Gita Pullapilly and her husband and filmmaking partner Aron Gaudet hope movie theater audiences are ready to laugh. Their counterfeit coupon crime caper, Queenpins, starring Kristen Bell and Vince Vaughn, opens in theaters nationwide Sept. 10.
Northwestern Magazine chatted with Pullapilly about working with comedy all-stars, finding humor in real life, the stress of making a film during a pandemic and what’s next for her and Gaudet.
What is Queenpins?
It’s a comedy inspired by the true story of two women [played by Kristen Bell and Kirby Howell-Baptiste] in Phoenix who created a $40 million coupon scam. Vince Vaughn and Paul Walter Hauser play a postal inspector and a loss prevention officer who go after these two women. On the surface, you think it’s about coupons. And then you realize it’s about finding happiness in life and finding your potential. All four of our characters are undervalued and discounted, just like coupons.
Where did you find the inspiration for the film?
My husband [Aron Gaudet] and I wrote the script and directed the film. Our niche is narrative films based on true stories. We were going down rabbit holes online, trying to find an interesting story, when I ended up on a coupon blog that talked about this scam. I thought it was a joke at first. Fortunately the blog included the name of a detective from Phoenix. We reached out, and he had the police report and all the interviews. We spent some time with him and got a sense of what that world was like.
Your earlier films [The Way We Get By and Beneath the Harvest Sky] are much more dramatic and serious. What was it like to make the switch to comedy?
When we told our agents and manager we had just written a comedy script, they said, “We didn’t know you guys were funny.” We write from a place of truth, and real life is equally funny and absurd — sometimes even more than we could possibly make up. We felt that if we just were honest and truthful to our characters, the humor would come from that.
How did your Medill training come into play when you were digging up the story behind Queenpins?
The training I had at Medill obviously lends itself to what I do — knowing how to ask the right questions, understand perspectives and be unbiased. Whatever film we’re working on, we start from our roots in journalism. We go in like we’re reporters, interviewing and understanding the world that we’re trying to portray. And then we sit down and write, just as we’d write a story for a newspaper or do a script for documentary. That story becomes our outline.
Being truthful and honest — authentic to who the characters are — is really important to us. We don’t judge our characters. That’s an important element in how we create our films. Whether our characters make good choices or bad choices, we can’t judge. A lot of other comedies make fun of the characters. We don’t do that. We make fun of the situations they’re in and the choices that they make.
What was it like to work with stars like Vince Vaughn and Kristen Bell?
Aron and I come from a place of collaboration. We’re willing to throw anything away if there’s a better idea. We are so grateful because Vince and Kristen and Kirby and Paul were so open to our process. Our approach may have been slightly different, but I think they enjoyed it. Vince told us it was the first time in a very, very long time — since Swingers — that he felt like he could come to a set and every idea was tried rather than just “the directors know best.”
What was it like to make a film during a pandemic?
It was the hardest thing we’ve ever had to do. Lots of people in this industry couldn’t believe that when COVID was at its peak in Los Angeles, we were making a movie.
If any crew member or cast member had gotten COVID, we would have had to shut down production, typically for two weeks. So how much would that cost? For us it was hundreds of thousands of dollars a day. We knew there was no math that would make sense if we shut down for even one day. If we shut down, we didn’t have the money to start up again. So that would be it.
Our first day on set, we said to our cast and crew, “We need you to work with us. We don’t have huge studios backing us. We have a set amount of money to make this film. And it’s not what you do on set that’s going to matter. It's what you do when you go back home and on the weekends.” We asked our cast and crew to make those right decisions with us so we could get to that finish line.
What advice would you give to an aspiring filmmaker?
Don’t give up. If you are committed to your vision and the choices you make as a storyteller, fight for it. Keep believing that your film deserves to be made, and eventually it will find its path. Just like [our forthcoming film] Crook County will eventually find its path.
Crook County [Pullapilly and Gaudet’s long-term film project about a 1980s sting that took down several corrupt judges in Illinois’ Cook County] is a really expensive film — it’s $25 million to make. Financially, we had to make Queenpins first, so we could afford to make Crook County. We didn’t know that at the time, but that was part of our journey.
We’re working on a project about a journalist in Boston who did an amazing amount of investigative work on the Sackler family, founders of Purdue Pharma, and the OxyContin crisis. It’s about his journey and what he had to go through to get the truth out there. It’s a bit more of a suspense thriller, but it fits right into our based-on-true-stories approach.
Why do you make movies?
I can’t imagine doing anything else for a living. I love storytelling. I love being able to meet people and understand their stories. But I could never quite figure out what package that would fall into when I was at Medill. Now we make narrative films, and we love being able to write the script based off these true stories that existed but maybe nobody knew about or understood. To recreate that for audiences is thrilling and also challenging.
How has filmmaking changed in the last 18 months?
Going forward, independent films are going to be next to impossible to make because the financing models have changed drastically. To make the films you want to make, you have to hope that a streamer will finance them. Even now, for a lot of the film ideas we have, the first thing people say is, “Well, have you thought of it as a limited series instead?” How people are consuming media changes the way that we as filmmakers have to make content. And it’s forcing us to think creatively.
Our industry has evolved in a lot of different ways. We have to evolve with it, but it also means some of the greatest films that were made in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s would never be made now. What does that mean for cinema today? I think it’s a loss because I love those films, and I’m inspired by those films. The ability to make real, gritty films no longer exists. My hope is that one day a streamer will find value in making classic films that will resonate for years to come.
Queenpins will open Sept. 10 in theaters and then will be available for streaming on Paramount+ and Showtime.