Paradise Highway Director Anna Gutto and Her Cast Discuss Her Trucker Thriller
Paradise Highway is a bit of an anomaly in the cinematic landscape, and a great one at that. An original idea about an aging female trucker embroiled in a dangerous sex trafficking scheme, Paradise Highway is a quasi-road trip movie across rural America written and directed by a Norwegian genius (Anna Gutto) who has specialized in translating literature, acting in international films, and working in theater.
If that’s not incongruous enough, the film’s cast is a wild hodgepodge — a French arthouse legend (Juliette Binoche), an incredible action star (Frank Grillo), the iconic Morgan Freeman, an actor famous for television and playing the Joker (Cameron Monaghan), and one of the best child actors working today (Hala Finley). The result is a suspenseful, character-driven original with some heavy, important themes. Gutto, Monaghan, and Grillo spoke to MovieWeb about the film, its characters, and its themes.
Anna Gutto on the Research of Directing Paradise Highway
As stated, Gutto is an interesting multi-hyphenate origin for Paradise Highway. Coming up as an actor in Norway’s theater scene, Gutto progressed as a writer and translator, penning essays and adapting great plays for America, before acting, writing, producing, and directing plays and short films. Now, her feature-length debut Paradise Highway is making waves as an exciting original film, the story of a trucker and her imprisoned brother, who she’s been working with on smuggling operations to help him through prison; on the week of his release, she realizes that she’s expected to smuggle a child for sex trafficking.
When things go wrong, the film plays out with great tension and subtlety. It has received acclaim upon its recent release, though the film was a long time coming. Gutto immerses herself in research for every project, likening her process to a scientific method of sorts, and Paradise Highway was no different. “Research is really important to me to find the authenticity in characters and environments and in situations,” Gutto tells us. The first aspect of this, and the impetus of so much of the film, was Gutto’s experiences with the trucking community.
With the female truckers, I found this one organization called Real Women in Trucking, and this woman Desiree Wood who runs it, and they do these conference calls, sometimes several times a week. And they had them recorded, so I would listen, and then she invited me in on these conversations. So I would sit in my little apartment in New York, and they would be all over the continent, and I’d be on these conversations with them. And they would share things, they would tell me stories, and I gained so much respect for them. There are quite a few lines that are pretty much direct transcripts from those conversations.
Gutto was in close dialogue with different communities in order to tell this story about a trucker and a sex trafficked child, and the FBI agents pursuing them, as authentically as possible. “I feel like I’ve just been incredibly lucky on this film because I met all of these very, very generous people,” said Gutto. “So I have my FBI consultant who unfortunately has to stay anonymous because he’s still an active agent himself. He would see the work in progress in the edit, and I did the same with Desiree, my trucking consultant. She would read scripts, I would talk with her, I would ask her questions and the same thing with Juliette [Binoche]. Juliette and I went on ride-alongs with Desiree, learning how to drive the truck.”
This attention to authentic detail seems to have paid off, not just aesthetically but to people whose opinions really mattered to Gutto, the people fighting sex trafficking. “Once the film was done,” said Gutto, “we showed it to some of these trafficking organizations, and then hearing their feedback, and the fact that they really, really supported how this movie was treating the subject, was probably the best review I could ever get. Because that made me feel like I managed to do what I set out to do.”
Sex Trafficking and the Important Themes of Paradise Highway
By putting sex trafficking at the center of Paradise Highway and looking at it from multiple perspectives (the law, the victims, the abusers, everyone tangentially involved), Gutto is able to indict a variety of the broken systems which create the problem itself — poverty, foster care, policing, schooling, prison, and more. “I think it’s kind of impossible to make a movie that deals with trafficking without [those things], because trafficking is the symptom of things that are broken in our society,” said Gutto. She continues:
The children or adults who end up in trafficking very often come from broken homes or from systems that have not been able to pick up on them, or from schools that are broken that didn’t have the resources to pick up on these kids who are not doing well. Like, they are the kids who end up there, and those are also the people who end up being traffickers, because they don’t have resources. They feel like they’re on the bottom of society, and then they find this way that, ‘oh, this could lift me out of poverty. This could be my chance to get somewhere in life.’ There are things that are broken. I mean, people would not traffic other people if they were not themselves broken.
As Paradise Highway follows a child stuck in the sex trafficking system, the film critiques the apathy and broken systems in a society that allows this to happen. “The nature of trafficking is a pretty clear symptom of how unhealthy or healthy a society is,” said Gutto. “It is happening right under our noses. If we really made it a priority, we would be able to make it at least a lot less prominent than it is.” The child, named Leila, is played by 13-year-old Hala Finley in an utterly remarkable performance. “I think she steals the whole thing,” said Grillo. “I mean, she’s great. You really see the movie through her eyes, which is fantastic.”
