Interview: Matt Nix from Burn Notice
We had the honor of speaking with Matt Nix, the creator, writer, and executive producer for USA Network’s Burn Notice. Here’s what he had to say:
What does the success of a show like this mean to you as a show runner? What does it mean to have a show that’s so successful and so, I guess, just well received by the audience?
M. Nix: Well, I guess in terms of the job, the sort of day-to-day of it, not much actually. I find, like I sort of – you know, people ask me, like, how has your life changed? And really it’s sort of, I come into the office every day, and then I work for a really long time, and then I go home. But I mean the truth is, it was always a really fun process, and it still is. But really, like, kind of the best thing about it is all of your friends from high school call you.
And just all the people getting in touch with you and, you know, I think that for a lot of people on the show, oddly and nobody expected this, but everybody comments on it and how kind of weirdly unexpected and mildly spooky it is. Everybody says to us, oh, your show is the only show that my daughter watches with her grandmother or – its people have this sort of family thing about it, and in a funny kind of way, that’s the most gratifying because it’s totally not something we expected, and having it well received in that way, I don’t know. It’s not like I sat down to do a family spy show, but I guess it turned out that way.
What are your sources of inspiration for each episode’s storylines?
M. Nix: Well, they come from a lot of places. I’d say, with regard to the sort of case of the week stories, well, I mean really with regard to the case of the week stories and the overall Burn Notice arcs, we focus a lot on taking elements of spy craft from the history of espionage, including the very early history of espionage, to World War II stuff. I mean, really kind of, it runs the gamut. And we have the advantage of being able to use stuff from all around the world, you know, so we’ll read a history of Russian spies or read all about the Mossad and techniques from everywhere. And then we also talk a lot to our consulting producer, Michael Wilson, who has worked in that field and always has good ideas for places to go for storiesâ€¦.
Because, I guess, even though we’re using it in a different context, it’s a really useful touchstone for us to know that we’re using something that has a basis in reality, and we’re very interested in technique and how this stuff works. And we’re all fans of the genre. We all read that stuff for pleasure, and we’ll call Michael Wilson and just ask him questions because he’s fun to talk to.
But then we really focus on, okay, how could we use this thing that was done by Aldridge Aims, who was a famous mole in the CIA. How can we use – you know, we all read the Aldridge Aims book. What’s something Michael could do using an Aims’ like strategy, or what something Michael could do using the strategies that we used to catch Aims? And then we’ll put that in a different context.
Then with regard to the other storylines, the family storylines and the Burn Notice storylines, a lot of times we look at what are fun – especially now, as we go into the – I think you’ll see it more in the second half of the second season, and even more in the third season. We think a lot about what does doing this kind of case, what does this situation mean for Michael as a character? What would the resonance of this technique be for him? What does it say about him as a guy? What does it take out of him personally? What does he – are there some things that he would enjoy? What are the things that he enjoys?
What does that mean for his family? What would his family think about that? And so we tend to sort of bounce the emotional stories and the character stories off of the A stories, and so we’ll think about where are we in the season. What would that mean for Michael and Fiona’s relationship? And how can their relationship echo where Michael is with regard to his Burn Notice or with regard to the case of the week, so that’s sort of how we tend to think about it.
But to answer simply, we do a lot of reading and a lot of talking to sources. Every week we bring in sources, you know, just people who we think might be interesting to talk to. And I will say, actually, one of the great things about, as the show has become better known, it’s been great for us in terms of consultants popping up, you know, just people who were willing to talk to us and be helpful.
From episode one, it starts out Michael is basically picking up the pieces or finding out about his past life. He’s starting over, and the series is basically about his second stage of life of an ex-spy. What inspired you to think of that? Usually you start out with the egg hatched and the baby was born. But here, you kind of start out in the middle of a story that really affects the story that’s going on today. What were you thinking of when you came up with that? Is that a difficult question?
M. Nix: No, it’s fine, actually. I mean, the truth is, the direct inspiration was conversations that I had had with our consulting producer, Michael Wilson, who had worked in that environment. And the thing that really struck me about talking to him and interacting with him was that we tend to think of people who work in those arenas as superheroes, you know, people who are not human beings. They don’t have likes and dislikes. They’re just sort of like robot people who protect us, and they can do anything.
