Interview: Matt Nix from Burn Notice
We had the honor of interviewing Matt Nix who is the executive producer, writer, and creator of the USA Network original series Burn Notice. He talked with us about the new season, the future of the series, and why Michael loves yogurt so much. Here’s what he had to say:
At what point throughout the series are we going to learn who’s ultimately behind the burn? Is that something that’ll happen in the very final episode of the final season? And if it is revealed earlier than that is that something – is there a way for the show to keep going and still be Burn Notice?
M. Nix: We could always change the title. Has anyone ever done that? Let me put it this way. Clearly, we’re not just going to sort of resolve everything and just kind of call it a day. I think USA would have strong words with us if we did that. But really, let me step back a second and just say in general when you look at an episode of Burn Notice, it’s not really a whodunit ever. It’s not a show where we spend a lot of time investigating who is the secret person behind this week’s case of the week. Is it this person? No, it’s the person you least expected. No, typically the sort of whodunit aspect is dealt with pretty early in an episode and then the real question for the episode is, what are you going to do about it?
And I guess I’d say that that is generally a more compelling question for us and fits with what we do on the show better because it’s not really – the show is four series regulars. It’s not really a show that is about gigantic revelations about different characters – we had no idea that that’s who Sam was, that’s not what we do. We deal with issues, and so when I think about who is the person behind Michael’s burn notice, Phillip Cowen, the guy who got shot in episode 10 of season one, and that information and $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee. And so really the question that I think Michael’s always going to be up against is what can he do about his circumstances, and that’s a question that can grow and evolve and will always involve the fact that he got burned but doesn’t necessarily need to always involve the endless hunt for a particular name of a particular person because, I guess I’d just say, well, that’s not the kind of question we deal with on Burn Notice and it’s not a particularly interesting question to me.
The show is kind of a dark subject matter but it’s also very humorous. Is it difficult to balance those light and dark sides of the show?
M. Nix: I think if I wasn’t so naturally inclined in that direction it might be very difficult, but it’s not as if we sort of sat down and said, “I’m going to come up with a formula for a show, let’s do a interesting contrast of dark and light.” To me, it was really borne out of what I found interesting and what I found funny. I mean, one of the core inspirations for the show was my conversations with our consulting producer, Michael Wilson, who I’ve known for some years and who had the background in private intelligence. And he’s a really smart guy and he has a lot of resources and he also had this way of giving me advice that I couldn’t imagine the circumstance that I might be in where I might use it. But he’d say things like, “When you’re firing a gun, don’t ever turn it sideways because it’ll jam and it’ll stovepipe and then you’ll have really big problems,” and my response was, “I don’t own a gun but thanks for the advice,” and I just thought that was funny. And so really I’m a guy who was accused of having a dark sense of humor in second grade, so it’s always been part of me. But it’s kind of a combination of what I naturally find funny – I really enjoy those tonal contrasts – and what I find interesting and what makes for a fun show. Does that make sense?
The story is obviously centered on Sam and Michael’s relationship but the women are really interesting and the fact that they have such an upper hand over Michael in many aspects, whether it’s Carla or Fi, emotionally, and then of course Sharon Gless’s character, Madeline. And I’m really interested in how you’re kind of pulling out the women’s stories in Burn Notice. I mean it’s obviously, it’s a guy-centered series but I’d like to know where you’re going to Fi and Madeline and Carla this season as we progress.
M. Nix: Well, first of all I guess I’d say I’m glad you say that about the women. I’d say even for a lot of our guest stars like our – think about the second episode this season – our powerless waitress turned out to be a DEA agent who pulls a gun on Michael and certainly I know speaking for myself and I think all of the writers, we just think that’s fun. We’re always looking for what if this woman was more powerful, it just makes for more fun sparring and we really wanted Michael with regard to Fiona to be – I always enjoyed the idea that she is Michael’s equal in a lot of ways, and I confess I also enjoy the irony that the woman who weighs less than 100 pounds is the heavy on the show.
But I’d say with regard to where is it going, for Michael’s mom we found that or I found that the most interesting and fruitful direction to go in is to really explore how is Madeline like Michael. Why is she Michael’s mom as opposed to anyone’s mom? What is unusual or extraordinary about her, how is she wily like Michael? And so one of the things that has emerged is, and it’s not as if I sat down in writing the pilot and thought, oh, we’ll do this, but it had a lot to do with who Sharon is as an actress and the challenges of developing of a family story line in an action comedy show, the action comedy drama. What are we? I don’t even know. But she is a manipulative character and she sort of insists on Michael and Nate living inside the fiction that she’s created that their family was something other than it was, and that’s really what Michael does when he deals with bad guys. He sort of creates a fiction for them to live in that will allow him to manipulate them to get what he wants, which on a week-to-week basis is usually helping some person who needs help, and so we have a lot of fun exploring how are her superpowers sort of the embryonic versions of his superpowers.
