BOOKSHELF: Sam Firstenberg’s career with Cannon and beyond in STORIES FROM THE TRENCHES

Stories From The Trenches: Adventures In Making High Octane Hollywood Movies With Cannon Veteran Sam Firstenberg is a massive, massive book. It’s the size of an old-school, big city phone book, clocking in at 750 pages and weighing nearly five pounds. Consisting of interviews conducted by writer Marco Siedelmann with the director, as well as many of his collaborators – including Lucinda Dickey (Ninja III: The Domination), her Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo co-stars Michael Chambers and Adolofo Quinones, and Michael Dudikoff (American Ninja), among many other writers, editors, and cameramen – it’s an exhaustive compendium of Firstenberg’s work.

There are quite a few ways to read this tome. You can tackle it in chronological order, starting with the director’s childhood in Israel, his time at film school at Loyola Marymount, working through his time with Cannon Film Group – the bulk of the book – and concluding with the 2003 film, The Interplanetary Surplus Male and Amazon Women of Outer Space.

Granted, there are many digressions from it being a straight narrative. First and foremost, Stories From The Trenches isn’t so much a biography as a collection of interviews. It means you really get to hear Firstenberg’s voice shine through, as these are his stories in his own words, and the man really knows how to spin a yarn. Interviewer/author Siedelmann does an excellent job of steering the conversation where it needs to go, thanks to what seems like exhaustive research on every aspect of the director’s career. There’s not a single aspect left unexplored.

Because of that exhaustive take, however, the impatient reader may want to jump around to the parts which interest them the most. This isn’t a book you’re going to breeze through in a weekend. To be quite honest, we went at it for a couple hours every night for three weeks in order to read the entire thing, and that took a certain level of dedication.

Thankfully, as stated, the research and interviews are done so excellently that dropping into a chapter on American Ninja and reading an interview with that film’s female lead, Judie Aronson, leaves you no doubt as to where the film fits into Firstenberg’s overall career, or just what that movie means on its own. Frankly, this is the perfect book for right now: every title mentioned and featured within has so much about it, from the production to post-production, with plenty of behind-the-scenes stories and photos, that you’ll immediately want to revisit any film mentioned. I’ve been champing at the bit to take another look at Revenge of the Ninja to see if I can spot all of the crazy things they had to do to work within their budget.

While it’s laid out a bit oddly – and I’m not quite sure why the photos are as small as they are – Stories From The Trenches is a knock-out read. While “The Late Years” section features titles only a true video store trawler would recognize, the behind-the-scenes tales of the end of the direct-to-video boom are as fascinating as those from its beginning. While the director’s last film has an intriguing conceit behind it, an Ed Wood-style fakeout isn’t the greatest title for Firstenberg to go out on. Still, the fact that he wants to tell a story in the best possible way that he can shines through in each and every one of Stories From The Trenches‘ many pages.

Nick Spacek
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