I talk to the guy behind Paul T Goldman, 2023's best documentary
I chat to Jason Woliner about his captivating, hilarious & weirdly heartwarming series.
I’ve talked about this before, but sometimes I have a fear with Webworm that I’m not writing what people might want. What if you came here for investigations into megachurches… but get an article about the time a squirrel bit me? What if readers want more on conspiracy theory culture… but get an outline for what Tickled 2 was gonna be? Or Dark Tourist 2? Or a piece about the Hare Krishna who called me “c**t face”?!
Then I realise that the reason I love writing this thing is sharing the things I love (and hate) with the world. Fucking up a megachurch one day, finding my stock-model twin Marko in Serbia the next.
And somehow, it all kinda balances out. Deep and shallow. Serious and funny. I think it can all exist here.
With that in mind, I wanted to talk about something incredibly niche — a documentary series I can’t stop thinking about called Paul T Goldman. It’s my favourite show of the year so far.
Why is this so niche? Well, if you live in New Zealand, you can’t even watch it yet. If you live in America, it’s quietly sitting on NBC’s streaming service Peacock. In my enthusiasm for this show I’ve just been sharing my login around willy nilly with friends.
For those that have watched it — this podcast is for you. I spent an hour on the phone yesterday talking to creator and director Jason Woliner, so I could share the conversation with you.
I first met Jason years ago (pre-pandemic, I think Dark Tourist had just come out) when a mutual friend invited me to his house. Jason had been keen to play Russia’s latest and biggest action film in his backyard. He had the film, but the problem was there were no subtitles or English dub. So — he hired a Russian translator to sit in his backyard with a microphone and do a translation of the film live, in real-time. It was a deeply strange and deeply fun screening — and so it would come as no surprise he’d directed a bunch of Nathan For You, and would go on to direct the second Borat film, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
And that whole time, he was quietly working away (for 10 years!) on a doc series called Paul T Goldman.
In short — the series is about a Floridian man, Paul T Goldman, who discovers his wife is cheating on him. From there, he becomes obsessed with her double life — and so he writes a book about it. You can get it on Amazon — Duplicity: A True Story of Crime and Deceit. And then he writes more books. And a screenplay. And more screenplays. And this documentary begins to shoot those screenplays as if they’re making a feature film — using that as a device to examine the truth of what really happened.
It’s thrilling, utterly captivating, and the most wonderfully meta-treatment of the documentary form I’ve seen.
If you haven’t seen it yet — save this conversation with Jason for when you have, as it’s riddled with spoilers. It’s best listened to when you’ve completed the show.
I hope you enjoy our chat. Below are some of my favourite lil’ quotes, and below that is the entire transcript if you prefer reading to listening.
(Please forgive me in advance for sloppy transcribing. I hate transcribing — inevitably things get lost in translation. It’s 15 pages worth, so go easy on me!)
On filming the screenplay:
“Paul had written all of this stuff before I met him. I got to know him, and months later I read the screenplay. I thought these scenes were incredible. I was like, “Yeah, of course I want to film this scene in the park with them saying, ‘Fast as you can, slam the man’. Of course I want to film this doctor exchanging sexual favours with the woman he’s just diagnosed as having an STD.”
Jason on creating trust with Paul T Goldman:
“Paul had a lot of trust in me, but I also trusted Paul! I really don’t think he was generally lying to me. I feel like when he was incorrect about something, he would admit it. And more often than not it was him being wrong as opposed to him lying. And so I had hope that when I presented him with what I believe to be the truth, he would be open to it.”
Jason’s advice to Paul after the show was released:
“There’s people who have been inspired by the idea that you can absorb new information and move on. So I don’t know that the best move is to get on Twitter and keep harping on how your ex-wife was a prostitute. It might be better to kind of embrace what’s happening right now and move on a bit.”
On the story Paul T Goldman told himself, and his readers:
“For Paul — who had just become lost in this sea of not knowing what his life was — he needed it to be clean and simple. And so it became a prostitution ring. And even better, it became a sex trafficking ring. It became the biggest, most evil thing you could think of.”
On his relationship with Paul:
“I consider him a friend. He’s someone I like. And that’s a dicey place to be when you’re trying to also make something that is honest and true and uses a real person who has to live the rest of his life as a means to reveal something about humanity. It’s a tricky thing to navigate. And I can’t think of anything quite like it.”
