Interview: Matt Nix of ‘The Good Guys’

We had the pleasure of speaking again with Matt Nix about his new show The Good Guys on FOX. He spoke with us about what sets The Good Guys apart, what it was like filming in Dallas, and his unique style of directing.

Let me just say that Bradley Whitford’s mustache deserves billing itself in the credits.

Matt Nix: It’s paid separately.

Is there a story behind the mustache? Was it in your script, was it his idea, what?

Matt Nix: I had written a script; certainly I wanted that kind of old-school cop look. I had written in a cop with a mustache and then I saw Bradley in another thing where he had the mustache and I was inspired. I guess the most accurate thing would be to say the script was written with a moustache; I suppose I probably would have been willing to ditch it if there’d been an actor who was great for the role, who, like me, couldn’t grow one, but that was not the case.

So he took and ran with it, and look at that. Why Dallas? What was it about Dallas that blew your skirt up and made you want to set it here?

Matt Nix: It was a combination of a few things. One was we were looking for a location where we could shoot the show for the budget that we’re shooting the show; the Texas tax incentives are great. However, ultimately it was a creative decision because there are obviously plenty of places in the country with tax incentives, some of them bigger than Texas.

My thing was Dallas is incredibly film-friendly; they were incredibly welcoming. I’ll never forget my first scout where I asked if we could, I jokingly asked if we could shut down a downtown street to do a bank robbery scene. The scout turned to me and said, “You can shut down this street and you can shut down the street up there. You can shut down the crosswalk; can’t shut down the highway over there.” I was like, “All righty then, are you serious?” And he was like, “Yes, yes, no problem.” You can crash it; you can blow something up, whatever you want. People were incredibly film-friendly and the city just has a great look for a cop show so that was very exciting to me as well.

Burn Notice and the USA shows are doing so well right now. Do you think that people are just ready for kind of lighter cop shows versus some of the stuff other franchises run? Do you think there’s something of a national mood that wants to see these funny cops?

Matt Nix: Let me say I certainly hope so. I think that both kinds of shows have a place and there’s certainly room in the entertainment universe for cop shows that do more of a kind of dire, dramatic or even horror-filled kind of crime-solving. I will say that in talking to people who respond to the kind of thing that I’m doing, a lot of people respond to the fact they they’re essentially upbeat shows. That’s an unintentional pun,but it’s true of Burn Notice as well. It’s a good-guys-win show.

At the end of that show whatever complexities or in The Good Guys, whatever narrative twists there are at work, there might be a sympathetic bad guy you’re sort of rooting for, whatever interesting twists we’re throwing in or things that are unusual, at the end of the day, you’re coming out of that show feeling good about what happened. I think that is kind of a difference.

It’s a little bit different than that sense, certainly there are some shows that I admire very much where you’re coming out sort of unsettled and not sure whether what you saw was a good thing or a bad thing. Then there are other shows that deliver that sense of justice done. A terrible thing happened and then justice was done and we saw it done. The world is restored to order despite the terrible things.

That’s not what I’m doing. I think that one of the things that really surprised me about Burn Notice and I would hope for with The Good Guys is it kind of surprised me that it turned into kind of a family show. I didn’t really think of it that way, but as it turned out, it’s something that people feel comfortable watching with their kids because it’s essentially upbeat. At the end of the days there’s nothing to explain to the children, that there’s not a profound shaking of worldview. I think there’s room for that.

What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of having it air during the summertime?

Matt Nix: I think there’s an advantage in that it’s a less crowded field. We have a 13-episode order that is under some kind of exotic circumstances could possibly be extended a little bit, but probably not at this point. It was pretty much designed to be a 13-episode order. We’ll see; that could change or whatever, but it’s not the standard of let’s order 13 and then we’ll order a formal back nine. We lose our stage spaces before a back nine could be shot so it really is designed to be a 13-episode order at the moment.

One of the things I really like about being on in the summer under a model like that, which is a model that owes more to cable, you’re on for the full run; you’re not up against all of the other pilots. There’s a little bit more time to build an audience for something that’s a little bit quirky or a little bit offbeat.