I became really interested in the idea that when people devote themselves to mastery of a craft like espionage, they pay a real price for it, and it’s not – I mean as much as I love movies and books that do the sort of like, and the price they pay is they have robot arms, or the price they pay is mind control or things like that. Really, in the real world, the price that these people pay is, you know, I mean, they entered that world because it’s something they need psychologically, and to me it was always a fascinating question to say, like, what sort of person wants that? What sort of person is okay with saying, like, I hold some ideal so sacred that I’m willing to make my entire life a rouse in service of that ideal.
You know, I so love my country that I’m going to go and pretend to hate my country and have all of my friends be the enemies of my country, and spend years doing this just so that I can strike a blow on behalf of something that I care about. You know, what is that? Like, what sort of person devotes himself to a single principal at that level, and so there’s that question. Like, what background do you come from?
And so, I looked into it with Michael Wilson, and I also read other things. And it’s, frankly, been an interest of mine since I was a little kid. Like, who really becomes that? And then, at the same time, I’m interested in what are the costs ongoing. I mean, one of the things that we talked about on the show is that things should come at a cost. Like, we’ll ask, what is the human dimension of this thing that Michael is going to do? What sort of practice does he have to undergo? Like, he may be able to do this particular kind of fighting, but does he enjoy doing it? Does he find it unpleasant? Are his muscles sore for days afterwards? Like, what are the practical human realities of becoming this kind of superhero? And so, I guess my inspiration is, you know, a real interest in the human dimension of those abilities, where they come from, what spurs you to want to do that, and what price you pay ongoingly.
And, I mean, actually, even down to the fact of, even down to the way that I became friends with Michael Wilson was, you know, he sort of contacted me because he like a short film that I had done that was available on the Internet, and as we talked over time, I realized that all of Michael’s friends essentially are people that he had to choose almost at random because if you work in the world of intelligence, if you sit down at a bar and there’s somebody next to you, and you strike up a good conversation, and you have a wonderful time, you can’t ever talk to that person again because that person could be a plant. That person found you. That person happened to be in the right place at the right time, and you happened to get along with them. It’s much too dangerous to make those kinds of friendships.
You really need to make friendships with people that you select because the danger that someone that you randomly select on the Internet and decide I like this guy’s short film, let’s be friends. The chances that I’m going to be someone who is out to undermine him in some way are vanishingly small. But if you’re just bumping into people on the street, well, somebody may have put that person there for you to bump into. And it struck me, like that’s a big way to compromise your life. That’s a huge deal to say you can never have a friend that you didn’t choose.
And so, looking at what does that mean for Michael and, like, what does it to explore that kind of character, and what does it take out of him? And I also think that what’s fun about that is it generates a lot of drama, but it generates just as much comedy as it does drama. One of my central inspirations and one of the things I talked about in pitching the show was something that I had talked about with Michael and also with some other people, which is the idea that a lot of these people who are doing this kind of awesome commando stuff, you know, they parachute into a jungle, and then they’ve got to run around doing things. If they bought that awesome jacket at REI before they parachuted into the jungle, and now they have to leave it behind because they’re in the jungle and they’re not really going to carry around that jacket, but they needed it because they were parachuting through the upper atmosphere.
I had this great conversation where – it was actually Michael Wilson was saying basically it’s a bummer to leave that REI jacket behind because you went and you picked it out, and it was fun, and you kind of liked the way it fit. And then you’ve just got to leave it in the middle of the jungle. It sucks. And that was hilarious to me, and so pitching that to USA, you know, it’s real. There’s a sort of pathos there. Your heart sort of goes out to that poor spy who has to leave his favorite jacket behind in the jungle, and it also sets up an awesome action scene. It’s exciting. Honestly, I can’t get enough of it.
I don’t want to give away too many things because I just actually was privileged enough to see the premier a little early. I noticed that, Michael especially, I don’t want to use the word brutality, but he’s taking a more direct approach in this first episode. Is that something we can look forward to throughout the second half of the second season here? He seems to have grown a little weary of the finesse it takes to get these con jobs done, and is taking a little more route of the scare tactics.
M. Nix: Well, I mean, I think that that’s something we thought a lot about with this episode. Let me put it this way. I think you’ll see the tension between the idea that taking a very direct approach might be the most effective thing in a situation, but it also comes at a significant cost. And I think in this premier episode, we were kind of looking at, you know, what does it mean for Michael to be shaken. What does it mean for – like, what does he do when he’s knocked off his game? What does Fiona do when she’s knocked off her game? Everybody is really thrown through a loop by what happened at the end of last season, by Michael nearly getting himself blown up.
