Today I am so happy to have with me writer director Anna Gutto whose debut feature Paradise Highway is screening at the Locarno Film Festival this weekend which is very exciting and it’s also available to stream right now on different platforms like Amazon and Apple TV. Paradise Highway is a thriller about a female trucker who, in order to keep her brother who is in prison safe, accepts to the deliver a package through state lines only to realize that the package is a young girl that is being trafficked. After the delivery goes wrong, the two women will have to run away from both the traffickers and the FBI agents who are looking for the girl.
The film was produced by Silver Reel, acquired by Lionsgate and stars the amazing Oscar winner Juliette Binoche, legend Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, Frank Grillo, Cameron Monaghan and the incredibly talented newcomer Hala Finley.
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FILM MAMMA (FM): Congratulations Anna! Thank you so much for being with us today and for talking to us. I’m very excited to hear about your experience making this movie.
ANNA GUTTO (AG): Thanks so much for having me on.
FILM MAMMA (FM): You acted, directed and produced theater before. You had a lot of experience in the storytelling world before this feature and before going into directing your previous shorts. What is it about film directing that made you choose this as your ultimate storytelling art form?
AG: It’s an interesting question because, as you say, I did a lot of work in the theater and I love the theater. As an actor, the theater was the right place for me. I always knew I would direct more as I grew up and as I started directing more in theater I realized that it was not the right medium for me as a director because, even if you work very visually in the theater, most things still have to be said in dialogue so theater is very text-based. That doesn’t mean you can’t make beautifully visual dance and performances, but that’s not the same as the narrative storytelling I wanted to do. If you want to do narrative storytelling in the theater you end up needing to say things in dialogue and that didn’t sit quite right with me. I wanted to be able to tell more just with visuals so I then did a short film and realized that yes this is where I belong: Telling stories with a camera. Both of my parents are – my dad has passed away now – but he was an artist and my mom is an artist so I’ve grown up with that sensibility and talking about visual storytelling all the time. So then coming into film and starting to tell stories in that way felt natural for me. To tell the story within a frame with movement and with light and all the tools we have in film to direct the attention of the viewer. It’s the medium where I belong. It doesn’t mean I’ll never direct in the theater. It might be wonderful to do so, but I I do feel like film is the right place for me.
FM: Beautiful. Your previous shorts have touched different subjects and have different tones. You have drama, you have comedy… What is it about a specific story that you think of or that you hear about that makes you want to to tell it and build a narrative around it?
AG: I’ve been thinking about this quite a lot and I’ve come to that it seems like what I’m attracted to are stories that have an angle to them that’s underexposed or under told that we haven’t seen so much before. And characters that we haven’t quite seen before. So let’s say Paradise Highway is about a female trucker. The female trucking community, you have had some films depicting female truckers but to really dig into it and understand the culture the way that I did, you haven’t seen that a lot. One of my short films is a comedy and it’s a very different type of movie. It’s a heist comedy about three moms and a baby robbing a jewelry store so those are also unexpected characters in that circumstance and I also think moms are underexposed and not used a lot other than for the standard mom of some character, you know. So there always tends to be some kind of meaning in it that I find interesting and that I feel like maybe we need to talk more about and then there tends to be characters that are either portrayed in a way or in a circumstance or just the fact of who they are that we haven’t seen so much before.
FM: As you were saying, Paradise Highway shows the world of female truck drivers and it converges with the world of human trafficking and I was wondering how did you build this story? Was there one element that led you to build a whole narrative around it or how do these elements come together?
AG: It started with me wanting to write a story about trafficking and I wanted it to be a survival story and I wanted it to be centered around a child who manages to fight her way out. And then I was so lucky that while I was at Columbia I had one semester with Paul Schrader and while I was developing the treatment for this story, my little character of the girl had started being at truck stops and then he’s the one who said to me – You know, I’ve seen this Youtube video of this female trucker, I think you should take a look at it. I feel like there might be a character there for you. So then I started looking into female truckers and I met this female trucker named Desiree Wood who has this amazing advocacy organization called Real Women in Trucking which is a real female trucking community. And they do these conference calls once a week, twice a week whenever they need to connect, to find support for each other and anything from talking about problems with the engine, to talking about the traumas in their life, to safety on the trucks, everything. And I just got so fascinated. So then that whole part of the story expanded and became richer and richer and more and more elements came in and then, at the same time as I was working on this, I was pregnant with my first child so I was super pregnant by the end of the semester with Pauls Schrader and then I wrote the first draft after my child was born. So, there’s no accident, I think, that the story is ultimately an unusual mother-daughter story and sort of coming to terms with taking care of another person. So there are a lot of different elements and they all affect each other and they all kind of expand the story. At least, that’s how it works for me. When I do research I want to do even more research and I wonder even more because the more I learn the more I realize that I can learn even more and the more I learn the more exciting the characters get and the more exciting the story gets and the more exciting the scenes get and I just want to be there and I want to live in that world.
