Inspired by a true story, QUEENPINS is an outrageous comedy about a bored and frustrated suburban homemaker, Connie Kaminski (Kristen Bell) and her best pal JoJo Johnson (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), a vlogger with dreams, who turn a hobby into a multi-million dollar counterfeit coupon caper.
The film is written and directed by husband and wife team Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet, with whom I had the great pleasure of speaking about their new comedy film. We discuss how they came across this true story, taking creative liberties in grounding the comedy, collaborating, forging a new path in Hollywood and so much more.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What initially drew the two of you to this story about these coupon ladies and then spinning that and making it into a comedy film?
Gita Pullapilly: Yes, great question. So, we had another script that was set up and fell apart, set up and fell apart, multiple times we had Kevin Costner and Vince Vaughn attached to that, and we kept getting discouraged very time with that project. It was a $25 million budget, and we’d go into financier's and studios and they would say “we love the script, we love the package, but you guys don't have any value,” and we would hear that over and over and over again. It became very frustrating and heartbreaking in a lot of ways, but then, Aron and I finally said well, what do we have to do to change our value? And we decided we wanted to find a story that we could write with a smaller budget --
Aron Gaudet: A little more commercial.
Gita: A little bit more commercial, and as you know trying to find a story, the moment you see a good article somewhere, it's usually optioned right away by George Clooney or Brad Pitt and clearly, they have the same interest in stories that we do, but [laughs] they have the money to get it. And so, Aron and I took a deep dive into the internet and we ended up somewhere on a coupon blog that had just three lines about this $40 million dollar coupon scam and a detective name from Phoenix that had investigated it. And so, we called the detective, and shortly after talking to him and we got in our car and drove to Phoenix to learn more about the story.
Aron: And he kind of took us through the investigation and what these women had done. You were asking about why a comedy - as he told us about it, and its extreme coupon and postal inspectors and it felt so absurd that we're like, “oh, this should really be a comedy, we should really lean into that,” and it felt like that perfect movie of this is where we could do something and get it made maybe. And also, we're kind of pouring in our feelings of what if these two women that just feel undervalued and discounted that need to find a loophole around the system to find success and in many ways we're really channeling our own feelings of feeling undervalued in the industry into these characters.
Sadie: There's definitely that theme of loss and redemption being carried through with all of your characters.
Aron: Yeah, right exactly. That was the other thing, even Paul and Vince, you know, Vince is the most put together of the four characters but postal inspectors are undervalued in the world of law enforcement, you know they're not the FBI, they're not the DEA, and people don't really have a lot of knowledge of postal inspectors.
Gita: And you know you see a scene in the movie when he's interviewing the grocery store people and the store manager says he's with the FBI and he is like “Postal Inspector” - it's just another subtle way to keep feeling undervalued.
Sadie: It works so well. There's no comedy without tragedy and these characters are so tragic that you feel so bad for them, and you root for everyone from both sides. I'm curious, did you have access to the real women behind the coupon scheme?
Aron: No, we didn't, we didn't really want access. When the detective explained what the scam was to us, we loved it. We really did just want to tell our own story and create these characters within this real coupon scam that had happened. The characters are total creations. We knew that hese sort of themes and what we wanted to say within that world, so we purposefully avoided that.
Gita: And truth be told, I think there's a lot more Aron and Gita in Connie and JoJo than we probably want to admit. [laughs] And yes, I do say “super-duper” a lot. [laughs]
Sadie: [laughs] That's good to know, you should always put a little bit of yourself into your characters. With your collaboration process especially as a writing team and we'll get into directing later but, what was that process for you two in tackling this specific story itself, knowing that it’s based on a true story and then adding different elements that are fictional to a certain degree?
Aron: I mean most of our scripts are based on true stories and for us, it was kind of like writing any other scripts or collaboration because we're sitting right next to each other. Every word that goes in the script is agreed upon by both of us, it's not like we're trading drafts back and forth or something, it's a very collaborative process.
Gita: And even on the computer, we have a note that just says, “Be open to each other's ideas.” And that really comes from us being married. So much of what we do in our marriage is a collaboration, but it starts from a place of love and respect. And we really feel from the time we sit down to write all the way through our directing process as we bring more collaborators into that process, we use that same foundation of love and respect.
