered and if you're a fan of Sam or just entertaining, badass action movies, I can't imagine anyone regretting doing the same.
 
 
Thank you all for reading and a special thanks of course to Sam Firstenberg for his time and all the pictures he provided the interview with!
Akira Kurosawa - Alfred Hitchcock - American Ninja - American Ninja 2 - American Samurai - Avenging Force - Avi Lerner - Beat Street - Blaxploitation - Boaz Davidson - Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo - Cannon Films - Charles Bronson - Cheers - Chuck Norris - Citizen Kane - Crocodile - Crown International Pictures - David Bradley - David Womark - Diamonds - Donald Trump - Electric Boogaloo: The Wold, Untold Story of Cannon Films - Enter the Ninja - For the Sake of the Dog - Fred Astaire - Hard Target - Hong Kong - Ice-T - Invasion U.S.A. - J. Lee Thompson - Jean-Claude Van Damme - Joel Silbert - John Carpenter - John LaMotta - Johnny Lamotta - Judie Aronson - Kane Kosugi - Kirstie Alley - Lepke - Lionel Richie - Lucinda Dickey - Marc Siedelmann - Mark Hartley - Mats Helge Olsson - McCinsey's Island - Menahem Golan - Michael Dudikoff - Michael Pataki - Michael Winner - Millennium Films - Muhammad Ali - Night Hunter - Ninja - Ninja III: The Domination - Ninjitsu - Nu Image - One More Chance - Operation Delta Force - Orion Pictures - Quentin Tarantino - Revenge of the Ninja - Richard Roundtree - Robert Shaw - Royal Wedding - Sam Firstenberg - Shaft - Sho Kosugi - Shout! Factory - Spiders 2 - Steve James - Stories From the Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies With Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg - Sweating Bullets - Tadashi Yamashita - Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films - The Ninja Mission - The Octagon - Tobe Hooper - Trans World Entertainment - Yoram Globus

Intervju med Josiah Howard - författaren till Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide

Foto taget av Kamron Hinatsu
 
Josiah Howard är författaren till Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide och är världens ledande expert inom ämnet blaxploitation. När jag bestämde mig för att ha en temavecka kring genren kontaktade jag honom nästan omgående angående möjligheten att få intervjua honom. Jag fick ett vänligt och upplyftande svar inom 24 timmar och började genast jobba på frågorna jag skulle ställa till honom.
 
How and when were you first introduced to the blaxploitation genre and why do you think it had such a lasting effect on you?

I first became fascinated by the films through their bombastic poster art. In the seventies the promotion was everywhere; on movie marquees, on public transportation and, of course, in newspapers and magazines. I had never seen young black people with large Afros and Bell Bottoms toting sawed off shotguns before. It was pretty exciting! I was too young to go and actually see the movies at the time but I was obsessed with the posters. I was the first kid at the theater when they changed the posters each week!
 

What do you think it is about blaxploitation, which is a genre very much of its time, that still appeals to audiences today, including honkies like myself who weren’t even born when they were made?

The pictures are timeless because the stories are about people wanting to make their dreams come true: by whatever means possible. The only difference is the presentation. Most of the characters in blaxploitation films operate outside of the law and are African American. But the dream is the same for everyone, everywhere. Additionally, the pictures are cultural artifacts: windows into the 1970s American experience.
 
 
Where do you stand on the fact that movies with the derogatory N-word in the title have now been released with different titles? To use an example, Fred “The Hammer” Williamson’s Boss Nigger was released simply as Boss on DVD. Do you think it's a good thing to censor original movie titles?

Censorship on any level is always the wrong way to go. I think changing the title of a film—which is a creative work; a piece of art—is like going to a museum with a paint brush and saying “I can make this painting better” and painting over it. The titles of blaxploitation films are written in time and should remain as such. I understand the new politically correct climate that we live in and I think political correctness has its place but I also stand by the intent of the distributors making decisions that better position them to sell entertainment product. If the safer re-titling of the films expands the audience, that’s a good thing.
 
 
One thing I love about exploitation movies is that, in lack of funds to promote them the way big studios can, a lot of effort is put into the poster art to lure in audiences. Blaxploitation is a great example of this and your book has a large amount of poster art for the reader to enjoy exploring. Out of all the awesome artwork to choose from for the cover of your book, you chose the poster for the 1972 movie Hit Man. What motivated you to choose that one particular poster? Is it simply your favorite and if not, which one is?

The publisher—Plexus Books—and I both agreed that the Hit Man image would be a great book cover. You not only get the black man with the funky clothes and the gun, you also get a bulls-eye; a target! It made a visual impact. For a while we considered Coffy, but that image is over circulated. We wanted something new and relatively unseen.

If I had to pick a favorite blaxploitation move poster it would be 1972’s Trouble Man. I love the fractured mirror image illustration. The colorful repetition and the use of gunshot holes in the calligraphy is thrilling. Of course that’s also a detail in the Blaxploitation Cinema cover art. It says: “there’s been a shooting here; pay attention, watch out!”
 
 
In the review section of your book, you include Black Mama, White Mama, The Big Doll House, The Big Bird Cage and Women in Cages. I've personally never viewed those particular movies as blaxploitation because I don't think they offer a lot of components found in the genre, apart from being made in The Philippines like other blaxploitation movies and starring Pam Grier. I view them as strictly Women in Prison movies. Can you make a case for them belonging to the blaxploitation genre?

My criteria for categorizing a film as blaxploitation is straightforward. I define the films as theatrically released motion pictures (between 1970-1980) that were conceived, green lit and first and foremost promoted to inner city black audiences. Using this broad definition, which I more thoroughly outline in Blaxploitation Cinema, many “gray area” pictures make the cut. Many film fans don’t believe that Mahogany and Greased Lightening, should be in the book, but I beg to differ—and it’s an ongoing argument!

Blaxploitation films are really “exploitation” films; that’s where the hybrid name comes from. They’re low budget pictures made for the Drive-In and “downtown” theater market. Black people experienced films like The Big Doll House and Women in Cages as a Blaxploitation film—not as a Woman in Prison film. Additionally blaxploitation films were often shown on Double Bills. This under-discussed approach to distribution should also be considered. If you went to the theater to see two pictures and one was clearly defined as Blaxploitation (40 of the films have the word “black” in the title by the way), what was your experience of the accompanying film? Why were they paired? And when you related seeing the pictures did you make a genre distinction? Probably not.
 
 
Now, if there was a significant amount of money to be made using very little, you know B-movie king Roger Corman would have his piece of the pie. How do you feel his output compares to others? He was one of the people who first took blaxploitation out of the ghetto and into the Philippines, wasn't he?

Absolutely: Viva Roger Corman! He along with producer Cirio Santiago are responsible for putting the Philippine movie market on the international map. While American producers were racking their brains trying to find cheap places to make movies, the Philippines were sitting there all the time! It’s a gorgeous country with beautiful vistas, landscapes and people—and it’s tropical.

When I interviewed Cirio Santiago for my book I was amazed by both the scope of his work and his unusual humility. He produced at least one film a year in the Philippines for thirty years in a row. His name is on more than 100 films. Some of the many great titles he produced in the Philippines include The Muthers, Savage!, Ebony, Ivory & Jade and the fantastic TNT Jackson (both his personal favorite and mine).
 
 
One of the things I would have liked to see in your book is interviews with some prominent actors in the blaxploitation genre just like you interviewed prominent directors. Was it a conscious decision on your part, or did you reach out to some actors and had no luck in setting up an interview?

