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Jason Woliner on the hilarious, gripping, and cathartic Paul T. Goldman finale

The director of 'strangest show on television' talks about answering spam tweets, and why there are so many Paul T. Goldmans on TV

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Left and right: Paul Goldman (Photos: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock, Tyler Golden/Peacock); center: Jason Woliner (Photo: Getty Images for Turner)
Left and right: Paul Goldman (Photos: Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock, Tyler Golden/Peacock); center: Jason Woliner (Photo: Getty Images for Turner)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

Paul T. Goldman, as you may have heard, is a show that defies easy characterizations. Ostensibly a true crime docuseries about a nebbishy Floridian who, following a messy divorce and a few calls to a psychic, believes his wife to be the “madame” of an international sex ring, the Peacock show grows into something deeply stranger. With its formal games, fearless trust in its star, and gonzo sense of humor, Paul T. Goldman is the best kind of comedy: an insightful and hilarious look at its subject that just so happens to reveal poignant truths about the world around us. At the center of it all is Paul T. Goldman. And just six feet away from him is his director, Jason Woliner, holding a camera monitor and pleading with Paul to stop pursing his lips.

Woliner is something of an alt-comedy Zelig. The fourth member of the influential sketch group Human Giant, Woliner spent the 2010s directing cult specials and series for Adult Swim, including the violent genre parody Eagleheart and those Brett Gelman specials that would make one of those Stranger Things kids cry. Most relevantly, Woliner was a key collaborator in Nathan For You, and his work with fellow needling comedian Nathan Fielder led him to the top of the docu-comic mountain. In 2020, he directed Borat Subsequent Moviefilm in secret, giving him enough industry clout to finish Paul T. Goldman, a project he started a decade ago.

Now that all six episodes are available to stream, The A.V. Club spoke with Woliner about bringing his 10-year journey to an end, meeting the show’s supposed villain, and why there are so many Paul T. Goldmans on television.

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The A.V. Club: This show is a very relatable. There’s no shortage of stories of people falling down the QAnon rabbit hole, getting involved in the war against child trafficking, a common boogeyman amongst conspiracy theorists, grifters, and scammers. In this show, especially the last episode, you’re really confronting Paul with reality, that this world he built for himself is not real. Why do you think it’s so hard for him to see reality?

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Jason Woliner: It’s hard for anyone to see a different reality than the one they’ve invested in. I don’t think that’s specific to Paul. I have that. You see that everywhere online, where people are just so dug in. This is not to equate both sides at all, but there is a similarity in this kind of tribal “I believe what I believe.” It’s very hard and exhausting to be open-minded about what is true. What everyone does is decide what side they’re on, decide what is true, and stay there. That whole cognitive dissonance thing, when you’re presented with evidence that conflicts with your beliefs, what people generally do, is they go deeper into their beliefs, building more of reinforcement against this information that might be challenging a belief.

There are a lot of things that are specific to Paul, but also there are very universal things about him and his story. He was on the hunt for something that could make his life make sense. He suddenly realized his life was not what it seemed and was desperate to find a version of reality that made sense. He took this evidence that he found in the trash and that he subpoenaed in the divorce trial, and he built a functional reality that worked. He was able to find a framework for reality that made sense. But, ultimately, it was built on the flimsiest of evidence.

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I think because of the trust that he put in me, he was able to, fairly quickly, as dug in as he was, he was able to process that information and change his thinking on it, which I think is pretty amazing. You don’t see that very often, someone changing what they believe is reality.

AVC: How often were you having these conversations and challenging his beliefs prior to the big reveal with Cadillac and Zwiner?

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JW: I went into it with only the information in Paul’s books and evidence. He gave me all of his findings, and I was always very skeptical of the whole sex trafficking side of things. Based on the evidence that we have, it just seemed to me maybe some low-level general shadiness with the passports. Maybe there’s something there. But, of course, we go and talk to Tony Zwiner and find out that that guy was a saint.

But I didn’t know that until the very end. It was only a few months ago that we went down there and contacted Cadillac, finally, after all these years, thinking maybe he was, like, a dangerous criminal and were afraid to call him. As soon as we met him, he was like the friendliest guy in the world, charismatic and very welcoming. And it all became what it really is.

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That was always the plan, to approach the fully investigative element of this at the very end, really strategically, because I had this fear: I wanted to shoot the show before we reached out to these people. I didn’t know what we were in for down there and wanted to at least have the dramatized scenes shot so that Peacock did not get screwed and shut down the show. I thought if we had shot the show and things got hairy in Florida, at least we could figure out some version that could be releasable. I thought if we investigated this stuff before we shot it, it was likely that the whole thing would go away.

