[The following story contains spoilers from Queenpins.]
It wasn’t long after Queenpins writer-directors Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly read about a $40 million counterfeit coupon scam that the married filmmakers set off for Phoenix, Arizona, the site of the real caper that inspired the STX comedy starring Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste.
“We came from television news and journalism, and then into documentary and scripted narrative, so we’re drawn to things that are inspired by true stories,” Gaudet tells The Hollywood Reporter. “But, it’s always a journey finding those.”
Knowing that compelling, real-life tales are often optioned quickly, Pullapilly said she and Gaudet would “take deep dives into the Internet to try to find stories that are interesting and unique and haven’t been told before.”
That was how they “ended up on a coupon blog with just a few sentences about this scam,” as Pullapilly recalls.
“We called the detective in Phoenix and talked to him, and he talked about how it was a legitimate case and really happened, and the impact of what that scam has on our economy,” Pullapilly says. “We’re very quickly in a car driving to Phoenix and spending time with him, and understanding the real case and what had happened and the mechanics of what they did and what they did when they made all of this money from selling counterfeit coupons.”
The film, which also stars Vince Vaughn and Paul Walter Hauser, is inspired by what is believed to be the biggest counterfeit coupon scam in U.S. history, which involved three women who allegedly participated in a scheme that sold fraudulent coupons online. The women were arrested in 2012 and later pleaded guilty to counterfeiting and, in the case of suspected ringleader Robin Ramirez, illegal control of an enterprise and fraud schemes. When police raided the women’s homes, they found millions of dollars worth of counterfeit coupons as well as guns and vehicles.
In adapting that true story into the film, Pullapilly says she and Gaudet “took that framework [of what really happened] and created all of the characters within the story.”
“The framework, the scam is really true to what happened, how they got these counterfeit coupons: They sold them off of this website, similar to what we do. Postal inspectors were involved. They made all of this money and bought sports cars and guns and all of these sorts of things that are similar to what happened,” Gaudet explains. “The characters themselves are complete creations. That was something where we just really wanted to say something with these characters and wanted them to be lovable with people rooting for them, and it felt like the easiest thing to do was to take that framework, but then create our own story and our own characters within that framework of the scam.”
Pullapilly adds, “It just felt like such an absurd world — with counterfeit coupons and postal inspectors — that it felt like it should be a comedy and that it would make a great buddy comedy, which is something we hadn’t done but were certainly drawn to.”
The filmmakers spoke to THR about how their documentary background and the COVID-19 pandemic affected the movie, now streaming on Paramount+, and what they hope viewers take away from the film’s complicated characters.
What made you think this story would be good for a movie?
Pullapilly: I think so much of it, when we were writing this, is these two women were undervalued and discounted — like a coupon — but Aron and I, through the process of seven years out in Hollywood, felt exactly undervalued and discounted in our process and journey. Every time we’d go into rooms to pitch for our scripts, they’d be like, “We love this script. We love the characters. But you guys don’t have value.” After hearing that over and over and over again, we were like, “How do we change our value?”
Gaudet: We had been trying to get these films off the ground with a bigger budget and we said, “let’s write something that’s maybe a little more commercial, with a smaller budget,” and we wrote Queenpins. It didn’t really register with us at the time that we kept hearing “you have no value,” and then we wrote this story about these two women who felt undervalued and who found this loophole around the system. But we definitely channeled that feeling into these characters, and into Paul and Vince’s characters. Both of them are feeling undervalued in their world. A few weeks ago, when STX sold the streaming rights to Paramount+ for this huge deal, the movie was instantly in profit, and we had a moment where we kind of said to each other, “It looks like we just changed our value in that equation.”
This is your first comedic feature, right?
Gaudet: Yeah, and if you’re familiar with our previous work in documentary and narrative, we’re probably the last people you’d expect a comedy from, because our other movies are quite dramatic. When we gave the script for Queenpins to our agents and when they read it, the first words out of their mouths were, “We didn’t know you were funny.” It was a challenge of, can we do this and go from drama to comedy?
Pullapilly: We believe that because we love stories so much, we know we can tell the best version of that story if we’re just truthful and honest as to what that scene and what that situation should be. So much of that comes from our journalism and documentary background. The truth is so crazy and absurd that you know there’s humor to be found. We really used that as our guiding principle: Just keep it truthful and honest and the situation these characters put themselves in, the big scheme, will be absurd because they have to figure out how to sell all of these coupons and what to do if they make millions of dollars from it.
How do you feel like your documentary background and working on these more dramatic projects helped you in the comedic elements of this film?
