Interview: Matt Nix from ‘Burn Notice’
We had the pleasure of speaking with Matt Nix, creator of Burn Notice. He talked about what to expect in the new season of Burn Notice, as well as the methods behind casting and whether or not the show will ever set an end date.
Some describe the show as a modern day MacGyver. How do you feel about that term being used?
Matt Nix: The fact that we improvise devices is an inevitable comparison. I have to say that I’m very conscious in working on Burn Notice of the fact that we’re doing a kind of television that hasn’t been done for a while. It’s sort of unapologetic television. Shows like MacGyver, I’d say, it’s not MacGyver. I mean, we also owe something to Magnum, P.I.; we owe something to Rockford Files; we owe something to a whole host of shows that did the kind of hero-driven television that we’re doing. So, I certainly don’t mind the comparison. The one thing I’d say is that we are – I don’t know that everybody notices this or cares. We do spend a lot of time doing research and paying attention to actual technique and that kind of thing. So, there are certain things that MacGyver would do that we would never do, and certain things that we would do that MacGyver would never do. I’d say we’re trying to integrate – I don’t think on MacGyver they were spending a lot of time thinking about Mossad infiltration techniques and how they might be used on this show, or things like that, which is not a criticism of MacGyver. It’s just this is a different thing. So, yes, we’re using modern storytelling tools and a contemporary approach to do something that is classic television. That’s something I’m proud of.
Obviously, the Burn Notice onion, if you will, continues to be peeled. A pretty interesting season ahead. What can you tell us about this particular layer?
Matt Nix: Well, this represents a new relationship for Michael with the people that burned him. We learn a lot more about who they are and what they do. Michael discovers that they’re not just an anonymous organization dedicated to doing abstract evil. They’re people with agendas and budgets and specific pressures and that kind of thing. So, he finds himself in a new relationship with them. The character that we meet early in the season and do runs throughout the season, this character of Vaughn, played by Robert Wisdom who is on The Wire — just terrific – is a more reasonable face than we’ve seen before where Carla or Victor were very much in Michael’s face with guns and that kind of thing, and management is nobody’s version of a friendly old man. Vaughn is a reasonable guy who presents Michael with a reasonable proposition. Now, of course, he is – he’s not a good guy, but he is a smooth talker and hard to argue with. So, that launches the season. Michael’s interactions with him, over the course of the season, and unraveling of his agenda is what the season’s about.
When you look at shows like Lost and 24, do you start thinking about how the story might conclude, or when it might conclude, or how much longer you think you want to continue telling this story, with these characters?
Matt Nix: One of the things, when you look at Lost or 24, those are more heavily serialized. So, we do have a serial element. We have ideas for the serialized element and where to go with that, that can evolve for some time. One question, for me, is – I’m as interested in the case-of-the-week as I am in the serialized …. People tend to gravitate to the serialized storyline when they think about questions like, “When would we end the series?” But to me, it’s just as much a question of when do we run out of interesting cases of the week, interesting approaches, new things to do, so that we’re always pushing the envelope there. We’ve got some great new approaches there. Part of it is characters and their approach to things. It’s not all about spy technique, but that’s a major factor. I don’t ever want to come to the point where we’re just rehashing technique, or we’re just shooting at people, or we’re just blowing things up. I want it to be about something that feels meaty and real and interesting.
We’ve been hearing since the end of Season Three about the new character of Jesse. A lot of shows would have pushed for introducing the character and getting you to know him, but we didn’t even get to see him. We just got that one reference to it. Why did you want to bring in a new character, and why introduce him that way?
