MATT NIX is creator and showrunner for USA Network’s hit spy show Burn Notice, which just finished the second half of Season 3 this month. He’s got a second action series The Good Guys set for FBS this summer. (It previews on May 19th and then resumes June 7th.) An action comedy set in Dallas about a resentful washed-up cop and an ambitious young detective, it stars Bradley Whitford and Colin Hanks. Los Angeles-born and UCLA-educated Nix wrote and directed some forgettable showbiz stuff before he became the “poster boy” for the Writers Guild’s Showrunner Training Program. By 2007, he was the quintessential cable guy, happily inhabiting those tighter budgets, narrower target audiences, and lower stakes. Or, to use his word, a more “niche-y” area. Nix’s obsession with crime began when he discovered a family friend was a con artist wanted by the FBI (“To me that was awesome”) and began reading up on all sorts of swindlers. He has a quirky sense of humor which infuses his work and his characters especially when they are in life-threatening situations. His shows are not so much dramedies as they are non-sequitors. Now, as he moves into network TV at age 38, Nix recommends that the Big Three networks take some tips from cable TV; expresses a surprising respect for the TV executive’s role in an increasingly complicated production business; and details his battle with White Collar showrunner Jeff Eastin to attract the most Twitter followers:
DH: I have been charged with reporting to you that Nikki has not missed one of your Burn Notice episodes, ever. She is an obsessed fan, so you should know that.
MN: I love that . . . I would be lying if I said I hadn’t noticed that she has mentioned the show.
DH: I don’t know if she’s following you on Twitter, but can you talk to me a little about this “Twitter war” you have with [USA Network series] White Collar creator and show runner Jeff Eastin? How did this competition get started, and what is your relationship with Jeff Eastin?
MN: I’ve known Jeff Eastin since the early days of Burn Notice. We had talked about the possibility of him coming on Burn Notice as a writer. That didn’t work out. But we had remained friends. (He actually borrowed one of our Burn Notice writers during the season, so that was another cause for discussion.) But then I saw him doing all of his Twitter stuff. He’s an obsessive Twitterer. That dude never stops. It’s crazy. And then I was approached by USA and Fox studios about doing some Twitter, and they said how awesome Jeff Eastin is at it, and I said I will be more awesome. It turned into a friendly rivalry.
DH: And you are winning right now?
MN: Yeah. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but I am conscious of the fact that he is doing very well for someone who has not yet had a full season on television. I really ought to step on the gas.
DH: So what are you doing to lure more eyes — I understand that sometimes it’s suggestive photos? There’s a lot of ways you can go in terms of getting people to follow you, right?
MN: Obviously there’s the traditional stuff, like information about the show, spoilers, things like that. But I’ve got to say, cast photos and particularly beefcake — that’s mighty popular. But the truth is, for me, Bruce [Campbell] has a lot of fans that are hungry for all things Bruce, Gabrielle [Anwar] has her own set of fans. We brought together this little group from diverse areas, and hopefully they will combine their forces to help me win this Twitter war and give a grand sum to charity.
DH: Ed Bernero talked to me and Deadline|Hollywood how showrunners are bypassing the traditional press and just going directly to the fans on the Internet, whether it’s through Twitter or video interviews on the Web. You seem pretty plugged in.
MN: All of us owe a lot to granddaddy Joss Whedon [Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dollhouse], who was out there on that. People really value their relationship with shows, and are proprietary about it. During the season, people see [Jeffrey Donovan as] Michael Westen a lot more than a lot of their friends. So I think it’s satisfying for people to feel that that relationship is reciprocal in some way. The truth is, you do have a relationship with your fans, and there is a feedback loop there. And while you have to be careful not to write a show just for the superfans, that kind of feedback is really valuable and has guided us. I also think it’s good for the writers of individual shows to have that relationship as well, so I encourage them to hop onto the web boards and give their thoughts.
