Interview: Matt Nix & Kevin Harris from Burn Notice
We had the honor of speaking with Matt Nix, the creator, writer, and executive producer for USA Network’s Burn Notice along with Kevin Harris – the special effects coordinator for the show. Here’s what they had to say:
Can you tell us how this season is going to compare to season two and season one.
M. Nix: I think it’s better. I think it’s going to be – this season has given us an opportunity to explore kind of the characters and the stories in a new way, because now that the format for the show has been pretty well established, like we know kind of how a Burn Notice goes, it gives us a lot more freedom to explore ways of turning that on its head or turning things around or doing new kinds of episodes, because I think that we’re at the point now where the audience is less likely to be disoriented by, you know, Michael going off and doing something in a different environment. And I think that’s a process that started in season two, but we’ve been able to sort of push it further in season three.
So I would say in terms of the A stories you see that, and as far as the ongoing seasonal arc goes, we’re exploring more things from their past and a different angle on Michael’s quest to get his old life back. So at the beginning of the season we’re dealing with something that we haven’t dealt with before, which is Michael’s interactions with the police and how to get them off his back. And then as the season progresses, you know, Michael sees this as an opportunity to be reengaged with the intelligence community, but that comes with a whole host of challenges and difficulties, especially with folks from his past coming back.
And as far as the relationships go, in some ways those just kind of get deeper and deeper for us, and we know more about the characters, and so this season is also about dealing with, you know, what does it mean for Michael’s family to know more about what he does, how does that change his relationships with them, and how does it affect his relationship with Fiona that he is trying to be engaged with the intelligence community, how does she feel what that means for their relationship.
Have there ever been any spy stories, either real or fictional, that you’ve wanted to work into the show, but you couldn’t?
M. Nix: We are always working on different kinds of spy stories. And I guess I would just say that we end up setting ourselves little challenges and things that we want to do, and then we just kind of bang our heads against them until we can figure out a way to do them. One of the things that we did this year that we’ve been trying to do for two seasons and just not able to crack until this year was reverse interrogation, which is the technique we used in the second episode of finding out the information from someone’s questions in an interrogation, rather than from asking them questions. So that was a fun one for us.
And so now, I’m not done writing the season, so I don’t want to say that there’s anything that we haven’t been able to do, because we’re still trying. But yes, so we have a whole kind of laundry list of different techniques.
One of the challenges for us is that a lot of spy techniques take a long time to do, so we’ve done aspects of certain spy techniques, and other aspects are harder for us because we’re usually dealing with problems that take about a week, and a lot of the best spy techniques take a couple years. So just finding a way to pull that off is always a challenge, but we sort of end up doing the greatest hits of the world’s traitors and spies.
How many episodes are we going to have this season?
M. Nix: Sixteen. Again, nine in the first mini-season, seven in the second.
They mentioned that season three will focus on the back stories of Michael, Fiona, and Sam. I’m just curious, how far back are we going to go, and how much more will we see Nate Westen?
M. Nix: How far back are we going to go? We will be exploring some of the period where Michael was meeting later in the season. And it’s a little bit difficult to put your finger on, because the idea is over the course of Michael’s career he has had lots of interactions, some of which took place over several years. And so to be perfectly honest, we try not to nail down a really specific timeline in Michael’s career because it’s not terribly interesting, and it also ends up kind of restricting the kinds of stories we can do once we start saying Michael, these three months in 1997 he was in Belarus. Well, okay, but what if we need him to take a quick plane flight to Moscow during that period? We don’t want to nail our feet to the floor with regard to that.
So we are going to see some of the folks from Fiona’s past and learn more about their past together. And we’re going to interact with some characters that Michael dealt with over the course of his career. We’re not really – if your question is are we going to see a lot of characters from Michael’s childhood, the answer is not so far. And I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s just not something we’re doing.
And then Nate is in the third episode, and we’re planning on bringing him back in the second-half of … for at least one. And yes, we love Seth and love having Nate in the shows. It’s a bit of a challenge for us, just because with the burdens of having a client and a bad guy and usually a couple bad guys, and truck all those actors out to Miami and cram them into 42 minutes. Seth always hates hearing this, but Nate Westen starts off in more episodes than he ends up in, because we will jump into an episode going, “This is one with Michael’s brother” and then two weeks later we’re tearing out hair out because the script is going to come in at 60 pages or 50, and we’re like, “Okay, maybe Nate comes in next week.” And Seth sobs into his pillow.