On Jason’s reaction to a certain network passing on Paul T Goldman a few years ago:
“I got a lamb curry at India’s restaurant. And then I walked to McDonald’s and I got two McChicken sandwiches. I poured their spicy buffalo sauce on it. And I got a large fries and a coke.”
A conversation with Jason Woliner (but listen to the podcast version please):
David: We should just sort of start where things are right now. Your series took 10 years to make. It's now out in the world. How are you feeling right now as people are reacting on Twitter, and probably emailing you, and like me sort of messaging you, saying, “I want to talk to you about the show.”
Jason: It's very nice. It's gratifying. You know, the finale aired a few days ago. It was released and it felt like some kind of a wave happened on Sunday.
I think a lot of people were hesitant about posting about it before they saw the whole thing, and kind of knew what it was, and knew what the tone wa - which I hadn't expected because I always had an idea of where I wanted to end it and the types of things I wanted to say with it.
But I think - because of whatever social pressures on the internet - I suddenly saw a lot of people, when they saw how it ended, felt free to talk about it and tell their friends about it.
It's interesting, I think, because you've got a super aware audience watching it who are like me going, “Is this going to be an awful ending? Is Goldman going to be sort of an ethically bankrupt person? Are we taking the micky out of him? How is this thing going to wrap?” And so I think that's probably why people were hesitant - and when they saw how you resolve things, which was with this really beautiful balance of emotions. And people were like, “Oh, thank God. It's like we can talk about this now.” And you nailed the ending.
Well, there was something of an idea of like, yeah, I didn't know how he'd react to the show. I didn't know what we'd discover in Florida. And I assumed it wasn't what he thought it was. It wasn't a big sex trafficking ring.
But, you know, once we did find the real guys and pretty much determined what we thought was the truth - I didn't know how he'd respond when I presented him with that. So even that, you know, sitting down with him the next day for I think it was about 4 hours, that was a huge relief.
I was like, okay, well, this can end in a positive way because he's absorbing new information. And then when I showed him the show - and that was five weeks ago now - I thought his reaction to that was very interesting and very moving.
So, yes, for years I thought maybe this will have a pretty downer ending: You know, Paul is famous and whether it's good or bad, whether you feel for him or you hate him - you as a viewer, if you told your friends about it, if you posted about it, maybe it says something about you. You're complicit in this as much as I am because we've made him into something. And that was always in the back of my mind.
Well, maybe we didn't want something like that, but that wouldn't have felt very good. That wasn't ideal and I’m so much happier with what happened. As I'm sure you know, with your own amazing work, you really can't deny what happens.
You have to just follow what happens in real life. And you go into these things with an idea of what you'd like, what you think could happen; what you want to explore. But the project kind of tells you what it is at the end of the day, and you have to listen to it.
So it will always change. I mean, it's something I've heard you say before, where you go into these projects with an idea of how they'll turn out. And if you're sitting in the edit, desperately trying to shoehorn something into your original vision, you're going to be completely fucked because that'll never happen, right?
Yeah, and it just feels fake. And there are so many things in the months of editing of this that I was trying to make work and points I was trying to make, and you would just step back and look at the footage and say, “Well, that's not honest, that's not actually the story here.” And then we would just scrap major parts of it.
You're doing this in between your other projects - whether it's working with Nathan Fielder or directing Borat - you are working on this thing for ten years on and off. You're dipping and dipping out. How nerve wracking was it when you shot those really compelling final interviews? You know, we finally catch up with some of these characters that are going to be kind of make-or-break moments?
There is lots of pressure, you know? And that was something I learned from Sacha. Working with him in all these situations - your gun rallies and sitting down with Rudy Giuliani - and you have no choice but to get something that works because that's your only shot at it.
And so just getting used to those kinds of moments where it has to work, otherwise you have nothing. So, you know, it was simple with finding that guy Cadillac, The real Royce Rocco is like - I knew I just wanted to present him with everything that I had, and let him speak his side of it.
And Paul had a lot of trust in me, but I also trusted Paul! I really don't think he was generally lying to me, knowing him for this long. I feel like when he was incorrect about something, he would admit it. And it was more often than not him being wrong as opposed to him lying. And so I had hope that when I presented him with what I believe to be the truth, he would be open to it.
But, you know, there was a lot of tension there - about getting someone to kind of let go of this reality he'd held on to for about 15 years by that point. So yeah, it could have gone very badly.