Good question! Actors did not want to talk to me. Many of them were embarrassed by their participation in the genre and didn’t want to revisit it. They had a revised opinion about these pictures and many felt that they were underpaid and misrepresented. It was only after the actors refused to talk to me that I focused on the directors. I said to myself: “If I can get five directors to talk that would be great.” Then I kept going and got ten—before the publication deadline. I was so grateful that they were still around—thirty years had passed—and were happy to take the time to let me sit down and interview them.

In the end, the decision by the actors not to discuss the films worked in my favor. The directors were the ones that had the real stories. They could talk expansively about the creative process; writing, directing, and casting, but they could also talk about things that the actors weren’t involved in like movie studio politics, budgets, marketing and the executive take on the genre.
 
 
Besides authoring this definitive guide, you also give lectures on the genre, which makes me curious about the subject of political correctness. In today's society where political correctness is running rampant, do you ever get any criticism for promoting a genre that is anything but politically correct?

People remain divided on the merits of blaxploitation films and young people are easily offended. At one of my university lectures I actually saw a young white girl burst into tears when I projected a group of posters with the N-word in the title. It was a shock to her system. I think the younger generation just doesn’t get it. They don’t understand how Hollywood got away with releasing films with titles like The Soul of Nigger Charley, The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger or Run, Nigger, Run.

What students learn from my lectures is that the choice to use the N-word in film titles was made by African Americans—not white people. It’s not so different than the use of the word in Hip Hop. It’s taking ownership of the word away from white people and making it our own. Actor Fred Williamson freely admits that his choice to use the N-word in his film titles was calculated: “… that was sure to get them interested in the movie,” he says. “I knew what I was doing: it helped sell tickets.”
 
 
In 2011, you were invited to the Tela Negra Film Festival in Brazil where you both wrote a 10,000-word program and hosted film screenings for two weeks. Could you tell us more about the actual film festival and what kind of reactions you got from the people attending the festival?

Oh, it was fantastic! It was a great learning experience for me because I knew very little about Brazil, the people, the country and the culture. What I discovered was that they have as big a racial divide as America does. Consequently, their films have gone through a similar evolution. They were the last country to abolish slavery so they have a pronounced caste system. Brown and black Brazilians are on the low end of the totem pole while white skinned Brazilians are the politicians, entrepreneurs and entertainment industry stars.

Brazil was also a great place to talk about the films because they saw them at the time of their original release. They got American import films dubbed in Portuguese, so they were as familiar with Coffy, Shaft and Super Fly as I was. And blaxploitation did the same thing for black and brown Brazilians as it did for Americans: it allowed them the vicarious thrill of being successful—according to their own rules.

The broad based appeal of the films with Brazilian audiences was profoundly brought home to me when I spoke at the Odeon Theater in Sao Paulo. It’s one of the country’s most important culture venues and the energy was incredible: there wasn’t an empty seat in the house—and it seat 5,000! Just talking about Brazil makes me want to go back. Even though there were communication challenges (I had an interpreter), and it was difficult for me to negotiate transportation (I was terrified of being late for all the important engagements they had booked me for) the people were absolutely wonderful to me. I keep in contact with many Brazilian fans. It was an honor.
 
 
Let's talk music for a while. I've always felt that the blaxploitation genre took the concept of soundtracks to a whole new level, to me they are as big of a part of the movies as the actors, script, locales, cinematography and other essential aspects are. They almost felt like another character at times. Would you agree?

Absolutely! I’ve always made this case. Blaxploitation films provided a great forum for black music talent. Imagine Super Fly without Curtis Mayfied’s incredible soundtrack album or Shaft without that amazing Grammy and Oscar-winning Isaac Hayes song “Theme From Shaft.” Whether the characters are making love, strutting down the street, or engaged in a street corner brawl, music is essential to the mise en scene of blaxploitation.
 
 
Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Willie Hutch, Curtis Mayfield, Earth Wind & Fire, the amount of talented artists who contributed their music is astounding. If you had to pick just one soundtrack to best represent the genre, which one would it be and which one is your personal favorite?

There’s no question that Super Fly is the most fully realized blaxploitation soundtrack album. “Super Fly,” “Freddie’s Dead” and “Pusherman” were all hits and they are just as engaging and topical as they were when they were released. My favorite soundtrack from the era is probably Marvin Gaye’s Trouble Man. It’s heavy on instrumental tracks but it’s hauntingly beautiful. Also stellar is Roy Ayers’ Coffy, James Brown’s Black Caesar and Barry White’s Together Brothers.
 
 
There's another book on the genre called That's Blaxploitation! Roots of the Baadasssss 'Tude, by Darius James. It takes a different approach than yours do, it's both entertaining and quite odd. Have you read it and if so, what are your opinions of it?

That’s a fun book; more one person’s take on the genre than an overview. I met Darius at a Blaxploitation symposium at The Schomburg Center for African American Research here in NYC. We both gave lectures and, afterwards, we chatted: he’s quite a character!

Our books are different: his is a personal take, mine is a distanced overview. Don’t get me wrong, Blaxploitation Cinema contains many barbs and cutting observations, but the story of blaxploitation cinema is not my story: I'm just the messenger. My desire is to present context and information. I encourage the reader to see the films and draw their own conclusions.
 
 
In your book, you mention that several directors didn't want to be interviewed because they took offense to the term blaxploitation being used when discussing their work. Did they at least let you explain why you felt that this was an important book about an important time in the history of filmmaking? Or did they dismiss you right away?

Many people, inside and outside of the film industry, find the term “blaxploitation” derogatory. Fred Williamson has been one of the most vocal opponents to the labeling and categorization. He says if Death Wish isn’t called “whitesploitation” why should Black Caesar be called blaxploitation. He’s got a good case but it’s a case I won’t be making.

The director’s that didn’t want to speak to me didn’t want their films labeled “blaxploitation”—even if they were. They were revisionists. I understand where they’re coming from but I don’t agree with the basic premise that the term “blaxploitation” is disrespectful or exploitative. We’ll agree to disagree!
 
 
Have you met any Blaxploitation actors prior to or after the publishing of your book? Any interesting stories to tell if you have?

I was a guest commentator on five episodes of a TV series called Unsung Hollywood here in America. Unsung has been running for ten years on the African American network TV One. Unsung spends an hour looking at African American achievement in the entertainment industry. I met many of the major players in front of and behind the scenes of blaxploitation when I was filming episodes.

I remember when I did the Richard Roundtree episode two of his relatives were waiting in the green room for their turn to go before the cameras. They were great older people with their own unique stories and they were so proud of Roundtree and his accomplishments. They made a bigger impression on me than Richard himself!
 
 
Over the years since its release, have you gotten any encouraging words from people (actors, producers, directors or such) who worked in the genre and have read your book?

Only from the directors. They loved their interviews and they love the book and the fact that I presented them as more than working professions: to me they are an important part of American film history. Jammaa Fanaka (Penitentiary) was great. So was Robert A. Endelson (Fight For Your Life) and Larry Cohen (Black Caesar). Arthur Marks (Detroit 9000) told me that his grandchildren can’t believe that he’s worthy of being in a serious book about cinema!
 
 
Undoubtedly, Pam Grier best represents the female side of the genre, but who of the many prominent male stars do you feel would be best fit, when taking body of work into account, to represent the male counterpart in blaxploitation?

