[Some mild spoilers for ‘Paul T. Goldman’ to follow]
When I caught the first four episodes of Peacock’s Paul T. Goldman back in December, it was already clear that it was the most unique TV show of the year, maybe ever. But I was holding off a final opinion until the last episode or two, simply because it wasn’t really clear how or whether this whole thing would come together. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one.
“We sent out five episodes to critics and certain ones were very hesitant to even plant their flag whether they liked this show or not,” Jason Woliner told me this week. “They were basing that on how it ended.”
We’ve all been burned by docuseries in the past few years (The Vow and Bad Vegan in particular owe me some time I’ll never get back) and while Paul T. Goldman isn’t exactly a docuseries (hence the uniqueness), the way it teased and withheld information put immense pressure on the finale to deliver. Amazingly, it did, humane and hilarious and surprising by turns, humanizing its subject even as some of our natural suspicions about him bore out. It was probably the most tragicomic/triumphant episode of TV I’ve seen since the Nathan For You finale (a show Woliner directed three episodes of, though not that one).
Paul T. Goldman began almost 11 years ago when subject/star Paul T. Goldman tweeted at Woliner, the director. Paul had married a woman who turned out to be scamming him, which he had turned into a memoir, then spun off into more books and ideas for a series of TV shows — even an animated cartoon starring his dog.
Central to the premise of all this was Paul’s belief that his ex-wife (his second ex-wife) and her pimp, Cadillac, were running an international sex trafficking ring. The show that Woliner actually ended up making (produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg) is a mix of scenes from the series that Paul wrote starring Paul, a documentary about the making of that show, and another documentary attempting to get at the truth of the sex trafficking allegations. A lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what have yous.
Paul is clearly a wild-eyed dreamer — Woliner says he was influenced by Grizzly Man and American Movie — who seems mostly genuine but also extremely squirrely. A big part of the finale was trying to pin down the truth and get a satisfying answer to the question of what makes Paul tick.
One moment in particular stays with me. Paul and Jason Woliner are face to face backstage after the public premiere of the show, Paul clearly a little disappointed that it didn’t turn out quite the way he drew it up, and Woliner, after 10+ years of working with this guy, trying to figure out if he’d burned a subject and ruined a friendship in the process of trying to tell the truth. Being a documentarian or a journalist is easier if you don’t care what happens to your subjects and sources. If you do, you’re essentially trying to serve two masters.
All of that was written on Woliner’s face in the last scene. It seems as though Woliner managed to serve both masters, but it was also hard to tell exactly what Paul was thinking. Was he really okay with it or just pretending to be for the cameras? Or for his ego? In some way, that tension summed up the show perfectly. I got to follow up with Woliner this week, to see what he was thinking.
What were you thinking when you were face-to-face with Paul right after he saw the show for the first time? In your climactic ending scene.
It’s really complex because you’re trying to live in a real moment. And this person is someone I’ve known for ten years. He’s a real human being. I consider him a friend. It’s not a typical documentary filmmaker-subject relationship where you just walk away and they become a piece of content.
And at the same time, I obviously knew we were filming that. I told the cameras, “Yeah, after we watch it, we’re going to go talk about it. Don’t get in our faces, stay way back, hide behind a curtain because I want a real conversation with him.”
But also in my head, I knew I was filming this. So it’s this weird mix of living in a real moment, but also I was hoping that something interesting would happen and that we would get something that would be worth putting in the last episode. I wound up getting very emotional and I really didn’t expect that I really am still trying to figure out why exactly. It’s hard to put into words. I don’t know if it was because I thought this is probably the last time we’ll be doing anything like this, or because, as usual, Paul is saying something better than I could have ever written. The way he phrased it, I thought, was so eloquent and perfect and interesting, and whether or not you want to read what he says at face value — I’ve read some stuff that was very interesting, thinking that he’s just saving face and acting like he’s okay with it. All those takes are valid. It just felt like a very powerful moment to me. There was a lot going on.
My take on that scene was that you’re in this strange position where you have a duty to the audience to depict things as true as they are and as true as you can make them, but then you’re also involved with your subject now too. Like you said, you’re friends, you’ve been around him for a decade, and you don’t want your fun thing about him to ruin his life either. Was that was a line that you were trying to walk?
Yeah, absolutely. I’d never set out to destroy Paul. I knew we would be presenting what I consider to be an honest depiction of him, including all sides. Including the stuff that’s in that last episode that’s only alluded to earlier of behavior that was objectionable that I knew people would react strongly to. There was just a lot going on. I was feeling a lot of things. And it was also, there is this weird magic that happened on this project where you would just turn the cameras on and then things would happen that were so much more interesting than I could have expected or written, often funnier, often more awkward. But also things like Natasha Blasick, the actress who played Svetlana, coming in and as soon as they sit down revealing that she had been a “mail order bride” herself and giving him new perspective on why the real Svetlana could have recoiled at his touch.