And there are other things, you know, that I disagree with Paul on that he absolutely still has to hold on to to kind of make his reality a functional one.
What do you think he's holding on to that he can't let go of?
Well, in terms of his response - in the last episode, we showed him the episodes that we watched at the premiere, which were the first three episodes, and I had shown him bits and pieces of the ending.
I showed him the clip of Tony, the pastor, and then his response to it. And so I wanted him to not be blindsided by that stuff and to really give him a sense of what the show was besides the full episodes that he had seen.
Now, he knew that the last episode would be him presenting his case and then these other voices presenting their perspective on it. And of course we didn't have time to put in every single bit of evidence that he had collected over these years that he used to build this version, this vision of reality.
And so if anything - besides the lines of his scripted scenes that I cut out that he wishes I hadn't because he thought they were good lines - I get texts about, you know, “Why didn't you include this email from Cadillac? Why didn't you include that?”
There are certain things that he's fixated on that he is grappling with right now - whether to keep tweeting about to make sure everyone knows the full story.
I said, “Paul, you can - but at this point, you know, people have been inspired. There's people who have been inspired by the idea that you can kind of absorb new information and move on. So I don't know that the best move is to get on Twitter and keep harping on how your ex-wife was a prostitute. It might be better to kind of embrace what's happening right now and move on a bit.”
But - I can't imagine the feeling of handing over control of your life story to someone else. And, you know, working with subjects of these kinds of things. I don't know about you, but I would ever put myself in that position of just sitting down and watching someone else's version of what your life story is.
I can't imagine the feeling of powerlessness and all the things that most race through your head as you absorb it.
And I think he was incredibly trusting. And watching your relationship with him unfold on screen was really good. And I know you bristle at being on screen - unlike me, who just loves it -
You're one of the only guys that - I think you do it well. Other people - I've probably bashed them too much in other interviews! But no, you're one of the only ones I like. I like you. I love Nick Broomfield, but by and large, there are guys out there that I feel like the motivation for putting themselves in it, I've always had some doubts about.
At the same time, I understand now, having gone through this, I think I do understand why Andrew put himself in The Jinx, because that ultimately at the end - the confession - wouldn't have worked without that. So I used to kind of knock him all the time. But I do have more sympathy for him after winding up in this situation myself!
I mean, that last episode of The Jinx did blow up into something else because he broke through all that artifice of all the beautiful shots, and suddenly it was in documentary land. And that's satisfying, you know.
There is still something about the way he would cut to his own face, you know, looking judgmental. Or you'd have a scene of him in his own office where I just felt there's an artifice there that wasn't being honest with itself.
And that’s why this whole time, every network I've had this at has been like “Can you sit down and interview yourself? Can you film yourself looking at cards on the wall? Can you narrate this?” And you know, I love Nathan [Fielder] and I’m not against any of these techniques. I just always felt like it wasn't me. It wasn't right for me and what I wanted to do with this project.
Well it was very satisfying seeing you being dragged on by your documentary subject to play yourself. That was a really satisfying moment to watch.
Thank you. It was all real. He kept firing poor Jake Regal. I gave Paul as much control as I could, and he kept saying, “All right, get this guy out of here!”. And, you know, I knew it was funny and interesting.
There was this other really interesting thing where you had another camera trained on you a few times when you probably didn't know you were being shot. And there are times there where you do look incredibly frustrated. And I feel that in some of my work where I'm just, you know, wound up. I kind of like seeing you having to go through that! Because he's so likeable - but there are moments as a viewer when you're watching it, when he's sort of describing the intricacies of being a sex worker - it's hard to listen to. And he's having these conversations with people that you're working with, and you're there grimacing away. What were those harder moments like and how did you kind of break through that and stay sane?
Yeah, I mean, those moments were exactly as depicted on screen. He had written all of this stuff before I met him. He told me when he tweeted at me, “the screenplay is written.” I got to know him, and months later I read the screenplay. I thought these scenes were incredible. I was like, “Yeah, of course I want to film this scene in the park with them saying, ‘Fast as you can, slam the man’. Of course I want to film this doctor exchanging sexual favours with the woman he's just diagnosed as having an STD.”
I was like, yeah, all these scenes are fascinating and compelling, provide this amazing window into his mind, really funny and odd. But the difference between reading them by myself and being on set with actresses, with human beings who have dignity - and having him say these lines!
