Editor's note: Writer and director of Next Exit, Mali Elfman invites us along for a supernatural road trip in the spirit (ha!) of the movie. Enjoy Mali's haunted road trip diary!
Mali Elfman here, Writer/Director of Next Exit, taking one of the stars of the film Katie Parker and my Producer Derek Bishe on the road to premiere our film and go on a haunted ghost tour! Before you get excited about our spooooooky ghosts, let me just say that this production is a friend of the spirit world and approaches the world of ghosts with curiosity and respect… we aren't trying to fuck with their day. So put your fear of ghosts away (though Katie Parker certainly hasn't for this trip) and join us as we travel through the many locations we filmed Next Exit and the haunted places we visited along the way.
NIGHT 1: Santa Fe
Our first night was at the El Rey Court in Santa Fe – nothing too scary on our wander around the town at night other than myself and Katie really not packing for the first snowfall of the year.
When Katie and I went to sleep – I did have a VERY clear dream…
I had a dream that I was on a horse ranch. There was a lot of hustle and bustle going on until we heard three gunshots. Everyone stood still. In the distance, I could see a man walking with a rifle in his hands. From the other side of the ranch, he saw me. We locked eyes. And he slowly walked over to me, one foot in front of the other. Others hid. But I just stood. He got about 20 feet from me and stopped, his hand on his gun, and with very sad eyes, he asked, almost out of habit, if I knew who was sleeping with his wife. I didn't reply. He just looked at me. He seemed to have asked this question so many times before and understood that he clearly wouldn't be getting any answers from me – and he kept walking. I didn't move or turn to watch him go, and then I heard three gunshots behind me.
Katie and I woke up in our shared room, and packed our bags. Time to go…
NIGHT 2: Tucumcari
In the snow, sleet, and wild rain, Katie and I drove down from Santa Fe to the Albuquerque Airport to grab our Derek and continue onto Tucumcari. I cannot express how beautiful the drive was.
There is something magical about the skies of New Mexico. They're both closer to you than you've ever been, and yet the world is entirely vast and never-ending. We arrived in Tucumcari and checked into the amazing Safari Motel – We got to stay in the "Raw Hide" suite, which was – AMAZING. Clint Eastwood would be proud. I will admit arriving here, this place has a VIBE. [FLASH BACK]
When we first arrived with our film crew in Tucumcari in Jan 2021, I remember being exhausted. We had just driven from Kansas City and were about 20 minutes away. I looked out the window into the pitch-black desert with the stars above and thought – we were not alone. But there was something different about this place than anything I had experienced before… it wasn't a feeling I knew. The paranormal experiences I have encountered in my past have always been curious, but this one made me want to hide. It was looking for something, someone, and aggressively so.
When we arrived at the Historic 66 in Tucumcari, I remember having the feeling of being watched. The Motel was a giant U-Shape and I was sleeping on the far side of the Motel near our "set" and away from the cast and crew. Before I entered the room, I saged it. Some of the crew teased me. And then, one by one, they knocked on my door, asking me if I would sage their rooms too.
It seemed we all knew – We were in a Motel, in the middle of the desert, with stunning skies above us, and there was something in the desert looking back – [CUT TO MODERN DAY]
We had about two hours to rest before our premiere. Katie and I needed a little lie down because we're grandmas, and right as we settled into the room, an old radio POPPED on.
I couldn't get a vibe on what this might be, but me bringing my own baggage, I wondered if this was a bad omen for the screening.
See, I am nervous about our premiere in Tucumcari. I tried to make a film with balanced perspectives, but it had only been seen by film-friendly and festival going-folk. Here we were in a town that may or may not share some of my beliefs that we discuss in the film (especially some political ones) – I wondered if whatever had been watching me was back and didn't want me there. We got ready, and I was incredibly nervous heading out into the night.
Cut to probably one of the best screening experiences I may ever have in my life. From the amazing 1936 Odeon theater that had just been restored and all the ghosts hanging in the lobby, to the insane turn-out on a Monday night, to the 45 minute "Q&A" that was the town shouting out their favorite moments and also their appreciation for the representation of their home. I also found a Paranormal Detective that loved our ghosts, and I'm very eager to work with more.
After the screening, we went back to the Safari Motel – Katie opted not to go back inside but to stay in the car. She didn't want to talk to the radio. But I did!
I went to the radio and asked if it wanted to tell me anything. Some very quiet music came through it, and the lights flickered for a moment. Then sadly, Derek came back from changing, and I had to say goodnight.
We drove back to Santa Fe late at night for our next day's screening. I still feel bad for not being able to finish that conversation in the Raw Hide room.
NIGHT 3: More Santa Fe
During the day, we go to the "The Oldest House" in America in Santa Fe – built in 1859. I didn't find any ghosts, but I did run into the headless Juan Espinoza, who two witches beheaded in the 1600s for complaining they gave him a faulty love potion – guy, sometimes the issues are not something a potion can fix. Get some game.
The screening in Santa Fe got DARK, and in some of the best ways. Death was one of our main conversations at the amazing Jean Cocteau Cinema. The Q&A we had for our screening was one of the most open and vulnerable chats we've had for the film, and I LOVED IT. The Santa Fe audience seemed to truly understand and appreciate the conversations the film has around death and the dark humor that went with it.
Santa Fe has a somewhat magical and witchy vibe flowing through the streets. We didn't have any more ghost experiences, but we took the opportunity to burn our intentions for the New Moon and eat the s'mores that we cooked off them.
NIGHT 4: Albuquerque
It takes all kinds… of Ghosts.