FM: I love that because as filmmakers we can make movies about worlds that, as you said, we haven’t seen that much and are maybe very different from your own life which I assume is the case with this movie but at the same time you get so involved in the world and by you being the teller of this story, it ends up becoming really personal in some way. As you were saying, you giving birth and learning how to be a mother and the character of Sally is also discovering that maternal side of her, I think that’s beautiful.
AG: Yeah, yeah, that that’s exactly right. It all comes together in a way.
FM: You started the script at Columbia University. Did you take it to any other labs or residencies after and where they helpful?
AG: I didn’t get into the Sundance lab so I didn’t do that. I would have loved to and I don’t think I I applied to other labs, I can’t remember… maybe, but not a lot of labs because by then I obviously had my first child and then I had my other child just as I graduated from Columbia so it wasn’t necessarily so easy for me to get away to a lab. I probably should have applied to more labs. But I kept working at it and kept getting notes from people. I created a screenwriting collective when I moved to Los Angeles with some fellow graduates from Columbia and some other people where we would meet every other week and work on scripts together and talk about them and that was very helpful. Then, as I did rounds when I was trying to find the right producers for it there would also be notes. This script probably has been through something like 10 page one rewrites and I don’t know how many revisions. I don’t even have the number of revisions. But it’s fun because you feel like you’re digging deeper and you feel like the script gets better and that’s just fun when you can dig into the details. That’s the joy of it.
FM: Yeah it’s exciting and I think it’s important for people to hear that it it might take many many many drafts to get that script ready. Even when you were looking for producers, as you said, there were still notes and you were still writing, but when did you know that your script was ready to actually share and start looking for a producer and a team around it?
AG: In 2016 I had already done probably like 4 page one rewrites and quite a few revisions. I felt like it was ready for people to start reading, it was in a good place. It has still changed quite a bit since then and it’s gotten a lot better, but I felt good about sharing it then and I think it was right also because that was a way of starting the process.
FM: Yeah, that’s good. Sometimes people want to wait until it’s really perfect before sharing, but that might keep you from opening doors and opportunities for the project.
AG: Yeah, I don’t so much believe in perfection. I think perfection is quite negative in the creative field. But I think you know when you worked really hard on something for a really long time. It’s never going to be perfect because there’s, like I said before, always more to research, there’s always more to learn, there’s always more you can do and at the same time we’re not making a script. We’re trying to make a movie so the script is not the final result no matter what. It’s just a blueprint. I always let friends of mine and colleagues read quite early because I just love feedback. I know some people want to have it perfect before they even have their friends read it. I’m not like that. I guess I don’t have a lot of pride. I just want help to make it better. But at a certain point you have friends read and the feedback starts being in a good place and that’s when I feel like I knew that it was good to send out to producers and others.
FM: It is very important to have that community of peers that can read for you on those early stages.
AG: It really is.
FM: How were you paying your bills while you were trying to make this movie happen?
AG: Oh my goodness. That’s always such a tough one. This went over so many years too. I have done a lot of different side jobs, I did a lot of translation. That’s a lot of what I did, actually. I did various translations, but towards the end I mostly did subtitles which was kind of great because I would sort of see TV shows or movies that I maybe wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
FM: Nice. It may not sound like it, but it can also be creative because a translation is not just a literal translation, you actually have to make it work in this other language and make it funny or deep…or whatever it requires to be so you are also learning about writing, I guess.
AG: Yeah, that said, subtitles are weird because you also have to make them really short so you take out meaning from what’s actually in the movie which feels a little wrong, but it’s the only way to get it short enough sometimes for people to be able to read it. So it’s weird. But for me that was probably one of the best side things I did because I’ve done a lot of weird stuff on the side.
FM: What was the budget of the film and how did you get it financed?
AG: I don’t know the final number to be honest, but I believe that the net after tax rebate and text credits and all of that is around 6 million dollars.
FM: I know Lionsgate acquired the North American sales, right?