Another thing that drives this, of course, is the huge need for web content. Obviously, everybody’s favorite form of web content is more story with principal actors. But the economics of the web do not yet support that. But it can support a showrunner talking about his or her show on camera for free. And if you are willing to do that, networks and studios will take as much of that as they can get.
DH: Once people can have these online dialogues, they get more interested in the behind-the-scenes of the writers and the showrunners.
MN: A “showrunner” as a position is a relatively new thing. It used to be the executive producer. That’s not true anymore. Now it’s evolved into this model where people look to showrunners and say, that guy is that show. It’s just become a lot more interesting to know the showrunner and to get a sense of that person. It’s certainly not true of every show on television. But if you meet [Mad Men creator and producer] Matt Weiner, he looks like Mad Men, he sounds like Mad Men, Matthew is Mad Men, he just is.
DH: How about you?
MN: People joke about me that I talk in voiceovers. I have that sort of inflection. But I do talk in voiceovers. I have done it my whole life. (“Here’s an interesting fact. Do you want to know how to use this thing that I think is cool?”) Since I was a little kid, my parents called them Matt Facts. I’ve been dishing that stuff out forever, and now I have a show where I do that.
DH: Now “showrunner” is the word.
MN: It’s brand new. Even the idea of the writer/producer in television is much younger than people think it is. I don’t know the exact history, but the idea that writers would also be producers as a matter of course, that’s new. They talk about the featurization of television, and it is a useful relationship for a studio or network to have someone they can point to and say: “That person is responsible for everything on that show.”
DH: Someone to blame?
MN: Someone to blame, to award, or just to discuss something with. The buck stops with that person. For a long time in movies that’s been the director although at one time it was the producer. It sure ain’t writers in movies. And in television it has evolved into that becoming the showrunner. Everybody at the studio wants to be able to point and say: “The buck stops with that person.”
DH: Things have become increasingly complicated. A show is on a network, but the production company for the show is owned by another network. The showrunner has a lot of people to answer to.
MN: Absolutely. I happen to have one show which is produced by Fox TV Studios for the USA Network. And now another show that is 20th Century Fox TV for the Fox network. There are a lot of the differences you don’t see directly. You see their effects. Certainly any conversation about money, in a vertically integrated company, is a little bit easier. Going across companies, they can be less forgiving with each other. But in my experience, I have been blessed with some really smart executives who got what I was doing. And so far my experience at FBS for the new show has been great. Everybody seems to be pulling in the same direction. I’m sure there will be bumps. But when it gets really tough is when we have people pulling in different directions. That’s very hard. I’ve been fortunate so far.
DH: Yes, like when the Fox network decided to put its American Idol on Wednesday nights against Modern Family, an ABC show produced by Fox TV Studios. So the network and studios are competing against themselves. That made people unhappy…
MN: It’s bound to happen sometime.
DH: So now you are in the world of creating scripted shows for the network.
MN: It seems like networks right now simply have less of a privileged position vis-à-vis getting mass audiences for gigantic hit shows. They have some structural advantages, they have more coverage of the nation, but on any given day a cable show can beat a network show. It’s a little harder, but it does happen with regularity. I also think we’re at this point in the fracturing of the TV audience that’s a challenge for the networks. They’re no longer getting 60 million viewers for an individual show. And so it seems to me that networks have to decide whether they are going to embrace a cable model, which probably involves more year-round programming and lower budgets. And whether they want a show that is the favorite of a smaller audience. Ideally, they want to be the favorite show of 30 million people, but more realistically they are going to be the 2nd or 3rd favorite show of 30 million people. And that’s just a tough gig in an era where some niche-y program is gunning for 5 to 8 million of those viewers. But I have to say, as a showrunner, being niche-y is kind of a great thing.
The funny thing for me is, I have never lived in a network world. My first television exposure was Burn Notice. I had only worked with a cable budget, and now, with this new show on Fox, we’re still working at a studio that primarily does cable shows. We’re working on a 13-episode production model, and the budget is very similar to Burn Notice. So I think Fox is taking a strategy of, let’s try to do this summer show cable [-style] That’s a more durable model. This may be a little wonky for this interview, but you have capital allocations conundrum. You can’t necessarily run your business making all big bets or small bets.
