Interview: Burn Notice Creator and Special Effects Coordinator Talk Season 3

bn-mattnixBurn Notice fans, rejoice! Not only are Jeffrey Donovan, Gabrielle Anwar, Bruce Campbell, and Company back for season three, premiering Thursday, June 4th, in its new timeslot, at 9:00/8:00 Central; but Matt Nix, executive producer, writer, and creator of Burn Notice, and Kevin Harris, special effects coordinator, sat down to dish the details.

For those of you who don’t know, Burn Notice is the USA Network’s hit series which follows the life of a former CIA agent, Michael Westen, played by the fabulous Jeffrey Donovan. When you are a spy, you don’t get fired, you get Burned. Burn Notice follows Michael Westen as he makes his way while in hiding in Miami; helping out people in need, while looking to find out who burned him using the only the basic skills at his disposal: His wits, his charm, his special ops training, and his friends, Fiona (Anwar) and Sam (Campbell). Oh, and it just so happens to be one of the greatest shows on television today. Are you intrigued yet? It just gets better with Matt Nix and Kevin Harris talking season three. Up first, how can we expect this season to be different from the first two? Matt Nix responds:

I think it’s better. I think it’s going to be — this season has given us an opportunity to explore kind of the characters and the stories in a new way, because now that the format for the show has been pretty well established, like, we know kind of how a Burn Notice goes, it gives us a lot more freedom to explore ways of turning that on its head, or turning things around, or doing new kinds of episodes, because, I think that we’re at the point now where the audience is less likely to be disoriented by, you know, Michael going off and doing something in a different environment. And I think that’s a process that started in season two, but we’ve been able to sort of push it further in season three.

So I would say in terms of the A stories, you see that, and as far as the ongoing seasonal arc goes, we’re exploring more things from their past, and a different angle on Michael’s quest to get his old life back. So, at the beginning of the season, we’re dealing with something that we haven’t dealt with before, which is Michael’s interactions with the police and how to get them off his back. And then as the season progresses, you know, Michael sees this as an opportunity to be reengaged with the intelligence community, but that comes with a whole host of challenges and difficulties, especially with folks from his past coming back.

And as far as the relationships go, in some ways those just kind of get deeper and deeper for us, and we know more about the characters; and so this season is also about dealing with, you know, what does it mean for Michael’s family to know more about what he does, how does that change his relationships with them, and how does it affect his relationship with Fiona that he is trying to be engaged with the intelligence community, how does she feel what that means for their relationship?

Nix continues to expand on what we are going to learn about Michael, Fiona, and Sam, specifically, how far back we are going to go into their individual histories, adding:

We will be exploring some of the period where Michael was meeting later in the season. And it’s a little bit difficult to put your finger on, because the idea is over the course of Michael’s career; he has had lots of interactions, some of which took place over several years. And so to be perfectly honest, we try not to nail down a really specific time line in Michael’s career, because it’s not terribly interesting, and it also ends up kind of restricting the kinds of stories we can do once we start saying, “Michael, these three months in 1997, he was in Belarus.” Well, okay, but what if we need him to take a quick plane flight to Moscow during that period? We don’t want to nail our feet to the floor with regard to that.

So we are going to see some of the folks from Fiona’s past, and learn more about their past together. And we’re going to interact with some characters that Michael dealt with over the course of his career. We’re not really — if your question is are we going to see a lot of characters from Michael’s childhood, the answer is not so far. And I wouldn’t rule it out, but it’s just not something we’re doing.

Later in the interview, Nix expands further on the backstory coming up for Sam and Fiona, adding:

In the case of Sam, we’ve got some — I don’t want to give too much away. We’ve got a couple of really fun characters who Sam is going to be interacting with from his own past. Sam runs into some pretty serious tax problems this year. It turns out it’s very difficult to do your taxes properly as a covert operative, very hard to categorize your deductions, and so he gets into some serious trouble there. So that’s a character that he’s dealing with. And learn a little bit more about his past through that inquiry. Also, relationships that Sam had come back.

And then on Fiona’s side, especially towards the end of the winter season we’re going to be seeing — we’re going to be learning a lot more about Fiona’s family. We spent two episodes referring to ‘angry, angry people back in Ireland,’who are interested in Fiona, and let’s just say we may be meeting some angry people.

As for Michael, Nix adds:

Why does he care so much about getting his job back? It’s not because the pay is so great or because he loves the food in Afghanistan; it’s because he’s a guy who is driven to help people, and he believes that his job helps people. And the stuff that he does in Miami is the fix that he can get of that, of what he needs in Miami; that’s what’s available to him. And Fiona has the same thing. And we kind of explore that in her character this year as well, like why does she do what she does. It’s not normal for people to help desperate people that come to them and go to the lengths that these characters go to in order to do that, and so one of the things we’re exploring is why do they do that. What things in their past, what things in their psychology compel them to do that?