Gaudet: We do really ground everything in honesty and truth, so that is always our approach. We’re writing what we respond to. We like the Larry Sanders Show and we laugh at things that aren’t necessarily funny. To us, comedy is always truth plus absurdity equals comedy. It was always: How do we keep it as grounded as possible? There are some scenes in which it could get much more broad and we tried to keep it raw and honest.
Pullapilly: [In the car scene with Vaughn and Hauser], we kept saying, “What is the most grounded, realistic version of that scene?”
Did the outlandish purchases and the characters thinking they needed to clean the money really happen?
Gaudet: We knew what they had purchased. We had photos from the real case where they really bought this giant, luxury RV; they bought this speedboat, guns. Then it became about us trying to figure out: Why would they buy all of this stuff? The detective talked about how they were making more money than any Phoenix lifestyle could, and he talked about how, if you have money lying around, violence will find you. Just talking about why they would buy a lot of stuff — why would they buy guns? — that became a device in the script: What if this was how they thought they could clean their money?
Pullapilly: That was also interesting in real life doing all of the research and thinking, “Well, if they have all of this money and they need to buy things to clean their money, what would women buy?” And when we started looking at the big purchases that women make, it’s washing machines and stoves and refrigerators.
Gaudet: All the great, really expensive, high-luxury items are all aimed at men.
Pullapilly: And we were like, “That’s insane, but we’re not going to have them buy washing machines and we’re not going to have them buy refrigerators. That’s sad.”
Gaudet: I mean there’s jewelry, they go to spas, they take care of themselves. [But we thought] they should buy what men buy. They want things that have good resale value. What holds value? Guns hold their value, unfortunately, so it was us getting in their heads and trying to think about the psychology of why they did buy the things that they bought.
At the end of the film, it feels like audience should be rooting for these characters. The women get a relatively light punishment and Connie (Bell) is pregnant and happy, and shares via voiceover that JoJo (Howell-Baptiste) is setting up shop in Montenegro where there’s no extradition treaty. But it’s very clear that they are breaking the law and they’ve cost these companies millions of dollars. How did you try to toe the line, for the film overall, of having characters that are sympathetic but are also criminals where you’re not necessarily trying to endorse this behavior?
Pullapilly: It’s always about the grey, right? You, Aron, me, we make good choices sometimes and we make bad choices, but the reasoning behind those choices are what motivates us. So to judge whether we’re good or bad is not the job of what we do as writers and directors. But our job is to keep it real and authentic and believable in the situations. Yes, this crime cost companies a lot of money, but also there are plenty of people in prison right now that have done far worse. Should she be punished equally for 40 years to life?
Gaudet: But, where’s the line? There are also companies out there that don’t pay any taxes. In the real story, the women get sort of a slap on the wrist because these companies wanted it to just go away; they didn’t want their names in the news. They really did get penalties similar to what our characters got. It’s about these characters: Why are they doing it? Are they hardened criminals or are they just looking for a loophole in the same way that corporations use loopholes all the time to get ahead — and it’s just part of our lives that everyone’s accepted? Like, oh, they’re not going to pay taxes.
Pullapilly: They’re going to destroy our environment, but we really want the cheap $5 item that we’re going to get. If we’re trying to say that companies are the victims, we have to hold them accountable as well.
As much as you say you don’t want to judge the characters’ motivations, what do you hope viewers take away from the film in terms of a larger feeling about people who are in debt and corporations?
Pullapilly: To me, personally, it was so important that when we introduce Connie, she is like so many women out there who are struggling financially because all they wanted in life was a baby and now they have these bills from these fertility clinics that are exorbitant. We couldn’t believe that people could go into debt because they just wanted to have a child. And what we realized through Connie’s character is, she just wanted love. And, in the end, she found what she really wanted. She gets what she wants. She broke the rule; she found a loophole in the end to get where she needed to be. So many people in our society are put in boxes and pushed down. Are you living the life that you want to live? And the question she asks at the end, we’re really asking that to audience members around the world because if you’re not, how do you find your loophole? Us writing and directing Queenpins was in a sense a way for us to find a loophole because Hollywood is holding us back. Feeling that joy and happiness with Connie at the end is because it’s about each individual finding their joy and happiness in life.
Gaudet: Also, we were making this during the pandemic. And I do think we really leaned in and said, “Let’s make a movie where, hopefully, when people finish watching it, they had a reason to laugh. Because we’re going through some dark times.”
