When husband-and-wife filmmaking team Gita Pullapilly and Aron Gaudet happened upon a blog post detailing a $40 million counterfeit coupon scam three women had pulled off in 2012, inspiration struck.
“We instantly saw a story where these women made millions on this counterfeit coupon scam and bought 21 vehicles, 22 guns, a speedboat, a luxury RV,” Gaudet told The Post. “To us, it felt like a total comedy.”
Pullapilly and Gaudet’s new movie “Queenpins,” in theaters Friday, is a very fictionalized version of that story, co-starring Kristen Bell (as Connie, a suburban housewife), Kirby Howell-Baptiste (Bell’s co-star on “The Good Place” who plays JoJo, a coupon vlogger) and Vince Vaughn (as a US Post Office agent hellbent on stopping them).
To write the script, the pair flew to Arizona in 2018 to meet with the detective who worked on the case. He told them about how the Phoenix-based trio — Robin Ramirez, then 40, Marilyn Johnson, then 54, and Amiko Fountain, then 42 — had sold fake coupons from 40 manufacturers, including Procter & Gamble and Hershey, to unwitting customers via eBay or via invitation to their own Web site, SavvyShopperSite.com, at a profit.
At the time, the writers and directors had been working in the indie film sphere for decades — they had made the Emmy-nominated 2009 documentary, “The Way We Get By” — but they’d hit a creative snag. They were grieving the deaths of two family members and they were feeling marginalized in Hollywood.
“We felt undervalued,” Pullapilly said. Hearing more about the coupon queens sparked something: “[We] wanted to make a buddy comedy about characters who are undervalued in their worlds,” she said. “We wanted them to be the Robin Hoods of couponing.”
But when asked what the couple think of the women’s actions in real life — one served prison time and all three had to reimburse Procter & Gamble over $1 million during this, the biggest coupon counterfeiting scheme in US history — Pullapilly politely demurred.
“We don’t judge our characters in that way,” she said. “We don’t know the reasoning for what they did.”
In fact, the duo chose not to reach out to the real women behind the crime: “We knew, based on our research on past films, the more we dig into the real lives, it becomes much more serious, much more dramatic,” Pullapilly said. “The story we wanted to tell was finding your own self-worth, finding your own happiness, but with a comedic lens.”
They wanted their characters to be “likable,” said Pullapilly — especially the ringleader, Connie.
“Kristen Bell was perfect in that role,” Pullapilly said. Even Bell knows she has a knack for playing unlikable characters: “As she [Bell] said to us, ‘Even if I behave badly everyone loves me,’ and it’s true.”
What wasn’t so comedic was the fact that production began in fall 2020 during the height of the pandemic, when COVID-19 protocols were at their strictest. To make sure they never lost a day of production, the couple asked the cast and crew to skip any big parties or get-togethers they had lined up, including on Thanksgiving.
“We needed everyone’s buy-in,” Gaudet said of the team’s commitment to the shoot. “We were asking everyone to sacrifice their lives for the project and to be as safe as they could for the duration of the filming.”
To keep everyone focused on that goal, the couple reminded everyone of what they were trying to achieve.
“All we wanted to do is to give people a movie that will help them escape whatever they’re going through,” Pullapilly said. “We reminded [the cast and crew] that we’re giving a gift to people who have suffered — and lost — so much. We want everyone who watches ‘Queenpins’ to feel some joy and happiness.”