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CSUB alum's screenplay takes off

It sounds like the premise of a feel-good film.

A young man unsure what to do with his life takes a poetry class at a small state university and gets noticed by English faculty who foster his writing talent. While trying to make it in showbiz, he writes a screenplay that years later is made into a movie purchased by Netflix for $20 million.

But it's not a film plot, it's the real-life story of CSUB alum Matt Harris.

Harris' screenplay "The Starling" is now a dramedy starring Melissa McCarthy, Chris O'Dowd and Kevin Kline that just premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and is streaming on Netflix now.

It's the story of an everyday husband and wife (McCarthy and O'Dowd) who struggle to recover from a tragic loss. McCarthy is helped by a psychologist-turned-veterinarian (Kline) from whom she initially seeks advice for dealing with a starling that keeps divebombing her.

"It's that kind of story that is easily pigeonholed as a feel-good story, but I tried to make it real," Harris said from his home in Burbank. "I don't like it when I'm watching or reading a story about people who experience that type of loss and then, 'Everything's going to be OK!' I don't really buy that."

Lest anyone worry the story is a downer, Harris infuses "The Starling" with hope and humor. It's not surprising given his current day job: executive producer of the hit MTV clip show "Ridiculousness," which features caught-on-tape mishaps.

It took many years and many disappointing turns for Harris to see his words transformed into film. But when he did, he got to be on set during the five weeks of shooting in late summer 2019.

The experience was "immensely gratifying," he says, after wondering for years what it would be like to watch actors, producers, cinematographers and others bring his work to life.

And Harris says none of it — not the movie projects nor the earlier screenwriting prizes and production credits — would have been possible without the direction, guidance and support he received from mentors at CSUB.

"I'm really grateful to them for recognizing that spark in me and cultivating it," he said. "Without that, I would not be here today talking to you about a screenplay I wrote."

THE ROAD TO CSUB

Harris' father was in the oil business, so he moved around a lot as a kid. He didn't know where to go to college, so he followed his sister to St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He was "not a committed student" but loved to read and seemed good at writing.

When his parents moved to Bakersfield, Harris spent his summers there and liked it. He eventually stayed and finished out his college career at CSUB.

One of his first assignments in professor Jeffry Spencer's 300-level English class was to analyze a poem. Just before the start of class one day, Spencer stood in front of Harris' desk and asked, "Are you an English major?"

Having long battled imposter syndrome, Harris was about to apologize for the poorly written paper when Spencer proceeded to read it to the class.

Spencer was so impressed that she had Harris come talk to her about his interests, then introduced him to other professors. They explained what he could do with an English degree, taught him critical thinking skills he now uses to evaluate screenplays, and made him believe in himself.

"I was brought into the fold of the English Department, and it would change my life," Harris said.

Harris keeps in touch with Spencer, who is 93 and lives in the Bay Area.

"Very often students don't realize their gifts until they're pointed out to them, and that's what I did for Matt," she said. "He really did have talent, and he took the ball and ran with it."

Harris earned his English degree from CSUB in 1991 and then master's in American literature from San Diego State. He next envisioned himself getting a Ph.D., teaching at a Midwest liberal arts college and writing screenplays on the side.

But he didn't get into any of the Ph.D. programs to which he applied.

A ‘RIDICULOUS’ TV CAREER

Harris was trying to figure out his next move when a buddy in Los Angeles told him about a production assistant gig at PBS. Harris got the job and slept on the friend's filthy couch until he could save up enough money for his own place and to take some writing classes.

That turned into a PA job on a CBS sitcom and Harris kept acquiring skills. He kept an eye out for writing opportunities and got one for a Fox series featuring wild police videos.

"You actually write the voiceover copy that narrates these real-life police chases and I was like, 'Are you kidding me? I love this. This is great. I get to write and actually hear my words spoken on television.'"

That led to writing for a variety of caught-on-tape clip shows and then supervising writers. Next thing he knew, Harris was a co-executive producer and executive producer.

In 2016, Harris launched the Nickelodeon kids' series "Crashletes," which featured sports bloopers and blunders, and convinced then-New England Patriots tight-end Rob Gronkowski to host it.

Two years later, Harris took over "Ridiculousness" with a mandate to increase the number of episodes per year from 40 or 60 to 168. "Ridiculousness" showcases viral videos from the internet that longtime host Rob Dyrdek and his co-hosts critique.

