An indie film nearly ten years in the making, after countless noes from Hollywood, comedy writing team Jenna Milly and Ann Marie Allison took it upon themselves to hit the mats themselves and make their movie Golden Arm. Their journey in getting their project made is one for the books, but their passion and enthusiasm, and respect for one another is a valuable lesson for all.
A tough lady trucker trains her wimpy best friend to compete in the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship.
I had a great time reconnecting with screenwriter Jenna Milly and meeting her very witty and incredibly cool writing partner Ann Marie Allison. The two share their journey in making their film Golden Arm, how the idea was sparked, becoming writing partners, their process, and their goal to continue writing and making female-centric comedies.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: Can you dive into the pitching process to 10 years later and finally being able to make your movie?
Jenna Milly: The idea really came from a charity Ann Marie started and it’s such a funny story.
Ann Marie Allison: I wish I could say that it was my idea. But actually, it was a group effort. We had seen some of my friends in the neighborhood who had seen this article about a women's theater in Charlottesville, Virginia, that were raising money arm wrestling for their theater. And we were like, “That is such a cool idea, we should do that for charity here in DC.” And so, we started this nonprofit called The DC Lady Arm Wrestlers, and we arm wrestled for charity. And we focused on charities that were around women and children, and also specifically our female veterans. The thing that was so great about it was this really big, crazy event, where we would actually try to gather as many women as we could to come in and wrestle. And they would have to invent a persona and have an entourage. And when they came to the bout, they were this crazy character with all of their friends, kind of ready to throw down. But it was interesting to me because we did this several times over five years. The very first few times we did it, we would have rehearsal, and the women would come out and they were moms, lawyers, doctors, you know, lobbyists we’re in DC, we had all sorts of very professional ladies come out to these rehearsals. And we would teach them the proper form and how to arm wrestle, and what to expect from the night. And then the bout would show up, and they would come as their character. I was just like, “This is crazy.”
All these ladies have so much creativity and power. And this whole female empowerment was just part of it. It was just organic to the event. And this is prior to #MeToo, there was no real discussion about how we really should be doing these kinds of things for women, it just sort of happened. And we would have like 800 to 1000 people coming to these events. It was magnificent.
And so Jenna, she's a journalist by trade. And I was telling her about these crazy events, she'd see these pictures, and my persona was Scarlet O’Scara. And I was like, “There is no tomorrow!”
Ann Marie: You know, like my tagline. [laughs] And she's like, “This is crazy. Can I write an article about this crazy event?” And so, we're like, “Sure.” And she interviewed all of us and the co-founders, I have to give a shout out to Holly, Andrea and Susan, who all co-founded the DC Lady Arm Wrestlers with me. And Jenna came away from it and she's like, “Oh my God, Ann Marie, we got to write a movie about this. This is like such a wild world.” And that's where the idea to write a script that takes place in the world of ladies' arm wrestling was born.
Sadie: And I love that the character lead is a baker because that just makes sense, she’s working with dough and it's a lot of work. But I was also thinking that I would be really afraid to go up against someone who scoops ice cream at Baskin Robbins. Just that one strong arm.
Ann Marie: [laughs] Exactly.
Jenna: Actually, that would’ve been funny, that would have been a good backstory.
Sadie: That’s for the sequel, I'm making sure you guys are working on that right now.
Ann Marie: [laughs]
Sadie: Ann Marie, is your background in screenwriting as well? Or is this kind of a new thing that you just jumped into with this project?
Ann Marie: Well, that story I always kind of credit to Jenna, because we were besties in college. And we got up to all sorts of crazy shenanigans at UGA where we went to school. And Jenna graduated, went to journalism, I graduated and went into psychology and I was getting my master's in psychology when Jenna decided to go to UCLA, and study film. And we were chatting on the phone all the time, as we do as per usual. And she would tell me about her classes. And I just had this feeling of like, ‘Oh my God,’ because I always love to improv, act, and write little short stories. But then when she was telling me about the methodology of film and the idea of the ordinary world and an inciting incident, and then just this whole idea of the human potential for change, which is really what a lot of movies are trying to do. Like a comedy is, ‘Yes, they made the change and it's amazing’ and the tragedy is, ‘No, they stayed the same, or they're even worse.’ I just fell in love with it. And I was like, “Please, can I write a screenplay with you?” and Jenna was just so nice to say yes.
Sadie: Your background in psychology, you can kind of tap into characters a little bit more deeply than an ordinary writer. It’s like your superpower.
Ann Marie: I'd like to think so and think that all of that money didn't go to waste.[laughs]
Sadie: This is your first writing partnership as well, Jenna?
