Paradise Highway – Interview with Filmmaker Anna Gutto

Interview with Paradise Highway Filmmaker

Paradise Highway is a thriller film following a truck driver named Sally (Juliette Binoche) who is forced to smuggle illicit cargo to save her brother from a deadly prison gang. With FBI operatives (Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan) hot on her trail, Sally's conscience is challenged when the final package turns out to be a teenage girl.

The following interview is with Anna Gutto, the filmmaker behind writing and directing Paradise Highway —now available to watch via digital.

Paradise Highway explores the difficult subject matter of child trafficking. What was the driving force for the film, and what was the screenwriting process like?

I wanted to make a movie that people want to see about a topic that people generally don’t want to talk about; trafficking. When I was a teenager an apartment in my friend’s building was busted by the police. It turned out there had been a brothel, right there, in my friend's building. It shook me to the core to realize that girls had been trafficked right under my nose. It made me aware of how trafficking is an issue that is hiding in plain sight, and I wanted to tell a story that would help bring this to our common awareness.

As I developed the story, I did a lot of research into trafficking, and also into the trucking community, and female truckers in particular. I got to know Desiree Wood, a female trucker early on in the process. She started an advocacy organization called REAL Women in Trucking, where female truckers support each other and advocate for issues that are important to their safety and livelihood. Desiree would organize conference calls for her members on a regular basis, and they invited me onto these calls. They would be all over the continent, each in the cabs of their trucks – from Florida to Michigan, California to Maine – and I sat in my little apartment in New York. I gained a deep respect for these women and the choices they had made to make a better life for themselves. This was invaluable research for me, and a lot of what they said made it into the script – as character traits and challenges the characters encounter – and, actually, many of the lines you hear from the trucker characters in the movie are direct transcript from those conversations.

Same with my FBI consultant, who unfortunately can’t be named because he is an active agent. He read drafts of the script, spent hours on the phone with me, and often came with fun and wonderful suggestions for dialogue – many of which now live in the mouths of Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan.

Just a few weeks ago, I contemplated how long I had been working on the script and here it is: I wrote the first treatment when I was pregnant with my first child and wrote the first draft right after he was born. He is turning ten years in October. So, it’s been a while, and of course, I’ve done other things in between, but there’s probably been about 10 page-one rewrites and an undisclosed number of revisions, but that’s the fun of it. When you can dig into the scene and make each detail work just that little bit better. Then from there comes maybe the most important round of revisions: the ones that happen with the actors. And then, of course, the post process with the editor, which becomes the final stage of the writing. I worked with a brilliant editor, Christian Siebenherz, who was a wonderful creative sparring partner in that process.

Such an incredible cast, which includes the talented Morgan Freeman and Juliette Binoche. How were they brought onto the project? How did you find the casting process?

My cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund had worked with Juliette ten years earlier and offered to send her the script. I didn’t know John Christian from before, and I hadn’t thought of asking him to send it to Juliette, neither did I know he could but by the time he sent it to her, I had brought him along on a location scout, so he had a chance to get to know me a bit more, and I guess he had grown to trust that I knew how to helm this project.

Now, this is where a good chunk of luck comes in. Juliette happened to be on a road trip in the US when she received the script, and she told me later that when she opened the script on her phone: “I started reading, and there in the script were these landscapes, and then I looked out the windshield, and there were the same landscapes, so I just thought ‘I have to do this movie’.” Morgan Freeman came on board later in the process, and while he liked the character and the story, I’m convinced he most of all wanted to work with Juliette. When you have a class act of an actress involved, then other good actors will want to work with her.

Once Juliette was on board, the casting process was joyful, but it still took a long time to find the right people to fill the roles. With a film like this, and with these characters, the actors are so important. Cameron Monaghan as Morgan’s partner was a find, Frank Grillo as Juliette’s brother was just what that character needed, and Christiane Seidel as the head of the trafficking duo with Walker Babington – these two people who, while off balance people who’ve chosen the dark side of society – I needed actors who made them feel like they could be your sister or brother – or neighbor. From the smallest one-line characters to each and every one of them, I am so happy with all the actors in this movie. For example, local actress Susan McPhail who fills Morgan Freeman’s introductory scene with the authenticity I had hoped for, and Tracy Pfau, who portrays a lost drug addict at the truck stop.

