The production of “Paradise Highway” was always bound to be a sweaty affair, filming in Mississippi in the middle of summer 2021. There was the heat to consider, as well as the ongoing threat of COVID, but Anna Gutto had already spent plenty of time weathering the elements in the years she spent developing the film, sleeping in the bunks of big rigs to learn about the lifestyle of long-haul truckers and preparing her for just about anything that could be thrown her way during filming. Mother Nature would try its best.
“This one night where we were filming, we had a tight schedule already as you always do and we ended up in this spot, nobody knew how many mosquitoes were there and there were just mosquitoes around and if you look closely around, you can actually see mosquitoes circling Hala [Finley] and Juliette [Binoche]’s faces as they’re doing that scene,” recalls Gutto, who could feel like she was working without a net in any respect. “Then in the middle of that night, it came a thunderstorm and we all thought we were not going to be able to make this day at all, but we all stuck it out. The thunder stopped and we managed to get in the last few shots.”
It was only one instance of many in which Gutto’s persistence would seem to translate into luck with her feature debut and the filmmaker surely could relate to the arduous journey undertaken in the film by a Canadian cargo driver who’s been making trips down south to transport items off her official inventory, after nursing the story for so long and ultimately landing Binoche for an all-too-rare lead turn in an American production as the trucker named Sally.
Earning a screenwriting prize from Columbia University for the script where she completing her studies at the school amidst all the years of research she had put into it, Gutto occasionally turns real conversations she heard on the road over the CB radio into companionship for Sally, who has detached herself from much of the world due to her illicit runs, except for other long-haul drivers she never has to meet in person and her brother Dennis (Frank Grillo), who is serving out the final days of a five-year stretch for doing what she’s doing now. That all changes for better and worse when she’s drawn into a job where, as usual, she is unaware of what exactly she’s transporting, only to discover it’s a young girl (Finley) she’s intended to take across state lines, giving her someone to connect with in a way she never has before while also raising the suspicions of a retired FBI agent (Morgan Freeman) when she’s connected to a dead highway patrolman. Having navigated the road for as long as she has in a male-dominated industry, this particular trek may be her toughest to date, but one that neither she nor Gutto can’t handle with some ingenuity and elbow grease.
Now with “Paradise Highway” en route to a premiere at the Locarno Film Festival as well as a stateside release this week in theaters and on VOD, Gutto spoke about what originally inspired her to take on such a story, maneuvering a production where the central set was a big rig and how her background as an actor informed her work as a director.
From what I understand, this has been in the works since 2015. What initially sparked it?
It was actually in the works even longer than that. I started writing it around 2012 and what sparked it was when I was a teenager, it turned out in my friend’s building, there had been a brothel. That shook me and it also just made me so aware of how these things happen right under our noses. Years and years later, as I started directing, this story was still there and needed to be told, so I started developing it, really with the character of Leila, Hala Finley’s character [in mind], and then came in the truck driver and I got to know the trucking community and this woman Desiree Wood, a female trucker who has a community called Real Women in Trucking. I started talking with them, being part of their conversations, like in the movie [where truckers talk to one another over the CB radio], I was able to listen in on these and all of these things came together to create this movie.
You’ve got an impressive cast, which seems particularly difficult to pull together when Juliette Binoche rarely has been a part of American productions. What was it like to attract them?
You always have to have a bit of luck, so she had done a movie ten years earlier with my cinematographer [John Christian Rosenlund, who worked with her on “1,000 Times Good Night], so he sent her the script, but this is where the luck comes in because when she received the script, she was on a road trip in the landscape of the movie, and obviously, she respected the character and she really liked the script, but she told me, “Anna, I opened the script on my phone and I started reading it and was like, “wow, this is my landscape and I looked out the window it’s the same, and I thought I have to do this movie.” And we decided to shoot in Mississippi when we learned that Morgan Freeman wanted to be part of the film. because Morgan lives in Mississippi. We ended up filming three out of the five weeks in and around Clarksdale, which is where he has his blues club.
Was crafting a production around a big rig a challenge?
Driving in general is always seen as a big challenge in the production of a movie, let alone an 18-wheeler, which is obviously an even bigger challenge, so you trouble shoot and you think of what your different options are and then you get the best people you can around you to get advice and figure out the solutions. I always knew from a very early point that I wanted to film this truck in a way where we could be inside and outside the truck at the same time, so we were using both a Russian arm-type of situation where we were in a car filming next to it. We also had a [camera] rig on the actual truck, so that we could have movements in and around the truck. We also had a rig inside the truck and in addition to that, we also worked with drones, but that was more really of the bigger wider landscape shots, so there was a big variety of different rigs on the vehicle and on different types of vehicles around our truck.
It seemed like a really beautiful relationship developed between Juliette and Hala – what was that like to cultivate?
They both came to Mississippi earlier than the shoot started for rehearsals in advance and I always felt very confident that they would find a good tone. In the first rehearsal, we went into one of the scenes that was quite challenging and then I saw in Juliette’s eyes, the respect and the joy she got from working with Hala and I realized these two were going to be a brilliant team.
You actually started out acting in theater before becoming a director. Was there anything you try to give to the actors that you would’ve wanted yourself from a director?
I would’ve loved to have given them more time. All of these actors deserved more time, more takes, more time to be able to keep digging. I tend to always embrace things that come, so there are so many ideas that people have or just who they are that I just always embrace. I never have the preconceived idea of exactly how something is going to be. I’m overly prepared because that’s just who I am, but when it’s the day or when the actor comes and I see how they come into the character, that’s what the character becomes for me and how it is that they fill it in — also [with the] crew too – my production designer, my costume designer, the cinematographer, everyone brings themselves and it just makes everything richer.
Was directing always the plan or something you gradually became interested in?
I always knew I would be a director when I grew up, but I always felt that directing is something that you graduate into, so I acted and I also produced a lot of theater and I felt like it was great just to learn different parts of the craft. I’m glad because it’s given me so much into my work as a director.
What’s it like to have your first feature under your belt?
It feels wonderful that we have a film that so many people love and find entertaining. The whole team that’s onboard and the people at Lionsgate are excited about the movie. Everyone with this film has been so supportive and really been lifting it, so it’s amazing to me where we are now. Before the movie happens, it feels like you never know if it’s going to happen. But I always knew. I just didn’t know exactly when until it actually happened.