Pullapilly: And there are a lot of things that we had to do differently as directors and as leaders to encourage our cast and crew to come and give everything they could in the middle of times when they were scared for their own lives and their own health and safety. But the one thing we said to them was, “We have the opportunity to allow people to laugh and have joy and happiness in their lives if we do our jobs here right now.” And, together, if we do the best job we can do, we’ll at least be able to give them something that they can be with their friends and family and enjoy and laugh with.
What was that experience like of filming during the pandemic and how much of a challenge was that?
Gaudet: It was definitely a challenge. We were supposed to open production on this on March 16, 2020, and then everything shut down on March 13, and our financing fell apart because now with all of the COVID costs, we knew we were going to add millions of dollars to an already tight budget. We were the only independent film — to our knowledge — that shot during COVID last year because we had just gotten our insurance policy for the production before the shutdown, so it didn’t exempt COVID. Once the pandemic hit, any movie that was trying to get financed and trying to get insured, they had an exemption for COVID. So if they shut down because of COVID, they’d lose their money. So, in a way, we were told we kind of had this golden ticket in this insurance policy.
So that was part of the reason we were able to get financing and get production back together during the pandemic. But what it meant was we had an extremely tight budget because suddenly we had to cover all of these COVID costs, which meant less money to actually make the movie with. And then it was kind of walking a tightrope because if we shut down because of one positive test, yes financiers would be paid back through this insurance policy, but there was no money to pay for shutting down and coming back up. If we shut down because of a positive test, that was the movie. It was over. So it was a 30-day tightrope of, how do we keep everybody safe? How do we not have a single positive test? And how do we get buy-ins from our cast and crew to not just sacrifice on-set but also off-set? To make sure that they’re being careful and quarantining at home, and they’re not bringing COVID to the set.
Pullapilly: Something Aron and I made a commitment with, and something we’ve been working on for years leading up to Queenpins, is really what our leadership and directing approach on set would be because we are the creative leaders on that set, but we also know that all of the cast and crew are trusting us and relying on us to get to the finish line and make the best version of the story and keeping them safe and protected and having their backs. So for us, we spent a lot of time in a concept called servant leadership. Let’s make sure that we push our egos aside, each and every one of us, to try to allow for the creative to come in. Let’s do all of these different exercises together of things like, “What is your core value?”
Gaudet: What are your three core values at the heart of you, that make you you, that you live every day? We had Kristen Bell do a core values exercise with herself and Kirby, and we had them do it for themselves and we had them do it for their characters. And then when we were on set directing and there was a question of, “Would my character do this?” Kristen would say, “Well, my core value is ambition. One of Connie’s core values is achievement, so I think she would do this.”
Pullapilly: So then it makes very quick ways for us to decide this is the right route, because this is her core value and this is absolutely what she would do.
Gaudet: We shot during the election. We shot during Thanksgiving.
Pullapilly: We shot during protests when they were happening in L.A., so we’re asking people to sacrifice in so many different ways.
Gaudet: Don’t celebrate Thanksgiving with extended family because you have to come back the next morning and we have to test everyone. These things that we were asking people — how do you get them to buy in? And we tried to do as much as we could to earn that buy-in.
Pullapilly: And we had no positive cases. So, we’re very fortunate.
In 2019, you launched an India-US film initiative. What is the latest on that with the pandemic still raging and travel reduced? What is the plan for that going forward?
Pullapilly: To us, it’s such a critical program because we talked about how hard it was for us to break through in Hollywood, and what we are hoping to do is help other artists have those gates opened a little easier. I’m Indian and Aron is from the U.S., he’s from rural Maine. We never had those opportunities to know what it’s like to work in Hollywood in a meaningful way until we had to come and prove ourselves. If there are talented filmmakers anywhere in the world, we want to be able to help them get those meetings and it’s up to them: Win that idea, do that pitch. They’re building their network, so we’re just giving them a helping hand.
Gaudet: We had launched it and only did one year when we brought an Indian filmmaker here and set up a week of meetings with people in the industry that they were interested in meeting, and it was great. The people meeting him were very excited, and he was so excited to have those doors open. But, yeah, the pandemic hit, and it’s kind of been put on hold because it is so face-to-face. As our careers progress, it’s just more connections that we can open up for them. It’s trying to give them a loophole or a shortcut into someplace that maybe we fought for a year or three years to get access to. Now, can we give them access to that same place?
Pullapilly: And we want to do the same thing in Bollywood and expand to different markets as well. Really what this all comes down to is access. Can we bring the most talented artists around the world together and give them access to people who are decision-makers who can decide the fate of whether a movie gets made or not?
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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