Fred Williamson and Jim Brown are the equivalent of Pam and both were just as big as Pam at the Box Office. Brown’s Slaughter was the No. 1 film in America and it was followed by a sequel: Slaughter’s Big Rip Off. He was an athlete who photographed well and had a cool laid back air about him. Fred Williamson is a movie star on a par with Tom Cruise. He’s an engaging commodity; a multi-talented actor/producer/writer who played in Westerns, comedies, dramas and even an engaging African American take on the James Bond franchise—called That Man Bolt. Both of these men are superior talents and genuine African American movie stars. What they did meant a lot to black audiences at the time: and it still does.
 
 
In your opinion, what is the best blaxploitation movie ever made from strictly a quality point of view and which one is your personal favorite based on your own preferences?

Super Fly is the best. Acting, writing, music, atmosphere, intent. The main character wants to get out of the drug trade. My personal favorite is Coffy. It’s an anti hero vigilante justice tale that hit No. 1 Variety’s Top Grossing Box Office List (just as popular with white audiences as with African Americans) and made Pam Grier a star. It’s bombastic, outrageous, stunning to behold and clever. A downbeat film (no happy ending here) with a message. Simple and profound.
 
 
Shaft is making the news again as you may be aware of, with another reboot in the works. Normally, I dislike remakes and reboots while at the same time acknowledging there have been some great ones, too. With Shaft, however, I welcome a new one. I very much liked John Singleton's effort with Samuel L. Jackson back in 2000 and hoped that was the start of a new franchise. I feel that Shaft is one of those immortal characters like James Bond where every other generation or so, a new actor can take over the role. What are your thoughts regarding a new Shaft movie and who do you think would be good in the leading role? My dream casting would be Idris Elba.

Idris Elba would be perfect for the part (even if he is British!) He’s fantastic: a good actor with charm and charisma and he’s already displayed his athletic prowess on film.. Although I'm attached to the originals, I stand behind re-making films from the genre. If Hollywood wants to pay for a brand new updated version, that’s great! Much has changed and that can all be worked into a retelling. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.
 
 
Would you be so kind as to recommend five movies as a good starting point to those of my readers that may not be very familiar with blaxploitation? Also, could you list five movies of lesser quality that newcomers should avoid until they've gotten more used to the genre and its unconventionalism?

Best: Coffy, Super Fly, Shaft’s Big Score!, Top of the Heap, Black Caesar, in that order.

Worst; (but still fun as camp): The Guy From Harlem, Miss Melody Jones, Speeding Up Time, Mean Mother, The Bus is Coming, in that order.
 
 
Finally, besides Blaxploitation Cinema, you've also written books about Donna Summer, Cher and the anecdotal Famous People Eat Too! What are your plans for the future? Are you working on a new book, or have ideas for future ones?

I'm a regular contributor to several cinema websites and I continue to be a consultant on the genre: both on the lecture circuit and behind the scenes. Currently I'm very excited about two screenplays that I’ve written. I have an agent in Los Angeles and he’s shopping them. It really is my best writing: incorporating my love and knowledge of cinema, my personal experiences, and my passions and inclinations. It’s my hope to see you soon Anders: at a theater near you!
 
Stort tack till Josiah Howard för intervjun! Ni kan besöka hans hemsida här och boken Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide kan ni köpa på BokusAdlibrisAmazon och Fab Press.
Arthur Marks - Barry White - Black Caesar - Blaxploitation - Blaxploitation Cinema: The Essential Reference Guide - Cher - Coffy - Curtis Mayfield - Death Wish - Detroit 9000 - Donna Summer - Ebony, Ivory & Jade - Famous People Eat Too! - Fight for Your Life - Fred Williamson - Freddie's Dead - Greased Lightening - Hit Man - Idris Elba - Isaac Hayes - Jamaa Fanaka - James Bond - James Brown - Jim Brown - John Singleton - Josiah Howard - Larry Cohen - Mahogany - Mean Mother - Miss Melody Jones - Pam Grier - Penitentiary - Pusherman - Richard Roundtree - Robert A. Endelson - Run, Nigger, Run - Samuel L. Jackson - Savage! - Shaft - Shaft's Big Score! - Slaughter - Slaughter's Big Rip Off - Speeding Up Time - Super Fly - TNT Jackson - That Man Bolt - The Big Doll House - The Bus is Coming - The Guy From Harlem - The Muthers - The Six Thousand Dollar Nigger - The Soul of Nigger Charley - Theme from Shaft - Together Brothers - Tom Cruise - Top of the Heap - Trouble Man - Unsung Hollywood - Women in Cages

Intervju Med Robert Reneau - Manusförfattaren Till Action Jackson

 
När jag bestämde mig för att Action Jackson skulle bli den första film att recensera här på bloggen var det ett säkert kort jag valt. Det är en film jag kan utantill och skulle kunna spendera en hel dag åt att prata om den utan att tröttna. Jag har haft turen att få intervjua mannen som var en väldigt stor bidragande faktor till att filmen är en av mina absoluta favoriter - dess manusförfattare Robert Reneau. Nedan följer min intervju med honom.
 
Action Jackson was the first movie script you wrote (that got made, at least). Tell us a little bit about how you got this big break in Hollywood and where the idea for the script came from.
 
I had written about eight spec screenplays before my ninth one, a contemporary noir titled “Rough Trade,” got me an agent. It helped a tremendous amount that I was good friends with Shane Black. He had recently sold his screenplay for Lethal Weapon for a fair amount of money (but an especially impressive amount for an unknown writer – this was before spec scripts started selling for insane amounts), and both Lethal Weapon and The Monster Squad (which Shane co-wrote with our friend, director Fred Dekker) went into production simultaneously. People wanted to be in “the Shane Black business,” and those of us writers who were friends of Shane (and of Fred) thus had a natural “in” to getting our scripts read by agents and producers – to be perfectly honest, without that Shane connection, I have no idea if I would ever have been able to get an agent – I’m not the most assertive of personalities, though as far as my screenwriting is concerned, I had a lot more confidence then than I do now; the foolishness of youth, I suppose.
 
Lethal Weapon was in production (I got to visit the set several times, including the bank where Gibson and Glover question Tom Atkins, as well as the “Murtaugh” family house which was on the Warner ranch – I believe the ballroom from The Witches of Eastwick was across the street, and I think Monster Squad was also partially shot on the Warner ranch), and Richard Donner decided to replace some of the scenes he had already shot (such as Gibson’s introduction) and also wanted some new scenes. Shane was not eager to do write entirely new material now that the film had already started shooting, having done plenty of pre-production rewrites, so he got me the gig of writing new material for the script.
 
I was only on Lethal Weapon for a couple weeks. I wrote a draft of the scene where Gibson and Glover chat while sitting on the boat in Glover’s driveway (the boat was a Donner addition). They spent an entire night shooting my draft of the scene, but for reasons it wouldn’t be diplomatic to go into (besides the fact that my draft wasn’t all that great), they decided not to use any of that footage, and Jeffrey Boam (who was one of the writers on Donner’s production The Lost Boys, made around the same time, which is why when Gibson and Glover pass the Wiltern theater on Wilshire Blvd. the marquee reads “The Lost Boys – This Year’s Hit”) wrote a new version of the scene, which is the one that was finally used. Boam became the writer for the rewrites, including the brand new intro scene with Gibson in the Christmas tree lot, and was also the principal writer for Lethal Weapon 2 & 3 (the first draft of Lethal 2 was written by Shane and his idol, Remo Williams creator Warren Murphy, but Boam’s rewrites changed that script hugely – I don’t think the Black/Murphy draft even involved South Africa). The only line of mine to remain in that Lethal Weapon scene is “We got one dead girl and one dead guy. The dead guy killed the dead girl, and we killed the dead guy, ‘cause he wanted us to be dead guys.” I know, that’s right up there with “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” isn’t it?
 