DH: You maybe have to do both. But do you have network envy?
MN: There is no getting around it. Going to the Fox TCA (Television Criticis Association confabs) and saying to yourself: “Wow, they live well up here. This is sure a nice spread. Look at all those fancy displays.” I am getting some exposure to the network world, and there are certain advantages to that. But for me, I just really like writing and making television shows. There are ego rewards in doing battle with other television programs in prime time in the main season. I suppose there are times when I might look at that and think that’s the major league. But when you look at it, ultimately would I really want to gamble my livelihood and my ability to connect with my fan base or write a show that I really like writing, or in some cases direct a show that I really like directing, for the sake of winning an ego battle? It’s totally not worth it. That stuff is so ephemeral. It lasts for two days, and then you’re the same sucker you always were.
The thing is, I’m very unusual for someone in my position in that the network executives I know are at USA and at Fox, and that’s it. Burn Notice was basically my first television pitch; I pitched like 4 places years ago, and one of them bought it. I wrote a pilot for ousted NBC executives. I don’t know anybody else.
DH: The one player I understand played a large role in shaping Burn Notice was Bonnie Hammer, president of NBC Universal Cable and formerly president of USA Network[which is owned by NBCU]. I keep hearing people say, gee, she’d be a great person to step up and run all of NBCU’s entertainment division.
MN: The thing I will say about Bonnie Hammer is she really knows what she does well. What’s good is that she’s a top-line executive. She’s like: “This is how I want shows to look, how I want them to sound, what kind of shows I want to do.” She really only gets involved in details in my experience insofar as they affect one of those things, and even then it’s very early. She’ll say: “In general, I’d like it if this person dressed this way, I’d like this show to be located in a brighter friendlier location.”
DH: A non-Newark location. [It was Hammer’s decision to set Burn Notice in sunny Miami, not dreary Newark as Nix had originally pitched his bleaker vision. And Nix resisted this note through several drafts of the pilot script but relented after deciding that “the image of a perpetually irritated spy in a hedonistic beach community could become a sight gag,” wrote The New York Times when the series debuted. “There was grim Michael Westen in an Armani suit, weaving past shot-swigging frat boys and bikini-clad girls, the unhappiest man in South Beach.”]
MN: That was my experience; I’ve seen that with other shows too, I have to say she’s really smart about that. I am maybe unusual in that I think that there is a real artistic role for the people who are on the other side of the desk from me. And we can get mad at their notes and that kind of thing, but I watched a documentary about [the Italian painter] Caravaggio, and I realized if you were building churches for the Pope in that era, you were in a pretty similar position to a show creator. You’ve got an art you do, and it is also a craft, and it takes a lot of practical skill and management, and you have to have a crew, and you have to have a vision. But, ultimately, the Pope’s got to step up with a lot of cash. It’s difficult to do it without the Pope. You can’t ignore that side of the equation. You can’t be like: “I’ll just build St. Peter’s Basilica on my own.” If you really want to do that as a showrunner, go write a novel. There’s just no TV universe in which that happens.
DH: What are your feelings about blending comedy and crime? Can you talk about the dramedy relationship?
MN: I really gravitate to the comedy of tonal contrasts. I hope that doesn’t sound insufferably pretentious. What I mean is people having reactions to things that seem inappropriate, or being happy in an apparently unhappy situation. One of the things that I have always been interested in is the actual experience of people in their lives as opposed to what we think their experience should be. For a long time on television, every fireman was a stalwart hero who took the suffering of the people that he interacts with extremely seriously Now I think with Rescue Me you see something closer to what real firemen are like, that they have these really dark senses of humor, that they are putting someone’s leg back together while they are eating a sandwich. And that’s funny. Part of what got me into Burn Notice was talking to our intelligence consultant, Michael Wilson [a former intelligence operative]. We have been friends for years. And just talking to him about his life is not your experience in your life.
