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Filmmaker Mali Elfman and star Katie Parker Find an Unlikely On-Ramp to Happiness with “NEXT EXIT”

Saturday, June 18, 2022 | Interviews

By WILLIAM J. WRIGHT

In the brief preface to his 1983 novel, Pet Semetary, Stephen King writes, “Death is a mystery, and burial is a secret.” Filmmaker Mali Elfman’s stunning debut feature, NEXT EXIT, posits a world in which science has made strides towards solving those eternal questions. In the film, a brilliant and ambitious scientist, played by Karen Gillan (Doctor Who, Dual), has definitively discovered that death is not the end, ghosts are real, and the dead can communicate with the living. To further her research, she recruits volunteers, “pioneers” if you will, to end their mortal lives to explore the undiscovered country of the afterlife.

Elfman wisely chooses to largely leave the technology and societal implication of a world in which thousands of years of philosophical and theological thought have been upended to concentrate her narrative on two shattered individuals who have volunteered to die for science.

Katie Parker (The Haunting of Hill House) stars as Rose, a woman suffering from lifelong depression who harbors years of secret guilt. Seeking to end it all, Rose is forced to share a cross-country ride with Teddy (Rahul Kohli), a deceptively upbeat Brit who seems to look forward to his demise as a chance to at last do something important. Although they initially clash, they soon develop deep feelings for one another as their pasts come into focus. 

Elfman and Parker were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to speak with Rue Morgue about this complex and genre-defying film. 

NEXT EXIT is a real emotional rollercoaster; I don’t think I’ve been affected by a film like this in years. Mali, what was your inspiration for this story?

Mali Elfman: Oh, well, firstly, thank you! I’m wildly insecure about the film being seen. So it’s nice to know that it’s resonating. I started writing this about ten years ago. I was going through a divorce at the time, and I was just working through some stuff. Over the years, every single time I would have something happen that would be something so dark that I would really get stuck in it. And I couldn’t really get through it. Specifically, a death of a loved one that I had to drive away from. It didn’t make sense to me. I couldn’t make it make sense. And every single time that would happen, I would come back to the script. I tried to make it so that it wasn’t denying the earnest nature of those feelings, and yet, it could still give you some hope that there is something that can come out of that as well.

At the start of COVID, I was not doing very well. I got shingles. I was very stressed,  you know, watching spirituality, beliefs, science, politics – all of this kind of clash. And me saying it doesn’t really matter. None of that really matters. What matters is people and humanity and wanting to bring that together, and then adding in this ghost element because I kind of exist in a world already in which I believe ghosts exist, and I didn’t want to have that talk anymore. I just wanted that to be true. I wanted to see how that one little ripple effect, that one little pebble in the pond, could actually change the way that these people view the world.

From your involvement with the filmmaking collective Fun Size Horror to your work as a producer with Mike Flanagan, director of Doctor Sleep, you’ve been a real champion for the genre. Why did you choose NEXT EXIT for your first feature instead of a more traditional horror film?

ME: [Laughs] I know! I meant to! You know, what’s funny is I’ve pitched so many films. I’ve been out there and all the rest of it. NEXT EXIT is my heart. It speaks to who I am. And I do really want to make a full horror film next. And that is my goal. And that is what I am currently on track to do, but this one was the one that came out of my heart. It’s my heart and my mind on a platter with all the scars exposed. It was so honest and so truthful. I kind of needed to make it for myself and my own journey and also in developing what my voice was as a writer and then as a director. This is one that I could see through and through.

When I originally had written this years ago, I had thought somebody else would direct it. It became very clear that I was the one that understood the tone. I was the one who understood the balance. So then, I went and directed a few shorts to kind of get some of those muscles and get a little bit stronger and then dive into this. So I agree with you; I was supposed to make a horror film. I wanted to make a horror film, and I will make a horror film.

I remember people reading this and being like, can you make it more of a horror film? And I was like, that’s just not genuine to the story and what this is. I need to speak honestly to what this is and what the emotional core of this film is.

Mali Elfman directs a tense scene from NEXT EXIT.

The idea of science proving that there is an afterlife is compelling on its own. Many filmmakers might have chosen to explore the technology behind that discovery. Why did you choose to place that element so far in the background?

ME: The first answer is I didn’t care. Honestly, it’s the same thing as like trying to explain COVID. That didn’t matter to me. This is the reality that we live in. What I was much more interested in is the emotional reaction and the residual effects that these characters would have. I’ve intentionally made it a very simple structure for myself because I knew that the emotional complexity of the characters is what I wanted to really dive into. And that was my strong suit. That’s where I am much more comfortable. I also had additional scenes where I explain them. Honestly, there’s two scenes in the movie that we even shot. I didn’t use them because, at the end of the day, it didn’t really matter to the emotional journey these characters went on.