And me - my whole way of doing this was really just a step back and not giving the other actors any notes at all! Some of our bigger name guest stars I had zoomed with and said, “Yeah, it's the real guy, it's his script. There's going to be interesting moments. We're going to not shy from awkward moments, going to embrace all of it - play it as real as you can, don't play it for comedy, but let's see what happens.”
But some of our day players just got them as though they were coming in to do a day on a show. And I intentionally didn't give them this whole speech because I didn't want anyone playing it up for the camera, giving me looks, acting ironic or whatever. So that was, you know, wilfully allowing for any awkwardness that would happen.
But living in those moments was horrible! It was really awkward! Because I don't direct the kind of stuff where it's like, “Okay, now you're like a ditzy hooker!” Like, this is not the kind of show I work on. And so I just felt really awful being there.
And the third camera was this friend of mine, this documentarian named Jason Tippett, who worked on the pilot. And I just said, “kind of hover around, follow Paul”, and in his style he would just plant these beautiful compositions and just allow things to happen in the frame.
And sometimes obviously I was very aware of where he was or I would say, “Okay, I'm going to go talk to Paul over there. You can just hang back, but make sure you get this, because we're going to talk about what we're shooting next and maybe it'll be an interesting way to set it up.”
Other times, I was just focused on the scene at hand and would forget that he was there. And there's that montage at the end of the fifth episode where, like, my face is red and you can tell how stressed I am and I am not performing, I'm not thinking about being on camera! Most of the time in those shots I was not consciously aware that he was somewhere on a long lens getting me melting down - which is what I wanted. I wanted a real, real depiction of what the shoot was like.
Seeing those moments were incredibly compelling and fascinating. It was good to see you in a little bit of pain.
Oh, I certainly deserve it for doing this, yeah!
Was there a particular moment where you were just like, Oh my gosh, “I can't believe that happened!” You know, I'm thinking of Ryan Sinclair's sort of impression, or when Paul gave his presentation, his PowerPoint presentation, and that wonderful person at the back raised their hand and said, “Do you think what you're doing is sort of sex trafficking, essentially bringing in brides from another country to America?” Were the moments that just blew your mind that you weren't expecting?
Every day this project had this weird kind of magic to it where every day there would be moments that would just come out of nowhere.
We'd be like, “What? Where?” I mean, a lot of it was luck. For instance, day one is when this actress Natasha Blazak came on - she played Svetlana, who is like the one that got away, to quote Paul this “model quality girl” that he's been corresponding with - he meets her in Russia. he touches her hand, she recoils, they never speak again.And then she becomes this kind of fantasy and he brings her back and kisses her in the rain and whatnot.
So we sit down and I had told all the cameras, I was like, “Let's everyone get in your positions. Light it with the stand ins. We're going to roll before we bring on Paul and the actors and just let them talk, get a few minutes of that, see what happens.”
And the first thing that happens is she sits down and she goes, “You know, I'm actually a Russian mail order bride!” And we're like, “What? What?” And nearly every day something miraculous would happen like that. And I've seen things like that before, but there was something about this project where - I don't know if it's Paul's energy? It was something.
The other thing is we had this actor Dee Wallace, who plays Terri Jay, the pet psychic. I zoomed with her and she was and she was like, “Oh, so you contacted me because I'm a medium as well, right?” And I was like, “What?” And I looked at her website and she has a whole career as a psychic medium. And I had no idea when I reached out to her to play this part! There are so many things like that, just one thing after another after another.
I think we just got very lucky. I always wanted to figure out some way to correlate the Russian bride trade with sex trafficking - I’d never spoken to that woman before. I think it was a Craigslist ad - like 50 bucks to come see this talk!
And it was a crazy shoot and things just kept happening.
Interviewing Cadillac and him saying that Paul's story is 97% false, which is the exact same number that Paul says is 97% true three episodes earlier - where so much of it felt written. And I just checked and there's like a 24 comment Reddit thread on how this must have been entirely written, this whole show is fake, this has been a long con by me, Paul is just an unknown actor and they're like, “It's brilliant, but there's no way that any of this is real.” And I'll take it as a compliment, but it's entirely real.
It’s a great reaction. I had that with Tickled a little. People watched it and were like, there's no way this is real.
Oh my God, Tickled!
I think it's like the most flattering thing you can hear, right?