And then with regard to Fiona, this season we’re certainly exploring their attempts to be apart, like can they actually pull that off, can they be together, can they be apart, what are the things that keep them together, what are the things that make it impossible for them to fall all out of each other’s orbits, and what are the things that push them away from each other? And I think just the nature of what they do provides a lot of grist for those questions.
With regard to Carla, I’d say Carla starts the season as a representative of the folks that burn Michael and as the person who delivers their agenda and then over the course of the season as things evolve, we get to know her a little bit more as a person, not a lot more, because she does maintain a high level of secrecy, but Michael’s job this season is to figure out who are these people and what do they want from me, and she is his access to that. So I’m covering as much as he can about her, trying to provoke her to behave in a more human fashion, that’s what he’s all about. Were there any other women you were asking about or was that it?
Veronica, is she always going to be off camera, sort of like…
M. Nix: No, she’s been on a couple of times and she’ll be on again. She appears. You know it’s funny, actually, the nature of a Burn Notice plot and the nature, kind of what we do, we generally have a lot to move through, so we don’t actually mean to refer to Veronica off-screen as much as we do, it just sort of works out that way because cutting to a scene of Sam hanging out with Veronica, you can’t really do any business there, there’s nothing. So it gets turned into bumpers and things like that, and Audrey’s great and we love Audrey and that’s why she’s back later in the season, but we do end up talking about her a lot off-screen. But then Sam has a lot of off-screen friends, we definitely enjoy inventing new friends for Sam and so it doesn’t feel odd to us.
One of my favorite parts of the show is the voiceovers with all the explanations. I think that makes it really distinct. So how did that come about?
M. Nix: Well, as I said earlier, the inspiration was these conversations that I’ve had with Michael Wilson, who I’ve known for many years, and we’d just be talking about stuff, science fiction books and stuff, I’d be writing a movie and I’d say, “How would you do this?” or “What’s the kind of thing you could do for this?” and he’d have ideas. And so we had talked for a long time and then he would give me this sort of idiosyncratic advice, and so that was kind of the jumping off point. And then since then it’s been interesting because it’s an unusual kind of voiceover. I mean, we never say anything like, “And then this happened and then that happened,” or “This happened off-screen,” or anything like that.
Jeffrey Donovan describes how he does them as he thinks of himself as being in some sort of seminar on spying and then he’s talking to a seminar or something. But it is an opportunity to do, as we’ve gone on with the show and indeed from the beginning, one of the things I realized is there are a lot of things that you can do on a show like ours that are really cool, but what’s cool about them is knowing about them or knowing how they work or highlighting some counterintuitive technique, something that you would think works one way but actually works another way. And I realized that short of having characters who kind of talk about that with each other, there’s not really any way to highlight all of these fun things that are surprising.
So actually I learned one last night that maybe will show up on the show someday, but it’s a very common experience that anybody who’s had any encounters with tear gas, when they talk about tear gas they can taste it. So if you talk to people who were on a bomb squad – it happens that my uncle is on a bomb squad or actually he’s on a SWAT team, and he was just talking about tear gas and he was saying, “Oh, I hate talking about it” because, and all the guys say it when you talk about it, you taste that taste in your mouth. And I hear that and I go wow, that’s awesome, I love that, but how do you showcase that, you can’t see it. So the voiceovers are fun for me because I’m that guy at a dinner party who’s like, “Quiet, everybody, I have to tell you about this cool thing that I learned.” And I mean I got a call from an ex-girlfriend who had seen the show and said, “God, it’s just like hanging out with you for 42 minutes.” She said an hour but it’s really 42 minutes. So yes, it’s a combination of the inspiration of those conversations with Michael Wilson with my desire to share fun facts about different stuff.
The show speaks with great confidence and authority and I was wondering how much of Michael’s narration is factual and how much is just made to sound factual so that people aren’t taking notes on how to build bombs.
M. Nix: We never really give super-specific recipes, like when – well, let me take that in pieces. We’re pretty rigorous with the voiceover stuff in the sense that everything generally works. We don’t say that something is possible, that it’s not possible. That said. oh, a great example would be freezing a lock and smashing it. It’s actually possible to do that. You need a kind of specific lock, right, it’s just I guess I’d say we allow Michael to have extraordinary skill and a certain amount of luck with regard to things working and not working, but we really enjoy the, and I know all of the writers on the show enjoy or the other ones claim to, I certainly do, enjoy the research into what could you actually do. So that when Michael replaces the trigger bar spring with a bobby pin, that’s actually possible. Our armorer did it. It took him, and he’s pretty good with guns, it took him about three minutes. Michael did it in about 45 seconds. So I guess I’d say we allow for the possibility that Michael maybe practiced doing that off-screen so that he could get his time down.
