“Have you ever heard of Ninjutsu, sir?”: An Interview with Sam Firstenberg by Kent Hill

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This book is a great achievement for the action film genre!
Isaac Florentine (Director, Undisputed 2)

The heart of the die-hard, ninja movie addict in me skipped a beat when I received word that I would be sitting down for a chat with the Godfather of the genre, Sam Firstenberg.

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THE MAKING OF CYBORG COP IN AFRICA

Marco Siedelmann & Sam have compiled what I feel is a kind of splendid maelstrom of biography meets chronological history meets retrospective documentary the size of the phone books from the days of yore. To read it is to be immersed in warm, gooey, Cannon goodness. The question put simply…how can you resist?

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MAKING OF NINJA III

Indeed any resistance is futile when it comes to this true completest’s tome of not merely Firstenberg’s exciting, excessively driven, and beautifully enigmatic cinematic career, but it also runs side by side with accounts from the stars, the stunt men as well as many of his peers and collaborators.

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BEHIND THE SCENES ON SPIDERS II: BREEDING GROUND

Sam Firstenberg is mostly recognized as one Cannon’s most important in-house directors during their outrageously successful heyday of the 1980’s. 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, and AMERICAN NINJA, amongst others.

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The conversations in the book 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.

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FRANK ZAGARINO IN OPERATION DELTA FORCE

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 movie stars, among them Michael Dudikoff, Eric Roberts, John-Rhys Davies, Hulk Hogan, Grace Jones, Nick Cassavetes, Zachi Noy, Richard Roundtree, Steve James, Sho Kosugi, and many more.

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MAKING REVENGE OF THE NINJA

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 ascension 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 film market situation compared to nowadays – and last, but not least, it’s an inside story about the early years of Nu Image and how Avi Lerner’s companies Nu Image and Millennium continued the spirit of Cannon, but under different circumstances and times.

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MAKING REVENGE OF THE NINJA

In the Trenches: Adventures in making high octane Hollywood movies with Cannon veteran Sam Firstenberg, is about the war all filmmakers fight, trying to bring about the seemingly impossible and mysterious aligning of the planets of both art and commerce that have created one of mankind’s contributions to the universe…the movies. Or in Sam’s case…ninja movies.

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The movie Hollywood doesn’t want you to see by Kent Hill

Controversy sells right; the more shocking, obscene, the more worthy of the front page? Yet, when it comes to movies, people, it seems, are well defined in relation to their tastes. There are those with high-brows, that believe a spoonful of Marvel ain’t  gonna make the medicine go down – and nothing short of complete cinematic opulence will cut the mustard.

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Rene Perez makes B-movies. He makes no bones about it. But, that doesn’t mean his stories lack the depth of a celebrated filmmaker’s voice that many cineastes would site with greater reverence. Yes, his politics does hog a large portion of the spotlight in The Insurrection (see my review here), but it always shares the stage with his love and inquisitive nature with regards to character and the human condition. He is a storyteller intrigued by the grandest conflict, which is the one inside us all.

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The Insurrection is presently available all over the world via Vimeo, so there is no excuse not to see it. Unlike even the worst entries in his filmography, and as he has personally stated, The Insurrection has failed to find a distributor. One can almost hear the distant echo, carried on the thermals out of the heart of the now silent Dream Factory calling, “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you!” However, when you are such a self-sufficient artist, as is Mr. Perez, you are endowed with the ability to transcend barriers of the style and genre applied to the tale you are piecing together with pictures…and actually say something.

Here with writer/producer/director/editor/composer/cinematographer Rene Perez and his astonishingly talented, beautiful and charismatically magnetic leading lady, Wilma Elles, we look a little deeper at the film Hollywood might not want you to see…but you should.

THE INSURRECTION IS AVAILABLE NOW!!!

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IT’S ALSO AVAILABLE ON AMAZON FOR VIEWERS IN THE USA!!!

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The Return of Director Richard Stanley: A Conversation on Color & Cage with Kent Hill

Right off the bat, I really wanted to give you a cool video interview. But, sadly, the bandwidth was being powered by a couple of mice on tiny treadmills. Everything looked fine. Skype said it was recording, the image was good.

