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Clip art: Aron Gaudet, Gita Pullapilly talk coupon comedy caper ‘Queenpins’

September 6, 2021
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The creators of two award-winning films shot in Maine have taken their craft to a new level with the outrageous Hollywood comedy “Queenpins,” inspired by a true story. The film is scheduled for a limited theatrical opening on September 10 and will arrive digitally on the Paramount+ streaming platform on September 30 and later on Showtime.

Written and directed by the husband-and-wife team of Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly, “Queenpins” is the story of a frustrated housewife (Connie, played by Kristen Bell of “The Good Place” and “Frozen”) and her best friend (Jo-Jo, played by Kirby Howell-Baptiste of “Killing Eve” and “Barry”) who together hatch a $40 million counterfeit coupon scheme.

The “Queenpins” cast includes Vince Vaughn (“Swingers,” “Wedding Crashers”), Paul Walter Hauser (“Richard Jewell,” “I, Tonya”) Joel McHale (“Community”), Stephen Root (“Office Space,” “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”) and singer-songwriter Bebe Rexha in her first film role.

Gaudet, an Old Town native, and Pullapilly, are perhaps best known for 2009’s “The Way We Get By,” the powerfully moving documentary film about a group of tireless senior citizens who find fulfillment in their golden years when gathering at all hours to greet incoming and outgoing troops at Bangor International Airport. The film took its creators and cast to screenings around the country, including Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. and to Hollywood, where AARP named it the best documentary of the year. It has since screened numerous times on PBS.

Four years later, the filmmakers returned with “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” an indie drama largely shot in Van Buren, about friends whose lives are upended when one becomes embroiled in the illegal prescription drug trade along the Canadian border. The film starred Emory Cohen (“Brooklyn”) Callan McAuliffe (“The Great Gatsby”) and Sarah Sutherland (“Veep”) and won the Directors to Watch prize at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

The Road to “Queenpins” – ‘We adopted a theme we learned from our parents.’ – Gita Pullapilly

Determined to build on the success of their first films, Gaudet and Pullapilly took a breather to decide on their next project. Like all of their work to date, they wanted it to be based in truth. The awards, accolades and rising industry clout generated by “The Way We Get By” and “Beneath the Harvest Sky” took the duo west where they ultimately settled in Los Angeles in 2014.

They moved forward with a script titled “Crook County,” based on the true story of the largest undercover corruption bust in U.S. history. The script created immediate industry buzz. The filmmakers were jointly appointed Guggenheim Fellows in 2015 to support the development of “Crook County” and Dateline went public with a story proclaiming the film was on its way to the big screen. Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Anchorman”) signed on as executive producer with partner Will Ferrell and everything seemed to be coming together until Gaudet and Pullapilly saw the plug pulled over financing on three separate occasions.

In the interest of full disclosure: I was afforded the opportunity to read the script for “Crook County” at that time. The story itself is a mind-blowing tale of real-life big city corruption spectacularly brought to life on the page by Gaudet and Pullapilly. It hurt my heart to see them come so close to getting “Crook County” made only to have those plans fall apart. Oh, the film will be made – you’ll read more about that later in this story.

During this extended period of creativity and finance-imposed limbo, Gaudet and Pullapilly each went through the heartache of losing a parent. First, Gaudet lost his mother Joan (Mama G.), one of the troop greeters profiled in “The Way We Get By,” along with the late Bill Knight and the late Jerry Mundy.

In 2017, as the filmmakers were working to launch “Crook County,” Gita lost her father, Cyriak K. Pullapilly Ph.D, of South Bend, Indiana, a renowned theologian and historian.

The grief-stricken duo immersed themselves in their work hoping it would at least distract them from the anguish they were feeling over their losses. They also needed a break from feeling undervalued and discounted as they attempted to get their next film off the ground.

“We wanted to find something that was still inspired by a true story and just enjoy it,” Pullapilly says. “We adopted a theme we learned from our parents before they passed about living life to the fullest and striving to find your own happiness.”

‘Maybe we need to do something that just feels fun.’ – Aron Gaudet

Pullapilly says she spent countless hours sifting through cases on the F.B.I.’s website searching for the right story that could be developed into a script for their next project.

“I clicked through hundreds of links when I landed on a coupon blog with just a couple of lines relating to this story about a woman who masterminded a $40 million scam involving counterfeit coupons,” Pullapilly says. “It listed the name of a Phoenix detective who worked on the case. I said ‘Aron, isn’t this odd?’”

Gaudet says the duo read everything they could find about this strange story which never generated in-depth coverage.

“We only found a few small Associated Press stories about a S.W.A.T team of postal inspectors busting in on these women to find a treasure trove of money, guns, a speedboat and sports cars,” Gaudet says. “That’s when we reached out to the Phoenix detective to find out more.”

