In the supernatural drama Next Exit, the afterlife exists, and humans can choose to painlessly end their lives and become ghosts thanks to a new scientific company called Life Beyond. Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli), two strangers from New York City who want to enter the afterlife for different reasons, venture on a cross-country trip to Life Beyond’s headquarters on the West Coast. Along the way, the two travelers confront their inner demons and reveal their past mistakes as they slowly learn that life may be worth living once again.
In her feature film directorial debut, writer/producer Mali Elfman examines the human spirit and how unexpected discoveries can be the driving force for what leads us out of the darkness. In a conversation with Digital Trends, Elfman, Parker, and Kohli spoke about the 10-year journey to write Next Exit, the challenge of understanding why these characters want to end their lives, and how humor injected a sense of realism into the dialogue.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: Mali, I read that this has been a 10-year odyssey for you to write this script. What was the original conception of this idea?
Mali Elfman: I mean, honestly, it was about those two characters and it was about their story. That’s always what drove it for me. I think dealing with certain things in my life … made me always want to come back and try to work through them. And I have such trouble, you know. I found therapy and stuff like how to solve all my conflicts in life, and I’m not very good at that. I had to write it all out. So for me, that’s what the script really was.
Picking back up at the top of COVID, there was a moment where one thing changed and it rippled out throughout our entire world. I just felt like that was so relevant to this script and so timely. So I went back and made some adjustments, and I finally finished the script. And then, I was lucky enough to find a company that believed in me.
This is your feature film directorial debut. When you were writing this, was there a moment where you said to yourself if this film gets made, I have to direct it?
Elfman: I did. There were supposed to be other directors earlier on, and I think I was more confident when I was supporting them. It was a long process for me and still one that I’m working on. I’m realizing that I have a voice and maybe people want to hear it. I think I’m much more confident in supporting other people’s voices and championing them. But honestly, it was the people around me, kind of screaming at a certain point, including Katie Parker, Karen Gillan, and Rose McIver. Mike Flanagan (creator of the Netflix horror show Haunting of Hill House) has been a huge supporter. I originally produced for him, and he’s like, “This is not what you should be doing. Do the other thing.”
And so going into this, I don’t think I was like, “Now I am ready. This is the moment.” I think I went into this being like, “I wonder if I’m going to fail epically.” There’s only one way to find out. And I think the reason why I allowed myself to be in that headspace was I see so many filmmakers go to make their first film and they’re so scared that they might fail, but they end up making a lot of problems for themselves. I think knowing that you can fail and not being afraid allows you to actually be in the moment and be present. And that’s what this film requires. But honestly, whenever I’m in the world of Next Exit, everything is clear to me. I’ve seen these scenes. I’ve seen the whole world, and I kind of knew what I wanted, so it was pretty easy honestly.
Katie and Rahul, when you both read the script the first time, you see that your characters want to end their own lives. Take me through the process of building these characters, knowing that you’ll eventually have to get to a dark place in your mind?
Katie Parker: I had a lot of questions about who Rose was to Mali and what her motivations were. I read it, and I was charmed by the story. I liked some of the themes, but I was really hesitant to play Rose. I didn’t really have, like, a way in. Sometimes when I read a script, I know I want to play it when I start already making choices, and I had no idea where to start with Rose. There is a theme of suicide kind of in the script, but I always saw it as rebirth. I didn’t see it as these people are ending their lives.
Mali always says Rose is looking for a way out, and Teddy is looking for a way in. And I remember you saying that as a piece of direction, but I never had the ending of life really on my mind. It was more about her inner conflict. It was more about what it feels like to be in your head when somebody is reaching out to you to be like, “Hey, it’s all here. Get out of there. It’s like all here.” So the thoughts, for me, were internal.
Rahul Kohli: I have a knack for taking the romance out of scripts and stories. I have a weird working-class [idea] of “What’s my bullet points?” I get rid of all of the fat. With Next Exit, after reading the script and falling in love with the character, I kind of did this thing, and I’ve done this on previous projects, where I go, “What do I need? What’s my assignment?” My assignment isn’t to play a guy who wants to kill himself.
My assignment is that this is a story about a troubled individual who won’t let anybody in. … I knew my assignment was to bring the laughs, bring the charm. Don’t play that [serious] stuff. Play that entertainment side. That’s your assignment. Be as charming and as likable as possible, and then allow the story to take us on that journey. That was always what jumped out at me, which was Teddy seems to be lovable. Make him lovable.
Halfway through the film, the characters almost switch personalities. Rose is more upbeat while Teddy is more depressed. How did you see your characters midway through this journey?
Parker What I found really beautiful about their relationship is that Teddy helps Rose heal her relationship with her family and her sister. So I see my sister through him. And I felt like Teddy sees his dad in Rose. Certainly in that scene where we role-play, but also I think in life, all of our relationships are like a reflection of where we need to grow, and where we need to evolve.
Mike Flanagan appears to be at the intersection of all your paths.
Kohli: Actually, it’s Rose McIver. Rose is at the center of my connection to Katie. You guys were roommates?
Parker Yeah. I used to live with Rose.
Kohli: When I was on iZombie with Rose, I had a chance meeting with Mike. Mike used to smoke ciggies, right? No one else smoked except me and Mike. We spoke about this, that we absolutely had a cigarette years before we started doing stuff. But then, Mali sent me the script through Mike and Rose.
It’s like one extended family.
Parker: I met Mike like 14 years ago maybe, and I met Mali through Mike. Then I met Karen Gillan through Mike, and I met Rose through Karen Gillan. When there were auditions for The Haunting of Bly Manor, Mike texted me about Rahul’s audition. I don’t know if you know this, but they had somebody else. And then your tape came in and he was like …
Kohli: … Is he an asshole? The “asshole check.”