What were the influences for the visuals of Paradise Highway — what was it like working with Cinematographer John Christian Rosenlund?

I’ve traveled around in the US quite a bit before, and even more during the research process for the project. i.e. ridealong with trucker Desiree Wood – spending my days in the cab of the truck and my nights in the bunk, seeing the truck stops and the road from her perspective. Most of the inspiration came from the landscapes and the environments themselves, but Thelma & Louise was also an important inspiration. Fun fact: As a homage to Thelma & Louise, Sally’s truck is the exact same color as Louise’s Thunderbird.

When we decided to shoot in Mississippi, I knew I needed to get there right away to soak up the landscape and find out how to build the emotional journey of our story with the landscapes that exist there. I don’t expect the audience to notice, but it will still influence their experience of the film. Once I had laid out the general feel of what environments we needed at what point in the story, we started traveling with Rosenlund (DP), Mary Kerrigan (our AD), Frida Oliva (Production Designer,) and our amazing local Location Manager John Read. Together we found the right spots that supported what our story needed.

From a very early point, I knew I wanted to create a feel similar to that of a cowboy and his horse. Just as a cowboy is one with his horse, Sally is one with her truck. And as the cowboy and his horse are one with the environment around them, Sally and her truck are inseparable from the landscapes they travel through. I wanted the camera to be able to move from inside to outside the truck seamlessly so that we (in the audience) could experience that feeling of being in the landscapes. When Rosenlund came on board, we started developing what this would mean specifically, and practically. Shooting in a vehicle is never easy, and a 30-ton big rig is even more of a challenge. I remember I told the producers as soon as they came on board that I thought this movie needed a rig, and with Rosenlund, we developed our “studio on wheels” as we called it. He draw it all up and figured out all the technical aspects of making it happen. It was incredibly challenging to make it work, and we had many hiccups along the way, but in the end, we got most of the shots we wanted. He put his heart and soul into making the absolute best of what this movie could be, and he was able to bring that feeling of the road – the dust; the dirt; the heat – he was able to bring all that inspiration into the visual perimeters of the frame. For lighting, we worked actively with natural light and practicals, adding only a minimum – using shadows and darkness just as much as we used light. Rosenlund is a master of light and of bringing the emotional impact of the environment into the frame.

What are your favorite scenes in Paradise Highway - during filming and in the final cut?

When you have actors like these, there are so many. But, if I have to choose a few, then the scene with Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman at the weigh station is high up on the list. Being on set with these two stellar actors – one of the best actors in Europe facing one of the best American actors was something special. Also, the scene with Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan on the bench outside the trafficking house is definitely high up. It was an important scene in the script from an early point, and it was a joy to watch these two expert actors bring it to life. So many of the scenes with Hala and Juliette were also so joyful to do – because of their talent and chemistry. Actually one of my favorite scenes with them ended up in “Deleted scenes”, so you’d have to buy the bonus material to see that one. It’s just a great, fun little scene. It was also a fun challenge to shoot the escape from the big truck stop – the overhead shot of Juliette that goes up and shows us the vast truck stop, and the later escape and car chase with car rigs, dust clouds flying – filming all of those pieces separately to create how it ended up. While I love working with actors in dialogue scenes, I also get a special kick out of the puzzle of putting those types of action-driven scenes together (even with the challenges of a tight budget and schedule).

Can you tell us about working on the score with Composer Anné Kulonen?

I very much enjoyed working with Anné on this film. She invested herself fully into the story, the characters, and the emotional needs of every aspect of the film. Her music is intoxicating and engaging. It transcends the audience with powerful melodic work and rhythm. For this particular film, her work with the environment of truck stops, trucks, and the highway became an integral part of the development of the score. To hear how she used authentic truck sounds and made music out of it, was how I had dreamt for the music to engage into the unique feel of this movie.

