Tribeca 2022: Next Exit’s Mali Elfman and Katie Parker Chat Ghosts, Trauma, And Much More [Interview]

Next Exit, the new feature from writer-director Mali Elfman, stars Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli as Rose and Teddy, respectively, two souls in a world where ghosts and the afterlife have been proven true. The pair have plans on killing themselves at the end of a cross-country trip, passing over to the next world. In an interview, I spoke with Mali and Katie about the existence of ghosts, the film’s deeper meanings and more surreal elements, and broaching some other interesting topics (Danny Elfman’s epic Coachella outing or Mike Flanagan’s The Fall of the House of Usher, anyone?)

The first question I must ask you, of course, is whether or not you believe in ghosts.

Mali Elfman: Whole-heartedly, and one of the reasons why I wrote the film the way that I did is that… I’m just over having the conversation in certain ways, and so I just wanted to create a world in which it’s not about religion. It’s not about politics. It’s not about any of those things, they are real. They’re scientifically proven, now how do we deal with that? That’s already my world on a day-to-day basis, so I’m just asking everybody else to come join me. But I grew up in a haunted house, I’ve had a lot of… I call this ‘sensitive,’ and I had a lot of experiences. So I’m a full believer. What a ghost is is the question, though.

I love it. Katie, what about you?

Katie Parker: To echo Mali, I’m… you know, it’s sort of like that question when people are like, ‘Oh, do you believe in God?,’ right? I’m a pretty scientifically-based person, with the acknowledgement that there’s so much more in the universe that we haven’t explored, and probably never will, because we’re human beings and we’re limited in our understanding. But I have had experiences where I’ve felt something, or with intuition, or traumas that keep coming up and patterns showing up in my life…

I believe that there is a quote-unquote, ‘ghost’ that still is in the body, or in the atmosphere, that we can pay attention to or not. We just have this term ‘ghost’ that we use to understand it, and I think people think of it as like a boot, you know, or like a guy in a white sheet walking around. It means so much more than that, which Mali’s movie has beautifully portrayed.

I thought that this film was a really beautiful and poignant movie, and it’s not morose but its subject matter is heavy. What sparked the project, and the idea behind it?

ME: Trauma. I started writing this almost 10 years ago, actually, originally when I was getting divorced. It was just something that I was working through, and then almost every single time that I had a tragedy happened in my life, somebody passing or something that I couldn’t make logical sense of, I kept finding that I would go back to the script. The script kind of became my hope and my light. I think it was very important for me not to shy away from the earnest nature of that darkness and of that trauma, and of what I was going through. But at the same time, I think it is a little bit of my natural state to also need and want to find joy in the world.

I think that when COVID started I didn’t do well at all, I wasn’t one of those people that was okay. I got shingles, I was stressed, I was having a hell of a time with all of my anxiety. I went back to this script, because there was something that really resonated about… if one thing shifts in the world, how does that affect us? And so I actually went back at the top of COVID, and in the middle of all this anxiety. I needed this film to give me hope and to give me a way out, so that is what it intended, that’s what it was for me. What I hope, and what is intended for audiences, is to be truthful to the darkness but also to be able to find that light when you can. I think that’s beautiful.

Katie, how did you get attached this project?

KP: I met Mali how long ago, maybe eight or nine years ago?

ME: Almost a bit longer. But yeah, some are about almost a decade ago and it was through the Mike Flanagan connection model, I think… correct me if I’m wrong, you guys had met at a film festival. I saw Absentia and I was a huge fan of it, and I met Mike and said ‘I want to work with you,’ and he said, ‘I want to work with you’ and so we made a project. But I also got to meet Katie in making that other project.

KP: Yeah. So at the time, we were both attached to a project that she was producing, and I was acting at the time and we met that way and then just sort of organically throughout the years became friendly, friends… friendly friends, and then the bestest friends. And then the bestest of friends and sharing, writing with each other what’s on our hearts, just how friendship develops, right? And then I remember I was walking my dog and I got a phone call from her saying that she was going to make Next Exit.