Even though I was fired from Lethal Weapon, Joel Silver liked my pages well enough to hire me to write Action Jackson. I’d first heard about the project a few months earlier when Shane returned from filming Predator in Mexico. He said that Joel and Carl wanted to do a movie together for Carl to star in called Action Jackson, sort of a throwback to the Shaft era, and wanted him to write it. He turned them down.
 
The title “Action Jackson” actually came from a G.I. Joe-style doll from the 1960s, which had its own commercial jingle. I think it went “Action Jackson is his name/Bold adventure is his game.” Though they’d stopped making the doll by the time we started working on the movie, the studio had to clear the name with the toy company. Some company actually started making the dolls again a decade or so later, with no connection to the movie. (No one has ever made any Action Jackson movie toys, but I would certainly buy them if they did; I have all the Demolition Man toys that I’m aware of).
 
Though I never saw it, apparently Joel and Carl had already had some sort of outline for the movie. All I ever heard about it that it featured an assassin who was also a Benihana chef, and in one scene killed someone at the restaurant while cooking a meal. That sounds kind of fun, and makes me wish I’d found a way to include it.
 
Joel had a few specific guidelines for the script. Carl would be playing a Detroit policeman named “Jericho ‘Action’ Jackson,” the story should involve the auto unions, and the female lead should be a “Janet Jackson-type” singer. Other than that, I pretty much had free rein in coming up with the storyline. I did some research on Detroit, and specifically on John Delorean, whom I’d decided to model the villain after.
 
I wrote a brief outline that was pretty close to what the story for the film ended up being, with the basic plot points and all the main characters, and Joel approved it. One of the few minor things I remember changing from the outline is that in my first version, I had the ex-boxer Kid Sable driving the sports car through the house – the film’s development person (who became one of my closest friends, and later supervised and produced several films for Disney) wisely suggested that since this was the biggest scale piece of action in the finale, it should be Jackson himself who does this.
 
 
How long did it take for you to write the whole script?
 
I think I wrote the first draft in a month and a half or so. The project was first set up at 20th Century Fox, and while I was working on it it looked like the studio might not want to develop it after all – after I’d not only started writing it but had moved into my first one-bedroom apartment, so I was worried the deal would fall through before I even got paid – but luckily they changed their minds, though not long after I finished the first draft the studio put it into “turnaround.” However, the production company Lorimar, which had just started distributing their own movies, needed projects and they picked it up from Fox. (Soon after that I met an exec at MGM who said that he had wanted to pick it up but he was unhappy that his bosses picked up A Fish Called Wanda instead. When I ran into him a year or two later I teased him about it, because Wanda ended up a much bigger hit than Jackson, as well as earning an Oscar and three nominations).
 
How would you describe the experience of writing the script? Was it fun, or hard, grueling work that made you understand why so many of our famous writers were alcoholics?
 
It was actually pretty grueling, not so much because it was an especially challenging project, but because it was the first time anyone was actually paying me to write a full-length screenplay, so I felt a lot of stress while writing it – if it turned out badly, there was a pretty good chance no one would hire me to write a movie again.
 
Did you have someone in mind when you wrote the character of Jericho Jackson? If Carl Weathers was already attached to the project when you wrote the script, was it easier to write the dialogue for the character with him in mind?
 
The part was definitely written with Carl in mind, though I’m not sure how specifically that affected my actual writing of the role. I feel in retrospect that Carl and I might have had very different views on what his character should be – I was most impressed by his warmth and charisma as Apollo Creed in the Rocky sequels (I didn’t see the original Rocky until 2003), while I think Carl may have seen Jackson more as a stone-eyed terminator-type figure. I hope we were able to meet someplace satisfactory in the middle.
 
 
In a decade where one-liners were uttered left and right by guys like Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Chuck Norris, did you find it hard to come up with good ones that you wanted to stay in people's minds? Do you have a personal favorite?
 
I was very lucky, especially for a first-time writer, in that no other writers were brought in to rewrite the script. (One unfortunate reality of the screenwriting business is that there is a very good chance any given writer on any project will be rewritten at some point, whether they are officially “fired” or not) I was especially worried that Steven DeSouza, who had worked on such Joel Silver movies as 48 Hrs and Commando (and later Die Hard 1 & 2) would replace me, but one of the reasons Action Jackson ended up as it did – going into production with minimal rewrites and a cast full of fun actors, often in small roles (including Thomas F. Wilson, Bill Duke, Sonny Landham, Robert Davi, Amelia McQueen and Ed O’Ross) was that the industry was fearing a potential Directors Guild strike that summer, and wanted to get as many films as possible “in the can” before a possible work stoppage.
 
I bring this up because the quip that gets quoted the most – “Barbecue, huh? How do you like your ribs?” – wasn’t actually mine (it even ended up in a recent YouTube supercut of pre-killing one-liners). I don’t know if I ever knew who came up with it; it might have been Joel himself. The main difference in that scene from my draft is in my version, that the bad guy is armed when Jackson kills him – I wouldn’t have had Jackson kill an unarmed villain, even one who had threatened to burn him alive. (In my version of the opening scene, the bad guys used a fire hose to knock Ed O’Ross out the window, not a rocket launcher – the death is supposed to look like an accident due to a fire, and I figured the water from the hose would have dried by the time people got to the body; on the other hand, that flaming corpse crashing onto a restaurant table made a more visually exciting opening, especially as it cuts right to the opening credits and the Pointer Sisters’ main title song [which wasn’t actually written for the film]).
 
Though most of the dialogue is mine, other people contributed here and there. In the opening scene, the actress who played the union official’s ill-fated secretary was Joel’s friend Mary Ellen Trainor (who passed on fairly recently), who played the police psychiatrist in the Lethal Weapon films and the newscaster in the Die Hard films (and was also at the time the wife of Robert Zemeckis – that same year, Joel himself played the director in the opening scene of Zemeckis’ Who Framed Roger Rabbit). Joel let Mary Ellen do a rewrite of her dialogue with Ed O’Ross in the opening scene (my version began with the secretary performing a sex act on her boss), but he told me that he didn’t want anything in the script that I didn’t approve of – I’ve long suspected that was the last time any screenwriter was ever told that – and I told him I was fine with her rewrite.
 
There were a few random lines added by others during filming – like Kid Sable watching “The Flintstones” on TV and going “Bite ‘im! Bite ‘im!” (at the time, Joel was developing the live action film of The Flintstones, which would ultimately be produced by Steven Spielberg instead.) The biggest (but still not very big) changes came in post-production. After we had a recruited screening of the film, Joel felt we should add a few scenes/moments to make Jackson more likable. We wrote and shot the scene with Jackson and the young car valet outside his building (the actor was at the time already playing the young chauffeur in Die Hard), and I think it was the film’s editor, Mark Helfrich, who came up with the separate moments, shot as inserts in post-production, where Jackson tells Dellaplane “Someday, you’re really gonna piss me off” and then in the finale says “Now you’re pissing me off!” I have to admit I was pretty disappointed that this bit – which seemed the most perfunctory kind of setup-and-payoff dialogue – got the biggest audience reaction of the entire film when we previewed the movie again.
 
