Producer and screenwriter Daniel Knauf discusses finding success after switching careers and new series ‘The Astronauts’

Photo: Chris Cuffaro

Daniel Knauf has been the mastermind behind a number of television shows and has always loved writing and creating. He earned his bachelor’s degree in English at California State University Los Angeles. However, one might be surprised to hear that he had a career as an employee benefits consultant before getting into the writing world.

“I was on that track as a kid, I was very creative,” said Knauf. “I majored in art and English in college, but the career in insurance happened when I got married at 22 and I wanted to be able to feed everybody. It seemed like I had to set aside childhood things.”

Though he found a lot of success as an employee benefits consultant, by the time he was 27-28 years old Knauf felt the itch to start writing again. 

“I’ve found that creative people are like sharks — you have to keep swimming or else you can’t breathe,” said Knauf. “Once the kids went to bed, I would spend a couple of hours a night learning the screenwriting process. I kept that up for years and years and focused on getting better at it.”

For years, Knauf wrote from his home and by the time he reached his 40s he figured it was time to try and sell something. His first major project was when he sold “Carnivàle” to HBO. Part of the reason Knauf believes the show sold was because he was able to hone in on his craft before working in the industry.

“I think that I had forced myself to sit on the launchpad for as long as I did so I could understand my craft before I launched a career,” said Knauf. “Many writers who start out in the business are learning as they are working — I don’t think that working on staff on a show is a great place to be learning. There’s too much pressure there. But I have the luxury of having a well-paying job so I could really take my time.”

Knauf signed on as the Creator/Executive Producer of the series, which ran on HBO from 2005-2007. The series focused on a traveling carnival in a bleak American landscape of the Great Depression. 

For Knauf, landing a job on HBO was like going from zero to 100 right off the bat.

“It was completely terrifying. I was suddenly in this weird bubble that is Hollywood,” said Knauf. “There’s a completely different language spoken there. In Hollywood, there were these specific things that you needed to do and on ‘Carnivàle’ I made every single possible mistake you could make from the standpoint of office politics. I usually only made them once — I had run my own business for 22 years and brought a skillset that most showrunners don’t have. But we were making a really terrific show, to this day people say that  ‘Carnivàle’ was the beginning of what we think of when it comes to contemporary serialized television. It was a great experience overall.”

Knauf has since gone on to write and produce many shows, including producing and writing on the hit STARZ series “Spartacus: Blood and Sand,” serving as the writer-Showrunner on “Dracula” for NBC, and working as a writer and Executive Producer on the NBC series “The Blacklist,” just to name a few. While he’s used to working on darker subject matter, Knauf’s latest project comes in the form of a new live-action series on Nickelodeon entitled “The Astronauts.”

Produced in partnership with Imagine Kids+Family’s Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, and Stephanie Sperber, “The Astronauts” centers around five children whose parents work in the aeronautic industry. While they all know of each other, they aren’t the best of friends. The kids manage to check out a spacecraft but ultimately end up getting launched into space together. The kids and their parents have to work together to get the kids back down to Earth safely.

“I’ve been in really dark material up until ‘The Astronauts,’ so this was a huge change of pace for me. I’ve been wanting to do this for a while, I was getting kind of burned out on stuff that was so edgy,” said Knauf. “When my parents were alive, we would watch TV and they would be afraid to go outside because some stuff was so grim and horrendous. The world isn’t really like that. I wanted to make something that people ages 7-70 can enjoy together and not feel worse about the world than they did when they sit down.”

Working on “The Astronauts” gave Knauf a chance to write through the eyes of children, which wasn’t particularly prominent in the work he was doing. Knauf says that while adults usually have their public perception figured out by the time they are in their mid-20s, kids are still under construction.

“There’s not a lot of subtext with kids, they are a little more emotionally honest. Kids kind of have lousy poker faces,” said Knauf. “You might have to write a lot of scene work for adults to get to the truth in a situation, but with children, it’s usually right out there.”

Though it is technically children’s programming, Knauf says that “The Astronauts” explores some bleak material, essentially if “Apollo 13” happened with children. The show itself is one of the most ambitious and cinematic projects Nickelodeon will bring to television, with Knauf saying that the space world that is created is incredible to look at, and the network is exploring this new kind of programming that could appeal to a broader audience.

Knauf hopes that families who watch “The Astronauts” together are able to find some hope in the world around them.

“I think it’s a show that celebrates a hopeful future. It’s about people working together to find a common goal,” said Knauf. “It’s a hard road they’re on, but at the end of the day, it’s hopeful. These days when a hotspot is on what separates us, ‘The Astronauts’ celebrates what brings us together. I’ve never been more proud of something I’ve done. The team has been phenomenal. Every day is like Christmas morning to see the final cuts. I’m not a pushover, but this one is something special.”

“The Astronauts” premieres on Nickelodeon on Nov. 13.

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