She had sent me the script, and I was hesitant to read it. I’m not sure why at the time, I think I felt like she would pick up another friend who was a bigger actor than I am, just somebody with more street cred to their name, to be in it. So I had this resistance to reading it, and she was like ‘I really want you to just sit with it.’ And then she asked me to play Rose, and I really couldn’t believe it.

I still had more resistance to it because I found this to be a really complicated character, unlike anything I had really seen or read… I had to undo my programming of what it is to be the lead woman of a film who’s struggling with her shit and isn’t like the kindness or warmest or most open person. I had to kind of like dismantle those narratives, which made me really interested to play her, and then just believing in Mali as an artist, and her vision, I think that’s what I always look for with working with directors is like, I really trusted that she saw the movie.

I get to interview Rahul as well, and he and Katie share some really complex scenes. What was the hardest one to land, from your perspective?

ME: Honestly, the hardest ones were never very hard. I had two actors who were very excited and down to throw down for those big scenes. You could feel the excitement building on those days where we got to go there. The process of working with each of them was completely opposite and completely different. And it makes sense, Katie and I had this 10 years of history together. Katie is also the type who went through the entire script and the intentions and the meanings, and really got to dissect and build outros. And I don’t think that Rose is actually very much like Katie, and I think that that I knew that she could do that, and I fully believed it, and she completely killed it. But it was me really asking her to stand on a ledge a very uncomfortable ledge for the entire making of this and say, I will hold your head the entire way, and you will be okay, so it was such a trust act, and a balancing act between the two of us.

And then Rahul I got when he was in the middle of shooting Midnight Mass. I got him right at the end of that. I reached out to Mike and I was like ‘I want Rahul,’ and this was my first choice. He was the first actor that I went to for it, and I got on a Zoom with him, and it was so obvious to me that he was [Teddy] I couldn’t believe it… I don’t think he had gotten a chance to really play this character before, and was so ready, and so game.

On the day, the two of their processes were completely opposite and completely different, and it was so much fun for me to bounce between the two of them because they are completely opposite, these two characters. And when I saw that they were so different. I was like… ‘this is going to work so well, this is exactly what I need from these two characters.’ So everything about them was completely different, and yet, when it came time to work, and when it came time to play, the two of them just threw down both in their own unique ways. I think that’s where you get that magical chemistry.

The difficulty of this entire shoot was for me was just the fear that somebody would get COVID. We were shooting it at the top of 2021… there wasn’t vaccines yet. We were so small that if we would have gotten a positive, that would shut us down. We were on the road, we were only in certain locations for a day, literally driving across the country, so that took up all my anxiety. Every single day when everybody tested negative, and we were on set, I was like ‘I’m winning today, and I might not get tomorrow, so let’s make today amazing.’

Honestly, I know it was hard. It was exhausting, all the rest of it, but when I look back at it, I was the calmest and happiest I’d ever been when I was on that set. Both of these actors showed up in such a way for me, they were there to play, they were down, and they really gave it their all.

Katie, your character specifically is haunted by this dark sort of specter since she made a fateful choice. Let’s talk about that.

KP: I think Rose’s haunting had been building for a long time since she was a little person. I think she was probably a really sensitive kid, really attuned to people’s energies… and I think, rather than embracing that, she carried a lot of shame and anger around it. I remember thinking about her physically, and what she’s like and how she’s uncomfortable in her body, wanting to have her body covered up.

I think human beings are intrinsically creative creatures, and when that stifled it creates a lot of anger. Rather than expansion, there’s this contraction, and I wanted her to feel really contracted, and her voice feeling kind of contracted and quiet. She speaks in very short sentences; she doesn’t give a lot [away]. That’s how I wanted to portray her, haunted. I think the choice she makes with her brother in-law is almost like a choice to self-harm, you know? It’s all she knows, because her belief system is ‘I’m bad. I’m not worthy. I can’t get out of this trap, so fuck it… I’m going to do this because this is how unlovable I am.’ It confirmed she’s stuck and confirming her own story.

I love how she has to confront her literal demons in this dark Void. I wanted to ask both of you what it was like doing that.