And so, this first episode is kind of Michael off his footing, and so it was more about kind of exploring what does that mean, and it means Michael is not infallible. There’s a point in the episode, as you saw, where it looks like he’s going to make a really bad choice. And Sam, although he helps Michael with this more direct, as you put it, way of dealing with things, objects to it and says, I don’t like doing this kind of stuff, and I don’t think it’s a good idea. And ends up doing it anyway because Michael is his friend, but he’s really on edge.
And so part of the point of this episode was to examine what does it mean for Michael to be off his footing, and also, how does he find his footing again. Part of that is kind of Michael acknowledging for the first time that there’s something about helping people that he needs, that he’s not just a guy who is sort of wearily doing things for desperate people when he would really rather be doing something else. That there’s some part of Michael’s psyche that needs to do this stuff, that needs to be useful to people, that needs to be using his skills and engaging with the world in that way even though he isn’t really supposed to be doing that for his job anymore. That was really what it was about.
The answer is, for the rest of the season, is he giving up guile in favor of using his fists or kind of direct brutality? No. And the hope in this season premier was that part of what you see is him kind of starting in this shaken place where he is doing things in a more direct fashion, and then kind of returning more to form by the end of the episode. And so, that emotional tension is something that we explore for the rest of the season, but we’re kind of like exploring where are those lines, and how does Michael negotiate those lines, and what do these clients really mean to him, like why is he doing this? Does he really care that much about $6,000, or is there something more to it?
I’ve been wondering because of something Bruce said. He mentioned the Rockford Files in terms of some of the tone of the show. And I get the impression that Burn Notice is kind of a mash-up of the Rockford Files and It Takes a Thief, and I was wondering how do you get that balance.
M. Nix: I’d say that there’s actually a lot of kind of classic television, and the Rockford Files, It Takes a Thief. People bring up Magnum, MacGyver, The A-Team, a lot of these shows, some of which I watched, and some of which I didn’t watch. But all of us, between the entire staff, we all watched all of those at one point or another. And I think that one of the things we kind of use as a touchstone that owes a lot to that kind of classic television is the idea that we’re really – like, Michael is a classic hero. We all like Michael. We all like Sam. We all like Fiona. We all like Madeline.
I think if you think about a lot of contemporary television, including a lot of my favorite shows, I should say, I mean I’m not slamming this at all. It is an important part of contemporary television, feeling ambivalent about the characters that you’re watching is, you know, it’s kind of something that people do now. And I think Burn Notice is not that. I think that when you look at Rockford, Rockford is just kind of a guy. At least my reaction to him was, you know, he’s a guy you want to know, you know, like Magnum is just cool, like, he’s a good dude.
And when we’re all writing Sam, you know, we’re thinking about what’s the brother we want. Who’s that guy? When we think about Michael, it’s whatever challenges or whatever darkness he may struggle with, ultimately he’s a hero. He’s a guy who’s going to put his ass on the line to save people, and so that kind of – you know, those are the kinds of touchstones we use, and I think that is a bit of a throwback to classic television.
It’s a world where people are really trying to do the right things for other people, and where the characters on the show, however they bicker, are a family and they stick together, and that’s what they do. And I think that’s sort of comforting, and it’s fun to write, and I think there are a lot of interesting and subtle things to explore within that. But, you know, that’s the kind of television that I really cared about growing up, and I think there’s a place for it, and that’s part of what we’re doing.
Of all the places in the world where people wouldn’t really want to go, how did you come to decide to play Michael in Miami and have him trapped there?
M. Nix: Well, I’ve told this story on other occasions, but the short version is basically I had the brilliant idea of putting it in Newark, and basically because I was sort of picking a city randomly, I thought, oh, you know, I’m exploring the psyche of this guy, and he came from this kind of dark place, and that’s what led him to be a spy, and so, you know, it felt like kind of a natural choice to have him come from this sort of gritty place where he was – you know, the mean streets of Newark, and then that led into a life as a spy.
Then, as I was developing the show, USA kept pointing out that, A) they don’t really do things set in Newark. They’re kind of a blue sky network, and that’s not their thing, and B) they kept observing that the thing they really liked about the show was that it was funny, and they were sort of like, we like that part, you know. Can you do more of that? And I was very resistant to it.
