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The female powerhouse trio behind 'Golden Arm' discuss friendship and what makes good story

May 20, 2021
6 min read time

Maureen Bharoocha's Golden Arm, a female-driven comedy with a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes' Tomatometer and could be this year's destined-for-cult-status-sleeper-hit, centers on female friendship and arm wrestling (yes, arm wrestling).

The story is driven by Danny (Betsy Sodaro), a truck driver and ol' pro in the competitive arm-wrestling circuit, and her best friend Melanie (Mary Holland), a demure and down-on-her-luck baker with a failing bakery. After Danny injures her wrist in a bout with notorious cheater/champ Brenda the Bonecrusher (Olivia Stambouliah), she persuades her best friend Melanie to train to defeat the Bonecrusher and win a $15,000 cash purse in the Oklahoma City Women's Arm Wrestling competition, under the guise of taking a week off her work at the bakery to help Danny finish her route deliveries.

"It's hard to avoid tropes in comedy. Avoiding tropes takes finesse," says Bharoocha on the hilarious buddy comedy. "You need to find the surprise — the unexpected thing. whether it's punching up a joke on the fly or pivoting in a moment to make a location more authentic. You need to allow the comedic moments to stand out and I think that's how I avoid the pitfalls of comedy tropes."

Golden Arm screenwriter Jenna Milly had this to say about avoiding tropes, "Ann Marie and I started by watching and studying classic sports movies, which we love—but there aren't many for women. There's The Natural, which we pay homage to in the movie, Rudy, A League Of Their Own...but we really wanted to write a movie that we wanted to see. The empowerment happens throughout the arc of the main character, Melanie.  The question for her was, 'How can we get her to believe in herself?" 

"The idea, the world of Ladies Arm Wrestling, comes from a charity I cofounded about ten years ago, The DC Lady Arm Wrestlers," chimes in co-writer Ann Marie Allison. "I created it with three friends and we built this league and arm-wrestled for charity. Everyone would have personas and entourages…sort of a roller derby-esque feel to it. For me, it was fascinating to see the transformation of women from rehearsal to the match. Lawyers, lobbyists, teachers, some on the very conservative side of things. They’d come to training from their day job, but then she’d show up to the tournament with her persona, like "Amy Smackhouse"—Amy runs an environmental company, but comes in dressed like Amy Winehouse, drinking bourbon, boobs, beehive, with people in her entourage. Then there was the Marketing Exec, Raging Raegan (à la The Exorcist). Her husband comes in dressed like a Priest; she's got puke on her shirt—the whole event just became a spectacle. Watching the creativity inside these ladies and the competitiveness; we were legitimately arm-wrestling—we had arm breaks—but it was this female empowerment that was built into the event! So I was talking to Jenna about it and she wanted to write an article about it, and that's where the concept all began."

"[Writers] Ann Marie [Allison] and Jenna [Milly] originally brought me the idea years ago and asked me to shoot a sizzle about the underground female arm wrestling circuit," she says. "Golden Arm has been a long journey I jumped on five years ago. A year later, we did a live reading with producers. Then, I went on to work at [Jimmy] Kimmel while [the writers] focused on obtaining financing. We were able to shoot it in 2019, and got into SXSW which was then canceled. And here we are."

The uniqueness of the story is what pulled Maureen in, as she remarks: "You look at the canon of sports comedies — you can count on one hand ones with a unique world, where friends find each other...and then to top it off, this script really lifts women up and focuses on female empowerment, but does it so subtly. It's a great script with incredible talent attached to it. A s a director, you’re obviously heavily involved in casting, but these actors were truly the embodiment of the characters they played. I've w orked with each of the leads before, they're amazing comedians."
On what makes for a good female-driven comedy, Milly says, "Ann Marie and I have been writing together for a while now and we are best friends, it’s a friendship dynamic that we have, and that brings our friendship into the writing. We really wanted Melanie and Danny to be the perfect odd couple, so we started with a traditional comedy format: Create a straight-laced woman and bring in the chaos. We do a lot of improvisational writing to make the comedy as grounded as possible. Once we identify our "serious" character, the comedy pops as we lure that character through the film's scenes and scenarios."
Golden Arm's script to screen journey was never a solo effort. Bharoocha says, "Jenna and Ann Marie originally wrote the script; then they did rewrites based on notes, and then I did a rewrite on my own. The story has gone through a few drafts, but it's always been collaborative. They took my notes on how I envisioned it could be, and then we did a pass with the actors, somewhat on the fly. When you work with actors the script usually just evolves."
"We outline in mini-arcs that are 15-minute sections and we knew we needed to take the audience on a journey in order to create a unique film that felt familiar within the genre but was also unique... It’s a bit of a balance. Honestly, there's no shame in having something written on the nose in the first draft; give yourself time to go back and see how you can write it differently in a rewrite," says Milly.
" I have this chair that I sit upside down in when Ann Marie and I work on the phone—there's always one of us at computer—we riff and then switch. So one session,  Jenna's husband says, 'Melanie should go to the truck stop and be pushed into an arm wrestling battle and she should just have an 'innate' ability to win... She should have this magical golden arm.' 'That’s the dumbest idea,' we said to him, 'Golden Arm!? That sounds like C3PO!'" Both writers laugh. But, it got them thinking...
"Can you have an innate ability? Do you just have a golden arm? After some back and forth it just fit, organically. Melanie’s doubting this but Danny believes in her. And that’s what girlfriends do for each other. We are our worst critics but will support our friends. And so this magic relationship was created and we were off to the races," says Milly. 

It's also the creatively combined efforts of Milly, Allison and Bharoocha that lends  Golden Arm its magic. 
" What’s interesting about our writing relationship is Jenna went to UCLA, and studied under incredible professors so she brings that into it—she’s the master at plotting and structure," says Allison.
While " Ann Marie has her MA in psych, so we use that for motivation and to assign people POVs and establish where they might be coming from; their tendencies. Our process is a bit of a mashup of Linda’s [Voorhees] ideas and Save The Cat," adds Milly.

For her part, Bharoocha comes from a long history of directing short films, which perhaps lends itself to the kernelled comedic structure of Golden Arm. Each scene is so memorable in itself, yet are tethered together by a well-developed overall story. Bharoocha says, "I love directing shorts — it’s how I find my tribe. I've done a short with everyone on this movie. And like a short, each moment of this film is really its own short film. As a director, it's your job to break down this fully developed script — a full story — into smaller chunks. You know, when writers have a vision, it's very apparent in the script, but Golden Arm did change a bit tonally. We were trying to avoid broad and unrealistic characters, and grounding it in reality was very important."

Bharoocha adds, "I was lucky because Golden Arm started with strong writers who developed this beautiful comedy with a strong spine. The rest just filled itself in.
" This script, for me, really opened my eyes to what makes story resonate with people —seeing the power of the transformational arc," says Allison. "Transformational Arcs are the difference between movies you watch once and the ones you watch over and over. It’s portraying how the characters transform internally and externally. If you’re not growing and changing, you’re moving towards death and decay."
Golden Arm is now in theaters and on Digital.
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