December 5, 2021

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Gita Pullapilly on Transforming Undervalued and Discounted Women into “Queenpins”

Gita Pullapilly on Transforming Undervalued and Discounted Women into “Queenpins”

Gita Pullapilly on Transforming Undervalued and Discounted Women into “Queenpins”

Gita Pullapilly is an award-winning writer, producer, and director. Along with her collaborator and husband Aron Gaudet, Pullapilly currently has projects with Amazon Films, STX Entertainment, Paramount+, Showtime, and 101 Studios. The duo’s credits include “Beneath the Harvest Sky,” “Lifecasters,” and “The Way We Get By.” They received an Emmy nomination for the latter. Their next feature, “Crook County,” will tackle the true story of Operation Greylord, the largest FBI investigation of corruption in the judicial system in the history of the U.S.

“Queenpins” hits theaters September 10 and starts streaming on Paramount+ September 30. Pullapilly co-directed the film with Gaudet.

W&H: Describe the film for us in your own words.

GP: “Queenpins” is inspired by the true story of two women who counterfeit coupons and end up making millions of dollars from the scam. But what it is really about is two women finding their voice, finding that loophole towards freedom, and pursuing their hopes and dreams.

In the end, this film is for anyone who feels undervalued and discounted and is looking for a way to find value in this world.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

GP: Aron, my writing and directing partner and husband, and I are always looking for true stories that are unique and different. Every time we find one, it’s usually optioned quickly by another production company, so we tend to take deep dives online to find stories.

Somehow, I ended up on a coupon blog that had a few lines about a $40 million coupon caper and named the detective in Phoenix, Arizona who investigated the case. Before long, we were in our car driving to Phoenix to meet with him. Even though our previous work is dramatic, this true story seemed so absurd and humorous that we knew it had to be a comedy.

Upon reflection, so much of this story was about feeling undervalued and discounted. That was very much how Aron and I were feeling in Hollywood. Every time we’d go into pitch other projects, financiers would tell us, “Love your cast, love the script, but you as directors have no value.” We could never get the budget we needed for our projects. Now, with “Queenpins” coming out and making a hefty profit for the studios, it has changed our value in the industry.

W&H: What do you want people to think about after they watch the film?

GP: We hope people who watch the film will feel joy. We made this film at the height of the pandemic in Los Angeles. We told our cast and crew that if we did our jobs well, “Queenpins” could help bring some joy to families who are suffering and struggling during this chaotic time in the world.

We hope people will be inspired to find their own loophole in life and find their true purpose and passion and pursue it.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

GP: Two of our biggest challenges were our budget and making a film during COVID. We were independently financed and opened production offices March 16, 2020. On March 13, 2020 everything shut down because of COVID and our financing fell apart. We were able to put the financing back together, but it meant shrinking the production budget to account for COVID costs.

We had 10-hour days, and with a lunch break and COVID breaks, it really ended up being about eight-hour shoot days. We shot 22 out of our 30 days in Pomona on a former mental health facility, so trying to open up the world in a significant way was impossible, but our crew — and especially our production designer, Jennifer Klide — came up with really creative ideas and looks to make it all feel like Phoenix, Arizona.

We were fortunate that we had no positive tests during our production. Despite having a shrinking budget for production, we were able to get on camera everything we needed for post. We definitely were battle tested and believe we made the best version of the film with all of the constraints we had.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

GP: We did dozens of pitches to financiers for “Queenpins” and it was extremely hard to cobble together money for the film. We were told most comedies were getting made for under $5 million and our budget ended up being $7 million. We were financed once before, but with COVID the financing unraveled.

However, we were fortunate that when our film shut down in March 2020, the production had already bought production insurance that did not exempt COVID. We had a “golden ticket.” If the production shut down, it would cover the production costs up to a certain point. With COVID, studios were realizing they were going to need content in their pipelines, so AGC ended up financing the production and STX did a negative pickup. The hard part was that even though we were financed, we weren’t given any extra money to cover COVID costs. That meant we didn’t get any extra days on the schedule despite additional COVID protocols eating up time each day. COVID really just forced the budget to become even tighter.

W&H: What inspired you to become a filmmaker?

GP: I love storytelling. My father was a historian and a great storyteller. I remember, as a child, sitting and listening to him tell stories and thinking how one day I wanted to be as good as he was. Eventually, I found my calling as a visual storyteller, first in television news, then in documentaries, and finally in narrative films.