But then, ultimately, they said we’d really like the show to be set someplace sunny like Miami. And then I kind of sat down, and at first I was very resistant to it. Then I thought, well, you know, I’m going to give this a shot. And what I discovered when I actually did it was that I had kind of been setting out, you know, writing the Newark version was kind of writing the fish in water story. You know, it makes sense. He’s a fish. He’s in water, you know. But taking that fish out of the water and putting this sort of gritty, dark spy in Miami allowed for ultimately a lot bigger contrast, a lot more fun.
You know, my question to the network was just, hey, like, I’ll put it in Miami, but does he have to like being there? You know, can I make him a guy who doesn’t want to be in Miami? They said sure, whatever, you know, that sounds great. Whatever works for you, and make it fun for you creatively, and I did. And ultimately I was really glad that we set it in Miami because it allows us to explore a lot of these themes, but do it on a beach, and do it against a bright background, and I think it makes it sort of fun and keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously, so it turned out to be a central part of the show, and I do find myself in the odd position though for a writer to be, you know, thanking my lucky stars that I got that network note. But I do.
In season two, we saw Michael go up against some considerably darker adversaries than he faced in season one. I was wondering if, first, we would be seeing sort of like Tim Matheson or Michael Shanks reappear later in the serious and if even more sinister characters were going to start appearing.
M. Nix: Yes. Yes to all. Well, I should say, Tim Matheson returns in season two in spectacular fashion as the director of the finale. He does not return. Larry doesn’t come back in season two. We definitely want to bring Larry back. We love Larry. But, you know, he’s a – nothing more to say than that we’re bringing him back in season three and not in season two.
And yes, Michael Shanks will be coming back and gets a chance to do some really, really fun things. And, you know, I guess I’d say, like, the fun thing about it is that – the fun thing about Burn Notice villains is they really all have to be smart. It’s no fun to see Michael wipe the floor with somebody who doesn’t have a good plan. I think our conception is always that, you know, presumably Michael dealing with those guys is just, you know, those are the cases Michael is taking that don’t get turned into episodes. You know, they’re just too easy, so we’re showing you the highlights. We’re showing you the really good ones where he’s up against somebody who’s really a worthy adversary.
Yes, I mean, actually just thinking about this season, the second half of the season, you know, he goes up some real bad boys and some really, really smart guys, and encounters some smart women as well, so it’s really fun for us, actually, to think about who is – what’s a way of testing Michael, you know, who has now established as so competent. What’s something that we can – what’s a hoop of fire that we can have him jump through that’s even tougher? And so, yes, it’s not always about making the bad guys darker. Sometimes it’s about making them more concealed and with better plans or whatever. But, yes, it’s a lot of fun.
We also bring back Seymour, who was in episode 2.07, played by Silas Weir Mitchell, the arms dealer, and we love that guy as well. He did a great job.
I really enjoy the spy tricks and like the MacGyverisms. Is there any of them that’s your favorite or ones you can’t wait to show off this season?
M. Nix: Yes. There’s one episode, one of my favorite spy riffs is in the 12th episode this season, and we’d been thinking for a long time about how to do an episode that centers on this. And, basically, a lot of the greatest spies, I mean this isn’t a voice over in the episode, but a lot of the greatest spies in history have been people who were somehow managed to be put in charge of finding themselves. So Robert Hanson at the FBI was put in charge of finding the mole in the FBI, and he was the mole in the FBI. Aldridge Aims was the counterintelligence guy at the CIA in charge of finding the mole in the CIA, and he was the mole in the CIA, and it’s just delicious.
I mean, it’s, well, I should say, those were both horrible stains on the history of American government and intelligence. That said, they make for great stories, and so in the 12th episode, we get a chance to put Michael in the position of a guy who is hunting himself. I don’t need to get into it much more than that, but suffice it to say that that’s an episode where Michael actually gets to have a little bit of fun, like you kind of – I mean, it’s not like he’s laughing maniacally, but you actually get to see that he appreciates the irony of his situation, and it’s just a really fun episode.
And then, for the MacGyverisms, the 13th episode is, well, it’s sort of the Burn Notice answer to Die Hard, I’ll say, and we really wanted to look at – we were looking at the idea that running around with a gun in a building full of hostages was perhaps, you know, it makes for a lot of action, but it’s also a great way to get a lot of people killed. And so we thought, okay, well, what would Michael do in that situation? The answer is, he would do a lot of really cool things, really subtly, and really hidden, and so I don’t want to give too many things away, but basically watching Michael sneak around in a situation like that doing those – and he builds some amazing things and comes up with some amazing ways of turning the tables on the bad guys without them even knowing it, and it’s a lot of fun.
