Burn Notice season 4 premiered last week on the USA Network! In anticipation of the season's summer kick-off, we got the chance to get in on an exclusive Q&A with series creator and executive producer Matt Nix. See what he had to say about what the current season has in store, and don't forget to catch the new episodes, every Thursday at 9/8c!
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Burn Notice?
Matt: Well, I had been friends with a guy who's a consulting producer on the show now, named Michael Wilson, for some time. He had worked in the private intelligence industry. I'd sort of been kicking around ideas for something that took place in that world for some time. One of the things that stood out for me in my conversations with Michael Wilson was that he was always giving me advice about what to do if I ever found myself in a situation where I needed to use hollow point rounds and armor piercing rounds, that it was always a good idea to put a tracer round in there as well so that you knew when you were about to run out of ammunition, things like that. He always gave me advice as if I was going to be in that situation sometime soon. I thought that was funny. So, as I was thinking about ideas for a television series to pitch, I started out thinking about a much more serious, traditional, spy-themed show, but it ended up evolving into something that owed a lot more to my conversations with Michael Wilson and frankly a lot more of my own sensibilities, something that was less, more serial comic and that involved this advice-from-a-spy aspect and evolved from there.
Q: Tell us about the casting process for Jeffrey Donovan. How did you guys know that he was the right one for your series?
Matt: Well, it was just an audition. Jeffrey came in and was just super confident and comfortable with the material from the get-go. For me, a big thing in casting is just seeing whether someone - it comes down to the actor's improvs a lot of times. Like, what are the little things that they do, verbal or non-verbal, that indicate that they understand the character on a deeper level than just the word? Jeffrey just clearly had a real connection to the character. He improvised some stuff, a lot of which is in the pilot. He came to that first episode and was just there with it. Then, we just went through the casting process. I don't know. He just knew. He just acted like it was his from the get-go, and not in an arrogant way, just in an I-know-exactly-what-I-want-to-do-with-this. I remember going to the test where the final decision and the executive who is sitting next to me, after he came in, said, "That was the most confident audition I have ever seen in my life." This woman had seen a lot of auditions. So, that was that.
Q: 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: 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.
Q: We've been hearing since the end of Season Three about the new character of Jesse. It was interesting to me how, in the Premiere, 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. So why did you want to bring in a new character, and why introduce him that way?
Matt: That's a good question. 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.
Q: I've heard some critics, and I myself, sometimes describe the show as a modern day MacGyver. How do you feel about that term being used?
Matt: 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.
Q: 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: 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.
Q: What has been one of your biggest challenges working on Burn Notice? How did you overcome?
Matt: Interesting. 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.
Q: Burn Notice has featured some fantastic character actors, like Richard Schiff and Tim Matheson, John Mahoney, Robert Wisdom. When you add characters to the... mythology, do you write with particular characters in mind?
Matt: We have learned to. Yes. One of the things we actually discovered was that, when we write with a particular actor in mind, it makes the character more specific and interesting, regardless of what actor we end up getting. Actually, in the premiere of this year, we had actually used the actor, Matt Winston, in Episode 2 of Season Three, but everybody knew Matt Winston. So, when we were breaking the episode, I was saying, "So, there's this guy. He's like Matt Winston. So, we'll call him Winston. We just wrote it with -- I mean, that was a case where we couldn't cast that actor because we'd already used someone. So, when we found Rich Summer who was his own, terrific version of that character, writing to the rhythms of a particular actor just makes it a lot more specific and interesting. I can think of several times several classic characters on the show that people really like that were written with other actors in mind who turned out not to be available or not interested or whatever. Then, I sometimes find that, when you don't get the actor you were thinking about, you're sometimes better off because then you get this interesting combination of a new interpretation on -- you thought you knew what you were going to get. When you get a different actor in there than you were picturing, sometimes you get an interesting twist on something very specific that you were writing.
Q: Is there any chance for action figures, or comic books, or even a video game?
Matt: Honestly, I would be interested in all of those things. It's funny though. Going in, I don't think anybody realized how many -- just to take action figures as an example -- I can't tell you how many times people have told me they watched this show with their families. Now, it's shown late in the evening. It's also shown on Sunday mornings, but the first episode is shown late in the evening. I don't really put together -- when you actually compare it to a lot of the other things on television, it is a show that, if you sit down with your kids to watch it, like the good guys win. There may be challenges along the way, but it is basically a story that you can watch with your family without feeling like despairing.
So yes, if you'd asked me in the first year, "Action figures?" I would have said, "Well, it's not really that kind of show," but now, I'm like, "Yes, let's break out some action figures. Love that."
We've actually batted around a video game and stuff. I think it'd be really fun. One thing though, in looking at all of those kinds of things that I think about a lot is it's easy to reduce -- people are sometimes tempted to reduce the characters to people with guns or people with bombs. The challenge in thinking about a video game -- because it's something we've kicked around, or a comic book or whatever -- is that the stories may seem simple, but everything is built around a deception. Everything is built around an espionage construct. So, reproducing that in other media is important.
So, the short answer is, "Yes, I'd love to do that," but a slightly longer answer is, "I'd love to do that in a way that preserves something that feels like Burn Notice so that Michael just doesn't turn into a guy running around with a machine gun," but he can certainly be an action figure who has a machine gun.
Q: 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: 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.
Q: Can you talk about some of the guest stars that we will see this season?
Matt: 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 on Entourage, 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.
Make sure to enter our Burn Notice giveaway for a shot at winning a sweet summer prize pack!