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.
Paradise Highway is a harrowing tale about human trafficking, that I wish I could say was something of the past, but unfortunately, it's not. Filmmaker Anna Gutto delicately and pointedly explores this seedy world, through the eyes of an unlikely united pair, a female truck driver named Sally, beautifully played by Juliette Binoche, and the victim by circumstance Leila, played by Hala Finley. This character-driven drama leaves no stone unturned all the while pulling at your heartstrings and leaving you on the edge of your seat.
I had the utmost pleasure in speaking with Anna Gutto about the elements that initially inspired this specific story, parallel character development, and writing to direct. Plus, Anna shares invaluable advice for first-time filmmakers.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What inspired this story for you?
Anna Gutto: Well, there are always many things that inspire a story. And often, there are different elements at different times. And it's the concoction of sort of when you are able to bring these elements together that it truly becomes a story worth telling.
The first seed came from when I was a teenager and it turned out that there had been a brothel in my friend's building. And this was a good side of town, and it really shocked me. And it also made me so aware of how it's happening right under our noses. For many years, I didn't think about it too much, although it was always kind of there in the back of my mind. And then as I was living in New York for a long time, and also actually, when I was an exchange student in Indiana, I kept kind of becoming aware of that these things are going on, and also the awareness of that it's not just foreign girls or women or boys who are trafficked, but it's also happening domestically.
I think I'm always particularly interested in stories and characters that are sort of underexposed, or under-told. So, I started finding out how to make a story. And it first started out with a story just about this girl who manages to escape, this girl manages to kind of find her way out, because that's one of the main challenges is that is often it’s very difficult for these young girls or boys to get out. Not because they're chained, but because of their own lack of resources in themselves, or just the fear that they have. So, I wanted to sort of tell a story about someone who had the capacity to break out.
I was lucky enough that I had Paul Schrader for a semester at Columbia. And by that point, the story had started kind of being at truck stops, this girl ends up at truck stops, and he was like, ‘You should take a look at this YouTube video of this female trucker, because I feel like there might be a character there for you.’ And then as I started digging into that, I started getting to know all of these female truckers and one in particular, who invited me into these conversations, as you see in the movie; and a lot of the dialogue of the truckers is almost like direct transcripts from these hours and hours and hours of conversations that I would listen into.
I gained so much respect for these women. Talk about a man's world and talk about a really male-dominated industry. These women are out there on their own on the road with 30-tons on their back. I remember, in particular, this older woman who had been a truck driver for 30 years. And she told me, ‘Anna, I have a lot of traumas in my life. But when I'm on the road, I get blinders on because I have responsibility. I have responsibility for a 30-ton missile,’ because that's the power of what she's in. ‘So, all I could focus on is the road ahead and then all of my traumas, just kind of disappear.’ And I thought, just this strength, I mean, it's so beautiful. And there's something so wonderful about people who survive tough circumstances. It just so shows the strength in people, you know? So, I was so inspired by them.
And then at the same time in the middle of early development, I had my first child. There's definitely some of my own fear, trepidation, trepidation, and the intense love that you experience when you have a child that's also a part of this journey. So, when you ask, ‘What's the inspiration?’ Yeah, there are many elements. And certainly, some elements of some not-so-good characters that I've experienced in my life that I got to explore in this story, too. But it all becomes a story that I think is worth telling and think is worth sharing with other people.
Sadie: I definitely got goosebumps with that story of the female truck driver who had been in the business for 30 years. And she has that responsibility of being on the highway and her traumas behind her - that just says so much, especially about these characters too.
Anna: I think it also says a lot about when you find a vocation that you care about it does that for you. And so it becomes her mindfulness or her meditation in a way being on the road.
Sadie: In terms of the character development, with Sally and the little girl Leila, we’re witnessing their growth with each other and acceptance of one another - I'm curious about writing those parallels of those two characters who are so different, obviously in age, but also, so similar in what they want?
Anna: Well, there are many ways to answer that question. [laughs] But maybe I can try to talk about how I really believe in the good in humanity, first of all, and I believe in the good in human beings very much. And sometimes that can be challenging to believe in when you read the news, and this and that, but I think that sometimes there is that person you need to meet. That is the person that allows you to become the good version of yourself or the best version of yourself. And I think that's what happens to both of them, because both of them have been isolated by society, but also isolated themselves from society. And by meeting each other, they are able to kind of find their way back to a connection.