It is. I also think people have had their brains just broken so much by so many hoaxes and just descendants of Andy Kaufman! And put ons became so standard and that's why, to someone like you or I, are just not interesting anymore.
It's like if I said in that last episode “It’s all fake” I couldn’t think of a worse twist for the show! But just people are so skeptical and attune to what's real and what's not that. But Tickled is so incredible and it's like, yeah, what's out there in the real world is so much weirder and more interesting than anything you can make up.
Oh, every time. And I mean, speaking of fried brains, I spent a great deal of last year writing about people falling into conspiracy beliefs and becoming obsessed with sex trafficking - which is a real thing - but the type of sex trafficking certain people are obsessed with isn't a real thing!
And I think what's so beautiful about your show is you have this man who was down this rabbit hole who kind of got out of it - although he's obviously potentially thinking of fighting back on Twitter again as you said - but, you know, it's so nice to see him recognizing that he was potentially wrong about something, and that was so encouraging to me!
But what do you think as you are making a documentary about this man who is obsessed with child trafficking, who says “the storm is coming” at some point, which you probably at the time wouldn't have even fucking known what that line was from. How does it feel that you're also kind of doing a case study of someone who is kind of a QAnon adjacent follower?
Yeah. I mean, what was nice about this - that interview was from 2014 when he says “it's the calm before the storm”. So that was well before Trump even!
Oh so that wasn't related at all! That was just a random phrase that he said?!
A random phrase that he said, related to hoping that governments take care of sex trafficking. So to the exact same thing, but years before QAnon and years before Pizzagate. Purely another weird coincidence, miracle, or whatever. And so what was nice about this story is it is about all this stuff that we're talking about, but in a fully harmless way.
There is no sex trafficking. And the stuff that Paul is holding on to right now is, I think, more related to his marriage and the pain and hurt that he experienced and wanting people to believe all that part of it was real. And even though he accepts that sex trafficking has nothing to do with his story, this other life that his second wife had, you know, that's the stuff that he's holding on to because that really involved a much more personal trauma.
Good to have clarity on that.
He's fully given up on the sex trafficking element of this. And what was nice is that there was no sex trafficking, no one was hurt, nothing really bad happened. And yet in the time I've been working on this, it did become this really hot thing for conspiracy minded people.
There was some kind of cultural shift - this might be complete nonsense - but I think there is something that happened on September 11th where it shook America up so much, it changed everything.
And you see in the years afterwards, things even like the rise of superhero movies - that also coincided with visual effects getting good enough - but like the fact that that became the dominant form of entertainment, that things needed to be divided into clear, good and clear evil.
And we kind of lost mature cinema - and everything that like had nuance and demanded anything of you - and what's dominant now is “this is good, this is bad”. And I think, you know, whatever 9/11 just made us, we needed simplicity in the world.
You have this rise of sex trafficking - it's the perfect thing because it is undeniably real.
It’s something we can all agree on.
And so for Paul, who had just become lost in this sea of not knowing what his life was - he needed it to be clean and simple. And so it became a prostitution ring. And even better, it became a sex trafficking ring. It became the biggest, most evil thing you can think of.
And it also vindicated him because it wasn't like he was just tricked by a low level West Palm Beach con artist: She was a master criminal! She was the head of a crime ring. So I do see the appeal. Anything that simplifies life is going to have an appeal for most people. For everyone.
Yeah, myself included! And I think another thing I think that's really interesting about 9/11, was when people hijacked the art of documentary making, with things like Loose Change - and people could create these different alternate realities and have a willing audience that loves it.
Absolutely. I mean, 9/11, that era was non-linear editing, a few years later it was You Tube. You have these tools and you have these ways to get a message out, and you have the kind of disillusion of authority, and that also creates the masses of people looking for answers, looking for someone to tell them, “This is what's going on. I know what's going on.”
And when the world feels so crazy, it's very appealing when someone is telling you, “Don't trust the government, don't trust the authorities! There's a deep state!” It's all about someone then saying “There is order. It's not chaos, it's order. And it's evil!” And that's even better than things being good because it's an adversary. So it's just a very clean path.
Was there a time making this series where you thought this would never come out? I mean, the time Quibi folded - was there a time when you're like, “Fuck it, I’ve given five years, I'm just going to stop. I'm kind of done.”
I don't know why, but I never seriously considered moving on.