Up next, what spy stories are they going to be able to work into the series after the game changing season two finale: Nix answers:

We are always working on different kinds of spy stories. And I guess I would just say that we end up setting ourselves little challenges and things that we want to do, and then we just kind of bang our heads against them until we can figure out a way to do them. One of the things that we did this year that we’ve been trying to do for two seasons and just not able to crack until this year was reverse interrogation, which is the technique we used in the second episode of finding out the information from someone’s questions in an interrogation, rather than from asking them questions. So that was a fun one for us.

And so now, I’m not done writing the season, so I don’t want to say that there’s anything that we haven’t been able to do, because we’re still trying. But yes, so we have a whole kind of laundry list of different techniques.

One of the challenges for us is that a lot of spy techniques take a long time to do, so we’ve done aspects of certain spy techniques, and other aspects are harder for us because we’re usually dealing with problems that take about a week, and a lot of the best spy techniques take a couple years. So just finding a way to pull that off is always a challenge, but we sort of end up doing the greatest hits of the world’s traitors and spies.

Spoiler alert! At the conclusion of season two, Michael jumps out of a helicopter into the ocean, and the viewers knew the cops had been called on him, but the outcome was left to the imagination and wonder. Matt Nix describes the new character of Detective Paxton, and how she is going to effect how Michael is going to be able to operate going forward, after spending some time in jail…Nix explains:

Detective Paxton is played by Moon Bloodgood, and the idea is, for a long time, Michael was not really showing up in the police computers, and he was being protected from some of the consequences of his activities around Miami. And then once the folks behind his burn notice back off, their sort of going-away present to him after he jumps out of the helicopter is calling the cops on him. So in the premiere episode he goes to jail for a little while. And so after that he ends up with Detective Paxton on his tail. And she’s a really good cop. And a lot of the resources that Michael would use against — or has used in past seasons against people that have come after him are not available to him with Detective Paxton.

So for example, in the first season, when Jason Bly came after Michael, Bly was pushing the envelope some; he was doing some things that he ought not to do, and Michael was able to use that against him and get him off his back. And the problem that they find with Detective Paxton is she’s just a really good, really committed cop, who is really smart, and is on to Michael, and knows how to mess with him. So she figures out that – in one of the later episodes – she figures out — well, in the fourth episode, she figures out that given the sorts of things that Michael, Fiona, and Sam are doing around Miami, if they have a police tail on them all the time, that’s going to make their lives very, very difficult. So she does that.

And they can’t really get any angles on her to blackmail her or get her off the case, and so Michael essentially has to convince her that they’re on the same side, which is difficult because Michael’s not really following proper legal procedure in taking care of problems for his clients, and yet at the same time, he is doing things that the Miami PD ought to appreciate.

And so a lot of times what’s interesting for us is finding adversaries for Michael who are in some ways mirrors of himself. And in the case of Detective Paxton, she is committed and kind of dogged in the same way that Michael is, and that turns out to be a real problem for him. And I think that there’s a bit of an understanding between them that, if Michael were a cop, he would be a cop not unlike Detective Paxton; and if Detective Paxton were a freelancing burn spy then she might not be so unlike Michael, but they are clearly adversaries. She cannot have people pulling the things that Michael pulls on the streets of Miami, and he can’t be hauled in by the cops, and so there really is no middle ground between the two of them. Michael has to figure out a way to get her off his back, and she’s not in the mood to compromise.

Nix further teases another “mirror” character to Michael Westen, in the form of one Strickler, played by Ben Shenkman, by adding:

Over the course of this season one of the characters that Michael interacts with is — and this is a real thing — is someone who is interested in selling his services. As we all know now, people with extraordinary skills can be very valuable on the open market. And … secrets, people who fight, people — you know, there’s a whole industry now that is devoted to brokering the services of those people. And so Michael at one point during the season is approached, and this is one of the ongoing characters, played by Ben Shenkman, who approaches Michael, and he is a guy who is another kind of mirror of Michael.

If Michael is the guy who is usually approaching a bad guy in an episode and convincing that bad guy to go along with his agenda for perfectly reasonable reasons, like ‘You really ought to show me your security’for these reasons, ‘I can protect you,’and getting the bad guy to do what he wants him to do. And he’s always the smart guy in that equation; he’s always the one pitching the perfectly reasonable solution to your problems that will ultimately undermine you. Along comes this character, Strickler, played by Ben Shenkman, and he’s doing the same thing to Michael; he’s basically saying, ‘Hey, like let’s make you some money and we’ll make me some money, and this can be helpful in your quest to get your old job back. All you’ve got to do is play ball with me on a few little things and everything is going to work out fine.”

And so Michael, dealing with this guy that he doesn’t really trust, but at the same time is presenting a very compelling case that this is the way to get things done, and Michael — it’s kind of an offer Michael can’t refuse. And yet that has a moral dimension to it, and Fiona has some very strong things to say about that, and that turns into a big thing in the second half of the season. In the second half of the first mini-season, I should say. I guess that would be the second quarter of the season. Very difficult to talk about these two mini-seasons.

