Anna Gutto always knew her creative ambitions would go beyond being in front of the camera. She transitioned to the director's chair, starting her first short, The Kangaroo, in 2012. Following her turn in 2017's A Lucky Man, her next major opportunity was for the Netflix series Home for Christmas, splitting time as a co-director and second director. Her theatrical debut is the Lionsgate thriller Paradise Highway, which she also wrote, follows a female trucker Sally (Juliette Binoche), who reluctantly agrees to smuggle illicit cargo: a girl named Leila (Hala Finley). As Sally and Leila begin a danger-fraught journey across state lines, a dogged FBI operative (Freeman) sets out on their trail, determined to do whatever it takes to terminate a human-trafficking operation — and bring Sally and Leila to safety. Gutto spoke to Bleeding Cool about how the project was ten years in the making, transitioning from acting to directing and working with the cast.
Bleeding Cool: What's the inspiration behind 'Paradise Highway?'
Anna Gutto: The initial inspiration came from realizing how close to us sometimes these incidents of trafficking could be. When I was a teenager, I had a friend whose building turned out to be a brothel. That always kept swirling around in my mind. When I started as a filmmaker, I wanted to find a way to tell a story that helped us understand how these things happen right under our noses. So that's the beginning, and then I started to get to know these female truckers and familiarized myself with their environment. I was inspired by their lives and choices to make a better life for themselves.
BC: How long has the development been in the works?
Gutto: I started developing the script before my first child was born, and he is turning ten in October. Obviously, I've done other things in between since then, including a Netflix show. The producers came on board around 2018. It always takes time. From the moment I landed in Mississippi, we started hard prep, and it was a little over a month or six weeks before we started shooting. We had been in pretty intense prep for about the year.
BC: As your directorial feature debut, what was the biggest challenge?
Gutto: A feature is much more the right length of storytelling for me. So the transition in terms of telling a long-form only felt nice. I don't know if I would say that one form was more challenging than the other. Getting an independent film going is always challenging. I was extremely lucky to get such a wonderful cast on board, and that's when it started rolling.
BC: Was it an easy decision to kind of go from in front of the camera to behind the camera? Did you find that experience helped you with the film?
Gutto: Absolutely! I always knew I would become a director when I grew up [laughs]. I knew that's what I would eventually be doing. I felt like I needed to kind of graduate into that because directing is the function that oversees everything. My acting experience was very useful, and since I worked in theater for so many years, there is a discipline and structure that you learn on the stage. The curtain goes up at 8 p.m. no matter what. That kind of discipline I found extremely useful for the process of writing. You get what you need done by getting yourself ready to get the work. It also applies to shooting because you can fall into the trap of thinking, "You have these 12 hours, and the minutes here and there don't matter, but they do." The discipline of knowing that curtain is going to go up at 8 p.m. no matter has helped me a lot. As an actress, in terms of communication with other actors, I love them and working with them. I have such deep respect for their work that I feel like I work in partnership with them on creating the movie. It's our movie.
BC: How does it feel landing such a talented ensemble in Morgan [Freeman], Cameron [Monaghan], Frank [Grillo], and Juliette on board?
Gutto: When you're working with such professionals, their work runs smoothly, giving themselves fully to the project. It was just a joy to see their work, the team with them, guide this team, and fight through different challenges we encountered in different ways. We found the solutions and the best way forward because when you're dealing with professionals at that level, there aren't any hiccups with them. They're all so nice and generous. It was just a joy to partner with them.
BC: What was the most invaluable lesson you took into the film?
Gutto: Everyone always gives the best that they can give and knowing to trust that. No one is trying not to do their best. Everyone on the team, from a production assistant, gaffer, art department, and actors to the producers, is trying their best, knowing that feeling confident and real about that is the most valuable thing I bring with me.
Paradise Highway, which also stars Veronica Ferres & Christine Seidel, is currently in theaters, digital, and on-demand.