'Burn Notice's' Spy Tricks of the Trade: Do They Work?
In the series' modern take on "MacGyver," stun guns are made from disposable cameras, audio bugs from Pringles cans and smoke screens from olive oil.
This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When it came to deciphering espionage know-how, series creator Matt Nix had a secret weapon: "I had been friendly with a guy named Michael Wilson, who had worked in intelligence and who became a consulting producer." Nix also relies on his writers to research the show's signature show-casing of spy techniques. "Burn Notice still does practical stunts and special effects, which is great on screen," says writer Ben Watkins, "but there is a downside" -- the possibility a trick will fail to impress. Below are three that work maybe a little too well.
OLIVE OIL SMOKE SCREEN
For "Noble Causes" in season three, Watkins says the crew did a dry run on Michael's makeshift smoke screen: "When we tested the gag with the olive oil on the exhaust pipe, we really did it and caused a thick cloud of smoke. People at a nearby restaurant, who had no idea we were shooting a show, thought the truck was going to blow up. They ran out of the restaurant, and the fire department was called."
In the same episode, adds Watkins: "Michael used pressurized household cleaners and silverware inside a microwave to create a bomb. It's easier than you think and very dangerous. So in this case, we actually had to lie to the audience and leave out two key steps in the process so people at home wouldn't blow up their living rooms -- or worse."
Unlike other techniques that came from espionage research, this idea in "Sins of Omission" in season two "originated from a painful prank we used to play in college," says writer Craig O'Neill. "We would take a disposable camera, fully charge the flash and then wire it to the inside doorknob of a neighbor's room. When the neighbor came home from class and unlocked their door -- zap! A bit of not-so-harmless fun. Don't try at home."