Across the room at Cinema Society gansamacher Andy Friedenberg’s 60th birthday party stood Saundra Saperstein, Chair of the San Diego Jewish Film Festival. When asked what celebrities would be attending SDJFF 23, she mentioned Theodore Bikel — so memorable in Taxi Driver — and someone named Shmulik Firstenberg.
Ninja III: The Domination trailer
My Uncle Sam’s Hebrew name was Shmuel, but the chances of cultured Saundra having any knowledge of Sam Firstenberg, whose Ninja III: The Domination and Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, purveyor of fine fodder for the Cannon Group canon, seemed remote. Saundra not only knew Sam, she invited him to introduce The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films when it plays this year’s festival.
You’ll have two chances to catch this delightful time trip through the bowels of ’80s cinema — 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 8, at Edwards San Marcos and 4:30 p.m. on Sunday, February 15, at Reading Cinema’s Clairemont Town Square. Mr. Firstenberg will in attendance for both screenings. For more information on this and the 49 other features and 50 shorts to be showcased, visit sdcjc.org/sdjff.
The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films 2014 Trailer
This small portion of the interview pertains strictly to the history of, and Sam’s involvement with, a nascent Cannon Films.
Scott Marks: How is it that Saundra Saperstein was able to snag you for this year’s Jewish Film Festival?
Sam Firstenberg: When I made my first film for Cannon, Revenge of the Ninja with Shô Kosugi, we were looking for locations. Saundra was the head, or something, of the Utah Film Commission. One of the locations we considered was Salt Lake City. Saundra showed us the city and we discussed the possibilities. We wound up shooting there because it fit the location we needed. Yom Kippur fell during pre-production and she took us to a Salt Lake City synagogue, which in itself was an experience.
SM: It’s a city not known for playing home to a burgeoning Jewish population.
SF: Exactly. All of the different types of Jews — reformed, orthodox, etc. — all congregated in one place. And it looks like a church. (Laughing.) There’s organ music! There was a group of Israelis — Cannon itself was from Israel. The cameraman, the grip, the makeup man...a bunch of us were from Israel. She took care of us. We kind of kept in touch, but had lost touch after 30 years. Suddenly I get this letter from her asking if I would come and help out with the Go-Go film. She knew of my contacts with Golan & Globus and Cannon Films.
SM: Did you have any contact with Hilla Medalia while she was directing the film?
SF: I knew her before Cannon. I worked with her even before there was Cannon. Hilla mainly interviewed people in Israel and I’m here in Los Angeles. We were in contact, but somehow our schedules never worked out and she did not interview me for the movie.
SM: Do you remember the first time you encountered Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus?
SF: Absolutely. I came to Los Angeles in 1972 to study film. At the time it was not very customary because an Israeli who wanted to study film generally went to England or to France. Nobody went to Hollywood. Hollywood was beneath us. We were artists! We made films like Fellini, not Hollywood movies. (Laughing.)
I landed a job at Channel 13 here in Los Angeles. At the end of 1972, I was invited to a Hanukkah party. The host told me that Menahem Golan would be at the party. He had just finished selling the movie Kazablan to one of the majors. We started to talk, and he told me he was producing a movie here, Lepke, starring Tony Curtis. In my childhood I knew the name Menahem Golan. Everybody knew the name! He was the moviemaker in Israel. I expressed a desire to come and work with him. The first question: “How much do you want?” (Laughing.) I didn’t want money. I just wanted to work. “You’re hired,” he said. “Come to Culver City first thing Monday morning.” And that was it.
The name of the company at the time was Ameri-Euro Pictures. It was before Cannon. So my first picture was Lepke. They gave me the job of schlepper. I ran around getting coffee and setting up chairs. Whatever needed to be done.
SM: When did it first dawn on you that these guys were the McDonalds of Hollywood film producers?
SF (Laughing): When Lepke finished, I continued with them, working in the office as a runner. The little office on the 20th Century Fox lot consisted of four people: Menahem Golan, Yoram Globus, their secretary, and me. Not knowing whether they’d make it in Hollywood, at that point all they had was aspiration. They had good dreams. Lepke, a film about the Jewish mafia, was not entirely a bad movie. At least the intention was to treat it like a major movie.
There were a lot of big plans and I was running around with scripts. I delivered a script for The Magician of Lublin to Dustin Hoffman. They moved back to Israel and made Israeli and American movies. I worked with them in Israel as an assistant director on many productions. These weren’t small budget films. I made enough money as an assistant director on Operation Thunderbolt to buy an apartment. It was quite a big movie.
I decided to come back to Los Angeles and attend graduate school at Loyola Marymount. I directed a feature movie, One More Chance, while in school. I didn’t know what to do with the film once I had finished it. By then, Golan & Globas had purchased the distribution company Cannon Films and moved back to New York, where it was originally located. They bought it and immediately moved to Los Angeles. I brought the movie to them, they liked it, and took it from me for distribution.
This was 1979 or 1980 when they bought Cannon and turned it into the McDonalds of Hollywood. They started with three or four horror pictures and immediately moved to action. They quickly realized that they didn’t understand horror. They turned out one low-budget feature after another. Like a machine.