Jenna: Yes, it was. It's so fun to write with Ann Marie because she is so good about the motivation and the character with her psychology background. And I tend to be more interested in the plot in the sort of the big moments and the action. I'm really drawn to the kind of the fast pace, action sequence. I think putting those together makes a really good partnership. And those are the sort of pieces that we write are the big comedy, funny ladies doing funny things, it’s sort of our brand. And we got representation and optioned our first feature to Gigi Pritzker’s company, which was a #MeToo comedy. That was really fun. That got put in to turn around, but hopefully, someone will pick that one up. And then after that, we sold a pitch to Amazon, which was a super fun journey as well, and that that movie has Jocelyn Moorhouse attached, it's called Old Maids and right now we're out to cast and then in the meantime, we were trying to get a Golden Arm set up and everyone was saying, “No, we don't want to do a female sports comedy,” because movies about women in comedy doesn't really sell overseas. “Who's going to buy this?” We decided to make it ourselves, which was like -- [laughs]
Ann Marie: How hard can it be?
Jenna: It turned out it was pretty damn hard seven years later. [laughs] So, we started a company and Ann Marie is like a bulldog, we raised the money ourselves, thanks to Ann Marie who raised most of the money. It turns out if you want to raise money basically all you have to do is ask people for it and they'll give it to you if you just keep asking them. And that took about four years. We started by going around Hollywood the traditional way and got about 50 “noes” from studio executives mostly dudes who were like, “A League of Their Own has been made. What else do you need?”
Sadie: And this is before Bridesmaids and Glow.
Jenna: It was definitely before Glow, but Bridesmaids had come out. And maybe Bend It Like Beckham but really yeah, and I love sports movies. Ann Marie has played a ton of sports. I played sports too. And I went to approximately 1 million sports games that my mother dragged me to because my brother played soccer and hockey and every weekend a thousand sports games, which I was dragged to. I like sports movies. And I like watching sports.I always watch The Natural and Rudy and Hoosiers.
Ann Marie: We did a sizzle reel first because we were like, no one can really see the vision of what we have here, like what this could be. Actually, that's how we met Maureen. Maureen was another friend that I think Jenna just met in a women's group who was a young director who was like hustling, trying to get her first feature. And we were like, “Hey, will you direct the sizzle for us?” And she was like, “Absolutely, I would love to.” And when she came out to do that, she brought with her Betsy Sodaro. And Betsy was like the key. We saw her do her thing, we were like, “Why isn't this woman in more stuff?” She is just hilarious.
And so that got us really excited. And then, with the sizzle and the script, we were trying to produce, but that's the thing, we had no money at the time. Blood sweat and tears. We wanted to do it our way. We wanted to do it in a way where we were having cool people come together and do this really fun project. And we were lucky enough to kind of gather people around us that helped us do that. And then the first step in terms of moving forward and actually getting this feature made at the budget that we actually wrote it to, which we ended up reducing the budget to about a million dollars. The first step really, that's hard to get that first initial investment because that basically validates the project. And other people could say, “Oh, well if so and so who runs all these companies or who is a very well-established person in the position to support the arts,” as we like to say, “has invested in your project, maybe other people will, too.” So, we were really lucky early on to get some people who believed in Jenna and me.
Jenna: And then we really did have good timing on our side. We finished production right before the pandemic because we shot the summer before, we shot and edited and everything in the can and then we were about to fly out to South by Southwest about three days before the world shut down. And we were like, “We're still gonna go, we are scrappy, we can take a global virus!” [laughs] Then we all decided, maybe we should stop, maybe not. We didn't go to South by but it was helpful to have the South by stamp, and then we ended up selling the movie to Utopia. We've had good success, so far. It's been really so fun seeing everybody find the movie. We are now on Amazon and Apple.
Ann Marie: It's also been really, really wonderful to see people discover - not that they were already out there - but just really like Mary Holland having a lead in a feature. She's amazing. Betsy obviously, Olivia, seeing Dot-Marie Jones who is actually a real world 15-time arm wrestling champion and brought so much realistic fun arm wrestling lore into the movie as Big Sexy. And then we had some other fun people come out and play like Kate Flannery, who was a friend of Jane Fleming's who was one of our executive producers as well. We just got really lucky with a lot of really fun female comedians coming out. And also, our guys are just as funny - Ahmed and Eugene and Ron Funches. They did such a great job.
Sadie: Yeah, the movie is perfectly casted. It's exactly who I would see in those parts. It's really cool that you both are able to have all that power, at least through the whole inception to where it is now. It's very rare for writers to have control like that. Kudos to you both in making happen. What’s next for the two of you? Are you making a sequel? I'm just throwing that out there.
Ann Marie: [laughs]
Jenna: We have ideas for a sequel, I mean that world could just keep going and it's so fun that they could just continue. At this point, we have lots of ideas. We're just waiting to see what happens. We just finished a rewrite on It's Wednesday Night, which was a movie we wrote during the pandemic for Netflix, and hopefully will go out to filmmakers soon on that one.
