Exclusive: Creator Matt Nix Talks Season Four of ‘Burn Notice’

Over the past 5 years or so, USA has churned out some pretty impressive new shows. Some we’ve expressed interest in previously, like Psych and Monk, and some that keep growing on us with every action-packed season, like Burn Notice.

We recently got the chance to sit in on a conversation with the series creator and show runner Matt Nix so he could finally answer some of the burning (no pun intended) questions that we’ve had about the series since the get-go. Matt also discussed the current season’s impressive upcoming episodes and guest stars.

The first episode of the fourth season aired last week on USA to record ratings. The episode pulled in 6.6 million viewers, which is nearly a fourth more than last season’s premier brought in.

Check out what Matt had to say about the show, its growing success, and things we can expect to see in this season of Burn Notice.

What can you tell us about this upcoming season and how it will effect Michael (Jeffrey Donovan)?

Well, this represents a new relationship for Michael with the people that burned him.  We learn a lot more about who they are and what they do.  Michael discovers that they’re not just an anonymous organization dedicated to doing abstract evil.

They’re people with agendas and budgets and specific pressures and that kind of thing.  So, he finds himself in a new relationship with them.  The character that we meet early in the season and do runs throughout the season, this character of Vaughn, played by Robert Wisdom who is on The Wire — just terrific – is a more reasonable face than we’ve seen before where Carla or Victor were very much in Michael’s face with guns and that kind of thing, and management is nobody’s version of a friendly old man.

Vaughn is a reasonable guy who presents Michael with a reasonable proposition.  Now, of course, he is – he’s not a good guy, but he is a smooth talker and hard to argue with.  So, that launches the season.  Michael’s interactions with him, over the course of the season, and unraveling of his agenda is what the season’s about.

This season, we get introduced to a new character named Jesse, but you don’t show him off right away in the first episode, is there a bigger plan to reveal Jesse’s character later on?

One of the things that we had to grapple with is, bringing in a new character who’s going to participate in cases of the week, we felt it was important not to step over the fact that this is a guy who is going to be putting himself in harm’s way on a weekly basis, trusting people with his life, going to extremes in the way that Michael and Fiona and Sam do.

Michael and Fiona and Sam have a history together.  Certainly, like Fiona and Sam started the series not liking each other.  Their relationship has evolved over time so that, now, Sam would obviously put himself in danger for Fiona and vice versa and that kind of thing, but the nature of that relationship is important.

So, starting off the season with, “Why do these guys care so much about Jesse?  What is their feeling about him?”  Well, they ruined his life.  They really feel they owe him something.  That’s a big deal to them.  It’s a particularly big deal to Michael.

Then, when Jesse comes in, why is he interested in doing this?  That has to do with his particular back story and also the way that he interacts with them.  The second episode, when they have their first time together — Jesse in the second episode is essentially the client.  He needs to see these people are worth working with.  These people saved my life.  These people are something special.

I thought it was important to not just say, “Here’s a new guy.  He’s willing to run around the streets of Miami with a machine gun and have explosions go off around him for the sake of people that he just met.”  That’s a pretty specific thing and takes a pretty specific kind of person.

So, easing him in and showing why he’s that guy – and also, in a lot of ways, the serialized story this year is, in a way, less about Michael’s relationship with the people that burned him – although there is that – and more about Michael’s relationship with Jesse. He’s working with a guy whose life he ruined who, at the same time, is becoming a good friend and colleague and a teammate and someone who trusts them and that they trust.

So, that’s a lot of what this season is about, is that relationship.

Last season’s cliffhanger, leading into this season, was quite possibly the strangest cliffhanger we’ve seen on TV in a while.  Where did that come from?  How did you develop it so that it would work the way it does into the new season?

One of the things that we wanted to do at the end of this season was send the message that Michael’s in a new place.  He’s doing a new thing.  Things will change.  This is not going to be just like, “Then, Michael’s back in the game in a slightly new way,” or that kind of thing.  So, by ending the show in a new place, with real questions that needed to be answered, that was a way of doing that.

We went back and forth on how mysterious should we be at the end of the season.  There were versions of that final script that contained a little bit of dialogue in that room.  Then, we realized, “If we’re going to step to that bell, we might as well ring it.”  There’s no – why say, “It’s a mystery, but not a total mystery”?  Why not just go for it.  Then, we’ll do the dialogue in that room at the beginning of the next season.