Aron: In some ways it's just like you're bringing more people into your marriage. [laughs]
Gita: [laughs] Yes, exactly.
Sadie: [laughs] I love that. With writing partners, the goal is always to better your story and your script, you're not there to pump up your own ego and win some battle - let's just make the story great. How do we do that together? I wonder with your collaboration now, with having had made a documentary film together prior, was there anything from that world of documentary filmmaking that you carried over as directors?
Gita: First of all, I would say The Way We Get By was our film school. The three subjects in The Way We Get By are who we wanted to be as human beings, who we wanted to be as a married couple, and who we wanted to be as filmmakers. These three elderly subjects who greeted troops heading off to war and returning home, taught us that you really need to be committed and love the story and believe in the story that you're telling because Hollywood will tell you, there's no audience for your film, but we believed in that film so much that there was gonna be an audience. And when that film came out there was a huge audience that came out to see that film and to support that film.
The other thing we learned is that people in Hollywood don't know anything. They might be veterans in this industry, but they don't know anything. We are realizing that you have to make your own path and your journey and is true to what you believe is right. But so many people will sell their souls out here and we just have to be true to who we are. That's what that movie taught us and that's what we put into every single one of our films.
Aron: And I think also, all of our movies, whether it's a drama or Queenpins – we want it to be as grounded, as truthful as it can possibly be and I think that really comes from our background in documentaries. And like you said, there's always tragedy in comedy and for comedy is very much like truth in tragedy and absurdity, that's the building blocks of comedy. We never really like very broad comedies, we never really get into very much when it gets too silly.
Gita: Or off the rails.
Aron: But for us, it's always about keeping it grounded and feeling truthful and I think that it very much comes from our background.
Gita: And also to us, a comedy comes from the situations that our characters are put in. So, if they're true to their choices and decisions, then they'll be true to what's happening in that situation.
Sadie: Absolutely, I love that answer. Now your individual filmmaking journeys, what initially piqued your interest wanting to become a filmmaker?
Aron: I was interesting because growing up in rural Maine, I loved the movies and in wanting to make movies but felt like I was as far from Hollywood as I could be. And I think Gita grew up loving storytelling.
Gita: Yeah, I love storytelling, and I ended up going into journalism and I was a reporter for years before I ended up meeting Aron. Aron and I actually met in local television news he worked for the Fox station in Grand Rapids, Michigan and I worked for the local ABC station in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and his photographer ended up being my best friend.
Aron: Wrong. My best friend ended up being her photographer. [laughs]
Gita: [laughs] Yeah, exactly, that's only because it's been like nine hours of a press junkets. [laughs] And he would go in the car with me and he would just be like, “you know you hate local television news just about as much as my friend Aron, you guys should meet,” and then when I met Aron he asked me, “what do you want to do with your life?” and I was kind of taken aback, because I really didn't know what I wanted to do because I love visual storytelling but I knew local television news wasn't right for me. And he said, “let's make movies together” and I had no idea it was possible to make movies for Hollywood, but he said, “let's try”.
Aron: It really started with the documentary work, it was always a bridge to narrative filmmaking and we always felt like that would be part of the journey. And I think for me it was finding someone, I always wanted la partner to do that with. And she was the first person I met who when I talked about it with her, she just went at it at full speed ahead and was like we should form a production company, we should do this, and it felt like I finally found someone that had that equal ambition. Because it's hard, it's a hard journey and if you're in it alone, I really can't imagine dealing with everything that you deal with in Hollywood on your own.
Gita: I can't even imagine. We say this all the time, we thank God that we have each other because if we were doing this by ourselves, I'd be walking off the ledge half the time because it makes no sense [laughs] the business is so irrational it doesn't run like a normal business, and somehow everybody's just OK with it. And we are not OK with it and we want to right that ship a little bit and we do so many things to try to right that ship.
Aron: To try to improve on how it's normally done in Hollywood,
Gita: And even like on Queenpins, we did a whole thing on leadership because we wanted to be the best leaders we can be on our set in the middle of a pandemic.
Sadie: Yeah, did you find any creative roadblocks being on set during the pandemic?
