Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Married writing-directing team Aron Gaudet and Gita Pullapilly have had prior experience in both the documentary and feature film worlds. Yet they’re highly honed storytelling skills proved to be quite the shrewd bargain when making their latest, QUEENPINS. They knew exactly how to efficiently and intelligently capture the ripped-from-the-headlines outrageous comedic tale centered on two women, Connie (Kristen Bell) and JoJo (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), whose extreme couponing scam robbed major corporations of multi-millions.
Was it always the plan that you both were going to direct in addition to writing?
Aron Gaudet: We do everything together. Live together. Breathe together.
Gita Pullapilly: Yup. One of the things we agreed on early was everything is better and stronger when both of us are doing it. In the screenwriting process and the directing process, you’re not getting one point of view. You’re getting a female point of view, a male point of view, someone from an Asian cultural background, someone from a rural Maine background. But if you see the whole picture, and both believe it’s right, you know it will appeal to a larger audience.
What was the research process like for this? Did you talk to real life extreme couponers, or the real folks caught up in these schemes?
Gaudet: “We started with the detective in Phoenix, Arizona, who had initially investigated the real scam and we spent time with him. He showed us photos from the investigation and actual counterfeit coupons the women used and explained the whole scam and how it affected these corporations. And then we started doing deep dives into extreme coupons. A lot of them are on YouTube and they’re telling you how they do their stockpile rooms and clip their coupons and organize them. There’s so much online.”
Pullapilly: “And there’s a psychology of coupons, as well. We learned so much. The coupon is the foundation of our economy in the US. When you have the question of ‘Is it a need or a want?’ when you use a coupon, you eradicate the question if it’s a want. All of a sudden, it becomes a need with a ticking time clock on it. People are more apt to buy because there’s this urgency now. All of those concepts were fascinating to us and we wanted to weave that into the story.”
Gaudet: “Also, we come from journalism and documentary [worlds]. We did a deep dive into postal inspectors and the post office – that whole world, which was also fascinating. We had no idea postal inspectors were the very first law enforcement agency in the country. It’s the oldest. When we wrote this, it sort of became this love letter to the post office and postal inspectors. We hope it’s a love letter to extreme couponers and postal workers. Seems like a strange combo, but we think it works.”
How much of a challenge was it to explain not just the process of extreme couponing, but also how their plan worked out and not have it be exposition heavy?
Pullapilly: “We always have dense scripts usually because there’s so much in our dramatic films that we’re trying to get out. It’s always a big investigation you’re trying to unravel in different pieces. But we felt we were going to use the same process in this, but didn’t want to make it too superficial. We had to tell the information in a subtle way. One of the things we’re proud of is that it doesn’t feel exposition-y. You learn a lot about this world that doesn’t feel like it’s being forced in front of your face.”
Gaudet: “That’s always a challenge, but one of the funnest parts of writing is figuring out how can you unspool this investigation, or this complex story in a way that’s entertaining and exciting and, in this case, hopefully funny. That’s always challenging, but fun.”
I loved how you replicate the sensation that these ladies feel when it comes to couponing. How was working with your sound designers to sonically contextualize the adrenaline rush feeling (like the snip of the scissors and the beep of the register)?
Gaudet: “We’re glad you brought that up because we talked about that a lot and wanting those sounds. Some of the music our composer made, we’d talk to them about adding scissors and beeps and stuff…”
Pullapilly: “… like the sound of ripping coupons. He did all of that.”
Gaudet: “And our sound editor, he’s worked on movies like JOHN WICK and action movies. We were like, ‘How do we make this sound like that?’ As exciting. We worked hard getting those sounds from that world. It’s a unique sound and a unique world.”
Pullapilly: “We really appreciate you value the sound of it. It’s something people might take for granted but we really focused on the sound. Martyn Zub and Paul Carden did such a great job making sure our sound was where we wanted to be. And Tom Curley, who’s an award winning sound mixer, also played a big role capturing sounds on set.”
