Burn Notice: A day on the set
by Allison Waldman, posted Jun 24th 2008 10:57AM
Miami in June is hot. Very hot. On the set of Burn Notice, however, everything is cool. In fact, when I arrive at the Coconut Grove studios where the USA spy drama is shot, I find myself smack dab in the middle of a full-fledged film studio.
The old convention center, where I remember going to an indoor flea market in the late 1970s, has been completely transformed. There are trailers, production offices, standing sets, all geared up and working to bring Burn Notice back for season two.
Gallery: Burn Notice-A Day on the Set
This is where the magic is made, and when you see what it really looks like up close and personal, the finished product that we enjoy on our TVs each week is even more remarkable. I mean, really, Michael Westen's loft is much more attractive on screen than in person. But more on that as we spend the day with Burn Notice.
Shooting in Miami
Would you believe Burn Notice was originally set in Newark? It's true. Jeff Frelich, executive producer, explained to us that Matt Nix, the creator, wanted Michael to come-to in New Jersey. "What Matt's conundrum was 'I want a guy to be trapped in an uncomfortable place,' how do you ever make Miami an uncomfortable place to be trapped?'"
Matt's answer included adding Michael's family to the mix, his mother and brother. "He is stuck in Miami not just because of the burn notice, but in his life," said Jeffrey Donovan, who stars as Michael Westen, super spy who's currently out of the biz. "He's been running away from who he is for so long and his family and now he's been thrust back into his family because of his work. Miami is Michael's Gilligan's Island and, if he ever gets off that island, then the show's over."
Burn Notice is the first TV production in South Florida since Miami Vice. Shows like CSI: Miami and Dexter come down for a few establishing shots each year, but they're not filmed in Miami. "We had a mandate from the network to shoot in Miami." But that doesn't mean Burn Notice is another Miami Vice, and that's on purpose. "Miami is really different now, than it was then," said Craig Siebels, set designer.
They work hard to show the new Miami; not so much the art deco stuff, and much more in the sun. They work hard and they work fast to find the right locations. "We have just seven days of prep work," he told us. That's per episode.
Having lived in Miami half of my life, believe me, it's a big place. We've seen Burn shoot in South Beach, Coral Gables, South Miami, Star Island, Bayshore Park, Bal Harbor -- all over. And as Siebels explained, the Burn Notice writers don't go to most locations more than once. Great looking buildings, unusual locations where Michael and Fi and Sam set up a meeting or intercept a bad guy -- those sites take hours to find, and in some instances, the production finds the location first and then writes the scene to fit the spot. That kind of hand-in-glove creativity imbues Burn Notice on every level.
The Look of Burn Notice
The production design is very distinctive. Michael warehouse loft, for example, is unlike any other set you'll see on TV today. It looks industrial and cool when you're watching it on TV. Up close, it's ugly. The furniture is all garage sale leftovers and flea market finds, but nothing's been remade or cleaned up. The kitchen is gross. Seriously. If there were real food there it would like be accompanied by Palmetto bugs and roaches. It's positively amazing to me that the bench where Sam (Bruce Campbell) opened a bucket of KFC and took a bite in an episode last season doesn't photograph as disgusting as it truly is. The point of all this is that Michael is unconcerned with the ambiance. The loft is a place to sleep and a private lab to do his work; he's not having guests over for tea.
The entire loft is an illusion of cool. That's the genius of the lighting and cinematography. The high ceilings and giant fan, the leftover props from the nightclub downstairs, add to the funky look. However, in case you wonder about reality, there are no closets and no bathrooms. We never did get a straight answer about how Michael showers and where he keeps those Armani suits.
Madeline's house is also a standing set, as well as the Carlito Cafe -- a watering hole they've used a few times. Other sets are built as needed. As prop man Charlie Guanci, Jr., who grew up in Miami explained, Burn Notice is setting its own style, not echoing Vice. "It's just a cycle, but I find that it's come a long way. I mean, that whole style of Miami Vice and a trend that it created. Burn Notice is re-inventing that Miami look."
