Sometimes I exaggerate.
We’re looking for a box. When I contacted Matt Nix, the creator and executive producer of Burn Notice, hoping to get insight into the secret to his massively successful hit USA Network series, Nix was game.
However, Nix didn’t want to just talk about the adventures of burned super- spy Michael Westen, he had a better idea. And that’s how I ended up sitting beside Nix in a nondescript sedan, scoping out the fenced perimeter of an intimidating industrial fortress tucked deep within the Angeles National Forest. As Nix focused a pair of binoculars at the razor-wire fence, I could almost picture a flashy chyron popping up below me, announcing my part in this unusual story: “Client: JOURNALIST.” This would be an interview I would remember for a very long time …
Assuming I could survive it.
Bursting onto the scene in the summer of 2007, Burn Notice instantly leapt to the top of the charts, becoming one of the top-ranked scripted series on basic cable. A snarky, clever take on the spy genre, the series follows Michael Westen (played by Jeffrey Donovan), a government operative who mysteriously finds he’s been fired, spy-style. Thanks to this “burn notice,” Westen suddenly finds himself stuck in Miami with “no cash, no credit, no job history,” desperately trying to discover the forces behind his sudden termination.
In order to keep his spy-senses sharp, and his bank account alive, Westen freelances as a private investigator. Through reconnecting with his family and friends—mother Madeline (Sharon Gless), ex-love Fiona (Gabrielle Anwar), and best bud/babysitter Sam (Bruce Campbell)—he pieces together clues from his past life and grapples with the challenges of his new identity.
Nix got his start writing features, but it was an unlikely friendship with Michael Wilson, a man who used to work in private intelligence, that led to the creation of Burn Notice. “It’s funny. The first voiceover I did [for Burn Notice] said that spies do a lot of waiting around.” Nix says this while handing me the binoculars, gesturing to the east side of the fence. I look as he sips coffee from a thermos. “If you work in private intelligence, you spend a lot of time in foreign hotel rooms, and you generally don’t go out and make friends in this foreign country because you deal in sensitive information, and anybody you meet … ” Nix chuckles. “There’s just a lot of reasons to stay in your hotel room.” Something catches Nix’s eye, and he jots something down in a notebook on his lap. I refocus the binoculars, but all I can see is razor-sharp barbed wire.
Nix goes on, “So what do they do? They read. Or they watch short films on the Internet, apparently.” That’s right. Wilson stumbled upon a sci-fi short film that Nix did on the Internet and enjoyed it so much he contacted Nix. Out of this communication, a friendship developed, and at some point Nix asked what Wilson did for a living. “He said he was a consultant for a company that did private intelligence work, and I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I should do a series based on some sort of intelligence person who does private intelligence work.’”
USA snapped up the idea, but Burn Notice didn’t begin as the vibrant, beach-soaked, color-saturated action-comedy that now pulls in big numbers each week. “I’d set the show in Newark, and it was really dark and really gritty,” Nix reveals. When USA read the pilot, their response was, “We really like this. But it’s too dark. Maybe if you set it in a lighter place, like Miami?” Nix wasn’t on board. “I came out and said, ‘No, no. It has to be in New Jersey. Its roots are in Newark. It really ought to be in Newark.’ And [USA] said, ‘All right, all right.’ Then I did all their notes and I gave it back to them, and they were like, ‘Wow, we really like it now! Except what if it were in, like, Miami or something?’ And I said, ‘No, no. It really needs to be in Newark. I really think that’s important.’ I did other notes, and they really liked those notes, but they said, ‘This is fantastic! It’s. Set. In. Miami.’ And I said, ‘Right you are, sir!’”
Although Nix wasn’t a fan of transplanting his show from the mean streets of Jersey to the sandy beaches of Florida, he soon came to love the idea. “What I realized was that I was really writing a fish-in-water story. Michael Westen was a dark fellow with a murky past, and I’d put him in a murky, dark place. Then, when I started working on drafts where he was in Miami, the humorous elements just popped. The contrasts were better. You know, here’s this guy who doesn’t fit in with his surroundings. It was actually a really good lesson for me, and I called USA and I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to set it in Miami, but … is it okay if he never wears a bathing suit? Like, can I make him a not-Miami guy in Miami?’ And they said, ‘Yes.’”
And with this, Nix pops open the sedan door, grabs a duffel bag from the backseat, and says, “Come on. It’s time.”