Kevin, what’s been the most complicated effect that you guys have pulled off so far?
K. Harris: So far, they all have their little twists and everything. Ours is basically location-oriented. Where we would like to do a huge effect, but because of restrictions and EPA rules, we have to be careful of what we do around water, environmental issues. Mainly coming up with different types of looks which do not hurt the environment, and different types of debris that’s very lightweight, that is biodegradable. Those are our biggest challenges here in Florida.
Now what type of effects are you looking forward to in the upcoming season? Like is there something that you’re really excited about?
K. Harris: Basically with this season here is they have stayed away from the normal just blow-it-up, and have really gotten into more of technique style as far as them doing different types of gags. And that’s really the most fun stuff for us, is doing gag-work. Blowing a car up or blowing a house up, that’s pretty much easy for us. Doing a cryogenic gag or doing any type of an electronic gag, that’s more of a challenge for us and it’s really what we’re – you know, we like to do the most.
Matt, now that Michael is supposedly completely on his own and has to deal with the police, I understand there is a specific police detective that is kind of on Michael’s tail. Could you tell us about that character, please?
M. Nix: Detective Paxton is played by Moon Bloodgood, and the idea is for a long time Michael was not really showing up in the police computers and he was being protected from some of the consequences of his activities around Miami. And then once the folks behind his Burn Notice back off, their sort of going-away present to him after he jumps out of the helicopter is calling the cops on him. So in the premiere episode he goes to jail for a little while. And so after that he ends up with Detective Paxton on his tail. And she’s a really good cop. And a lot of the resources that Michael would use against – or has used in past seasons against people that have come after him are not available to him with Detective Paxton.
So for example, in the first season, when Jason Bly came after Michael, Bly was pushing the envelope some; he was doing some things that he ought not to do, and Michael was able to use that against him and get him off his back. And the problem that they find with Detective Paxton is she’s just a really good, really committed cop, who is really smart and is on to Michael and knows how to mess with him. So she figures out that – in one of the later episodes she figures out – well, in the fourth episode she figures out that given the sorts of things that Michael, Fiona, and Sam are doing around Miami, if they have a police tail on them all the time, that’s going to make their lives very, very difficult. So she does that.
And they can’t really get any angles on her to blackmail her or get her off the case, and so Michael essentially has to convince her that they’re on the same side, which is difficult because Michael’s not really following proper legal procedure in taking care of problems for his clients, and yet at the same time, he is doing things that the Miami PD ought to appreciate.
And so a lot of times what’s interesting for us is finding adversaries for Michael who are in some ways mirrors of himself. And in the case of Detective Paxton, she is committed and kind of dogged in the same way that Michael is, and that turns out to be a real problem for him. And I think that there’s a bit of an understanding between them that if Michael were a cop he would be a cop not unlike Detective Paxton, and if Detective Paxton were a freelancing burn spy then she might not be so unlike Michael, but they are clearly adversaries. She cannot have people pulling the things that Michael pulls on the streets of Miami, and he can’t be hauled in by the cops, and so there really is no middle ground between the two of them. Michael has to figure out a way to get her off his back, and she’s not in the mood to compromise.
And you’re mentioning that you have characters that are in a way mirrors of Michael, and that she is sort of the cop he would be. That brings me to the amoral version of Michael, which would’ve been Victor. And I’m just wondering, since that made for a very compelling relationship when it happened, do you have anything, anyone coming up that could sort of fill that slot and give Michael problems from the other side of the spectrum?
M. Nix: Yes.
Can you talk about them a little?
M. Nix: Yes, sure. Over the course of this season one of the characters that Michael interacts with is – and this is a real thing – is someone who is interested in selling his services. As we all know now, people with extraordinary skills can be very valuable on the open market. And … secrets, people who fight, people – you know, there’s a whole industry now that is devoted to brokering the services of those people. And so Michael at one point during the season is approached, and this is one of the ongoing characters, played by Ben Shenkman, who approaches Michael, and he is a guy who is another kind of mirror of Michael.
If Michael is the guy who is usually approaching a bad guy in an episode and convincing that bad guy to go along with his agenda for perfectly reasonable reasons, like “You really ought to show me your security” for these reasons, “I can protect you,” and getting the bad guy to do what he wants him to do. And he’s always the smart guy in that equation; he’s always the one pitching the perfectly reasonable solution to your problems that will ultimately undermine you. Along comes this character, Strickler, played by Ben Shenkman, and he’s doing the same thing to Michael; he’s basically saying, “Hey, like let’s make you some money and we’ll make me some money, and this can be helpful in your quest to get your old job back. All you’ve got to do is play ball with me on a few little things and everything is going to work out fine.”