And then with regard to the building of bombs, we either take a page out of the Fight Club book, which is fudge an ingredient, but usually we’re talking through things quickly enough that we’re not really listing all the ingredients in any case. Like, it is possible to make thermite at home, it has something to do with aluminum foil, here are a couple of the steps. If you want to go figure it out on your own, we’re not going to show you exactly how to do it, but we’re going to point to the fact that one can. So we would never claim that it is possible to make thermite at home when it is not possible to make thermite at home; we also would not take you through all of the steps so that you could run into your kitchen and make it.
Will Michael’s search ever lead him out of Miami? Like is he set there, is he always going to stay in Miami, or do we know that?
M. Nix: In general, the answer is we want him to stay in Miami because what’s really interesting and allows us, there’s a – by clipping his wings, right, and keeping him in Miami and putting him on these jobs that he really has no business doing – it gives us the opportunity to showcase things in a different way. There are certainly other spy shows but we just have the opportunity to do spy things out of a spy context and so when you think about what if Michael Westen went to Washington, D.C. Well, what do you do in Washington, D.C.? Spy things, and then he’s – so we really want to avoid the fish in water syndrome. When you’ve built your series around a fish out of water going, “What would he do in that there ocean?” is sort of a dangerous question. That said, I mean, would I rule out the possibility of Michael taking a field trip at some point for some particularly compelling reason? No, but yes, we want to keep him in Miami.
That’s actually what I was getting at, he’ll stay there but if he has a tip or a case or whatever, like he’d go to Brazil for a week and come back or something.
M. Nix: Well, for that, after a conference call with the powers that be at Fox TV Studios, that may need to wait for a different budget day. But I mean, I think if we make those field trips too easy then of course it just raises all sorts of questions about why doesn’t he just leave for good. So we have explored and talked about a lot of different versions of what’s a hall pass that we can give to Michael that is – if we choose to do this and we don’t have specific plans right now – but what’s something that we can give him that’s powerful enough to allow him to go someplace but no so powerful that it raises all kinds of uncomfortable questions about why he’s sticking around in Miami.
M. Nix: Because Miami’s just a very convenient place for him. It’s a place where you can blow things up and nobody notices.
Is there anything left for Michael to learn as far as his trade is concerned, certain skills? His vast knowledge is quite impressive.
M. Nix: He’s also got a pretty big wardrobe. Is there anything left? Yes, absolutely. I mean, one of the things we – oh, in an upcoming episode he has to, the point is made that although he has training in safe-cracking, safes get upgraded like computers get upgraded. So your training a few years ago isn’t necessarily good now, so you’ve got to kind of brush up on it and practice. I suppose that’s not precisely an answer to your question.
Actually, it is. He knows everything so I –
M. Nix: No, it’s true, it’s true. I will say we have a lot of fun kicking around ideas for things Michael doesn’t know in the writers’ room. For a while it was Michael can’t swim but then we had him swim and we can’t play with that one anymore, so currently it’s Michael cannot catch a ball when a ball is thrown at him. So obviously it’s not true, but yes, we certainly talk about the issue a lot of what does Michael not know, but our candidates usually fall into the category of jokes you tell in a writers’ room rather than real things that Michael needs to learn.
Speaking of Michael, I was wondering what’s the story on all the yogurt.
M. Nix: What is the story on all the yogurt? Wow. It’s funny, people think it’s a big mystery and I sort of want to indulge that but really it was a combination of things. It was in the pilot. I wrote in the bit about the yogurt and getting the yogurt from the fridge so that you have when breaking in someplace, doing something innocuous, so as to make your break-in seem more innocent and doing something that appears incompatible with your behavior, which was based on some real techniques. And so I just threw out, “Grab something from the fridge, maybe a yogurt,” and then when they were shooting it Jeffrey had the yogurt and then he decided he wanted to eat the yogurt in the scene, and we thought that was funny and so then he ate the yogurt. And then when I was working on the first episodes of the series, well, he needed to have something in his refrigerator. What does he have in his refrigerator? Well, we know he likes yogurt. And then the writer of the second episode, Alfredo Barrios, thought that was funny and so he threw a yogurt into his episode. And once you’ve got a yogurt in the pilot and two episodes, you’ve got to keep going. And so it becomes – it’s just sort of fun.
