Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan chats with director Maureen Bharoocha about her arm wrestling buddy comedy Golden Arm.
One of the many films that was supposed to be shown at the 2020 SXSW Festival was the comedy Golden Arm. Directed by Maureen Bharoocha (Jimmy Kimmel Live!), the film stars Mary Holland (Veep) and Betsy Sodaro (Another Period) as two friends who embark on a road trip to compete in the National Ladies Arm Wrestling Championship. Rounding out the cast is Dot-Marie Jones, Eugene Cordero, Ron Funches, Kate Flannery, Olivia Stambouliah, Dawn Luebbe, Ahmed Bharoocha, and Aparna Nancherla.
The film serves as a benchmark for where female-driven comedies are going, as it flips the script on so many buddy comedies we’ve seen before that have traditionally starred men. But even though it may feel like a story you’ve seen before, Golden Arm‘s sharp cast and script give the familiar plot a fresh spin. Melanie (Mary Holland) isn’t a delicate woman who suddenly discovers her inner beast while arm wrestling—she had it when she was younger and let it go.
I had a chance to chat with Bharoocha about the film, how her sense of identity informs her work, and whether there are really arm wrestling championships (indeed, there are!).
Awards Daily: I know you’re probably disappointed you couldn’t show it at SXSW, but with everyone with stay-at-home orders, I think this film would be the perfect one to binge at home.
Maureen Bharoocha: We’re looking for a buyer. As soon as we get a distributor, hopefully it will appear. It’s such a fun watch, and Mary and Betsy are so great in it. I’ve seen it a million times, and every time I watch it, I’m laughing. I’m a fan of it. And you can’t always say that about stuff.
Awards Daily: it’s so much fun, especially during a time like this. They’re touching hands! It makes you long for a different time. You have such a unique background related to your identity, part Irish Catholic/part Indian Pakistani Burmese/Muslim heritage. Does that exploration come out in your work? I feel like so much of Golden Arm is about identity, specifically Melanie’s return to herself.
MB: Yeah, I do. I think it took me a long time to figure out that that’s what I’m exploring in all my work. My mom is Irish Catholic, and my dad was born in Burma Pakistani/Indian/Muslim, and they both practice their religion. I grew up with both of them practicing, so I feel like there was always a search for identity or connecting to those parts of my past because they seem so different. So I feel like I’ve gravitated towards these unusual characters that maybe have a self-conflict or are underdogs in a way. I love a complicated character or somebody who is searching within, even in a comedy. As a kid, I was always trying to figure out—am I half this, half that? How do I wrestle with the fact that I’m Catholic but I’m also Muslim? I think just having that perspective growing up really helped shape what I find interesting about people. Everybody always has a story about where they’re from, so I really love to get to know people. I love to meet people’s parents. Every time I meet a friend, I’m like, I want to meet their parents, cause I want to see how that makes them who they are.
AD: How did this project come about for you? You seem to have a very eclectic resume, so I’m wondering what struck you about this particular project.
MB: This project came to me about five years ago. Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly, the screenwriters, approached me with this idea. It was such a fun idea that I immediately was like, yeah! I love sports comedies, I love the idea of it being a little down and dirty and grungy. You never get to see that, especially with women’s sports or even with female-driven comedies. They’re a little bit of an outlier. We’re definitely seeing great ones, but I feel like there’s been a lack of female comedies in this genre. So that’s what really excited me about it. As soon as they told me about the concept, I had an image in my mind. Rough around the edges, still funny, but also treating it more cinematically. TV right now is killing it with comedies. Movies still sometimes feel a little flat, for how they’re shot and how they’re overly lit. I just had a vision of how it should be, visual-wise and comedy. All the people in it are so funny. My sense was to ground it in reality to really let those comedy beats shine.
AD: You touched on something that I wanted to ask you about. I feel like we’ve seen this movie before but with male leads. Was that something you were conscious of?
MB: It’s definitely something that I was aware of and that I really wanted to be conscious of while we were shooting. I didn’t want it to drive the whole movie, but I agree—there’s not a movie that treats women in this space how they might treat men. What’s great about it is that they’re talking about the sport, they’re talking about training, sometimes they’re talking about a guy—they run the gamut. So it passes the Bechdel test. (Laughs)
AD: I thought that, too! (Laughs)
MB: And to me, what I really wanted to highlight was the beauty of all types of women. Every person we have in this movie is funny, beautiful, sometimes a little bit rough, sometimes a little bit dainty. You really have the full spectrum, with all kinds of women. I think that’s really exciting. And Dot-Marie Jones is a real arm wrestling champion, so it was really cool to have her in the movie, teaching us and being that sage arm wrestling master.
AD: That’s amazing. How much research did you do on competitive arm wrestling? Are there really competitions like this?
MB: That’s where the writers pulled from. All across America, there are these underground arm wrestling communities that get together, dress up, and arm wrestle for charity. [Screenwriter] Ann Marie has a charity in DC called DCLAW, and we have one in LA. What’s cool is that it’s an actual thing that’s happening. So that was the other thing, too, that we were being honest and showing them in a positive way. I’m not from that community, but I really think it’s awesome, and I love what they’re doing. It’s such a fun thing.
AD: It’s like Over the Top, but it’s something more accessible. Maybe that’s because I’m a woman. I thought, finally, there’s something for me!
MB: That’s exactly what I was hoping for.
AD: Oh, good! I love how this film explores a person coming back to themselves. So many types of movies like this are about characters revealing parts of themselves they never knew, but here Melanie is returning to this part of herself she previously wanted to forget. What do you think made her push that part of herself to the past?
MB: That was one of the things I talked about with Mary early on. There’s always a tendency to have this type of woman in a movie be dainty and she’s never done this thing in her life and she’s finally figured it out. When you’re a kid, you’re free. Whether you’re in high school or college, you act a certain way and you have it within you. Mary’s character may have been someone who had it, and then she got bogged down with the pressures of society. I think that happens to a lot of us. You think about how you used to be, and you wonder what held you back. I think it’s a really interesting perspective, instead of being like she never had it. She had it, but somewhere along the way she lost something. It’s reclaiming that thing you know you have inside that you used to be. We all have that in some way. Especially with women being told what’s appropriate and not appropriate. That’s in there underneath the surface.
AD: One last question: What would your arm wrestling name be?
MB: Ooh. I’ve never really thought about what it would be. That’s a good one. I was coming up with costumes, and I had this vision board of every bad-ass female that I love—Ripley [from Alien], Grace Jones, Tina Turner. In there there was one visual of a woman in a saree—so maybe like a gypsy or a witch. But something fun like that. That’s a tough one. Coming up with that vision board was 50 women from movies who were all super-cool and bad-ass. That’s what I sent to the costume designers, and that’s how they came up with each look.
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