'Next Exit' director Mali Elfman inspired by childhood 'haunted' home

Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker star in "Next Exit." Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures
1 of 5 | Rahul Kohli and Katie Parker star in "Next Exit." Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 1 (UPI) -- Filmmaker Mali Elfman said she was inspired to write and direct Next Exit, in theaters Friday, by real-life encounters with the paranormal. The film is about a scientist who proves the existence of the afterlife.

"I grew up in a haunted house and I've always felt there is a presence and ghosts around," Elfman told UPI in a recent phone interview. "For me, that was never something scary as I grew up."


Elfman's mother, Geri Eisenmenger, moved Mali and her sister, Lola, into the house after her divorce from musician Danny Elfman. At school, Mali learned a man had murdered his wife in their house and it allegedly remained haunted.

She keeps the address of the house private out of respect for the current owners. However, Elfman said she believes most spirits leave Earth unless they have unfinished business.


"I've always believed that ghosts aren't here to haunt us," she said. "We, here, the living are unable to let go of something or dealing with something and keeping ghosts tied to us."

Elfman was also in the room when her grandmother died. She said her own attempts to reconcile how her grandmother's essence could leave her physical form worked their way into the Next Exit script.

"This story really comes from me not being able to let go," Elfman said. "I need to know that there's a world and a place in which they exist. So I created a movie about it."

In the film, Dr. Stevenson (Karen Gillan) discovered and documented a ghost visiting his son. But, to continue her research, Stevenson invites volunteers to let her study their transition into the next realm, i.e. volunteer to die.

Rose (Katie Parker) and Teddy (Rahul Kohli) volunteer and share a rental car to San Francisco. Along the way, both characters reveal their reasons for wanting to hasten their journey beyond.

"Rose is looking for a way out and Teddy's looking for a way in," Elfman said. "This is a very emotional response to a new reality."

Some people Rose and Teddy encounter are trying to join the afterlife without the assistance of Stevenson. However, Elfman said her focus in Next Exit was on the living people.


"The point of the film is not the idea of passing on, but the idea of why life matters," Elfman said.

Next Exit explores how society functions when the fear of death is removed. Elfman said she hopes the message is that life is still worth living until it ends.

"If death has no meaning, then what does life mean?" Elfman said. "It's everything. Our experiences here, every single day and every single moment, are what we are made of."

Elfman has produced short films since 2010 and produced her first feature, the horror anthology film Do Not Disturb, in 2011. She produced Mike Flanagan's 2016 film Before I Wake and Gillan's feature film directorial debut, The Party's Just Beginning.

Elfman wrote a first draft of Next Exit 10 years ago, prior to her grandmother's death. Initially, Elfman intended to hire a director and produce Next Exit. Flanagan was the first to recommend she direct it herself.

"He's like, 'No, you're the director. This is your story. You have to do this.'" Elfman recalled of her conversation with Flanagan.

Next Exit stars Parker, Gillan and Rose McIver, whose short Nice Ride Elfman produced, also encouraged Elfman to direct. Elfman said it was making a short film about her grandmother that convinced her she could direct a feature.


"It was one of the last conversations that she had before Alzheimer's took over," Elfman said. "She used to say that she hopes she is a ghost so she can come back."

Getting her grandmother to open up about the prospect of death showed Elfman a unique skill she had. Elfman said she realized she could use that skill to encourage every actor and crew member on a production to open up.

"I don't like the idea of the director that has to be the dictator on set," Elfman said. "I like being the collaborator. Understanding that there was power in that took me 10 years."

Elfman is concluding her producer obligations on a few more upcoming films and said she would still produce for directors with whom she is close. But she intends to transition to primarily directing.

She is writing a script about the haunted house her family lived in. Elfman said she has a more traditional horror movie first ready to shoot first.

"I always thought my first film would be a horror film," Elfman said. "This is what came out. This is what my truth was, but I'm hoping to lean a little bit more into that and show off a little bit in that arena."


Latest Headlines