Even when Quibi folded?
Actually when Quibi folded, it was actually a relief. The biggest defeat was when Hulu passed on it, because I really felt like it was going to happen. That was 2017.
We shot this pilot, I was able to show people were laughing at the pilot and thought it was interesting and everything that I wanted it to be. And then Hulu got a new boss that was only there for less than a year.
Okay, so this is I forget his name, but we shot this pilot and then halfway through they're like, “Oh, Hulu has a new president and everyone below him has seen the pilot and loves it. You're very close to getting green-lit to do it.” And they're like, “Here's his email address. Just shoot him a note and just say how excited you are or whatever.”
Because we're just waiting on this final decision from this guy! And it was kind of peak MeToo era and everyone was getting down left and right. And so I wrote this email to the guy. I was like, “Hey, I did this crazy show pilot for you. I'm so excited about it. I'd love to speak with you about it. I can't wait to dive in with you guys. I hope you enjoy it.” And I wrote some stupid thing at the end. I was like, “And as an added bonus, I can assure you when this comes out, there's nothing in my past that will be an issue or that will take me down. So you don't have to worry about that.”
And then like two hours later, the producer called and said, “Yeah, they passed on the pilot” and the guy never wrote back! But he got fired a few weeks later.
And then I was like “now I'm fucked” - I walked around Los Feliz and I walked to that Indian restaurant next to the McDonald's. I had a full big meal by myself. And then I walked to the McDonald's on Sunset, had another dinner by myself, and then just just walked around that neighbourhood.
Once you've spent a company's money to make a pilot, the odds of it happening somewhere else are so much smaller than if you were just pitching it, because then you had to buy it back from the company, the pilot costs a few hundred thousand dollars, and I knew it would be months, year - it was years of untangling that creatively -
It’s hard to get people excited about something they hadn’t been invested in from the beginning.
Yes! It's the kind of damaged goods and it was some other executives' notes on it. And I was like, well, we're back at square one. And that's when I called Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. One of the producers was like, “Hey, famous people never hurt - they can inject some new life into this.”
And that's when Quibi was happening. We took it to Quibi, met with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was very nice. He gave us the whole spiel and, you know, I was like, “Well, if someone wants to do this - it was not a lot of money - but if someone wants to do this, I want to finish this!” At the same time, I was like “I don't want people just watching this on their phones. This is a terrible idea!”
And so luckily, we were about to kind of close the deal there and then I got the email about Borat, and that happened a week later. So I was like “let’s pause this”, I feel like I have to do the Borat movie - and so I paused it for a year and a half. And during that time was when Quibi failed. So I was like, “Okay, well, if Borat does all right, maybe I can use the juice from that to help finish this”.
It was like a perfect storm in your favor in the end, right? Like coming out of Borat. Holy shit.
It was. When you have a successful movie and you went to Amazon - you could feel that everyone in the world was watching it that weekend! And they said, “Well, what is there anything you want to do next? Is there any IP?”
And you said “Gosh, do I have something for you!”
Yeah! Marvel! Star Wars! “There’s a book called Duplicity: A True Story of Crime and Deceit. It's part of this bigger Paul T Goldman Universe…”
I was like yeah, I want to finish this. And so I was able to take this around and frame it as a Borat-style project - when it's really nothing like that. But -
Yeah, mind tricks to sell things in this weird town!
And I think the rise of true crime in the years that I've been trying to sell this - that was like a Trojan horse, because I don't see this is a true crime project. It feels like a true crime project - it uses those devices to try to do something else.
I mean, that's what's so beautiful about it - it’s not a true crime, but it sort of tricks an audience into thinking it potentially could be!
Yeah, and I’ve been obsessively reading Internet comments about it because I've been sitting on it for a decade - I want to hear what everyone thinks. And a few people - because by and large it’s been very heartwarming and positive - but a few people have been disappointed by the end that there is no crime ring
Well, that was what someone said in one of the pitch meetings! Because at the time I was going around, and I knew her parents had died tragically, and Paul was convinced that she did it. So I was mentioning that - because I was like, you know, maybe this will get them.
And so I was like “You know, her parents died, Paul thinks she did it, we're going to really find out as best we can everything we can, because there was very little investigation….”
And that is what someone leapt on, that point.