Katie, was that backstory of how this new science worked something you felt you needed for your performance?

Katie Parker: At the beginning of this process, when Mali had asked me to play Rose, I was all about the question you asked. I was like, wait a second, what do you mean, ghosts exist? Like, what is this world? I was really fixated on the world we were in. Mali’s sort of levity and how she was like, yeah, ghosts exist. Anyway. What does that mean for Rose? I was like, oh, right. And then I could really see what the movie was, and I loved also that challenge of acceptance of this world we’re in and looking at my own world and what we’re all exposed to right now with politics and Coronavirus and everything that’s going on in the world – the big changes we’ve been through. How does that affect you personally? How does that affect how you show up in your life? Has it helped you go to therapy? Are you exercising more? Are you drinking all the time? And then starting to chart Rose’s journey through that kind of snowball effect was my way into being able to understand the story, but I had the exact same question. I was hounding Mali for that.

ME: Do you remember that in the script? There’s like seven pages in the start of it. It just became irrelevant.

KP: Yeah, Different story.

Katie Parker stars as the troubled Rose.

Is that part of the story that you’d like to revisit in a follow-up or an addendum of some kind to NEXT EXIT?

ME: I have a scene with Karen [Gillan] at the end that I shot that was completely, once again, unnecessary, but was like her realizing what happened with Rose – like the science of it. And I was like, the sequel is now Rose and Teddy are going to return the car. Dr. Stevenson is like, find her and get her to go back and fix the science and all the rest of it because she can’t have done this, and she just ran away!

I feel like NEXT EXIT has lived its life and has done its job, but I am never happier than when I’m in this world and when I’m with these characters, so I would stay in it forever if I could.

Speaking of Karen Gillan’s character, Dr. Stevenson, do you consider her the film’s villain? Is she exploiting potentially broken people to further her goals?

ME: No. No, I don’t consider her the film’s villain. I have an idea of who the film’s villain is, and I’m not going to say it, especially with Katie here! [Laughs]

We all have villains. We all have different things that drive us. Now, I think that she’s created a world for us to play in,  and I don’t think that she fully understands the depths of what it is. That’s why we call [Dr. Stevenson’s test subjects] pioneers throughout the film. They’re the first people crossing over. They’re landing on Mars. They’re the new discoveries in this new world. And if you don’t believe that death is actually something that can be defined any longer, then it really opens the door to a lot of other ideas.

Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli in an emotional moment from NEXT EXIT

Suicide is obviously a sensitive topic socially, personally and religiously. Is your life yours to take? Can death be, for lack of a better phrase, a “solution” to life’s problems?

ME: Well, I will say that the reality of this world and the reality of the world in the film are two different things for me. So I am very sensitive about topics that have related to suicide, and I don’t want anybody to think that this is a pro-suicide film because that’s very much not what it is. It’s the idea that death doesn’t exist and isn’t seen in the same way –  that there are other options. But that is very much living in a sci-fi world in which our reality is not reality. So I think it’s something that is very personal to me. Depression is something that’s very personal to me. I think, for me, that darkness and those places are very difficult to discuss, so I wanted to find ways of bringing them out in these characters that felt truthful and honest, but that also wasn’t the main point of the film, either, or the driver of the film.

Katie, Rose is obviously a complex and tortured character. How did you approach playing her? Was it difficult to shed Rose’s skin at the end of the day?

KP: Yes, it was difficult to shed Rosa’s skin at the end of the day. The way I approached her was by being truthful with myself about my own journey with shutting down negative thought patterns, dealing with my own anxiety and depression, my own family traumas, and being able to just be truthful about my own experience to get into her experience and to be able to understand where she’s coming from. And back to your other question about suicide, I am in no way an advocate for suicide, but I do think, culturally, we’re really uncomfortable with this idea of death and rebirth. And that’s something I believe in. With everything that is born, it’s going to end at some point. And that can be through your time on this planet. What I really loved about playing Rose was figuring out the parts of her that are dying, so she can be reborn as a healthier version of herself. Once I figured out that kind of hope, it was easier to drop her, but certainly, on the days where she was heavy, you can’t help but take that home with you.

Even in the moments when Rose has a rare moment of happiness, she’s still clearly in pain. I thought you conveyed that beautifully. Did you do any research on depression to prepare for the role?

KP: Yeah, I mean, my own research. I know it really, really well. It’s something I have worked on, God, since I was 13, maybe. I think just acknowledging it – and not just me, but friends and family members. Mental health is something I love exploring and love awakening to every day. That’s just something I’m really interested in organically. So that part of it was easy for me.

