This week, the gang at How Did This Get Made? covered Ninja 3: The Domination (1984), the final entry in Cannon Films’ so-called “Ninja Trilogy” 

The director of Ninja 3, Sam Firstenberg, is an interesting guy with many stories about his unlikely journey from Jerusalem to Hollywood. So many, in fact, that we’re going to save his tales about breaking into the business, working for Cannon in its heyday and directing the iconic cult classic Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo for a separate piece in the near future. 

Today, instead, we’re just going to put on our most Sherlockholmesian deerstalker and investigate how did Ninja 3: The Domination got made. Which begins—a couple years earlier—with a film called Enter the Ninja. 

[AUTHOR’S NOTE: the interview below has been lightly edited for clarity]

PART 1: The Hollywood Way

SAM FIRSTENBERG: So [at that time, circa 1981] Cannon had small offices in Sunset Boulevard. And they were trying their hand at horror. Because the cheapest genre movies [to make] are horror. 

For example, a few of the first productions under the Cannon Group’s “Golan-Globus” banner were the slasher films Schizoid (1980), New Year’s Evil (1980) and Hospital Massacre (1981). 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: So they started with horror movies. But they didn’t have a lot of success. But action, they understood. So one thing led to another and they produced a movie which was called Enter the Ninja. Menahem Golan directed this. There was a guy named Mike Stone—a famous martial artist—and he was involved with putting it together. They recruited the Italian actor Franco Nero to be the star of the movie, and there was a villain [played by] Sho Kosugi and they went to the Philippines and made the movie. And the movie had a moderate success.

Enter the Ninja first opened in France and Germany in late summer 1981 and then eventually made its way to Los Angeles the following year. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: Now remember this was an independent company, Cannon. And like every other small company, they really wanted to secure distribution from one of the major studios. It’s called to “pick up”—to “pick up the movie”—and Cannon wanted their movies to get picked up from one of the major studios. Like Universal or Warner Bros. or MGM. But it’s not an easy task. 

BJH: Right, of course. Getting distribution is tough. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: Yes. Because those companies are asking for a certain level of quality before they’re willing to pick up a movie. They will not pick up very cheap-looking movies.

BJH: So was Cannon able to get distribution for Enter the Ninja

SAM FIRSTENBERG: No. They were struggling. So Cannon would distribute their own movies throughout the country; and internationally; and also on video (it was the beginning of cassette era). And [with Enter the Ninja], Cannon had a moderate success. But they were struggling. 

BJH: Right. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: Also: at this time, no one in the western world knew this word “Ninja.” There were some martial arts movies [that got distribution in the United States] but not ninja movies. There were “kung fu” movies, but no ninja movies. And besides, the whole concept was crazy anyway because the “ninja” is a negative character in the Japanese/Samurai mythology. They were the assassins of the Shoguns. They were not the positive character. And suddenly, here—we and Cannon and Golan—we took the “ninja” and made them the hero; the good guy; the protagonist! Anyway, so Enter the Ninja went out in the market and had a moderate success. The company said: okay, we are doing better in action than we are doing in horror. So what do we do? Immediately: sequel! This is the Hollywood way. 

BJH: Ha! 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: For the sequel, Cannon thought Franco Nero was not the right actor, but they were very impressed with Sho Kosugi [who had played the foil to Nero]. So they decided to make a movie with him. With Sho Kosugi. And they called it Revenge of the Ninja. There was a writer, Jim Silke, and he started work on the script

BJH: Okay. And at what point did you get involved? 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: This is really…it’s funny because this is almost the truth: I was back from Switzerland—from the Locarno film festival [where Firstenberg had gone to screen his first film, One More Chance]—and boom I run into Menahem Golan in the corridors [at Cannon]. He said, “Sam! Can you direct action?” 

BJH: Ha! 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: What happened was: [after directing Enter the Ninja] Menahem Golan didn’t want to do it again. He was already busy with the company—with Cannon films—and the company was growing. And he was the head of the company. So for whatever reason, he didn’t want to go and direct another movie like this. 

BJH: Gotcha. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: At this point, I had proven that I can at least direct a movie: beginning, middle and end. So he asks, “Will you direct this Revenge of the Ninja for me?” What a question! I’m a young, aspiring director. So I say, “Sure!” But Menahem Golan said, “There is one problem: this is an action movie. Can you do action?” And my answer is, “Of course I can do action!” But I didn’t have a clue how to do action! 