Editing is so important in any movie, but it can really shape comedies. How was collaborating with Kayla Emter to hit on those moments?
Gaudet: “First of all, I think the editing even affects the way we write because the script read like an edited movie. We worked really hard in the writing process to being that editing into it. Working with Kayla, this was the first time I didn’t edit something we did so we searched a long time for an editor. And when we found Kayla, it was a dream. We want to work with her again and again. It was such a great collaboration. It was hard because I’m going from not editing to not even being in the room. Because of COVID, we were editing remotely. She made that work so well. One of our other movies, we talked about pace a lot. It’s about this small town life and we felt it should be slower and you feel the boredom of it. But with this movie, this should feel like it’s race walking and move along. That was something we talked about early on with her.
Pullapilly: “We can’t say enough about Aron’s background in editing. It’s one of the biggest value ads that our partnership is. Even on set, as we’re directing and looking at things, Aron can very quickly feel how something is going to edit together very quickly. Like, ‘Oh. We don’t need this scene now,’ or, ‘We got this from a look here and can edit this very easily.’ It saves us so much time and is so much more efficient. If Aron knows how it’s going to be edited in his head, we know we can quickly move on and we’ve gotten what we’ve needed.”
In addition to the female friendship, you’ve also got this MIDNIGHT RUN-esque dynamic going with Ken and Simon. Was that something that was always in the script or something leaned into more once you had Paul Walter Hauser and Vince Vaughn?
Gaudet: “It was always in the script, but even in the editing, we realized the b-story in movies is always the love story. And we realized the love story in this movie was Ken and Simon. When they meet it’s like opposites attract kind of thing, but by the end, it’s such a beautiful friendship that was made, where Kristen and Kirby are loyal best friends from the start.
Pullapilly: “There was a lot that was on the page, but when you bring Paul and Vince’s chemistry together and, even just the minute details of a look Paul gives or some of the improv Vince makes in a scene, it just brings that magic to a whole other level.”
Was it a nightmare to get permission to use the products on screen, since this highlighted flaws in their system? I would assume companies involved might’ve been guarded.
Gaudet: “It was a lot of work to get permissions and clearances, but, maybe the documentarians in us were like, ‘It has to be all the real products.’ I personally would like to say kudos to Wheaties especially because they were not involved with the real crime and they were the ones where it starts with them and them being stale. They were such great sports and saw the comedy in it. We were highlighting Wheaties in such a way where we were excited about them and the story we were telling.”
Pullapilly: “They were great to work with. They understood it was a fun comedy and knew the importance of making sure it felt real. So when companies actually want to work with artists and creatives in a way like that, it makes the whole process that much better. We now talk about how much we want to buy Wheaties because of how great they were to work with.”
Gaudet: “One of my favorite scenes is where Kristen is staring at this box of Wheaties and you have Kristen Bell and on the box of Wheaties is this picture of Serena Williams with Dolly Parton’s song on. It’s like these three iconic females in this moment of recognition. We were so happy they let us use their product.”
Pullapilly: “To us, it’s the scene we’re most proud of as it signals and shows every ounce of women empowerment you can possibly have in that scene.”
Since it’s almost time to wrap, I’m curious what did you learn about yourselves making this film?
Gaudet: “We definitely learned a lot. Shooting during the pandemic was challenging and we really did feel like we rose to the occasion as leaders and learned a lot about ourselves as leaders. Also, it was so much what we were feeling that we were living for these characters and feeling what they were feeling. Feeling like we define our own value. The message that we hope is out there is the same message we took away from the movie.”
Pullapilly: “I think that’s beautiful. You’re absolutely right that so much of this is about finding self-worth and value in yourself and believing in yourself that it exists. Through this process we feel we achieved that goal and feel like we are the best version of leaders that we’ve possibly been. We’ve made other movies before, but the pandemic has taught us how to be better leaders, better human beings, a better couple, and better directors. We were battle-tested during this time, but we came out the other end feeling proud of what we did together.”
QUEENPINS opens in theaters on September 10. It will be streaming on Paramount+ on September 30.