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Exclusive: John Dickson Knows the Score For 'Burn Notice' | CinemaSpy
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8/27/10 8:15 AM
Exclusive: John Dickson Knows the Score For 'Burn Notice'
Exclusive: John Dickson Knows the Score For 'Burn Notice'
As well as 'The Good Guys' and movies for Syfy
By Michael Simpson | Thursday, August 26, 2010
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Tonight sees the summer finale of USA Network's Burn Notice
on USA at 9/8C. The action-packed espionage series debuted
on the channel (a division of NBC Universal) in 2007. It was
part of the network's shift away from sci-fi shows that included
The Dead Zone and The 4400 (I still haven't forgiven them for
canceling that). Since then Burn Notice has grown in popularity
and scope and earlier this year it was renewed for a fifth and a
sixth season.
Like several of USA's shows, Burn Notice has won over critics
and audiences with its mix of thrills, drama and offbeat humor.
That is the sort of thing that scriptwriters, directors and cast are
usually credited with, and rightly so. Invariably, though, there is
at least one person in the film crew who is not going to get the
recognition they deserve for contributing to a show's successful
vibe. This member of the crew does as much as anyone to
create the mood and their work would certainly be missed if it
wasn't there. That's the composer.
In the case of Burn Notice that person is John Dickson. The Texas-born composer's work on the series has won him an ASCAP (American
Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) Award and led to him being chosen to write the music for Burn Notice creator Matt Nix's
new comedy drama, The Good Guys (airing on FOX). Dickson has also composed the score for several Syfy (then SCI FI Channel)
movies and indie productions.
Dickson formed his first band (called Oasis, but don't tell the Gallaghers) at the age of thirteen. Later, as an independent musician, he went
on to play with such renowned artists as Ray Charles, Burt Bacharach, Andy Williams, Dionne Warwick, Chick Corea, Alanis Morissette,
Harry Connick, Barbra Streisand, Elton John and Billy Joel. CinemaSpy recently chatted with Dickson about his work on Burn Notice and
other productions. In the, first of a two-part transcription of that conversation, Dickson discusses the origins of his composing career and
the challenges he faces in helping to give Burn Notice its successful blend of rhythms.
CinemaSpy: Did you always want to be a musician and a composer?
John Dickson: I always wanted to be a musician. I started playing piano as soon as I could sit upright on a bench, from what I was told
[laughs]. I started studying at eight and focused on music all through school. Concert piano for the longest time, classical piano and
French horn and conducting and things like that. I probably wanted to add composition by the time I got into late high school. And I was a
movie nut from day one, so I never really entertained the idea of doing concert composition, certainly not for a living. It's not a great way to
make a living anyway. So, probably early teens I started thinking it would be awfully fun to not only play music but create my own. I kind of
always figured I would tie it to movies because I was such a fan of movies and the music that was written for them. And I'd studied a lot of
it. It's not like I studied physics and then turned around and went back to music [laughs]. I always did music.
CinemaSpy: You already knew Burn Notice creator Matt Nix before you got involved in the show. Is that how you got to be the principal
composer?
John Dickson (photo courtesy of John Dickson).
John Dickson: It was certainly a good start. TV almost always starts with a high level producer suggesting somebody either that they'd like
to have or that they already know. I've known Matt a long time. I've done every film that he's done since 1998. Matt is one of those guys
who was a really great writer. He was making a very nice living doing book treatments and writing screenplays for various movie studios
and production companies and they just were not getting green lit. They weren't going all the way to film status. But he was doing really
well. He always made these short films and I think I've scored six or seven of them for him over the years.
When the TV thing came up he called me and he said, "I can't guarantee you this gig because
this is my first shot at this, my first TV gig, so there's a lot of people just watching how things go. But you certainly have my vote and you're in the
mix. So pitch for it." I actually ended up doing several scenes from the pilot and I got it. It's great because we've just got a great shorthand. We've
been working together for so long [that] we don't have to sit and hash over music for hours and hours and hours to figure out what's going on. He
can tell me a few things stylistically or a few things about the attitude of the show.
CinemaSpy: It's beneficial, then, to work with somebody you are already very familiar with?