Though I was raised on James Bond films and their quips, good and bad, I honestly can’t remember any of that kind of quip I contributed to the Jackson script, though there must have been some. Shane actually suggested a risqué quip I probably should have used – when Carl and Vanity go in for the clinch at the end, he thought she should say “I’ve always wanted to be action-packed.”
 
A few of the action setpieces changed from my draft to the actual filming. My first draft had a car chase on a golf course, and that was something that simply wasn’t affordable from a production standpoint. Similarly, right before Jackson is captured in act two, I had a big fight scene between him and one of Dellaplane’s thugs in a decaying tenement, with the two men actually crashing through the walls, but they couldn’t afford to build that as a set and a real decaying tenement would be unsafe to shoot in.
 
The only other major change I can remember is that the final moments of the film were originally set in a hospital room, where Sydney is visiting Jackson as he recovers from the gunshot. The scene was shot, and though I never saw it, I was told that it looked too much like the ending of a TV show, so they moved that dialogue to the final scene in Dellaplane’s house – which is why it seems like Sydney is claiming she’s instantly cured of her addiction, when that dialogue was actually written for a scene that was supposed to take place days later.
 
As far as killing-quips are concerned, my favorite story (which Shane has told in interviews) regarding action movie quips is about Lethal Weapon 2. One of the film’s most beloved moments comes at the end, when the South African diplomat/supervillain Joss Ackland (having just shot Mel Gibson) holds up his ID and bleats “Diplomatic immunity!” and Danny Glover replies “Has just been revoked!” as he kills him.
 
Two friends of ours happened to be at the Ralph’s market in Century City (across the street from the AMPM where Reginald Veljohnson buys twinkies in Die Hard, and just down the street from the “Nakatomi” building) when the cashier was telling a customer how much he loved the end of Lethal Weapon 2, when the bad guy says “Diplomatic immunity!” and Danny Glover replies “This is for when you vote!”
 
I guess the moral might be: it doesn’t matter what quip you write, because if the audience likes the movie enough, they’ll substitute whatever dialogue they think they hear, even if it makes no sense, and love it just as much.
 
 
Did you spend time on set and meet the director or any of the actors? Do you have any interesting stories to share if you did?
 
I paid a few visits to the set. The police station office set was in a building in downtown L.A. My strongest memory of that set visit was running into a fellow former U.C.L.A. student, who was then working as a reader for Carl Weathers’ production company. We stayed in touch, and he later went on to direct the movies Skin and Louder Than Words.
 
One other thing I remember about that location was meeting Bill Duke, who played Jackson’s boss. I talked with Duke about a great Hill Street Blues episode he’d directed, where the mayor (played by George Coe) accidentally falls out of a building he’s touring. (Duke didn’t have many scenes in Action Jackson, but I heard at the time that his father was dying in the hospital, and that one of his scenes was shot the day before the funeral, so I’m just happy he stayed with the film).
 
There was a fishbowl in the police station set, with an actual goldfish, but I heard that the fish died – either it was left in the bowl over the weekend, or some paint got in the water. Either way, I remembered how when filming The Omen, Richard Donner made sure there wasn’t a real goldfish in the falling bowl when Lee Remick falls off the railing, and I teased Craig Baxley 

“Dick Donner wouldn’t have let that fish die.”

I also remember visiting a sleazy hotel downtown, where they were shooting Robert Davi’s scene (Arnold Schwarzenegger was visiting, but Joel never got around to introducing us), and the pool hall, which was also downtown. I met Branscome Richmond, the “Why you looking for Papa Doc?” guy, and he’s one actor who’s still always popping up in movies – he recently appeared briefly in Mike & Dave Need Wedding Dates as a Hawaiian BBQ chef.

I also visited the soundstage sets, specifically the interior of Dellaplane’s mansion, which were built somewhere in the north San Fernando Valley, possibly Santa Clarita.

I met most of the major cast, particularly, of course, Carl. I only spotted Sharon Stone once, at Joel’s office, but we were never introduced. I was most excited to meet Craig T. Nelson, whom I’d been a big fan of ever since Poltergeist, and learning that he had signed on to play Dellaplane was one of my happiest days on the project. (Since the character was modeled after silver-haired John Delorean, I’d pictured James Coburn or Christopher Plummer in the part, but Joel wanted more of a “two-fisted Ben Gazzara-type.” His first suggestion was Sam Elliott, whom I felt wasn’t physically imposing enough to go toe-to-toe with Carl, but Elliott was spectacularly well cast by Joel in Road House the following year).

There is one mildly amusing story I can tell you about a cast member, but for discretion’s sake I won’t tell you their name. Joel told director Craig Baxley and me that this particular actor had some ideas for his big scene, and that we should meet with him to hear his thoughts.

Craig Baxley and I met with the actor, and afterwards I drafted a version of his big scene incorporating the actor’s suggestions. I missed the later meeting when Joel blew up at Baxley – apparently though we were supposed to listen to the actor’s ideas, we weren’t actually expected to write a version of the scene to his specifications. I was told later that Joel yelled “[actor] is not the producer of this picture! I am the producer of this picture!”

That’s the only occasion I heard about during the film when Joel lost his temper, and I am happy to have missed it.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the director, Craig R. Baxley. He’s from a Hollywood family of stunt men; his dad was Paul Baxley, a stunt coordinator/stuntman who was William Shatner’s principal stunt double in the original Star Trek series.

Craig himself was a stuntman – he did the stunt of the policeman driving the car off the cliff in pursuit of a UFO in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and managed to shatter his leg in doing so (I never noticed a limp, so I guess he recovered fully in those ten years). I didn’t know this when I was working with him, and I would have been even more impressed if I’d known that he played some of the monsters on one of my all-time favorite TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Craig played the robot Mr. R.I.N.G. and the man-sized dinosaur in the final episode, and he also got tossed around by monsters in another couple episodes.

Craig was the stunt coordinator for TV’s The A-Team and directed nine episodes and, more importantly, was the second-unit director for the sequences in Reds shot in Spain and for Predator – I always heard that he essentially directed the big assault-on-the-village scene in Predator, and that this was what got him the Action Jackson job.

Craig, who looks (or at least looked like this in 1987 – I haven’t seen him in a couple decades) like William Devane with Michael Landon’s long shaggy hair, was an absolute delight to work with – friendly, even-tempered, just about the most genuinely nice person I met in my years as a screenwriter.

Craig’s own son Craig Jr. is also a stuntman. I recently saw him in an early Masters of Sex episode, as one of a group of thugs who attacks Beau Bridges while he’s waiting to pick up a male prostitute.

While we’re on the subject of actors, I should mention that I got to attend one of the casting sessions, specifically for the actors auditioning to play Kornblau, the younger of the patrol cops. (Joel really wanted Bill Paxton for the part – they’d worked together on Weird Science – but Paxton was unavailable. I was actually happy about this, as I’d only really known Paxton from Weird Science and Aliens, so I thought he was a bit broad for my tastes. So I was pleasantly surprised when he turned out to be a really first-rate actor, especially in A Simple Plan). I spent the day watching young actors read the scenes, including Michael Bowen and Rob Knepper (I remember vividly that in reading the line “He might as well wear a T-shirt that says ‘I steal shit’ on it”, Knepper emphasized ‘shit’ instead of ‘steal,” which killed the joke).

