I've been doing a lot of post-mortem interviews lately, so I thought I'd try something different and chat with "Burn Notice" creator Matt Nix in advance of season three, which I also reviewed (along with "Royal Pains") in today's column. No real spoilers, though Matt does allude to some small plot points this season (like which recurring character might become a client for an episode). It's nothing I feel uncomfortable knowing about as a spoiler-phobe, but click through at your own discretion.
Let's start off with how you feel Management agreeing to leave Michael alone -- but withdrawing their protection -- changes the series.
What they've said is, "We'll leave you alone and see how you like it." They're not necessarily saying, "We're completely done with you," but for the moment, they're going to leave him alone and he'll see what life is like with no protection. That's truly a very dangerous thing for anybody who's worked in that world. What that launches him into is a circumstance where the protectiosn that they've been affording him are no longer there. There are people from his past that are going to be interested in him for various reasons, but that also includes friends. He's fallen off the grid, he's been hidden, there are potentially other people from his past that can engage with him. It means Michael's been disappearing off of police computers for a while, and that's no longer the case. That's something he has to deal with. Then there's a whole range of reasons that people might want to engage with Michael, having to do with his past, but one thing he also deals with is there are a huge number of people interested in brokering the services of people with Michael's skills and knowledge.
Overall, though, the fact that he no longer is under the thumb of the people who burned him gives him a chance to get back in with the intelligence community. While he's dealing with the cops, with this character who's trying to broker his services, he's also focused on trying to re-engage with the intelligence community, and in the process, discovering that, while it may be very easy to send out a burn notice on someone and savage their reputation, it's a lot harder to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. It is a multi-faceted situation.
In terms of him trying to get his career back, it seems like he's been developing more of a moral compass over the course of this series than he ever had as a spy. He's started to care about people now. Could he really go back to that world?
That is absolutely a question that we are exploring. One of the things that we started exploring last season, and are continuing to look at, is the idea that Michael may seem to regard taking clients as kind of an inconvenience, but really, there is something in Michael that compels him to help the underdog. There is something in Michael that needs these clients and these projects. Because otherwise, it's not enough money to justify what he does. It's something he needs to do. So, yeah, one of the things he deals with -- and it's a big subject of his discussions with Fiona over the course of the season -- there's a sort of moral clarity to the jobs that he does. He's dealing with people that he knows. Occasionally, he comes across a bad apple, but even then, he's dealing with that bad apple. Ultimately, he's dealing with bad guys on behalf of people with real problems. Re-engaging with the inteliigence community means going back into this murky world where you're never sure who's on the up-and-up. Fiona's attitude is, "Why would you want to go back to that?" Michael's attitude is, "That's what I was trained to do, that's where the real action is. Right now, I'm saving individual people, but I can do things on a much larger scale."
When you say he's not making enough for these jobs to be worth it, I've been struggling to think of any example where we've ever seen him take money -- and, in fact, there have been a few times where he outright refused payment.
It's funny, because of the questions about this, it's begun to dawn on us all as a writing staff that maybe we ought to answer the question more for the audience the way we have for ouselves. Basically, Fiona is doing a fair amount of work. She's buying and selling various bits of weaponry, she's got a lot of gear around. In our minds, it's two-fold: 1)He's getting all of his product wholesale from Fiona, and 2)Fiona has a fair amount of money. You see her apartment this year and it's pretty swank, and once she's engaged with something, there's some access to cash there. And then, though this isn't something we talk about a whole lot, but there's some thought that he may be doing money gigs off-screen. You'll see him helping out a gig with Fiona, so to some extent, there are jobs you're not seeing, but they're not the big ones.
One of the things we discovered is that there's really no amount of money that justifies the lengths that Michael, Fiona and Sam go to to solve problems. Because of that, it always feels a little bit silly to have them say, "Okay, depserate person who's trying to have their child saved, I just put myself to unbelievable danger to save you, so thank you for this $1400." It feels silly and cheap to say, "I saved your entire family from that gang of vicious criminals, now I'm going to stand in your modest middle-class home and take your cash." From a behind-the-scenes perspective, those scenes, we've filmed them, and we're terrible.
But I can think of at least one occasion, in the Method Man episode last year, where the guy wanted to pay, and had more than enough money to do so without it being a problem, and Michael still refused.