I was like, “Oh, there’s always just interesting things that happen with Paul when you film him.” The way he phrased it, “there’s stuff in there that’s not flattering, but hopefully people will see I’m a person and not a character.” And I was like, “God, it’s just always magic when we do these things.” It’s weird living in a moment like that where you’re just like, “Oh, this is going to be in this thing that lots of people will watch,” but you’re living it.
I think people will watch it, and I think the majority of people will see Paul as a person and flawed in the way that people are, but mostly good-intentioned. But it also seems like once you put something out there for a big enough audience, people are going to have all sorts of takes. Do you feel a responsibility for the reactions of the dumber viewers that aren’t going to get it? I mean, you can’t aim it at the dumbest person in the room, but you realize that your subject is going to be at the mercy of some of the dumbest people in the room and their takes.
I can only be responsible for the show, and I can’t be responsible for anyone’s reactions to it. And this is not a dumb response at all, but I’ve seen a little bit, which I expected, of “how could you platform this problematic guy who has these views about women and had this problematic behavior at times?”
My response to that is, if you watch this whole show and think that I’m just platforming this person, then I believe that’s on you because I don’t think that’s what I’ve done. Maybe it’s mostly through subtext, but even through just purely what’s on screen, this guy is examined and not just celebrated. I feel like it’s worthwhile to examine people that aren’t perfect, that are flawed, that believe things that are maybe retrograde or offensive. It’s not just a portrait of a unique person. I think there’s a lot in this story about wanting to be loved and the lengths we go to get that love. So when people have a take that I just completely disagree with, I feel content with what I put out there.
I feel like we live in a media environment where we’re receiving much more feedback than our brains were ever designed to handle, and it seems like if you’re someone like Paul who gets publicly called out for being problematic or whatever, you can either shell up and make dunking on your haters your entire personality, or you can acknowledge some of it and try to be better. I did get the sense that he is trying to improve and not just be contrarian. What was your sense?
He’s a very upbeat person. I think he wants to be liked and I really believe that, especially after that last interview when I presented him with all the stuff, debunking the sex trafficking ring, and his response to that really hit home for me that he really was not lying about this stuff. He believed it. He was not making something up to try to look like a hero. I believed him when he said he wants to be an honorable person, and so I think he’ll go on that path. At the same time, you see all these people where people come after you, people generally go right-wing, they dig in, whatever. I’ve seen some tweets being like, “Look at this guy, he’s a disgusting incel,” or whatever.
And I was like, well, that’s the kind of response that you’re just so dug in on that side where you’re able to just reduce someone to a word like incel. If anything, my hope for this is, this guy has beliefs that I don’t subscribe to in terms of women, in terms of the nature of relationships, but I would hope if you could watch the whole thing, that a viewer could try to arrive at a place of some complexity. And say, “Well, there might be parts of this person’s beliefs that I am not aligned with,” but to not just write people off as much as we do would be a nice thing that is probably too idealistic to think could come out of this.
When you filmed that shot after the premiere, how much of the show had he seen at that premiere at that point?
We showed the first three episodes at the premiere, and then we went backstage, and I just showed him clips of the interview with Tony Zweiner and his response to it, and a few other clips he had seen from that last episode, some of the spinoffs and stuff that he showed his dad. He hadn’t seen the Cass letter stuff, but we made him aware that that was going to be in. Obviously, he was interviewed in the show talking about it. The only thing I didn’t take him through before this came out is that I was going to be very honest as I see it in my depiction of Terri Jay in the last episode [a “pet psychic” who may have introduced Paul to the sex trafficking theses], and how I believe her role in this whole thing impacted what happened. And that was for a few reasons. He’s friends with Terri, and I didn’t want that to be a thing before it came out. So that’s really the only thing in the last episode that Paul wasn’t part of and wasn’t aware it was going to be part of.
Have you talked to him since? Has he seen all of it? Does he have a reaction?
Oh, yeah. I talk to him quite a bit. I talk to him almost every day still. I never wanted to destroy him, and it’s got to be the craziest thing to suddenly have thousands of strangers having opinions about you, even though he’s got a lot of support and love and people saying that they were inspired by his ability to absorb new information and change, he’s also got loads of people tweeting and at-ing him saying, “You’re a piece of shit and you deserve everything, and I want to fight you,” whatever.
I mean, that’s hard on a human being. And so I think he’s still processing all that stuff in there. I can’t imagine how it feels to sit down and watch someone else’s version of what your life story is and knowing that that’s going on the record.