Gaudet and Pullapilly went to Phoenix to meet Detective David Lake and gather the unusual details of the case.

“As far as Detective Lake was concerned, this was a serious crime for sure,” Gaudet says. “He views these women as criminals and the corporations involved as victims.”

Gaudet says that when he and Pullapilly learned how the women at the heart of “Queenpins” pulled off their crazy coupon caper, it made sense to them, especially since they were searching for a lighter subject, to root for the ladies.

“What we stumbled across, which is sort of how we were feeling, was a story involving women who should feel like coupons: undervalued and discounted,” Gaudet says. “In other words, those actions were their way of claiming power over their lives and finding their happiness; all of the things we were trying to accomplish, we wanted to assign to these two women.”

The bones of the case, as the detective laid them out, in terms of what the women did and how they did it, are pretty much accurate as seen in the film, according to Gaudet, adding they took some liberties with the story, including the creation of the film’s characters.

‘We just did that…mission accomplished’ – Aron Gaudet

Pullapilly says “Queenpins” is relatable to anyone who feels discounted in terms of their real potential.

“But if you find a loophole, you can succeed. That’s very much what we wanted to prove with this movie,” she says.

Gaudet concurs, adding “We realized the one thing we could control was our value. We could change the equation by making a movie with a lower budget that we felt could be commercially successful.”

The filmmakers proved that point even before “Queenpins” was scheduled to open. In June, film industry trade publications trumpeted the sale of “Queenpins” to Paramount+ and Showtime for $21.5 Million.

“The day that announcement came out, we were like ‘Mission accomplished,’ Gaudet says. “We just did that; within the industry we now have a different value. We set a goal that turned out to be a four-year journey and we accomplished it in the best possible way.”

Both filmmakers are quick to credit the amazing cast in “Queenpins” for helping them accomplish that goal. During my interview with them, I asked them to share the first thing that comes to mind when I brought up the names of some of their cast.

As they did for “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” Gaudet and Pullapilly reached out to legendary casting director Allison Jones (“The Office,” “Arrested Development,” “Freaks and Geeks,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm”) for guidance.

To get the cast onboard, Gaudet and Pullapilly met with each member to discuss their collaborative work process. Each one also received links to the duo’s previous films. The filmmakers stressed to the cast the importance of making “Queenpins” feel as authentic as possible.

“We knew we were trying to make a commercial comedy, but we always pushed back against the idea of a broad comedy,” Gaudet says. “The goal was to make a commercial comedy that is grounded in reality at all times. It was important to us to present the most honest version that doesn’t feel over the top and silly.”

The filmmakers say they encouraged each cast member to improvise lines after the written version was captured on film first. Many of those spontaneous “in the moment” scenes made it to the final cut.

Kristen Bell – “Connie Kaminski”

Aron Gaudet: Kristen is a consummate professional. Her awareness of everything that’s happening related to the set, and her awareness of her own tools and talents, is why she’s such a pro. I don’t know that we’ve worked with anyone as experienced and technically proficient and professional as Kristen Bell.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste – “Jo-Jo Johnson”

Gita Pullapilly: Kirby is fantastic. She does such great work in preparation for a role that when she arrives on the set, it’s a flawless performance. Also, her improvisation is spot on.

Aron Gaudet: Kristen told us that we needed to meet with Kirby because she’d worked with her three times. Kristen and Kirby have such great chemistry together, people joke that there’s a Kristen and Kirby universe, like the Marvel Universe. You could never get the sort of real-life back-and-forth on the page that they can create on their own in the moment. When you witness it, you just know these two really are best friends.

Vince Vaughn – “Simon Kilmurry”

Aron Gaudet: The first word that comes to mind with Vince is passion. He’s so great at giving you numerous options. He often requests another take because he’s always striving to make it better than the one before. We did multiple Zoom sessions with Vince in advance, talking in depth about all of the characters. He cares deeply about making the movie the best it can be.

Paul Walter Hauser – “Ken Miller”

Aron Gaudet: We don’t want to make another movie without Paul (laughs). We think he is supremely talented, and he has so many layers. He can deliver a line that is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking. Even if you’re laughing, there are three other emotions he just prodded.

BeBe Rexha – “Tempe Tina”

Gita Pullapilly: This is her debut film and she does an amazing job. People online are going crazy after seeing the trailer because her hair (almost always blonde), is black in this film.

Aron Gaudet: She’s really a great actress. She plays a cyber hacker-type that assists the women in becoming more effective criminals. She has a history with Kirby’s character.

Joel McHale – “Rick Kaminski”

Gita Pullapilly: We’ve wanted to work with Joel for a long time. He was a big fan of our “Crook County” script. He plays the husband of Kristen Bell’s character, and he isn’t very likeable in this movie but that’s intentional.