BREAKING (& ENTERING) STORIES
Nix walks confidently, even calmly, up toward the 10-foot-high chain-link barrier that surrounds the windowless building. My nerves are getting to me. I’d assumed this whole, “I’ll show you how we make Burn Notice” was just a stunt, a joke, but when Nix pulls out a large pair of garden shears and starts snapping through the chain-link, I realize this is for real.
“To be honest, I still find myself pretty curious about how other people run their writers rooms because I never worked a day in television before being basically put in charge of Burn Notice.” Less than a minute later, the tension of the fence strains, allowing Nix to curl back an opening large enough for us to slip through. We’re inside the compound.
From this side of the fence, our sedan seems very far away, discreetly parked in the bushes down the dirt road, and I wonder aloud if breaking episode stories for Burn Notice is as easy as breaking into this unidentified compound. Unfazed, Nix talks me through it. “Usually, someone has an idea for an episode and they’ll talk to me about it.” Nix and the other writer then figure out what direction works best for the series, and once the concept has been fleshed out, the writer brings it into the room. “We really talk about how the baby has to have enough feathers on it so that it can fly when it’s pushed out of the nest. Otherwise, it just falls to the ground and dies. So, once the ideas have enough feathers, they come into the room and then we all will talk through the episode together, pitching ideas for what should happen at any one point.”
Following Nix’s lead, I position my back against a gray brick wall in the blind spot of a swiveling security camera. As Nix begins ruffling through the black duffel bag, he chats breezily, “The thing we talk about all the time is the fact that Westen needs to solve problems in a spy way. We’re using spy technique to solve problems. And spy technique has to be demanded by situations. If we present Westen with a situation that’s really best dealt with by a cop, then Westen’s answer to the problem should be, ‘You really need to call the police.’ And sometimes we’ll have him say that. If it’s something best dealt with by somebody who can crack heads, then he really ought to crack heads, and that’s not what the show is. So, we really have to engineer problems each episode so that it demands the use of spy craft.”
Nix punctuates this last point by taking an old cell phone and skillfully attaching it to several sticks of dynamite with duct tape. To the untrained eye, this contraption looks a lot like a bomb. To the trained eye, it actually is a bomb. Nix just smiles and refers to the device in his hands as “a contingency plan.”
Then he positions the contraption on the wall, adding, “It’s funny. It’s sort of a breezy show. The characters banter a lot. But because we’re not all Michael Westens, people don’t think about all the math that goes into working out one of these plots. It takes a lot of work.”
Nix and I are now inside the unmarked building, navigating a series of narrow, winding hallways, and I can almost hear Michael Westen underscoring our felony act with an ironic, dry-as-a-bone voiceover. These voiceovers have become one of Burn Notice’s iconic bits, and it turns out they were actually inspired by Wilson. Throughout their friendship, Wilson would constantly give Nix advice that he couldn’t imagine using in practical, everyday living. “He’d say something like, ‘When you’re loading a clip for an automatic weapon, you really don’t want to use all the same ammunition. You should always throw a tracer round in at the bottom so you can hear when you’re running low on ammo.’ And I’d go, ‘Ohhhkay, I’ll remember that when I’m loading the automatic weapon.’ That’s the sort of thing I find fascinating.”
Wilson acts as a consulting producer for the series, and Nix and his writers will go to him for authentic spy insight. For instance, in the eighth episode of the second season, Nix had Westen going through a target’s trash. He wanted to indicate that the target was deliberately destroying documents in some way other than shredding. “That’s too commonplace. What’s something that would indicate to me that the target is someone trained in getting rid of documents? That feels not too high-tech? Not zapping it with a laser, but not too obvious. It’s a very delicate thing. What would be unusual enough to indicate expertise, but not so unusual that it just gives away the store? Anybody could look at the trash and say, ‘It’s a laser, obviously.’”
In this case, it was laundry blueing. It’s easily accessible, inexpensive, and people use it when bleaching clothes. When Wilson suggested this, Nix knew he had his solution: “If you want to ruin documents, laundry blueing is a great way to do it. And to the untrained eye, no one would think anybody would put laundry blueing in their trash.”
We turn a corner and Nix approaches a locked steel door with a logo that reveals we’ve just broken into the office of a major defense contractor. More household tools are removed from the duffel bag, and in no time Nix has picked the lock and we’re standing inside a large room stacked with file boxes. He begins searching through them. Nix may be full of surprises, but I have one of my own.
“I have spies in your organization,” I announce, “And I’d like you to tell me about ‘The Sidle Sheet.’”