How did you find the post-production process with Editor Christian Siebenherz?

Christian is a storyteller in his own right, and it makes him an excellent sparring partner in the editing room. He is dramaturgically astute and knows how to challenge the material in the most effective way. As I mentioned earlier, I very much enjoyed doing this final stage of the writing process with Siebenherz. I felt really lucky to be working with a person who could helped me make the best movie out of the material we had.

Where was the movie filmed, and how long was principal photography?

We filmed in Mississippi, and we only had 25 days for principal photography. Our AD, Mary Kerrigan did an incredible job scheduling this movie within that time, and not just to cram it all in, but she managed to schedule the right time of day for sunrise and sunset, etc. I don’t know how she did it, but she has a puzzle mind that I’m just in awe of.

What are the films/directors that have influenced you as a filmmaker, including Paradise Highway?

I’m most of all influenced by things I see in the real world, things that happen in real life – mine or others around the world. I read the newspapers, I watch the news. I’m curious of people and situations around me. When I lived in New York, I would love to sit on the subway and imagine the stories of all the people who shared the little space of the subway car with me. I talk with people. I talk with people I like, but also people I don’t like, because they tend to expand my thoughts to unknown places. And I talk to strangers. Like, just now, while transiting at Heathrow airport in London, I ended up talking with an older woman and had dinner with her. I learned about her life, her family, and her challenges. Characters grow out of all the people I meet. Not directly, but small pieces from this and that person joined together to form characters at a later stage when I’m developing new stories.

But there are of course filmmakers that I love as well. Susanne Bier is one of my favorite directors. Someone who can do any genre and who always finds the interesting angle on the material and the characters. I also treasure the work of Taika Waikiki, for example. What he did with Jo Jo Rabbit was genius. I love his playful, serious, yet unpretentious way of telling stories. And Paul Thomas Anderson is incredible – his characters and authenticity, and lightness, I love. And, for this movie, Thelma & Louise was a great inspiration. A movie about sexual assault that managed to not be an “issue” movie. Most people remember the movie as a joyful road adventure. As I mentioned earlier, Sally’s truck in Paradise Highway is the exact same color as the Thunderbird in Thelma & Louise.

Favorite movies from the past decade?

That list varies from day to day, but Jo Rabbit and Promising Young Woman always stay on the list and Licorice Pizza. Some others are Ex Machina, La La Land, Her, and Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, because it was just so fresh, and I love a good movie I can watch with my kids. Very different movies, but it’s not about genre for me, but how they’re doing something special, something I haven’t seen before.

Which themes and subject matters interest you as a filmmaker?

The connection between people. So that’s what I find in the stories I do. Paradise Highway is a film about the power of human connection; the damage that can be done when young girls are disconnected from the rest of society, and the goodness that can prevail when it is rekindled. At the same time, it is about human trafficking. Human trafficking is one of the symptoms of a society where we are disconnected.

Mostly I’m attracted to characters, environments, and stories that I haven’t seen before – or at least not in that exact way.

Do you have any upcoming projects you'd like to share with us?

I’m in talks with a couple of projects. and it looks likely that the next thing I direct will be written by someone else, something I am very excited about, but which I can’t share details about quite yet. I also have a couple of projects I’m developing on my own, one about a very cool and charming mother of five who saved several hundred prisoners during the Second World War – a story that will live somewhere between Fleabag and Jo Jo Rabbit. And the other is a project about the world-renowned artist Edvard Munch (read: the painter of one of the world’s most famous paintings: “The Scream”. You know it. There is an emoji made of it). It won’t be your traditional bio-pic, but a movie that lives between Loving Vincent and I’m Not There. Live action and animation, crossing the fame and fortune of Edvard Munch across three time periods and three continents. It’s a project I’m very excited about, but that still needs some love at the script stage before it can meet the world. I’m working on it with writing partner Kjersti Wøien Håland.

Watch Paradise Highway Now