Just the FAQs: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About 'Burn Notice'
by Kim Potts, posted Nov 11th 2010 1:40PM
While that "What Is Burn Notice?" skit on 'Saturday Night Live' last season was amusing, the USA show's enduring popularity proves that a whole lot of people know exactly what the show is: a fun, funny, fast-paced, gorgeously shot, tightly-written spy drama with a fantastic lead in Jeffrey Donovan as burned spy Michael Westen and a rich supporting cast made up of 'Evil Dead' fan favorite Bruce Campbell as Michael's retired Navy Seal pal Sam, 'Scent of a Woman' star Gabrielle Anwar as the gun-running, tough-chick-with-a-heart Fiona (Michael's love interest) and Emmy-winning TV vet Sharon Gless as Michael's mama, the equally tough and crafty Maddie.
Add in a slew of great guest stars (Burt Reynolds, John Mahoney, Tricia Helfer, Tim Matheson, Lucy Lawless, Robert Patrick and Garret Dillahunt, to name a few), newbie cast member Coby Bell as burned spy Jesse, and the bold, breezy Miami setting, and it's really no surprise that 'Burn Notice' is not only among the top-rated shows on cable, but it has also drawn more viewers than the network shows that air in its timeslot.
With the show kicking off the second half of its fourth season tonight (10PM ET), TV Squad talked to 'Burn Notice' creator Matt Nix and series co-star Bruce Campbell about what's ahead for the rest of the season, what we can expect to see in Campbell's upcoming 'Burn Notice' prequel, where Michael Westen and company almost called home (hint: Campbell's lady-wooin' Sam Axe might have been Snookin' for love), all that yogurt and how, when someone on 'Burn Notice' crashes a car, the car really gets crashed.
One bit of warning for those who plan on jumping into 'Burn Notice,' but haven't yet: There be spoilers ahead. Lots of spoilers.
When the show started, Michael's goal was clear and narrow: find out who burned him and get back in ... he knows who burned him, but, ultimately, is his goal still to get back to the spy game?
After all, he's not only grown close to his mother again, but there's also his, um, complicated relationship with Fiona, his friendship with Sam, and the fact that he's helping a lot of people -- and getting to see the immediate results of helping them -- doing his freelance thing in Miami. So, does Michael really want to leave all that at this point?
Said Nix: "Well, I mean, I think we sort of see it in terms of seasonal goals. The first season was 'What is the name of the person who burned me?' So the first season was about that. Well, he finds that out in the first season. The name of the person who burned him is a guy named Phillip Cowan, and he's dead, but he's connected to other people.
"And then in the second season, the question was sort of 'Who are these people, and what do they want? Why did they do this to me?' And that's when you meet Carla's character, and she makes it clear they want him to help them with some things, right? And so you get a sense of who these people are and what they want.
"And then in the third season, it's kind of like, 'OK, now that I know who these people are and what they want, what am I going to do about it?' And that's a whole different question. And also, 'What does it mean if I can get them off my back?'
"And (now, in) the fourth season, (Michael) sort of engages with that question in a new way, like, 'OK, now that I have a deeper understanding of who these people are, what they want, what they're doing, can I work with them?' So that's another question ... one of the things about being burned is, it's not a light switch. You can't ... somebody has gone to the trouble of making Michael out to be the worst, you know, giving him Simon's file. And that was the other thing in season 3. The other question we answered there was, 'Michael has been accused of doing all these things. These things happened. Someone had to do them, right?'
Someone had to do them, and there's this guy, Simon. What does that mean? If someone tells everyone you know that you're a murderer and a thief, well, that's a pretty simple thing to do, to put that out there. It's a much harder thing to do to put that genie back in the bottle. It's not like if Michael found the person who burned him, then like he could just say, 'Un-burn me,' and that would be done.
"We liken it to something off-color that I don't want to tell you. (Laughing). Actually, let me put it this way. If someone distributed pictures of you -- like fake pictures of you, in a compromising sexual position, to everyone you've ever known, you know, and they were pictures of you doing all sorts of terrible things, well, it's a lot harder to go around and convince people, 'No, the pictures were fake. I know you saw them. I know it looked very compelling, but you shouldn't believe that about me.' It's much easier for people to believe that the pictures were true and that you're now lying."
But does he want to be a spy guy again?
Nix replied, "Hmmm ... Maybe you should watch the second half of the season."
Speaking of ... what is on tap for season 4.5?