John Dickson: Oh, it's great. I just speeds the process up. Also it's a big show and it's got bigger and bigger as it's stayed on the air; more and
more complex in terms of production. Matt is still really involved in writing storylines, he directed some episodes and is still very involved with
production. So he needs to know that I get it so that he doesn't have to worry about music. That helps a lot, to have dealt with somebody for a
while. Even one of his executive producers is a guy I did two films for back in the day, so I even know the Number Two guy pretty well.
CinemaSpy: Where did you seek the inspiration to compose the main theme for the show?
John Dickson: [Laughs] It was a funny process. They weren't sure how they were going to open the show. In contemporary television the word
theme gets used...is not the way I kind of interpret it. There aren't many actual themes on television in terms of tunes that you come away with.
Thirty years from now nobody is going to remember what the main theme of Burn Notice was because it isn't very tuneful. I think it's got a cool vibe
and it's got a definite identity to it but it's not like the theme to M*A*S*H, you know. It's not a theme song. I considered a theme song for a while and
I think the feeling was ultimately that wasn't a good fit for this show. They ended up with this thing in front of the show. Instead of a traditional title
sequence they have sort of a 40-second in-case-you've-never-seen-it-this-is-what-Burn-Notice-is-about kind of a thing. It's the same piece of
music every time and it's the same piece of video every season but they change it a little bit each season. It's just a way to let people know, if you
don't know anything about Burn Notice, here it is in a nutshell. Then you're on your own after that if you haven't seen it yet [laughs]. And it kind of
grew out of the attitude of the pilot.
We're usually on about a
seven or eight day total
turnaround, which is fairly
luxurious from what I
understand. Some shows
are on five and that's
crazy.
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I did the opening theme and I'd had a chance to live with the pilot for a while and sort of get the musical identity there, which has a little bit of a Latin flavor because of the Miami setting. [It's
become] definitely a more aggressive, action-oriented thing. It's gotten much more action oriented since the first season, but with sort of a funkiness and a bit of a lightness to it because it's a
comedy as well. The show wear's a lot of hats. It's got some pretty heavy subject matter but at its core the characters have a very humorous sort of relationship with each other, especially if
you're going to put Bruce Campbell in there. It's definitely not a dour-faced cop show. And then there's the end title, which is actually more thematic than the main title. It felt like I've got to
mash together some of these things I'm doing in the show and make something that will tie it up.
http://www.cinemaspy.com/Interviews/Exclusive-John-Dickson-Knows-the-Score-For-Burn-Notice/4670
Page 1 of 2
Exclusive: John Dickson Knows the Score For 'Burn Notice' | CinemaSpy
8/27/10 8:15 AM
CinemaSpy: We tend to remember some of the classic TV themes but, like you say, in 20 years time people aren't generally going to
remember the themes of today's shows, except perhaps reality shows like American Idol...
John Dickson: Even so, American Idol is just sort of a two note badum-badum-badum-badum-badum-badum-badum. That's hardly a
theme in the traditional sense. It's very, very recognizable but there's a difference between... I think the Burn Notice main title, especially
the last groove, is something that makes people go, "Oh, sure, OK, I know what that is." But it isn't the theme to M*A*S*H. It's not Family
Ties. It's not Hawaii Five-O. Those were very strong, very cinematic tunes and now it's kind of all about vibe. Give us a good vibe, give
us a good groove. Like the theme to House. The theme to House is the intro to a song, but it's the intro before the song starts.
I think it will probably swing around again one of these days to shows that actually have a more cinematic kind of approach. Part of this
started a few years ago when they cut main title sequences down from as long as a minute to 40 seconds to 30 to 15 to sometimes five
and them some shows don't have one at all. There's that whole channel flipping thing where we don't want to let people flip away to
another show because they don't want to see an opening title. I think it's a mistake because it takes some of the identity of the show, it's
longevity for the future, away. But I guess maybe it stops channel flipping. I don't know [laughs]. I have 500 channels [and I don't] do a lot
of flipping anyway; there's just no time [laughs].
'The Bob Newhart Show' is from a golden age of TV
theme tunes.
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