Aron Gaudet: In real life, Joel McHale could not be more likeable. He gives everything in the portrayal of this character. Kristen’s character isn’t happy in her marriage for many different reasons. If you don’t dislike his character, we probably didn’t do our job but that’s the role.

Dayo Okeniyi – “Earl”

Gita Pullapilly: When he auditioned for the role, we knew instantly that he was our Earl. He had to have chemistry with Kirby’s character in a very special way.

Aron Gaudet: There’s a sweetness to his performance because he plays a mailman who’s sort of infatuated with Kirby’s character. He has a kind of puppy dog love for her, and even though she may not be fully aware, the audience needed to know that fairly early in the film and he made it very easy to get it across.

Stephen Root – “Agent Flanagan”

Aron Gaudet: It was an honor for a lot of us to work with Stephen. His role only required him to be on the set for one day. For an actor of his caliber to even consider that is incredible. The scenes with Stephen and Paul were so much fun to shoot.

Gita Pullapilly: Joel and Kristen actually called Stephen directly and asked if he would come do a one-day role on “Queenpins.” He came and knocked it out of the park.

Jack McBrayer – “Agent Parke”

Aron Gaudet: He’s great friends with Kristen and his was also a one-day role but we knew he would bring something to it we wouldn’t normally have. It was almost like favors at that point, it was like “Come play with us for a day, we’re having fun here.” The actors are willing to make those calls, saying “You’re going to have a good time if you do this.”

Eduardo Franco – “Greg”

Aron Gaudet: In some ways, he’s the key to it all. He works at the grocery store where Kristen’s character shops and she has kind of a light bulb moment with him. Eduardo, with his wonderful mane of hair, was a big hit on the set.

“Covid created a whole new department on a film set” – Aron Gaudet

The production was not without its challenges. After a pandemic-induced delay of several months, filming began last fall primarily at location shoots. At every stop, the film’s producers had to establish the infrastructure to deal with new Covid-induced safety regulations, as Gaudet explains:

“Covid created a whole new department on a film set. You need to first create the infrastructure for this department. From the testing to the protective equipment to crews constantly cleaning, it has changed how movies are made. In some ways it’s good but it was a real adjustment for many of us.”

“We made it clear that Maine is special to us” – Aron Gaudet

“Queenpins” is being distributed by STXfilms. Because of their close ties to Maine, the filmmakers say they made it clear to the company that Maine should be an outlet to screen the film in some capacity. The movie will open on Friday, September 10, at select Cinemark theaters, which unfortunately doesn’t include a Maine affiliate theater. Still, the company abided by the filmmakers’ wishes and gave Maine the movie premiere.

On August 7, “Queenpins” had its world premiere during a special pre-release screening in Rockport at the Shotwell Drive-In. Gaudet and Pullapilly flew to Maine for the premiere with their beloved rescue Chihuahua, Miss Minnie Pearl, and stayed late for a bonfire-lit Q&A with moviegoers.

Other than a mysterious message that circulated online about a movie making its world premiere that evening, there was no advance publicity. I was tipped off by the filmmakers and had an absolute blast watching “Queenpins” with their family, friends and about 100 or so moviegoers who arrived not knowing which film would be shown.

It was a highlight of the summer for me to see this film on a beautiful star-lit night on the coast with the filmmakers and many of us gathered in lawn chairs. “Queenpins” is hilarious but also suspenseful and unpredictable. I actually can’t wait to see it again when it premieres on Paramount+ on September 30. It will later air via Showtime.

At its heart, “Queenpins” is two parallel buddy comedies in one – the relationship between Kristen Bell’s character and that of Kirby Howell-Baptiste, and the connection between Vince Vaughn’s character and that of Paul Walter Hauser.

When you watch “Queenpins,” the first image you’ll see once the movie is complete is a dedication from the filmmakers to their late parents.

As far as that epic boulder of a script “Crook County” that Gaudet and Pullapilly have already pushed up the mountain three times, I’m thrilled to share the news that it’s going back up. In other words, they’re probably working on it as you read this. Producer Adam McKay recently told the Chicago Sun Times that he’s ready, saying: “Man I love that story – it’s so incredible. This is still a project that I just love.”

“‘Queenpins’ is definitely the biggest movie we’ve made and we’re very proud that it’s so unlike anything we’ve done before,” Gaudet says, adding “But in some ways, this movie does share some DNA with our earlier work. I think there’s a life-affirming aspect to “Queenpins” that exists in all of our work.

Pullapilly adds, “And there’s truth to this movie as well and that exists in all of our films.”

Last modified on Wednesday, 08 September 2021 14:35

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