Sometimes the most powerful, heartwarming and important journey for anyone who feels lost in life and is searching for purpose is finding someone else who feels exactly the same as they do at the exact right time. That’s certainly the case for the two protagonists, Rose and Teddy, of the new sci-fi romantic movie, ‘Next Exit.’

While its story is primarily rooted in the emerging scientific evidence that ghosts are real, the comedy-drama is largely driven by humanity and grounded in the reality of what happens when people finally find their true meaning in life on earth, instead of during the after-life. The relatable story was written by Mali Elfman, who also made her feature film directorial debut on ‘Next Exit,’ which she also produced.

‘Next Exit’ had its World Premiere in the US Narrative Competition at this month’s Tribeca Festival. The movie won the Best Cinematography Award at the festival for its director of photography, Azuli Anderson.

In ‘Next Exit,’ when research scientist Dr. Stevensen (Karen Gillan) makes national news proving she can track people into the afterlife, Rose (Katie Parker) sees a way out and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) sees his chance to finally make it. The two strangers, who are 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 the two misfits humorously quarrel their way across the country together, they meet people along the way who force them to reckon with what is really driving them.

Elfman, Parker and Kohli generously took the time during this month’s Tribeca Festival to talk about scribing, helming, producing and starring in ‘Next Exit’ during an exclusive interview. Among other things, the filmmaker, actress and actor discussed how the small, tight-knit community feeling between the independent film’s cast and crew inspired everyone to bond closely together to bring the relatable characters and their journeys to the screen. They also expressed their appreciation that the comedy-drama had its World Premiere at the Tribeca Festival, where programmers and audiences truly embraced the characters and their story.

The conversation began with Elfman explaining what inspired her to pen the screenplay for the movie, and what the writing process was like for her. “I started writing this about eight years ago, and it was a slow evolution for me. I started with these characters and their voices, and what I wanted them to overcome,” she explained.

“Slowly, as I went through more losses and experiences in my life, I slowly kept coming back to the script; it became my light in the dark,” the scribe shared.

“The, during COVID, I picked it back up because it felt so relevant to me. One thing changes, and then there’s this ripple effect. For me, that’s this world, as it explores what happens to these characters in the afterlife,” Elfman added.

The trio then delved into the casting process for the comedy-drama, and what inspired Parker and Kohli to sign on to play Rose and Teddy in the feature. “I knew Katie before we made this film, as we’ve been friends for years. We met during a table read for another film that never ended up shooting about 10 years ago, and then developed a friendship over the years since,” Elfman shared.

“From there, I really wanted Katie to be the lead in this film, and she was a little bit apprehensive. But I knew that she could do it and I could get her there,” the filmmaker continued.

“Then on the other side of that, the other lead of the film, Rahul. I used to be a fan of ‘iZombie,’ and I thought he was so charming, sweet and cute on it. But then I saw ‘The Haunting of Bly Manor’ and thought, he can really pack an emotional punch,” Elfman revealed.

“So I reached out to him in every way possible, as he was my first choice. But I never thought he would say yes,” the director admitted. “I’m still shocked!…But I just knew he was the right person for the role, as I thought Teddy needed this lightness and charming attitude.

“Then when I met them both, I realized they have entirely different processes. Katie wanted to go through every single line, while Rahul wanted to be present and in the moment, and he prepared on his own. They’re very different people, but when I put them together, it worked because they’re both so respectful and caring to each other as actors,” Elfman added. “When I first saw them on set, I thought, this is going to go great.”

Parker then shared why she was interested in playing Rose in ‘Next Exit.’ “I was very excited to work with Mali. She’s one of the best directors I’ve worked with, in terms of the creative lines she gives to her actors. She pursues her vision, but then allows the actors do a take for themselves.

“I was very excited that Rahul said yes. But I was also nervous because he’s so good,” the actress admitted with a laugh. “I knew you would make me better,” she told her co-star

“I think when actors are really present, it makes you better. But then you can’t hide. I’m a weird actor, as I’m afraid of cameras and being seen, but I also long for it,” Parker admitted.