Aron really opened my eyes to film. I didn’t even think making movies was possible. Aron and I worked in television news together and one day he asked me what I wanted to do with my life. And he said, “Let’s make movies together.” And that was it — the hardest thing we’ve ever done. Sixteen years later, we’re still married and still making movies.

W&H: What’s the best and worst advice you’ve received?

GP: The best advice I’ve received is that famous William Goldman quote, “Nobody knows anything in Hollywood.” That has proven to be true time and time again. We’ve learned to always trust our own instincts and bet on ourselves over anything some “veteran” film executive is telling us.

The worst advice I received was to act “less feminine” in pitch meetings. I’ve been told to dress more like a man. I’ve worn all sorts of cargo pants and tops to not look too “girlish.” I would try to hold my posture differently and talk more authoritatively. What I realized, eventually, was that a real leader doesn’t need to do any of that. I just had to go in and be myself. Own and value myself. Own my voice. Own my ideas. Own my choices. Once I did that, it was so incredibly empowering.

In 2019, I was part of a program called the Presidential Leadership Scholars program. It is run by four former presidential libraries and the goal is to learn leadership from the most powerful leaders in the world. It was an enormously helpful and impactful experience and the biggest takeaway from that is that great leaders listen. They hear all the ideas out there and then speak. In fact, speaking last is important because it means you’ve heard everyone in the room. And that was important because think of how many rooms you enter where everyone is vying to just speak. They aren’t in service to the story — they are in service to their ego.

W&H: What advice do you have for other women directors?

GP: Identify your leadership style and own it. A big part of directing is about managing people, and if you don’t know how to lead, it will destroy everything you are trying to do creatively. Aron and I have spent years now focusing on servant leadership. We realized that the best way for us to lead as a team involves us all agreeing to be in service to the story.

Story trumps everything in our process. We ask our cast and crew to put their egos aside, and join us as collaborators. In prep, we do a number of servant leadership exercises with our cast and crew, so that we’re all on the same page for what we want to accomplish as a team. By doing so, we have found it is the most creative, efficient process on set. We are the most creative because we are coming at it as a team.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

GP: “Boys Don’t Cry,” directed by Kimberly Peirce. It came out in 1999, the year I graduated from college. I remember watching that film — it was so raw, so real. It made me understand how cruel the world was, and how, as a storyteller, Peirce was showing us a world that I didn’t know.

I wanted to fight and protect the disadvantaged in the world, like Brandon Teena and let each individual know they are loved and seen. It made me realize the power of storytelling and the responsibility we each have as artists to highlight injustices in the world.

W&H: How are you adjusting to life during the COVID-19 pandemic? Are you keeping creative, and if so, how?

GP: We realized early on in the pandemic that quarantining is pretty much the life of a screenwriter. When we’re writing, we barely leave the house, and when we do we’re racing to the store quickly to pick something up. I’m not sure what that says about us and our process.

Right now, Aron and I are excited to get our next project off the ground. We are currently casting it and we’re hoping to be in production early next year. We’re also working on a podcast for one of our film projects. We’ve brought on a fantastic podcast producer to help us and it is exciting to see it come together.

W&H: The film industry has a long history of underrepresenting people of color onscreen and behind the scenes and reinforcing — and creating — negative stereotypes. What actions do you think need to be taken to make it more inclusive?

GP: I believe to be inclusive and diverse we need to invite everyone to the table. If we nurture talent, each will move forward based on their individual talents and skill sets. Aron and I hope that we can be a model for what true inclusivity and diversity looks like. Working together, we are at our best. Though we come from different backgrounds, economic means, cultures, races, and religions, we have found common ground in our love for storytelling. Early on, we realized if we both agree on something creatively, it means audiences from various backgrounds will usually resonate with it as well.

With so much content being made, I hope more studios and streamers take a chance on more independent filmmakers from all walks of life and unique backgrounds. If we ran a studio, we’d set aside a fund just to support first- and second-time directors and build a stable of filmmakers that continue to make quality work on bigger budgets. It seems simple, but in this business, executives look for the short-term payoff, instead of the long-term investment. Maybe one day we’ll find the right executive willing to champion filmmakers and take bigger risks to find the next female Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan, or Steven Soderbergh.

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