That’s a level of control I personally would never hand over to anybody. So because of all these people saying, “This guy’s crazy, this guy is awful, he disparaged an innocent woman or what have you,” Paul has been a little bit concerned in terms of the evidence from his trial that I didn’t include in the show. We included a lot of stuff in terms of phone logs, and we tried to paint a picture, but he’s talked to me about, “Why didn’t you include this email from her to Cadillac?,” or, “Why didn’t you include this receipt I had from Las Vegas where she bought Jimmy Choos?”
It’s understandable. I believe he thinks, “Well, if that was just in there, I wouldn’t look so crazy.” And I feel like I tried to include as much as I could without being redundant or boring, or there was stuff legally we couldn’t include, but that’s the kind of stuff he’s been a little concerned with since it came out. And I said, “Tweet. Tell people to buy the book. It’s all in the book. If people want more of the story, if people want more evidence, there’s things we didn’t have time for, use it.”
Did you ever get frustrated with him for maybe not realizing that just the real story could have been as nuanced and fascinating as the TV show that he tried to turn it into? Do you think he skipped over some of the things that were actually really fascinating about “Audrey,” aside from thinking that she was running a sex trafficking ring?
I think to Paul, this was always the real story, including things that he knew were embellished or made up. My fascination was with him and with how he absorbed and changed this story. I mean, there’s a whole documentary to be made about Diana and Cadillac’s tragic relationship that went on for years that was clearly, I believe, so much more important in her life than her brief marriage to Paul. But my fascination was with Paul’s experience and depiction of events and what he did with it. That was what this was about; looking at the kind of person who would not only simplify the events of his life into a story that he wrote a book about, but then also spin that off and write autobiographical fan fiction where he can live out this hero fantasy and create this whole alternate reality where he can be vindicated and have people from his real life come back and tell him what he did was worthwhile.
That was always what I was most interested in. I don’t think there’s a version of it where he would’ve just looked at the real story and just written that, that’s just not him.
How much of the Chronicles did you have to shoot that didn’t go in?
We shot a lot and I was really trying to make it all go in because I love it. I thought it was so fascinating, and this whole thing was me trying to recreate my experience of absorbing all his material and becoming obsessed with it. Part of that was reading the Chronicles and really believing that they’re great. The writing I don’t think is notably worse than most action movies and TV shows and stuff. Yeah, there’s cheesy stuff, but the fact that you have this crazy subtext of knowing that the person you’re watching, he’s spun this off from his real life, it was so fascinating that I found it more interesting than any action movie I could watch.
So we shot a ton of Chronicles stuff, and my original idea for the finale was t keep cutting back and forth between the two planes of reality. On one track, Paul, confronting the truth that we were able to find and really digging in on the documentary side, and then keep cutting to this heightened Chronicles world where Paul is an action hero. Almost like Adaptation. And so you’re following both that would maybe converge in some way or comment on each other. We tried to cut like that and it was just a jumbled mess. It didn’t make any sense because you just couldn’t emotionally keep tracking Paul and Chronicle‘s world at the same time.
Once we’re into Cadillac, it’s like, I just want the truth. So we made it all a quick montage in that first act of the episode, and then we got into all the truth. As a result, we have so much more Chronicles. I’m back in my office today. I think there may be a 10-minute cut of just Chronicles scenes and maybe five additional minutes of just that spinoff, The Dream Catchers, that hopefully we’ll be able to release some time. We shot the giant gunfight in Moscow that I think there’s probably one second of it that wound up in the show.
It seems like he’s built this whole thing up, this is going to be his big break, he’s starring in this TV show that’s on a network. Do you feel like you are/were going to have to bear the brunt of his expectations of life not living up to whatever his expectations were?
We shot most of his screenplay, and he always knew it would have this documentary side to it that ultimately we would be including interviews, real people, the behind the scenes, all this stuff. Paul was very aware of the format and the scenes from his spinoffs, we were always shooting those thinking they would be just little snippets, a selling tool for him. He was never under the impression that we were actually shooting these whole things. Some people ask, “Wait, do they shoot a whole Chronicles movie?”
So, no. He knew we were just shooting some scenes to try them out. And Paul, in the many months of negotiating his contract, smartly held onto the rights to all this stuff. I was always clear with him. I was like, “I don’t know what our situation will be after this project. I want to do other things,” and that’s something that’s in the show.
But Paul controls all that stuff now. I see people tweeting at him asking about the Chronicles. I think he could do something else with this stuff, hopefully, I don’t think it’s impossible. I hope he gets to, because like I said, I read these stories, knowing the subtext, and they’re good. It’s not The Room or Birdemic. They’re all available on Amazon, and you wind up invested in these stories. It’s really fascinating. The Chronicles are interesting and I think there could be a life for them beyond this.
All episodes of ‘Paul T. Goldman’ are currently available on Peacock. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.