Albuquerque is notoriously haunted, in a variety of ways. If you want to talk about a beautiful city with desolate buildings and a hidden past that feels very near the surface – this is the place. So we went seeking. Though we were after a different type of ghost than you might expect … We looked for the ones that seemed to enjoy hanging around.
The first spot we drove up to was the Albuquerque Little Theatre, where the well-known resident ghost is "Manny." We arrived in the middle of the afternoon, and apparently, Katie thought we were at our hotel because she went to get her bag and then saw where we were and exclaimed, "Is this also haunted? MALI!" – I promised to hold her hand, and off we went. We didn't see any signs of life or afterlife. Though the front door was (accidentally) left open, which we felt was an invitation. We were wandering through when we ran into a woman who worked there. I asked her about "Manny," and her eyes lit up. Without even asking us our names or why we were there, we got a full tour of the place. I mean the whole place, and that's not a LITTLE theater. It's HUGE. Manny apparently appears typically around the stage, in the shadows. He oversees the work, and everyone said they feel comforted by his presence. She told us that Manny's family still comes to visit him in the loft he used to live in and still sets up a Christmas tree for him every year.
Then we headed into town to the Kimo Theater… A man was fixing a sign out front, and once again, I walked up and asked him if he knew "Bobby." The man was Larry, and a big smile came over his face. He laughed, "you know Bobby?" Larry has worked there for decades, "Bobby" is apparently a young boy killed there in 1951, but the rumors about his ghost didn't start until the '80s. Allegedly actors believe that if you don't give a gift to Bobby, he'll mess with you on stage – missing props, torn costumes, etc. Larry was suspicious because the biggest thing Bobby wants is donuts, and Larry seemed to think the rats were enjoying Bobby's gifts more than anyone. Larry may not have been a big believer in Bobby, but he said he hoped he would die in the building so that people would remember him and bring him gifts.
He said that with a chuckle, but it did have a truth to it. In both of these theaters, these ghosts became tradition, like family to the people who worked there, and they brought a sense of bonding and tradition. Both places mentioned that they believed the ghosts couldn't leave the theater because the people there, the living people, didn't want to let them go. They needed the ghosts. Which I totally get.
We headed back to another screening at ASUNM Southwest Film Center – this theater was filled with college students who had a lot of practical questions about making the film – I hope our talk helped. Just remember, the path is long, windy, and always unexpected.
We returned to our El Vado Hotel – which sadly was the least haunted of them all. Very disappointing for me. Exciting for Katie. It was time to up the ante.
NIGHT 5: Phoenix
The long drive to Phoenix was stunning, though I realized I may have scared Katie Parker with haunted places a little too much. This became obvious when we drove up to see the Petrified Forest, and she shouted out, "But why are they so scared?" When we walked into the Historic Hotel San Carlos, she promptly said very loudly, "NO." The place does have A VIBE. There's no doubt about it. I was just excited that the elevators looked like blood may pour out of them at any moment.
I will admit, I had decided not to tell Katie that the reason we were staying here was that our tight timeline wouldn't allow time to check out "Mattie" at the Orpheum Theater or the dead singing kids at Pioneer Living History Museum – so instead, I opted to stay in "the most haunted hotel in Arizona."
With some help from Google, Derek quickly discovered the lady who jumped off the roof and the little girl who would come and sit on people's beds. We both opted not to share this with Katie but to sleep with our joining room door open just in case.
When we got to our room Katie continued not to like my choice in housing, stating multiple times – "Why?" and then bringing me to the window to show me, "There's a Hyatt right across the street!" I'm not going to lie; I loved this place. We were in the Carol Lombard Suite, and it obviously hadn't been updated since the last time she was there. My only fear was bed bugs, and the mattress that was both very hard yet oddly springy.
Katie went to shower before our screening, and red flowed out of old pipes – I heard a very loud "DAMMIT MALI" from the bathroom.
We headed off to the Harkins Scottsdale 101 theater, where the Phoenix Film Festival was hosting a screening of the movie, and I don't think the film has ever been on a bigger screen and looked as glorious. The response was once again unique. This crowd went into the comedy and dark humor of the film and loved arguing with one another about one of the moments at the end of the film, which made me very happy (all their ideas were correct). And after our wonderful talkback, we returned to our hotel room.
Katie – possibly out of fear – immediately fell asleep to avoid interactions. I, however, was WIDE awake. There was a man's voice in the hallway that wouldn't stop talking, which was weird because we were down a private hallway with only one room — ours. So why was someone else down this hallway? Things got even more bizarre when the light from the outside hallway that leaked around all sides of the old door – suddenly went out. And then, the voices stopped. It felt like the scene in No Country For Old Men – but sadly, Javier Bardem never appeared. Nor anyone else. At some point, I fell asleep but never very deeply. (Also, I never told Katie this, so Katie, if you're reading this… we made it! And I love you. And I probably won't ask you to do this again.)
Katie oddly said she had a fantastic night's sleep and had wonderful, happy dreams. So at the end of the day, I don't know who is the brave one. I hadn't slept. Maybe neither of us?
Driving home now to return to LA and finally premiere this into the world.
For all of these screenings, I was heartened by the audiences that came out and seemed to resonate with the film. I was so excited to find that everyone seemed ready to talk about the things that haunt them in this life and wanted to have the conversation about death without fear.
The one thing I learned on this trip and in this film – is that death is something that unites us all – and how we handle it is something that can terrify us, but it is also something that can make us refocus on what's important – to make the choice to really live.
Next Exit is now available on Digital and On Demand, click below to watch now and check out our exclusive interview with Mali and Katie right here.