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Thursday, January 3, 2008

Matt Nix Exclusive!

The Rouge Wave and The Script Department's Dave Sparling recently had the chance to catch up with Matt Nix, creator and Executive Producer of USA Network's hit show "Burn Notice," which will go into production on Season 2 when the WGA strike is settled. Anyone with any interest in developing a TV series should be inspired by Matt's successful freshman effort in the medium.

DS/RW: "Burn Notice" is your first foray into television, quickly becoming a hit for USA while earning praise from critics. Can you talk a bit about the factors that led you, a longtime feature-centric writer with roots in the indie side of the spectrum, to the so-called "small screen?"

MN: I wish there was a more artistic-sounding reason for this, but really, it was because my agent called me up and said “you should pitch TV this season.” I said “I don’t have any experience in TV. Don’t you have to work on a staff for a few years before you pitch pilots?” He said “No, they like feature guys now.” I had a sort of vague idea for a spy show that had grown out of conversations I had with a friend who had worked in private intelligence. I talked to the head of TV at Fuse Entertainment, and we developed the idea into what eventually became "Burn Notice." We pitched that to USA, and they bought it.

I had always found TV interesting, though. I spent a long time as a feature writer without getting anything made. Movies are fragile, sickly creatures that can die from the slightest injury – an executive changes jobs, a star gets busy, a chill wind comes in from the North – literally anything will scuttle a film. In TV, on the other hand, they have to make stuff. The opportunity to have 13 hours of material actually made was thrilling. Ultimately, I’m not terribly picky about the form. I’ll write a sketch, a play, a puppet show… whatever. I just like getting to see stuff on its feet. And TV is great for that.

DS/RW: The WGA strike notwithstanding, has the success of the show stoked demand for you as a feature writer? Anything in the feature pipeline you'd like to tell us about?

MN: There’s not a lot of crossover between TV and features. I wouldn’t say the show has stoked demand, exactly. Perhaps there’s a comfort factor, in that there’s something I’ve done that has been reasonably successful. It’s good to be able to prove to people that your words can be used to expose film, and that the results are considered entertaining by some subset of the population. But the worlds are pretty separate.

I’m writing a few things. I had a comedy in development at Warner Brothers, and I’m doing another draft of that, for producers Jon Shestack (AIR FORCE ONE) and David Dobkin (director of THE WEDDING CRASHERS). I’m writing a kids film for Nickelodeon, sort of a paranoid thriller for children. And I’m writing the HOT WHEELS movie for Warner Brothers and producer Joel Silver, which is a big action movie. I’m pretty excited about all of them.
DS/RW: Any plans to direct an episode of the show? If so, do you think it'd be an episode you wrote?

MN: Yes, I’m planning on directing an episode this season. It will almost certainly be my own episode… it’s just a matter of making sure the show is running smoothly enough that I can take that time to devote to directing.

DS/RW: As Executive Producer/showrunner, have you found yourself in the tenuous position of being expected to continue the non-writing aspects of the show while you're on strike as a writer? (If so) how has that worked out in practice?

MN: Actually, I’ve been fortunate in that we were in writer prep for the show when the strike hit. There wasn’t really much producing to do. For this strike, the producers are really trying to hold the line and not produce OR write, and I’m standing with them on that. So I can’t really be involved with the DVD, which sucks, but other than that, there wasn’t anything to do except write.

DS/RW: Have the logistics of running the show made it impossible or difficult for you to keep current with feature releases and/or any favorite TV series of yours? If not, what's blown you away lately and why have you found it so compelling?

MN: I’ve watched some stuff. It’s more having three little kids at home that gets in the way of my movie viewing, but I haven’t gotten out much. I watch "Dexter," which is probably my favorite show. It’s intelligent but never pretentious, and it’s a great mix of character and plot. Plus, it’s another show with voice-over set in Miami, so it has that going for it. My favorite movie recently was SUPERBAD which I thought was fantastic.

DS/RW: You set up "Burn Notice" with no significant experience under your belt on the TV side of the industry. Any suggestions for writers looking to follow in your footsteps?

MN: I think the thing that served me best was keeping one eye on writing something that I cared about and another eye on the realities of what worked for the network, the studio, and the executives involved. It was less a matter of balancing the two than it was a matter of finding a way to do both at the same time - I worked really hard to make sure that I was always doing work I was proud of, while at the same time being really conscious of the fact that I was working in a specific context. There can be a temptation to regard the studio and the network as meddlers getting in the way of your vision. I think that’s counterproductive. They’re setting the parameters, and then it’s your job to succeed within those parameters. Sometimes that’s impossible, but more often than not you can find something that works for everyone. You have to fight the battles that matter, but you also have to make sure everyone’s always on the same team, moving forward toward the goal.

You have to listen to everyone. The minute you think you’ve got all the answers, you’re dead. I learned from everyone. I took notes from everyone – from the network, the studio, the writers, the actors, my assistant, my mom. I sought out criticism, and when something wasn’t working, I killed it, no matter how long I spent working on it. I was shameless about calling people and asking “how do you do this?” And when you come to people with that attitude, you’d be surprised how willing they are to help.

Matt Nix serves as executive producer, writer and creator of the new USA Network original series BURN NOTICE, which premieres Thursday, June 28 at 10pm/9c.
Nix has worked as a feature writer since 1997. He has written scripts for Warner Brothers, Columbia, Paramount, Universal, and New Line, as well as several independent companies. He has had the opportunity to write in a range of genres, including dramas, thrillers, light comedies, dark comedies and children's films.

Nix currently has several feature projects in active development - an adaptation of the bestselling young adult novel "Chasing Vermeer" with Warner Brothers, a workplace comedy for Warner Brothers, and a "paranoid thriller for children" for Paramount/ Nickelodeon Films. He is also an acclaimed director of several short films. His work has been featured on the SCI FI Channel, FX Movies Channel, PBS and in numerous film festivals around the world. He lives in Pasadena with his wife and three children.

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MaryAn Batchellor said...

Okay, when he says "I'm writing", does he mean he WAS WRITING until the strike? Because those all look like projects that fall under the "pencils down" clause...

Dave said...

Rest assured, maryan, that Matt is in full compliance with the WGA's "pencils down" edict.