One of the things I actually brought up in my pitch for Burn Notice was a discussion I had with operatives in the field who do what are called “halo dives”, when you drop in at a high altitude where you are out of radar range, and you pull your parachute right over the tree lines and go right in. We were talking about, if you do a halo dive, you are starting in the freezing cold upper atmosphere, right? So you have to go to sporting goods store and buy a bunch of warm clothes, right? And you are usually parachuting into some place really warm like Afghanistan or the African jungle, and then you’ve got to ditch all of the cold weather stuff. And just because you are some badass field operative doesn’t mean that you didn’t really like that new jacket you bought, or those boots that were cool and now you have to just leave them in the middle of the jungle. That for me is hilarious, I love that stuff. Spies have the same kinds of needs and desires that everybody does, which is funny. The best kind of comedy derives from that kind of truth.
Even on the new show, I’m always looking for what’s something that Bradley Whitford’s character can say that is completely outrageous and completely wrong, but in a double-reverse way is actually totally right. Something really sexist and dated, but on a certain level is pro-social and cool? Those are the kinds of tonal contrasts that I look for. I don’t really like where there’s a story and you lay a few jokes on top of it.
DH: Right. So let’s talk about your 2 shows. It seems as though, in both cases, these are about somebody who gets kicked out of an institution but wants desperately to get back in to prove they can still do it. Is that true?
MN: Wow, I never thought of that.
DH: Then I guess I can’t ask you if that’s your vision then. But someone is forced to be an outsider, he hasn’t chosen it.
MN: Now that you mention it, there is a tension between belonging and not belonging which I should probably talk to a therapist about. It’s sort of embarrassing that I never really thought of it that way. But I think you are absolutely right. I have always been drawn to characters, and this was true for my feature-writing career as well, where there is a tension between rule-breaking and rule-following. I came to accept in myself a long time ago that I really do like writing articulate sociopaths. “Sociopath” may be the wrong word, but I really like these transgressive characters that have an alternate world view. I’ve actually written a fair number of kids movies, and I’ll insert these kid-friendly articulate sociopaths who are usually yelling at the children for their own benefit. The other side of it for me is that my wife is always giving me trouble. Like if we’re parking in the lot at Universal Studios, she’ll say: “Move that parking cone so I can get that space.” And my response is: “Honey, those parking cones are there for a reason.” I’m a rule follower. But there is also a part of me, clearly, that doesn’t follow them.
DH: And, on Burn Notice, you’re instructing the world how to do things we don’t want most people to do. Does the studio or the network ever get concerned?
MN: It has come up, certainly. But they have never had to say anything to us about it because we were very careful about it. I suppose that Burn Notice might be the occasion for someone to realize that it is possible to make a particular kind of homemade explosive, right? But all we will ever teach is something like Vaseline or brake fluid happen to be major components. We didn’t get into the specifics. The bottom line is, if anybody really wanted to do anything, they would still have to do so much research. Well, start with an engineering degree. I feel like we’re on pretty safe ground. Moreover, [we use] stuff that exists in the world and that is scary, and that is bad, but Michael Westen is taking those things and using them on behalf of the good guys. That’s what people respond to about the show. It’s a kind of a reversal.
DH: People talk about you as being a Hollywood nice guy, yet you are at a level of success where you don’t have to be nice if you don’t want to.
MN: My response is: “Everybody should have a television show. Let’s all get television shows!” I’m fortunate to have had my own level of success. My joys in life are I’ve got three little kids [Matthew, 7, Esmé, 5 and Charlie, 3], and I got to buy a house that I really like, and everyone should have that. I am very conscious on a daily basis of how extraordinarily blessed I am to get to do what I do and work with the people that I work with, so I make a practice of being grateful. I am fortunate in that I am motivated to do what I do by just a really goofy desire to do it. Maybe I have demons that are hidden away someplace, and I’ll discover mine someday.