How much of season three have you planned already? Where do you think you’re going to take us in season three?
M. Nix: Well, we have planned a lot of it, so we’re working on it now. And I think, I don’t want to give too much away, but basically I think that season three, we’re going to find out a lot more about Michael’s past, and not just Michael’s past – Sam’s past, Fiona’s past. For various reasons, they are all going to be engaging with some of the ghosts of their previous careers.
And so that’s something that we’re really excited about, and it’s a way of exploring. We’ve done some of it, but it’s not really – it’s not something we’ve done for a season, and so we have Michael engaging with his past, so it’s not sort of the perpetual search for the name behind his Burn Notice. It’s a different thing.
And then, I think people are going to see in the second half of season two that we’re really trying to push the boundaries of what a Burn Notice episode is, like how he deals with things. What are new ways of – new kinds of clients, new ways of dealing with problems, new – you know, as we’ve gotten more comfortable with the format of the show, and as we all become more sort of facile with how Michael deals with problems, it allows us to spread our wings a little bit and have him deal with really new and really different kinds of problems. And I think you’ll see some of that definitely in the second half of season two where we’re doing things that we’ve never done before.
And then, season three, you know, it’s going to be a really eclectic and fun mix of episodes. I think we’ve got some really neat ideas, and we’re all really excited about them. But, you know, the thing for the show for a lot of us, and maybe I shouldn’t say this, but it’s true. Is it’s not as if there’s a whole – we’re kind of inventing a procedural format. You know, Michael is not a straight up PI. He’s not a doctor. He’s not a cop. He doesn’t have a way of doing things that has a lot of kind of procedural history on television, and there’s not really a book that you can go to and say, you know, how would a spy deal with this civilian situation? And so we’ve been kind of exploring and defining how to do that because, from week to week, Michael is dealing with some civilian situation using spy crafts, and that’s just not a sort of – I mean, there are shows that we could point to. I mean certainly Magnum had a history in intelligence. In the Equalizer, he was doing some of those things.
But we are so focused on the deceptive arts of spy craft in particular on really looking at what specifically did Robert Hanson do at the FBI, and how can we use that, you know, as a technique for a Burn Notice, and it’s a whole different kind of thing. So the more we read, the more we observe, the more we explore creatively, the more things we can do. So we have some neat episodes in the second half of the season. There’s an episode that’s nearly in real time. And then in the third season, we take that to another level.
I mean, it’s a little funny to talk about it because I’ve been living with all of these episodes from the second half of the season for months, you know, they’ve been done. And now I want to talk about them in referencing the third season, but I can’t do that. But suffice it to say that we’re really stretching the boundaries, and it’s very exciting for everybody here.
I was reading that you just got signed on to do a Hot Wheels movie. How do you think working on the movie is going to sort of affect your job with the series? And I know it’s a little bit early, but what did you have in mind for that?
M. Nix: Oh, actually, hilariously, it’s not early at all.
I actually wrote the Hot Wheels movie at the beginning of season two, so I can tell you how it affected me. It was really hard, but I did it, but basically that project is – I think that it was not a particularly good time for Warner Brothers to make another car movie, if you look at what was being released at the beginning of last season, Speed Racer, and it was a tough time for them. And so, I should say, as a feature writer in Hollywood, it’s not like you get a lot of calls telling you, hey, writer; here’s what’s going on. We just wanted to fill you in. So I think it’s on hold right now until such time as the stars align to make another big budget summer car movie.
I had a blast working on it, and it was a fun thing, and I found actually that working on Burn Notice had given me a lot more comfort in the area of writing, you know, fast cars and action, that kind of thing. So I will say, because I wrote it at the beginning of last season, and because it sort of ended up getting put on hold at the beginning of last season, if you read the Hot Wheels script, you would find that like there are any number of snippets of dialog and action bits that were in the Hot Wheels movie that made their way into the season, so that was sort of a fun thing to be able to cannibalize some elements of that script and throw them into Burn Notice because by the time anything happens with that movie, it’ll be a whole new world.
Yes, I think if the distance between a movie that gets mentioned in the trades, and a movie that makes it into the theaters is, you know, there are many, many miles between those two. Suffice to say, it was fun to work on. It was sort of tough to do at the same time as the show, but it ended up working out fine.
Interview By: Emma Loggins