It would not have bothered me to take money there. We had two thoughts on that score. One was that Michael had been really good friends with the client's older brother, and so why did he do the job? Not really for the money Ricky could hand over, but because he was bummed one of his old friends was in jail now. The other thing, and this is a larger thing: as we go through the seasons now, one of the things we're more conscious of is we have a bit of a unvierse of characters who can recur, both bad guys and good guys. In some ways, it's more interesting for us to establish a network of favors that Michael is owed and owes. For example, this season, Barry comes in as a client, and also as a much more integral part of what they do on a regular basis. So that means that now we can bring Barry, who's a money launderer, as a client. He'd be a pretty unclean client for season one, but by now, you've seen that Barry has been actively involved in doing good stuff. Ricky was played by Ben Watkins as a writer on the show -- we look at it as, we can have that guy back any time we want.
How hard is it to write a show with a main character who's super-competent without making it dull?
Now you're making me self-conscious. Is it dull?
No, not at all -- I'm just impressed that you're able to maintain suspense when we know Michael is good at everything.
I'm glad you say that. One thing is, there are a lot of things in the show that Michael experiences as very difficult. They're just not the things you expect to be difficult: something with his mother, something with Fiona, some emotional story that he is less equipped to handle. So that's one thing. The other thing is, when we think about how Michael is solving a problem, the kinds of things that he's very good at -- like cobbling together a bug, or fighting, or tactical combat experience -- if you think about it, what carries the day is never a well-executed battle. What carries the day is never a gadget that he has assembled that solves the problem. The things he's really good at, they're instruments, they're useful, but they never solve the problem. The problem that Michael is solving involves an interaction with another character, and a set of challenges that go well beyond simple questions like, "Can Michael beat this person up?" or "Can Michael build something to get out of this situation?"
It's always hard for us to think of a really big challenge to hand Michael that is an overall strategic challenge, that's tough and that's exciting to see, while at the same time, never hanging a scene on, "Can Michael beat this person up?" Because the answer to that is always "Yes." But we've had a lot of conversations as writers about the fact that almost all of the violence on the show is part of a character interaction rather than -- we never hit someone to make them do something. It's much more likely that we'll let the bad guy hit us to make him think he's much more powerful. When we were shooting (one episode this season), I commented to the writer that there probably aren't other TV shows where the two main characters are beating the crap out of each other for the benefit of the bad guy.
It seems like a lot of what Michael does, and what he tells us in the voiceovers, runs completely counter to what we've been taught to expect by other action shows.
I feel like, what we're on the hook for, as a spy show, is counter-intuitive technique. Our goal, one of the kind of standards that we apply to voiceovers is, is this a good piece of cocktail party knowledge? Is this something fun to know? It's not fun for everybody, but if you're a fan of the show, is this fun for us? There are certain things we do that are straightforward, but we don't voiceover those. The voiceovers are the things you wouldn't expect that are interesting. I always think that what's fun for us about that is it also gives us an opportunity to showcase a kind of technique that you can't really showcase without calling attention to it and slowing things down, like letting the audience know that this is what's being done here.
If you say, for example, "This wristlock is far more effective than beating someone up," or "It's far more painful to bend someone's thumb in this way," it allows us to do a really fun and interesting scene where someone's bending the crap out of someone's thumb, and it wakes you up. It's easy to get numbed by just action or running around. So we always think like, if we're going to blow someone up, it's fun to see explosions, but it's much more fun to know, if you needed to make something blow up in this circumstance, what would you do and what would it look like and how would it work?
One of the dangers of having a super-competent hero is it can really cut down on the audience's investment in that hero, he becomes this guy who can do anything, you don't know how. By having the voiceovers and explaining some of these things, hopefully the other tone we try to strike is, "You could do this, too. You just aren't trained in this. If you put your mind to it, these are things you can understand. He's still a human being, if he gets hit in the mouth, it hurts, but this is how you get hit in the mouth so it doesn't hurt as much as the other guy thinks it will." You get that, "I may not be a spy, but this spy is not a superhero."
When Michael is cobbling something together, is it more often a situation of you having a problem and asking the technical advisor how he'd solve it, or you knowing about a weird bit of spycraft and writing a problem you can apply it to?