So, that was what went into it.  I confess, in talking to some people, I was a little surprised that some people were speculating that he was on the moon or something like that.  I found myself saying to some people, “Well, you did see him get walked into a prison.”  I mean, he was walked into a prison, and then, he was walked down a hallway.  Then, he was put in this room.

So, that’s a room in the prison.  That’s not on the moon; it’s some sort of secret, prison facility somewhere.  I thought, given that was the longest, single scene we have ever done without dialogue or voiceover, I thought people would notice.  Some people did; some people didn’t.  It’s addressed very quickly in the beginning of the season.  So, I don’t think it’s a problem, but yes, that was how we arrived at it.

You’ve mentioned before that you strive for interesting cases-of-the-week. Where you pull the inspiration from for those?  Is there any one in particular you’re excited about this season?

Yes.  I’m excited about a lot of them actually.  I’d say they come from a variety of places.  Sometimes, there’s a cool technique that we will usually draw from the world of actual spycraft.  So, there was one episode in Season Three that was based on a real technique that was – the shorthand is reverse interrogation.

In the spy world, people will arrange for people to get interrogated so that they can learn from the questions that the people are being asked.  So, we used to send volunteers into the Russian Embassy, pretending to be spies.  They would do the same thing to us.  Then, based on what questions they were asked, they would know something more about what the Russians knew or what the Russians were interested in – that kind of thing.  So, that sounded like a cool technique.  So, we spun that into an episode about a kidnapper who is hiding a kidnapped child.  So, using the questions that he’s asking to find out – so, that was one kind of thing.

Then, another thing we do is we’ll look at a movie or a classic action, dramatic situation and think about, “What is Michael’s way of dealing with this?  What is his approach in this situation?”  So, in the second season, we did what some people call the “Diehard” episode, which is Michael in the hostage-taking in the bank.

So, one of the things we wanted to do there was, “What would you expect Michael to do?  You’d expect him to run around with a gun, shooting people and saving the day.”  So, the challenge for us became, “What would a spy do there?”  Right?  Okay, let’s have him save the day without ever shooting a gun.  Let’s have him save the day without the bad guys ever even knowing that anyone’s opposing them in any way.  So, that was partially based on sabotage techniques that we’d read about.  So, that another approach.

This season, there are a number of techniques that we’re excited about.  There’s an episode coming up that we call, “The Dog Day Afternoon” episode, but what if Michael was in a hostage situation, only he found himself as the hostage taker?  What would he do?  How can you get out of that situation?

We have some exciting interrogation stuff coming up this year we’ve never done before.  What if Michael’s in a situation where he is interrogating a friend in front of an enemy, and he needs to somehow telegraph to the person that he’s questioning what answers he’s supposed to give, but he can’t let anyone know that he’s doing that.  That was a really interesting challenge to come up.  So, that was another thing.

We’re doing our first episode that is a whodunit, like we don’t meet the bad guy.  That’s coming up this year.  We don’t meet the bad guy until the end.

Actually, another interesting one was, this year, we wanted to take a look at what if there was a situation where Michael could save the day, but where saving the day wasn’t necessarily the best thing, our “Teach a Man to Fish” episode.  What if the best thing for everyone concerned is that Michael doesn’t save the day, but the client saves the day?  That was an interesting thing for us to do.  So, we’ve been all over the place, doing a lot of interesting things.  Yes, the inspiration comes from all over.

What can you tell us about some of the upcoming guest stars from this season?

Let’s see. In the third episode, the episode that Jeffrey Donovan, his directing debut, we have Max Perlich is playing the client, and Nestor Serrano is our bad guy.  We have Navi Rawat coming in for a serialized arc.  Frank Whaley plays a client, does a great job.  Who else?  Benito Martinez from The Shield is in our fifth episode, along with Rhys Coiro, who was on Entourage, best known for Entourage.  Let’s see.  There’s been a lot of press about Burt Reynolds coming in.  He does a great job and is really fun, playing an older, burned out spy.

Richard Kind is also in that episode.  He was one of those that people are calling me from the set saying, “We must write Richard Kind into more episodes; he’s so fantastic.”  So, he’s pretty great.  Steven Culp.  Yes, we got a lot of fun people coming up. Actually, I should say, just for Wire fans, John Doman is also coming up as well.  There you go.

Be sure to catch “Burn Notice” on USA every Thursday at 9pm ET/PT.

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