“I was also excited because all of our friends showed up, like Karen Gillan and Rose McIver. Everyone was taking time out of their lives to do an indie during the pandemic, which was really heartening,” the actress added.

Kohli then chimed in on why he was motivated to star in the film. “I really liked the script and was charmed by the characters. It also just came at the right time. I had just done something that was super rigid and stoic, and I was using an American accent,” said the British actor.

“It was one of the first shows to be made during the pandemic, so I was also bubbled and isolated. I appreciated the power of that show, but I also needed something completely different,” the performer continued.

“With ‘Next Exit,’ Mali mentioned my process, and that’s not actually my process; I’m more like Katie,” Kohli admitted. “But with each new show or film I’ve done, I’ve tried to apply something different, or use a different technique, or try to get something out of it that isn’t necessarily just about the character or story; this is an exercise for me in fluidity, and being naturalistic and spontaneous.

“We were filming on the road, so we were filming what we could. So to go from something that was so meticulously planned to Teddy, who was so chill and would just figure things out along the way, was great,” the actor admitted.

“I barely had any makeup, and wouldn’t really get my hair done or shave, and have the same costume, on this film. I just had t-shirt changes, as I wanted to be the most grounded, real experience. Not necessarily knowing everything I was doing before I showed up on set, and still be calm, was super freeing. That was a really fun exercise on ‘Next Exit,” Kohli added. “I trust Katie, as she’s been amazing in everything I’ve seen her in. That’s a big part of this.

“Further talking about fluidity, because of the environment and the different locations we were filming in, we couldn’t be married to any form of structure, shot list or blocking,” the actor continued. “There was one instance where we decided to take two scenes and merge them into one. That wasn’t just for the story needs; it was also out of necessity and time.

So with that, you had to be loose, since things can quickly change. Between the three of us, we were all on the same page of being easygoing,” Kohli also shared.

Elfman then chimed on on the experience of shooting ‘Next Exit’ in various different locations across the U.S. “We got to a lot of the locations the day we would shoot at them,” she divulged. “So I had a shot list and plan, but also had to be ready to move. We had to know our intentions, but also listen to what felt right and keep going. So we couldn’t get stuck on what we thought everything should be, which was a really good exercise for me, who likes to plan everything.”

Further speaking about filming at the different locations throughout the shoot, Parker called the experience “fun – we got to go to a lot of different places.”

Due to COVID protocols, “we would buy out a lot of different places, including the motels we were shooting at,” Elfman revealed. “We would just take over the entire motel…

“…But they weren’t able to dispose of the volume of (waste from) the cast and crew while we were there,” Kohli jumped in. “Some of the motels weren’t used to having so many people stay there at the same time. They became backed up and flooded because they couldn’t facilitate more than six people at a time.”

“Everyone thought it was their room, but then we realized it was the plumbing throughout the entire motel,” Elfman shared.

“I do want to give a shout-out to our production coordinator. If there were any bumps with the locations or food or getting somewhere, she would take care of it,” Kohli noted.

Parker added that “She was the sole production coordinator/PA (production assistant)/driver; there was nobody else, as we had a very small team. Not only did she do all of that, but she was also so kind, and I never really saw her get overwhelmed.”

Elfman then delved into how in addition to writing the screenplay, she also made her feature film directorial debut on the project. She mentioned what her overall helming approach was like on the set.

“Honestly, the preparation was very intense and overwhelming. But once I was on set, I was happier and calmer than I had ever been in my entire life. It was just about being present in the moment,” the filmmaker shared.

“I had two great actors who were really prepared. I’m used to actors being kind of prepared, and maybe not knowing every line and not taking everything seriously,” Elfman revealed. “But every single day they showed up totally prepared.

“I felt kind of bad that they had to be in charge of their own continuity. They were also doing their own makeup, but they were still so present,” the director also added as she gushed over the performers.

