Paradise Highway Interview: Anna Gutto on Directing Morgan Freeman

ComingSoon spoke to director Anna Gutto about her thriller Paradise Highway, which is out today in cinemas and on demand. Gutto talked about what it was like to work with a legend like Morgan Freeman and how her background in theater prepared her to direct.

“To save her brother’s life, truck driver Sally reluctantly agrees to smuggle illegal cargo – a girl named Leila,” reads the film’s synopsis. “As they begin a perilous journey across state lines, a stubborn FBI agent sets off on their trail, determined to do whatever it takes to end a human trafficking operation and bring Sally and Leila to safety.”

Tyler Treese: I know you’ve done a lot of short films and other directorial work, but was there anything that surprised you while making your feature film debut?

Anna Gutto: There are probably a million surprises, but in a way you know a million surprises are coming, so it doesn’t surprise you anymore. There are so many things because everything from how much the actors bring to the piece and how it really makes the script come to life, especially in this situation where I wrote the script myself… but again, I don’t know what I would say that it surprises me because I know that’s what actors do. You’re kind of amazed when you see their performances, when you see the text come to life. The same with everyone else. When I get to a new set and the production designer and the art team have created this space that, until now, I had only imagined in my head. And I get there and I see it … I see that it’s real, or with the music that the composer is doing, or the costumes, when Stacy Jansen, the costume designer, puts Morgan Freeman in that outfit, and I know it was right the way he was supposed to look. It’s like amazement. Maybe more than a surprise, because I know that’s how good people work, is that they make you feel like it’s more than you expected.

Working with Morgan Freeman, what a huge honor that must have been. So what was it like working with a living legend and how did you get him on board?

You’re right. He is a living legend and he is also a great person and wonderful to work with. It was great working with him. I was just so incredibly impressed with how well he did because he’s over 80. And I can only dream of being like that when I’m over 80 … being so alive and being able to remember all my lines. And he’s in this movie a lot, he’s not just in and out. He is a significant character who shot with us for many days. He is remarkable. I was so honored to work with him, and just a wonderful, amazing person to be around.

He has some funny scenes. He is having some arguments with Cameron Monaghan. He drops F-bombs. Looks like he really had fun.

Yes. The two 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’d just go through it and then maybe we could look at… maybe we could get rid of some lines, or maybe it can be said a little differently. And sometimes it came from them, or sometimes it came from me when I heard them say, “oh, that line wasn’t very good.” And then we’d say, “I don’t know who wrote that line, but I think we can do better.” So that was great. We worked our way through. We had a very tight schedule, but we managed to stay focused and get joy out of the scenes.

Juliette Binoche is clearly a very pedigreed actress and such a talent. I feel her transformation in this movie will really surprise people and show another side of her that we don’t usually see.

Yes, she really transformed into this character, you’re right. That’s the incredible thing about 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 person and an incredible actress. So when someone likes it, dives into a character, they won’t do it [halfway]. She goes all out. I had done a lot of research with and got to know a lot of women truckers during my research. So when Juliet came aboard, she went on ride-alongs. She wanted to learn to drive a truck. She talked to them for hours. As I said, she was on the road with this female trucker, Desiree Wood, who had already been a kind of consultant to me throughout the writing process. All of that and just her immersion in it allowed her to come to that kind of authenticity in her character.

Her scenes with Hala Finley are very impressive. Hala is 13 years old and was probably even younger when she filmed, but she gives such a mature performance here. What stood out the most about working with such a young actress?

She is incredible. She is incredibly talented and she has this imagination that allows her to produce such a powerful portrayal. She is able to imagine herself into situations and give her all. Juliette is very generous, and with Hala we also had rehearsals before the filming. We just wanted to know that everything was safe and Hala always just wanted to give everything she had for every take. know she’s going to be – she’s a star – but she’s going to be discovered as a big star unless she suddenly decides to do something else like become a doctor or something. She is wonderful to work with.

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Talk to me about writing this movie. Unfortunately, human trafficking is such a real problem in society. What made you want to tell this story?

I had something happen when I was a teenager. It turned out that there had been a brothel in my friend’s building in the town where I grew up. This was a lovely neighborhood. It really surprised me that this was happening right under our noses. That situation stayed with me and continued to bother me. Like, how can this happen? So it had been with me for a long, long time. When I lived in New York… I had also been an exchange student in Indiana… I just felt this was a problem. Many of us did not realize how prominent it was. I also noticed that people were afraid to talk about it. It was something that people really felt was difficult 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 that situation , we are in human trafficking.

You have a theater background and you have previously worked as an actress. How has all that helped you in your role behind the camera?

Being an actor… I mostly did theater and that teaches you a very, very strong discipline. When you work in the theater, that curtain will go up at eight o’clock, no matter what. So it teaches you to make sure you’re ready at eight o’clock when that curtain goes up. It is something that has helped me enormously in the writing process when I might have had a slight desire to procrastinate. I have been able to carry out the techniques and use the discipline that I learned over those years and apply it to the work that I would like to do now. And the same, I would say on the set as well… it just creates a discipline. And then on top of that, of course I respect actors so much because I know what it takes and I know how difficult it can be.

I also know how gratifying it can be. So I love working with actors and it’s very comfortable for me. Of course, I still make a lot of mistakes and there are things I’m learning. I learned a lot throughout the movie. You learn all the time. I hope I will always keep learning, otherwise I don’t know what I’m doing anymore if I don’t learn something. The years of working in the theater and working as an actor have given me a lot. I’m so happy because I always knew I wanted to be a director when I grew up, but I always felt like it was something I had to graduate to. I’m glad I did it that way. For me it was the right thing.

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