In terms of these two characters, I find myself, [that] I'm not very interested in victims, because I find victims are disempowering. And I don't believe that human beings are disempowered. I believe that human beings are empowered. Certainly, sometimes people have been pushed into circumstances where that is almost impossible, and it probably would be impossible unless there is that one person that somebody meets, that allows them to find the strength in themselves. I wanted these two characters to reflect each other, but also to provoke development in each other. And to allow us to and to help us to never pity them; I wanted the characters to never pity each other, because I never want us to pity them.
Sadie: I'd love to talk about the color palette for the film, and the color selection such as green and blue and what they represent - green represents renewal and rebirth and blue represents calm and responsibility. And we see that with Sally's truck and Morgan Freeman's character’s car, and also with what they're wearing. Was that intentional?
Anna: Yes, absolutely. For me, colors are very important. I find them often to be the thing that a lot of people don't notice, which is fair. Most people are not educated or [have] been trained in noticing those things. But I do think that we notice them subconsciously. And I think they're very much a part of the experience that you receive, and definitely the emotional impact that the story has on the audience, even if they would never mention it.
Sadie: Did you initially write this for yourself to direct as well?
Anna: Yes. I am a writer, obviously, but I feel like my strength really is in the visuals and in ultimately, the directing. Likely one of my next projects is going to be something that I haven't written that I'm just directing. But I think it's very unlikely that I'll write something I'm not going to direct. I really think I'm both, but I guess my ultimate sort of strength is directing - bringing it all together and in the visuals, as you say with the colors, and we're sort of thinking of the whole of it.
Sadie: Yeah, absolutely. You’re definitely both! Once casting was locked in, which is obviously a very solid cast, did you ever go back through the script to rework characters, such as their voices or development alongside the actors?
Anna: Yeah, I did, although it felt so natural to me. So, I wouldn't say that, ‘Oh, I had to change it. And it was hard.’ It was easy. Juliet [Binoche] was the first who came on board - once I knew she was Sally, it was so joyful. Also, because more than a year before we shot, she came over to the US to start learning how to drive a truck. So, I got to know her and kind of got to see her behind the wheel and we had an early start on the process.
And then the others, I definitely adjusted characters for most of them - but very naturally. There were very little comments from them. They very much embraced the story and the script. For Morgan [Freeman], I made some adjustments, because I hadn't expected when I wrote it, I hadn't expected to find someone who is quite as old as him - he was 84. So, obviously, with that, I wanted to adjust a little bit because I wanted to make sure that it really worked for him. But again, that was also just really nice, because it just felt like it actually made it better.
Sadie: Knowing that you've also written and produced and directed a number of short films before your directorial debut with this film, any advice to budding filmmakers looking to take that creative leap in writing and directing a feature – should they get a few short films under their belts first?
Anna: Yeah, the more experience you can get, the better. And one thing is that it gives other people more confidence in you, but also for yourself. Because the most important is the confidence you have in yourself. And then I would say, to really know your own material.
For me as a first-time feature director, even though I had done other things, for my producers to be able to bring this project together, it was a huge feat and it's amazing that they managed to do it with me as a director, but a big reason why is because as the conversations came along, everyone sort of started realizing that I was the only one who knew this as much as I did. The trucking world, the trafficking world, like they knew that with me, this material, the thematic, and the environment would be taken care of. And even if they had gotten in some hotshot of some sort, it could have been risky for them. But also, for me, it was not an option. I was very clear from the beginning that, ‘No, this script is not going to happen without me directing it.’ So, in that sense, it wasn't a choice for them, which I think was easier for them. It takes a lot of time and a lot of work. I started developing it before my first son was born and he turns 10 in October.
If there is like one key piece of advice, I would say really make sure you really want to tell this story, because there are a lot of easier things to do. [laughs] So you really, really gotta have to tell this story. That would be my top advice.
Paradise Highway is available in Select Theaters, On Digital and On Demand on July 29th.