And so Michael dealing with this guy that he doesn’t really trust, but at the same time is presenting a very compelling case that this is the way to get things done, and Michael – it’s kind of an offer Michael can’t refuse. And yet that has a moral dimension to it, and Fiona has some very strong things to say about that, and that turns into a big thing in the second half of the season. In the second half of the first mini-season, I should say. I guess that would be the second quarter of the season. Very difficult to talk about these two mini-seasons.
And then in the second mini-season we’ll be dealing with a different character, who is someone with a background in covert intelligence as sort of like your – Victor was someone who appeared to have no moral compass, and then turned out to have a moral compass disguised as no moral compass. In the second half of the season we’re going to be meeting a character who is truly a freelance psychopath, and Michael is going to have to deal with that guy and hence … new….
How much are we going to see of Madeline and Sam? They interact so beautifully.
M. Nix: More actually. That’s really fun. We basically made – Sam blew up Madeline’s house in the finale of season two, and so he’s kind of on the hook for repairs. So it means that he spends much of the first nine episodes hanging out at Madeline’s, trying to put her house back together, which is made more complicated by the fact that Michael’s father did a lot of the original building on the house, using stolen lumber and improvised parts, so it’s kind of a complicated enterprise and presents new problems, and so him and Madeline are interacting with that. And then also that Buick that they borrowed from Madeline’s neighbor, Ann …, Sam ends up dating the daughter of the owner of … Madeline’s next-door neighbor, so that gives him another reason to hang out.
And then the other thing is actually one of the interesting things about this season is that now that Madeline really knows what Michael does; I mean there’s no more, “Who are you again?” or “What do you do again?” or that kind of thing that we did more in the first and second season, it opens up new opportunities for Madeline to participate with Michael, Sam, and Fiona. Which is not to say it doesn’t turn into anything silly, like Madeline running around with a gun, but there’s no longer any need to explain to Madeline what’s going on when they’re doing a job. And there are certain things that Madeline can be useful for, and there are things that are appropriate for who she is, but they are nonetheless useful, and that has been a fun thing to explore.
Burn Notice is all about Michael, of course, but will viewers learn more about Fiona and Sam during season three?
M. Nix: Absolutely. A lot more. In the case of Sam, we’ve got some – I don’t want to give too much away. We’ve got a couple of really fun characters who Sam is going to be interacting with from his own past. Sam runs into some pretty serious tax problems this year. It turns out it’s very difficult to do your taxes properly as a covert operative, very hard to categorize your deductions, and so he gets into some serious trouble there. So that’s a character that he’s dealing with. And learn a little bit more about his past through that inquiry. Also, relationships that Sam had come back.
And then on Fiona’s side, especially towards the end of the winter season we’re going to be seeing – we’re going to be learning a lot more about Fiona’s family. We spent two episodes referring to “angry, angry people back in Ireland,” who are interested in Fiona, and let’s just say we may be meeting some angry people.
Kevin, you’ve worked on a lot of action movies, such as Transporter 2 and 2 Fast 2 Furious, how difficult is it to scale down movie-sized special effects for a TV budget, show budget, or is that not an issue?
K. Harris: It’s only an issue in logistics, as far as red tape and stuff, which on television we try and meet with the specific agencies and stuff like that, saying, “We have seven days to produce a show and we need to expedite,” and based on my credentials of doing this for about 30 years, I’m able to get a permit within three days, which normally would take 14 days. And that is really our biggest problem.
As far as actually doing the gags, it’s basically taking our years of experience and condensing it to do television. If you’ll notice, we stay more to the bigger stuff; we kind of stay away from the intricate stuff of doing bullet hits and stuff, only because it’s very costly and very time-consuming, where doing an explosion is not as costly and not as time-consuming. So it’s really – it’s hard to say. I mean television you work much, much, much faster. And in features you get much more time, but it’s on a much more grandiose scale. A normal gag would take us two to three months on a feature, on television we have two to three days.
And this is what you do, like a show like Burn Notice, the special effects with that?