Matt Nix: One of the things that we had to grapple with is, bringing in a new character who’s going to participate in cases of the week, we felt it was important not to step over the fact that this is a guy who is going to be putting himself in harm’s way on a weekly basis, trusting people with his life, going to extremes in the way that Michael and Fiona and Sam do. Michael and Fiona and Sam have a history together. Certainly, like Fiona and Sam started the series not liking each other. Their relationship has evolved over time so that, now, Sam would obviously put himself in danger for Fiona and vice versa and that kind of thing, but the nature of that relationship is important. So, starting off the season with, “Why do these guys care so much about Jesse? What is their feeling about him?” Well, they ruined his life. They really feel they owe him something. That’s a big deal to them. It’s a particularly big deal to Michael. Then, when Jesse comes in, why is he interested in doing this? That has to do with his particular back story and also the way that he interacts with them. The second episode, when they have their first time together — Jesse in the second episode is essentially the client. He needs to see these people are worth working with. These people saved my life. These people are something special.
I thought it was important to not just say, “Here’s a new guy. He’s willing to run around the streets of Miami with a machine gun and have explosions go off around him for the sake of people that he just met.” That’s a pretty specific thing and takes a pretty specific kind of person. So, easing him in and showing why he’s that guy – and also, in a lot of ways, the serialized story this year is, in a way, less about Michael’s relationship with the people that burned him – although there is that – and more about Michael’s relationship with Jesse. He’s working with a guy whose life he ruined who, at the same time, is becoming a good friend and colleague and a teammate and someone who trusts them and that they trust. So, that’s a lot of what this season is about, is that relationship.
About that last scene between Michael and his mother where he recounts the events of the last season finale: Can you talk about the decision to include that, a little bit about that scene?
Matt Nix: It’s funny. You come up to the end of a season and do the finale. There’s this big run to the finale. Then, it’s a fun thing actually in the first episode of the season to think, “Well, what do we owe now? What did we just do?” One of the things you realize is Madeline has really been – when I think back to the beginning of the series where Madeline was basically, “What do you do? I have no idea.” Now, she knows what her son does. She now knows what he was accused of. She knows a lot of things that he actually did. She’s confronting those issues. Also, there’s always this tension from Michael where he doesn’t just run around, shooting at bad guys and being a good guy. Most of the time, he finds himself in a position where he’s got to work with bad guys; he’s got to work with bad guys to fight other bad guys; he’s got to pretend to be a bad guy to gain a bad guy’s trust. One of the things we were interested in exploring this season is the toll that takes on Michael. It’s not something that he gets to say to a client, “I really feel bad about doing this,” or “This is taking a toll on my psychologically,” but that’s interesting territory. So, one of Michael’s concerns in life is, “If I keep dancing with the devil, do I eventually turn into the devil? I may be doing dark deeds for a noble purpose, but at what point am I just a guy who does dark deeds?” Maintaining that clarity of moral vision in a very murky world is difficult for him. So, we wanted to showcase that vulnerability of Michael’s. He’s a pretty confident guy, but that’s the thing that haunts him.
In the second episode, actually, that’s something that we explore with Sam, that same dynamic of, “Well, wait a second. What do you owe to these people that you’re dealing with, morally? What are the lines you can cross, and what are the lines that you can’t cross?” That’s another thing that we explore this season.
Last season’s cliffhanger, leading into this season, was quite possibly the strangest cliffhanger I have ever seen on a TV show that does cliffhangers. Where did that come from? How did you develop it so that it would work the way it does into the new season?
Matt Nix: One of the things that we wanted to do at the end of this season was send the message that Michael’s in a new place. He’s doing a new thing. Things will change. This is not going to be just like, “Then, Michael’s back in the game in a slightly new way,” or that kind of thing. So, by ending the show in a new place, with real questions that needed to be answered, that was a way of doing that. We went back and forth on how mysterious should we be at the end of the season. There were versions of that final script that contained a little bit of dialogue in that room. Then, we realized, “If we’re going to step to that bell, we might as well ring it.” There’s no – why say, “It’s a mystery, but not a total mystery”? Why not just go for it. Then, we’ll do the dialogue in that room at the beginning of the next season.