Thinking about Burn Notice, which premiered in the summer, I can’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and said they didn’t get it the first time they saw it and then they saw it again and it really stuck with them and they came to really like it and now they watch it all the time.

That’s not something that happens if you’re up against 15 heavily promoted other shows that are competing for headspace in the middle of the traditional season. I also think that FOX, in a really cool way, is going, “there’s no particular reason that we can’t produce shows in the summer.” There’s a place that they burn off their other shows, but it doesn’t have to be that. People may watch less television in the summer, but it’s not so much less that it makes it not worth making stuff. Indeed, I think that cable shows prove that if you’ve got something that people really want to see, they’ll make the time. They’ll sit down and take a look.

You were saying that this goes for the 13; could you get an additional 13, say, next summer and do it kind of like that cable model or is it just set for 13?

Matt Nix: In success, we would definitely do it again. It’s not a mini-series. I’m saying it’s not a typically, shows premiere and they’ve got a 13-episode order. Then the big question is are they going to get a back nine? There may be some question with this sort of depending on how things sort out with the schedule and the production of getting a back some, but that’s not really the design; that’s not really how the deal was put together. It’s more of, okay, let’s do this thing and we’ll try it out and then next year if we want to extend the order then we can extend the order and do more shows. We can start earlier.

It’s a lot more flexible than that traditional 13 or 22 episode order, which is the traditional model in television. We could end up at 16, who knows. We’re not doing that traditional model, which I think is exciting.

Once you did make the decision to shoot in Dallas, how might that have affected the development of the episodes and the scripts?

Matt Nix: A lot, I’d say. I really like shooting in cities. My experience with Burn Notice was so good in Miami. I was really pretty passionate about not shooting Dallas for someplace else. I really wanted to, when we were looking at different cities, I kept saying, “I really don’t want to do someplace for Los Angeles.” It was originally set in Los Angeles, but once we moved it to Dallas, I really didn’t want to do Dallas for Los Angeles because I just find the quirks of a place are what give it its flavor and you can just do so many more fun kinds of stories once you know what’s native to that place.

Certainly it affected some things, like Bradley has an accent, as does the character of Liz, the DA, which is sort of accurate. In Dallas some people have accents; some people don’t. It’s a fairly international city, but it also has a lot of Texas flavor. We brought some elements of that in, but a lot of it is just locations. Do people like barbecue here or not? We’ve got Dan living in an Airstream trailer on the fairgrounds, like the actual Fair Park Fairgrounds in the off-season. The conceit is he doesn’t live in “a fairgrounds,” he lives in the Dallas fairgrounds, under one of the most identifiable landmarks in Dallas, that big Ferris wheel.

We have definitely contemplated doing stories that have something to do with very specifically Dallas local things. It’s certainly increased our percentage of bad guys in cowboy hats over the course of the season, which is not to say that it’s all bad guys in cowboy hats. It’s a few, but there are some things that we want to do at some point. There’s dirt track racing outside of Dallas, which would be fun to do something with. We haven’t done it yet, but definitely we’re looking at stuff like that.

The casting process had to have been really fun. Not only do you have Jeff Donovan and Gabrielle Anwar and one of my favorites, Bruce Campbell in Burn Notice, you’ve also got personal actors with Brad Whitford and Colin Hanks in The Good Guys. Tell me about the casting process that you went through to get these two characters onscreen and if you actually wrote for them when you were thinking of the show to begin with.

Matt Nix: I had written the original script as a movie script many years ago before I was in television. Once I was in television my manager/executive producer, Mikkel Bondesen pointed out, “Say, this would make an awfully good television series.” I said, “It’s actually much better as a television series than it was as a movie.” That existed already so I wasn’t writing for a particular actor.