K. Harris: Yes. I mean, Burn Notice, if you watch all the other TV shows, and I’ve done quite a few TV shows, characteristically you do one explosion and a couple of mediocre effects. On Burn Notice we do two to three major gags, plus all the little spy gags as well. So they really keep us busy.
What we can expect as far as special guest stars in this season?
M. Nix: Well, we have – let’s see. We just got Debi Mazar; she’s going to be guesting for us in the – I just happen to be excited about that one. She’s guesting in the eighth episode.
Moon Bloodgood is our Burn Notice sort of arc character for the first bit of the season, and Ben Shenkman for the second bit. We’ve got Brian Van Holt in the first episode. Hope McElhany in the second episode does a great job. Third episode is the return of Brennen, played by Jay Karnes from The Shield. The fourth episode we have a fantastic performance by Nick Turturro.
I think this episode – oh, actually this is a fun one. In the fifth episode the actor Michael Weston stars as a schizophrenic client. So we have Michael Weston meets Michael Westen. He plays a character named Spencer. It’s not confusing, but it was fun for us. And he does a great job. We didn’t cast him because of his name, but it was a fun accident.
In the sixth episode – let’s see. We have some great actors, but I’m not thinking of anybody that would jump out as…. Seventh episode we have Jay Harrington, who did a great job. And then that’s basically as far as we’ve cast. So there should be another – there’s going to be another big Burn Notice character in the second half of the season, and we’ve got a fun list that we’re pulling together for that, but we haven’t nailed down who that’s going to be yet.
Considering how Michael has tried so hard to sort of remain anonymous in Miami and keep a low profile, is it becoming a bit of a creative issue at all for you to have his residence or Madeline’s residence so well-known? Or is Michael just not the kind of guy who’s going to pick up and leave the lost sort of in favor of going in hiding from these people that are all looking for him now?
M. Nix: Well, one of the things that we tend to think about is that a determined adversary who wishes to find Michael can probably find Michael. And the inconvenience of not knowing his specific address might slow them down, but because they’re not on-screen for that part, our attitude about it tends to be like, okay, so if we had Michael running around and hiding in a lot of different places, the cash value of that for the series would be the same, which is, “I found you. It was more difficult than it would have been if you stayed in the loft, but I found you.” We could say, “It took me six months because you kept moving so efficiently,” but we only show the part after when somebody finds Michael. Like that’s what the show is about, after he’s been found.
So I guess when we thought about it, ultimately it just doesn’t – even if we ran at that issue in a huge way, it wouldn’t affect the show that much; he would just be living in a different house this week and then we’d find him, because you can’t really do a television series about someone who is really effectively hiding from everyone.
And then the other side of it is with regard to the people that he is interacting with from his past or the cops or whatever, one of the things we’re exploring just from a character dimension is that Michael doesn’t – on one level Michael doesn’t want the inconvenience of dealing with people and clients and people who need his help and that kind of thing. But one of the things we explored in season two and we explore more in season three is the fact that Michael’s sort of lying to himself if he thinks he really doesn’t want to interact with people. He needs it. This is kind of what drives him.
Why does he care so much about getting his job back? It’s not because the pay is so great or because he loves the food in Afghanistan; it’s because he’s a guy who is driven to help people, and he believes that his job helps people. And the stuff that he does in Miami is the fix that he can get of that, of what he needs in Miami; that’s what’s available to him. And Fiona has the same thing. And we kind of explore that in her character this year as well, like why does she do what she does. It’s not normal for people to help desperate people that come to them and go to the lengths that these characters go to in order to do that, and so one of the things we’re exploring is why do they do that. What things in their past, what things in their psychology compel them to do that?
So I guess I’d give a three-part answer to your question. One, a determined adversary would find Michael regardless, and so it’s sort of a waste of time to run around all the time. Two, Michael on some level actually wants to interact with people and help them, because it fulfils some need in himself. And three, with regard to the people from his past that are after him and interested in him for various reasons, one of the things that we think about is if somebody just wanted Michael dead, it’s not that hard to do. Right? You can just walk up to him and you can shoot him in the head and then done. Right?
But the idea is because of Michael’s past and because of who he is and because of what he’s done, he is, generally speaking, worth more to people alive than dead. So if someone is coming after him, they are coming after him for a reason that goes beyond just wanting to kill him; they want to get some information from him, they want to use him for something, they want to interact with him in some way. So that’s another angle on it, but it’s not really – it’s not that he needs to hide out because people just want to put a bullet in him, it’s that they would be interested in him for something more than that.