"Basically, Michael had this new relationship with the folks that burned him, with Vaughn ... and now, he found out that John Barrett had this list of people that burned him, the people involved in that organization," Nix explained. "What do you do with that? Who do you get that to? You can't just get on the phone and call around, you know what I mean? He can't go back to the people that burned him and say, 'Hey, I found this thing ...' Obviously, they're going to want that. So he now has this incredibly dangerous piece of information, and knowing what to do with that incredibly dangerous piece of information, basically, is the focus.
"Like, now you've kind of got what you want. You got the thing that will put a knife in the heart of the people that destroyed your life, but what do you do with it? How do you play that card? And how do you play that card when you know that everybody in that world will want that card? The CIA's going to want that card, the people that burned Michael are going to want that card, various and sundry bad guys are going to want that card, any enemy of Michael is going to want that card, any friend of Michael is going to want that card ... how do you play it? So, that's the focus of the second half of the season, and it's a tricky thing, even for Michael."
What's the plan for Jesse, across the second half of season four? Can we trust him at this point? Can Michael trust him? He's always been a stand up guy, but he's also very angry, understandably, about what was done to him, and Michael and the gang's role in it.
"Well, I think that at the end of the day, Jesse made a choice to save a guy that he didn't particularly want to save," Nix said. "And now that's ... the other thing in the second half of the season is Jesse confronting, in a certain sense, the reality that is true for Sam and Fiona and Madeline, as well, which is that Michael's kind of betrayed all of them, right? Like, he left Fiona out of nowhere and totally bailed out on a relationship. I should say Sam actually betrayed Michael in that Sam was informing on him for the FBI, (but) he was out of communication with his mother for many years.
"He has a troubled relationship with everybody, and there's been a lot to forgive on all sides. And yet, that process of deciding that the relationship is more important than whatever has transpired in the relationship, and that they're going to be comrades and fight alongside each other and support each other's cause despite that, that is the stuff of his relationship with Madeline and Fiona and Sam.
"And so the challenge for Jesse in the second half of the season is, how does he feel about that? Is he down with that? Is that something that -- can he have that same kind of relationship that they all have? And that kind of thing doesn't come for free. The kind of dedication that that team has for each other, it's not free. Everybody's paid a price for it, and Jesse has to decide whether he's willing to pay that price."
What's going to happen in Michael's relationship with his mom? He has a lot of anger about his childhood, specifically about his abusive father, so much so that he didn't attend his dad's funeral. But why isn't he angry at Maddie? Why isn't he angry about the fact that she stayed with his father through all his abuse?
"That is something that we're looking at exploring in greater detail as we move forward," Nix confirmed, and he'll have plenty of time to do so, since 'Burn Notice' has been renewed for a fifth and sixth season. "That is a theme that we'll be exploring next season. It's funny; I didn't even think about it when we were first putting together the series, but the issue of Michael's dad not being around, I think people were sort of conditioned by 'Alias' and (other shows) to believe that having a dead father in a spy show means that the father is hiding someplace.
"And the thing that I have kept saying over and over is, espionage is not a genetic condition. We have this kind of idea, we have this cultural idea, that it is, you know, but it isn't. And I think it's much more interesting to say ... I mean, the truth is, actually, the child of a spy is not growing up in an environment that makes spies.
"I think one of the aspects of that is Michael has kind of come to realize, through hanging out with his mom and being back home, that on the one hand, he might be upset with his mom for these things; on the other hand, he feels he's doing good in the world. And he wouldn't be the man he is were it not for the background that he had.
"He now sees in his mother a lot of the things that he is. You know what I mean? Like he ... it's interesting ... She's a good liar. She's sort of manipulative. And she has a moral compass inside it all. And so she was much younger when all of this went down, and to what extent ... who does he want to be, is kind of the question. Does he wish that he wasn't Michael Westen? Well, on some level, maybe, but certainly a lot of people have benefited from the fact that he is Michael Westen, so how sad can he be about it?"
At Comic-Con in San Diego, USA announced a 'Burn Notice' prequel movie, revolving around Bruce Campbell's Sam Axe character. What's the storyline?
"It's just the most awesome thing ever," said the man himself, Bruce Campbell. "You know, it's a way to sort of flesh out the show. You can do the same thing conceivably with Gabrielle's character, with Fiona. So it's just a way of kind of expanding the 'Burn Notice' family, and it's (about) Sam's last mission. It's how Sam wound up in Miami, several years ago. So I've got to stand up straighter, lose a little weight, you know, all that good stuff."