I had such a good experience on Burn Notice that it was really important to me in the casting process, and I said this from the beginning, I really want leads that I connect with personally, that I feel that I’m on the same wavelength as and I feel like if I’m writing to my strength they’re going to understand my voice and enjoy doing that. You don’t want somebody who’s got to stretch every week to do something, to fit into a role. On Burn Notice many people have observed that I have the same speech patterns as Jeffrey Donovan. It’s sort of a joke, like it means a devastating impression of me. It’s also really great for the show. For The Good Guys I’d seen Bradley’s work; I’d seen him do comedy. I was really excited about him and I said, “I just want to make sure we’re on the same wavelength.”

He came in for a meeting and he came in wearing the exact same outfit that I was wearing, the same boots, the same jeans, the same belt and a shirt that was not the same brand, but the same design. It was bizarre. We clearly were on the same wavelength and had a great time. We live in the same neighborhood; it was really kind of a love fest from the beginning so that was great.

Finding Jack, on a show like this it’s really about creating a marriage and finding a fantastic dynamic. We read people, but really the lynchpin was when they came in and read with Bradley. Bradley was incredibly generous throughout the casting process in reading with every actor who came in for the test. Then it was just a matter of who’s got chemistry, what’s the most fun pairing when they’re playing with each other. Bradley really responded to Colin and Colin really responded to Bradley. It just made it very easy.

And Jenny Wade is a phenomenally funny actress. Some might say she is a little young for the character, an assistant district attorney. Why did you turn to her as the character, for Traynor?

Matt Nix: Honestly, it was, with regard to her age, she probably is a little bit young; I think it’s fair to say that we stretch a number of things; it’s not really a documentary series. I sort of felt like we could get away with that and again, that was really, let’s pair people with Colin and see who’s fun. She really opened up a direction for that character. She is so funny and so engaging. It was seeing her in the audition and realizing that’s kind of who that character can be. I find sometimes you’ve got the character fully formed in your head and then it’s a matter of finding an actor who fits with that and extends that.

Just to be honest, sometimes you’re finding, with a character who doesn’t have an enormous number of lines in the first episode, you’re finding someone who’s inspiring. You’re finding someone where you’re thinking, okay, that version of that character; I know exactly what to do. That was really a great thing with Jenny, just looking at her and going version of version of Liz is so colorful; she’s got such a big personality. That’s a direction that we could take this character that would be really fun.

Going from cable to broadcast network, it usually seems to work the other way around. Have you seen any differences or was there any concerns that maybe you wouldn’t have as much of the freedom that you did over at USA?

Matt Nix: Not really. I suppose before I met them, sure, but really FOX has been, it’s a different network so there are different processes and different people and there are definitely differences. I’d say going in and meeting with the network, Kevin Reilly’s first comment was basically, “All of these sort of weird and exotic things you’re doing, do more of those.”

I was concerned going in just because of what I’d heard of networks, that their first comment would be, “All that time-jumping, let’s not do that; let’s rearrange that.” They just wanted more. So yes, they, I think, are very aware that we’re doing something different with this and making it the same-old-same-old doesn’t serve anybody.

There certainly have been adjustments just because you’re dealing with, I could get into the minutiae of how different networks work, that’s not terribly interesting, but it is sort of on FOX there are different people who develop series and different people who sort of shepherd series’ once they’ve been bought. That’s a new thing, but not so exotic that I couldn’t deal with it. All the stories that you’d think I’d be telling about the network being really frightened and hedging their bets a lot and stuff, just hasn’t been true.

You have really good lock with chemistry, on Burn Notice the whole cast is great. Is that something you can see when you have people read together? Is that really the true test, when you actually see film on them, seeing them together?

Matt Nix: I think that seeing film on them certainly helps, but the big thing that I’ve learned is just to sort of trust my gut with regard to seeing people together. You can probably tell which of your friends are probably going to get along. When you’re setting up a dinner party you kind of have a sense for whom to invite even if the people don’t know each other. It is true that occasionally people will surprise and turn out to have some quirk of personality that means that you’re wrong and they don’t get along.

Occasionally people surprise you the other way and you’ll discover that people get along famously that you wouldn’t have expected. By and large, I think you can trust your gut with actors in the same way. Then it’s just a matter of using the film to kind of confirm that instinct. If you met Colin Hanks and Bradley Whitford in two different contexts and you were setting up a celebrity dinner party, they’d definitely be two people you’d invite and seat next to each other.

