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Harry Knapp, 59: Creative Liberation

A producer known for “Rescue Dawn” among many other great films, Harry Knapp has now pivoted to a successful career in visual art. He discusses working with Werner Herzog, addressing lifelong wounds, and letting go of ego to live more freely and intentionally.

It is amazing how many of us have imposter syndrome, no matter what level of impact we are having. It seems to be part of the built-in wiring of being a human; most of us seem to feel a level of not being worthy. Harry Knapp has produced and been involved with some massively successful films and is now one of the most successful non-represented artists in the world — an astonishing feat for someone who has only recently worked in the manner he does now. Still, Harry carries doubts about himself and his abilities. But then, that is what makes Harry so wonderfully vulnerable and human.

This is a soulful man who was in a business not always known for that: producing big-time movies. These are major endeavors, and the drive to succeed can be as powerful as anything on Wall Street. Harry, in his calm, self-reflective way, stands apart, believing deeply in story, creativity, and emotion. He also gets stuff done: he is the one who put together the team, actors and resources, then spent 6 months in a jungle getting Werner Herzog to complete Rescue Dawn. Not something for the faint of heart or spirit. It may seem all glam on the red carpet, but this is a tough, demanding career that can take a huge toll on one’s body and relationships.

Then the pandemic came and, as with many of us, it delivered a strong dose of self-examination and a career re-think which, for him, led to an outpouring of art. His images were immediately a hit. It may seem like a miraculous overnight success, but  the preparation took 59 years of walking the earth and looking into himself for what really mattered. As with all of us, we are who we are, doing what we do, because of the experience, knowledge, and wisdom we have accumulated along the road of life. Harry’s was hard won.

How would you describe being almost 60?
It’s funny: I thought I knew myself at 30, had it all figured out at 40, and at 50 I was sure wisdom had taken hold, until I realized I was a disaster. Today, nearing 60, I’ve surrendered control, manipulation, all the nonsense to the universe and I’m breathing for the first time in my life. Life feels more intentional, less reactive and urgent.

This past year you lost 3 of your best friends. How did that impact your vision of your future?
Death is a strange thing; it’s not something you can usually prepare for even in knowing the outcome. My father died at 57; I wasn’t ready for that in my life and for years I was sure my own life would end at 57 so it was telling that I lost my three closest friends at 57 while surviving my 57th birthday. Losing my dear friend Critter was definitely a seminal moment for me: it gutted me but also exposed all of the anger, resentment and guilt I had been dragging around since my divorce. I had pissed away five years of my life mourning the death of a 30-year marriage rather than celebrating what I still had. I began to address my self-inflicted wounds, childhood trauma, and even my dad’s death — all things I had swept under the rug, so to speak. And I started by celebrating Critter’s life, how he lived so passionately and died doing what he loved. Today, my ex Noelle and I are super solid; my family is whole again and we are all thriving.

Gotta ask: You helped produce Rescue Dawn what is working with Werner Herzog like?
Werner Herzog doesn’t play nice with others but he’s unlike any other human I’ve ever had the pleasure to know. He’s poetry in motion, an iconic person who has scaled the highest peaks of art and humanity in every sense. Our relationship had tenuous roots until I proved myself worthy to him over months in a base jungle determined to kill us all. On one very tense night I was apologizing to Christian Bale about the conditions and he said to me, “Harry, the best movies I’ve made were the hardest to make.” In the end, I would say Rescue Dawn is arguably the best picture Herzog ever made, though he would be the first to argue otherwise.

“For me, liberation and acceptance of myself and my work came during the pandemic like a warm breeze passing gently across my face”

When did you start making visual art?
If I’m being honest, I was wandering in the desert for years shamelessly trying to emulate Rothko and Pollock, thinking I could do that, until I discovered no I can’t. I was struggling to find my identity as an artist. Some call it style, which I find absurd; style is a box like bad typecasting by the unimaginative. For me, liberation and acceptance of myself and my work came during the pandemic like a warm breeze passing gently across my face, taking tears and sadness and feelings of being unworthy along with it. My story was suddenly ok to tell and own regardless of the outcome.

What is your process?
People are always super curious about my process, but what I hear is: tell me a story. We connect to stories, the duality between artist and subject and how that emanates from rumination to canvas. For me, that usually happens somewhere between two bourbons and a good cry; a strong feeling guides me into a dark alley where a narrative emerges and that narrative splinters into a million pieces which either soothes the pain or not. In practical terms, I jog back and forth between analog acrylic painting, photographs, and digital assembly.

How did working in film contribute to your vision as an artist?
I find the human condition beyond comprehension, a far-off place I will never gain full understanding of. Subsequently, film has always been a fascinating medium to explore those possibilities. By comparison, my art is a fantastical narrative, I suppose; a perpetual exercise of bringing light to darkness, joy to pain, the wolf howling at the moon begging for answers to my suffering.  

“I think it’s fair to say most people suffer from some form of imposter syndrome”

You mentioned imposter syndrome with your work. How does that manifest in your life?
Beyond the narcissist, I think it’s fair to say most people suffer from some form of imposter syndrome. We are all broken; it’s a universal commonality. The feeling of not being enough never ends, really; especially for a poor kid that grew up in Brooklyn. I’ve always felt like I had something to prove, yet I was always a million miles from self-acceptance. That insecurity subconsciously embeds a sort of perceived audacity to the claim Artist reserved for the exceptional. When I look around, I find the streets are littered with talented artists, far more talented than myself, and therein lies the opportunity for humility.

