At the corner of surreal and down-to-earth in downtown's Little Tokyo, you'll find Suehiro Café. To locals it's known for late night udon, after-6 p.m. sushi, and a friendly staff eager to serve you 'til 3 a.m. on weekends. Here, it's not hard to let your eyes wander.
Mike Samonek, screenwriter/director/super-dad, points out the art plastered along a narrow, fluorescently lit corridor. "Oh look, there's the girl in the well from 'The Ring' next to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles." In a somewhat similar clash of context, Mike's scripts have a knack for capturing the fear and loathing in relationships while tickling our funny bones. His scripts explore the big c's in relationships, co-dependency and commitment-phobia, in films such as "Table For Three," with Brandon Routh; "The Glitch;" with Jason Biggs; and "No Strings Attached" with Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher.
Among the doodles of superheroes and drunken sparks of brilliance mocked up by late night customers, Mike shared his own Hollywood experiences -- from when he first saw his name pop up on Yahoo! Movies to recently earning the "seal of dope-roval" from an MC.
Emese: I don't come down to Little Tokyo very often, for some reason.
Mike: I bring the kids to Little Tokyo a lot. Not only do they get the sushi, they get to go to the Hello Kitty store. There's a fantastic comic book store where my son can see all the mangas and Japanese comic books. It's up the stairs. On my way over here, I walked by Frying Fish with a backwards 'R.' Above it is this killer karaoke bar.
Emese: I should check it out. Just don't ask me to sing.
Mike: We shot "Table For Three" at a studio above a warehouse over on 7th Street, so we got to know downtown pretty well.
Emese: If we keep our menus open, they may not come back in a while.
Mike: So many things I want to get. I'm thinking the Okonami Plate.
Emese: I got as far as deciding on green tea iced tea. It comes with free refills.
Mike: I'm gonna be up for weeks on this tea.
Waitress: Ready to order?
Mike: Okonomi Plate. Ginger beef with gyoza with the spinach.
Emese: Curry and udon? Or should I do sushi? I know, I'll do the udon! Ummm ... eeny-meeny ...
Waitress: I'll come back.
Emese: At least I got more iced tea. What's crazy is I was looking at this menu earlier today.
Mike: You looked at it on Yelp?
Emese: Yes. Normally I flip a coin to help me decide things.
Mike: That's a good way to go through life.
Emese: To get married. To not.
Mike: The get married is great. The guy is proposing and you're flipping. Unless you propose.
Waitress: Ready to order?
Emese: Umm, ok. Pick one of the udons for me.
Waitress: How about the Nabeyaki?
Emese: No. Okay. Fine.
Mike: That's exactly what my wife said when I proposed to her.
Emese: What I've noticed in your work, you know how to capture that comical truth we can relate to in a relationship. When I saw "No Strings Attached," I was experiencing the same fear of commitment bit.
Mike: I can't take credit for the characters in that story. I wanted to do a movie about f--k buddies, people who spend a lot of time in bars. When I heard they didn't hire me to write the script of my very own concept I was very upset, obviously.
Emese: I saw your name on IMDB.
Mike: Liz Merriweather wrote the script by herself. I somehow got arbitrated to get credit on it. I read the Yahoo! reviews when the movie came out. I wanted to call every film critic and say, "No, it's hers. It's all her. Give her the credit."
Emese: You came up with the idea, so you're still tied into it.
Mike: I have scripts collecting dust on the finest shelves of Hollywood. One of the original scripts I was supposed to make was the reverse of "Dumb and Dumber." Someone else pitched the idea, I would've written the script, which is why I didn't get upset that the whole "No Strings" happened. It was the exact reverse of that scenario. I was taking notes on [producer] Chuck Roven's couch. It was like, "You need a comma here." I mean we were done. Around that time, the sequel-prequel to "Dumb and Dumber" had come out. They said, "We're not going to pursue the flip concept anymore." One of the other projects I worked on for Warner Bros. had Dustin Hoffman attached to it. He dropped out of it and the script became much less interesting for people. So that's how you get scripts collecting dust on shelves.
Emese: I'm glad you didn't pick Italian. Like in your short, "The Glitch." This place has a similar décor though.
Mike: I love this layout. I want this slatted wood paneling in my house. It's like retro and cool. Everybody loves to find the little place off-the-beaten path. Super place, super-affordable, authentic, cheap, and doesn't give a shit about the interior.
Emese: What's your advice to aspiring screenwriters and directors?
Mike: I believe you should approach everything DIY. "Table for Three" -- I wrote and directed it for Starz Cable channel. It had Matt Routh who was Superman, Jennifer Morrison from "Once Upon A Time," Sophia Bush and Jesse Bradford. Fantastic people. It was a thrill to work for such a small organization. They weren't dictating anything creatively. This is the cast, this is the script, this is the vision. How can we make it for this much money. We were doing six-seven pages a day. That happens in independent film. We did a wedding sequence with this amazing stunt.
Emese: Was it a coin toss?
Mike: We had to do a wedding and a reception that involved three different conversations and a giant stunt involving one guy falling backwards who bumps into the waiter who bumps into another guy who falls into an ice sculpture and then over into the cake. It all happened in one take, from two cameras. We did all this before lunch one day. That's not how movies work though.
Emese: I'm adding it to my Netflix queue.
Mike: There were so many things I would've liked to change to make it a stronger movie, but I am still very, very, very proud of it. There are scenes I would've put up against any studio comedy. It's a difficult thing because we had to stop post-production. We were told, "We don't have any money left."
Emese: Are you working on any new projects?
Mike: I recently started to do standup.
Emese: Do you see that going into something more?
Mike: I'm doing it to help hone joke writing. Television is where the best work is being done right now. The way to do that is not the high-concept, but all about the character. I'm working on the Al Bundy of stay-at-home dads. I'm perfecting that character so I get instant feedback from the audience.
Emese: Being on stage is a high unlike any other.
Mike: I was doing an open-mic the other night. The host was this guy, very jaded, sees twenty standups a night. I got up and did my set. Afterwards he pulled me to the side and said, "Yo man, that was dope." I was like wow, I got a "that was dope." 'Cause I'm the last guy you say that to.
Emese: You got the seal of dope-proval.
337 E 1st St, 213.626.9132
[Photos by Amy Tierney.]
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