I mean, at the same time I will say that it was inspired by some research that we did, or actually a discussion that I had had with Michael Wilson, the essence of which is that operatives do find themselves in circumstances where they need cheap sources of healthy protein. Michael Wilson’s preferred source of cheap protein was canned tuna fish, so Michael could just as easily have been a tuna fish man but we made him a yogurt man.
T. Rogers All right. Thanks.
Do you have plans or hopes for how many seasons Burn Notice will go on?
M. Nix: Not particularly. I mean, I think for right now we’re really focusing on what are fun new ways of doing episodes because it’s a pretty specific box we’re in because Michael solves problems in a particular way. It’s not a cop show, it’s now a PI show, and we need to come up with new sorts of problems that are best dealt with in this sort of spyish, covert-operative kind of way. And so it’s great fun for me to work on that stuff and I guess I’d say I’d like – I don’t know how everybody else feels – but I’d like to do it as long as we have fun new ways of coming up with that stuff and I’d like to stop when I no longer have that instinct that I have that inspires most of the shows which is, oh, this is really cool, let’s do one like this. And so that’s where I’m coming from, so when that goes away we’ll stop the show.
We spoke with Sharon Gless a little while ago and I was just wondering what’s the latest with getting Tyne Daly on the show.
M. Nix: We’re always interested in stunt casting and she’s mentioned Tyne before and so we’ve talked about it. We’ve got a lot of plans when it comes to casting, including her, but when you look at a Burn Notice they’re generally tight little casts, you know what I mean? I just looked at the cast list for the 10th episode and I think there are like eight people including the series regulars. Usually I go, what does a Burn Notice have? It’s has a bad guy, an assistant bad guy, a good guy, an assistant good guy, and then a couple of other characters to round it out. So the day we have the perfect bad or assistant bad guy for Tyne Daly or a client, we’ll grab her because it would certainly be fun. I mean, one of the nice things about the tone of the show is that – and this is something you kind of explore, and honestly, I think it kind of has something to do with Bruce Campbell, just the energy that he brings to the show – but it kind of allows us to get away with little winks at the audience from time to time. Like in the first episode of the first season after the pilot, Sam gave his cover ID with Fiona as, “I’m Detective Cagney and this Detective Lacey.”
Yes, I remember that.
M. Nix: And that was an improv, and I was sort of like, I don’t know, it’s the first episode, can we get away with thatâ€¦I’m sure we can. Since then we just sort of have fun with those things and so we’ve been exploring that more with casting and it’s also getting a little bit easier now that people kind of know the show, because in the first season you’re out there talking to actors and you’re saying, “We want you for a part on Burn Notice,” and they say “Burn Unit, is that a hospital, what?” and now it’s a little bit easier.
How do you feel about revitalizing the whole Florida film industry? There’s been a lot of press about that.
M. Nix: Good is the answer. I feel good about it. I mean, actually one thing I do, we do have a lot of opportunity to explore because we are outside so much on location, it’s very easy to say that Los Angeles can double or Vancouver can double for anyplace, and it’s true that anyplace can have the inside of a police station because you can build it or you can find a few palm trees in any location or bring them, but one of the nice things about working in Miami is that it’s a big city, it’s a distinctive city, and they’re really are a lot of distinctive things about it, and if you’re not here you can’t get all the fun deco architecture. The light looks different. The clouds move differently. The weather’s different. It is hot, though, I will say that.
What can you tell me about the Burn Notice tie-in book, The Fix?
M. Nix: Now I should say I – well, the Burn Notice tie-in book. Oddly, Todd Goldberg, author of the Burn Notice tie-in book, is best childhood friends with a very good friend of mine from college. So I had actually met him years ago when he was just a novelist who’d sold a book to Hollywood, and then they said, “Oh, we’ve found a writer for the Burn Notice book. He is Todd Goldberg, brother of the guy who writes the Monk book.” And I said, “Oh, Todd Goldberg, my friend.” So it was a very small world thing. I have to say, though, we were incredibly lucky because we managed to get a guy who has a thriving book career, he’s a hell of a novelist, he has a thriving book career on his own. And it was just sort of a happy accident that he was kind of interested in doing a book for hire, he knew me, he knew the show, he liked the show, his brother does â€¦ books, and so we really lucked out. We got a guy who is very funny, he has a good sense for the tone of the show, and from what I’ve seen is doing a great job. And in the books Michael can do all sorts of things that he can’t do on the show like get on big sailboats that we can’t afford.
Interview By: Emma Loggins