Photo: Audie England
Matt Nix
“In features everyone wants all things wrapped up and all conflicts resolved. In television, you have to keep conflicts alive. It was very freeing, actually, writing this pilot because suddenly I was writing in this form where, at the end of the show, people could still have problems.”
Feel the Burn
Written by Dylan Callaghan

Most parents would become a tad concerned -- downright apoplectic even -- to discover that, rather than going to law school, their son had decided to forsake his UCLA Poli Sci degree and become a screenwriter. But if you're Matt Nix, writer and creator of the USA Network's new spy series Burn Notice, that's not how these things go. “The funny thing was, after graduating from UCLA, I'd decided to go to law school, and my dad was actually really worried about it,” explains Nix, who has been a feature writer up until this show. “He didn't want me to go to law school just to do something.”

Though his parents were not in the business, his family stems from several generations of “show biz folk” dating back to his great-grandfather, Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Harry Chanlee, who wrote from the silent movie era to the late '40s. “Eventually I admitted to myself screenwriting was what I really wanted to take up.” Upon announcing his decision at a family Christmas gathering, “my entire extended family was like, 'Right on! Screenwriting! That got us through the depression. You'll never go hungry if you're a screenwriter.'”

And luckily for Nix, that seems to have held true. Though he has yet to see one of his feature scripts get shot, he's worked steadily since entering the trade. He spoke with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about Burn Notice, its classic good-guys-bad-guys structure, and why television has offered him the freedom of not having to resolve everything.

Photo: © 2007 USA Network
Jeffrey Donovan in Burn Notice.
For those who aren't familiar with Burn Notice, can you give me a quick log line and explain the title?

A burn notice is a real thing that's sent out by an intelligence agency when an asset is no longer thought to be reliable. Achmed Chalabi [the man whose information provided the justification for the American invasion of Iraq] got a burn notice. It basically tells all American intelligence agencies that this guy's a liar or this guy's a thief or somehow toxic and should no longer be dealt with.

In the show, Michael Westen's [played by Jeffrey Donovan] burn notice is rather more thorough than a burn notice generally is. He's in the middle of a job when he gets it, and he has to fight his way out. His bank accounts are frozen, and he's sort of stuck in Miami and can't go anywhere else. So essentially the log line is: a blacklisted spy makes ends meet helping people who can't go to the cops while he tries to figure out who blacklisted him and why.

I assume who wrongly blacklisted him is...?

Yeah, a wrongly blacklisted spy.

And he helps the bullied and defenseless?

Yes, the bullied and defenseless, people with adorable children, that kind of thing.

How has this first experience on a TV show informed your writing -- particularly in terms of the formula or mechanism that makes for good episodic television writing?

I've learned a lot about the differences between television and features. In features everyone wants all things wrapped up and all conflicts resolved. In television, you have to keep conflicts alive. It was very freeing, actually, writing this pilot because suddenly I was writing in this form where, at the end of the show, people could still have problems. I've always found in feature writing that, in the first act you're just teeing up all these conflicts and then resolving them in clever ways is where the real work is.

There are different things that are difficult about television, but in TV you need to resolve some things in a show, but not the big stuff -- nothing that's going to be season-ending.
And also I would say, it's something I was already sort of embracing in features, but you kind of have to get comfortable with the blunter tools of drama.

That's interesting. What do you mean by the “blunter tools of drama?”

There are TV shows that I really like and respect that explore really subtle emotional territory and leave a lot of gray areas. I like those shows, but Burn Notice is not one of those shows. Burn Notice is, in essence, an old-fashioned show. We have a certain amount of moral ambiguity, but this is a show where the good guys win and the bad guys lose.

One of my favorite shows is The Shield. I think it's brilliant, but there they... with that ambiguity.

Yeah. There are a lot of layers and reversals. When I look at this show, our hero breaks rules to help good people with serious problems that are caused by bad people.

We always strive to execute things in a clever way, but the intelligence and subtly we try to bring to the show are more a matter of the execution than the broad dramatic strokes.

What kind of inspirations have influences the style and tone of your writing on this show?

Elmore Leonard, absolutely, Get Shorty. There's a little bit of Steven Soderbergh, who's a big influence. The Limey, Ocean's 11. I didn't really grow up watching action shows. Most of what has influenced this has come from movies. In terms of the humor of the show, I would also have to say [Quentin] Tarantino as well.

You haven't really worked in just one genre. Is that born of necessity or is it by design? What would you do if you had your druthers?

You know I really like working in a lot of different genres. Pigeonholing pays really well, so I think there's an advantage from that perspective, [but] for me what's important is having that one character I can really key into. That can happen in a comedy, in a drama, in a horror movie, in any type of movie.

You just need that character.

Yeah, I just need that one guy, or girl. If I don't have that, then I'm just another writer. The things that I've written that people have responded to generally have that one character. If I have that guy then I know how to write it, if I don't, then I'm just a better or worse technical writer.