And then the last thing is if he really wants his job back he needs to interact with people. It’s not an option for him to just hide out and not talk to anybody. He actually needs to engage with the world and make the case that he’s someone who should be part of the intelligence community. Just as in season two, if he wants to deal with the people that burned him, he’s got to engage with them.
As a quick follow-up to that, specifically to that last part that you just talked about, we saw Michael in season one get a fake identity, basically get documents to travel, and he was going to go to Washington. And with Michael being so driven to kind of get back into that life as a spy, is there any chance that he’s going to try that again, to reach these people, or are they going to have to come to him?
M. Nix: Actually I completely forgot; I’m glad you mentioned that. There is a character this year, played by Otto Sanchez, who is a local – basically someone from the American intelligence community who is working in Miami, who essentially is someone that Michael can contact, who has access to official channels. He doesn’t like Michael much, he doesn’t want to interact with Michael, but he’s someone that Michael can find.
So it’s not necessarily that people need to come to him. Over the course of this season one of the things that we explore is the fact that dealing with his Burn Notice is not like turning a light switch on and off, because his Burn Notice destroyed his reputation. You may be able to destroy someone’s reputation very easily; you just send out some information and everyone now sees it and reevaluates this person and thinks, “Okay, Michael Westen is a terrible guy, and now he’s burned.” Repairing that damage is a lot more of a process and a lot more complicated and difficult than the burning was.
So I think in the first season there was this feeling that Michael had that, “Okay, maybe I can go and talk to someone, if they just interact with me, and I can somehow get this turned around.” And I think that his understanding of his situation has evolved now, that he has seen his file, understands what has happened to him, interacted with people who have given him a deeper understanding of the nature of his Burn Notice and what’s happened to him. I think now – I mean he could go to Washington. I’ll let the cat out of the bag and say he won’t go to Washington this season unless our studio decides to write a really big check. But the question of what would he do in Washington; it’s not as relevant now.
Really, now if he wants to deal with this, there’s a long task ahead of him of repairing his destroyed reputation that involves less one conversation with one person and more say an ongoing concerted effort.
If you had sort of like a blueprint in mind in terms of who Fiona was going to be, who Sam was going to be, who, of course, the central star was going to be? And then, Michael, and then as you knew who the actors were going to be a part of the show, did you start making some modifications in those characters? So I really was curious in terms of the character templates themselves, how much did they really differ from what the stars did? And then how did you align it? I know that’s a complex process, but I’m just curious what went on in the conception of the show and then the actualization of it.
M. Nix: Yes, I mean actually the truth is it’s a question I’ve thought a lot about, and it’s a pretty straightforward answer. It’s actually a lot is the answer. I mean they evolved a lot. It’s probably easiest to give you a few specific examples.
In the case of Michael I had an idea in my head. I didn’t really have an actor template, because that’s just so fraught, it’s just so difficult; you never know who’s available and who wants to do television and stuff like that. So I didn’t really sell myself a particular actor that I wanted.
In finding Jeffrey, I mean one of the things that you notice in the pilot is that there’s a little bit of role-playing in the pilot, there’s a little bit of him taking on a different persona to get a job done, but not a ton. And what we discovered was – or what I discovered in working with Jeffrey was that’s just something he’s really good at, and it’s something he enjoys and it keeps the character interesting for me to write and interesting for him to play. And he has the range as an actor to do that. And so having him take on different personae is something that emerged as a feature of the show over the course of the first few episodes and became a feature of the show basically because Jeffrey could do it.
In the case of Madeline, Madeline started out less canny and less sort of sophisticated and wily, and Sharon, as an actress, she spent a lot of years playing a pretty iconic cop. And in working with Sharon I just realized it’s a shame not to use that part of her, like that part of her that’s really clever and canny and she can play that, and her toughness. And so a lot of her whininess fell away than the original conception of the character and evolved into – I should say all of these characters are indistinguishable from the actors in my mind now, but thinking back to then, her character started off less smart and more whiny, and now is more like Sharon.
I would say in the case of Fiona, also Gabrielle taking on personae, which she doesn’t do as much as Michael does, but it was something that’s fun for Gabrielle to do, fun to see her do it. And I would say also part of it was we are still amused by the fact that Gabrielle is so physically small and she is the heavy on the show. So I’d be lying if I said that like – it’s just so much fun for us to make her really tough and kind of scary, because she is the size of like – she’s just so tiny. It’s just fun for us and it makes the character more fun. And she just does that – she is that. I mean she’s so feisty that I’d say that it evolved with Gabrielle more in the direction of that kind of feisty spitfire kind of thing that was there at the beginning, but she just turned out to be great at that.
