Step into the world of truck driving with the new thriller, Paradise Highway. Academy-Award winner Juliette Binoche stars as Sally, a truck driver tasked with smuggling illegal items to save her incarcerated brother (Frank Grillo) from a deadly gang just days before his release. Unbeknownst to Sally, the illicit cargo is a young girl named Leila (Hala Finley). Torn between helping her brother or saving the girl, Sally brings Leila on a trip across multiple states in order to avoid the gang as well as a pair of cops (Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan) who seek to end the human trafficking network.
Paradise Highway marks the feature-length directorial debut of Anna Gutto, who also wrote the script. In an interview with Digital Trends, Gutto spoke about why she loves crafting stories about underexposed characters, the film’s reference to Thelma & Louise, and the strong relationship formed between Binoche and Finley.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: I would say female truck drivers are seen as underexposed characters. How did you decide on making this type of character the protagonist in your story?
Anna Gutto: That’s definitely one of the reasons. I just find it great to see movies that I haven’t seen before and to see stories and characters that I haven’t seen a million times before. And it’s an exciting world! Who doesn’t want to know about female truckers? Because none of us know about it before.
It’s a world that we travel by. We see the truck stop. We see all the trucks. We sometimes get annoyed because they get in our way, but who wouldn’t want to see a female trucker? So I guess that was one of the big reasons. Then, there’s obviously something in this story where that was a very appropriate character for this story.
When you were writing this film, did you have a moment when you decided that if this film gets made, you need to direct it?
Definitely. I knew from the start that I wanted to direct this movie because I am more of a director than a writer, even though I love writing and I am a writer. But I’m not one of those writers that can churn out a good script twice a year. So for me, that was essential. There was a time when I did get offers on selling just the script, and I had to then make, not an easy, but kind of a difficult decision of saying no. I’m not going to go that route. I am going to do the full struggle of being able to make it myself. But I am very glad that I did.
Did you ever get close to selling the script?
Yeah. There were some that were very much wanting to buy it, but for me, I had to take a real round with it at that time. But once I had made that decision, then I would just tell everybody from the get-go that there was just no way this was going to be made without me directing it. And honestly, at a certain point also, it was so clear that there was so much research. I had done so much research both about trafficking and female truckers and knowing the environment and everything. That it was also hard, even just from a producer’s perspective, to imagine someone else being able to step into that in an authentic way.
Two of your shorts, A Light Above and A Lucky Man, deal with heavier, more serious topics such as sex trafficking and sexual violence. Did you want to expand upon those topics in a feature film?
A Light Above has a character prototype that became Leila in Paradise Highway. So that one was the first exploration of a girl who’s been trafficked and who manages to escape. With A Lucky Man, that’s a very, very different topic. I’ve also done a short film that’s called Mommy Heist. That’s a comedy heist movie. So it’s not like I always want to be in dark topics, but I do like topics that haven’t been exposed so much. And A Lucky Man is also about a topic that hasn’t been exposed so much. With Mommy Heist, even though that’s a comedy, it’s mommies that do a heist. It’s also not so normal. So yeah, it’s more about what I like, and I get attracted to stories that I haven’t seen before.
I was curious if there were any films that served as inspiration for Paradise Highway because it spans multiple genres.
It was hard to really find good comps, to be honest, because for me, I never really work from things that I’ve seen before. So it’s not like there is something clear that is an inspiration. But as I was working, finding those films, I would say Thelma & Louise.
I had Thelma & Louise written down.
It is an inspiration, and I don’t know if you noticed, but the truck has the exact same color as the Thunderbird in Thelma & Louise. [laughing]
Obviously that one. Hell or High Water, I thought that film was great balancing some drama with genre elements.
I also thought of True Grit.
Yeah. True Grit definitely kind of came up in conversations when I was talking about the film and I love that film. I absolutely love True Grit. Yeah, you’re welcome to say that. [laughing]
This film has three core relationships: Sally and Leila, the cops played by Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan, and the sibling relationship between Sally and Dennis. I looked at those three relationships as three separate movies. I was curious if you made a concerted effort to showcase three different types of relationships.
