Project Forte is an original series presented by Maestro Filmworks that seeks to amplify marginalized voices in the film industry to promote a continued initiative around allyship.
Forte (for·te) is defined as; 1. a thing at which someone excels. or 2. in music, loud or strong
Allyship is not about the different struggles of diverse groups cancelling each other out or competing with each other; rather, it’s about coming together in solidarity. Our goal is to cut through the noise of the status quo in order to highlight the voices of the many talented and creative individuals that are forces in their own crafts
Written & edited by Kate Feher
Maestro Filmworks presents the second installment of Project Forte featuring Kyra Knox (she/her), a director and producer currently working in Philadelphia and New York.
Read about how she got started, her role in the industry now, and the inspiring stories prevalent within her work. Knox recognizes the value of inclusivity, representation, and individuality. She also speaks to the power of encouragement, and how lifting each other up can give us permission to achieve our goals. Kyra Knox lends her voice to the communities closest to her, documenting stories of kindness, generosity, influence, mentorship, and support. She is a storyteller first and foremost, Knox says, but don’t let such humble ambitions fool you, she is a force behind the camera and a driving connector for her team.
Kris Mendoza: So, Kyra, how did you get your start in the industry?
Kyra Knox: I actually started out as an actor at the young age of six. I started my training at Freedom Theatres and from there, I went to Performing Arts High School. When I graduated from high school, I got the opportunity to perform off Broadway in New York, doing Corner Wars, which won the 2003 Newsday George Oppenheimer Award for best original play.
Then my grandfather passed away, and I decided to quit acting. You see, back in the day you actually had to pay a lot of money to get your headshots printed out. And my last conversation with him had been “Can you put money in my accounts so I can get my headshots printed out?” He passed away the next day. And I was very… I felt guilty. And I was only 19 years old, but for me, it just made me quit the arts for 10 years, after I did that play.
I got engaged 10 years later and I felt like something was missing… I realized that I was missing the Arts. So, I went back to my mentor Mel Williams, back to acting school and back to the plays in New York, again — fun fact about Mel, he’s currently the acting coach for The Equalizer with Queen Latifah!
One day an associate of mine reached out saying, “Hey, can you help me with my web series and produce?” and I thought, “Well, what does a producer do?”
So, I took classes at PhillyCAM. It was like 70 bucks for 10 classes. And that’s how I started getting into producing.
Kris Mendoza: You mentioned someone taking a chance on you? Was that the spark that helped get things started for you?
Kyra Knox: One of my acting teachers, Jayson Williams, is a SAG actor and at the time was making his directorial debut. He took me under his wing and taught me how to produce. He knew I was taking classes at PhillyCAM, and he showed me the ropes.
Also, I would just ask people, “Can I shadow you on set? I don’t have to get paid.” I worked for free. If I was in front of the camera, I would constantly talk to the crew and say, “Hey, I know I’m on break, but can I help you guys out?” And that’s how people started knowing me. Keep in mind this whole time, I was working a corporate job.
One day, my husband came home and found me crying and asked, “What’s wrong?” And I realized, “I don’t want to do this anymore. I want to follow my dreams. I’m really loving the behind the scenes. I don’t want to be an actor anymore. I want to be a producer. Can I quit my job?” My husband said, “Give me 90 days.” So I gave my notice and soon had a runner position at Tweed Video, working one day a week.
By my second month, I was working full time, moving up quite rapidly. I wanted to show them I was a rockstar. By that next year, I was producing and directing my own episodes, my own docu-series. Things moved quickly, once I got in there. But I think it’s important to let people know I didn’t go to film school. Being on set/getting those opportunities to shadow has actually been my film school. Jayson took a chance on me and I just skyrocketed.
Kris Mendoza: So you mentioned getting your start at at Tweed. Are you freelancing now or have you taken your talents somewhere else?
Kyra Knox: So I was freelancing for Koi-Fly a bit, and I liked that they were all pretty open-minded. On one particular shoot, the CEO approached me, saying “Have you ever thought about not being a freelancer, and being on staff?” I had never really thought about that, because I hadn’t found a production company where I could truly feel safe. But I was open to talking with them, we had a formal conversation and within a few weeks she sent me an offer to be their newest staff director/producer!
Kris Mendoza: That sounds amazing!
Kyra Knox: Yeah. It was time for me to find a home because that freelancer life, especially as a producer/director, can dry up real fast. I’m happy to have my home with them.
Kris Mendoza: Did you have any early inspirations and kind of role models in the industry that you looked up to as someone you either modeled your work after, or modeled your work ethic after?