Hunt For Life

The film world can be very demanding on one’s time and energy. How did that affect your life?
It’s cliché, but be careful of what you ask for. The craft of filmmaking can be spiritual at times, but the business can kill a man. I was grateful to spend an entire career in the business. I want to say it beats this or that but, in hindsight, I’ve seen happier folks bagging groceries at the market; thus, perspective seems to be the lens you see life through. Recently, I’ve been trying to reconcile being away from my family for 6 months every year for 30 years and I’m not so sure it was worth it, although ironically film remains my passion.

Do you still want to be involved in the making of movies?
Telling stories is an inherent part of humanity, the connective tissue of relationships and education and fantasy, so that never changes.  However, after nearly 40 years in the business, I’m at a point where I’d like to work on my own terms with more purpose, meaning something greater than trading time for money.  

“The craft of filmmaking can be spiritual at times, but the business can kill a man”

You have a couple of kids who are going the actor route. That can be a rather bumpy road. What advice do you give them?
I’m an advocate for the arts and supporting kids’ pursuit of the arts; the last thing we need are more attorneys. But I’m not going to lie, it was alarming to hear my son tell me he wanted to be an actor. My kids grew up on movie sets and not once did Noelle or I ever suggest they consider the business; after all, we were all too aware how brutal it can be.  Unfortunately, or fortunately in this case, after Beau visited me in Thailand on the set of Rescue Dawn and had the opportunity to see Christian Bale and Steve Zahn work, there was no turning back. It was a bumpy road for him indeed. Until that big break, he worked his craft in local Hollywood theater, too many cattle calls, and student shorts. Drue was different: just wickedly gifted with the comic timing and extraordinary dramatic vulnerabilities, she headed to college thinking she could straddle academia and show business.

It Girl (Revisited)

What is it like being a grandfather? How does that word feel to you?
I’m Pop; the grands have been unapologetically designated to the in-laws. The distilled answer to this notion of being a grandfather brings a sense of pride around this tribe of mine, but also a keen awareness that the job of parenting and nurturing is never done. Life is messy and there are always new challenges to navigate, hopefully in more elegant ways than we did as parents. Real talk… The revenge factor fills me with tremendous joy; just warms my heart to see my son run screaming into the night when the kids don’t listen and, worse, when they aren’t impressed that he’s on television. Also, the part where I get to serve cake, ice cream and soda to my grandkids for dinner despite the warnings not to. Or when I get to play the superhero CLAW, which I invented to defeat my daughter’s son Quincy who is sure he’s Spider Man. This is all to say: it’s way better than kids; you get to visit and leave the tough stuff to mom and dad.

“I’m a dreamer, which is oftentimes at odds with intention and purpose”

What is your day-to-day routine?
Our pediatrician once told us that you can’t judge a child’s nutrition on a daily basis, you have to consider nutrition more broadly, like a month. I’m a dreamer, which is oftentimes at odds with intention and purpose. Every day I want to check a list, find that ever-elusive balance, be all that I can be, and then I find myself wandering the hallways of my mind. So many doors I’ve yet to open, windows I’ve neglected to shut. Shit Everywhere. This is where judgement sets in and I can easily revert to the first chapter: accomplishment, money and success. So today, I cut myself a break and allow for many moments of daydreaming, to just be and explore and navigate my thoughts and feelings with my constant companion: very strong coffee. At some point, I carve my day into my favorite things: writing, art and bourbon. 

What music are you listening to?
Music is everything. It transports me in space and time, it fills in the gaps and communicates what I cannot. It is ever present in all aspects of my life, writing and art; if I want to get there quickly, there is a song that will get me there. In that sense, I’m all over the place. Recently, I’ve been exploring redemption so I’m listening to Leon Bridges, Aloe Blacc, Keb’ Mo’, Nina Simone, Gregory Porter.

What are your 3 non-negotiables in life?
I think the definition of non-negotiable is something that cannot be bought or sold or changed by discussion. That question is so tricky because beyond integrity, it could also be a list of rigidity which I’ve promised myself to abandon in this second chapter. For most of my life, pride, ego and ambition crippled me; boy, I missed out believing I was beyond all that is vulnerable. I came by it honestly; my old man was the quiet, tough guy from the mean streets of Brooklyn and my mother was an open book, emotional and present, so I’ve found myself at that intersection many times in my life. Then divorce happened, dating fails happened, and I was forced to let go. Fortunately, Brené Brown came along and I’ve since liberated myself. What a shame it took so long to get here — better late than never. Today, my non-negotiables would be no non-negotiables! Life is a moving target; I want to be open to feel it all: pain, joy and defeat and victory. 

Connect with Harry:
Website
IMDB
Rescue Dawn
No One Lives

See medical disclaimer below. ↓

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The ideas expressed here are solely the opinions of the author and are not researched or verified by AGEIST LLC, or anyone associated with AGEIST LLC. This material should not be construed as medical advice or recommendation, it is for informational use only. We encourage all readers to discuss with your qualified practitioners the relevance of the application of any of these ideas to your life. The recommendations contained herein are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You should always consult your physician or other qualified health provider before starting any new treatment or stopping any treatment that has been prescribed for you by your physician or other qualified health provider. Please call your doctor or 911 immediately if you think you may have a medical or psychiatric emergency.

AUTHOR

David Stewart
David is the founder and face of AGEIST. He is an expert on, and a passionate champion of the emerging global over-50 lifestyle. A dynamic speaker, he is available for panels, keynotes and informational talks at david@agei.st.

 

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