How did you maintain that very real sense of not just despair but also that constant sense of fatigue that comes with depression?

It’s interesting that you use the word “fatigue.” Yeah, I’m so glad that landed. Mali helped me a lot with that – of physicalizing her – deciding what Rose wears, kind of how she walks, what her physicality is, Mali was really, really helpful to me like conceptualizing her in that way. I think the way she’s written, the way Mali kind of writes her, was sort of musical to me. It was sort of staccato. She’s so withheld and withdrawn. Then, she kind of starts to open throughout the film. That was helpful in understanding her language and her speech patterns. It made my voice a little smaller, just like a little more here in my throat.

Rahul Kohli as Teddy.

You also have Teddy, who suffers the same level of trauma and sadness as Rose, but he’s putting this brave face of humor on everything. Do you consider Rose and Teddy two sides of the same coin when it comes to depression?

ME:  Definitely, that was part of the intention. I don’t like it when depression is always represented just as I’m sad. That, for me, is not an honest depiction of depression. Some people go really, really high. The one person that Teddy is based on is actually a very good friend of mine. I will often know when he is going to crash when I get the phone calls when he is the highest. Those were always the points when I was most afraid of him. He almost always had an adventure or a thing that he was going to go on and do. If he could just go on and do this thing, it would all be better. “I just need to do this thing.” And it was always running away. It was always not dealing with whatever it was inside of him. So I think, for Teddy, that was definitely part of the idea. For Rose, it was more of the anger and the frustration.

I will say, one of my secrets that I don’t know that I’ve talked to Katie about much because I didn’t want this in her head beforehand, I very much see Rose as what I felt like inside and Teddy was how I present to people. I tend to, even in my darkest moments, even when I’ve had to deal with depression, nobody ever notices it with me. Unfortunately, I am so good at that. It actually makes me nervous sometimes. So I think for me, the exciting part about Rose is finally getting all of those things and all that frustration and all the rest of it to come out. Maybe it’s just me, but I find Rose hilarious. Like when she doesn’t land a joke, it just kills me, and it’s because it’s coming from that tortured place that I kind of love. Also, for me, one of my challenges was finding that humor, with Rose. One of my favorite scenes is the diner scene where she walks up and she needs to get Teddy out of the cafe, and all he wants to do is eat his pancakes. It’s played in a oner (a single long take), if you notice, because I was just so happy with that shot. Katie, you make me laugh every single time and so does Rahul. Both of them just nail those characters and the full flesh of them in those moments.

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker in NEXT EXIT.

Ultimately, what do you hope audiences take away from NEXT EXIT?

ME: What they want. And I mean the full meaning of that. Not just what they want from the film but also what do you want? Oftentimes, there’s something that is keeping you from what you want. Why? What is that? And then, knowing that if you are somebody who has ever been in that dark place and not known how to get through it or you’re going through something like a death or a trauma or something in your life, that there is hope, even when you think that there might be none.

KP: I think the things that haunt us are the things that have the potential to bring us home to ourselves, and the potential for us to heal there. What we think is really bad can also be the medicine to help us expand.

ME: Sometimes, the things that scare us the most are the things that we need the most.

Finally, to end this chat on a lighter note, Mali, I saw that your dad, who for those that don’t know is the legendary composer and musician Danny Elfman, contributed some music to NEXT EXIT. Does he charge you Tim Burton prices or is there a family rate for his services?

ME:[Laughs] Oh, Lord! It’s definitely a family rate! We definitely couldn’t afford those prices!  You know, what’s funny is that I was always very nervous about working with him on this one because he saw the first rough cut, and I was so nervous because it was such a mess. And it’s such a personal film. Everybody thought I was gonna make a horror film, so everybody was shocked when this was what they were watching. They were like, “You have feelings!” I was like, I have so many feelings and so many emotions. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say this publicly, but I get charged a silver dollar, and it’s actually more expensive than you think. So I like picking very good ones for him.

KP: My brother also, he’s a songwriter, and he wrote some music for NEXT EXIT as well, which is really special.

ME: Danny Parker. We got all the family Dannys joined!

Mali, Katie, thank you so much for spending some time with me. I can’t wait to see what you do next.

ME: I’ll get back to horror! I promise! I promise!

NEXT EXIT is my heart. It speaks to who I am.”
William J. Wright
William J. Wright is a professional freelance writer and an active member of the Horror Writers Association. A lifelong lover of the weird and macabre, his work has appeared in many popular publications dedicated to horror and cult film. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with his wife and three sons.