Harris now produces more than 250 episodes per year and is about to celebrate the series' 1,000th episode. MTV frequently airs "Ridiculousness" marathons and has created several spinoffs.

"Viral videos have always just entertained me from the very early days, when we first started seeing them on this new thing called YouTube," Harris said.

‘THE STARLING’ TAKES FLIGHT

The first screenplay Harris wrote was a western, "Moon of Popping Trees," about an early-20th-century bounty hunter hired to track down a Sioux Indian who reportedly took a white woman captive. Along the way he revisits sins of his past, including participating in the December 1890 Wounded Knee massacre of Native Americans by U.S. Army soldiers.

Harris wanted to get noticed as a screenwriter, so he entered the screenplay into competitions. He was one of five winners of the most prestigious screenwriting prize, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, in 2002.

The Nicholl came with a $30,000 award designed to give winners time to write their next screenplay. The money helped Harris finish "The Starling."

He secured an agent who tried to get the western made, but the agent's efforts went nowhere and he failed to circulate "The Starling," so Harris parted ways with him.

The powerful Creative Artists Agency became a champion of "The Starling" and Harris talked to writer-directors Tim Robbins and John Lee Hancock about making it. Many different times, Harris thought the movie would get made, but the stars (champions, talent, financing and good luck) never aligned.

In April 2019, producer Dylan Sellers called Harris asking if "The Starling" was still available, which it was. The last option on it had expired. Sellers then set up lunch for him, Harris and director Ted Melfi of "Hidden Figures" fame, who wanted to make the film. He'd already talked to McCarthy about it.

"I was like, 'OK, well, it sounds like it's really going to happen,'" said Harris, who'd gone into the lunch prepared to be disappointed again.

Sellers had the "inspired" idea to make Lilly (McCarthy) the main character instead of Jack (O'Dowd). At first, Harris wasn't thrilled with the idea of reworking a piece he'd tinkered with for 15 years. But once he started the process, he said, it "breathed new life into the thing."

In the original script, Lilly entered a mental health facility. In the new one, Jack did. Harris loved the switch.

"It was a bit cliché, you know, the woman somehow taking it harder than the man," Harris said. "It was really beneficial for me, too, because I wouldn't have thought I'd written a character who lacked dimension and emotional depth. But when I flipped the roles around, I was stunned and a little bit embarrassed with how I depicted the female characters in my story."

Harris was on set for much of the shooting. He asked to be "a bit arrogant for a second" and talk about what he was feeling.

"When you walk up on a movie set, you see star wagons and production trucks and it looks like a small little town has been built. The streets are closed off, there's police directing traffic," Harris said. "And you're walking up going, 'This is all because of some stuff that came out of my head.'"

Now, acclaimed western director Walter Hill is making a movie out of "Moon of Popping Trees" starring Christoph Waltz and Willem Dafoe. But Hill has changed the story quite a bit and titled the film "Dead for a Dollar."

Hollywood news website Deadline quoted one of its producers, Kirk D'Amico, as saying Hill has "created a Western with contemporary themes and modern feeling characters" and that Waltz and Dafoe "will embody the extraordinary leading roles which are destined for cinematic history."

Harris says Hill is a great director and the film's action promises to be wonderful, but he's wondering if the film will be missing some of the dramatic elements and character development in the original version.

"But, you know, it was gathering digital dust," Harris said. "It wasn't going to see the light of day unless 'The Starling' became such a hit that people were like, 'Matt, we want to make whatever you have.'"

HARRIS AT HOME

Harris met his wife, producer Molly Ryan, on the A&E series "Ancient Mysteries and Mysteries of the Bible." Her background is in documentaries and journalism.

They married in 1998 and have two daughters, Maggie and Ellie.

Harris' mother died last December but his father still lives in Bakersfield, as does one of his sisters. Another sister who passed away raised her girls in Bakersfield; two of his nieces are CSUB alumni.

All of which means he regularly comes to town but hasn't stayed very connected to CSUB. He's changing that, signing up to mentor a student in the CSUB Alumni Association's ’Runner Alumni Mentor Program this academic year.

He wants to pay forward the mentorship he received from faculty at CSUB.

"It's that one person who takes an interest in you and says, 'Hey, you're good at this' or 'Hey, you can't do this,'" Harris said. "Once you realize the power of that, you can't help but want to do it yourself."

Christine Bedell is the senior alumni engagement specialist at Cal State Bakersfield.