Interview: Screenwriters Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, “Golden Arm”

There have been a number of stellar sports comedies over the years – but the underdog stories like Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story have always been my favourite. Adding its name into the ring of sports comedies as a sports and buddy movie mash-up is the new comedy Golden Arm, where the chemistry between stars Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro shines brightly.

The film follows Mary Holland’s Melanie, whose life is stalling as she is finalizing divorce papers and a local yoga aficionado keeps throwing out all of Melanie’s scones (for context, Melanie owns a bakery). Offering escape is her college best friend Danny (Sodaro), who just so happens to be in need of a ringer who can compete for her in the Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship. Melanie is exactly the one she needs who might be able to learn that she has a golden arm and take down the competition.

With such great banter between the stars of this film and a charming and unique story following arm wrestling, while sticking true to the beloved sports movie formula, the pair complements the script with their dynamic comedy, in a screenplay written by Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly. I was able to chat with the screenwriting team over the phone about Golden Arm. Find that conversation below:

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: I’d love to start by asking about the chemistry between Mary Holland and Betsy Sodaro. I thought it was so great. Did you write this with them in mind or was it just really good casting?

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Jenna Milly, one of the screenwriters and executive producers of Golden Arm. (Courtesy of Utopia Distribution.)

Jenna Milly: We’ll tell you some background about the script… Ann-Marie, you should probably go because this was your idea. [laughs] We’ll just start at the beginning.

Ann Marie Allison: Jenna and I have been writing together for eight years. I live right outside of Washington, D.C. and I had started a charity called the D.C. Lady Arm Wrestlers (DCLAW), where we arm wrestle for charity. The craziness of the nights when we would do big bouts, the women would come to rehearsal and it would be like normal, everyday gals. Teachers, lawyers, moms, lobbyists — because I’m in D.C. — so a lot of buttoned up ladies.

When they come to the actual bout as their alter-ego – like Amy Smackhouse, or for me, I was Scarlett O’Scara – craziness ensued. This sort-of female empowerment that just happened before my eyes was completely organic to the experience and was sort of the inspiration for the movie. When we sat down and thought about trying to do this story, this idea of two different women, kind-of two different walks of life, one that’s super into arm wrestling and the other one that’s scared and doesn’t think she can do it… It’s sort of like the straight guy, funny guy, odd couple kind-of thing that came to mind. Jenna, I don’t know if you want to talk about casting and Betsy and Mary and everybody, but we got very lucky.

Jenna Milly: We got this cast thanks to Maureen [Bharoocha], our director, who had worked with Mary [Holland] and Betsy [Sodaro]. We actually met Betsy prior to starting work on the film. Ann Marie and I had sent the script out around Hollywood and no one wanted to make a female sports comedy. That’s when I said, “We need to do this ourselves.” That’s when we found Maureen.

You’re really looking for a female director with a lot of hustle. She was really fun and had a great energy. She had some really cool shorts that she had done. We said, “Hey, would you like to shoot a sizzle reel for us?” That’s when she brought in Betsy, a friend of hers, who was just hilarious. We shot the sizzle reel in my cousin’s garage, which was the first page of the script and the first bout. With all the changes to the script, it may be the very first page of the script but it’s still [in] the movie now.

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Ann Marie Allison, one of the screenwriters and executive producers of Golden Arm.

That’s the first time we had Betsy and she just fit the role just on that one whim of who’s available for the sizzle reel. Then Mary [as Melanie] seemed to fit so great, which was another friend of Maureen’s. They had done improv together multiple times and already had great chemistry. I think that’s so important is having people that have worked together and have this familiarity and you’re able to riff off each other. That really added a lot.

We did so many takes and there was so much footage that could have been used and we had so much extra stuff that we could have laughed at. I think there’s some outtakes at the very end of the movie, but there was just so much more we could have used as well. It just kept going and going and it was so great.

Daniel, Filmcraziest: I was definitely going to ask about the arm wrestling, so it’s very interesting to know there’s a kind-of arm wrestling fight club in D.C.

Ann Marie Allison: [laughs] Yeah, except we do talk about arm wrestling.

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: Now, with all those side characters, was it fun exploring their personas and creating those?

Ann Marie Allison: Yeah, we would brainstorm all sorts of ideas. The funny thing is I felt weird borrowing anybody else’s personas from the actual DCLAW. Jenna and I came up with either new personas or on set, if we just had an extra and she would dress in a funny costume.

I have a brief cameo in the movie and I was dressed as Cleopatra because they just had a Cleopatra costume. I was like, “I’m Cleo-smack-ya,” it’s just the puns in wrestling and fighting. There’s no end to that. You just kind-of have to be clever about it. We had a lot of fun doing that and our costume designer [Jenava Burguiere] was amazing and really worked within our budget to bring all that colour to the movie.

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Betsy Sodaro as Danny, Mary Holland as Melanie and Ron Funches as Carl in the comedy Golden Arm. (Courtesy of Utopia Distribution.) 