AG: Yeah, they came on board before we started filming so they did a substantial part of the financing. It was the producer who got the financing together, so I don’t know all the details of it, but I certainly know that the pre-sales were an important part of it – both North America and International. But I also know that she was able to get other money in and it’s remarkable that she managed to get this movie financed with me as the director, as an unproven entity, it just speaks volumes to her ability to make that happen. And, I guess, she had a script that people liked so that and then the actors coming in drove a lot of that financing.
FM: Talking about the actors, you work with two incredibly talented actors Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman and the rest of the cast is really talented as well. But especially with these two actors of such a stature and such a career behind them, how did you approach the preparation to work with them and what was working with each of them like?
AG: Well first of all, all of them were wonderful to work with and Morgan Freeman and Juliette were just really generous people and wonderful to work with. With Juliette, we worked for a long time in advance because she came on board very very early in 2020 or late 2019. We were going to shoot the summer of 2020 so she came already in February 2020 to learn how to drive a truck and she went on the road with my trucker friend Desire and spent her days in the truck and her nights sleeping in the bunk, that whole thing. So we had started our work already and then the film got pushed and we had interaction throughout the year. We would sometimes discuss certain scenes and then obviously more closer to the shoot we started talking more often again and before getting to Mississippi it would be more about talking through the script and working our way through it. Then, she came to Mississippi pretty early to get started again with her truck training – and she’s driving in a lot of the movie, so she really knows what she’s doing- and we would then also start talking through scenes. Then when Hala – who plays Leila – came in, we would start having rehearsals together.
AG: With Morgan I did not have rehearsals in advance. I didn’t need that for that character. I met with him before the shoot but we didn’t have rehearsals in advance. But this is a role that fits him so well and I had no doubt that he would be fine. And he is very generous and he’s also the type of actor that when he’s part of a scene, the scene just becomes the best it can be and I feel so lucky to work with someone like that. And Cameron Monaghan who worked with him in the scenes is also just really quite a wonderful actor that I’m really curious what’s going to happen with his career and I’d love to work with him again. I think he has some really interesting characters ahead of him.
FM: I absolutely agree. I’ve loved him since Shameless and was very happy to see him in this very different type of role for him. And Hala, she’s really impressive for a role that requires preparing very deeply to portray a character that has gone through an experience she actually has not. She feels so natural in her character and we really see truth when she’s in a scene. I wanted to to ask you a little bit about the process of finding her and working with her.
AG: I agree. She’s just very very talented and unless she suddenly decides she wants to do something else in life, she will become a really big star. No doubt. She has such a focus and she invests all of herself into it. We started the casting of Leila almost a year and a half before filming. There were many really talented young actresses, but Hala stood out. She has this vulnerability and strength that I knew I needed and she feels like a survivor. But what she really has is an imagination that I’ve never seen anything alike. She’s able to imagine herself into situations, she does tons of research. She’s a really serious worker, but she then imagines herself into situations and her whole body and mind and soul goes into what she imagines. It’s quite extraordinary.
FM: Yeah, you can definitely see that spark on screen. The palette of the film feels very intentional with the greens and the reds. How did you and your team come up with that?
AG: Yeah, it’s definitely very intentional. Me and John Christian Rosenlund, the cinematographer, we started talking palette early and then when Frida Oliva, the production designer, came on board we really locked it in and it was an important part of finding locations of certain colors that we always had with us, in how we formed the truck… It was a very important part of the process and of the choices that we made.
FM: Yeah, you definitely feel that. The road movie is such a beloved genre both for filmgoers and filmmakers and it’s also so challenging in terms of production. Can you tell us a little bit about the challenges that you found and how you tackled them?
AG: Yeah, you know filming vehicles is very challenging and let alone an 18 wheeler truck, it’s just all the more challenging. So we had one fully equipped truck which we called our ‘hero truck’ and then we built sort of a replica of the truck. The tractor with the sleeper that we called our ‘studio on wheels’. And so we combined shooting between the two in order to make everything happen, but it was very challenging, but I loved it!
FM: Nice. As you said, you are a mother as well of two kids and they both kind of started showing up at the same time as this project so this film is like your third baby and they’ve all kind of grown together. I was wondering if you can tell us how you balanced motherhood with the making of this film?