And then I have to say, with Sam, if you look at the pilot, Sam has a handful of scenes. He’s there, but he’s not a huge character. I mean I knew that he was part of the series, and to say that it evolved from my original conception, like Sam is a guy who likes to have a good time, he likes to drink, like all of those things are true and were true in the pilot, but like Sam simply is Bruce Campbell; it’s not like – I can’t even remember who he was before Bruce Campbell, other than the fact that he liked to drink beer and he wore Hawaiian shirts. That’s it.
Kevin, I am curious to know with the special effects and the filming and such, I know on particular shows they have several days where they have the dialogue and the actual filming of the characters interacting with each other, and then they set aside a couple days where they do special effects work. So they shoot the scenes out of sequence or out of order. Is that pretty much the same thing with Burn Notice?
K. Harris: This show here we pretty much – first unit is hand-in-hand. We do everything practical. Basically if we’re going to shoot a scene, we shoot the entire scene, and then when the effect comes due, which usually is at the end of the scene, we will film that scene that day.
Now there’s very little second unit work done on this show. As a matter of fact, last year was our biggest as far as having two units simultaneously. This year we’re doing more car stuff second unit, and a lot of the big setup stuff for car chases and stuff like that are – and they’re not calling it second unit; they’re calling it more or less a splinter unit, which will have two units running simultaneously. Different VPs, different operators; I’ll even split my crew up, one on first unit, one on second unit. But they’re calling it a splinter unit. And as these seasons evolve they will get more and more separated to where we’ll start doing bigger and bigger gags.
But typically, yes, you are correct, most episodic they try and shoot out most of your walk-and-talk scene and save your dramatic stuff until the end.
Have you ever had a sequence that just, it takes forever to get it right? Was there ever a sequence in Burn Notice which took multiple takes?
K. Harris: I’m happy to say that – as a matter of fact it went up I think, 90% of the stuff we’ve done first take, which for us is very good. We have really – I mean everybody is a true professional. Really. We have a very seasoned crew here. And we have all worked together, and I mean all of us, probably for the last 20 years. So we’ve worked on multiple, multiple shows together.
So on this show here, pretty much when we all get together we discuss it, we say this is what we’re going to do, and we pretty much do it. I really can’t think of a time where we had to scratch an entire gag and do it all over again on any three of these seasons yet. Pretty much everything has been letter-perfect for us.
M. Nix: Yes, actually I’ll back you up on that, and also say that it’s funny, I’ll talk to other show runners about effects and things, and one thing that people don’t – people will just assume, “Oh, you’ve got a Miami crew. How do you do that stuff you do?” Because we’re doing everything.
We probably had like ten frames of CGI last year. I mean we do everything for real, except for the occasional cleanup thing, and that’s just like little stuff around the edges, where we needed something there, we needed this thing erased or something like that. Really. Our CGI on Burn Notice is erasing a cable or getting rid of a mat. That’s it. Everything else is if you see a house blow up on Burn Notice, we blew up a house. And when that car flips, a car flipped; it’s not a miniature, it is always real. And it’s something we’re really proud of.
And the thing, as I say, I’ll get asked about our crew, and the assumption is because we don’t have an LA crew, that we are somehow handicapped by that. But the thing that I always tell them is it’s not like there are ten crews in Miami and one of them does television and one of them does movies and one of them does this and one of them does that. No, there’s really just the one. Or there’s like 1.5. So I benefit hugely from the fact that Kevin not only worked on every big movie or nearly every movie that came through Miami, doing the effects for them. He worked with our stunt guy, Artie, our stunt coordinator, Artie, who also worked on those movies whenever they came through Miami.
And so if we were in LA we would probably be working with a crew that did tons of television, and when we say, “We’d really like to drive a car off the fourth floor of a parking garage and have it crash into a city street,” they’re going to say, “Yes, we don’t do that. You know what I mean? I don’t even know what that is. We wouldn’t even know where to start.” When I say that to Kevin, Kevin’s reaction is like, “Fourth floor? You can get a much better effect on it if you go on to the sixth floor. Anyplace below the sixth floor you’re not going to get a good effect. In Transporter we threw it off a mountain” or whatever it is.