You were talking about the jumping around in time. In the pilot you’ve got the opening where you actually see the actual robbery. Then you’ve got whenever a new wrinkle happens in the case you have that flashback to how that situation came about. Would you say that’s going to be sort of what passes for a formula for the show in terms of telling the story of how these robbery cases spiral into madness?

Matt Nix: Yes and no. Not every show will begin with; a lot of the shows going forward begin with a sort of piece from the middle of the show and then there’s a flashback to you’ll see something happen and it’ll say, “Four days earlier,” and you’ll sort of catch up at the beginning of the case. Some don’t do that. So I’d say yes, the jumping around in time is an ongoing feature of the series, but it isn’t, we aren’t backing our way into a Law and Order style cold open where you always see a small crime committed in the opening scene. That’ll happen sometimes; other times we get into the episodes in other ways. To me it’s sort of what’s most interesting and intriguing and what most makes you want to see more.

Why did you change the name of the series from Code 58 and what was the genesis of the name Good Guys?

Matt Nix: It was a much less formal process naming the show than I had imagined. It started out; the script was called Jack and Dan. People just sort of weighed in; they tested some titles and asked people what they thought of them. I think, Code 58, people liked, but it had a bit of the Burn Notice quality, which was, it’s a little mystifying until you know what it is.

Once you know what it is, it’s cool, but if you don’t know what it is it could be anything. There was some feeling that that was a cool thing and then there was some feeling that might not be a good thing. Ultimately I think the big question for me in looking at titles, one of the reasons I really like The Good Guys as a title is just if you tune in are you getting what the title seems to promise. We batted around a lot of titles and bottom line, I felt, and I think FOX felt this way, too, if you tune in to watch a show called The Good Guys, you’re getting some version of what you think you’re getting.

It also actually reflects; one of the things we discovered in shooting the pilot, because it wasn’t titled until rather late, was cops talk that way. They call themselves The Good Guys, unabashedly. They call the criminals the bad guys without apology. Again, not a documentary series, but I like that it had a real, that we were able to pluck that title from the mouth of a real Dallas police detective. Not that he suggested it, but he was saying, “We are The Good Guys; that’s what we do.”

How are you going to make this show stand out from the variety of other buddy-type detective shows that have been on the air or are currently on the air?

Matt Nix: I think that for one thing, I think that there isn’t really much of that on these days. It certainly was a mainstay of television in the 1980s, but I can’t think of another buddy cop show that’s on currently. So I think that that is one thing that it has going for it.

I also think that if you look at cop shows in general, we’re doing a lot of things narratively that are really unusual for cop shows, starting with the jumping around in time, certainly, but extending to the fact that we’re following the criminals and giving them own sort of really human motivations and stories. Typically when we’re working on one of these episodes one of the questions we’re asking ourselves is, are the criminals hum and sympathetic enough.

Are you engaged with their stories as well as with the cop stories? I think that that’s not really something that’s typically done on cop shows like this? That’s another feature that I’m really excited about exploring and that I think is kind of unusual.

Finally I’d say just to be doing action comedy on television; certainly we’ve seen action comedy is a staple of movies, but not really a staple of television, you’ve got action drama and you’ve got comedy, but if you think about the landscape of television right now, how many one-hour comedies are there? Chuck maybe?

I’m friendly with Chris Fedak, one of the creators of Chuck, and I really admire what they’re doing over there. We’re currently shooting with their DP. I think that’s a really exciting and interesting thing, but I’d say that on its own, the fact that we’re doing an action comedy cop show, there have been comic cop shows that generally don’t follow, that are half-hour, that don’t really have plot; they may have plot, but they’re not solving crimes. They’re not doing the things that cop dramas do. And there have been cop dramas that solve crimes, but don’t do comedy and don’t really do action, don’t do fun action. They may do exciting action or dire action, so we’re doing a different thing there.

Between the two of those things what is interesting to me is taking these familiar elements and doing something really unfamiliar with them. Having a cop show where at certain points you’re rooting for the bad guys and hoping that the cops save the sympathetic bad guy, that’s fun for me and I think, hopefully, will feel fresh to the audience.