You see me throughout the show poking a little bit and challenging him on certain aspects and trying to look at things from a different perspective. But I was never really trying to debunk anything that I really didn’t know in the end.

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AVC: Cadillac seems like such a chill guy in his interviews. I’m sure most people would not be so cool about the public accusations Paul’s making. How scared were you confronting him?

JW: Because of how much Cadillac had been built up? We were.

AVC: He might be the head of a sex trafficking ring.

JW: We were scared to reach out. My producer called him and got to talking to him and felt like we probably had nothing to worry about. We also spoke to Gary McDaniel, a private eye down there, who’s in the series quite a bit, and he was saying, “I know Cadillac. He’s not a danger.” It was a little nerve-racking meeting him. But by the time you sit down with him, he’s so laid back and friendly. I was pretty confident that we wouldn’t have much to worry about.

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Paul T. Goldman
Paul T. Goldman
Photo: Evans Vestal Ward (Peacock)

AVC: You’ve been working on this for the last decade and you’re watching the rise of these Internet communities where sex trafficking is always at the center of it. These communities are primarily made up of people like Paul—baby boomer age, not a lot going on, sitting at their computers watching YouTube. How concerned were you about indulging this kind of behavior? Did you have any reservations about platforming this thing after a decade of work? 

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JW: It was always my intent to examine and debunk where I could and, if he was not correct about things, try to bring him into reality and to use this as a way to look at all the things you’re talking about. Platforming, yes, by putting someone on television, you’re platforming them, but no one can watch this show and say that I am just presenting his perspective without challenging it, examining it, debunking it. If you watch the whole thing, I can’t imagine someone walking away thinking, “well, you just platformed this guy,” because I just really take him apart, basically. I always thought and hoped the value of exploring someone like this, but also showing how I don’t think Paul is a bad person. I like Paul. You can have this guy and wonder whether he’s lying or he’s wrong. I think he was wrong, and I think he was well-meaning. Most of these people are well-meaning and given incorrect information, and get dug in. Sex trafficking is a very real thing. It is, unfortunately, also such a clear black-and-white, purely evil thing, and it’s very easy for people to pick the evilest thing, get riled up about it, and ignore the information that doesn’t match their beliefs.

I started this well before QAnon, but still, there’s an interview in there that I shot in 2014 where he uses the phrase, “It’s the calm before the storm.” There are moments like that we were discovering an edit. We’re like, “Oh my God, so much of this lines up with what would happen after we shot this stuff and some while we were shooting it.”

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I don’t buy the whole platforming thing because when you’re examining something, when you’re making an example of something or using this story as a way to explore something, as a cautionary tale, you don’t say, “I’m not going to do it because I’d be platforming someone with problematic elements of their personality.” It doesn’t make sense to me. Why do anything then? We have to look at the more troubling aspects of society. I was never too conflicted because I always had planned to be presenting Paul with a very critical eye.

AVC: The show feels like a lot of shows right now, not so much in the way it’s presented, but the character that it’s presenting, a middle-aged guy who wants nothing more than to be an action hero. The Righteous Gemstones is a perfect example of this. Why do you think that we see so many Paul T. Goldmans around? Why is this a type of guy?

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JW: It’s an obvious thing to say, but we live in a time that is challenging a lot of very established notions of the patriarchal society that we live in. The white, middle-aged man used to be on top, and you have this generation of men who were brought up thinking that’s what they deserve. Then you have this wave finally pushing back against that, and it’s kind of this great evening out and elevating other voices. This character, this type of person in fiction and in real life, is feeling threatened. There’s something very interesting about that power shift. There’s something that you can do comedically with that in terms of status, in terms of a person brought up in a society where they were on top suddenly not feeling on top anymore. I think that was a very prevalent theme of our times.

AVC: Paul’s relationship with his father is revealing not just about Paul but also men and masculinity. At what point did you start realizing that this guy has a very strange—not even strange—a very common relationship with his father? And how did you broach that with him over time?

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JW: It all happened at the very end. It just clicked into place. You see it happen on camera where we’re recording ADR. He’s sitting on a couch and just starts talking about how his father has never said “I love you” to him. And I was like, “Well, we’re going to talk we’re going to talk about this.”

We happened to be down in Florida in the middle of last year, and we’re going to visit his father’s house to show him clips, and I kind of made him address that on camera. But it just suddenly clicked. That’s a piece of the puzzle that in 10 years had not clicked in the way it did at that moment.