As you might expect, it kind of happens two ways. One is, we hear something neat, and it hangs around the writers office, and we wait until we can use it. Michael Wilson is our consulting producer who has a background in intelligence. He keeps up with those things, he's good at coming up with those. Specifically, if we have a problem to solve, we'll go to him and say, "What is a way of doing this?" And then he just has enough of a library in his head to be able to kind of generate something that fits with the show, with the characters, and explaining what's hard about it. What's nice about the fact that he's done some of these things is he'll tend to give us the details, like, "You can't use Scotch tape, because I used it once, and it gums up the works." He's very insistent about those details, but it gives it a sort of a lfie. Part of it is that, and part of it is us researching things and going, "Oh, this is cool." Last year, in doing research, I ended up getting interested in different kinds of shotgun rounds, and what they can do. I was looking for an opportunity to use that over the course of the season.
A third category would be nods to particular spy techniques or spy equipment that exist, that's in the world. One of the things we talked about is, a big thing in the spy world right now is unmanned aerial drones. Michael's not going to buy a drone, but the principals are pretty simple to get your head around, and we've talked to people about how those are built and launched, and it turns out that Michael could easily do something along those lines, and that we get to showcase all the things we think is cool about that, but we're not just going to buy it. Now we're looking for an opprotunity of where are we going to use that.
I enjoyed the show in season one, but it felt like there was this big improvement at the start of season two, and again after the summer episodes of season two ended. What was it you learned in the first season that led to that?
You sound like my wife, She always tells people, "Watch season two, not season one. Especially the second half of season two." The truth is, I can point to very specific things. Really, it's not as if, when you're making a pilot, you can necessarily project forward and go, "Okay, the actors are going to be able to do this, this is how much we're going to be able to shoot in a day." There's a tremendous learning curve. Over the course of the first season, there's not really a contemporary template for how a "Burn Notice" might work.
One of the things we talked about in the first season was that it's a procedural show in which the procedure is different every week. So this week, it is the procedure of being safecracker. Next week, it's going to be the procedure of interrogation. While other shows would do, this is an interrogation show, or an evidence show, we might do an evidence episode, or a medical episode, or anything. We could easily do an episode that turns on Michael's field medicine expertise, and is all about Michael as doctor, and it's something we've talked about doing. That's kind of all over the map, so we had to find the deep structure of the eipsodes, and how a "Burn Notice" would work on a week to week basis. The first season was trying a bunch of things and seeing which ones worked better and which didn't work as well, and I can point to some episodes from season one and go, this is what we learned from that.
Over the first half of season two, you can see us nailing down the structure. It's funny. There was actually a point in season two where we noticed some fan reactions were, like, "Oh, now we get it. This is what the format's going to be from now on. Now it's going to get repetitive." And that was exactly the point where we felt, "Ah-ha! Now we've got it! This is what a 'Burn Notice' looks like," and you can see starting at episode 7 of season two, when Michael was pretending to be the geeky chemist, that was kind of a mold breaker for us. We'd never had Michael making an approach that was totally submissive. After that, we felt, this is the essence of how this show can work on a week to week basis, knowing the technique is going to change on a week to week basis: what if we turned this part on its head, what if we changed it this way? And you can see it throughout the season, it reflects our confidence in knowing the structure.
One of the cool things is that you've created such a specific character that you can do an episode like the bank heist from season two, where we've seen this particular story on a million other shows, but because Michael's involved, it's nothing quite like what we've seen before.
This season's third episode is another example of this; it's our nod to "Collateral." This season, you'll see more of us playing with our own format. The audience knows what to expect: "Oh, this is the point in a burn Notice where they make this plan," and we can turn this upside down, and they won't be lost. One of the ways we think of episodes now is, let's think of a circumstance where everybody knows how that episode goes, like a bank heist goes. Everybody knows what that episode looks like, so let's try to turn it on its head. Our sixth episode is Michael on the run with bad guys in the wilderness, and there are some really fun things to flip around in that format. We use a booby trap in a way youy've never seen a booby trap go off before
Getting back to Michael as the geeky chemist, how long did it take you to realize just how much range Jeffrey (Donovan) could show in these undercover identities?
All of the writers go out to the set for episodes. So you end up hanging out with Jeffrey a lot. We've all become friends with him and have come to know him, and so we are very fortunate in that Jeffrey is a very flexible actor, and he has this range of characters that he can do. A lot of times, we don't necessarily know exactly what he's going to do, but we'll write to it, in a direction, and we'll give the lines a rhythm, or we'll give him a tonal touch point -- "This is a character a little like someone from this movie." -- and then we trust him to run with that and get the cadence of the lines. Usually, we're on the same page. There aren't really a lot of surprises anymore. In the first season, one of the ones that we were all, "Ohmigod, what is he doing?!?!" turned out to be one of my favorite cover identities, when he was in Little Havana and he had the eyeliner on. At first, I was getting calls (from USA) and I was going, 'No, no. I'm going to go out on a limb and say I like this. I trust him."
