Every city has its own unique pulse of life. That’s what Jeff Freilich, executive producer of the USA network series “Burn Notice,” believes.
By setting the show in Miami — and actually filming it here — producers have been able to make the city itself a character.
“Burn Notice,” whose third season began June 4th, is the top-rated cable show and the first scripted television series to shoot at least three seasons primarily in South Florida since “Miami Vice” more than two decades ago. Shows like “CSI Miami” are mostly filmed in Los Angeles.
As a multiethnic, multicultural, international city located in a tropical climate, it’s nearly impossible to fake Miami anywhere else, Freilich said. Even the actors seem to respond to the climate and culture of the city.
“It’s visceral, and it’s something you can read on camera,” Freilich said.
“Burn Notice” revolves around Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), a former U.S. spy, who is fired in the middle of an operation and dumped in his hometown of Miami. When a spy gets fired, it’s called a burn notice.
Westen, with the help of his friend Sam (Bruce Campbell) and his sometime-girlfriend Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), uses his spy skills to help those in need, while trying to figure out who burned him and why. Michael also uses his time in Miami to mend relationships with his nagging mother (Sharon Gless) and irresponsible brother (Seth Peterson).
Most television shows and movies set in Miami have actually been shot in L.A. over the years, but Freilich said it’s never quite right. Miami’s palm trees sprout fronds sooner, the leaves are greener, the ocean is more turquoise, the air is cleaner and the city’s signature Art Deco architecture is unmistakable.
“Everything about the city infuses the film that you shoot here,” Freilich said.
By using the closed Coconut Grove Expo Center as their sound stage and headquarters, producers have been able to take full advantage of the city, said Matt Nix, the show’s creator and producer. Besides having ample space to build their sets, the building’s centralized location makes it relatively easy for actors and crew members to film at locations as many as five days a week.
“You can go two miles away from the convention center and you can be in a working-class neighborhood that’s a little rough,” Nix said. “You can find mansions and suburban neighborhoods. As a back lot, it works wonderfully.”
Graham Winick, president of the nonprofit group Film Florida, said “Burn Notice” has become the highest impact production in the state. The show employs more than 100 Florida crew members and casts mostly Florida actors for supporting roles and extras. “Burn Notice” spent just more than $34 million in Florida during production of its first two seasons, according to state records. That made the show eligible for nearly $6 million in state subsidies.
Besides the direct spending, the show also provides exposure for other South Florida businesses, particularly tourism.
“Burn Notice is a largely free infomercial for the city,” said William Talbert, president of the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau.
While “Burn Notice” has become a successful part of the South Florida community, it was only a matter of chance that the show ended up in Miami at all.
Nix initially wanted to tell the dark, gritty story of a spy who had severed all personal connections to enter the cutthroat world of international espionage.
But rather than Miami’s sunny beaches, Nix originally envisioned the show in Newark, N.J. Network executives quickly dismissed the idea and suggested someplace sunnier. After some wrangling with the executives, Nix finally agreed.
“I had to reconceive the show as something that would work in Miami,” Nix said. “It became more about seeing this darker character in relief against a brighter background. I discovered in working on that, it freed me up creatively and made the show lighter and more fun to write. It actually turned out to be a great idea.”