Polly Staniford and Angie Fielder.
Aquarius Films turns 10 this year, and the company is on a roll. ‘Lion’ stormed the box office and earned six Oscar nominations, while ‘Berlin Syndrome’ premiered at Sundance and was acquired by Netflix. This week, the production company’s first ever series, Stan’s ‘The Other Guy’, debuted. Jackie Keast talks to founders Angie Fielder and Polly Staniford about meeting in the IF office and working together for a decade.
We met when I was running the IF Awards with Jen Peedom (Sherpa, Mountain). Each year as we geared up for the actual event and the live TV broadcast we would bring in a small team of people to help actually run the TV side of things. Polly came on board to help put together that show.
While she was there, David Michôd [then IF editor] had written a short film. He was developing the film that would ultimately become Animal Kingdom, but he knew that in order to get that film up he needed to get some runs on the board. So he approached us together to produce it.
So we made Crossbow, which then did really well. It premiered at Venice, also screened at Sundance and went on to sell to lots of different territories, won awards and did really well. So the three of us then thought: “That seemed to work, why don’t we make another one together?”
So we started putting together Netherland Dwarf. In the meantime Polly and I in making that film had realised we worked very well together and in a similar way. We discussed the idea of starting a company, which we called Aquarius Films.
At that point it was really a hobby company because we were both still working at IF. Then when we left, Polly went and worked with Michael McMahon and Tony Ayres, who were then called Big and Little, before they became Matchbox. I was then working with various producers on various films and things. So we still had our ‘day jobs’ and then we were developing stuff for Aquarius on the side.
Then Netherland Dwarf did really well as well, and we did some other shorts that did well and thought we should start developing some long-form content.
Polly’s extremely enthusiastic and motivated and I think we both share that trait; we’re both real doers. We both really enjoy the creative side of it, and I think creatively we’re on the same page. We agree on most things.
If you have the same style of producing as someone, like we do, I think there’s also a lot that you don’t need to talk about because you just know that the other person will handle it the way that you would.
We’ve probably grown up a lot [over the ten years]. As I said, the company started as a hobby company, then in the last five years it’s become a proper company. As in, we work full-time in it and we derive our income from it; we’re able to survive and employ staff and do all of those things.
As entrepreneurs, businesswomen and producers we’ve just evolved together.
The only way that it’s changed really is that we’ve probably become closer as colleagues and as people. Polly has recently moved up here from Melbourne which was a really great thing for the company. We’re still working together in the same way as before but it’s just really great to be in the same space.
We feel like we’ve been working towards this moment for a long time, this being a moment where projects that we have made are receiving acclaim and doing well commercially.
It’s just been incredibly rewarding, and we also understand that now’s the time to make hay. We have made these projects and people are looking to us for content. It feels like people are approaching us a lot more. It feels like we’re able to access the key people in those big organisations in a much easier way than before. We definitely feel like our company has a lot of currency at the moment, and that’s great. So we’re just working actually harder than ever to capitalise on that currency.
Producing is kind of weird job that there’s no template for; you just kind of make it up. There’s so many different types of producers and ways of producing that you really just fumble through it until you find your own way. It’s been a process of working out together how to do it.
Polly, she’s quite fearless. She doesn’t second guess herself very often, she just goes “Well let’s just try it and it will probably work and if it doesn’t well, we’ll just try something else.” She’s very positive and confident in that way, I’ve learned from her that you just have to go for gold and see where you end up.
I think producing can be quite a lonely job. It involves so many facets, from raising money, to working with different creatives, doing workshops. There are just so many layers to the job. Having someone to bounce off and share the load with was just really great. We’re very similar people. Both Aquarians, hence the name.
Initially we would discuss everything that came in. But sometimes, with Wish You Were Here for example, Angie produced that on her own. I read a couple of scripts but I wasn’t involved as a producer. We [had] decided that we would do everything under the umbrella of Aquarius even if it might be something that only one of us does.
Then as the company developed, we went, “No, let’s actually make sure that we both always like the projects that we’re taking on so there’s a level of taste and quality that comes in”. So we both started reading everything and we decided that unless we both wanted to do it that we couldn’t do it as a company.
Then now, we’ve even changed again. Moving forward on all of our projects we’ll always both be producers. There might be a lead producer who manages the development and is the more face-to-face person, but we’ll always both be credited as producers on everything. And now we’ve got a third business partner too, Cecilia [Ritchie] who also comes into play.
I think we have very similar taste in terms of the projects that we want to make. But that’s not to say that we haven’t taken things on that at first one of us doesn’t respond to as much. I think we argue in positive way; we fight for things that we believe in. But I have to say to date almost everything that we’ve done, we’ve both loved from the get go. So it hasn’t become a challenge yet.
Having children has put a lot in perspective for us. It’d be really hard to be working with business partners that didn’t have kids, that didn’t understand the flexibility that you sometimes need. We all work equally as hard but we’re also very understanding and flexible with each other when we need to leave for sick children or to pick up from childcare.
We’ve been working really hard for 10 years so it’s really nice to finally see the rewards. We’ve always been really ambitious about where we want to go with the company. I feel like we’re finally in that place where we’re actually getting meetings with broadcasters, we’re able to take on bigger projects and we’re optioning some bigger material. It’s really exciting but it definitely hasn’t come overnight; it’s been a long, hard slog to get here.
I have definitely learnt a lot about dealing with tricky people and tricky situations from Ange. So much of producing, particularly during production, is putting out fires and dealing with a constant stream of challenges and working out best how to tackle them. Angie is great with confrontation and has the ability to assert her opinions and ideas without getting people offside. She’s a great leader; she gets the best out of people and inspires the team but is also able to confidently deal with any problems head on. I studied writing and directing, not producing, so when we first started working together I definitely think I was more sensitive and hesitant to speak out or come across too bossy or assertive. Angie has taught me a lot about self-confidence and leading a creative team. I am not afraid to say what I think anymore, and weirdly the tougher parts of the job are often what I enjoy most; there’s nothing like overcoming a seemingly impossible challenge.
Going to the Oscars with Angie this year, it was such a proud moment and such a great moment for the company seeing how far we’ve come. Seeing her as a nominee for an Oscar was just incredible. But actually, to be honest but I really enjoy the day to day as well. I enjoy just sitting around the office chatting about things we want to do, doing workshops with the writers that we’re working with and getting our projects developed.
We’re really trying now not to take projects on unless we really believe we can make them. So we don’t have this ginormous development slate where only 10 per cent of our projects actually ever get made. We’re really focusing on finding things we genuinely believe we can move forward to get made.
We’ve just made our first TV project [The Other Guy]. TV’s something we’ve been looking at moving into for some time. We’ve been slowly, quietly developing a number of projects whilst we’ve been making our films. We’d really love to launch into that space a lot more with a couple of big drama series and keep developing really great film work as well.
But I think a big focus for us is book adaptations. Both Lion and Berlin Syndrome were book adaptations. And we’ve recently optioned three new books that are all in the process of being adapted for screen at the moment. So we’re definitely interested in finding interesting IP and taking that to screen, whether it’s film or TV.
This article originally appeared in IF #177 June-July – IF’s 20th anniversary issue.