Skip ahead to the next day. I saved the file, I opened it, I’m watching it and . . . damn! Not only did the picture freeze but the sound stopped recording. Luckily for both of us, I had my trusty digital recorder silently working at the same time.

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So fear not. Here is the complete video of my chat with Sir Richard (with the picture freezing part the way through and the sound shifting to my back-up recorder). The last time we talked, and Color was the topic, he threw me a little whistle. The whistle said the film was a go . . . but they were waiting. Who were they waiting for dear listener? Not for the second coming, Guffman or Godot. They were waiting on Cage. NICOLAS CAGE!

When the news of this broke I was like an alcoholic left unsupervised, tending the bar. It was an actor/director combination born on some faraway star. The culmination of two wildly original and esoteric forces of nature, one can scarcely perceive of such a collaboration ever, becoming a reality. Yet here it is, Color out of Space, H.P. Lovecraft’s favorite among his tales (so I have heard). Brought to the screen in an acid-trip-phantasmagoria of a ride into a world of pure nightmarish elegance and sublime terror. Helming this master-work is the man who the trailer even heralds with a title card: “The Return of Director Richard Stanley.” His glorious Malick-like return to the fray pairs Stanley with the apotheosis of a true, renaissance man, Nicolas Cage, in a role that seems almost tailored, not to the wild man or the meme, but to the Academy Award Winner, Nicolas Cage. A performer of greater depth and color, that some will forever deny him the credit of possessing.

With the current crisis and the film’s limited release in some regions, I will not spoil it for those who have not seen it. But, what I will say is the same thing, that has been echoed by my learned colleagues and film-loving friends around the world that have seen it, and that is go see it! It is already available in many territories on Blu-ray and DVD. And, don’t forget it’s streaming away as well. (click on poster below)

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So now, I, Kent Hill am proud to welcome back once again, a man of many colors (and Cage) . . . “The Return of Director Richard Stanley.”

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PAST THE POISON: A Look at Rene Perez’s THE INSURRECTION by Kent Hill

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Right off the bat, I like pictures that make you think. Nicholas Meyer once said that movies have the dreadful propensity of doing it all for you, leaving nothing for later like some greedy kid turned loose in a chocolate factory. In the era where everything old is new again – dusted off, repackaged and marketed to an audience for whom, the first time it was released, isn’t a part of their lexicon – it falls upon us to turn to those filmmakers working outside the mainstream; the place where stories that entertain, provoke thought, and evoke the magnitude of the how insurmountable power and the forces that wield it engulf us…constant willing victims that we are.

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Though Rene Perez (as he once told me) might be near the bottom of the barrel when it comes to cinematic voices in the tempest that is the modern day film industry, to me, he is a tirelessly, self-sufficient auteur. His pictures – while made for the VOD market (not unlike the VHS boom before it) and designed for the casual scroller in search of an evening’s mild amusement – are more than mere formulaic forays in genre.

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With The Insurrection, Perez comes out with all guns blazing, literally, but with the timeliness and the gravitas of the message he is projecting. Michael Paré (Eddie and The Cruisers, The Philadelphia Experiment) is a military veteran. Strong, determined, and not afraid to stand tall in the crossfire, yet burdened by regret for the life and family he neglected while serving in the line of duty. This makes him the ideal candidate as well as the only choice, and hope, for the magnetic Wilma Elles’ (Playing with Dolls: Havoc, The Fourth Horseman) Joan Schafer. More than your garden-variety whistle-blower, she is a part of the grand plan, a loyal servant of the ‘Ruling Class’. After securing Paré’s release from prison, Joan tasks the warhorse to keep her alive long enough to tell all – not just of her own private torment, but primarily of a plan that began long ago…to make slaves of us all. And it is for these bold words – how we are but pawns for the powerful, the hungry masses that heartily sup upon the most potent of elixirs supplied by the small glowing screens we carry in our pocket – that she is now targeted for termination by her former overseers. The first casualty, when war comes, is truth, and because of this truth…she must not be allowed to live.