AG: It’s challenging I can tell you that’s for sure. I think it’s challenging for all mothers to balance work and family and as a filmmaker, in some ways, it’s even harder because when you work you work so much, but on the other hand, you also have a flexibility at other times. When I was on set I was just working 24/7 and I was in Mississippi by myself and the kids were with my husband back home. And that was very tough on me, and on the kids and also really tough on my husband. But then when I’m home again throughout the whole editing process and all of that, what ends up happening is I then want to make up for all the time with them so I end up working a lot at night which is not quite healthy. Although it’s still for me a better choice because I want to have the time with them. But being a mom and working is always challenging. At the same time, I couldn’t imagine it any other way because I love my kids, first of all, and I love having children and I also love my work and I also know that I would not be a good mom if I wasn’t doing something I loved. And I wouldn’t be a good role model for them if I wasn’t doing something I loved and could show them that it can be worth working hard for something you love. It’s challenging, but it’s also given a lot into my work.
FM: How so?
AG: Well, first of all, it makes you very disciplined because you only have so much time and it makes the time that I spend away from my kids really important that it’s really worth it. My friend Olivia Newman always says moms are the best directors because you really develop more patience when you have children, even more empathy maybe, but at least the patience and being able to multitask. All of those things are very valuable skills when you’re on set and when you’re directing because the director needs to be able to multitask all the time. Everyone needs and wants your attention. And you need to keep your cool and when you have kids all your kids will want your undivided attention all the time and there are always a thousand things that need to happen at the same time and you need to keep your cool. So there are many parallels. I believe that it’s been part of also what’s made me able to get to where I am as a director.
FM: Well I love that. That’s beautiful. As a female director and mother these things that you just mentioned have helped you on set. Were there specific challenges as a female director on set that you found and if so how did you overcome them?
AG: I don’t know that there were specific things because I was a female director Actually I feel like that’s hard to tell. I didn’t find there to be specific things that were harder because I was a female director. Maybe even some things were easier, especially dealing with this with this subject matter, there was a certain trust that I had a good sense or that they could trust me with that subject matter.
FM: That’s great! I love to hear that. What was your favorite moment during the shoot?
AG: There were so so many. Like the scene on the bench between Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan was a scene that meant so much to me and it was so joyful to see them do that. Also the first time I had Hala and Juliette in a room. It wasn’t during shooting, it was during rehearsal but to have them together in a room rehearsing and seeing how Hala was able to really step up to the level of this Academy Award winning actress and to see how impressed Juliette was. And how much respect she got for this little girl, that was maybe one of my favorite moments. And then there are moments like when we were filming certain shots with the truck that was just so beautiful and that I had dreamt about for so long, you know.
FM: The truck is so beautiful! I had never thought that a truck like that was beautiful until I saw this movie. The color that you chose for it, the way you show it along the way. Sally and the truck are one and you can really see that through the film.
AG: Yes, having the truck have that beauty was really important to me. I wanted the truck to be its own character and I think it’s beautiful that it can be.
FM: Having gone through the whole process of making this movie, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice that would make this process better or easier, what would that be?
AG: It’s a tough one because it ended up happening in the end and maybe all of those things along the way were necessary in order to get there. Maybe, I remember one round I had with a production company that said they were supportive of me directing it and I did rewrites for them and then, once it came down to making an agreement, they wanted me to be okay with the agreement saying that if it was difficult to get the financing together with me then they could go with a different director. So then I had to move on from them because I knew I wanted to direct it. But I had been clear so I don’t know how I would have avoided that. But after that I was certainly so extremely crystal clear with everybody so I was just like – there is absolutely no way that I’m not the one directing this movie. But I don’t know what advice I would give myself because I did manage to make it happen in the end and I can say I tried my best at every step. I tried certain producers that didn’t work out and I tried producers that I really liked and that I wanted it to work with but who didn’t have the connections to make it happen and then I had to move on because I knew that I needed to find producers who had more weight to them in order to make this project happen. But I don’t know that I could have known that before exploring the possibility.
FM: Yeah, I think it’s pretty good advice to be very clear with what you want when you start bringing people into the project, so thanks for that. And the last question for our chat is – what is next for you?
AG: Ah! Well the thing is I’m in conversations about a couple of projects, but I can’t talk about them yet. But it looks very likely that the next thing I do is going to be something that someone else has written and I’m very excited about that. Actually I really love being able to come in and then elevate what they have put down on the page and then to really bring that onto the screen. So I’m quite excited and I look forward to being able to talk about it.
FM: That’s exciting and I can’t wait to hear about it and again, I thank you so so much for connecting with us and I know it’s very late over there in Norway so I really appreciate you taking the time and we wish you all the best in Locarno this weekend. For everyone, Paradise Highway, is available to stream on Amazon, Apple TV and other platforms. Please don’t miss the chance to watch this amazing movie.
AG: Thank you so much for having me on Thais, it was a really really great conversation. Thanks so much.