Writer-director Mike Samonek didn’t exactly take the straightest route to Hollywood.
“I grew up in Michigan and Texas and went to UT Austin,” he said. “I worked as an advertising copywriter in New York for most of the ’90s, before taking the plunge and moving to L.A. to pursue screenwriting full time. I sold my first script, ‘The Whole Pemberton Thing,’ way back in 2003 to Alcon Entertainment and have worked steadily as a screenwriter in the studio system ever since.”
Not unlike many aspiring writer-directors, Samonek created several short films to show what he could do. One of those short films was 2007’s “The Glitch,” a dark comedy set in a restaurant.
“I wrote ‘The Glitch’ specifically to be a directing sample,” Samonek said. “It seemed easy enough to shoot and I love ‘Groundhog Day’ so much I felt the need to rip it off completely. My producer, Nathan Reimann, called in every favor he had in Southern California to turn our rinky dink short into a giant professional production. We had a cop car for God’s sake!”
The star of “The Glitch” is Jason Biggs. Samonek said he and Biggs had the same managers and had met a few times to discuss working together.
“I gave him the script over lunch one day asking for his ‘feedback’ — which is code for ‘Please be in this!’ — and he responded that same day,” Samonek said. “Jason is a brilliant comedy talent and totally game for anything.”
Samonek said the film has served as “a great calling card” to get the attention of producers.
“We had great success on the ‘net with the response to the short, but it’s 10 minutes long, which in Internet short film terms might as well be 10 hours,” he said. “So even though it never went truly ‘viral,’ I’m thrilled we’ve gotten as many views as we have.”
‘TABLE FOR THREE’
Samonek made his directorial debut with “Table For Three,” a movie he also wrote. The comedy, which officially debuted June 23, 2009, stars Brandon Routh, Sophia Bush, Jennifer Morrison, Johnny Galecki and Jesse Bradford.
The road to getting the movie made was not the typical process, Samonek recalled.
“Well, the long story involves a sketch comedy group I was associated with in New York,” he said. “We used to perform a series of ‘psycho third-wheel couple’ sketches that formed the inspiration for the movie. My wife, Dashiel, was in the group and integral in the development from sketch to script. My managers and agents busted ass to get talent attached to the script and got us in the door at a couple of places that make small-budget comedies and somehow we got a greenlight.”
Having gone through the journey, Samonek said he is “in total agreement” with the old axiom that it’s a miracle any movies get made.
“So many things have to fall into place in the right order at the right time, and if any one of them doesn’t work out, you’re done. It’s insane,” he said. “Our producers were incredibly supportive and went to the mat repeatedly to keep the project on track. Without that level of advocacy, we would never had made it.”
The writer-director spoke very highly of the entire cast for “Table For Three.”“Well, first of all, Jesse and Sophia need to be in a big huge movie together. They fell into a groove of comic timing and chemistry the moment they met and I had very little to do to direct them because they just found it. My biggest regret that more people won’t see this movie is that they won’t see how funny those two are,” he said. “Jennifer is fantastic, of course, and a total professional. She created her character so perfectly and brought so many of her own ideas to the role that she totally elevated the material for her part. Brandon was awesome — the guy is in all but like two scenes and we were shooting so fast he had to bring it all day every day and I think he did a great job.”
In fact, it was Routh’s work in an entirely different kind of movie — “Superman Returns” — that showed he was right for the role of Scott Teller in the film.
“We wanted a lead guy who was good looking, but had a vulnerability and a bit of awkwardness — that’s Brandon,” the director said. “When Brandon is playing Clark in ‘Superman Returns,’ you see he’s totally that guy. The Superman stuff is a whole other discipline, but Brandon’s work as Clark is what sold us. Also, what I like about casting Brandon opposite Jesse and Sophia is that he’s got like a foot on both of them, yet they’re taking him down. I think that physicality makes the status shifts between them funnier.”
With a small shooting window and a tight budget, Samonek said the cast had a crucial role in making sure everything clicked.
“We shot the whole movie in 18 shooting days and had some big — for the budget and schedule — set pieces that ate up huge chunks of time,” he said. “So we could have never gotten through it if the four of them weren’t at the top of their games, running entire scenes with very little rehearsal and very, very few blown takes. The whole thing was difficult, naturally, but given the constraints and pressure, everyone came through. I wish I had some exciting prima donna stories to spill, as that would make a better read, but everyone was great.”
According to Samonek, directing “Table For Three” has changed how he views other movies.
“For better or worse, I find myself looking at movies and trying to see where they had to cut corners,” he said. “As a screenwriter, I’ve always watched movies with an eye on structure and arc and character development and all that other writerly technical stuff, but having directed one, all I focus on is, ‘All right, what magic did they use to make THAT cheat work.'”