Jeffrey and I have always had a connection. I kind of have a sense for what he's going to do, we can kind of finish each other's sentences. That's a really useful thing, and we've learned how to set him up well. What are the things he's going to gravitate to? A lot of times, we'll ask, "What does Michael sound like yelling?" If we start with, "What is the highest point of conflict for this cover identity? What does this person look like in his most extreme moments?," that's what Jeffrey is going to key off of. It's not about giving him an accent. Michael's not doing these things to entertain himself, but because they're the most effective way of dealing with a situation. But the fun thing is, now we get to know the range of the other actors on the show as well. The episode after the ones you've seen contains Fiona's best cover ID ever. She is hilarious. It's awesome.
It felt like it took you a while to get a handle on writing both Fiona and Madeline, where Michael and Sam were more fully-formed. What was it that helped you master writing for the two women in Michael's life?
Gabrielle (Anwar) is a very instinctive actor, and she's someone who really keys into the emotion of a scenario. And so one of the things we realized in writing for her is there's so much overlap between Gabrielle's personality and Fiona's, which meant that in some ways, the learning curve was a little harder for me. Jeffrey and I tend to approach things in a similar way, it's more about the words and the logic of something, and we go from the logic to the emotion. Gabrielle, as we were working with her, we found that when we give Fiona something to be passionate about -- and you can see that especially in the second half of last season -- when she connects with a client, she comes alive on screen. She's not an actress who really wants to know first what's under the lines and find her way to that stuff. We found that giving her something to be passionate about really made her come alive, rather than explaining a situation to her. She doesn't care about the situation, she wants to know, "How do I feel and what's important to me?" That was really instrumental in getting my head around her instincts as an actor, and you can see it makes a huge difference. It's really exciting for us.
In the case of Sharon and Madeline, I've always been very upfront about the fact that Madeline is sort of one-dimensional and underwritten in the pilot. I'm not ashamed of it, but I don't look at it and go, "Yeah, that's my best work." But I was incredibly fortunate in that I had Sharon there to interact with, and I could just look at Sharon and go, "Okay, I'm now going to pull Madeline out of these aspects of Sharon Gless." So I can pretend that I had a really full-formed, three-dimensional view of Madeline, but I didn't, at all. What's fun, in the thrid season, is Madeline is completely aware of what Michael does. There's no pretending, or being shocked. At this point, her house has blown up. She can be a more integral part of his life, and she can help what he's doing. It's not in a silly way, like she's running around with a shotgun, but it's dumb for us to pretend like they wouldn't ask for help. She's like the client dormitory. Finding that, and bringing Madeline's character into that world, it's just gotten a lot richer. A lot of that was me finding Madeline in Sharon. It's a more organic way to write and a lot of fun. She's such a smart and canny actress. In our discussion of those early episodes, we said, 'In this episode, what does Madeline do that really brings home the point that she is Michael's mother? She's not just some mother." That is really the thing we key off of
Last one: There was a string of episodes last season where Michael's solution to the problem was to maneuver one bad guy into killing another bad guy, and when Michael accidentally threw the assassin to his death, and then shot Victor, those stood out to me as the first time in a long time we'd seen Michael directly (if not intentionally) kill somebody. I'm wondering if that's a rule you've imposed on yourself, something USA requested, or just happenstance that he only very rarely uses lethal force.
There are a few answers to that. There's no "rule," but: 1. It's true, that while Michael will do what's necessary, he generally avoids violence when possible. 2. Michael needs to conceal his involvement in stuff. When two bad guys shoot each other, or a bad guy gets caught by the cops in the middle of a crime, there are no uncomfortable "Who shot this guy?" questions. Michael's involvement is invisible, as a spy's should be. 3. In general, we really focus on making Michael outwit his adversaries rather than best them physically. Which is, I suppose, more or less a preference of mine.
We did have a bit of a run of that in season two, actually - the one bad guy kills the other thing. It wasn't intentional, it had to do with how the episodes laid out. In any case, while it's a useful thing to do sometimes, we try not to go to that well too often.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org