Kyra Knox: Well, I always say that my biggest inspiration has been Ava DuVernay, because she picked up the camera and left her job, the same age that I left my corporate job to follow my dreams. I remember reading an article about that and thought, “If she can do it, I can do it. What’s stopping me?”
She was my biggest inspiration to just go out and do it. I didn’t want to wake up: 50 years old, still in a cubicle, and still saying, “I want to be a producer” but never went for it. Life is too short. It’s not a rehearsal. It’s showtime. I went for it.
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox
Kris Mendoza: In terms of the work that you do now, is there a common thread you seek, whether it’s a passion or client project? What inspires you and sets your work apart, in your eyes?
Kyra Knox: I’m a storyteller and I’m passionate about documentaries. You always see the people that have millions of likes where everybody knows their stories… but what about the people that are just doing good in their community? They’re not doing it for exposure. I love telling their stories. I remember Shirley Raines in LA. Her nonprofit was called Beauty 2 The Streetz. And she would go to the middle of Skid Row and do people’s hair for them. She’s never asked for anything from anybody. She says, “I can’t get you a job, and I don’t have money to get you food, but you know what I can do? I can do your hair, and I can make up your face, and I can build your inner confidence back up.” I’m extremely passionate about those stories. And that’s why I’ve always preferred documentary filmmaking versus commercial filmmaking.
Kris Mendoza: What are your thoughts on diversity, or lack thereof, within the film industry? Are we heading in the right direction and how far have we actually come?
Kyra Knox: Honestly, I think we’ve only come a smidge closer to having diversity in the industry, but it’s still lacking. I feel it’s still just an “old boys club” and it’s really hard to get in. If it wasn’t for Jayson Williams, and also my production manager, Sheryl Gauntlett Jadrosich, a black female producer, I would not be where I am now. I’ve had people that are not of color in positions above me, but (in those instances) I hardly learned anything because they kind of shut me out. They would take my hunger for more and say “Oh no, don’t worry about that. We got this.”
But Sheryl… she taught me everything that she knew, when it came to producing. And I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for her, I would still be more of a PA on set. I’ve noticed that in this industry it’s so hard for black filmmakers and people of color to go up the ladder, and that’s very frustrating, I’m very fortunate that I was able to have those two mentors in my life.
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox
Kris Mendoza: You have to compound being a black filmmaker with being a female filmmaker, right? What’s that added perspective of being a black woman on set? How does it fare in a very white male dominated industry like the film industry?
Kyra Knox: It’s very, very tough. I had a situation on set not long enough ago, where I had to deal with a sound guy I typically don’t work with. But the way this person treated me was appalling. Even something as simple as asking him to hide the lavaliere mic.. he felt he had to loudly explain to talent, “Sorry for this. They want us to hide the mic.” He was very sarcastic. That day he didn’t even ask me, the producer on set, if he could pack up and leave, if I needed anything else… he just said, “Bye y’all.” And that was it. He had no respect for me at all.
There have been plenty of times, especially on shoots where I have to travel and am pretty unknown to the crew, someone would say, “Oh, you’re the director?” Kind of looking down at me. I have to macho myself up, and be a little tougher just to get respect. People who have been on set with me, they know that’s not how I roll. I like to laugh and have a good time because you don’t want to be on a set that’s filled with tension. I find that if I’m on a white crew, I have to be more of a macho style boss versus when I’m around my own people and people of color, I can be more relaxed and be more Kyra.
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like you kind of have to not be yourself in order to fit in, It’s definitely a severe double standard there. This opens up into something I see you posting about a lot, imposter syndrome. How do you struggle with it why do you think it’s something that you are continuing to overcome?
Kyra Knox: First, my imposter syndrome really comes from the fact that I didn’t go to film school. I’m surrounded by these amazing talented people that have been working since they were in high school or college. I feel like, “Do I belong here?” A lot of people are able to say, “I have 20 years of experience.” But feel pressure about having only a little.
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox and Eurica Yu
For example, when Maestro Filmworks contacted me, I thought “They want me?” I couldn’t believe it. I had been following you guys for a long time. I was in shock! I don’t know if you noticed, but in our first initial meetings, I was kind of stuttering, trying to tell my vision because I doubted my place there. I just felt like I was just this imposter, within this amazing production company and it freaked me out. Even working with crew the day of the shoot, I was nervous and afraid I would screw it up. The project was such a good cause; Eurica (Yu) is amazing to work with. Jo (Shen) was a boss within herself. And Kate (Feher)… everyone was so talented and I’m like, “what, am I doing here?”