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I do think it became very important to the show. We live in this era that’s been so fucked by men whose dads never said, “I love you.” In terms of Trump and Elon Musk, they both have these old asshole dads and, in this quest to be loved, wreak havoc upon the world. Trump more than most, but Musk is like Trump but not funny. It’s just like, I don’t want to be in this guy’s world. It’s just so clear he had this dad who is also a public figure who was just like an asshole to him. I’m not saying that Paul’s dad’s an asshole, but there was something very resonant to me about exploring parental love and lack thereof.

Paul T. Goldman and Jason Woliner
Paul T. Goldman and Jason Woliner
Photo: Tyler Golden (Peacock)
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AVC: Paul T. Goldman explores the true crime docuseries from an interesting place: What if the person at the center of the tornado were allowed to control the narrative. Was that always the angle? Were you always looking at this from a true crime perspective?  

JW: To me, this was always a documentary project in terms of exploring a real person that I found very compelling and fascinating. The influences originally that inspired me were more along the lines of American Movie, Tabloid, Errol Morris stuff, Grizzly Man, where you find a person that’s very unique and compelling and just go way in and see. I felt like Paul was someone worthy of that kind of exploration. So I’m reading his book and screenplay and kind of coming up with the format of the show in terms of him playing himself, but surrounding him with great actors and production values and trying to make it look good. It was really about, can I try to take a camera into this person’s mind and convey what I found so fascinating, compelling, funny, uncomfortable, sad, moving through that format.

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By the nature of that idea, I had to let him steer the team and that involved accommodating ideas he would have on set. When we shot the pilot, we had this third camera, this great documentarian friend of mine named Jason Tippit, operated the behind-the-scenes camera, and we would just capture the making of it. After editing that, I realized how important Tippit’s camera would be in the whole show. So it was never approached as a way to examine or spoof true crime.

But in the 10 years that I was working on it, that’s when true crime became very popular. If anything, it was like this Trojan horse that helped us sell the show. It’s not really a true crime show as much as it is a documentary about a person I find interesting. But it uses all these tropes that we’re familiar with in terms of interviews with related people, experts, reenactments, all that stuff.

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It did help us actually get it sold. If you’ve seen the finale, there are some deaths involved as part of the story, which, again, before I went to Florida just a few months ago, I only knew Paul’s version of this. When I was pitching the show around for the hundredth time, and true crime had become very popular, one of these places brought their true crime team in, and I was trying to describe it. Then I got to when Audrey’s parents were tragically found dead in 2015, and that was while we were already working on this. I get to the end of the pitch when the person from the true crime department says, “You know, I was listening to your pitch and I was captivated, and I’m thinking the whole time, like, ‘please let there be a body at the end of this thing.’” Man, that’s so so gross.

I really think so much of true crime is so much more exploitative than anything I’ve done in this in terms of playing someone’s real story at times for laughs, but also to explore things, to do something that I find compelling or sad or whatever. So much of true crime is using tragedy in people’s lives purely as what we think of the entertainment. That’s never really talked about. The Jinx, which I watched from the edge of my seat like everyone else, I rewatched a little bit of it while making this. The opening credits sequence is like this badass song, and it’s like, “Baby, baby, I need red blood—POW!” It’s like in slow motion, an actor playing Robert Durst shooting a woman in the face and blood splashing. I’m like, ”This is someone’s family member that you’re shooting.” It’s like this cool music video montage. It’s despicable. I guess I’m not really a fan of most crime stuff. That’s a pretty dark genre. But again, I was able to borrow the tropes of that help people through what I want to show them.

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AVC: You get that point across very well with the Borelli auditions. Just from Paul being like, “do it more jovial,” you can see how easily actual horrors of the world can be exploited and turned into entertainment.

JW: Absolutely.

AVC: There’s so much about acting in this show. There’s so much about directing. How difficult was it to direct these great actors that have wonderful credits on Mad Men and Deadwood and then have Paul telling you, the director, how he’d like the scene shot. Did that create tension for you with those actors? You want to keep trust on your set, but if Paul’s running the show, how much can people trust you?

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JW: I would zoom with the actors before and said that we’re going to shoot Paul’s scenes, and he’s going to play himself, and we’re just going to commit to it as though you were in a prestige drama, and we’re going to see what happens. I had sent them parts of the pilot. I said, “We’re going to embrace uncomfortable moments. It’s going to be fun. Let’s just see what happens.” Like some of it, you know, might be a little uncomfortable, but maybe it’ll be interesting.

I did almost no directing of the other actors. Very little. Whoever said directing is mostly casting. We had a great casting director, Dorian Frankel, and, there are all these wonderful recognizable actors and day players. I was very rigorous in terms of casting and asking for new people and callbacks. We really tried to find people that intuitively would roll with this process and be right for it. I just got so lucky.