To me it’s an object lesson in Hollywood careers, especially those of actors, that of all the actors who read that day, the only one who was totally unfamiliar to me was Willie Garson. And in the almost thirty years since, it’s Willie Garson who arguably has worked the most – probably best known as Sarah Jessica Parker’s gay friend Stanford on Sex in the City (the second film begins with his wedding), I’ve seen him in 26 movies since that audition – he even played Lee Harvey Oswald in Ruby.

As you know, we lost the very talented Vanity earlier this year. What do you think of her contribution to the movie, both as an actress and the three songs she recorded for the soundtrack?

I had found Vanity very effective in John Frankenheimer’s terrific 52 Pick-Up, and felt she was an ideal choice for the role in Jackson (though I remember one day in pre-production when Joel thought he might want to go for a “prestige” cast and have Peter Coyote play Dellaplane and Cathy Tyson [from Neil Jordan’s Mona Lisa] as Sydney), and I actually had her in mind when I wrote the part.

Originally, Sydney Ash’s name was going to be Ashley Benson – I was in high school with a girl whose last name was Ashley and whose mother, a local film critic, was named Sheila Benson – but I decided that “Ashley Benson” sounded a little too much like “Action Jackson,” so it became “Sydney Ash.” It wasn’t until 1989 that Pretty Little Liars actress Ashley Benson was born.

I met Vanity briefly at Joel’s office, and she had been flattered to hear I had her in mind when I wrote the role. She seemed nice enough – later I heard a story that she stopped at a gas station on the way back from filming one night and didn’t have cash on her to pay for gas, so she gave them the prop jewelry she was still wearing instead. Don’t know if this story’s true or not, though it sounds oddly plausible.

I was definitely sad to read about her death some months back, though I’d already read on-line about her declining health, so it wasn’t a big surprise. I really liked her in the film – it wasn’t the most polished performance, but she had a real charisma that was quite appealing, and obviously she was extremely photogenic and genuinely sexy, which never hurts.

Not long after Action Jackson came out on VHS, I was in a local video store and happened to overhear two young clerks talking about the film, expressing their skepticism over the moment when Carl turns down a sexual advance from Vanity. At least they quoted the scene accurately.

I heard a rumor that Prince may have helped write one or more of Vanity’s songs for the film, but that was never confirmed.


As a fellow lover of movie scores (Robert är skribent för Film Score Monthly), what do you think about the Michael Kamen/Herbie Hancock collaboration for the Action Jackson score? Do you think it will ever be released?

I think the score works in context, but overall it’s kinda forgettable – Isaac Hayes set the bar pretty high for this kind of score with his Shaft theme. I got to meet Michael Kamen several times over the years – I later attended scoring sessions for Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout and Last Action Hero – and I liked him a great deal personally (not that I ever knew him well enough for him to recognize me when I’d run into him the next time). I was particularly impressed by him at the Last Action Hero scoring session – even though they were behind schedule (and the film had already fallen victim to bad word-of-mouth before anyone had even seen it), he was completely relaxed and comfortable.

There’s one scene where I have issues with the scoring, but I don’t know that it’s really Kamen’s fault. (I’m assuming it was a Kamen cue and not a Hancock piece). There’s a major dialogue scene early on (in writing action movies, I was always hugely influenced by the James Bond films I grew up on, and this scene was clearly modeled after the inevitable post-main-title scene where Bond gets briefed on his new mission by M), where Carl goes into Bill Duke’s office and gets his Dellaplane-related assignment. Joel felt the scene as it played was too dry and boring so he hoped the music would spice it up, but I found the comedy cue written for the scene really irritating – it sounded like the music from a fast food fajitas commercial that was playing at the time, possibly for Jack in the Box.

No idea if it will be ever released, though obviously I’d love it if it were. Since Herbie Hancock is a major recording artist in his own right (to say the least), I suspect he has some say over whether it will ever come out, and I suspect that score isn’t exactly a favorite project of his.

 
What did it feel like to watch the first movie you'd written, for a big Hollywood studio to boot, for the very first time? Did the viewing take place in a theater with family and friends?

I think the first time I saw it might have been in a rough cut in a screening room at what was originally the MGM studio lot in Culver City – by the time Action Jackson was made, it was the Lorimar lot (I have a treasured photo of myself holding my Writers Guild strike picket sign in front of the lot, with the Action Jackson logo visible behind me on top of one of the studio buildings), but since Lorimar didn’t last very long as a film studio all to itself, it’s been the Sony lot for the last few decades (and I got to watch scoring sessions for RoboCop 3, Last Action Hero and The Long Kiss Goodnight on that lot). The rough cut was actually pretty close to the final version.

I saw it a few more times in the theater. We had a “recruited” screening in the Long Beach area, the same theater where I was able to tag along with Shane and Joel for a recruited screening of Lethal Weapon a year earlier, and we had the premiere of the film at one of my favorite L.A. theaters, the Mann Village in Westwood – I even got to sit in the balcony with my friends, which made the evening even nicer.

It opened at another great Westwood theater, the National (the National has since been torn down, but if you watch David Fincher’s Zodiac, the interior of the National is used to portray the interior of San Francisco’s Northpoint theater – another beloved theater long closed – for the scene where Mark Ruffalo’s character attends a special screening of Dirty Harry), and I went to see it there one more time, but there weren’t a lot of audience members in that huge theater.

 
What was your initial reaction to the movie and has your opinion on it changed over the years?

Overall, I was very happy with the film. It’s unusually faithful to what I wrote -- even little moments like the pickpocket saying “F*ck a duck” after stealing Jackson’s badge, or the poor taste jokes the guards on the yacht make before they’re killed, came right out of my script.

I remember telling some of my friends at the time that I thought the movie was actually better than Lethal Weapon – but I didn’t mean that to sound as egotistical as it probably sounds now. I always had a very mixed opinion on Lethal Weapon – I felt Shane’s script was excellent (unlike mine), but I felt Donner’s direction made it a lot blander; I would have loved to see how the Donner of The Omen or even Superman would have handled it. Jackson, on the other hand, didn’t have nearly as good a script, but I felt the other aspects of the movie were closer to the level of the script, and thus the movie was more consistent and less frustrating than Lethal, if that makes any sense. I’ve found that the film’s biggest fans tend to be white guys who were in college in the early 90s (for the record, I’m a white guy who was in college in the early 80s) – don’t know why that is.

There are some moments in the script and film that I’m especially happy with – the scene right before Dellaplane kills his wife, particularly the way we see her almost find the gun in his belt and then it disappears right before he shoots her, is exactly the way I’d described it in my script, and I really like the section where Jackson fights Sonny Landham and he and Sydney jump out the window onto the convertible top, eluding the police. Sonny is particularly funny in that scene, and I liked the idea of throwing the body from one window through another.

Of the two films which I wrote that actually got made, I tend to think of Action Jackson as my child that I love even though it’s embarrassing in a lot of ways (the one way that it actually resembles me and my sensibility is that it’s relentlessly glib), while Demolition Man is more like being divorced from a well-known actress – people are impressed, but all you can remember is the infidelity and the alimony.

 
Carl Weathers said in an interview not long ago that with all the action franchises getting sequels these days (Die Hard, Terminator, Expendables etc), there should be one for Action Jackson as well. If you were offered to write the script for a sequel, would you be up for it?