Nix shoots me a look and laughs, “Ah, yes, the ‘Sidle.’” He spills, “What do spies do? They’re generally getting information in one form or another they ought not to have. They’re stealing that information, or they’re seducing someone to get that information. When we were first working on the show, we would say, ‘Okay, so Westen’s going to sidle up to this guy pretending to be X, or he’ll sidle up to this guy pretending to be Y.’
Then, over time, sidle stopped being a verb and became a noun. And the ‘Sidle’ of the episode became the role Westen plays in the episode. “So, usually we have some sense of what the information is that we want, right? Then we’ll think, ‘Well, who is the person who the bad guy would feel most comfortable giving that information to? Or, under what circumstance would the bad guy feel like it’s the most reasonable thing in the world to give away your bank-account numbers?!’ So usually we reverse-engineer the Sidle from the situation. But we realized it’s a real challenge for costume people and props people who are dealing with accessories, watches and guns. We have our main character playing sometimes multiple characters in an episode. Well, he needs a costume for all of those— different jewelry, different watch, a different everything. We realized we needed to start describing who Westen was in an episode, or who Fiona was in an episode, or Sam. We had to start describing [their Sidles] as if they were separate characters. That’s the origin of the ‘Sidle Sheet.’”
With Nix letting me in on his writer secrets, I’m confident I’ve sidled up to the right showrunner. At last, Nix finds the box we are searching for, and he pulls it from the stack and sets it by my feet. Then, suddenly, a piercing alarm sounds and Matt Nix pulls a snubnose revolver from his jacket and presses the cold barrel against my forehead.
THE FOURTH-ACT RAT FUCK
A dozen uniformed guards stream into the room, weapons drawn. Nix keeps his gun trained on me and joins them. “Here he is. Caught him breaking in.” I look down and see the file box Nix had set by my feet. I raise my hands in surrender. Things don’t look good.
As Nix cooly hands some CIA credentials to the head operative, he says to me, “I was the first person to start using the term ‘rat fuck’ on the show. It was actually a term coined by Richard Nixon’s campaign team. They would all brag about rat fucking rival candidates, and there was a particular flavor to that.”
Nix uses the term to describe the perfect climax for an episode of Burn Notice. He explains, “In the fourth act, it’s not satisfying if we solve the client’s problem by letting a murderer go. If someone says to Westen, ‘Someone killed my wife and stole my house,’ we can’t, at the end of the episode, have him say, ‘You got your house back!’ Because now that bad guy is going away to do it again.”
It’s a good point, but Westen and his team aren’t cops. They can’t just arrest bad guys, so there has to be a way to screw villains over without the law getting involved. Nix points out that comeuppance is even more complicated than it seems because, “It’s not as satisfying if we solve the client’s problem but the bad guy never realizes he’s been bested. So, how do you deal with getting rid of the bad guy but also make sure the bad guy knows what happened to him? And how do you solve the client’s problem at the same time? Those two scenes can’t be too far apart from each other or you’ll end up with two climaxes. There’s the, ‘Congratulations, Client, you’re all fine.’ Then there’s the, ‘Bad Guy, you’ve been bested!’ You can’t really separate those, so we spend a lot of time thinking about how do we bring all of these moments that are going to create that sense of satisfaction and resolution together?”
The primary operative storms back into the room shaking Nix’s CIA credentials. Apparently they were only props. But Nix confidently assures the guard, “This is a mistake. I’ll make a call.”
As he fishes into his jacket for his phone, Nix turns to me to finish explaining the fourth-act rat fuck, “So, the shorthand for it typically would be one scene in which the client’s problem is solved, the bad guy realizes he’s been bested, Westen’s trail is somehow cleared (so we don’t have the cops showing up for him or bad guys chasing him forever), and the bad guy’s put out of commission.”
Nix has found his phone and nods at me as he dials a number and hits “send.” The explosion that follows is gigantic, an epic ball of flame that rocks the entire building off its foundation, sending the bewildered operatives diving for cover. Nix grabs the file box by my feet and starts to run, ducking through a huge hole that’s now appeared in the brick wall. I follow.
We race back to the sedan, leaving behind us chaos and more explosions. A thick column of black smoke can be seen rising from the remnants of the building. Nix throws the file box in the backseat, guns the engine, and we skid away. “When you want to pretend to hold someone hostage, you get the best performance by not telling your hostage that you’re pretending,” he explains. Once we’re clear of the building, I look to the backseat: “So … what’s in the box?”
Matt Nix adjusts the rearview mirror and smiles, “Season three.”
© Aaron Ginsburg
SPY GAMES - Originally published in Script Magazine’s January/February Issue