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: Cool, did you have a walk-up song for arm wrestling?

Ann Marie Allison: For me, I was Scarlett O’Scara because I’m from Atlanta and I love movies. My walk-up song was “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” [Laughs] I am a champ, I am a golden arm. The field maybe wasn’t as tough as it had been in years’ past because we had some really tough ladies. At one point we had a female firefighter come in, a female boxer. I did not go up against them.

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: What about you, Jenna?

Jenna Milly: I didn’t do any arm wrestling. I was working as a journalist and I had reported on the charity and the article I did for Huffington Post. I said, “Ann-Marie, we should really write a movie on this.” This would be so funny if we fictionalize this story. And it just struck me as being a great feature comedy. We had already been writing together I think a couple years by then, and we developed the story together and wrote out the feature. But no arm wrestling for me, for moi. I’m too… wimpy. [laughs]

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: Ah, okay. This is such a great underdog story and sports story, I’m wondering if you have any favourite sports films and if you had any you would watch during production to inspire yourselves?

Jenna Milly: I love A League of Their Own so much. I love any sports movie. Oddly, I’m very into baseball sports movies, like I love Moneyball and The Natural. We do talk about The Natural in the movie… Gosh, Ann-Marie, we talk about so many. Teen Wolf, which I don’t know if that counts as a sports movie, but I still love it.

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: With the baseball aspect, is that why you wanted to bring that MLB umpire aspect to the character of Greg?

Ann Marie Allison: Yeah, we wanted to tie it to the world of sports and why would this guy be at this crazy, women’s arm wrestling thing if he wasn’t fascinated by sports and fascinated by making them safe and fair, so he had training in that area. It’s funny because actual professional arm wrestling leagues have refs at every table to make sure that everyone is competing correctly and also safely. But even with our charity, we had refs that made sure the women were in proper form and that no one was cheating or other kinds of things. [laughs] The ref is an important part of arm wrestling and that’s why we wanted to make sure we portrayed someone that was professional about it.

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Dawn Luebbe as Tessie and Olivia Stambouliah as Brenda in the comedy Golden Arm. (Courtesy of Utopia Distribution.)

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: Now, someone I assume someone like Brenda wouldn’t exist in your field of arm wrestling because she’d very likely be disqualified?

Ann Marie Allison: Oh, definitely. She’s this nefarious character that needs to caught doing what she’s doing.

Jenna Milly: I do want to just give you a ton of credit, Ann Marie, for making her realistic. Her method of cheating, you know, with the straps and the break-arm [stance], it was all based on reality that we tried to show her ways of getting around the cheating with the type of stuff that she was doing and just make it very believable.

Technically breaking someone’s arm is not cheating in any way but digging your fingers into their straps is not great sportsmanship. It’s also not technically cheating; but kicking someone under the table is cheating.

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: She’s also a very mean character, so I’m curious what the actress, Olivia Stambouliah, was like on set while not in character?

Ann Marie Allison: The sweetest person in the world. [laughs] She was gorgeous.

Jenna Milly: I loved Olivia. She was funny. She was kind, a genuine, great actress. Her next gig is actually going to be in a Michael Bay movie [the 2022 film Ambulance]. She’s lovely.

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Kate Flannery as Randy in the comedy Golden Arm. (Courtesy of Utopia Distribution.)

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: Awesome, now I have a random one… At one point in the film, Danny flashes a bar as she drives past because she believes if she doesn’t, she’ll get bad luck. Is that a real superstition?

Jenna Milly: [laughs] It is for Betsy. No, I think she just improvised that. [laughs]… We should start that for new superstitions. So guys, you’re in luck.

Daniel Prinn, Filmcraziest: [laughs] Great, yeah, I was definitely curious about the level of improv on this set since there are so many great comedic talents, from Mary and Betsy to Ron Funches, too.

Ann Marie Allison: Yeah, Jenna has put it really well that we’re like the poor man’s Judd Apatow. He’s renowned for running the scene as it’s written and then starting to run scenes with improv. When I say poor man, it’s only because we don’t have as much money as Judd Apatow does. [laughs]

Running the scenes, we were working through it and get what we needed, then try and see if improv would improve or make the jokes sparkle a little bit more. Sometimes that really worked well, other times it was better as it was written. There were lots of other times where we were just cracking up because these ladies were absolute dynamo at doing this.

They could just go and go and go, with something funnier and something funnier. I love to improv myself and Jenna and I improvised a lot of these scenes together. There’s always a new way in. Kate Flannery came up to me at one point and she’s like, “How’s this all feeling to you?”

She was just so kind and sweet. I said, “I love watching you ladies have so much fun.” She was like, “Never forget you built the house that we get to play in.”

She was really sweet about it. It’s a very collaborative experience when you’re doing a comedy, because we want these comedic geniuses to come in and make your material even better. You do want that.

Golden Arm opens today, Friday, April 30, in theatres and is available to stream on Apple TV and on digital.

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