Weapons and the MacGyver Factor
When you're talking to Charlie "props," the subject invariably turns to the many guns and weapons Michael and Fiona handle. Gabrielle Anwar, who plays Fi, a former IRA terrorist and Michael's ex-girlfriend, acting with guns is a revelation. "I've actually been fortunate enough to go to this huge warehouse in Los Angeles. It's very exciting. Next time I go I'm going to take a shopping cart and fill it with all the fun stuff. There's a shooting room there, so I shot just about every weapon. Because I'm a lightweight, I got blown back more than a few times. It's a very empowering experience to be wielding a weapon and I am by nature a pacifist. So if I can get turned on by it, I'm a little terrified what really happens in the military."
And then there are the fantastic creations that Michael uses to spy on people, defend himself, or get out of a tight squeeze. Those are MacGyver moments to me, but I learned that the Burn Notice stuff is far more sophisticated. It's all real. However, to make sure nobody can duplicate how to make a bomb or re-do a cell phone to become a listening device, they always leave out a step that's integral to making it work.
From an acting point of view, Charlie choreographs the moves for Jeffrey. "I'll show him how to take apart something, build something, do this, do that. I'll do it once and he comes right in and carbon copies me. Everything that we've done, that you've seen, I have researched it (along with the writers), I've gotten the components, I've built it, tested it, and I do a dry run for the actor. He watches and he comes right in and he does it verbatim. And it's just amazing."
Bond, Bourne and Burn
One of the things that's unique about Burn Notice is the action. Think James Bond, Jason Bourne; that's what they're aspiring to. According to stunt coordinator, Artie Malesci, "There is a definite platform for our action sequences. Originally, it wasn't an action show at all. They thought I might work one day a week. Well, it turned out a little different, and it keeps getting better and better for me, from car chases to boats and bigger explosions. It's very interesting, because Jeff is very good in his own respect. He's an athlete and a martial artist, so when we put our heads together we come up with pretty cool stuff."
One of the most cool items in the Burn Notice garage is the vintage black Dodge Charger. Actually, they have two. There are also a couple of 2008 Cadillacs and some other sedans.
When it comes to action, though, the real star isn't the transportation or the props or the production: it's Jeffrey Donovan. He pulls it all off with ease, or so it seems. With modesty, Jeffrey explained, "No one has any idea how hard this job is; they don't understand how dedicated I am, or any of these actors are, to this job. The irony is that it looks easy and it's the hardest job I've ever done."
Preview of coming attractions
Seeing where Burn Notice is shot and meeting the stars was like glimpsing behind the curtain. You really get an appreciation for the skill and technique that all these professionals bring to their work. The finished programs are the result of hours and hours of pre-production, filming and editing. That point was never more evident than when we were escorted to the production offices for a ten-minute clip from the second season.
Without giving too much away, the scenes we saw have Michael doing some breaking and entering, using some fantastic high-end gear and risking getting caught in a most dangerous situation. It was edge-of-your-seat stuff. When the preview was over, my appetite was whetted for more. Then there's the addition of Tricia Helfer as Carla to the cast; she's after Michael. She may be the one who burned him, but then again, we thought last season Richard Schiff's character, Phillip, was the burner. Then he was killed, so all bets are off.
On the family front, they didn't want us to know too much of what was in store for Madeline, Nate and Michael, but the Westens could be seeking the services of a family therapist. Sharon Gless was quite pleased with the scenes to come, including interaction with Gabrielle and Bruce. In time, all the characters will be entwined, especially since Michael's not getting out of Miami any time soon.
Like all of you, I'm anxious for more information. The answers will begin unfolding on USA on July 10, 10 PM (ET) with the second season premiere of Burn Notice.
NOTE: A note of thanks to the welcoming and generous production staff, cast and media relations for Burn Notice.