Enter the world of truck driving with the new thriller, highway to paradise. Academy Award-winning Juliette Binoche stars as Sally, a truck driver tasked with smuggling illegal items to rescue her incarcerated brother (Frank Grillo) from a murderous gang 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 takes Leila on a cross-state trip to avoid the gang as well as a pair of cops (Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan) who seek to shut down the human trafficking ring. Human being.
highway to paradise marks the directorial debut of Anna Gutto, who also wrote the screenplay. In an interview with Digital Trends, Gutto explained why she enjoys creating stories about underexposed characters, the film’s reference to Thelma and Louiseand 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 considered underexposed characters. How did you decide to make this type of character the protagonist of your story?
Anna Guto: This is certainly one of the reasons. I just find it great to see movies that I’ve never 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 women truckers? Because none of us knew before.
It is a world in which we travel. We see the truck stop. We see all the trucks. We sometimes get annoyed because they get in the way, but who wouldn’t want to see a female trucker? So I guess that was one of the main reasons. Then there’s obviously something about this story where he was a very fitting character for this story.
When you were writing this film, did you have a moment when you decided that if this film was made, you had to direct it?
Absolutely. I knew from the start that I wanted to make this film because I’m more of a director than a writer, even though I like to write and I’m a writer. But I’m not one of those writers who can produce a good script twice a year. So for me, it was essential. There was a time when I received offers to sell just the script, and then I had to make a decision, not easy, but rather difficult, to say no. I’m not going to go that route. I will fight to be able to do it myself. But I’m very glad I did.
Did you ever come close to selling the script?
Yeah. There were some who really wanted to buy it, but for me, I had to go for a real ride with it at that time. But once I made that decision, I was telling everyone from the start that there was just no way it could happen without me directing it. And honestly, at some point too, it was so clear that there was so much research. I had done so much research on both trafficking and female truckers and environmental awareness and everything. That it was also difficult, even from a producer’s point of view, to imagine that someone else could intervene in an authentic way.
Two of your shorts, A light above and A lucky man, deal with heavier and more serious topics such as sex trafficking and sexual violence. Did you want to develop these subjects in a feature film?
A light above has a prototype character who became Leila in highway to paradise. So that one was the first exploration of a girl who was trafficked and manages to escape. With A lucky man, it’s a very, very different subject. I also made a short film called Mom Heist. It’s a comedy heist movie. So it’s not like I always want to be in dark subjects, but I like subjects that haven’t been exposed so much. And A lucky man also deals with a subject that has not been exposed so much. With Mom Heist, even if it’s a comedy, it’s the moms who are holding up. It’s not that normal either. So yeah, that’s what I like more, and I’m drawn to stories that I’ve never seen before.
I was curious to know if there were any films that served as inspiration for highway to paradise because it covers several genres.
It was hard to find really good material, to be honest, because for me, I never really work from stuff I’ve seen before. So it’s not like there’s anything clear that’s inspiring. But while I was working, finding these movies, I was saying Thelma and Louise.
I had Thelma & Louisa writing.
It’s an inspiration, and I don’t know if you noticed it, but the truck is exactly the same color as the Thunderbird from Thelma & Louisa. [laughing]
Obviously this one. Against all odds, I thought this movie was great in balancing drama with genre elements.
I also thought of True bravery.
Yeah. The real courage definitely kind of came up in conversations when I was talking about the movie and I love that movie. I absolutely love The real courage. Yeah, you’re welcome to say that. [laughing]
This movie has three main relationships: Sally and Leila, the cops played by Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan, and the sibling relationship between Sally and Dennis. I watched these three relationships as three separate films. I was curious if you made a concerted effort to present three different types of relationships.
Yeah, I think it was a natural thing that happened. It didn’t start out wanting to show that, but it became a very natural way to create this story. Sally and Dennis, then Sally and Leila, I mean, those are the fundamental relationships. And then it became important to also create a good relationship between Gerick, Morgan Freeman’s character, and Cameron’s character.
highway to paradise features a solid cast with Juliette at the center. What did she bring to the role that embodied the character of Sally?
She embodied everything she is, which is this strong, vulnerable and generous character. She was able to put what Sally is at the beginning of the film. And it’s interesting because I always knew I needed an actress to do this movie, which is Sally for what she becomes at the end of the movie. An actress good enough to be able to put all the defenses and everything that Sally had to put in her life. And Juliette that’s it.
On top of that, of course, Juliette is someone who really transforms for this role, and she’s capable of doing that. She came to the United States to learn how to drive a truck more than a year before filming. She learned to drive a truck. She went on a ride with Desiree Wood, this truck driver who was involved with me early in the writing process, [and] with whom I spoke for hours and hours. Juliette therefore went for a walk with her. I had been on the ride 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 provided everything I could have hoped for and more. This is what you want, you know? But you are right. Everyone is also so strong. It was amazing to have the opportunity to work with these people.
Hala also gave another good performance, and she holds her own with Juliette the whole time, especially for a child actor. How did you cast her for this role? What marked Hala?
Well certainly for his performance, I think you say that exactly. It holds up, which is remarkable. Juliette said the same thing. She was so impressed with her. And for me, Hala stood out because I realized she was extremely talented. But what I realized was that she had an incredible imagination. I found out when I got his audition tapes.
Then we obviously did more laps and had discussions etc. I kind of knew that she would be able to imagine herself in that character, which obviously, I wouldn’t even have wanted to have an actress who had experience that close to that character. I actually think it would have been very difficult for someone who 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 to her.
One of my favorite scenes is when Leila talks with the other kid in the RV. They talk about loneliness, and it’s that tender, sad moment because Leila has seen things that no other child should experience. What was the thought process behind this scene?
I think in this movie, Leila and Sally go together because they kind of love each other as a mother and as a child. This is partly because they understand each other. They have both been through trauma in their lives and they understand what the other person has been through. And when Layla goes to see this other child who is her age and who should be someone she should be able to connect with, she realizes that she could actually never connect with him and his family because they have never experienced anything like her.
I think a lot of people, and I’ve certainly experienced that thing she says. Do you ever feel alone? And when you are with people, maybe you feel lonely because no one knows the world like you do? And I think that’s something a lot of people can relate to. So the reason for having the scene is that we want to know that Layla is making the choice to be with Sally. She doesn’t just stay with Sally because she has nowhere to go. She stays with her because he’s the right person she can stay with.
You kind of have Morgan Freeman in your back pocket because he doesn’t appear 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 if I feel like I had to direct him a lot. Although there were a few times, that’s kind of how I work with all the actors and more. We talk about the scenes and kind 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 lead.
This comes as much from the actors as from me. But it comes from the actors because I hope it’s clear in the script. I think they all felt it was pretty clear in the script what the scenes were about. So we would work pretty quickly. We had a very good mutual respect and a good working relationship in the making of the scenes. You know, he’s one of those actors who, when he’s in the scene, manages to make the scene the best it can be, and that’s very lucky for me.
highway to paradise is in some theaters as well as in digital and on demand on July 29.