Yeah, I think it was a natural thing that happened. It didn’t start out with wanting to show that, but it became a very natural way of creating this story. Sally and Dennis and then Sally and Leila, I mean those are the core relationships. And then it became important to also create a good relationship between Gerick, Morgan Freeman’s character, and Cameron’s character.
Paradise Highway features a strong cast with Juliette at the center. What did she bring to the role that embodied the character of Sally?
She embodied everything she is, who is this strong, vulnerable and generous character. She was able to put on what Sally is at the beginning of the movie. And it’s interesting because I always knew that I needed to have an actress to do this movie, who is Sally for what she becomes at the end of the movie. An actress who is good enough that she could put on all of the defenses and everything that Sally has had to put on in her life. And Juliette is that.
On top of that, obviously, Juliette is someone who really transforms for this role, and she’s able to do that. She came to the U.S. to learn how to drive a truck more than a year before shooting. She learned how to drive a truck. She went on a ride along with Desiree Wood, this truck driver who was involved with me early in the writing process, [and] who I talked with for hours and hours. So Juliette went on the ride along with her. I had been on the ride along with her [Desiree] earlier.
Juliette really immersed herself, and I was very impressed with what she managed to do because she’s not an easy character. But she brought everything that I could have hoped for and kind of more. That’s what you want, you know? But you’re right. Everyone else is also so strong. It was incredible to have the opportunity to work with those people.
Hala also gave another strong performance, and she holds her own with Juliette the entire time, especially for a child actor. How did you cast her for this role? What stood out about Hala?
Well certainly for her performance, I think you’re saying it exactly right. She holds her own, which is remarkable. Juliette said the same. She was so impressed with her. And for me, Hala stood out because I realized that she’s extremely talented. But what I realized is that she had such an incredible imagination. I knew when I got her audition tapes.
Then we did obviously more rounds and had talks, etc. I sort of knew that she would be able to imagine herself in this character, which obviously, I wouldn’t even have wanted to have an actress who would have had an experience as close to this character. I actually think it would have been very difficult for someone that had that, and it would have been so painful. I wouldn’t want to do that. But she has this really remarkable imagination where she imagines herself in a situation where it becomes real for her.
One of my favorite scenes is when Leila talks with the other kid in the RV. They talk about loneliness, and it’s this tender, sad moment because Leila has seen things that no other kid should experience. What was the thought process behind that scene?
I think in this movie, Leila and Sally belong together because they love each other sort of as a mother and as a child. Part of it is because they understand each other. They both went through traumas in their life, and they have an understanding for what the other person had been through. And when Layla goes to this other kid who’s her age and who should be someone that she should be able to connect with, she realizes that she would actually never be able to connect with him and his family because they’ve never experienced anything like her.
I think many people, and I certainly have experienced that thing that she says. Do you ever feel lonely? How about when you’re with people, maybe you feel lonely because no one knows the world the way that you do? And I think that’s something a lot of people can identify with. So the reason to have the scene is we want to know that Layla makes a choice to be with Sally. She doesn’t just stay with Sally because she doesn’t have anywhere to go. She stays with her because that is the right person for her to stay with.
You kind of have Morgan Freeman in your back pocket because he doesn’t show up until 20 minutes into the movie. But, his presence is felt throughout the film. What was it like directing Morgan?
Morgan Freeman is an incredible actor, of course, and also a very generous person. Directing him, I don’t know that I feel like I had to direct him a lot. Although there were a few times, this is kind of how I work with all of the actors and more. We talk about the scenes and sort of make sure that we all have a common understanding of what the scene is, what it wants to accomplish. And so that’s more how I direct.
That comes just as much from the actors as it comes from me. But it comes from the actors because hopefully, it’s clear in the script. I think they all felt that it was pretty clear in the script what the scenes were about. So we would work quite fast. We had a very good sort of mutual respect and a good working relationship in making the scenes. You know, he’s one of those actors that that when he is in the scene, he just manages to somehow make the scene the best it could be, and that’s very lucky for me.
Paradise Highway is in select theaters as well as on digital and on demand on July 29.