Fan favorite Campbell, who's also a producer on the movie, said the prequel flick is scheduled to air before 'Burn Notice's' fifth season premieres, and that the movie will begin shooting in January in Bogata.
"That's where it takes place, because Sam used to work with the CIA and Navy Seals, so he was always doing weird stuff. So Bogata was always a hotbed of activity," Campbell explained. "It should be a fun little story. (Sam and company) help out, they help the helpless, sort of a David and Goliath story."
Matt Nix is writing the script for the movie, and Campbell hinted that there may be a big name attached to direct the TV movie: "We might get a very interesting director, but I can't say anything right now."
Not even a hint?
"No, I can't. No, I would get in horrible trouble if it didn't come to pass."
Fair enough, Mr. Campbell.
Is it true 'Burn Notice' was originally going to be set in New Jersey? Really, Michael Westen at the Jersey Shore?
Well, not at the Jersey Shore, but it's true that when Matt Nix initially conceived the show, Michael was going to be a Joisey guy.
"I was sort of interested in ... the spy as person. You know, Michael doesn't run around doing a whole lot of international spy things. He's stuck in Miami. So I was more interested in spy technique and who is this guy, and, you know, what sort of person becomes a spy and where do the skills come from and that kind of thing," Nix explained.
"So in my research, what I discovered was, and in talking to our kind of consultant, Michael Wilson, it was kind of like, well, you know, spies, if you decide to enter a business where you can't trust anyone ever, it's not ... it's a pretty idiosyncratic job. A lot of these people come from rough backgrounds. So my original thought was, 'Oh, let's put him in a rough environment.' And you're pitching to multiple networks, so you don't know where you're going to land, what the flavor of that network will be. So my thought was to set it in Newark, with the idea that, you know, that's a sort of ... we know it culturally as a rough place, and people sort of get, 'Oh, this rough guy comes from this rough place.'
"And then through a series of events, some of them having to do with USA saying, 'We don't really do shows in Newark,' and some of them having to do with realizing that, when I was writing the script, it was sort of lighter. It was kind of funnier than was really suggested by my proposed environment. So when USA wanted it in Miami, I initially resisted. And then I was like, 'Oh, well it actually kind of works better.' So that was how it went."
Now, Miami really kind of feels like a supporting character on the show, and it makes for a very pretty background, but filming there, in August, especially since a lot of the characters are frequently in suits ... any special accommodations that have to be made?
Bruce Campbell: "Oh, it is absolutely a character in the show. And, you know, the state of Florida should be cutting us a check every week for amazing PR, because we shoot in the coolest clubs, the fanciest hotels. We also shoot in the crappiest alleys and abandoned buildings, but I'll leave that part out.
"But, you know, we really do sell the exotic nature of the city, because it's a crazy, off-the-hook kind of city, and we get the run of the place, which is great, because we're really ... 'The Glades' (recently) came in, so there's really only two games in town, and we were the only game for about three years."
Still, Miami ... August ...
"Yeah, it's an element. It becomes a factor that you have to be aware of. And with my costumes, we've actually had to go to all kinds of different fabric to experiment with what doesn't sweat off of me," Campbell said. "Because I used to go through, you know, four shirts a day. But then we discovered all that wick-away material that you can get, so I've been wearing an internal wick-away material, which helps stop the onslaught against my shirt. And we've actually found shirt material and pants material that wicks away before I can sweat through it. It took us about three years to figure this out, and so now we kind of get it, what materials work and which ones don't. And, you know, I have to have a hair dryer standing by just because when my head starts to sweat, it's all over.
"So it's definitely a factor. You know, it rains about once a day during that particular part of the year, during the rainy season. But I have to say as a result, you know, we have backgrounds where the clouds are just spectacular, because Miami has these nuclear clouds. They look like bombs going off, because you're on a peninsula in the ocean. And so, you know, Miami, it's really bold, it's really striking, and the weather can be, like right after a rainstorm, when the sun comes out, it can be really spectacular. So we sort of suffer through it and wait for it to pass and start shooting again."
Were any of the roles particularly difficult to cast? It's really tough to imagine anyone else being able to do everything Jeffrey Donovan does as Michael.
"Yeah, with Jeffrey, that was a big search, but once he came in ... you know, I heard him read, it's -- many people have commented that we have sort of similar, and we have commented to each other many times -- we have similar ways of speaking, similar vocal inflections and stuff, so it was a good match of actor to voice of writer," Nix said.