Kris Mendoza: You ran the show!
Kyra Knox: And I was terrified! I remember my husband was texting me throughout the day, sending me positive messages. I get inside my head so much, and sometimes I end up talking down on myself. If someone tries to compliment me on a commercial project, I feel the need to say “but I’m only a documentary filmmaker.” Instead of saying, “Well, I have done commercial work, and it’s very, very tough for me.” I think that’s why I’ve become such an overachiever when it comes to taking classes all the time, and going to panels. I want to soak in all of this knowledge. Often, I feel like I’m many steps behind everyone else. I’m playing catch up, but also I am catching up.
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox and Hector Tapia
Kris Mendoza: I think there’s a certain level of external validation that has to happen before you have that internal validation. But what comes first? I think it’s a push and pull for sure. From what sparked with George Floyd, and everything that’s happened since, magnified by the pandemic, do you feel like people are more aware of the black experience, hardships and everyday struggles? And how do you see that kind of affecting maybe how you express yourself as an artist, or what kind of work you pursue?
Kyra Knox: In light of everything that has happened, at Koi-Fly, Stacey Grant, the CEO, really opened up a dialogue within her own company and created a safe environment for me to be free. I didn’t feel like I had to tone down my emotions. I didn’t feel like I had to act like everything was okay. I didn’t feel like I had to tone down my blackness. I don’t think that conversations would have been as readily open for everyone if it wasn’t for the Black Lives Matter movement, and people becoming more aware of what’s going on. Unfortunately for us, we’re used to this.
My father said something very deep to me – as all the protests were happening, he cried, “I never thought that my daughter would be fighting for the same rights that I was fighting for when I was her age.” The Black Lives Matter movement did empower me to speak up, because I was that person that conformed. (Getting into this industry) I didn’t want to say the wrong things. I really toned down who Kyra was. I toned down my emotions, because I was afraid that I wouldn’t get hired. I was afraid that I would lose friends that were not black or a person of color. So, it did empower me to do my passion project talking about the black community. The Black Lives Matter movement gave power to my voice.
Now I feel that if a person doesn’t agree with [the truth of] what’s going on, if they can’t support us, communities of color, and I’m talking about Asians, Hispanic, Latinas….if they can’t support our movement, then I don’t want to be around them. I don’t need to be hired by them.
Kris Mendoza: How do you see that affecting the type of work that you pursue creatively?
Kyra Knox: It makes me push even more to find our stories and document them, because I’m so tired of us being labeled in a negative way. It’s always the drug addict, the thief, the person that’s shooting another person. But in our communities, we do so many positive things. Why aren’t people focusing on that?I push hard to find the underdogs and tell our stories because they’re important to be heard and you never know who’s watching. You never know if there’s a young black girl filmmaker that’s watching my work and watching me be a storyteller for our community. I’ve got to inspire that young girl to take what I started and go to the next level, just like Ava DuVernay inspired me with her documentary, 13th.
Kris Mendoza: Finally, what’s next for Kyra?
Kyra Knox: My passion project, which is called Bad Things Happen In Philadelphia, is actually about all the good things that happen in Philadelphia. I am following the journey of Garry Mills and his non-profit called Shoot Basketballs NOT People, which helps get the inner city kids off the street, and playing basketball. He began mentoring a lot of these kids in schools that didn’t want to have anything to do with them. Now they’re a Division 1 team!
We’re also following Cohen Thompson in West Philadelphia. He has spent $20,000 of his own money to get kids off the street, and learning how to skate. It’s called Skate University. We’re following both journeys, and the funny thing is, these two men actually used to play basketball with each other in high school. I had no idea!
Behind the Scenes with Kyra Knox and Hector Tapia
Kris Mendoza: Any parting thoughts?
Kyra Knox: I just want people to know that it’s never too late to follow your dreams. When I decided to quit my job, people thought I was nuts. They thought I was crazy. People were saying, “How are you going to pay your bills?” To my husband, “You’re going to let Kyra quit her job?” But my husband believed in me, and I went for it. And look at me now. It doesn’t matter if you’re pregnant. If you have kids. It doesn’t matter your age, go for it. Why not?
Kris Mendoza: Doesn’t matter if you’re black, brown, yellow, or everything in between.
Kyra Knox: Exactly. Just go for it. Because life is too damn short to be miserable. Just go for your passion and don’t listen to the naysayers. You can do it. It can take 10 years to achieve that one year that will change your life. That is the model I stand by, and I’m here proving it.
Kris Mendoza: Mic drop, end interview.