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Schafer’s truth also encompasses the concept that we, the controlled masses, are victims of the promise, the carrot, dangled by the influential. She presents the fact that, no matter the microcosm of society in which we dwell, whether it be the real world or the one manufactured on that luminous rectangle that hangs before us in the darkened movie theatre – whether it be Romero’s Land of the Dead, Anderson’s Logan’s Run or Rodriguez’s Alita: Battle Angel – the promise our own ivory tower, our place among the Gods, is far too alluring a bait…as opposed to love, family…life’s simple wonders.

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As parallel duels of words and weapons rage, you will be equally gripped the story unfolding as you will by Perez’s dynamic camera and fluid editing. These combine, serving as an absorbing delivery system for a tale of the price those who choose to stand alone against the rising tide of the media-saturated, cynical world that consumes us, ultimately pay. Paré’s steely gladiator projects authority through his silence; a strong accompanist to Elles’ articulate argument relating to how easy it has been, and how easy it still is, for the mighty to suppress any and all beneath them.

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It is a thought-provoking work of intensity and depth that we have before us with The Insurrection. In the tradition of action-thrillers like Peter Hyams’ Narrow Margin and Harold Becker’s Mercy Rising, Perez and his team bring us a splendid declaration of the courage it takes to fight for freedoms we, all too frequently, take for granted.

FOR MORE ON THE CINEMA OF RENE PEREZ VISIT:

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*shirt not included by Kent Hill

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In 1986 Matthias Hues came to Hollywood without a shirt . . . or, little more than the shirt on his back. And it is without a shirt that he has built a career that continues to not only grow, but evolve. Like his predecessors, peers and the now emerging class of action stars, the mantra has really become adapt, or fade away. But really…it has always been that way.

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Shirtless in Hollywood charts its course through the movie world that is at once bright and shining, as well as being dark and loathsome. Matthias has seen the incredible heights and the deep, lonely valleys which await everyone looking to get their hands on a slice of the pie of stardom. Through it all he has remained grounded. Warmed by those whom he trusts, sharpened by those with whom he has shared the screen, and tested by fame and fate at each and every turn.

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Matthias’s book is compelling because it is not merely a tale of the glamorous life of a movie star. Instead it is a very human story for which his memoir’s title carries a double meaning. He came with little but the shirt on his back and then set about forging a career out of his physical gifts, to the point where esteemed action director Craig R. Baxley said, “If anyone is going to take their shirt off, it’s going to be Matthias.”

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He has thrived alongside resident action men like Dolph Lundgren, Ralf Moeller, and Alex Nevsky. He has been mistaken for Fabio and a star of a film he wasn’t even in (Die Hard). He is a real salt-of-the-earth kinda guy, that hasn’t let it all go to his head and hasn’t let it all come crashing down as the cinematic landscape changes.

Matthias is still an imposing figure, and it was a thrill to chat once again with a Hollywood idol who I think is going to have a great resurgence – if indeed the project that he discussed with me gets off the ground.  Still, as much as he has overcome, Hues is man of quiet satisfaction who has found that real paradise does not exist between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. This huge Liam Neeson fan has gifted us all with his incredible tale and take on a business that can chew you up and spit you out . . . but only if you let it.

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Shirt on, or shirt off, I think Matthias Hues is a legend . . . so kick back and join us as we take it all off and dive into the memoir of a grand gentleman of the old school who’ll still tell you, “I come in peace.”

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Paul Hirsch is here, the Force is with him by Kent Hill

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It is impossible to convey to those who weren’t there when STAR WARS was new – what it used to be like. For the third time since my existence began, I find myself faced with the end of yet another trilogy – the end of the Skywalker saga . . . ?

So it was with incredible nerves thundering tremulous throughout my body, that I sat down to talk with the man, and I want you to really think about this, who cut the scene in which Luke and Ben Kenobi discover the message hidden in R2. He cut Luke’s run, part of the final assault on the Death Star. He is even the man who suggested to George Lucas that Vader’s lightsaber be red and Obi-Wan’s be blue. As a STAR WARS fan . . . think about that. Think about the contributions of Paul Hirsch on the images that permeated our dreams and in some cases . . . shaped our destinies.