Hala Finely Gives a Breakout Performance in Paradise Highway
Finley’s heartbreaking, painful performance as Leila drives this great road movie, but she’s such a wounded character in a really traumatizing situation that it’s often surprising how well Finley can handle it. “It’s daunting because you don’t want to traumatize a child, that was very important to me,” said Gutto. “Hala, she has this incredible ability, she has this strength in her, and she’s vulnerable, but she also has an incredible imagination.[…] she doesn’t get traumatized because she’s in power in this situation.” Gutto continued, elaborating on the process of working with a child on such an upsetting role:
Juliette was always very generous and giving with Hala and always made sure she felt safe, and the three of us worked a lot together. We had rehearsals together and everything, and I would always say to Hala, if you ever feel scared or feel uncomfortable, then we stop, or then we pause. I think she’s stellar in this movie. This girl is going to be a huge star, unless she suddenly decides she wants to be, like an architect, because she can probably do whatever she wants.
While it’s somewhat shocking to see just how amazing young Finley is here, it’s no surprise how incredible the rest of the talented cast is. That doesn’t take away the impact of their performances, though.
Frank Grillo Takes a Pay Cut to Shine in Paradise Highway
Grillo is one of the hardest-working people in the film industry, producing a slew of pictures with Warparty (his production company with Joe Carnahan) and starring in a dozen movies in the past two years and a dozen more to come in the next few years. Despite all this, Paradise Highway stands out dramatically to him, to the extent that he’d play Dennis, the trucker’s imprisoned brother, without much pay. “For me, I didn’t get paid. I don’t think anybody got paid,” he recalls, signifying how much he simply wanted to work on the film. Grillo continues:
I think the script started the whole thing. Anna wrote a beautiful script. Juliette Binoche signed on, they invited me along, and then Morgan signed on. I mean, I think when you do a piece like this, where it has nothing to do with a pay day, you know, it kind of says a lot about the writer and the director, and what we’re trying to do in the movie. When somebody comes knocking and it’s this kind of team, it’s a no-brainer, you know?
Grillo’s character invokes some ambivalent feelings; he does some horrible things, but he’s obviously been so damaged by his childhood and has such an unhealthy attachment to his sister, that he’s almost tragic. “He’s a pathetic character,” Grillo agreed. “Our characters, we come from a family of trauma, of physical and emotional abuse, and that’s kind of the genesis of who we are and where we are in our lives, I think.” Speaking of his character, Grillo said:
Anna wanted Dennis to be was kind of morally and emotionally ambiguous.” You couldn’t figure him out, like he’s not really a bad guy. You feel sorry for him. You shouldn’t feel sorry for him, but he’s not a venomous, archetypal bad guy. He’s just damaged and caught up in a bad situation. I don’t even think he sees the sex trafficking aspect as his problem, I think it’s just a means for him to get out of jail and see his sister.
Cameron Monaghan is Wonderful Opposite Morgan Freeman
Cameron Monaghan, beloved for his work in Shameless, Gotham, multiple films, and Star Wars video games, pursued his role for similar reasons, loving the script so much that he approached it even before legends like Freeman and Binoche were involved. He didn’t mind auditioning for the part of Finley, a young agent opposite Freeman’s retired agent Gerick, because like Grillo’s, Monaghan’s character is a really fascinating amalgam of emotions and motivations. “My character, Finley Sterling, and Morgan’s character, Gerick, are definitely on opposite ends of the spectrum of their career,” Monaghan tells us, adding:
My character recently graduated from Yale, has been working a desk job at the FBI, and kind of requested some field experience to get his feet wet. And then we have Gerick, who’s been doing this job for over 50 years at this point, and is a retired agent they don’t want anymore, but he wants to be there, and his only way of being able to be on these crime scenes is to have to cooperate with this young agent. So neither of them particularly want to be on the road together, and there’s kind of a situational humor to that but, I think it was important for us to not play this as just like a buddy cop situation, but rather have the humor come from the character itself.
The interactions between Freeman and Monaghan are a great compliment to the journey between Binoche and Finley, and the FBI agents’ character arcs and conversations are an interesting way to provide small breaks from the main plot while also building suspense as these two pairs progress toward an inevitable collision. The two actors worked really well together, and Gutto writes them in such a way as to draw out their development through interaction.
“A huge amount of credit is to Anna for writing these characters with enough information that we understand just a bit more about them than what we necessarily need to for the story to function,” said Monaghan, “and it was pretty dialed in. And so on the first day with Mr. Freeman, it was in a pretty good place and instead of having to beat it to death and trying to figure out what this dynamic was, it was pretty alive […] that’s also due to the fact that Morgan is every bit as talented as you hope he would be. And he was so present and alive and unpredictable with every take and kept it fresh, I was very glad to be able to do it the way that we did.”
Paradise Highway is a Unique Original You Can Watch Now
Grillo agreed, “It was all a wonderful experience […] We were all there to kind of make this as great as it could be, and it was like a giant creative salad. As an actor, I want to be in movies where you go home at night scratching your head, thinking was that good? Was it not good? Look, I love being in The Purge movies or whatever other movies I’m doing where there’s action, but I can do that falling off a log, right? This, when you go home and you’re a bit uncertain, it makes me feel good.”
Though its themes are undoubtedly heavy, Paradise Highway will likely make you feel good as well. From Lionsgate, produced by Claudia Bluemhuber, Georgia Bayliff, Michael Leahy, and AnnaGutto, Paradise Highway is in select theaters, on demand, and digital.