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‘Burn Notice’s’ Showrunner on His Big Breakthrough

Matt Nix: ”I wasn’t the funny guy, I was the smart guy.“

Matt Nix kicked around Hollywood as a feature writer with little to show for it until his agent suggested he pitch television pilot ideas — and he came up with something called “Burn Notice.” The original take on a resourceful ex-spy and his thrill-a-minute life in South Florida helped establish USA as a destination for lovers of quirky comedy-dramas and Nix as a producer to watch.

Nix talked with Eric Estrin about the downside of being the smart guy in the room, the benefits of acting classes for writers, and dodging bullets on television’s front lines.

I was working in features — and I was working fairly steadily — but I had never had anything produced. It was a variety of things. Two production companies actually went under while I had projects in development … things like that.

So one day my agent took me aside and said, Dude, you’re creating your own TV show. And I said, I’ve never written for television before; I don’t think I’m allowed to do that. And he said, No, it’s okay, they like feature guys now. Come up with a series idea you like, and I’ll get you meetings.

So what happened was, I came up with the idea for “Burn Notice,” and I pitched it — the first version of it — and people liked it, but the development process took a very long time.

It was at USA for about a year before we got the go-ahead. And during that time, people would raise questions about certain things, and I’d end up changing the story completely. At first, I had wanted to set it in New Jersey, but someone at the network wanted Miami. Every time there was a concern, I would have to completely change the story.

But this is what I was used to doing. I was never the go-to guy in features. I was one of the guys the producers would bring in if they wanted to hear a whole bunch of different takes on a story. And I would come up with a take, and if that didn’t work, I’d come up with another take and another one. So with “Burn Notice” it was the same thing, until they finally said yes.

The way my mind works, I’m a very analytical thinker. When I would pitch a feature idea, I would figure out how to make it work, and I would explain in the room how to fit everything together so it would work. I was not the Funny Guy; I was the Smart Guy, the guy who could take something complicated and explain how to work it out.

I remember one time I was pitching a story and I could just see in the room that they weren’t buying it. It was dead. So when I went to pitch it somewhere else, I went about it in a completely different way. Instead of explaining to producers why the story would work, I needed to make it come alive in the room so they could see it and feel it for themselves.

I had a lot of acting experience in high school and college, and I started to use that. I would throw myself into each pitch, acting out characters, doing different voices … You know, if you’re afraid of looking stupid in the room, you’re in trouble. The way to handle it for me was to throw myself even more completely into the pitch so I wouldn’t be able to worry about what anybody was thinking.

That was a huge turning point for me. It really helped me when I pitched “Burn Notice,” because Michael Westen, the main character, does a lot of different voices and characters, and I acted that out in the room

When they bought the show, I obviously had no experience in television, and they thought about bringing in a different showrunner. I mean, they could have replaced me in a heartbeat. But then they said, Well, he gave us all these different takes, he’s flexible, he has a lot of ideas, let’s give him a chance.

So we put a staff together, and I was able to learn from everyone who had more TV experience than I did — which was everyone on staff. You know, it felt a little awkward at first, but that would be like asking a commanding officer in the Normandy invasion if he felt awkward that he didn’t have enough experience.

Yeah, maybe for about two seconds, but then the bullets start flying and there’s no time to feel anything after that. You just focus on staying alive.