And we really benefit from the fact that they have been on all these big movies and they really know what they’re doing, they’ve all worked together. So we’re just running through the playbooks of every big action movie that has come through Miami.
K. Harris: Yes, pretty much everybody that works here in Florida chooses to work here in Florida. It’s not a necessity for them. I’ve been here for 35 years. I’m originally from New York. So for us in motion picture business it has always been a father-and-son trade. So my son is working for me right now. He runs the set for us. He’s not necessarily my second-in-command, but he does run the set. I have people that have been on a lot longer than my son, and basically that’s it, you win by attrition. But there again, it is our livelihood and it’s all we do.
If budget wasn’t an issue at all, what would your dream action sequence be?
K. Harris: Why don’t you go first, Matt?
M. Nix: Actually, that sort of points to a – something people don’t always understand about effects – I mean it’s a good question, but the thing that we really need more than more money is more time. Wouldn’t you agree, Kevin?
K. Harris: Absolutely.
M. Nix: Yes, really it is very rare that Kevin – I mean really we’ve got such a great team of effects and stunt people that I can’t think of a time that they have come to me and said, “This stunt is too expensive. We cannot do this stunt.” Literally they will say to me, “You are not pushing hard enough. Come up with something that you really think we can’t do so that we can show you that we can do it.” Right? And so it’s just not – budget is not really the issue.
And really a good example is when Kevin talks about doing intricate gags, that being a lot more difficult than doing big things. Like we do all the big things. We do the same things that they would do in a big movie, we’ll do them in more or less the same way, it’s just that we don’t have as many cameras on the stunt, we don’t shoot the green screen shot of the lead as the car is flipping, so that you see that it’s him in the car. You know, there are certain things that we don’t have time to do. So it’s kind of the details that end up falling out of stuff because we don’t have time to do it.
The funny thing is actually like my dream stunt sequence was the raining, flaming cars car chase sequence at the end of season two, which I wrote fully expecting them to come back and say, “We can’t do it.” And Artie, our stunt coordinator, and Kevin talked to me and the basically had pitches for making it bigger. And of course I said, “Yes, make it bigger.” So honestly, like I’m still trying to push for something that we can’t get, and we just keep writing it and they just keep doing it. So because of that it’s kind of a difficult question to answer.
The kind of thing that is very difficult for us to do would be a long-running fight scene with multiple bullet hits through multiple locations. So those big movie sequences that you see, where someone is chasing someone else through a house and a market and then on a roof and then through the beach and then up a tree and then down a tree, that is – we can do every single piece of that, no problem. But put them all together and you’re talking about a week’s worth of shooting, and we get seven days to shoot an episode. And so that turns into, “All right, well the coolest bit of this is him running up the tree and down the tree, so how about we just do that part?” and then that’s what we end up doing, because we don’t have time to do the rest.
So if you just want kind of like the things that I’ve been thinking about, and then Kevin can say whether we’re going to be able to do them. We haven’t really done much fighting in high places or high falls. We’ve done a little bit of it, but that’s really fun. And we haven’t done a whole lot of actors interacting with flame or explosion effects, and that sort of intimate interaction tends to be kind of difficult, and that would be fun for us to do at some point, somebody in a fire.
Kevin? So what is your answer? What’s the effects sequence you dream of?
K. Harris: I’m more partial to water-type work, boat work, doing a lot of different types of effects on water and with the boats and stuff; it’s a lot more challenging. I will say that after doing a couple of seasons of SeaQuest and a Hulk Hogan series called Thunder in Paradise, the thing that really needs to be done when you want to do real deep action is you almost have to run simultaneously. We have a second unit and a first unit. And on both of those shows there, pretty much your first year they did all of your walk and talk scenes when your second unit was backing it up with all the action sequences. And in that case there is my difference as far as time versus money. There it’s both; you’re going to get double the time, although you’re going to spend double the money.
And I’m confident that Burn Notice is getting to that point. This season here we’ve done more second unit work than we’ve ever done before. And when we did the last episode of season two, probably 70-percent of that was done via second unit, and it really meshed in very nicely. But to do a good – because the studios are not going to give you more than your seven days. I don’t care what show you’re doing, they are seven-days bound. So the only way to get more out of it is to run simultaneous units.
And we live in Florida, our biggest scenery here is the water, and it’s a lot more costly to shoot on the water, but you get a hell of a bang for your buck.
Interview By: Emma Loggins