'Burn Notice' Creator and Stars Reflect on Road to 100 Episodes
A version of this story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
On a March morning in Miami's Coconut Grove Convention Center, Burn Notice star Jeffrey Donovan settles into his director's chair moments before the day's first scene gets under way. It's a few days into production on the seventh and final season of USA Network's flagship series, and already the vibe on set is loose and relaxed. "Let's just have a happy accident," says Donovan. Suffice it to say, Burn Notice has been anything but.
More than a year before the drama -- which centers on burned (or blacklisted) spy Michael Westen, played by Donovan -- debuted in June 2007, showrunner Matt Nix envisioned a darker series set in gritty Newark, N.J. The major ingredients were there, including the series-defining sardonic humor, but something wasn't clicking. When the script crossed the desks of USA co-president Jeff Wachtel and senior vp original scripted programming Alex Sepiol, a new directive emerged: Brighten the tone, and move it to sunny Miami. "Now I laugh that I was pitching the USA Network of 2006 the show I was pitching them," says Nix, citing the network's blue-sky principle for which Burn has become the poster child. Franchises followed, including a 2011 TV movie starring fan favorite Bruce Campbell (who co-stars as Sam Axe) that drew 4.2 million viewers, partner DC Comics' digital comics, five tie-in novels, extensive second-screen videos and ephemera -- as well as a supporting actress Emmy nomination for Sharon Gless in 2010.
Burn has seen viewership reach an enviable series high of 9.1 million in live-plus-7 ratings for the season-three finale; the most recent sixth season drew an average of 5.7 million viewers. Its value is not lost on USA and Fox Television Studios, which produces the series. Syndicated in 99 percent of the U.S., Burn's also a huge performer internationally, airing in more than 200 territories. "Burn Notice has been instrumental in launching other dramas," says Sepiol, "first Royal Pains then Suits, which have become hits for us -- and hopefully that continues this season with Graceland."
Before the final season premiered June 6 to 4.3 million viewers, Fox TV Studios president David Madden, Sepiol, Nix and castmembers Donovan, Gless, Campbell, Coby Bell and Gabrielle Anwar sat down with THR to talk about the show's origins and success.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did the project come to fruition?
David Madden: In 2005, we decided to focus on series business. We made deals with independent producers; one was with Fuse and Mikkel Bondesen, who introduced us to Matt. He had a solid career writing features, with the caveat that nothing was ever made. Matt had no TV experience whatsoever, but he had an idea.
Matt Nix: To be honest, I didn't take TV seriously. It seemed unlikely that my first TV script, based on spy books I read when I was a kid, would get made. But I could nerd out about espionage; I liked the idea of a show that portrayed this world as something the viewer could do, not something exotic where people had inexplicable skills.
Madden: What was endearing, aside from the fact that he's a wonderful storyteller, was this notion of taking a spy we've all seen -- an ice-cold loner, larger-than-life James Bond figure -- and humanizing him. Humanization and charm was what sold us on the show.
THR: How did the show land at USA?
Nix: It was quirky, so I can't say it was one of those big, dramatic bidding wars. When I pitched it to USA, they didn't buy it for a week or two. It stuck with Alex [Sepiol], who was a newly minted executive at the time, and he talked to Jeff [Wachtel] about how they could bring it into something a little more USA-ish.
Alex Sepiol: Through development, we shifted it a little, but the voice of Michael never did.
Nix: It was originally about a guy who grew up poor in a bad family; the skills that he survived with -- the paranoid mind-set, for example -- ended up serving him well as a spy. Part of the humor was how comfortable he was in crummy environments and his interactions with real sleaze, while a big part of the show now is the contrast between Michael and Miami.
Sepiol: When Matt felt he could make the Miami thing work for the spycraft, it was off to the races. We started shooting the pilot about six months after we saw the first outline.
THR: When the show was ordered to pilot, what was the casting process like?
Nix: Jeffrey Donovan was very comfortable with the role from the minute he came in and would add little asides, extend a line here or tweak something there. It felt like it was lining up with my own instincts.
Madden: The network had a superstition, a hesitation at first because he had already been on Touching Evil [opposite Vera Farmiga], which had failed. We really wanted Jeffrey, and fortunately this time he did anything but fail.
Jeffrey Donovan: Before I turned to page two [of the script], I called my agents and said: "Who is this writer? I want to meet him."
Gabrielle Anwar: I received a call from my agent: "Be Irish." So the dance begins. I showed up and read my lines [for the role of Fiona Glenanne] in a dreadful Irish accent.
Bruce Campbell: I had done a show that was canceled after one season, Jack of All Trades. I didn't do TV for five years after; I just wasn't interested. When the Burn Notice script came in, I thought it was refreshing and different.
Sharon Gless: My character [Michael's mother, Madeline] had only two scenes, but I didn't care. I actually lived in Miami, but I didn't tell them that -- I wanted to stay in the hotel with everybody.
Coby Bell: I came close to getting one of the lead roles in Matt Nix's The Good Guys, so we got to know each other though that audition process. By the end of it, he said, "You didn't get the part but I really want to work with you." (The part went to Colin Hanks.) About a month or two later, I get the call to read for Burn Notice and the character [Jesse, introduced in season four] is basically me, down to being biracial. Matt had really set it up for me to get it. I was in Miami a week later.
THR: After the show went to series, when did things begin to look up?
Donovan: When I saw the pilot, I called Matt and said: "This is going to test. They're going to love the show and Michael Westen. They're going to think he's a great character."
Nix: Everyone was happy with the way the show premiered, but you expect you'll settle into maybe 80 percent of the premiere numbers because you're never going to have more promotion than for your premiere. Our ratings kept going up during the first season to where we were almost up 1 million viewers by the finale. At that point I thought, "We probably have a shot next year."
Sepiol: It's not like in the middle of the season we're doing extra promotion, so for it to jump like that, it had to be word-of-mouth. We picked it up [for a second season] while we were filming the finale.
Campbell: When they picked up seasons five and six together, that's when I went, "There's someone with a long-term plan." That was tremendous confidence [by USA].
THR: The show received a two-season pickup for seasons five and six and became more serialized, and again ratings rose.
Sepiol: We asked viewers of the show -- we do this at the end of every year -- if this season was better than, worse than or the same as previous seasons. And season six got the highest score, which is crazy. Viewers have gotten into more serialized entertainment, and Matt embraced that.
Nix: A lot of it is, you have to do the show you want to do and keep it interesting for yourself because whenever I think, "I know how to do this," those are not my favorite episodes. I don't think they're anyone's favorite. At a certain point, I thought, "I've got to make this hard for myself again." This year, in terms of the writing, has been one of the hardest years.
Donovan: The way Michael has evolved over seven seasons is, he's been forced to feel. Michael didn't feel shit in the beginning because he couldn't let it in -- that's what the sardonic attitude was. He's invested now.
THR: Why end the series now?
Madden: As a head of a studio, I hate to see a good show die, but we wanted to go out strong. If there were any future life for Michael, Sam, Fiona or any of these characters, we would be attentively thinking about it.
Sepiol: It was a big, complicated decision involving us, the studio, Matt and the talent. It's one of those things where you want to honor the show, and what Matt and his team have designed is a beautiful sendoff.
THR: What has been the key to Burn Notice's success?
Donovan: I think audiences love watching fallible characters on television. We were able to do a scripted show centered on someone who should be a superspy, but we make him make mistakes, fall on his ass, get into fights with his girlfriend and be yelled at by his mom.
Campbell: It's the most successful thing I've ever done. Burn Notice is a ratings success, mostly a critical success, and ba-da-boom! Everybody's a hero.