And then in the second mini-season we’ll be dealing with a different character, who is someone with a background in covert intelligence as sort of like your — Victor was someone who appeared to have no moral compass, and then turned out to have a moral compass disguised as no moral compass. In the second half of the season we’re going to be meeting a character who is truly a freelance psychopath, and Michael is going to have to deal with that guy and hence … new….

One of the most amusing relationships is that of Madeline (the incomparable Sharon Gless) and Sam (Bruce Campbell). Matt Nix responded to the question of if we would be seeing more of them in season three:

More actually. That’s really fun. We basically made — Sam blew up Madeline’s house in the finale of season two, and so he’s kind of on the hook for repairs. So it means that he spends much of the first nine episodes hanging out at Madeline’s, trying to put her house back together, which is made more complicated by the fact that Michael’s father did a lot of the original building on the house, using stolen lumber and improvised parts, so it’s kind of a complicated enterprise and presents new problems, and so him and Madeline are interacting with that. And then also that Buick that they borrowed from Madeline’s neighbor, Ann …, Sam ends up dating the daughter of the owner of … Madeline’s next-door neighbor, so that gives him another reason to hang out.

And then the other thing is actually one of the interesting things about this season is that now that Madeline really knows what Michael does; I mean there’s no more, ‘Who are you again?’or ‘What do you do again?’or that kind of thing that we did more in the first and second season, it opens up new opportunities for Madeline to participate with Michael, Sam, and Fiona. Which is not to say it doesn’t turn into anything silly, like Madeline running around with a gun, but there’s no longer any need to explain to Madeline what’s going on when they’re doing a job. And there are certain things that Madeline can be useful for, and there are things that are appropriate for who she is, but they are nonetheless useful, and that has been a fun thing to explore.

The special effects on Burn Notice are one of the things that sets it apart in the television landscape, and Matt Nix responds to questions regarding television’s budget versus feature films, saying:

Yes, really it is very rare that Kevin — I mean really we’ve got such a great team of effects and stunt people that I can’t think of a time that they have come to me and said, ‘This stunt is too expensive. We cannot do this stunt.’Literally, they will say to me, ‘You are not pushing hard enough. Come up with something that you really think we can’t do so that we can show you that we can do it.’Right? And so it’s just not — budget is not really the issue.

And really a good example is when Kevin talks about doing intricate gags, that being a lot more difficult than doing big things. Like we do all the big things. We do the same things that they would do in a big movie, we’ll do them in more or less the same way, it’s just that we don’t have as many cameras on the stunt, we don’t shoot the green screen shot of the lead as the car is flipping, so that you see that it’s him in the car. You know, there are certain things that we don’t have time to do. So it’s kind of the details that end up falling out of stuff because we don’t have time to do it.

The funny thing is actually like my dream stunt sequence was the raining, flaming cars car chase sequence at the end of season two, which I wrote fully expecting them to come back and say, ‘We can’t do it.’And Artie, our stunt coordinator, and Kevin talked to me and the basically had pitches for making it bigger. And of course I said, ‘Yes, make it bigger.’So, honestly, like I’m still trying to push for something that we can’t get, and we just keep writing it and they just keep doing it. So because of that it’s kind of a difficult question to answer.

Kevin Harris adds:

I’m more partial to water-type work, boat work, doing a lot of different types of effects on water and with the boats and stuff; it’s a lot more challenging. I will say that after doing a couple of seasons of SeaQuest and a Hulk Hogan series called Thunder in Paradise, the thing that really needs to be done when you want to do real deep action is you almost have to run simultaneously. We have a second unit and a first unit. And on both of those shows there, pretty much your first year they did all of your walk and talk scenes when your second unit was backing it up with all the action sequences. And in that case there is my difference as far as time versus money. There it’s both; you’re going to get double the time, although you’re going to spend double the money.

And I’m confident that Burn Notice is getting to that point. This season here we’ve done more second unit work than we’ve ever done before. And when we did the last episode of season two, probably 70-percent of that was done via second unit, and it really meshed in very nicely. But to do a good — because the studios are not going to give you more than your seven days. I don’t care what show you’re doing, they are seven-days bound. So the only way to get more out of it is to run simultaneous units.

And we live in Florida, our biggest scenery here is the water, and it’s a lot more costly to shoot on the water, but you get a hell of a bang for your buck.

I would say that sums up Burn Notice exactly: A hell of a bang for your buck. Burn Notice premieres Thursday, June 4th at 9:00/8:00 Central on the USA Network. It is being brilliantly paired with the extremly promising looking Royal Pains, starring Mark Feuerstein, which I described in an interview as being like Burn Notice, except instead of Jeffrey Donovan doing covert spy stuff, you have Mark Reuerstein doing covert doctor stuff. Nicely done, indeed, USA.

A complete transcript of this interview will be coming soon, as it was literally the most indepth, enjoyable one I have had the pleasure to witness, and I don’t think any of you should miss a word of it.

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