Written by Rich Forestano Thursday, 27 March 2014 00:00
The road to an Academy Award wasn't easy for Anthony Katagas. The East Williston native did something some young men would never do: choose a path away from the family business. The road less-traveled proved difficult but worthwhile for the Wheatley School graduate, culminating in a Best Picture Oscar as producer of 12 Years A Slave.
“I was very proud, very humbled by the experience because there are a lot of really worthy and great filmmakers that didn’t get [an Oscar],” Katagas said in an interview with the Mineola American.
Katagas, 44, seems eager to give credit to others.
“The team on the film was rock solid. No one person does it alone,” said Katagas. “I was not thinking about me. I was thinking about my parents. My mom was there with my two oldest kids and my wife.”
Katagas admitted being anxious when Will Smith was reading who won the biggest award in film. Upon hearing the winning film, he looked to his left, kissed his wife, Brandi, and smiled.
Katagas, originally from Great Neck, moved to Downing Street in East Williston in 1985. His mother, Anastasia, still lives there today.
“Anthony was always a creative child,” she said. “As a mother, I was more worried about him getting a good education and a job. But after college, he announced he wanted to [pursue film] and he did it.”
Katagas still meets with East Williston friends from 29 years ago. “We still get together four or five times a year,” Katagas said. “It’s a very close graduating class [from Wheatley].” He fondly remembers TR’s Great American Restaurant in Williston Park.
Greg Arrese, one of Katagas’ first friends in East Williston, welcomed him back to town.
“I think last December we had a night out and it was about 16 of us from back in the day, which is great,” Arrese said. “Twenty-five years later, the group is still going.”
Katagas also keeps in touch with Jamie O'Connell and Ted Karikas, who was his best man and is godfather to his daughter Ella. He regularly sees David Polonet, who rode the bus to school with Katagas and lived around the block.
“We have a unique group of friends and we had an Oscar party the night Tony won,” Karikas said. “Tony’s parents live two houses down from me.”
Those friendships are an anchor for Katagas.
“I still have great memories of Great Neck but this group from East Williston, we stayed remarkably tight,” he said.
Anthony attended the Wheatley School for three years before enrolling at Western New England College, where he studied American government. Katagas was an accomplished lacrosse player at WNEC, making captain his junior and senior years.
“I ended up getting a bunch of odd jobs in Manhattan [after college],” he said. “I worked at a leather jacket store called the Original Leather Store. I also waited tables in SoHo, namely Florent and Barolo.”
From 1992-94, Katagas worked in various family-run businesses which included his grandfather Louis Kapsis’ costume jewelry business, which Kapsis started in 1932.
Katagas moved in with Arrese in Manhattan in 1993. The two, along with friend Scottie Roberts, found a brownstone near Central Park West and Columbus Circle. Arrese always knew there was something unique about his friend and predicted it almost 20 years ago.
“After Tony won, my wife turned to my kids and said ‘Daddy called this a long time ago,’” Arrese said. “Tony’s a guy who makes things happen.”
After dabbling in the family business, Katagas wanted to mold his own future.
“I soon realized life in the family business was not for me,” Katagas said. “I quickly moved down to Greenwich Village and put myself into the School of Continuing Education at NYU.”
Katagas studied acting, photography and screenwriting and felt he was on to something.
“I started to think about films and how I could get involved,” he said. “I had a very fleeting moment when I thought that I’d just act in films. It was a very short career as an actor.”
The first gig was all he needed to realize he wanted to make movies his life. With close friend and SoHo artist/Great Neck native Ross Brodar and a $4,000 budget, the two worked on A Screwdriver is a Thief’s Tool, which screened during Independent Film Week in 1996. That year, he stopped waiting tables and never looked back.
“It was from that experience that I wanted to produce movies," Katagas said. “That made me realize I want to make films happen.”
After A Screwdriver is a Thief’s Tool, Katagas’ future wife, Brandi, introduced him to Jeff Anania, who was making an independent film called Long Time Since. Katagas helped out on that movie for free.
“I started working on other people’s films as an assistant director,” he said. “That position kept me close to the director and the camera.”
Katagas landed his first production manager position in 1998 with Hamlet, a modern-day take on the classic Shakespearian tale starring Ethan Hawke and directed by Michael Almereyda. Katagas eventually produced more films with Almereyda, including Happy Here and Now, This So-Called Disaster and William Eggelston in the Real World.
“That job opportunity propelled my production management career,” said Katagas.
He started his own production company, Keep Your Head Productions, in 1999 with Callum Greene.
“I try to surround myself with the kind of people that I could respect and people that I align myself with creatively,” Katagas stated. In 2004, the partners were nominated for an Independent Spirit Award.
The following year, Katagas was tapped by 2929 Productions executive Marc Butan to produce James Gray’s We Own The Knight, starring Joaquin Phoenix.
“I established myself as a can-do guy in New York who had a knack for numbers and the creative sensibility,” Katagas said. “That’s a good balance with independent film because everyone wants to do something creative, but you need to be responsible and deliver these projects on budget.”
Gray approached Katagas to help him show the movie could be made with a $19 million budget. “We figured [the plan] out together,” said Katagas. “That was another milestone. It was a second chapter for me. James Gray and Mark Butan really believed in me.”
After We Own The Knight, Butan had Katagas produce The Light Before Her Eyes and Two Lovers.
He then produced The Next Three Days for Paul Haggis; My Soul To Take for Wes Craven; and Abduction for John Singleton. He was in talks to produce The Hunger Games when Butan asked for a meeting.
“He was with a new company, Plan B Entertainment, and they were doing Killing Them Softly, said Katagas. “I was offered the job about a month later.”
After wrapping Killing Them Softly, Plan B reps discussed projects that they wanted Katagas to tackle; one being a film in its “very early stages”: 12 Years A Slave.
Katagas and the team knew it was a special film before the first day on set—though they never predicted it would get nine Oscar nominations and take home three statuettes.
“No one knows if you’re going to win an Oscar,” he said. “No one knows if [a film] will succeed, but you know it’s important to you as a person and [12 Years A Slave] was important to me.”
Today, Katagas is busy getting a film together, once again for Plan B and Marc Butan: Lost City Of Z.
And while he'd love another Oscar, he'll be happy to just keep making films happen.