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Writer-Director Mali Elfman on her Tribeca debut 'Next Exit'

June 21, 2022
3 min read time

Next Exit is a sci-fi dramedy that debuted at 2022’s Tribeca Film Festival and follows the “what next” of characters Rose and Teddy, two strangers who end up sharing a rental car to drive across the country to meet with Dr. Stevenson for their rendezvous with “Life Beyond”: they’ve each decided that it’s time to end their lives and volunteer to be a part of a socially accepted, new scientific exploration into the afterlife.

Writer-director Mali Elfman’s creates a bond between two strangers who, though very different, share a commonality in experiencing personal traumas which have led them to a lack of human connection. Their cross-country expedition reveals their depth as characters and allow us to connect on a level unmatched by many of today’s trope-y ghost films.

Her characters delve into their inner psyches which helps the audience relate to their struggles, even if they have not experienced similar traumas. Rose and Teddy are the truest embodiment of lost souls – their finding of one another creates a powerful bond between both the characters’ relationships and their relationship with the audience.

Elfman wrote the first draft of Next Exit a decade ago. “Whenever I was in a dark place, it would be something that I always went back to – almost to create a sense of hope. I know the other realm exists – it’s scientifically proven – we can see, track, record, and communicate and I wanted to live in that world while writing.”  Mali compares the journey of her two characters to one shared by so many others, “Next Exit is about these two characters who are running. Just running. And ultimately, they must figure it out – that it; that part of their lives that is the ‘what next’ – as well.”

“I love shot listing,” says Elfman. “Honestly, I wish I could have had more time to shot list this film. But I took the completed screenplay, came up with images, talked to my DP, shot listed what I thought was the film, showed up on day one, and then nothing worked out, but we made it anyway – which is filmmaking, really. It’s the pivot. I think there are exactly ten shots included in the film that came directly from my brain – and I am very proud of those – but equally proud of what we made. No matter if the shots were planned out or on the fly.”

The scripting process for Next Exit was a diversion from Elfman's normal writing style. “These characters spoke to me – I heard their voices early on. So, it became ‘situation-expectation’ – let them talk to each other. Talk it out.” She says, “I wrote this script so slowly and the scenes were way too long, but I had to give myself permission to write. To get it on the page. And then, I knew I would consolidate.”

“I don’t think I write in the most professional way  [Laughs] – my writing is emotionally driven. I never write as a statement piece.” She admits: “I’m not the kind of writer who wants your detailed structure notes – I want to know how the script makes you feel. I want to know that the emotional journey of my characters is resonating with you, the reader, correctly.”

She says she relied on a simple structure to allow for in-depth dialogue between the characters. “Admittedly, [the] structure is not my strong suit, but I love to hit roadblocks in structure because that gives me the permission to explore. Filmmaking is what I do, but I am a storyteller. For me, it’s about finding the right medium to tell a character’s story.”

The tone of Next Exit feels skillfully crafted, but not overbearing. Elfman says that developing the tone was a careful dance: “Establishing tone was interwoven throughout the entire storytelling and filmmaking process. I was constantly recalibrating – from the first draft to scene work with actors – it all imparted the tone that you feel on screen. I love collaborating.”

Having a history in producing, Elfman remarks, “it was hard to separate the screenwriter-director from the producer part of me since producing is something I know so well, but to produce you use an entirely different side of your brain.” In prep, Elfman says that her production background came in handy, but she knew “If I started thinking about producing, I wouldn’t be able to stop – but Derek Bishe was my right hand, and one day during production, something went sideways, and I stopped everything. My brain said, ‘Mali, solve this problem’ and for a second, I almost dedicated space to solve it but I pulled myself out and thought, Mali you’re the writer-director on this piece, let someone else figure out this producing road-block. So I walked away, like any good director, and when I came back 30 minutes later, everything was fixed. But almost everything in life can be solved by walking away.

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