That’s a very difficult question. On the one hand, I’d love to have someone offer to pay me to write a script – though I’ve written plenty of spec scripts since (none of which sold), I haven’t actually been paid to write a screenplay since I was replaced on Demolition Man back in 1992. On the other hand, I never really saw action movie writing as my strong suit – I sort of accidentally stumbled into it (my noir script “Rough Trade” wasn’t really an action movie though it did have some action scenes).

So yes, I would be willing to write it (how could I not?), but they’d probably be wiser to find someone else.

Stort tack till Robert Reneau för intervjun!
52 Pick-Up - A Simple Plan - Action Jackson - Aliens - Bill Duke - Bill Paxton - Carl Weathers - Craig R. Baxley - Die Hard - Dirty Harry - Film Score Monthly - Herbie Hancock - Isaac Hayes - Joel Silver - John Frankenheimer - Last Action Hero - Lethal Weapon - Michael Kamen - Predator - Reds - Richard Donner - Robert Reneau - Shaft - The A-Team - The Last Boy Scout - The Monster Squad - The Witches of Eastwick - Tom Atkins - Vanity - Weird Science

Intervju med Andrew Leavold - Mannen Bakom The Search for Weng Weng

 
Andrew Leavold är förmodligen världens ledande skräpfilmsexpert och mannen bakom filmen The Search for Weng Weng, eller Dom Kallar Mig Minibond som den fått heta i Sverige. Han har skrivit, regisserat och producerat dokumentären, som är en personlig resa och uppfylld dröm vi tittare får äran att följa med på. Denna resa, vars slutdestination tog sju år att nå, både berörde och inspirerade mig. Jag tog kontakt med Andrew för ett tag sedan och när jag senare fick idén om den här temaveckan var han den första jag berättade det för. Han var väldigt positivt inställd till temat och gick genast med på att vara en del av den genom att ställa upp på intervjun, som ni nu kan läsa nedan.
 
I think there's no better way for you to introduce yourself to my readers than to tell us all about the video store you once owned called Trash Video, as well as your undying love for trash cinema.
 
OK, here’s the concise version: I was an expat kid growing up in the Middle East, aged 9, when Betamax arrived, and I could suddenly watch all of the films I was previously denied. Horror films were my greatest love, but I watched everything (I still do, A to Z Grade, but especially the left-of field stuff!). And I dreamed of owning my own cult video store. In 1995, aged 25, and after working for the welfare department for 5 years, I bought enough rare VHS tapes to open Trash Video, a little rental store specializing in genre, arthouse, classics, animation, and obscenely rare movies, and started a 15 year adventure in the cult movie world. Of course the other dream was to become a film maker. That took a little longer. While the shop was not doing so great I directed a few underground things, real cheap and nasty, but was also seen as a collector and historian of weird and unknown cinema… the love of forgotten Filipino B films brought me to a Manila film festival, I decided to start a documentary about my favourite Filipino B film actor, and it all went REALLY weird after that...
 
Skyltfönstret till den numera nerlagda filmbutiken
 
Could you tell us about your introduction to Weng Weng and how it had such a powerful impact on you that you finally decided to make this movie?
 
I remember the day like it was yesterday. It was in the early 90s, before I opened Trash Video. My friend knew I was looking for this Holy Grail of weird Asian cinema, and gave me a bootleg VHS copy of For Y’ur Height Only. I watched it with my mouth open – I couldn’t believe that such a film could exist! So self-aware, and yet so incredibly dumb! And its star, this two foot nine karate-kicking miracle who seemed to perform all of his own stunts… For some reason I was obsessed with the absurdity AND humanity of Weng Weng, and I made it my life’s mission then and there to find out all I could about him, even if the internet didn’t exist and there was no way of uncovering biographical information on him. I even dreamt of being in the Philippines, telling someone on the phone I was an Australian film maker (which, in the late Nineties, I wasn’t!) in the Philippines to make a documentary about Weng Weng. Ten years later, I actually WAS in the Philippines!
 
It took you seven years and a hundred hours of shot footage before you completed the movie. How many trips to The Philippines did that include and how did you manage to finance them?
 
From first trip to premiere, ten trips. All self-financed on borrowed money, with a tiny amount of government funding here and there - all except for the final shoot on Trip Nine, where Kickstarter funds paid for the four weeks’ wrap-up sequences. It took me the entirety of those seven years blindly working out the missing pieces to Weng Weng’s story, and then assembling them into a narrative that made sense to non-Weng fanatics! I think I still have the charts I drew, over a hundred of them, showing all the ways the story could be pieced together. Luckily an editor found me – Canadian Jim Scott – who, as well as being a huge Weng Weng fan, is a genius at piecing together weird tales about outsiders.
 
Andrew filmar Weng Wengs bostadsområde, Baclaran
 
In March of 2013, you started a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of reaching at least 30 000 dollars to cover the costs of post production. Your goal was reached less than two months later in May and the amount ended up at 34 073 dollars pledged by a total of 333 backers. Did the response from that many fans overwhelm you? Did you have any idea Weng Weng had that many dedicated fans out there?
 
No idea, though I was banking on there being enough interest in a film on lost Filipino cinema, otherwise it would have been almost a decade of work down the toilet. Kickstarter’s an all-or-nothing proposition, so I was sweating bullets until the campaign had reached that magic $30K mark, and at times it looked like we may not reach our target. But luckily – miraculously! - we did, and the film is so much better from everyone’s contributions. It helped in the last fortnight of the campaign to request “I Heart Weng Weng” photos from all of the globe. They make me smile every time I watch the end credits, AND remind me how close we sailed to defeat!
 
 
Sadly, the most important discovery in your documentary is the fact that Weng Weng is no longer with us. Had that not been the case, what is the one question you would have liked to ask him more than any other?
 
“Were you happy?” Or more specifically, “Was the rollercoaster ride worth it, despite the fact you were hardly ever paid and ended up forgotten?” In the film, I can only speculate, from what his family and colleagues told me, that he was a person of simple joys, and that he treasured his pre- and post-fame life in his old Baclaran neighbourhood as much as his fleeting superstardom. I’ve since collected more stories which suggest he was content merely with his talents being recognized, and that his family could be helped out with some food and the occasional pocket money. A beautiful little soul.
 
Vid Weng Wengs grav, tillsammans med brodern Celing
 
Despite not being able to interview Weng Weng, you met some very interesting people during the shooting of the movie. Did some of them become friends of yours that you still keep in touch with?
 
Definitely. I’m still in contact with most of the folk I interviewed, many of them are our drinking buddies when I head back to Manila. The family, I’m happy to say was able to help out financially via some of the Kickstarter contributions (when the film finally makes some money, I should be able to help more). Sadly Weng Weng’s brother Celing passed away in late 2014, but he came to the Manila premiere and was able to see how far his brother’s story had travelled. Weng Weng’s director Eddie Nicart, too, passed away around the same time, and we’d become very close to him and his family also. For Eddie it was the first time anyone had listened to his stories. His family told us he died happy, knowing his legacy was safe.
 
Tillsammans med bland annat Eddie Nicart och en annan filipinsk B-filmsikon - Franco Guerrero
 
You and your movie have been making the rounds on film festivals all over the world these past few years. How many countries has screened the movie so far and which country did you feel had the best reaction from the crowd?
 