So, that was what went into it. I confess, in talking to some people, I was a little surprised that some people were speculating that he was on the moon or something like that. I found myself saying to some people, “Well, you did see him get walked into a prison.” I mean, he was walked into a prison, and then, he was walked down a hallway. Then, he was put in this room. So, that’s a room in the prison. That’s not on the moon; it’s some sort of secret, prison facility somewhere. I thought, given that was the longest, single scene we have ever done without dialogue or voiceover, I thought people would notice. Some people did; some people didn’t. It’s addressed very quickly in the beginning of the season. So, I don’t think it’s a problem, but yes, that was how we arrived at it.
What has been one of your biggest challenges, working on Burn Notice? How did you overcome it?
Matt Nix: I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re looking for, and may be a little bit of inside baseball, but when you sit down to write a show, you’re downloading the contents of your head. I found, in working on the first season, that I was drawing very heavily on my own background, books I liked, the characters that I liked, spy stuff that I liked. I’d always been a reader of spy fiction and spy technique and always been interested in that from the time I was a little kid. It’s less about the actual – what I found was I had a way of approaching stories and thinking about stories that was very intuitive to me, but it’s just in my head. So, in that first season, especially because I hadn’t worked in television before, it was a lot of, “No, like this;” “But no, I can’t explain it.” So, fortunately, that first season was only 11 episodes long. We had a few episodes written before. So, we were able to get through it, but at the beginning of the second season, I talked to Alfredo Barrios who is now an EP on the show and, at the time, was the first writer I hired. He said, “So, beginning of Season Two, you’re just going to come to the room. You’re just going to stop. All of your thinking must be done out loud. You have to talk through everything that you’re thinking and how you’re arriving at those conclusions and how you’re thinking of the story because everybody needs to learn how you’re doing it and how you’re thinking about these stories.” It’s not that people were useless in the first season. It was just a lot more muddled and a lot harder to get – people just didn’t know what I was thinking as well. So, in that second season, that was when we really started defining the terms of Burn Notice, understanding how episodes get broken. You can see the difference in how the episodes go. I felt like they got more consistent, more specific. We were able to do a wider range of techniques. So, yes, it was really figuring out how to download the contents of my head to the writers and directors and producers on the show.
Where do you pull the inspiration for the cases-of-the-week from? Is there any one in particular you’re excited about this season?
Matt Nix: Yes. I’m excited about a lot of them actually. I’d say they come from a variety of places. Sometimes, there’s a cool technique that we will usually draw from the world of actual spycraft. So, there was one episode in Season Three that was based on a real technique that was – the shorthand is reverse interrogation. In the spy world, people will arrange for people to get interrogated so that they can learn from the questions that the people are being asked. So, we used to send volunteers into the Russian Embassy, pretending to be spies. They would do the same thing to us. Then, based on what questions they were asked, they would know something more about what the Russians knew or what the Russians were interested in – that kind of thing. So, that sounded like a cool technique. So, we spun that into an episode about a kidnapper who is hiding a kidnapped child. So, using the questions that he’s asking to find out – so, that was one kind of thing.
Then, another thing we do is we’ll look at a movie or a classic action, dramatic situation and think about, “What is Michael’s way of dealing with this? What is his approach in this situation?” So, in the second season, we did what some people call the “Diehard” episode, which is Michael in the hostage-taking in the bank. So, one of the things we wanted to do there was, “What would you expect Michael to do? You’d expect him to run around with a gun, shooting people and saving the day.” So, the challenge for us became, “What would a spy do there?” Right? Okay, let’s have him save the day without ever shooting a gun. Let’s have him save the day without the bad guys ever even knowing that anyone’s opposing them in any way. So, that was partially based on sabotage techniques that we’d read about. So, that another approach.
This season, there are a number of techniques that we’re excited about. There’s an episode coming up that we call, “The Dog Day Afternoon” episode, but what if Michael was in a hostage situation, only he found himself as the hostage taker? What would he do? How can you get out of that situation?
We have some exciting interrogation stuff coming up this year we’ve never done before. What if Michael’s in a situation where he is interrogating a friend in front of an enemy, and he needs to somehow telegraph to the person that he’s questioning what answers he’s supposed to give, but he can’t let anyone know that he’s doing that. That was a really interesting challenge to come up. So, that was another thing.