PART 2: “And this was how, suddenly, I found myself a director of action movies.”

SAM FIRSTENBERG: I mean, I’d worked on some action movies in the past but not as director. But I said, “Of course! No problem. I will do it.” So they put me together with the writer, Jim Silke, and Sho Kosugi. Sho Kosugi was already in the deal. 

BJH: So what did you do at this point? How did you learn what you needed to learn in order to direct an action movie? 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: First, I saw this first movie, Enter the Ninja, and I got the idea of what this is. Then I met Sho Kosugi and let me tell you: up to this point, I never saw a Hong Kong movie or martial arts movie in my life. Never ever…but I had seen a lot of samurai movies. I loved samurai movies. I loved Japanese samurai movies…so that was an inspiration for me. And then I went to Sho Kosugi and he took me under his wing in this subject of martial arts. And he started to show me Hong Kong movies. He showed me what this means and what kind of spectacular action was in this cinema. Clever action. And he also taught me about the ninja subject—about “ninjutsu.” He recommended a few books. So I bought the books, I read the books. 

BJH: Okay, makes sense. Sounds like a good start. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: And in the meantime, Jim Silke is writing the script. So I decide to do a storyboard. [almost as an aside] You know, I had two degrees from two films schools at this point! And I had my experience as an Assistant Director. So I knew something about making movies. 

BJH: Ha!

SAM FIRSTENBERG: I’m a cinematic storyteller. That’s not a big problem. And I am working with Sho Kosugi, who in addition to being the star he was also the choreographer for the fights; and I was introduced to stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. So I talked to all of them and I started to build the storyboard—every fight sequence, every action sequence in the movie. 

Then in May 1981, production of Revenge of the Ninja began. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: It was decided we’d go to Salt Lake City to do the film. For financial reasons. And so we went there. It was not a tiny movie. It was not a small movie. Eight weeks shooting in Salt Lake City. Two units. And I was away from the office, didn’t have to deal with any pressure from the studio. I had some good people around me and together we put together this movie. 

BJH: That’s great. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: Now, you know, movies really come to life in the editing room. So importantly, I had a very good editor: Michael Duthie. He [had] edited the first movie, Enter the Ninja, and he’s a really good editor for action. From him I learned a lot. He helped me improve my skills for directing action. Anyway, after eight weeks we finished. We came back and edited the movie. I was sitting with him—with Michael Duthie—and we realized there were some problems. So Cannon gave us an extra week of additional [filming]. So all in all, nine weeks of shooting with six day weeks. That’s a nice schedule. It’s not a major movie schedule, but not bad. And then the movie was completed. 

BJH: Amazing. Your first action movie! Then what? 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: So I told you: Cannon was always hoping to get distribution for their movies. So they showed the movie to the studios—hoping to get distribution—and MGM called and said, “We are picking up Revenge of the Ninja.” This was a BIG deal at Cannon. It’s hard to describe…but for an independent small company, this was a big deal.

BJH: I can imagine! That’s a huge accomplishment. And—if you remember—what did MGM say. What did they like about Revenge of the Ninja? Why did they want to pick up this movie? 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: So, you know, of course no one disclosed to me the reasons. [laughs]  But they saw financial potential—money-making potential in the movie. And they were right! They took the movie, did not change anything. Of course we did the sound mix at MGM, but they didn’t change anything about the picture. And they started with a nice campaign. There is a famous poster—hand-painted—with Sho Kosugi flying against a red sky background. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: They opened the movie on 80 screens. And [back then] there was a system of distribution called “East of the Mississippi” and “West of the Mississippi.” So the movie played at 80 screens in the eastern part of the United States [“East of the Mississippi”], and then after it was done they’d send those 80 prints across the United States [“West of the Mississippi”]. Because each print cost a lot of money. Even at that time, each print cost about $1,000. 

BJH: Right. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: So Revenge of the Ninja opens in New York. And right away—the first week!—it was at the top of the charts. It was number one! 

BJH: Really? Wow. 

SAM FIRSTENBERG: Yeah. It was number one in New York city for two weeks. So now MGM was very excited…and Cannon was very excited. And that was the start of the relationship between Cannon and MGM. Later, MGM distributed a lot of Cannon movies. This was how, suddenly, I found myself a director of action movies. 

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