As USA Network’s Burn Notice gears up for its sixth season starting June 14th, it’s safe to say that show creator Matt Nix and his lead character, ex-spy Michael Westen, now have a lot in common. Westen was framed by his former agency and dumped in Miami to battle crooked agents and crime lords; Nix has had to pull off some complicated creative judo of his own to ensure show’s survival.
Making smart drama on a cable budget is a challenge. According to Nix, most shows get just north of $2 million and seven days to shoot each episode. Factor in challenges like a super small cast, filming entirely on-location, and no budget for big explosions, and doing an hour long complicated spy show seemed like a stretch to say the least. But Burn Notice has thrived. (Once top-rated, it’s still a third-place finisher behind Walking Dead and Suits.) Episodes even tend to gain viewers as they progress, meaning viewers aren’t tuning out, they are tuning in and staying mid-plotline, something sort of unheard of in TV Land.
Nix admits that he succeeded largely because he didn’t know any better. “Burn Notice was the first television script I wrote so I kind of did it all wrong,” he says. Over time, he’s turned each perceived weakness into an advantage. That makes the show’s long term success something any struggling start-up, entrenched company, or even dispossessed secret agent could learn from. Here, Nix’s 4 lessons for making a big production efficiently, and making it work for the audience.
Westen doesn’t just beat up bad guys and use cool spy gadgets. He breaks the fourth wall constantly, explaining to viewers via voice-over how his fighting tactics or makeshift gear and traps actually work. Nix calls this “story math”--the theory that everything happening on-screen needs to be at least somewhat realistic and doable in order to keep viewers interested. Why? “One of my things in looking at spy fiction is that as much as I love James Bond as a certain point it is sort of distancing to watch someone who has all these skills that seem superhuman,” he says. When he made the show, he wanted his protagonist to be relatable. “The thing that sets you apart from Michael Westen isn’t that he’s a super hero. He’s just a guy who learned how to do a bunch of stuff and that’s knowledge that you can acquire.”
Early on, showing how stuff really worked seemed risky--it meant front loading scenes with theory, not action. But Nix realized that it also allowed viewers to look at traditional action sequences differently. “In the pilot, there is a scene where Michael fights a group of guys in the bathroom. In the voiceover is the fact that bathrooms are really great places to fight because there are a lot of hard surfaces to whack people against and he uses those hard surfaces in the scene,” he says. “For me, in writing that, you’ve seen people fight in various rooms before, but it make it possible to see that scene in a new way. You say, ‘The character made a choice to fight in the bathroom because it could work a certain way and this is how it would work.’” That helps film costs, too. Take the action sequence of lighting a fire: “From a practical standpoint, that is just props. A pack of cigarettes, some matches, some turpentine and there are your scenes,” he says. “It makes the show possible to make because you don’t have to constantly top yourself with incredibly action-tastic effects.”
“There is an odd phenomenon in television where the studio making your show is very concerned with syndication, and the network is very concerned with the initial airing and making sure people watch the next episode,” Nix says. “The best thing for a studio is a successful show that isn’t serialized at all. A network really wants a show heavily serialized so people have to watch it live on air.” That’s means he has two sets of bosses, but with different marching orders.
To satisfy everyone, Nix pulled out an old comic book trick, creating what he calls “self-contained serialized stories.” “Maybe the less flattering term is serialized but missable,” he says. Each episode has its own stand-alone caper that Westen has to solve independent of his long-running investigation into how he got burned. Like comics, that allows readers to skip an episode but still stay entertained. “The real challenge was basically making something really rewarding if you watched every episode but not alienating if you missed one,” he says. Keeping track of so many plot points, though, is tough, so he added recaps of what was happening in his voice-overs. After looking at viewer metrics, Nix realized that recaps helped people who tuned in late get caught up quickly. “We have to remind people, but what that did was make it easier for viewers to tune in halfway,” he says. That’s proven to be a ratings bonus for everyone.
Burn Notice only has five main characters--and that includes Westen’s mom, who doesn’t get out that much. To keep the show going, Nix has to play up the number of tricky situations his stars troubleshoot. “There are only so many times Michael and Fiona break up and get back together,” Nix says. “We wind up making sort of a mini-movie each week because they have to have something to do.”
But playing up spy scenarios means deep research, the kind needed to prove Westen’s field tactics really work. To do that, Nix retains a former corporate intelligence agent as a show consultant and taps into outside experts like retired SWAT officers, NASA engineers, even a pediatrician who knows a bit too much about non-lethal prescription overdoses. Soliciting so many expert opinions could get expensive, but Nix has found a way around that, too. “It’s called name checking,” He says. “I think if you asked most people would you rather have 100 bucks or be named after bad guy who gets stabbed in front of millions of people, they will take the stabbing. It’s cooler.
He trusts experts when they talk about why some classic spy tropes aren’t possible, too. For years, Nix has called out spec-ops clichés that don’t work in the interest of finding more creative solutions. For example, shooting a propane tank would only cause gas to leak out, not explode. You still need a nearby spark to ignite it. Crawling though ceiling ducts to sneak into a building would be a dumb move, too. You’d just get stuck. Taking the extra steps needed like lighting an aerosol spray near the gas canister beforehand, or pumping smoke into the ventilation system to flush out the bad guys instead, only add to each story. That, too, keeps viewers loyal. “I’ve found that we have a lot of fans that are engineers. The television audience is smarter than people give them credit for.”
The team shoots on location in Miami. “We shoot outside more than most shows partially because we don’t have the money for most sets,” Nix says. In most episodes, that means that the settings written up in L.A. don’t match many of the options for where action sequences could actually take place. Rather than waste time scouting more places, Nix simply reworks the script. “We can rewrite everything to fit what is actually Miami,” he says. “That is kind of dirty little secret of Burn Notice—a good third of writing is done in Miami while preparing for the episode.”
“That means you put Miami on screen and it looks great,” he says. Each season also looks current because it is. “At the end of the day we get something very grounded that feels like it takes place there rather than on a sound stage,” he adds. “You can back into an interesting look. It ends up being a nice marriage of creative and budgetary decisions.”