"But I think the thing that Jeffrey does ... if you look at Jeffrey's career before 'Burn Notice,' it was this odd flipping back and forth of good guys and bad guys. And the thing about Jeffrey is, he's kind of uniquely well-suited to that. I think when people look at him, they can't quite decide as an actor is he a good guy or a bad guy, and so he's really well-suited. And he plays a really good good guy and a really good bad guy. So the fact that he's on a show where, on a week-to-week basis, he is typically playing a good guy who pretends to be a bad guy for most of the episode ... that's a really unusual thing. I mean, I can't think of another show that does it, right?
"So like, I mean, oftentimes on 'Burn Notice,' you know, his plan almost always involves some version of going and making friends with the villain, and often proposing plans for the villain that are far more hard-core than anything the villain was thinking about doing. Sort of like, 'Hey, great! Let's be friends. You want me to help you move your cocaine? Let's kill a client.' Like that kind of thing. And he's really good at that. He also has a certain sensitivity and a way of connecting with people that really suits the kind of good guy half of the role. So I think we were really lucky there."
The Michael voice-overs are a fun, and informative, part of the show. What was the idea behind using them in every episode?
The voice-overs, which have also been a clever way to deal with exposition and what could otherwise be some pretty dry spy-guy material, are a very personal, Matt Nix touch.
"It's not an accident that my show has voiceovers," he laughed. "Like, if you go to dinner with me, that's all I want to talk about. Not necessarily spy versions of that, but like, I just, all my life, since I was a little kid, I've just been sort of a little machine that finds out interesting things that are kind of, 'Oh, this is cool! This is surprising!' You know? And I want to tell everybody about it. So if you don't like that, you don't hang around me, because that's, like, what I do all day.
"And so for me ... I think that there's a lot of stuff that's really interesting and counterintuitive about spies. People have a lot of assumptions about how that kind of thing works, and I think it's really interesting to learn, you know, that actually, if you -- I mean, we've never actually used it, but it was one of the things that I was going to use in the pilot -- if you slap a clip into a gun the way that people do it in the movies all the time, like really hard, a lot of times you'll bend the flanges on the top of the clip so that you've effectively rendered your weapon useless by doing this bad-a** move that people always do on TV. The weapon will no longer feed bullets. I think that's fascinating.
"I guess on a broader level for the show, (the voice-overs) do two things: One, it allows us to take something that you've seen a million times, like a guy slaps a clip into a gun. It is not hard to do. It is not expensive. You've seen it a million times, right? But that, in combination with a voice-over about how that's a stupid thing to do, followed by someone trying to shoot their gun and not being able to ... suddenly we've got this kind of cool bit of action that we wouldn't be able to do if two characters had to say, 'Why is your gun jamming?'/'Well, my gun is jamming, because I just jammed this clip in and the flanges bent.'
"It means that we're able to, in a cable show, effectively double or triple the amount of cool action stuff that we can do, because we don't just, like suddenly build an explosive device. It's not magic. We're explaining how to do it. So we get a cool scene out of that."
The yogurt ... so much yogurt. Are the actors really eating all that yogurt?
Yes, they are. Nix explained that the 'Burn Notice' gang's go-to snack is an authentic spy touch; because spies often have to sit on long stake-outs, they need snacks that are portable. Yogurt's also healthy, making it the perfect nosh, and one of the few things Michael keeps stocked in his fridge.
And yes, unlike the fake beer and mojitos he downs -- "Gone are the days of actors actually drinking on the set," Campbell said, noting that Sam's beer bottles are usually brown or green to disguise the fact that they're holding water -- Campbell and and his co-stars actually eat lots of yogurt, though he's trying to introduce new foods to their selection of on-screen munchies.
"I'm slowly trying to introduce other food into the fridge," he said. "I'm lobbying for hard-boiled eggs, and we've always got nuts around now. And pickles. Sometimes we've got some pickles in there ... all of those items are things you can kind of leave in there a while, and it's OK."
What's the secret to the show's success, the thing that sets it apart from other dramas, other spy shows?
Campbell had the best explanation for what makes 'Burn Notice' such a standout, and it's the reason he signed on to do another TV show after 'Xena,' 'Hercules,' 'The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.' and 'Jack of All Trades.'