Who or what was your inspiration for these characters?

Matt Nix: I owe a great sort of creative debt to Elmore Leonard. When I saw Get Shorty as a kid, I suppose I was a teenager, but it was a revelation to me, like this is fantastic. Also Quentin Tarantino was a big influence on me just in terms of his humanizing the bad guys and finding fun in places that people hadn’t really found fun before.

I’d say when I sat down to do it, my creative project was I want to do the thing you’ve seen a million times before in a way that you have never imagined seeing it. I don’t know if I achieved, accomplished that, but that was what I sat down to do. I’m going to take the most familiar premise in the world and the archetypal characters that are burned into the brains of American movie and television viewers. I want to do something totally different with them.

Hopefully, actually another thing that I brought up in other interviews is The Princess Bride was a huge influence on me. I love that movie because it takes these incredibly familiar elements like just archetypes and allows you to enjoy that story again by telling it in a new, somewhat more self-conscious, contemporary, ironic way. Every time I see that movie with my kids, I well up. I adore that movie beyond all reason. That kind of project is, I think, a fun thing to do for the buddy cop genre.

what interested you in doing a second television series with Burn Notice still going and if you’re at all concerned with balancing the two at all?

Matt Nix: It’s not like I sat down and said it’s time for me to do a second television series. It sort of just happened. There’s this script and it like let’s pass this around and see if people are interested in it as a series. They seem to be, interesting. Let’s take the next step and before you know it you have two series. As I say, it wasn’t like sat down and had a master plan to have two series.

I will say that a fortunate outgrowth of that was that the process from the point where it looked like this might be possible, to the point where it happened, was quite long. I was aware that this was a possibility from before the beginning of working on Season Three of Burn Notice.

It gave me the opportunity to put some infrastructure in place at Burn Notice and make sure that I could do this without giving Burn Notice short shrift and that I could give it the same attention that I’d always given it and the attention that it needed. It allowed me to refine some processes and make sure that I had stuff in place so that I was not going to be scrambling.

I’ve been really excited by the season of Burn Notice that we’ve been shooting so far and I think that we’ve got some really cool things coming up there. A lot of it was, for me, just allowing myself to delegate things that really, I’m surrounded by writers that I really respect and trust. On Burn Notice, writers have been on the show since the very beginning.

Can they take the first pass at a director’s cut of a television program, one episode of Burn Notice? Yes they can. It’s fun for me to be there, but I don’t need to be there. I can be there to make sure that it; I can come in one step in. Things like that, that’s how I’ve been making it work. I won’t say that it’s not difficult sometimes, but it’s very important to make sure that I give both shows their due and not let anything slide.

On Facebook you say that The Good Guys will be smarter and more complex than it appears at first glance. Can you explain that a little further?

Matt Nix: I think if when you look at, okay there are two cops; they solve crimes. They’re mismatched in some way. I think if you just see that you might say, “I know what that show is.” Sort of apropos of all the things I was saying before about what was exciting to me creatively about the show is yes, it is something you’ve seen before, but we’re coming at it from a completely different angle. It is a cop show where the main characters may or may not solve the crime they are actually investigating, but they will certainly a much bigger, cooler, other crime.

Building these stories, we’re building in at least three, sometimes as many as five different story lines, different character threads that are coming together in unusual ways. Part of it is just I want to let people know, or evidently when I wrote this thing I don’t remember writing, it is important to me that people know to take a look at this; we’re not just re-treading something; we’re really coming at it in a new way and doing something interesting, or I hope interesting, but certainly unusual.

It’s about taking the oldest thing on television and trying to make it the newest thing on television. We’ll see if succeed, but I kind of want to let people know that that’s what we’re aiming at.

Since The Good Guys is being shot in Dallas and with the set of Burn Notice in Miami, did you try to have local authors in Dallas and in Miami be playwrights or directors or musicians and so on and so forth?

