Polly Staniford: Sign of the Times

November 30, 2019
The co-founder of Aquarius Films (Lion, Berlin Syndrome, The Unlisted) discusses transitioning from short films to one of Australia’s most exciting production companies at Screen Producers Australia’s Screen Forever.

In 12 short years, Aquarius Films, which was co-founded by Polly Staniford and Angie Fielder, has become one of Australia’s major producers of internationally facing film and TV series.

Beginning with the feature film Wish You Were Here, which premiered at Sundance in 2012, Aquarius’ feature credits also include Lion, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and grossed more than $140 million worldwide, and Berlin Syndrome, Cate Shortland’s internationally-acclaimed thriller which screened at Sundance and Berlin.

In recent years, led by Staniford and Fielder, the company’s focus has expanded to include multiple films and series – including the hit streaming series The Other Guy for Stan and Hulu, The Toronto-premiering film Dirt Music with Garrett Hedlund and David Wenham; The Unlisted for Netflix & The ABC, and a just-announced Matt Okine (The Other Guy) feature film.

We spoke to Aquarius co-founder Polly Staniford [above second from left with The Other Guy team) about cutting teeth on low-budget productions, what Aquarius Films is looking for from producers, and “saying no to good projects to work on the great ones”.

You’ve run Aquarius Films with Angie Fielder for 12 years. Together, you’ve made successful features Wish You Were Here, Lion and Berlin Syndrome, after starting with short films like David Michod’s Crossbow. What have you learnt as producer over this 12-year journey?

I think shorts were a great training ground for films. In a way, it is no different to doing a feature. It’s just a slightly longer shoot. The organisation of getting a short film ready is similar. You learn about the craft, about building the relationships and working with a team. I think what we’ve learnt most over the years is the importance of good people. Filmmaking is really hard, long hours, you want to be working with people you respect and enjoy being with.

I think we’ve grown as a company too. We started out making shorts. Our first feature was a low budget film, Wish You Were Here. But we’ve kind of expanded over the last 12 years into a much bigger company. So now we’ve got a big slate of projects across film and TV. We’re working more internationally with other partners.

It all comes back to that same thing of good people, strong ideas that you really love. Someone once told me when I first started that, “you’ve got to say no to the good projects to work with the great ones”. That’s really stayed with me. That’s across all our projects that sometimes you have to say no to things that are really good because they’re not great. You have to love your projects as a producer almost like they’re your babies. You’ve gotta really know that you’re going to love that story for the next five or 10 years because it takes a long time to get things up.

What projects are Aquarius specifically in the market for?

We’re really genre agnostic, so there’s nothing that we don’t do. We’ve never done horror, but we would be open to doing an elevated, smart character-driven horror like The Babadook. It has to be an edgy, fresh take on a story. We’re very internationally facing. So even the projects we do that are set here have to feel like they can play on an international stage. The Other Guy is set in Sydney, it’s about dating but it could be set in New York or London. It has to be able to translate to an international audience. So, I guess we’re very open. We haven’t got a particular mantra. Just really good stories that speak to us.

You’ve began to diversify into more series (The Unlisted, The Other Guy). You recently acquired feature film rights to Being Black ‘N Chicken & Chips from Matt Okine. What is Aquarius’ direction going forward?

We’re drawn to stories that even if they’re local, they have an international feeling about them. I think Australia as a country is very multicultural. So, we have a huge variety of stories to tell and a huge amount of voices. I think we just want to continue to push that and I think now with Netflix and Amazon commissioning here, I think we’ll see a big uptake and even more bold content which is really exciting.

Can you tell us about Dirt Music’s trajectory and its premiere screening at Toronto?

Dirt Music came to us already developed. We came on board as the film’s producer (Wildgaze Flims) needed an Australian co-producer as the film is set here. We came on board as co-producers and helped finance the film. With festivals, you look at what festivals will suit the film, but it is also very much dependent on when the film finishes and what festivals are coming soon. For us, Toronto was a great launching pad for the American market. We’re keen to sell the film to an American audience. It was a good placement for us having recently finished the film.

How do you see the market for theatrical feature films?

It’s very challenging at the moment. This new wave of TV has really taken over. Everything that comes into us, we look at it very carefully and go “Is this actually a film or could it be TV?” I think with films, we’re competing with the big Marvel tentpole films, it’s very hard to get people to go to cinema, they’ve got enormous TVs at home and a wealth of content available at their fingertips. I think it’s much harder to convince people to leave the house. But we will continue to make features. Our slate is very much mixed between TV and film. I think in terms of the film side, we’re definitely looking at bigger IP and bigger book adaptation and projects that can work as features.

Is the door more open than ever for diverse, Australian voices? Is the world smaller?

Definitely. These days you can watch content from anywhere in the world through Netflix and through YouTube and through multiple channels. I think that story location and language barriers are no longer relevant. I think that Australian producers are also smart in working with this. Even actors are often working globally. Australian talent is doing really well overseas. We often bring in talent to work here. I think that also helps us get noticed on an international platform. You look at the films that are at Sundance this year. They all have international elements, whether it’s cast or location. I think it’s about always thinking outside the box and actually pushing that.

There was a record six Australian films at Sundance this year (Animals, I Am Mother, Judy and Punch, Little Monsters, Top End Wedding and The Nightingale). What are your thoughts on how Australian films are doing internationally?

We always look at what the marketplace is doing. I think it’s great to see what they’re programming. Sundance is also a festival famous for launching first-time filmmakers and genre and a lot of female filmmakers.

I think the Australian funding bodies should definitely continue to support features because it’s vital to our cultural identity that we keep telling our stories in films. I get that it’s hard now, there are so many ways to skin a cat and you can make web series and you can make TV series, but there is something inherently romantic about the idea of cinema, and sitting in a cinema with an audience watching a film. And there are still projects that suit a feature film not a TV show. I think it’s really important that we continue to fight for that.

Is Aquarius eyeing more series, given the explosion of new, international platforms?

Our slate is still made up of half features and half TV. We’re not getting rid of our feature slate by any means. We have to be clever about the way we package them and finance them, and the way we approach them.

Can you tell us what you’re working on next?

We have got a very large slate now. We’ve been expanding the company over the last five years. We have another kid series that we’re developing with the ABC, a second series of The Unlisted as well, both kids shows. We have a couple of romantic comedies we’re developing. One with a studio in LA. And then we have a one-hour SBS show that’s hopefully going into production second half of next year. So yes, a big diverse slate of features and TV.

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