ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with Next Exit director Mali Elfman and lead actress Katie Parker to discuss the drama, which premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. Elfman’s confidently dark directorial debut is bolstered by its cast, which includes great performances by Parker and Rahul Kohli.
“When a research scientist makes national news proving she can track people into the afterlife, Rose sees a way out and Teddy sees his chance to finally make it,” reads the synopsis. “These two strangers, both harboring dark secrets, race to join the doctor’s contentious study and leave this life behind. While Rose is haunted by a ghostly presence that she can’t outrun, Teddy is forced to confront his past. As these two misfits humorously quarrel their way across the country, they meet people along the way who force them to reckon with what is really driving them.”
Tyler Treese: Mali, congrats on your feature debut. Can you speak to just writing Next Exit and how this idea evolved over time?
Mali Elfman: Very much, this is a project that was my light in the dark through many different experiences in my life. Whenever I was having a hard time. I started writing about 10 years ago and whenever I was kind of caught in a dark place or unable to get through something, this is what kind of brought me out of it. Fast forward to the start of COVID and seeing everything that was going on, and being so stressed about the world in general, I looked at how the script really resonated with me again, because you see one thing shift and you see the ripple effect that it has throughout society. It just felt very strongly to me that this was the right time to make it, and then I was lucky enough to find people that agreed with me.
I was just surprised at how confident the film was given it was your feature debut. It was really impressive.
Elfman: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think that’s also a testament to all of the people that I had around me. I think this film was made in an incredibly vulnerable place the whole way through, and I think that’s because I was allowed to be there because everybody else really supported me in that.
Katie, this is just such an intriguing and dark twist on what is kind of a road trip movie. What about the script really attracted to attracted you to it?
Katie Parker: Fear. My fear around it. My fear around playing someone who is traumatized, someone who is maybe not outwardly likable. I really can’t think of many heroic female characters we see in cinema, or even in books that take Rose’s journey, and that was really exciting to me, to play her. And then also Mali’s vision. You said the movie’s confident, I agree. I mean, she’s very kind to say we supported her in that, but I think everyone was really attracted to Molly for her vision, and whenever anyone had questions, she had answers. And that’s really exciting, to work with a director that has your back in your creative process, but also their own back and belief, and confidence in themselves and their story that they’re making.
Mali what goes into making a film with suicide as this looming topic? What went into that portrayal?
Elfman: Well, I would say that in this world, I’m not sure that suicide exists necessarily, so I’m not sure that what our lead characters are doing is crossing over into the next world, which we’ve been able to actually see, track, and record. So I really wanted to question kind of the idea of death in general and how we define it and how we redefine it. That being said, I do think that there are two characters, one who wants a way out and doesn’t know how to deal with things, and the other who wants a way in, wants their life to mean something. And they both have an idea that participating in this study will do that for them. But ultimately, what they need to do is something that I think I really needed to do in my life, which is take a look at the things around me, have more experiences, and trust that other people and humanity are something that you actually need and that this life actually matters.
Katie, the film is so much on yourself and Rahul Kohli, can you just speak to just working with one actor so closely throughout the film, because if that connection doesn’t work, the whole film’s going to not work. So can you just speak to how that working relationship was?
Parker: Rahul is very easy to act with. He is incredibly present and generous. You feel like he wants to be there with you. He wants to help you get to where you want to go in the scene. He’s an incredibly generous actor and very, very talented. Probably one of the most talented actors I’ve ever worked with. I think we both respected each other’s process and respected each other as people. And we just had fun together. You know, we were on the road together, we were in vans with each other. It felt like being with a family member, you know? There was an ease to our relationship when we shot, there was a relaxation there. And I just felt really held by him and supported by him.
Mali you’ve produced a lot of films. You’ve directed some shorts. So coming into this debut, did anything surprise you? What was most challenging about this experience?
Elfman: I think because of a lot of my experiences on set and because of producing so many films, I feel more comfortable on set than I do in most other places in life. So it was very comfortable for me to be there. I didn’t know, and I kind of went into this…I work with a lot of first-time feature directors, and one of the biggest things that comes up for them is a fear of failing and a fear of not being good enough. So I just kind of decided that I might fail, I might not be good enough, but none of those feelings were going to help me do the job that I needed to do. So I just kind of went into free-fall mode and I was just going to do my best. And then once I was there, I found that I did know what I was doing, I did know what I want, and I was incredibly calm and comfortable.