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On the eve of the Rise of Skywalker, it was a trip indeed to speak to and the read of the cinematic legacy of Mr. Hirsch. With his book A LONG TIME AGO IN A CUTTING ROOM FAR, FAR AWAY, Paul takes you back in time to a place when editors held the iconic images that flash before us on the silver screen…between their fingers.

My beloved Empire Strikes Back. Yes Paul came back for the sequel, but this is not merely an ode to the realm of Jedi’s and Rebels – it is a look inside the mind of a skilled craftsman of his art, and the journey which saw him mingle among the mighty company of the heavyweights of that last glorious era of Hollywood . . . the 70’s.

In a time when the men we would come to define as masters began their adventures in the screen trade: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma (with whom Paul cut frequently), Francis Coppola – oh, what a time. And it is not only the holy trilogy that has passed beneath the keen eyes of Hirsch – the work of other magnificent filmmakers like John Hughes, Joel Schumacher, George Romero,Herbert Ross, and Charles Shyer have all benefited from Paul’s expert touch.

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It took George’s clout to get him into Kubrick’s editing room. James Cameron boasted to him (referring to Titanic) that he made more money than the ‘WARS’ and didn’t have to make a sequel. He cringed at the idea of editing the helicopter sequence in Apocalypse Now for six months when Francis suggested it . . . yes folks . . . the cinema that has moved us to tears and had us on our feet cheering, has been before the eyes of my guest. And may the force be with him . . . always.

Ladies and Gentleman, please seek out the book, but until you do join me and Academy Award Winner . . . Paul Hirsch.

The Unsung Hero by Kent Hill

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It is always a delight indeed to sit down with the director of one of my favorite movies. Steve Carver (Big Bad Mama, Lone Wolf McQuade), acclaimed filmmaker and photographic artist extraordinaire has given us all, not only great cinema, but now his first book, Western Portraits: The Unsung Heroes & Villains of the Silver Screen (Edition Olms, 2019). Rendered in evocative tones reminiscent of Edward Sheriff Curtis’s immortal images, the stylized photographs in Western Portraits capture the allure and mystique of the Old West, complete with authentic costuming, weaponry and settings. Among the subjects who posed for the book are the popular actors Karl Malden, David Carradine, R. G. Armstrong, Stefanie Powers, L. Q. Jones, Denver Pyle and 77 others.

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From the epic feature film to the TV series and serial, this coffee table book puts the story of character actors and the significance of their memorable roles into an entertaining perspective. Appealing at once to lovers of classic cinema, Western history aficionados, writers, scholars and collectors of nostalgia and fine art photography, Western Portraits of Great Character Actors: The Unsung Heroes & Villains of the Silver Screen will awaken movie memories in people’s hearts while introducing others to the amazing work of these acting artists, serving as a record of the best of the Hollywood Western.

With collaborators C. Courtney Joyner – a writer whose first major output was a string of more than 25 movie screenplays beginning with The Offspring starring Vincent Price, and Prison directed by Renny Harlin. His novels include the new fantasy-adventure Nemo Rising and the Shotgun Western series, which have both been optioned for television – and Roger Corman – Legendary film director-producer – who contributed the foreword for Western Portraits alongside Joyner’s crafted series of insightful essays to accompany the photographs.

He learnt the art of story-boarding from the great Alfred Hitchcock, he learnt to make pasta with Sergio Leone, and has directed the man we remember as the American Ninja. Steve is so full of stories I hope his next book is definitely an autobiography, but in the meantime we have this glorious work to sit and marvel at. Some of the greatest character actors of all time (that have also been my guests, in the persons of Tim Thomerson and Fred Williamson) take center stage in a book the is the ultimate amalgamation of fine art and Hollywood yesteryear.