Matt Nix: I would say as far as cast and crew goes, absolutely. The majority of any, we’re bringing in a handful of people from Los Angeles, but we’re always looking for actors in Dallas and in Miami for both shows. In any one episode there will be more local actors than actors brought from L.A. by, usually by a lot.

Virtually all of the crew is local in both cases, which is great because it really, these local crews in these locations, as long as there’s enough of a film industry that it supports local crew, they’re a family. Seeing them work together, these are people that have worked together for their entire careers. It makes a huge difference.

With regard to local, we have used some local musicians on Burn Notice; we haven’t really done that on The Good Guys. I suppose that’s not true, in a roundabout way we end up using people from Texas, but we’re not going out into Texas and soliciting. Part of that is the show’s not on the air yet. I will say, though, that the shows that you cite are really, I joke about a documentary show, they really are far more documentary shows. Not documentary, they are all about the gritty reality of a particular place and time, be it New Orleans or Baltimore. That’s not as true of The Good Guys and perhaps somewhat true of Burn Notice in a roundabout way.

I guess I’d say the place is very important to me. To-date, the structure of hiring, writers for television shows, I’d be open to that at some point, but most of the shows have to be written before we’re even in Dallas. That’s a little bit unusual. Yes, it’s something that I’m absolutely open to; it isn’t something that we’ve pursued thus far. Eventually I could certainly see that happening.

You were talking about comedies and dramas, hour-long versus half-hour. I was wondering if you’ve seen The Unusuals during the brief time it was on the air and what you thought of it. I was a big fan of its blend of comedy and action and they actually did solve cases even as they were being funny.

Matt Nix: I actually heard about The Unusuals and it was gone before I could get there. I was interested to see it, but I didn’t get a chance. I should probably check it out. I think my sense is that it was a little bit darker than The Good Guys, based on what I heard, but yes, honestly, I think one-hour comedy, there’s been this evolution of comedy on television and I think the standard format for camera sitcom is very hard to make that feel fresh now.

Now you have a lot of terrific documentary-style half-hours on the air because that’s a new way of telling those stories and it’s a way of making things surprising and fun. You also have the single camera half-hour comedy. I could be wrong, but I think between Chuck and Psyc on USA and the more, I’d actually say if you look at a lot of USA and cable programming in general, that the mixture of comedy and drama is more aggressive.

I think that there’s no reason that comedy should always be a half-hour and drama should always be an hour. For that matter I think if you look at the later years of MASH, it was basically a half-hour drama, which I thought was really interesting. It started out as this very laugh-tracky comedy and ended up as a show with an episode about a woman smothering her baby. Not a laugh riot, but a very effective show. I think that breaking down those walls is really interesting and fun.

I wanted to ask you about the titles on the show, those really irreverent titles on this and Burn Notice; I really love them. Can you talk about the inspiration for those?

Matt Nix: Honestly there wasn’t a specific inspiration. I think over time you kind of discover things about yourself as an “artist”. You just sort of find these things that you keep coming back to. For me titles and voice-over, it’s something that I kind of return to and I’ll sit down and go, “All right, this one’s going to have neither titles nor voice-over.” Sure enough it comes back around because it just tickles me. There’s something about it. I just like it.

I also think that one of the reasons I may gravitate to it a little bit is that on Burn Notice certainly, identifying the characters with title cards in a very fast-moving story that has a lot of plot to follow, we do these very dense stories on Burn Notice, identifying people clearly and saying, “Hey, audience, watch this guy,” he’s this guy and giving him an identity is a nice thing from a narrative perspective and then giving a sort of comedic twist on that or an ironic take on the title so that you’re not saying every week, “This person is the bad guy.” That keeps it fun and fresh and interesting for me as a writer and for all of us as writers.

In The Good Guys, it’s fun to do and I think primarily I gravitate to it because it tickles me, but also in a show that’s jumping around in place and time and everything a lot, it’s also a way of saying to the audience, “Don’t be confused; we know what we’re doing, we’re here for a reason just trust us, see what this is and we promise it’ll work out.” That’s part of it, but yes, I’d say largely it’s just that I dig it for some inscrutable reason.

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