There’s always the challenge of literally making a road trip film in the height of COVID, which was my biggest stressor, you know? January, February 2021, driving from Kansas City through Oklahoma, through Texas, through New Mexico, through Arizona. So there was a lot of like, structural, logistic nightmares that honestly didn’t take place, but could have that stressed me out. And that was the hardest part, but the actual making the film and getting to work with the actors was a dream come true. I knew this story inside and out. Katie and Rahul were perfect casting. They were both so down to play, and so down to work within another, but came at it from completely different perspectives. They were so professional. Honestly, my job every single day was, is, to make sure that we created a space for them to do their job. And, it was just a blast.
Katie, this film just has a lot of fun light moments, but there are also these really heavy heart-to-hearts. Can you discuss just working with Rahul on these more emotional scenes? Because they really came out well.
Elfman: They did. They came out so well, guys.
Parker: Thanks. The scene where I sort of tell him my truth and my story and I’m confessing a lot to him. I remember he was in a really goofy mood that day when we shot that, and really silly. There was something about his levity that helped me kind of sink in a little bit more to the truth of Rose’s pain. And then when we shot the scene where we’re, I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s that big confrontation outside of the bar. I remember feeling charged by him, like in competition with him, in a healthy way. In a way where we were pushing each other. He’s so well trained. I think I’m pretty well trained. We had a natural chemistry together and just a respect for each other that I think complimented performance each other’s performances.
Mali, can you speak to just balancing the tone of the film because even though the scenes can be vastly different, it all comes together to create something cohesive, and I think the lighter moments make the heavier ones more impactful.
Elfman: I wanted to be very earnest about the darker nature of this film and the serious subject matter that I was talking about, but I also just, me being me and where I am in life, I can’t be serious all the time. I have to find some light and some way in because, this world is just so fucked up. So for me, I struggle with straight dramas because if you just say emotion right off the bat, I’m kind of like, “Oh, I don’t know.” I wanted to ease people in, let them like these characters a little bit, actually have some moments of laughing, and then hit them with the reality of where they’re coming from, and then also make you laugh again and then kind of flow between that. Honestly, that to me is what life feels like. It’s never good. It’s never bad. It’s never up, it’s never down. It is always oscillating between all of those things. I did want this to feel like how a true relationship felt, and kind of the ups and downs that naturally kind of occur in life, and then just heighten them with ghosts.
Katie, there’s such a great bond that develops between the two main characters over time. I know you shot this during COVID. Were you able to bond with Rahul offscreen to really amp up that chemistry? Or were you just lucky to capture magic when the cameras were on?
Parker: Well, I’ve known Rahul for a few years. He was on iZombie with Rose McIver and Rose is one of my best girlfriends, we used to live together, actually. So I’ve known him and yeah, I mean, to answer your question. I think the friendship and the chemistry, the ease of our relationship was already there. You know, like, it didn’t feel like hard work to be in his company and be around him, it just felt like homies working on a movie together. [laughs]
Elfman: I would say off-camera, they were more like brother and sister, and then the cameras would roll, but they knew how to turn on chemistry, but off-camera, I was like, “Okay, this is almost a little bit too brother and sister.”
Mali, this is such a big couple of months for your family. You have this film debuting and your father, Danny Elfman, just had that incredible festival performance. How wild is it? This is kind of like the summer of the Elfman’s.
Elfman: Yeah! Then fall and winter, and then the elf army takes over.
No, I think the thing that I keep coming back to is how inspired I am by my dad with the [festival] performance, in taking new risks and stepping out of his comfort zone, and speaking to who he truly is as an artist and what his voice genuinely is. It’s interesting because there actually are some parallels between me finally directing a film that I wrote and me being very honest about my voice. I think some of the stuff that he’s also doing with his work, is obviously completely different and we’re in different fields. I will never play a note of music because of him. But I’m incredibly inspired by him as an artist. I think that it is, it’s interesting that we’ve both come out of COVID with a feeling of wanting to actually have our voices heard in both of our own unique ways.
Katie, you spoke about Rose being a really unique role. What did you find most intriguing about this character that you really latched onto?
Parker: I think just the truth about what it means to be haunted by choices you’ve made in your life. And I loved that she gets, you know, without spoiling anything, there are opportunities along the way to awaken, and it was really interesting to play a character who truly is like, dead inside. She’s experiencing death to be reborn. And it was really fun to get to chart that as an actor, and to find the places of where she’s awakening.