"It was what the show was not. It was not a doctor show. It was not a lawyer show. And it was not a cop show," Campbell said. "And I'm always a big fan of irreverent material, and my character's, you know, pretty irreverent, and I get to play my age now. (Sam) is a washed up, retired Navy Seal ... when I did the pilot, I was exactly the age that it said in the script. And that's great.
"I like the fact that all the characters are kind of ... they're kind of damaged goods. You know, they all have a past, and, Michael Westen's done some questionable things. Sam Axe has definitely done some questionable things. You know, when he's not drinking, he's trying to find a rich Miami woman. I love that. I've met a bunch of these retired Navy Seal guys, and they just want to have a good time now. They're not pushing out 200 sit-ups a day or push-ups a day. These guys are sitting back with their beer talking about the good old days. And so I thought it was very realistic.
"I also liked the fact that with Michael Westen, when he's not trying to save the world, he's helping his mom fix garbage disposals. You know, it really grounds it. You've got an earthy person like Sharon Gless, who just is like -- she just anchors the thing in her own kind of reality. And then you've got Gabrielle's character, you know, Fiona, who's crazy. She'll blow anything up, blow anybody up.
"And I really am amused by how unsanitary the thing is. You know, his mother chain smokes. If this was a ... thank God for cable, because if this was network, they'd say, 'Oh! Sam, you can't drink as much, and I don't think Madeline should smoke as much.' And it wouldn't be the same show. I think people can relate to these characters because, yeah, the guy's a spy, but he also is just as vulnerable as the average man. So it's nice to be a part of it. And Matt Nix is a very smart, young showrunner, so we can make him work hard for years."
The show has had great guest stars from the beginning, including, in the first half of season four, Burt Reynolds. Do stars come to the show, at this point, wanting to make guest appearances?
Matt Nix: "Yes. I mean, actually, in a roundabout way, Burt Reynolds was one of them. You know, he lives in Florida, people know him. And a lot of times, it's sort of like a back-and-forth thing. And it actually really matters if people are aware of the show. So Richard Kind, for instance, who plays Marv, he comes back in the second half of (season 4). And he was a guy who we realized over the course of discussing things was aware of the show, was a fan of the show, understood the show. And that's really great for a character like that, because he's going to get that his character is supposed to be funny, but funny with a particular tone, funny real, not funny playing jokes, but funny in a way where if he suddenly turned, like if he needed to be hardcore later, he's totally compatible with that. So that's really great.
"So I'd say two things: One, the world of cable has changed a little bit since we started. Right now, cable shows are perceived as ... people are just much more aware of cable shows, and there's less of a, like, 'Oh, well, it's just cable' feeling. You know, cable is where people win Emmys now. Cable is where you get to do fun stuff. People are a little bit more aware of that. Now we've been on long enough that people understand that if they're guest-starring, they're coming onto a show where they might actually get to do something fun. And that's another thing.
"One thing that we get a lot from guest stars is, if you're on 'Burn Notice,' you get to do cool stuff. If people think actors are all jaded about like shooting machine guns and blowing buildings up and stuff, like, they're not. And we do all that stuff for real. A lot of shows do CGI and stuff like that. No ... if you see someone firing a machine gun on 'Burn Notice,' they're firing blanks, but they're firing it. They're not just miming it, and it's not put together in post. And so a lot of times people will come on and then realize, 'Oh, wait! This is a show that goes really fast, where we're shooting a lot really quickly.' And if you like that, you get to act out great (parts) of the show really quickly, not a lot of waiting. And then we get to do really cool stuff, like, 'Oh my God! They just smashed those two cars together and they flipped over, and that was really cool.'"
Anyone still on the 'Burn Notice' guest star wish list?
Campbell: "(Burt Reynolds) was a good, older spy, you know, with his own take on it. It was fun to get a guy like that. And so I want to get more ... like Sally Field and Meryl Streep. Let's get some crazy guest stars here. John Lithgow, as a bad guy ... there are lots of opportunities. And the nice thing is, because Miami is so multicultural, we can actually use a huge array of actors from all nationalities, not just a generic, you know, guy next door. We have a pretty exotic series of guest stars from all over."
Added Nix, "Yeah, we have people that we're fans of that we've been kind of angling toward getting over the years."
Any names he can share?
"Not really," he laughed. "Because if I do, and we don't get them, then they'll be mad. And also, if I say this is the big -- this is a little inside baseball -- but if I declare to you, 'This is the person that we all dream of getting,' their price instantly doubles."
Fair enough, Mr. Nix.