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Brooklyn native Steve Carver studied photography at the University of Buffalo and Washington University in St. Louis. He pursued a formal education in film-making at the American Film Institute’s Center for Advanced Film Studies, also participating in the Directors Guild of America’s apprenticeship program. Prolific motion picture producer Roger Corman hired Carver to direct four movies, including Big Bad Mama. Carver also directed American action star Chuck Norris in An Eye for an Eye and Lone Wolf McQuade.

Where are the clowns? by Kent Hill

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It is that time of the year when we look to feel magical. The Christmas spirit lifts us up out of the murk that we have been grinding through all year long and . . . in the midst of a silent night; we find a moment of peace. Refreshing it is then, to have stumbled across a film so innocent. Whose message is born out of childlike innocence and hope – that the world which we inhabit has not killed all of the wonder, the mystery and the joy?

Into this scene comes a peculiar yet dynamic messenger. A herald from the heart of the child in us all that delivers a message so hauntingly simple, we would be fools not to take heed.  This visitor is a Clown – whether he is real, or merely a delightful apparition I leave to your perception – with a notion we often abandon in times of peril. The Clown speaks to us, in the tongues of men and angels. And he tells us to just, “Believe.”

This is a fascinatingly splendid, energetically wholesome and heart-warming sweet surrender entitled:THE BOY, THE DOG, AND THE CLOWN.

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The core of this film is the creative duo of father Nick Lyon (director) and son Adrien Lyon (The Boy). Nick’s cousin, Gabe Dell Jr., who trained as a performer with Cirque du Soleil, plays the role of The Clown. And the family canine, Foxy Lyon, plays the demanding role of The Dog. The film has its origins as a project for Adrien’s fifth-grade student film festival. Originally entitled The Sad Clown, they all realized the short film had some sort of mystical allure, and Nick decided to expand the story by writing a feature-length screenplay to incorporate the footage already “in the can.” Nick soon recognized that the latter part of the script was going to be complicated to shoot and expensive (it took place at a clown competition in Las Vegas). He also realized that by filming only on weekends, Adrien was destined to outgrow his role if they didn’t pick up the pace.   Nick knew that a retool was in order and sent the script to veteran screenwriter and friend, Ron Peer, who saw this as the opportunity to create something different, something special, an indie family film featuring … a clown!

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“I had never quite read anything like it,” says Peer. “There was just something charming about it. Watching the footage already shot, I was immediately entranced by Gabe Dell’s emotional performance as The Clown. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.” Nick and Ron’s new goal was to rewrite the screenplay so that it could be shot in two weeks during the upcoming summer. Ron and his wife Mitzi Lynton also acted as producers and crew of the film. The final two-thirds of the movie was shot in Big Bear, California, with a micro crew, including Nick’s eldest son, Parker Lyon, and close-friend and cameraman Rick Mayelian.

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In a world where evil clowns dominate the theatrical landscape, Nick and Ron were deliberately cutting across the grain by creating a family film that focused on the “good clown,”  harkening back to Shakespeare’s classic “Fool” and the performers of commedia del’arte. “Dell’s clown character stems more from the European tradition rather than the red-haired Bozo character seen at American circuses and children’s parties,” says Peer. “It’s a shame that the evil clown stereotype has become so prevalent that a word for fear of clowns has emerged in our lexicon: coulrophobia.”

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“I hope that audiences really respond to our little movie,” Nick adds. “I would love to direct a sequel. But at the speedy rate that Adrien seems to be growing, I may be shooting with his son.” THE BOY, THE DOG, AND THE CLOWN is reminiscent of the charming European films of the 1960’s, and has been compared to the French classic The Red Balloon.

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The film premiered at Dances with Films festival in June of 2019 and won the Audience Award. THE BOY, THE DOG, AND THE CLOWN has also received family certification from the Dove Foundation. Gabe Dell Jr. gives a performance I couldn’t believe. The man is a magician with a screen presence that was so engaging. The film that revolves around him brings to mind some of the luminously enchanting films I came across during my childhood like Vojtech Jasny’s The Great Land of Small.

This movie is pure joy . . . a perfect holiday gift . . . find it now . . .

Believe…

Meet-and-Greez by Kent Hill

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Daniel Roebuck’s directorial offering Getting Grace made me cry like a baby. The end result however, is that I was able to chat with one of the nicest dudes in Hollywood.