ME: I was so excited because I’ve had that Void in my head for a long time. Of course, there were like 10 other gags that I wanted to do, and, you know, indie filmmaking… I had to really hone it down. But I think, for me, the thing that was so exciting is we had been on the road. There were a lot of locations that we had never scouted that we had locked and got, and I had an idea of a shortlist but I had to be nimble. I had to think on my feet, I had to feel what the scene was still feeling like now in these new spots, but the Void, I got to know what I was dealing with… I got to have control, I got to storyboard, and I got to show off a different side of my skill-set.

I was so excited to get into that, and really be able to show off some other things that I had really wanted to play with and really wanted to get into. It also gave us time to go a little bit slower, to take our time with movement, to be very specific where Katie… [to Katie] I don’t know if you felt this but a lot of times I was like, ‘How are you feeling? Move your body freely.’ And with this […] it allowed me to be very precise in a way that I hadn’t been able to shoot the rest of the film [like], so I was so excited by the time we got into the Void. I had the best time.

KP: Yeah, the Void for me… I grew up dancing, and it felt like doing almost a performance art piece, it was very choreographed and flowy. It felt like meeting your inner child. I felt like Rose throughout the movie is like a ghost to herself… she’s just dead inside. It’s not until she’s confronted in the Void where there’s this rebirth for her, where she meets who she truly is… the capable, loving, wonderful spirit that’s in her that’s just been so buried by her trauma. Playing with that with movement was really exciting creatively, and playing with the camera operators. And then again, Molly’s vision was really specific and that was really helpful when we choreographed everything. It’s such a cool part of the movie.

ME: I think that that also goes to what you were saying, that ghost was another big metaphor that I was trying to accomplish with this idea of… the things that scare us the most are often the things that we need to overcome, whatever it is. To overcome shame, or hate, self-hate or any of these other things, being able to accept that there are these things that get in our way. Oftentimes, I think that’s our perception of things. So when you see a ghost and you’re afraid of it, why not look at it from a different perspective? And so that’s kind of the overall meaning of something that I was really excited to try to find physical ways of manifesting on screen.

That comes across so well in the film. Katie, I do have to ask you… is there anything you can tell me about Fall of the House of Usher?

KP: It’s like Succession meets American Horror Story. It’s a really, really interesting piece that I think people aren’t going to expect from Mike Flanagan… it’s going to be a show that’s different than anything else he’s ever done.

I’m so looking forward to it! And Mali, I have to ask… any stories about your father Danny Elfman?

ME: When I was younger, I remember when I made my first film ever. I was so afraid of people making those connections [between her and her father]. And now I think because I’ve had time, I’ve been around, I know who I am in my career… I don’t really have that chip on my shoulder anymore about talking about my dad. I don’t know exactly what to say… I will say I was so inspired by him with his Coachella performance… I got so nervous right before because I’ve never been to Coachella before, I don’t know how Coachella works.

[At a normal concert] people don’t run from one stage to another. Obviously, you go to a concert, people show up, you watch the concert… [at Coachella] 10 minutes before I go out, there’s nobody, not that many people, and I started to cry because I was like ‘oh my God, if my dad doesn’t have anybody show up to his show I’m gonna be so upset.’ Then the music started and people are running towards it, and I was like, ‘okay, now this is scary in a different way… this is like a whole new thing.’

He said something, ‘then this is the first time that I’ve performed as myself in 27 years.’ You know he works for so many directors, he works in so many other ways… for him to be able to share his voice, completely him… I love that he titled it Big Mess because it’s all over the place. He so easily could have just given people what they wanted, but he also wanted to make sure that he expressed who he was. During COVID, he says himself, he wasn’t feeling docile, he didn’t want to create tranquil music. He was angry, he was frustrated, and that’s the music that came out of him.

To be at that level and to still continue to surprise people, and to surprise himself and follow through with that, and put himself on stage… I was just incredibly inspired. And also to know, because I saw him right before, he was nervous. He didn’t know what was gonna happen… to realize we never get past this. The fear that I had before Tribe
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ca is the same fear that he had, if you are real artists, and if you are constantly challenging yourself and putting out new stuff, you will never get over that. It actually made me feel much more comfortable and much safer at how scared and terrified I currently am with the film because, yeah, that’s where you should be.

Next Exit premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.

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