Parker Yeah, yeah. But also he was like, “I kind of want to know this Rahul. He’s cool, right?” I was like, “Yeah, he’s super rad.” I mean it’s crazy how we’re all connected.
Next Exit is kind of this beautiful supernatural love story that can be funny at times. How did you balance the story of two people driving across the country to enter the afterlife with elements of horror and comedy?
Elfman: Well, I’m glad that you feel that way because that was the hope. I think for me, I knew that there was a darkness to these characters and an earnest nature to these characters. But I can’t be serious all the time. That’s exhausting. When I watch content that stays in that bleak mode the entire time, unless you’re incredibly talented, sometimes, it kind of almost hurts to do so. Oftentimes when I am trying to get into something, levity allows me to so that I can laugh and cry. And so wanting to balance that and just write in that tone. Honestly, when I had written the script, I had a lot of people read it, and that was one of the reasons. … They always tried to give me notes. I was like, “I don’t want your notes. What do you feel?” I want to know how you’re feeling right now.
I know what you’re feeling at this point in the script. And that was very important to me. And the same thing when I was coming out of the edit, it was balancing the emotions and the feelings. That’s actually really important to me, and that’s honestly why I never thought I’d get financed because it is such a multi-hyphenate. It does wander through so many different genres. I don’t think it’s a horror film. I think that there are elements of horror that are in the background, but I don’t treat them like a horror film at all. I think to write a story about two people.
Parker: It feels true to life. It’s so interesting. Being in entertainment, right, is like you mark these movies through genre. But, life is horrific and terrifying and romantic and hilarious. That’s just what it is to be a person having a human experience. So it feels limiting to be like it’s this genre or that genre.
Elfman: I want it to feel real.
Parker: I was doing my big emotional monologue, and Rahul ripped a fart. And I was like, “Yeah, right. Because that’s actually what would happen.” It brought more truth to it it.
Elfman: But also in those moments when it gets so intense, having moments that are able to break that up is an imperative thing.
The emotional climax of this movie happens when Rose and Teddy argue outside of a bar. Katie and Rahul, were you dreading this scene? Was this scene something you were preparing for throughout the entire shoot?
Parker Yeah. I’m quite an insecure person and I think it’s because I have an explosive negativity that I don’t like about myself. So I like really did not want to do the scene at all. And Mali was like just do it, so I did a tape that was dangerous. I hit Rahul. I think we used it. I didn’t mean to, but it was a total accident.
Elfman: Yeah, she’s scared of tapping into that and going there because that allows him to also meet her there. If she doesn’t come out of the gate, where do you get to go to? You needed to be able to have something to push against.
Parker: I mean Rahul is 6’4″. He’s a big man, big voice, kind, but I was like, “Oh, man. I don’t want him to yell at me.”
Kohli: Those scenes don’t bother me. I remember that day. One, it was the last night before we got back to L.A. So I was very excited.
Elfman: We had real coffee that morning, too.
Kohli: We had tamales for the first time. There have been scenes that have levity, and they were shot at uncomfortable times when you’re freezing or your costume wasn’t sufficient enough for the cold. Then there are times when you’re going to bare your soul and cry. That location was warm. We were at a bar. We had the upstairs. We were chilling on picnic tables, you know, and like that was the flow into this [scene].
That stuff never really bothers me because I like it. Again, it’s about restraint. But I find that as an actor, you want to hit 10s or 11s all the time. And the truth is you can’t. You really have to pick your moments. So for the most part, I try to find moments now where I’m like I’ve earned my 10, and that scene, or that bit, was Teddy’s 10. I look forward to it. So I just get to rip and scream and enjoy it, and I feel good afterward.
Elfman: So he comes out the gate, you always have to be ready for take one because I always was using take one or take two or four randomly, not three.
Kohli: So you told me this. It’s one and three. You said it, and Mike said it too.
Elfman: Oh yes. He comes out the gate, the first one you’re gonna want to use, so you can’t be like, “Oh, we’ll just see how it goes.”
Kohli: The second [take] sucks because I’m annoyed that I have to do it again. Then, the third one is better because the second one sucked so much.
Elfman: You better get ready for him because quite honestly, the majority of the shots in the film are his take one. And so I learned that very, very quickly. Especially for that one, I saw that he was so ready. I was like, “Take one. It’s going to be a take one day.”
You shot this film during COVID. It involves a lot of driving and a lot of traveling. What were some of the challenges you faced while filming?
Elfman: There are little things that popped up. COVID was my daily fear because we were so little and because we were traveling, if that would have been a positive case, especially with one of them, it would have been a [big] thing. So every single day that these two tested negative, I was like, “OK.” [deep sigh].
Kohli: This was pre-vaccine.
Elfman: Pre-vaccine. And also, the election had just happened. So we also went into a time of chaos where I was so tuned into the news. I was so glad to not have to look at stuff for a second. It was becoming all-encompassing. I felt like the world was burning around us, and we had this little pod that was traveling through. It was wonderful. I needed it.
For Karen Gillan’s character, was there someone in real life that the character was modeled after?
Elfman: I think she was a mixture of Fauci and Elizabeth Holmes.
While watching, I wrote down, “Big Elizabeth Holmes energy.” I thought Karen was going to like hold up her finger and say, “Mistakes were made,” as Elizabeth did.
Elfman: That’s going to be the title of my autobiography! Mistakes were made.
Next Exit had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Festival.