Now he’s back . . . and he’s in Star Wars. Well, a Star Wars video game, which isn’t bad either considering how much the line between video games and movies are blurring – the gaming experience having been elevated to its current status which is, quite simply, a little like an interactive story. But unlike the experience you have sitting down and watching a film – here you, are a part of the story.

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From the soulless killer, Samson Toulette, in Tim Hunter’s acclaimed dissection of 1980’s teen anguish, RIVER’S EDGE, to his latest role as the irascible four armed pilot Greez Dritus in the highly anticipated video game release, STAR WARS: JEDI FALLEN ORDER (available on PS4, Xbox One, and Microsoft Windows).

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EA and Respawn Entertainment’s STAR WARS JEDI: FALLEN ORDER has already garnered a great deal of interest and the excitement is building for its November 15th, 2019 release. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, game director Stig Asmussen offered his thoughts on Roebuck’s character Greez, “He’s a member of a new species we’ve created. I don’t want to give away too much of his backstory, but like anybody you’re going to find during these dark times, he’s got demons. But he’s kind of like this loudmouthed little guy, he talks real big, he tells tall tales and most of the time they’re not true.”

Roebuck spent a few months working alongside of Cameron Monaghan, playing Cal, the young padawan and Debra Wilson who plays Cere in the game. “We had a wonderful camaraderie, the three of us,” said Roebuck. “Plus, we were performance directed by Tom Keegan who is truly a master director and always brings great insight into the process.” Keegan and Roebuck had worked together before on DEAD RISING 3.

During the performance capture process, the actors donned form fitting body suits covered with reflective balls and performed the game’s cinematic scenes in front of dozens of cameras. They also wore head gear fitted with cameras so that the animators could utilize the footage to animate the character’s facial features by directly correlating them to the actor’s reference video.

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STAR WARS JEDI FALLEN ORDER is on track to become one of the most successful video game releases of 2019. The game is one of a triumvirate of entertainment options being released by Lucasfilm LTD this fall. Its release coinciding with the original program from Disney +, THE MANDOLORIAN and STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, out this Christmas.

Robo & The Butterfly: A Fan’s Journey Continues by Kent Hill

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Eva Rojano is not your average RoboCop fan. I remember Mark Hamill’s narration of the TV special SPFX: The Empire Strikes Back, in which he states, and I’m paraphrasing here: “that Star Wars has excited a generation to such an extent that the children who have seen the film are motivated to become doers . . . as well as watchers.

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Eva seems to be the modern day personification of this ideology. What began at the tender age of eight, has blossomed into more the obsession. It is now, unbridled creation.  Of course with all artists, we find and fixate on books, movies, comics, fine art, music. These, while they may not have planted the seed, are certainly the fertilizer in which the formation and manifestation of dreams thrive.

Eva’s journey through the wilds of the universe which began with the brutal murder of officer Alex J. Murphy and his subsequent, phoenix-like resurrection as RoboCop, has seen her not only receive friendship and guidance for two of the franchises integral staples; in the form of Nancy Allen (eternally the dynamic and resourceful Officer Anne Lewis) and Edward Neumeier (one half of the creative genius writing team that gave rise to a franchise).

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Under luminous glow and encouragement, Eva has ascended from her enthusiastic efforts in the production of electrifying art and fan-fiction, directly associated with the Robo-Universe, to a place where she now has the courage, just as all artists who have come before her, to step out from under the wing of the movie that has nurtured her dreams, and into the light that is birth of her own original concept and voice.

This current incarnation of Rojano’s prolific creative output manifests itself as a novel entitled: The Black Butterfly. And I was intrigued as ever to learn the story, the motivation . . . the journey behind what drove this fan among fans to dig below the surface of her own creative crust – unearthing something fresh, unique and touchingly profound.

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What was once purely driven by that glorious cinema classic that is part man, part machine, all cop, now transforms into a bold new vision from a creator that has been fostered by the cinematic equivalent of lightning in a bottle – exploding on to the printed page near you…