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You know, Frank Grillo comes in. I didn’t give him a single note. He knows what to do. Paul wrote the ultimate action hero guy that would come and train him, and Frank Grillo was absolutely the first person I thought of. And he was like, “Yeah, sounds fun. I’ll do it.” And he came in and turned on Frank Grillo. You don’t have to direct someone like that. If anything, I would just say to the actors beforehand, “Try and commit to these scenes and try to find some truth and subtext and just play this material as real as you can,” and that was the only direction, really, besides what Paul is doing. And a lot of the tension on set, as you see in the show, was Paul trying to make a better story than the show I’m trying to make about Paul telling the story. So on set a lot of the directing was really him talking about how he envisioned it.

Frank Grillo and Paul T. Goldman
Frank Grillo and Paul T. Goldman
Photo: Evans Vestal Ward (Peacock)
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AVC: It’s so interesting watching real actors bounce off of Paul because you get such a sense of what actors do when they’re just being still and reacting with stillness. Versus Paul, who’s fidgeting and moving and has a hard time holding the camera, even though he has a weird anti-charisma that is kind of intoxicating.

JW: I think Paul’s great on camera. It’s not a traditional performance, but I don’t think it’s boring. I can’t look away. When he pulls me into that scene in The Cheesecake Factory, he’s way more comfortable on camera than I am.

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AVC: Your performance gives it another layer, especially compared to the actor playing you, who sadly gets fired mid-take by Paul. But you can see just how much that actor is bringing to the scene with Paul.

JW: Yeah, Jake Regal. He’s a great actor. I’m not a good actor! I stopped acting when I was 12! I don’t like the camera! All of that was real. Paul wanted me to play myself. I didn’t want to, and he really kept kicking Jake out and making me do it. I’m really not good at delivering lines. I can’t act.

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AVC: I’m obsessed with Josh Pais’s impression of Paul, but I found it very mocking. Does Paul see it as an impression? He heard you say, “Do it more like Paul,” but does Paul see himself in that impression?

JW: I’m not sure. I’m sure he does now because so many people have tweeted at him and reacted at how much they loved it. I was nervous about that because I was like one more like Paul. I already told Josh, “Oh, you’re playing this character that Paul’s alter ego. He invented the character to be a pseudonym to write these chronicles, these sequels, but also the author of the books, Ryan Sinclair, is a character in the books, but the books are written in the first person, mostly as Paul. So you’re basically playing a version of Paul.” But he didn’t know Paul.

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We flew Josh from New York because I love Josh. He had one scene in Synecdoche, New York that I just love and obviously a million things. He’s a great, great actor. I wanted him to play Ryan. I think he’s the only actor we flew out because I was really adamant. We shot this whole thing in 15 days—it’s like 150 scenes. Our pace was frantic. We came from Audrey’s funeral and shot in that fake coffee shop that was assembled in a mausoleum at the cemetery. We were working overtime, and I get really stressed out when we’re in overtime. We had 20 minutes to shoot the scene, and Josh was delivering a great performance, but I didn’t know if it was going to work, so I asked if he could try it more like Paul. He did that impression, and I was like, “Oh my God, is this insulting Paul?” I really didn’t want to just be making fun of Paul to his face. And then I said, “Cut.” And Paul said, “That’s it. That’s the tone. That’s the one.” Paul’s always right.

AVC: The narrative on the show ends like two weeks ago. Are you still working on this show?

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JW: I’m done.

AVC: It’s called a “season finale.” Is there more Paul T. Goldman coming?

JW: I have no plans right now.

AVC: This isn’t just a story about Paul’s ambition. It’s really about yours. How answering a random spam tweet from some random guy on the Internet gave you real inspiration, and it’s actually inspiring to people looking for inspiration. How do you see the project from its inspiration to where it ended up?

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JW: It evolved so much over the 10 years that I’ve been working on this. I got obsessed with it in 2012, and we delivered the finale a week and a half ago, and it kept evolving through the end with everything that we know.

It was just about following instincts the whole time. I got better at being in touch with my instincts through the other things that were going on at the time and just maturing as a person over the last 10 years. I’m not the same person I was. I probably wouldn’t go down that rabbit hole today. I probably wouldn’t answer it like that. I’m glad in 2012, I did. It’s just a testament to just chasing what feels right.

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You know, some people have called Paul delusional. For me to say, I’m going to do this first as a movie and then a series and spend millions of dollars of NBC Universal’s money, starring a guy who’d never been on camera before, making this thing that feels kind of like true crime, but also what some people called the strangest show that’s ever been on television. That’s got to be as or more delusional than original any one thing Paul did. I just get a sense of things and don’t let go.