I had to check… Wow. Twenty countries so far – USA and Canada, South America, all over Europe, the Philippines of course, a few other countries in South East Asia, and up and down Australia. From memory the greatest receptions were at our European premiere in Udine, northern Italy; in a tiny Spanish town near Barcelona called Vic, who put on an incredible Far East Film Festival; in a small arthouse cinema in Copenhagen; and our first ever screening in Manila, November 2013, where Daniel and I was so nervous I almost vomited blood! Hands down, though, the single most profoundly affecting moment was when we screened the film in Weng Weng’s former neighbourhood in the back streets of Baclaran in Metro Manila, outside the house where he was born and died in. It turned into an old fashioned street party! We put on soft drink and pizza for the kids, Empirador brandy for the adults. We then got drunk with them after the film, and Weng Weng’s relatives and neighbours all said, “Good job.” For a film maker and biographer, where you have a duty to get the story of someone’s life right, it doesn’t get better than that.
 
På den Europeiska premiären i Udine
 
Being from Sweden, I have to ask if there's been any interest shown by any of our film festivals to screen your movie, or if you've reached out to any of them for a possible screening?
 
Unfortunately no. My contact who previously worked at the Stockholm International Film Festival was unable to convince them to screen the movie back in 2014. So we missed the boat there. Being a one-man team I simply didn’t have the resources or influence to secure other screenings in Sweden. With the Minibond DVD release, hopefully this might change with our next film. If anyone would like to contact me about a screening, please email me - andrewleavold@gmail – as I’d love to hear from you.
 
Having watched the movie, it's obvious that your search was as successful as you could have hoped it would be. It truly is remarkable what you achieved considering what little you had to go on. With that said, does the documentary conclude the professional side of your love for Weng Weng, or do fans have something else Weng Weng-related to look forward to from you?
 
No, I have much more to do with the little guy. My book version of The Search… comes out early 2017, and is a greatly expanded work covering the much wider history of Filipino action films, action stars and their stuntmen henchmen, as well as the multitude of stories I’ve collected since the cameras stopped rolling. For instance, I’ve uncovered more stories about his so-called magical powers, and have tracked down information on even more lost Weng Weng titles – fourteen now (of which I’ve seen seven) and still counting. More family members have generously donated their stories to me, including a particularly poignant account about Weng Weng’s final night. My quest to come as close to Weng Weng as possible won’t ever end. And if I become as pretentious as Francis Ford Coppola I might even do a Search For Weng Weng Redux for the tenth anniversary in 2023.
 
I have to bring up the fact that you have quite an awesome tattoo of Weng Weng on your arm. How long have you had it and what's the story behind it? Was it with you at any point during the seven years you were shooting the movie? I bet a lot of the interviewees would have gotten a kick out of seeing it.
 
That was during Trip Four, January 2008. It was my co-producer Daniel Palisa’s first visit to Manila, so we did a lot of dancing on stripper poles and blasting .45s in supermarket gun ranges – the usual Manila craziness! We found this dodgy backyard tattoo parlour in the backstreets of Ermita near where we were staying. The guy laughed at me when I asked for “Weng Weng as a Catholic Saint”; it turns out he was the president of the Tattooists’ Guild! Later that night we went to a cocktail party with one of Weng Weng’s co-stars, and he couldn’t believe his eyes at the still-bleeding portrait of Our Midget of Guadalupe. It’s now a ritual every Manila visit: “Show me your Weng Weng?”
 
Andrews Weng Weng-tatuering
 
In the movie, you mention that you'd been screening the Agent 00 movies for people many times in the past. What kind of reactions did the movies get from the crowd? Did they seem prepared for what they were about to see? I ask because I remember going to a screening of The Toxic Avenger in my town a couple of years ago where a woman left the theater after about 20 minutes. This amused me because you'd think people going to see a Troma movie would be somewhat prepared for what they were about to see.
 
Oh I think Weng Weng films affect audiences on a much deeper level than Troma’s, no offence to Toxie. At some point they stop laughing AT a two foot nine mini-Bond and begin to marvel at his sheer fighting prowess. Then of course there’s the moment you start to become aware of the sheer fragility and humanity of the person behind the cartoon. Rez Cortez says it best in the film - you realize he’s a person you’ve been laughing with, and he becomes heartbreakingly REAL. It’s no wonder we have footage from all over the world of people yelling “We love Weng Weng!” at the end of the film. 
 
Out of the Weng Weng movies you've seen, which one would you say is your favorite and why?
 
For Y’ur Height Only is Weng Weng’s masterpiece, no question. The surreal dubbing and the mind-numbingly absurdist action combine and compound the weirdness. I also love his Dolphy films, plus the long-lost Legs...Ktawan...Babae! (“Legs...Body...Girl!”) which he has a tiny part in, starring Hagibis – the Philippines’ hetero Village People – joining Tony Ferrer as Agent X44 to bring down a drugs syndicate led by For Y’ur Height Only’s Professor Von Kohler. There are cowboys, bikers, kung fu fights, disco line-dancing (“Legs! Legs! Legs!”), porn stars in bikinis, and Weng Weng fist-bumping the dance floor’s ceiling during the final musical number.
 
Weng Weng i Legs...Ktawan...Babae!
 
Your love for filipino cinema goes further than just Weng Weng, which is evident when looking at your filmography. Tell us about the other filipino cinema projects you've been involved in and what lies ahead.
 
Originally the Search… was pitched to a TV station in Australia, and they forced us to change it in to Machete Maidens Unleashed; I’m still researcher and Associate Producer on that film. In 2015 the family of Rudy Fernandez, the late junior Action King, asked Dani and I to make a documentary to honour his seventh year passing. The Last Pinoy Action King also talks about the intersection between entertainment and politics, as well as the desperately poor Philippine audience’s need for saviour figures, and premiered in Manila late 2015 and is just starting to do the international festival circuit. Right now I’m about to fly to Manila to complete the third in our “Guns, Goons And Gold” trilogy, tentatively titled The Most Beautiful Creatures On The Skin Of The Earth, covering erotic cinema, censorship, scandal and the propaganda of porn during the Marcos regime. That one is destined to raise more than a few eyebrows!
 
Teaser poster till The Last Pinoy Action King
 
Lastly, do you have any advise for filmmakers or aspiring filmmakers who wants to embark on a personal journey similar to the one you had in your search for the little fellow who changed your life forever?
 
Just start it. Don’t ever think about what your audience will look like or what they will expect, or what the critics will say, or how much money and fame you will get from it – chances are that even if it does get finished, unless you’re incredibly lucky, not many people will ever see it. But the fact that you have finished your personal quest changes your life forever, and will be the catalyst for many more adventures to come. But, as men much smarter and more enlightened than me have said, it’s the journey and not the destination, right? Just make sure you pack enough comfortable socks, because the road can be cold and rocky, and totally worth taking.
 
Stort tack till Andrew Leavold för intervjun samt för bilderna han personligen delat med sig av till bloggen!
Andrew Leavold - Baclaran - Dom Kallar MIg Minibond - Eddie Nicart - For Y'ur Height Only - For Your Height Only - Francis Ford Coppola - Franco Guerrero - Guns, Goons And Gold - Kickstarter - Legs...Body...Girl! - Legs...Ktawan...Babae! - Machete Maidens Unleashed - Stockholm International Film Festival - The Last Pinoy Action King - The Most Beautiful Creatures On The Skin Of The Earth - The Search for Weng Weng - The Toxic Avenger - Trash Video - Troma - Weng Weng