From Durham to Hollywood

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Matt Renner, Vice President of Production at National Geographic and Oyster River High School (ORHS) graduate (‘97) has filmed in the trenches on Deadliest Catch and was one of the producers for academy award winning film Free Solo. He said the key to success is to “put fear and everything aside into this little box and lock it away. Just go out and be daring.” 

Renner, alongside his National Geographic team, won a total of seven Emmys and one Oscar for Free Solo, a film about Alex Honnold,  a man who free soloed (rock climbed without ropes) El Capitan. These Emmys embody Renner’s successful journey, which started back at ORHS. The support of the Durham community and the opportunities ORHS provided was the beginning of Renner’s success.

 In high school, Renner participated in all kinds of opportunities that ORHS offered. “I was a jack of all trades, master of none. I loved exposing myself to all different types of people and to different teachers. I was taught that you have one life to live and if you’re not participating and problem solving, then you are a part of the problem,” said Renner.

 Amos Goss (‘97) a long-term friend of Renner’s describes his personality in high school as, “super versatile. He was great at soccer but no jock. He was amazing in theatre but no theatre guy. Matt could hang with anyone, just a naturally curious guy.” 

Coming out of high school, like most students, Renner was still figuring himself out. Renner attended Colgate University where he played Division 1 soccer, however he still didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. “I remember in college my advisor said to me, ‘You have to laso some courses together to have a concentration, just pick four. You could be a history major, an English major, a political science major, an economics major, just pick four or five.’ How do you just pick four or five? How do people know what they want to be?” said Renner. 

The summer after college, Renner was bartending in Boston when his dad forced him to get a “real job.” Renner always knew he would travel and see the world beyond Durham. In 2002, Goss, who lived in Los Angeles, asked Renner to live with him. Renner saw this as his ticket out. Although his parents were skeptical, Renner went to LA where he was opened to a world of opportunities. “I was teaching improv classes and DJing at parties and working weddings, all to pay the bills […] this is when I had to put one foot in front of the other and started working for small TV companies where I found my love for storytelling,” Renner said. 

While working on the set of these low budget TV shows called Boom and Live Like a Star, Renner was learning about the industry and meeting producers. As Renner said, “it’s all about the people you know.” A producer he met along the way reached out and asked Renner to come with him to Alaska to film the show Deadliest Catch, a Discovery Channel show about catfishing on the Alaskan seas. Susie Renner, Matt’s mom, wasn’t surprised to hear a producer was interested in her son as she explained, “Matt has always been really good with people. He’s super easy to work with and he’s a worker bee. He works really hard.”

Renner decided to move to Alaska to pursue Deadliest Catch. He recalled his experience on the show as “life changing. There is nothing better than looking up at a sky that had colors of purples and blues and greens and oranges, skies that only 1% of the world could see.”

Although there were moments of beauty, being a cameraman on the boat was a dangerous job. Renner explained, “everyone had to be everyone else’s keeper. There would be many times when I was filming that someone would put their boot in my ass and kicked me forward as a 2,000 pound crab pot fell right in my place. But there were other times where I would put my boot in their ass and kick them away from a line that was spinning overboard that would have drowned their ankle and taken them down. I had to always be on my toes.”

For seven years, Renner worked his way up on the set of Deadliest Catch. From production assistant, to the cameraman on the boat, to story producer, to series producer, and finally, to running the entire show. “It taught me how to be resilient and rely on myself […]  if [co-workers] were working, I was working. If they were sleeping, I was still working every day showing my grit,” Renner said. 

Renner’s nonstop work ethic and versatility made him unique, something that started to show when he was in high school. Dave Ervin, Renner’s music teacher at both Oyster River Middle School (ORMS) and ORHS explained what made Renner different from his other students. “He had a crazy work ethic and it’s still that way now. When you can find everything in life as being a really fun endeavor it’s not work anymore it’s something you can’t wait to do. Matt just loved life.” 

A couple years after the end of the seventh season of Deadliest Catch, Renner received a phone call from a co-worker and friend of his that would be the start of his career at National Geographic. “I received a call from Tim Pastore who worked with me in the trenches on Deadliest Catch. He said, ‘I have a crazy idea. Why don’t you leave your job and come work for me at National Geographic and we together can re-imagine what National Geographic can be,’” said Renner. 

Renner took the opportunity and turned National Geographic, which at the time was solely a magazine, into a film company with relevant and consistent nonfiction content, which included films such as,  Hell on Earth, LA 92, Chain of Command and his most recent, Free Solo. “Every time Matt does something, I expect that something’s going to break or that it’ll be a huge success. He doesn’t do anything small,” said Goss in response to Renner’s success.

Through his work, Renner has made a name for himself throughout the production industry, and remains an impactful figure in the Durham community. Ervin explained, “The more people you see from your community become successful the more you realize ‘I can do this too.’ It’s so inspiring to see somebody who was right here in these halls who now is doing something where you just think ‘wow that would be really cool to do.’” 

Just as Renner left a mark on the community the community impacted his journey. “Oyster River certainly opened up a lot of opportunities for him. He had the chance to play soccer, write for Mouth of the River, be in the school plays and musicals and he was a class officer. You either take advantage of those things or you don’t, and Matt took advantage of them,” said Susie Renner.

Along with the opportunities Renner received, the support of the Durham community and teachers at ORHS has had a huge impact on his success. “I feel like I didn’t have one set of parents but seven or eight sets all looking out for me […] this included teachers,” said Renner.

Agreeing with Renner, Goss explained how his friend’s success correlates with the high school teachers he had. “So many of my friends have had such incredible success ranging from politics, athletics, music, entrepreneurship, but none more so than with Matt and his filmmaking. It’s really a credit to the Oyster River teachers. So many teachers who had such a profound impact on Matt, myself, and so many others.”

One of the teachers Goss was referring to is Ervin who has known Renner since the sixth grade. “Mr. Ervin was a huge impact. He introduced me to the world of acting, storytelling and playing a character way back in the sixth grade. He really brought me out of my shell,” said Renner. Ervin and Renner have remained close friends and continue to support each other today.  

Renner’s path to all his success began at ORHS, with the teachers who impacted him, to the support he received from the community. Renner’s urge to be involved and actively participate in every opportunity ORHS had set him up for success. Susie Renner saw the way ORHS opened doors for her son and believes, after seeing Renner’s success, “the more you put into it, the more you get out of it. The more you do in high school, the more confidence you will have when you get out into the world and get involved.”