Actually, another interesting one was, this year, we wanted to take a look at what if there was a situation where Michael could save the day, but where saving the day wasn’t necessarily the best thing, our “Teach a Man to Fish” episode. What if the best thing for everyone concerned is that Michael doesn’t save the day, but the client saves the day? That was an interesting thing for us to do. So, we’ve been all over the place, doing a lot of interesting things. Yes, the inspiration comes from all over.
You seem to suggest that Season Four is taking a bit of a darker tone. Talk more about that.
Matt Nix: I’d say we’re, I wouldn’t say, a darker tone. I’d say we’re – people know the characters now. We know the characters pretty well now. So, there’s no particular need to be coy about it. Sam is on a job. They’re helping somebody out. Through a series of events, Sam’s the bad guy ends up knowing about Sam’s real life. That was always a bright line for Sam. So, if he’s talking to a bad guy, and he’s pretending to be a new version of Chuck Findley with a bad guy, he’s creating a fiction. The way that he keeps his self separate from that is by always being Chuck Findley and always being a new guy with a new history, etc. When the details of his actual life end up straying into that, well, it is distressing to Sam.
Now, I will say, “God Bless Bruce Campbell.” When Sam gets distressed, it’s not dire. It’s funny. He’s distressed like Sam gets distressed. He’s still the same, ol’ Sam. It’s fun to see him freak out about that. He’s bummed that this bad guy has suddenly decided he’s his best friend. It’s a hilarious situation that Sam finds himself in, but what generates that is a real issue in Sam’s psyche. So, I don’t think that it’s necessarily incompatible to say that you can maintain a light tone while exploring more personal themes and indeed some darker themes, but it’s not like – I mean, the whole issue of having betrayed Jesse. That’s a big deal. In a sense, it’s a dark deal, but the fact is Toby’s really funny. The actor playing Jesse is really funny and really fun. The way that he fits into the team and his version of Burn Notice banter is really fun to watch. So, yes, it’s not a radical tonal shift for the show, but in maturing as a show, we’re able to explore some of those more serious themes without losing a light tone.
Can you talk about some of the guest stars that we will see this season?
Matt Nix: Sure. Let’s see. In the third episode, the episode that Jeffrey Donovan, his directing debut, we have Max Perlich is playing the client, and Nestor Serrano is our bad guy. We have Navi Rawat coming in for a serialized arc. Frank Whaley plays a client, does a great job. Who else? Benito Martinez from The Shield is in our fifth episode, along with Rhys Coiro, who was best known for Entourage. Let’s see. There’s been a lot of press about Burt Reynolds coming in. He does a great job and is really fun, playing an older, burned out spy. Richard Kind is also in that episode. He was one of those that people are calling me from the set saying, “We must write Richard Kind into more episodes; he’s so fantastic.” So, he’s pretty great. Steven Culp. Yes, we got a lot of fun people coming up. Actually, I should say, just for The Wire fans, John Doman is also coming up as well. There you go.
You’re talking a lot about casting. With Bruce Campbell – you talk about what Bruce brings to the role. Was that how you had envisioned Sam or did that morph as you got Bruce in that role?
Matt Nix: This may be unsatisfying. The answer is, “Both.” I mean, I wrote Sam. My priorities when we were casting Sam – I mean, the thing that I kept saying over and over is, in the pilot, he has to take a punch and enjoy it. That is a specific kind of actor. You think of a lot of actors who can take a punch and then throw a punch. Think of a lot of actors who can’t take a punch. You would worry about them if they were taking a punch. If you actually think through, if you just do the thought experiment, think of five actors. Think, “Is that guy going to take a punch, and you believe he’s not going to throw a punch back,” or “He’s not going to get angry,” or “Is that guy going to take a punch, and you’re going to believe that he’s going to be down for the count.” So, it actually turned out to be a real challenge to find someone who could do that.
