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. 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.
A ten-year journey in the making, Next Exit is a slow burn addressing a dark and distressing subject matter, but intuitive interviewing of lightness and darkness brings much-needed levity and grounding - all thanks to writer and director Mali Elfman.
I had the grand opportunity to speak with Mali Elfman about her feature directorial debut which is premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on June 10, 2022. Mali talks about tapping into her emotional connection to the material, creating and working with her established filmmaking tribe, character development with her cast, and the great impact of having her editor on the road with her during production.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: You’re tackling so many different elements about life, the afterlife, human inner dilemma and growth all nestled in this storyline. And these two characters we follow is like a flipped visceral version of the relationship in When Harry Met Sally. What was the impetus behind writing this story?
Mali Elfman: It's funny, you're the second person to say the When Harry Met Sally reference, and I'm so excited, because that wasn't one of my comps. That wasn't what I was thinking, but it's totally relevant and it is one of my favorite movies. So, I'm sure somewhere in the gray matter of my brain that was percolating and came out. It's funny, because I'm delivering another script currently, in which I had a plan, and an ending and a purpose. Next Exit wasn't that. I started writing Next Exit, actually, almost 10 years ago when I was getting divorced. And then every single time, there was a tragedy in my life, when I lost someone, when something big happened, I kept going back to this script. And I think that's why you see different elements of politics, of beliefs, religion, all these different things of me kind of trying to sort through ways of trying to find peace. And for me, the subject matter in the film, and many of the things are very personal, and I did not know how to deal with them, or how to talk about them. And this was my way of sorting through all of that. Oddly, this was whenever I was in a very dark place and wasn't able to sort through things, this was something that gave me hope.
Sadie: For that writing process over 10 years, was there a key thematic element you were following or was it more so these two character’s journeys and relationship?
Mali: I picked this back up at the top of COVID - I did not do well at the top of COVID. I had such high anxiety, and I was so stressed. At that time, and it was funny, because earlier on in this there actually weren't ghosts. Ghosts were something that became more and more present in my life. And over the past four years, and especially when I went through a couple of losses, it didn't seem real to me. I didn't know how to make it reality. And in my mind, I didn't want it to be, I needed to know that there was something else I needed to know that there was a place and that this wasn't the end. And so, I wanted to create a world in which that was true, not a world in which we were questioning it or anything like that - this is the reality of the world. Like we know ghosts are real and then discuss what it is that a ghost is, discuss what I couldn't let go of, discuss what it is that I really needed a connection to and why. And in that, hopefully also finding the ability to let go, which I think is a big message that kind of slowly reveals itself throughout the film. That being said, all of this subject matter is so serious. And I'm glad that you said the When Harry Met Sally, because I don't like to be too serious along the way. [laughs] And balancing that tone was something that I was always very cautious of, because I like to deal with deep, heavy dark matter. But I don't like to do it in a deep, heavy, dark way. And so, that was something that was always very important to me - being truthful and honest about the experience, but also finding ways in which it comes out with some levity and brightness. Especially during COVID, I remember I added a lot more humor to it, because I needed that myself, I needed some light. Even though I think it's important to deal with the seriousness, it's also important to have some hope and some light. And then the casting began and that really helped me see ways of adding that as well.
Sadie: Speaking of casting, once you had the cast on board, were you going back to their individual characters and refining their voices and development?
Mali: It was two totally different processes with Katie and with Rahul. Katie, I've actually been friends with for the past 10 years, so I know Katie inside and out - I've seen her grow as an actress, and I've gotten to work with her as an actress before. So, for her, it was literally turning page by page and discussing every single line. Also, this character is so far from who Katie really is, she really had to mold herself into something completely uncomfortable and unnatural and stay in this painful place for the entire shoot. And I'm very grateful to her for doing that and being willing to do that with me. We had months to prepare, I think even a year to kind of talk about stuff.
Rahul is somebody who I knew from iZombie, I knew how charming and wonderful he could be on that. And then I had watched Bly Manor not long before and I saw him deliver that monologue and I was like, 'OK, now he can make me absolutely sob.' He has that and it was so imperative for me, especially for Teddy, because Rose is packing the punches. She's packing that like severity, and Teddy brings that light. But he had to be somebody that also understood darkness - that often that light was coming from a very dark place inside of him. Rahul was my number one pick, I got the script to him, I get on a Zoom with him and I'm expecting him to just not be that interested, you're so used to being told no all the time, I was just ready for it. And he was so open and honest and he was this character. I didn't understand how much he would resonate with this character and resonate with also wanting to do a character like that. I had intentionally written Teddy with no ethnicity in mind, and not too many specifics, so the biggest thing that came up with Rahul was his nationality. We did have a conversation about that and he helped me add in some proper English slang to make sure that it was authentic. But it was also very important for me to work with him on what he felt would be an earnest depiction of him crossing the country and what he would want to add to that. I'd written this character, had a couple of conversations with him and went in and did a draft and then he gave me the thumbs-up, and we worked on it.