“I’ll never forget – there’s a monologue that Rahul has, and I remember hearing it and saying, ‘I love it – did you change it?’ I then went back to the script, and saw that he said every word; he didn’t even change a comma,” Elfman shared.

“It meant so much to me. I remember writing that, and it was so important to me. So to have actors like Rahul and Katie, who really respected the work I had done, was amazing. It’s an addictive feeling, and all I want to do for the rest of my life,” the filmmaker revealed.

“You’re fantastic at it; I loved working with you,” Kohli then told Elfman. “You led with a calm openness, which was so enjoyable.”

“Sometimes filmmaking can feel like it’s costing you something to show up every day, but necessarily in a bad way. But sometimes you feel so depleted of yourself,” Parker divulged. “Some days, emotions were high, as we had to film these scenes that were uncomfortable, and that can be taxing.

“But on this film, I thought, that was a good, nice day, and I got to work with good people, and I feel like I went to bed after doing my best work,” the actress added.

“On this film, we asked so much of everybody. If you have proper support on a production, you can get them coffee and proper meals, but we didn’t have any of that. So it was very important that we kept the days reasonable,” Elfman noted.

The filmmaker then delved into how she also balanced her directorial duties with her producing responsibilities throughout the production. “I think my producing duties started before I even got on set. I found financiers and other producers who believed, and still believe, in me, and I want to continue working with them forever,” she shared.

“Since I have access to putting crews together, I was able to realize this crazy idea I had of putting a road trip film together. I feel like if I went to a producer and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ they would have brushed me off,” Elfman divulged.

“Instead, I said, ‘This is how you do it,’ and I came with a real plan. The plan changed, of course, as they always do, but it gave us something to jump off of, and them the ability to say yes instead of no,” the producer noted.

“While we were filming, it was imperative to me that I didn’t produce. Derek Bishé was my right hand when it came to that,” Elfman also shared.

“I distinctly remember the day when we had the car rig, and when we came out, it didn’t work. Normally, what I would have done is fix what was going on. Instead I was like, nope, and got you guys. We sat on some stools and rehearsed the scene. I was like, that’s not my problem, I can’t be worried about it. If I’m worried about it, I can’t be doing what’s right for everything and everyone else,'” the filmmaker revealed. “So it was really nice to take that hat off, and I didn’t feel an impulse to put it back on.”

The group then delved into what the experience was like of bringing ‘Next Exit’ to this month’s Tribeca Festival for its World Premiere. “It’s so thrilling. Tribeca‘s one of the most prestigious film festivals in the world,” Parker noted. “It’s such an honor, and so cool, to be here in New York. It’s really moving how they’ve supported Mali as a director. It’s amazing to get to do something like this when you work on a little indie.”

Elfman also expressed her appreciation to the Tribeca Festival for premiering the movie. She noted that she also “did the Tribeca Through Her Lens program, which I was really impressed by. They put us (participants) in a room with so many amazing female showrunners, costume designers, production designers and so many other people who actually read our work and gave us feedback on it, which was so amazing.

“They offered so much service to female filmmakers, as Tribeca puts their money where their mouth is and actually supports us. That’s huge, and I’m very proud to be here,” the filmmaker also gushed about the festival.

Kohli agreed that “It doesn’t feel real that we’re here. It still feels like an intimate, 15-person movie that we shot last January. Now, hearing people talk about it, and saying our characters’ names, here at Tribeca, which is supporting us, is amazing. It doesn’t feel real.”

Parker agreed with her co-star, saying “You just don’t know how things are going to translate to the public, even when you’re on big movies or productions; sometimes they just don’t land the way you want them to. But it’s great to be here at Tribeca, and hear people talking so positively about the film.”

(L-R): Actress Katie Parker and actor Rahul Kohli star in writer-director-producer Mali Elfman’s sci-fi romantic comedy-drama, ‘Next Exit.’ Courtesy of Tribeca Festival
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Mali Elfman, Katie Parker and Rahul Kohli
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Writer-director-producer, actress and actor of the sci-fi romantic comedy-drama, 'Next Exit'

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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