Aron: Certainly a lot of concessions we had to make because just the reality of, you know, we couldn't just go shoot wherever we wanted 22 of our 30 shoot days, we're all on this one, like mental health facility campus that has been shut down in Pomona. We had to make it work. We had to find every sort of nook on that campus and figure out how it could be a location in our movie. And then just some things that we would like to shoot and you couldn't just go anywhere and do it, but having great collaborators around like a great production designer Jennifer Klide who was like, “well we could turn this area into this” and constantly just thinking of like ways to make it work.
Gita: Exactly, and then even in post, we were fortunate that we had a really great team around us because we had to edit it virtually and Aron comes from editing and he's not editing this movie but now editing the movie like this, was a very daunting task and challenge to throw at us.
Aron: We had the best editor, Kayla Emter. Post became like a three way collaboration where she was just such a great collaborator, but we were bringing her into this process that normally is just Gita and I, but it was such a great experience to work with her.
Gita: We were so fortunate we had such a great team and post. The stress of production to then go into post which is also stressful, but knowing that you have like an amazing composer, wanting the best for you and the amazing editor wanting the best for you, you felt protected.
Sadie: That's incredible. I'm glad that worked out for you, Kayla Emter is a great editor and storyteller. Last question for the two of you, what is something that you two wish someone would have told you about the collaboration aspect either being creative or business related right when you two were starting out?
Aron: Good question. It took us a while before we put that sign up “Be open to each other's ideas” and I think at times when you start out ,like you had mentioned, you maybe lead with your ego, or you're not listening to the other person because you're just excited to get your idea out there, and it was really learning to just be present and listen to each other, be open to each other's ideas, and understanding that we are better together, we're stronger together. Either one of us may have been able to write the script for Queenpins, it would not be as good as us writing it together.
Gita: 100%. I think the other thing is you have to look at your partner and say, “does this person have the best interest for me?” And do I have the best interest for my partner. And if that's the case, then you know you can go into a safe space of creativity and know you're going to get the best version of that story out there, but if you don't start from that point, the collaboration part is going to be so challenging and so impossible to get to the optimized best version of that story because you’re not only competing with ego, you're competing with all different sorts of emotional reactions with each other. And part of that is just training in our marriage therapy. Before we sit down and write, we do the meditation and we do the hiking, we do journal writing, we do a lot of stuff before we sit down and write because we have to be in the right mindset, and we don't put a lot of goals on ourselves we just say two pages a day, but two quality pages.
Aron: Sometimes you might write 10 pages in a day and then the next day it's a grind to get those two pages but just feel like you know you start do that every day and then in a couple months you have a draft of a script - something to work with.
Gita: And to us, this isn't a short term goal for us, right? We are invested in making sure we have a long term career in Hollywood. And what that means is that we are going to carve our own path and do it in our on our terms and the way we want to - the way we want to write and the way we want to lead, because at the end of the day, those films that exists that we make out there are going to have an Aron and Gita name attached to it. And everything we make we want to be proud of. The industry is going to pressure you in a million different ways, they're going to second guess you, they're going to challenge you, but you together have to have a belief in yourself that you know what's best for your creative process and your journey in Hollywood.
Aron: Every step forward was taken as a result of betting on ourselves, when other people didn't want to. And then that paying off and that feels like something we'll be doing our entire careers.
Gita: And a lot of filmmakers or a lot of financiers who we're passing on Queenpins have now told us, they're kicking themselves.
Aron: They're kicking themselves, because they saw the sale that STX made with Paramount+ and for the amount of money STX put in the movie compared to the profit they made, anybody in Hollywood would have taken that, they know what the deal is, but everybody passed on it except them.
Sadie: That's incredible and another answer that I love. It goes back to the theme of loss and redemption, especially for you two on this film. I think that it’s fantastic that the two of you take time to connect or reconnect with each other before you sit down to write. That’s incredibly special. Well Gita and Aron, thank you so much for your time. I hope there's more from the two of you and I hope that you do take over the wild wild west that is Hollywood.
Gita: Thank you!
Aron: We do too! [laughs]
Gita: Hopefully you're next to us on that journey!
Sadie: Absolutely, I'd be honored. Thanks so much!
Queenpins is in select Cinemark Theaters nationwide on September 10, then streaming on Paramount+ on September 30.