Stories From The Trenches: Adventures In Making High Octane Hollywood Movies With Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg (2020) Book Review



Siedelmann deserves massive credit for turning the spotlight on these rarely documented corners of movie history. He’s doing vital work in the service of cinema and should be recognized as the legitimate film historian he is.

Plot: A CAREER-SPANNING INTERVIEW BOOK ABOUT THE BELOVED HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR SAM FIRSTENBERG. A TRIP LOADED WITH UNIQUE BADASS FILM HISTORY! Sam Firstenberg is mostly recognized as one of the important in-house directors during the outrageously successful heyday of the legendary Cannon Group. The journey of this interview collection starts even before he made his way to direct box office hits just like REVENGE OF THE NINJA, NINJA III: THE DOMINATION, BREAKIN‘ II: ELECTRIC BOOGALOO, AMERICAN NINJA, and several others. The conversations shed light on his origins and influences, including childhood memories, private biographical chapters, his years as a film student in Los Angeles, and his early work as an assistant director and technician for people like Menahem Golan, Charles Band, Ephraim Kishon, Boaz Davidson, and many more. The interviews are not chronological, but focus on every career-step, just as well as on every single movie Firstenberg ever directed until his retirement in 2002. His memories about all the projects he was involved in are packed with adventurous stories about ninjas and breakdancers, about directing action entertainment in exotic countries, and about working with numerous stars, among them Michael Dudikoff, Eric Roberts, JonRhys Davis, Hulk Hogan, Grace Jones, Nick Cassavetes, Zachi Noy, Richard Roundtree, Steve James, Sho Kosugi, and many more. Thirty years of filmmaking: STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES is also a book about the early film industry in Israel, the Hollywood star system and the no longer existing mid-budget movies. It’s about the home video boom, about the uprising and the decline of Cannon, but it also discusses the rules and traditions of the industry. Other topics are the practical way a film was put together in that era, the technical changes through the years, the different market situation compared to nowadays – and last but not least it’s a inside story about the early years of Nu Image and how Avi Lerners company continued the spirit of Cannon, but under different circumstances and times.

Review: Every filmmaker should be so lucky to have their career documented by Marco Siedelmann. The legacy of cult genre director Sam Firstenberg is explored in his newest book, “Stories from the Trenches: Adventures in Making High Octane Hollywood Movies With Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg”. If you think the title is long, wait until you see the phone-book sized tome itself. At a whopping 751 pages, it’s easily worth four times its price. A mix of interviews with Firstenberg and his collaborators and chapters written by the low budget legend himself, Siedelmann’s book is beyond comprehensive. The astoundingly in-depth interviews provide an unprecedented look at the business itself in the 80’s and 90’s. It’s a world rarely written about and never in such detail.

Sam Firstenberg is probably best known as the director of some of Cannon Films’ most beloved gonzo classics including American Ninja, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo and the demon possession/ninja mash-up Ninja III: The Domination. But his career was born well before those cult milestones and thrived for another two decades. Siedelmann and the director take deep dives into the big titles but it’s the equal focus on obscure direct-to-video films that sets this book apart.

Siedelmann clearly loves these movies and that translates to a thorough, conversational interview style. In addition to Firstenberg, he talks with such genre icons as Lucinda Dickey, Michael Dudikoff and Steve Lambert. The book also looks beyond the director himself, offering a rare and fascinating peek into Cannon Films, Nu Image and the home video revolution. Packed with rare personal photos, production stills, script page scans and newspaper clippings, the book has a catch-all scrapbook feel of discovery. The gorgeous cover art makes a strong case for front facing this title on your shelf.

The chapters written by Firstenberg himself are a joy. In his introduction, he bemoans the fact that writing is not his “strong side” but his warm, conversational style is compulsively readable. He comes across as a smart, sensitive guy. He took the jobs that were offered to him, but still tried to bring a personal touch to even the most outrageous projects. His “Anecdotes From the Trenches” range from saving a life while filming American Ninja to a curious stay a mobster hotel in Bulgaria. One of the best involves a perilous motorbike trip down a mountain road with a very plump Shelly Winters in tow.

The real hero here is Siedelmann, the writer/publisher who put this mammoth project together. He humbly hands off the introduction and forward to others and doesn’t even include an “About the Author” section. But as Firstenberg points out in his intro, without this dedicated and passionate fan, this book would not exist. Siedelmann’s earlier book, “The Untold, In-Depth, Outrageously True Story of Shapiro Glickenhaus Entertainment”, documented the same VHS-tastic era of genre filmmaking via the company that gave us Frankenhooker, Moontrap and Red Scorpion. His other books, “Good Hot Stuff: The Life and Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau” and “California Dreamin’: West Coast Directors and the Golden Age of Forbidden Gay Movies”, chronicled important barrier-smashing figures in the queer cinema movement. Siedelmann deserves massive credit for turning the spotlight on these rarely documented corners of movie history. He’s doing vital work in the service of cinema and should be recognized as the legitimate film historian he is.