Anna Gutto’s Paradise Highway connects the disconnected

(L-R) Juliette Binoche as Sally and Hala Finley as Leila in the thriller film, PARADISE HIGHWAY, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

Anna Gutto, writer and director for Paradise Highwaytells a powerful story of human connection; about the damage that can be done when children are disconnected from the rest of society, and about the goodness that can prevail when it is rekindled.

Academy Award winners Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman lead this riveting thriller set in the trucking industry and its seamy underbelly of human trafficking. To save the life of her brother (Frank Grillo), Sally (Binoche), a truck driver, reluctantly agrees to smuggle illicit cargo: a girl named Leila (Hala Finley). As Sally and Leila begin a danger-fraught journey across state lines, a dogged FBI operative (Freeman) sets out on their trail, determined to do whatever it takes to terminate a human-trafficking operation — and bring Sally and Leila to safety.

“According to the FBI, more than 100,000 US citizen children live in sex slavery in the US – around the corner from where we live; where we eat breakfast; where we stop by on the road. It’s right in front of us, hidden in plain sight,” Anna cites in her production notes. “In this film, both Leila and Sally start out disconnected – from society and most certainly from each other. Yet they must bond to survive… This film respects and envies its characters, never pities them. Sally and Leila have been through a lot in their lives, but they are not victims; they are survivors. We envy the journey they take together, the connection they’re able to find, and their ability to move forward.”

Check out our interview with Anna!

So, I hear that you wrote the screenplay after researching and immersing yourself in the trucking community. What inspired you to do so? 

Anna: The plan was always to write a screenplay. I came from theater but I transitioned into film because I wanted to be in a medium that fit me better as a director, was a more visual medium and also because I wanted to be able to have a bigger scope and a little bit of a wider reach than what theater can do. So, it was always meant to be a film. And the trucking community, I had started developing a story about this girl who was escaping from trafficking and the story was also at a truck stop and, and then I had this professor at Columbia, Paul Schrader, who wrote Taxi Driver, etc… and he suddenly was like, ‘you know, Anna, there’s this video on YouTube of this female trucker. I think you should take a look at it. I think there might be a character there for you.’ And, that was just a little bud or little seed. 

But then I started really looking into the trucking industry in general, because I find it fascinating. We drive past these people, you know, and sometimes we’re annoyed because we’re stuck behind a truck and they’re blocking our view, you know, and then at the same time, these are the people who bring us everything that we need, our food, our clothes, everything. And so then, as I started researching, I got to know this woman, Desiree Wood, and she invited me into her female trucking community. So I would be hours and hours on these conference calls with these women, where they would talk to each other and they would invite any new trucker female truckers in to get advice. It could be just simply about, you know, how to drive a truck down from a mountain to a certain problem with the engine, it could be anything like that, or it could be about safety on the road or at the truck stops. They also talked about their lives. I gained so much respect for them, because they were such wonderful people, strong women who had made choices for themselves. All of them had been through a lot in their life and they had made active choices to make a better life for themselves. It really fascinated me and I became so grateful to them, that I wanted to really make it a part of the story. And as you then see in the movie there are these conversations between these women and actually, quite a bit of that is direct transcript from these calls that I was on. 

(L-R) Director Anna Gutto and Juliette Binoche as Sally in a behind the scenes image of the thriller film, PARADISE HIGHWAY, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Did you do all of this research remotely or were you able to go into the trucks with them?

Anna: Yeah, I also went on ride alongs with Desiree. Juliette did that too, actually. I’d spend time in that way and, and I also just had her kind of, on and off throughout the years as I was developing the script. We would meet or I would ask her questions. It became quite a close relationship. She was important to how I developed this movie. 

Was Sally kind of modeled off of Desiree or is she kind of a compilation of a lot of different truckers?

Anna: Yeah, she’s not modeled off Desiree. She’s kind of a compilation of different truckers and also of other people. She became her own character, but she definitely has traits from a few different truckers. But she became very much her own character, and that’s how it is for me. The characters are never directly modeled off a certain person, nor are they written specifically for a certain actor. The character takes on a life of their own.

How much time did you spend researching before you were happy with the finished script?

Anna: I just realized, a couple of months ago, that I wrote the first treatment while I was pregnant with my first child, and I wrote the first draft after he was born. And he is turning 10 years old in October. And it’s not unusual for films to have a trajectory like that. So in terms of research, the research was continuous throughout and, you know, on and off. I did a ton of research at the beginning in the trucking industry about trafficking and then I would write and write and write and then I would kind of feel like, ‘okay, there’s still something I’m not quite understanding or that I’m not quite getting right.’ So then I would dig back in again and then I would go on a ride along, and then I would write and work on it. 

Then it became about character and I started developing the FBI side of things, the Morgan Freeman side of things more. I was lucky to find an FBI consultant who, unfortunately I can’t say his name because he’s an active agent, but he was fantastically generous and he helped me, you know, he’d read through the scenes with me. Actually, a lot of Morgan and Cameron’s lines are also kind of direct transcripts of conversations with him, and kind of things that he told me. I would say it’s continuous because, you know, the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know, so the more you have to learn. So, you keep researching. I mean even all up until shooting, all through shooting I would still learn more. Like the woman, who plays this very small role as a truckstop manager at the big truck stop, she had worked with a trafficking advocacy organization and she told me some stories that were different from some things I’ve heard before. And then that influenced how I ended up filming some of the scenes with the traffickers just a couple of weeks later, so it’s a continuous process. You always keep going.