Then, Bruce Campbell came about when we were having a really hard time casting the role. Then, my network executive, this guy named, Alex Sepiol, who was instrumental in bringing the project to the senior executives, to Jeff Whitel and Bonnie Hammer and the folks that bought the show, said, “Well, what about Bruce Campbell?” I said, “Well, of course, I’d want Bruce Campbell. Bruce Campbell would never do this.” Like obviously! Right? We’ve got to cast this, man. Why are you wasting my time? Alex and I are good friends, but I was like, “Dude, c’mon! You just want me to be disappointed and miserable? Fine. Okay, let’s offer it to Bruce Campbell so that we can actually cast the role.” Right? Then, we offered it to Bruce Campbell. Then, I get a call that he’s actually interested. I think they’re joking. Then, it turns out that he’s actually available. I have to get on the phone with him so that he makes sure that I’m not crazy or a jerk or anything, so I’m trying to frantically read his book before I get on the phone with him. I’m totally nervous. That was one of the most nervous times at the beginning of the show, talking to Bruce Campbell, trying to think about, “How can I be the sort of person that Bruce Campbell wants to work with? I’ve never met the man.”
Anyway, he’s just very easygoing. He’s very nice and liked the script. So, we cast him, but then, from that point on – this is true of all of the characters, certainly true of Sam though – then, you see him do it. Then, you realize, “Oh, look at that awesome thing he did! Okay, now, Sam does that all the time.”
The character Sam has been a really great thing for writers on this show because everybody says, “Sam’s voice is the first voice you hear in your head.” So, getting your head around Sam – he’s people’s entry point a lot of the time when they’re writing the show. I don’t know what it is. It’s a combination of character and Bruce. So yes, it was absolutely a back and forth between the two.
Over the season, you have put Michael and his team in so many different situations. Have there been any works on paper that, when you brought them to life, they didn’t go as expected?
Matt Nix: Well, by that, do you mean that didn’t work, or what kind of thing are you thinking about?
Pretty much anything, or maybe stunts that went bad.
Matt Nix: Well, the answer is, “No,” officially. Actually, yes, I’d say a lot of those things are not in episodes. Do you know what I mean? Like, when something really doesn’t work, we don’t put it in. There may be things that we wished worked better or stuff like that. Occasionally, one thing would be – you don’t get to blowup Madeline’s house twice. There’s not a practice explosion, and then, a real one. So, you don’t know exactly how big that explosion is going to be until you do it. So, that was an example where it was a cool explosion, but when the effect, as designed – this is at the end of Season Two – was not as large an explosion as we ended up getting. So, once that explosion happened, we realized, “Oh, we just blew the hell out of that house. I guess we need to service that at the beginning of next season.” So, what might have been a next season that began with Madeline replacing windows turned into Sam living at Madeline’s house and repairing her sunroom which he blew to hell. So, that would be an example of something that was a happy accident ultimately, but we did have to deal with it.
I’d say one of the things, actually, that in a funny kind of way works out nicely for us is the stunts. Since we’re not really doing – I mean, occasionally, we’ll throw some CGI in. There are not a lot of unmanned drones available for rent in the Miami area that shoot missiles. So, that would be a computer effect, but unless it’s truly something that we can’t get, we’re usually doing it live. We’re usually doing the actual stunt or the actual effect with actual stuff. It’s funny. In the finale of Season Three, when Michael and Simon are driving along, there’s a waterfront road. That was an episode that I directed. A truck overturns. Then, a car crashes into the truck. That car was supposed to do something different. That car was supposed to hit the truck and then roll. We had all the cameras set up for it, but it didn’t. It went up on its side and then crashed down on its side. Initially, I was disappointed because I had this roll in my head, but I realized later, one of the things that I actually like about those things on Burn Notice is that’s what sells that the effect actually happened. If everything happened perfectly, then you wouldn’t get all of the random DAC that makes it clear to the audience. “No, they really just dumped a car over on its side, and it smashed up.” That’s all about rear view mirrors rolling toward the screen or glass bouncing in directions that you didn’t expect glass to bounce in. So, that’s fun.