Samonek also said that directing a feature-length film has taught him a few things he could pass on to future first-time directors.
“Be realistic about what you can do with the time and money you have, and when necessary, find alternative ways to tell your story that fit your schedule and budget,” he said. “We shot on an incredibly tight budget and schedule and I think we should have cut one or more of the bigger elements at the script stage to allow us more time to let other scenes ‘breathe’ a bit more. That’s totally a 20/20 hindsight sort of thing, though.”
In addition, Samonek said, it is important to show the film to some external audiences before it’s “done.”
“Take people’s input seriously, don’t lock your film before you’ve gotten some feedback from people with no involvement with the film,” he said. “We screened the movie once before the DVD release and got a lot of feedback that I think could have improved the film — and opened my eyes to some issues I was too close to the project to see — but by then we were out of time and money to go back in and make any changes. The studio ‘test audience’ method understandably gets a lot of flack and I do believe that creative vision shouldn’t be compromised by a focus group, but in our case — and in a lot of cases, I suspect — we would have a better film if we’d been able to act on some of the suggestions we got. Again 20/20 hindsight, but if I ever get to do this again, I would keep a careful eye on both of those things. Pre- and post-production are often where the movie lives or dies.”
Many filmmakers model their visual style after movies that have inspired them, but when asked if he operates the same way, Samonek said it’s “hard to say.”
“I like so many different styles of comedy, I don’t know which, if any, influences actually showed up in the film,” he said. “In the run up, I kept referencing ‘Election’ to people because I wanted to go for that dry satirical tone that [director Alexander] Payne is so good at and that I love so much. I saw the revelation of Ryan and Mary’s machinations [in ‘Table For Three’] to be similar to the reveal of Tracy Flick’s brilliant insidiousness [in “Election”] — but my movie came out so much broader than that film that I don’t think the influence is at all apparent.”
Samonek said he also referenced a lot of “uninvited guest films,” such as “The Cable Guy.”
“I’ve always been a huge fan of comedies that feature obnoxious characters; whether it’s something like ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ or Kevin Kline in ‘A Fish Called Wanda,'” he said. “Characters that seem to completely ignore what the rest of us consider ‘normal’ behavior are always the most fun to me. That’s probably the one most recurring element in the stuff I’ve done.”
As for upcoming projects, Samonek said he intends to “stick with comedy” and that he would relish the opportunity to do some work in television.
“I’d love the opportunity to tell a story and develop characters over years, rather than in 90 minutes,” he said. “But getting into television is a whole other world that I’m not a part of and it’s really hard to crack into. But episodic storytelling is where I’d most like to be. I hear this Internet thing may catch on.”
Currently in development is the first script he sold, “The Whole Pemberton Thing.”
“‘Pemberton’ is in development at Alcon Entertainment. They’ll make it someday and it will be great,” he said. “I have a couple of other scripts in various stages of development at a couple of studios, and a couple collecting dust on shelves. But, as I always joke, they’re some of the most powerful shelves in the business. I’ve been rewritten a couple of times and rewritten others. It’s not the sexiest part of the business, but it’s how a lot of us make a living. And, of course, I’m writing a script with an eye on directing it if the stars align again. It would take a lot of alignment, but they all do.”
Samonek said things that are out of his hands, such as the current economic situation, have caused him to review his goals in the business.
“At this point, with the state of the industry and my place in it, I’d feel incredibly lucky just to make another feature,” he said. “I used to have grand goals of creating a huge body of work, but with the way things are, I can’t look beyond the next project. A lot of people are very worried about what’s next for the business.”
No matter what happens in the future, though, Samonek said he already has created work for which he take a measure of pride.
“So far, I’m most proud of a couple of scripts I’ve written that I hope someday see the light of day, specifically the aforementioned ‘Pemberton,’ and the two spec scripts I just finished — the latest ones are always the greatest, of course,” he said. “I’m very proud of ‘Table for Three’ and the shorts I’ve done, but those are so collaborative, whereas the scripts are all me.”
And turning one of those scripts he has written into a movie remains a “dream project” for Samonek.
“I wrote a script about 10 years ago called ‘Kingdom Come Undone’ that got me an agent and a lot of meetings,” he said. “A couple of people, including my wife, worked really hard to try to put it together for a few years and while the script always got a great response, no one ever really wanted to make the film for any number of reasons. It’s an ensemble comedy set in medieval times, so you start to see some of the problems that has kept it from becoming reality. But I’ve always had a very specific vision for this film that I can’t let go of.”
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For more information about “Table For Three,” go to tableforthreemovie.com.
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