Hala Finley as Leila in Anna Gutto’s thriller film, PARADISE HIGHWAY, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
What was something that you were really surprised to learn about the trucking community in this process?

Anna: I think and, obviously, that happened very early that I realized it, but it really maybe surprised, you know, it’s not that I didn’t think it was that way, but I really was not aware of them having such a supportive community. And I’m sure that’s not everybody and I know it’s not everybody but certainly Desiree’s community was so supportive with each other and that was really nice to see. Other things I learned about the trucking industry. I mean, it’s terrible that the food at the truck stops is so terrible. You’d think that they can be offered something a bit more nutritious and good. 

I was surprised. I mean, I didn’t know anything about being a trucker. I didn’t know how it worked, or how at truck stops, there’s a whole section that’s only allowed for truck drivers, you know, that there are showers and washing machines and that there are kind of these spaces, these sort of safe spaces for them. I didn’t know that. There’s a ton I didn’t know about trucks, about how you drive them, about how we take care of the engine, about the safety checks, you know, there were so many things I learned. aAnd in a way, yeah, it was surprising, I guess, because before I started this process, I was ignorant. I just drove past drugs. That’s all I did with trucks.

The content within the film is very heavy and you have a very young actress kind of at the forefront of all this. How did you approach this film regarding working with Hala?

Anna: Yeah, you know, she’s incredibly talented. She’s also a very hardworking and very professional, young actress. With her, she has an incredible imagination and she has her own very strong process. I have a great respect for actors, in general, and also for her. She really just demands respect because of her hard work and how she approaches character and approaches that work. So with her, mainly, what we would do, we would talk through the scenes, we would talk through the character, talk through all the circumstances, and then I would let her do her work. Because she is that good. That she is able to do that. I also, I am not one of those directors who believes in manipulating actors, and certainly not kids either. I know there are some directors that do. Some say that, with kids, you have to kind of manipulate them to get what you want, but I don’t believe in that. And I believe in that, when you really just go into it and you respect that, obviously, I spoke a lot with her mom, too, but she’s a very mature young actress. Usually, we would all talk together or I would just speak with Hala and she was able to deliver what this character needed. It’s such a it’s a privilege, you know, when you work with people who truly are talented and hardworking.

(L-R) Cameron Monaghan as Special Agent Finley Sterling and Morgan Freeman as Gerick in Anna Gutto’s thriller film, PARADISE HIGHWAY, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
She definitely held her own against the rest of your powerhouse cast. What was it like working with the cast?

Anna: I just felt very lucky because, you know, I could talk for hours about each of them. Juliette is an incredible actress, obviously, and she’s also a very generous person. She came on board this movie first. She was the first one to come on board. And it was really, for her to make that choice was really important, it’s what got the movie made. And she gave herself to this character and really transformed herself. So with her, when you work with someone like that, it’s really about being supportive in the best way and again, finding the best ways to give her the space. And then sometimes maybe just reminding her of things, because we would also talk through all the scenes and everything. And sometimes on set we would just remind each other about what we had talked about, you know, but she’s such a professional. 

Morgan Freeman is just also a dream to work with. He’s wonderful. And he’s, you know, he was 84 years old when we filmed and if I can be anywhere close to that when I’m 84, I’ll be very happy. He is one of those actors that, when he’s part of a scene, the scene just becomes the best it can be. And that’s who he is. Cameron is also just amazing to work with and I’m so excited that this film shows him in this kind of character. I’m really excited to see what’s next for him. I just think he has such a good career ahead of him. I know he will. I mean, I know I’m gonna want to work with him as much as I can. Also Frank Grillo, it’s a different- well Frank has done a lot of different things, but I would say that this character has some challenges that were different for him and he and he went there with me and with the character and he allowed the character to be.

Before I let you go, is there anything else that you wanted to add about Paradise Highway?

Anna: Paradise Highway is gonna be in select theaters, and that’s kind of extraordinary in our day and age that it’s a movie that you could actually see in the movie theater. So, I would say if you are anywhere close to a theater where it’s going to play, then come out and see it in the theater because of the cinematography and also just because of the experience of seeing it in that space. That’s something I would love to give to the audience, to see it in the theater with me.

Making a movie is such a collective experience and it’s a collaboration all the way through. So, for me, certainly Juliette was essential, she was a true partner for me on this project, but also the producers and, really, the producer, Claudia Bluemhuber, she was the one who managed to get this movie together with me as a debuting feature director. That’s quite a feat that she was able to do. But everyone who worked on the movie, because it’s not my movie, it’s our movie. So it’s just really a joy now to share it with the audience.

Juliette Binoche as Sally in Anna Gutto’s thriller film, PARADISE HIGHWAY, a Lionsgate release. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Available in Select US Theaters, On Digital and On Demand on July 29.