Then, I’d say, certainly, a lot of times we will discover in writing a technique that something – there are a fair number of times when we have had to say, “That, we will save for Burn Notice, the movie. This is not a technique that can be effectively serviced in a 42-minute episode of television. So, we end up having to simplify it or alter it somewhat in order to make it work. So, that has happened on any number of episodes.
Then, I will say there are certain things that we learn. To take an example from the premiere, one of the things we learned is it’s pretty hard to crash a motorcycle effectively. So, we did it, but you can’t – it’s quite complicated and difficult because obviously you don’t have a guy strapped into a stunt car with a reinforced steel frame. You’ve got a guy with pads under his clothing and a real motorcycle that you have to lay down on the asphalt. It scrapes the heck out of the motorcycle. You have to pay for the motorcycle which you’ve now ruined. So, that would be an example of something we were able to do, but when I was writing that episode, I had no idea how difficult and expensive that kind of thing it would be. So, it wasn’t a disaster or anything, but it was just a, “Yikes, that was pricey and difficult and time consuming.”
Now that you’re a veteran show runner with three-and-a-bit years under your belt, are you still excited about going to the Burn Notice set and going into that room, or does monotony threaten at times?
Matt Nix: I will never get over Art – well, maybe I will, but I certainly have never come close to getting over Art Department. The thing about it is there’s no getting around, for me, the magic of writing something and then – oftentimes, it might be eight days later. Suddenly, it exists. It is as close to magic as you can get, as far as I’m concerned. I mean, I’ll never forget, in the first season, writing “Interior boat day” and showing up on the stage. They had built the interior of a boat. It’s remarkable. So, yes, that’s part of the reason that we’re – I was talking with Jeffrey Donovan the other day. We were talking about the fact that we’ve been renewed through Season Six, which is great. I was complimenting him on some work that he’d done in an episode. I said, “One of the things that’s really important to me is that both of us are still as scared in Season Five as we were in Season One.”
When I talk about these things we’re doing, it’s not like I sit down and I know how Michael’s going to communicate with someone he’s interrogating without letting anyone who’s watching know he’s going to – I don’t know how to do that. Right? We have to figure it out. We have to figure it out on a really tight clock. It’s scary, but it’s really exciting. When we write, “Exterior helipad day: the helicopter explodes, raining burning helicopter parts down all around,” we don’t know if we can do that. So, that challenge is always fresh. So, for me, a lot of it is just about – I’m sure it would get monotonous if we just did the same things all the same all the time, but we really strive to not do the same things all the tine. So, the first episode: “Where can we put the motorcycle gang?” Obviously, that wasn’t a real motorcycle gang, but working with all those motorcycles, that’s tough. I don’t know how to do that, but damn, it’s fun when you write it, and you’ve got 40 motorcycle riders actually partying in front of a bar in Fort Lauderdale. When two of them start fighting in-between takes, they’re really fighting. It’s exciting. It is never predictable.
Since you’ve created The Good Guys and it’s on the air, how is that going to affect how you run Burn Notice and your involvement in that show?
Matt Nix: We’ve got two offices right next to each other. I’m probably on the set less. I’ve been out there less, just because, but I’d say, last year, I spent probably ten more days on the set in the first half of the season than I have this year. So, there’s that. Fortunately, I have a good team. It’s to the point now where I know where my input is most useful; but, I will say, I know, for some people who have two shows, it’s like leaving the other show. Then, it just runs itself. Then, they go and do the new show and check back in sometimes, or they take a very hands-off management style, but I’m still in the room all the time on Burn Notice. I’m back and forth between those offices a million times a day. So, it’s just a matter of me sleeping less and working on weekends, but it’s pretty much the same kind and level of involvement as it’s always been. I’d say with the caveat that, in the first year – I mean, just to be honest – it was all consuming. When I was still finding the show on Burn Notice, and I’d never run a show before, and I never worked in television before, that was really all consuming, but I’d say, after the first year, I got a sense for “I can delegate this; I can’t delegate that; I need to be involved in this,” and that kind of thing. So, it hasn’t been terribly different than last year.