Ann Marie: We’re about to take out another spec script we wrote. We're just kind of anxiously waiting for the list of people we're going to go to for this movie that's sort of an anti-romcom called, You're Dating A Narcissist.
[ENSEMBLE OF LAUGHTER]
Ann Marie: And it's just it's a kind of a fun, romantic comedy about a 50-year-old psychologist who married poorly in her opinion because she married a narcissist, who finds out that her daughter is about to marry a man that she's convinced is a narcissist. So, she basically flies to Italy to try and stop the wedding. It’s kind of It's Complicated meets He's Just Not That Into You.
Sadie: Sign me up. I'm there.
Ann Marie: Oh, great. I love it when we pitch it and because it's out there, it's definitely a little bit of a self-help kind of rom-com that we wrote.
Sadie: A lot of inner reflection going on while watching that movie, I'm sure once it comes to be.
Ann Marie: Oh my gosh. Well, I mean, it's like we've all been there. And that's why just all the stories kept piling up as we talked to our friends, and they were like, “Can you believe that this person did this?” And we're like, “What would make a person do that?” They're like, “Oh, yeah, personality problem.” [laughs]
Sadie: For you two, I feel like female empowerment, especially through the lens of comedy, it's so fragile, but women have a really odd sense of humor. And enjoyed the fact that you two just go all the way in with it and don't hold back and aren't shying away from it. Is that kind of your goal to just keep doing that kind of material and just be yourselves through your characters?
Ann Marie: Absolutely, I mean, we just try to write movies we want to go see and that make us laugh. And I think one of the secrets to Jenna and I working together is that we just love each other so much. And she's so funny to me. And I'm always like, “Well, I wrote the scene, but I can't wait to you get in there and you're gonna just like improv something even funnier.” There's just a healthy love and respect between us as. What I love about Golden Arm too, it's the power of best friends and how you might not see it, because women are our worst critics, but your best friend comes in and goes, “No, girl, you got this,” you know, like, “Get the chardonnay out, let's have a chat. And we'll figure this out.” You know, like that. That is what the power of women is. And I love it. I have to lean on my best friends all the time. I will probably also just say Barb and Star, loved it. Like that was another one where I was like, we don't have enough of this. This was so fun!
Sadie: We need more of that. Absolutely. For your writing partnership and being different coasts, I assume that you two were ahead of our time in getting together via Zoom. What is your writing process?
Jenna: We work mostly on the phone just to outline. It takes us the longest to do the outline. And we do a pretty detailed outline, I would say it's about 15 to 20 pages. Is that right Ann Marie?
Ann Marie: It usually ends up being like 15 to 20 pages or beat outlines. It’s just the way we are.
Jenna: We try to do it where one person is sitting and the other persons like walking around, and then we'll just switch so that you know, sitting is the new smoking [laughs] somebody's been sitting on this one, and then the one person will write the first half. And then we'll give that to the other person, the other person will edit the first half, like do a little bit of notes, but then just finish writing the second half, and then switch, and then the other person will read the whole thing, do their notes, and then make those changes.
So, by the time we get to a first draft, it's been revised about four times. It's really a rough first draft. And then we have a reader that reads for us and does notes for us so that we can get an outside perspective before a producer would. Usually, when we're working with the studio, the producer would read first and then the studio would read. Or you can work directly with the studio. It just depends on how they would work but we really go over it multiple times. I think the whole thing would take six to eight weeks.
Sadie: That's a quick turnaround.
Jenna: Ann Marie always says we have how many hours a day, because of the three hour difference.
Ann Marie: We joke around that you get 27 hours out of the two of us. [laughs] I will say the fact that we work on the phone I think actually makes us more effective and more efficient because I think you can get lost in just like the chatter. We always joke when we're together, we're like shoe shopping and drinking wine instead of focused on work. [laughs] We definitely have a schedule. We both have kids. And Jenna, her training with the newsroom, she's like, “We got to have these deadlines or we're not going to.” Now I've just created that inside of myself well, if you're not sitting down and writing, you're not writing. You've got to get a schedule together and you just got to do it. I will say writing and knowing that Jenna is going to review what I'm doing, I can go to her with my problems and my writer's block. It’s a great little airbag. I can't recommend it enough. I mean that the only thing that comes next is splitting checks, but hopefully our checks will get so big that it won't even matter.
Jenna: Why don’t they just pay more though? It seems odd.
Ann Marie: We’ll get there.
Sadie: Yeah. I'm banking on you two to change that for us writing partners.
Ann Marie: [laughs]
Sadie: Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me. Wishing you both a lot of success with Golden Arm, and that there’s more money and accolades and that you make more movies like this.
Ann Marie: Thank you so much.