We put these actors through it - it was that the height of COVID, there was no vaccines yet, there were seventeen of us on the road, going from Kansas City, Oklahoma, and Texas, and I kept thinking, ‘They're just going to decide one day that this isn't worth it.’ And instead, it ended up the exact opposite. In the middle of the worst of COVID, we had this tiny little bubble, that was able to be together and have this experience and do this journey. And it was actually really hard to separate afterwards.
Sadie: Having a supportive team like that is amazing. And the importance of having a filmmaking tribe, in which I did notice familiar names from your other films notably your editor Brett Bachman and producer Narineh Hacopian, both of whom I’m big fans of --
Sadie: With this being your feature directorial debut, how important was it to you to have this team on this journey with you?
Mali: It was amazing. Narineh and Derek Bishé were my producers, and they were wonderful. I had an amazing production team. I was allowed to bring seventeen crew on the road. And one I wanted as many female and POC department heads as possible, which we were able to do. And then [laughs] it was Brett Bachman. [laughs] And it was so funny, because they're like, ‘You’re gonna bring your editor with you?!’ And I was like, ‘Yes, I've worked with Brett. He's edited most of the shorts I've done. He's edited two features that I've done.’ And I knew that having him there would also make me feel more secure. And what he was doing, because Brett is so wicked fast, it's insane, he was editing in real-time. So, by the end of every single day, I was actually able to see not just dailies, but rough cuts of things kind of assembled, or at least by the next morning. And because we were traveling on the road, and we were only in some places for a day or two days, he would say, ‘If you don't get this reverse, you're screwed, you gotta get this.’ I was never going to be back there, there's no way to replicate some of this stuff. And there's at least three occasions that I can think of that he just saved my ass in doing that. But also, Brett truly understands story, he understands filmmaking. It was wonderful to have an editor actually be a part of the process. And it did actually make the editing of this move incredibly quickly, despite I had my assembly three days after we wrapped and then we just kind of flew right through it.
Sadie: That’s incredible! When you were initially writing this, was the intention for you to always to direct this yourself?
Mali: No, I still have trouble identifying as a director. [laughs] Which is odd. I used to be a writer for a long time, and I then became a working producer. This story was in my body, like, I have no other way of saying it - it is entirely me; the tone and the kind of structure and the conversation. And it became very clear that I was also developing as I was producing, more and more skills for directing. That's why Rose McIver, for instance, somebody who I had produced for and Karen Gillan, who I have produced for kept saying, ‘You need to direct, this is what you need to be doing.’ So, I did make for shorts, kind of getting my director muscles a little bit stronger. And honestly, I think, because I was so scared of COVID, and getting shut down a COVID and was convinced that was going to happen, that took up all of my stress and all of my energy.
Every single day I was on set, it was just a dream. And I was excited to be there. And I just took it all in. But I was amazed going into this, I was like, ‘I wonder what's going to happen when my feet are to the fire? Will I rise to the occasion?’ And the answer was I was calmer and clearer and happier than I had ever been. And it's honestly something that now I'm fully addicted to. I loved the experience. I loved working with everybody. Everything about this film was not what I thought it was going to be. I was supposed to make it 10 years ago, I was supposed to produce it for a different director, I've gone through three different directors on this and nothing. And it happened during COVID. And yet everything was exactly what it was supposed to be. I keep trying to think that I'm going to know what's going to happen next, or I'm going to be able to prepare, I'm going to be able to plan and it keeps not going that way. But when I actually just listen and go with the flow, it goes really well. And that was this film for me. And so, I know that it might not be a perfect film, small budget and all these things, but every single time I'm in this film, or working on it, my heart is just so happy. And I'm so proud of the work that my team did, and what we did together. It wasn't what I thought and it's all that I want now.
TRIBECA PREMIERE DATE: June 10, 2022 / 6:15 p.m. ET / Village East by Angelika Theater 7