ComingSoon spoke to director Anna Gutto about her thriller Paradise Highway, which is out today in theaters and on demand. Gutto talked about what it was like to work with a legend like Morgan Freeman, and about how her background in theater prepared her for directing.
“To save the life of her brother, truck driver Sally reluctantly agrees to smuggle illicit cargo — a girl named Leila,” reads the film’s synopsis. “As they begin a danger-fraught journey across state lines, a dogged FBI operative sets out on their trail, determined to do whatever it takes to terminate a human-trafficking operation and bring Sally and Leila to safety.”
Tyler Treese: I know you’ve done plenty of short films and other directing work, but did anything surprise you while making your feature film debut?
Anna Gutto: There are probably a million surprises, but in a sense, you know that there are going to be a million surprises, so it doesn’t surprise you anymore. There are so many things because everything from how much the actors give into the work and how that really makes the script come to life, especially in this situation where I wrote the script myself … but again, I don’t know that I would say that it surprises me, because I know that’s what actors do. You get sort of astonished when you see their performances, seeing the text come to life. The same with everyone else. When I come to a new set and the production designer and the art team have created this space that I had just, so far, only imagined in my head. And I come there and I see it … I see that it’s real, or with the music that the composer makes, or the costumes when Stacy Jansen, the costume designer, puts Morgan Freeman in that outfit, and I know that’s exactly how he was supposed to look. It’s like amazement. Maybe more than a surprise, because I know that that’s how good people work, is that they make you feel like it’s more than what you expected.
Working with Morgan Freeman, what a huge honor that had to be. So how was working with a living legend, and how’d you get him on board?
You’re right. He is a living legend, and he’s also a great human being, and wonderful to work with. It was great, working with him. I was just so incredibly impressed by how well he was doing because he’s over 80. And I can only dream of being like that when I’m over 80 … of being so vibrant and being able to remember all my lines. And he is a lot in this movie, he’s not just in and out. He’s a substantial character who was shooting with us for many days. He’s remarkable. I was so honored to work with him, and just a wonderful, great person to be around.
He has some fun scenes. He’s going on some rants with Cameron Monaghan. He’s dropping F-bombs. It seems like he really had fun.
Yeah. The two of them found a really good tone. Before the scenes, we would always just go through them together if we had time. And we usually had time while the crew was doing setups, and we would just go through it and then maybe we would look at … maybe we could get rid of some lines, or maybe this can be said a little differently. And sometimes that came from them, or sometimes it came from me when I heard them say like, “oh, that line was not very good.” And then we’d be like, “I don’t know who wrote that line, but I think we can make it better.” So it was great. We worked our way through. We had a very tight schedule, but we managed to keep our focus and get a joy out of the scenes.
Juliette Binoche is obviously a very pedigreed actress and such a talent. I feel like her transformation in this film really going to surprise people and shows a different side of her that we don’t usually see.
Yeah, she really transformed for this character, you’re right. That’s the incredible thing with seeing Juliette Binoche, who we’re all used to seeing as this sophisticated … I mean, she’s done a lot of different things, but this is a real transformation for her. And again, just another very, very generous human being and an incredible actress. So when someone like that delves into a character, they’re not going to do it [halfway]. She goes full-in. I had done a lot of research with and gotten to know a lot of female truckers during my research. So then when Juliet came on board, she would then go on ride-alongs. She would learn how to drive the truck. She would talk with them for hours and hours. Like I said, she was on the road with this female trucker, Desiree Wood, who had been sort of a consultant for me already then throughout the writing process. All of that and just her immersion into it allowed her to get to that kind of authenticity in her character.
Her scenes with Hala Finley are very impressive. Hala’s 13 years old, and was probably even younger when filming, but she gives such a mature performance here. What stood out the most about working with such a young actress?
She’s incredible. She is incredibly talented, and she has this imagination that allows her to do such a strong portrayal. She’s able to imagine herself into situations and give everything of herself. Juliette is very generous, and with Hala we had rehearsals in advance of shooting also. We would just know that everything was safe and Hala would always just give everything she had for every take. know that she will become — she is a star — but she will be discovered as a big star unless she suddenly decides to do something else like become a doctor or something. She’s wonderful to work with.
Talk to me about writing this film. Human trafficking is, sadly, such a real issue in society. What made you want to tell this story?
I had something that happened when I was a teenager. It turned out that there had been a brothel in my friend’s building in the city where I grew up. This was a nice neighborhood. It really surprised me that this had been happening right under our noses. That situation stayed with me and kept bugging me. Like, how can that happen? So that had been with me for a long, long time. Then as I was living in New York … I had also been exchange student in Indiana … I just felt like this was an issue. A lot of us were not aware of how prominent it was. I also noticed that people were afraid to talk about it. It was something that people really felt was hard to deal with. So I wanted to make a movie that allowed it to be something that we could talk about, and I wanted it to be a movie that would be entertaining and that would allow us to see a way out of the situation that we’re in with trafficking.
You have a theater background, and you’ve done some work as an actress in the past. How has all of that helped you in your role behind the camera
Being an actress … I did mostly theater, and it teaches you a very, very strong discipline. When you work in the theater, that curtain is going to go up at eight o’clock, no matter what. So it teaches you to make sure you are ready at eight o’clock when that curtain goes up. That’s something that’s helped me immensely in the writing process when I might have had a small desire to procrastinate. I’ve been able to do those techniques and use that discipline that I learned during those years and apply it to the work that I wanted to do now. And the same, I would say on set too … it just creates a discipline. And then on top of that, obviously I respect actors so much because I know what it takes and I know how difficult it can be.
I also know how joyful it can be. So I love working with actors and it’s very comfortable with me. I still obviously make a lot of mistakes, and there are things that I learn. I learned a lot throughout the movie. You learn all the time. I hope I’ll always keep learning, otherwise, I don’t know what I’m doing anymore if I’m not learning anything. Those years working in the theater and working as an actress has given me a lot. I’m so glad because I always knew I would become a director when I grew up, but I always felt it was something I needed to graduate into. I’m glad I did it that way. For me, that was the right thing.
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