Of course! Because they brought in their true crime team. And what they said word for word was, “you know, I was listening to your whole pitch and I thought it was interesting and funny. And I just kept thinking the whole time, please let there be a body at the end of this!”
Jesus it’s bleak. What are we doing!
Er - what curry did you get, and what did you get at McDonald's? What was the follow up?
I got a lamb curry at India's restaurant. And then I walked to McDonald's and I got two McChicken sandwiches, I poured their spicy buffalo sauce on it, and I got a large fries and a coke.
I feel like we're in a really interesting time in documentary. I feel I make an old style of documentary, which is just like, “Here's a weird thing happening, let's follow it.” Then we get your stuff with Sacha Baron Cohen, the stuff with Nathan Fielder, and then with Paul T Goldman - these documentaries that are folding in on themselves - where can you go from here? Are we going to have things keep sort of folding on themselves in this insane way? Like, what are you excited about?
Yeah, I wonder. I have no idea. I mean, I don't know that a project like this would come my way again. I tend to just follow my instincts so I think it'll reveal itself when it presents itself. I think you can't keep just going more meta, it's just going to be empty at a certain point to just keep doing things that purely look at themselves - because now I've done this, I can't really do a thing that would go like this again. Possibly at some point a new turn, a new wrinkle would present itself. But to me, what was always exciting about this was kind of exploring this interesting person and also trying to do something inventive with the form that.
I got this from my dad growing up - every time he'd see a movie, we'd walk out and he would just talk about how derivative it was. And his whole life he was just fixated on, “Oh, well, that was like this. And that storyline was like this, and you could see where it was going.” And I remember hearing that from a very young age, and I think it just shaped me to the point that I'm only interested in things I haven't seen before!
Which makes it very hard to sell these projects, and makes it almost impossible! So right now I wrote a script that's a purely written narrative script that I've been trying to do for a bit.
But like I was saying before, I think the world is so crazy, has become so much crazier, even more cartoonish, more absurd, more interesting over the past decade that it's hard in terms of comedic heightening - you really can’t. It's hard to compete with what's really going on out there. So I think it's just about finding new, new ways to present a new way to approach it.
Aren't white people the strangest thing? I mean, white people, what we get up to, it's really weird. Us - and the people we're like, documenting - we're all a bit fucked.
It might be something in terms of white people having this generational shift. You’re raised white in the past - the past many thousands of years, but especially the past century - thinking of yourself not as a white person, but as a “default” person! And then everyone else is their other thing and having their own experience, and you're a majority person and they're a minority person.
And so there is this shift of like, “no, no, we're all people. We're all equally living narratives and stories.” And so the person who is like, “no, I'm just a regular person. I'm not thinking of myself as a white person who is part of this group that has had members oppressed!” It's like that whole identity is being examined for the first time in history and maybe you're seeing a lot of it.
Paul's a very unique person - but also I think there's something very interesting and universal and relatable about this - a person who was brought up thinking that he was entitled to this perfect family, this subservient wife, “I'm going to have a wife and she's going to raise my kid”, or that doesn't work out well, “I'm just going to get another wife that I don’t really know!” The way he goes about it, the shortcuts, the strange kind of...
Assuming he’ll come out on top..
Exactly. Yeah. There was an assumption that a white guy would come out on top - and so this story is in part about when that rubber hits the road, and that really is not what happens.
Your relationship with Paul now - you know, you spend so much time with these people that you work with. Do you slowly lean back? Do you remain lifelong friends? How do you manage that kind of relationship?
I don't know. You tell me. I haven't done this before!
The people I work with hate me a lot [David D’Amato, Michael Organ], so I can guilt free step back and not deal with people again often. Whereas you have this thing where I think it's a much friendlier, more intimate relationship that you have.
Yeah, it's very tricky and I'm navigating it right now. You know, he doesn't seem to hate me, but he is processing not only his response to the show, but the response to the show.
He's very online. He lives online.
He lives online, but most of the time I've known him he's only dealt with Amazon reviews as the only external response. And yes, some of them always said, “This guy is a buffoon, this is the funniest thing I've ever read.”
The other half said, “This guy is inspiring - something like this happened to someone in my family!” So I knew he had dealt with online scorn and praise already in a very small way.
In the past three days, you know, or in the past few weeks, he's had thousands of people tweeting at him with very strong opinions about him and also in the past two days!
So in terms of, you know, and more like some of your subjects, I knew that once this came out, Terri Jay, the pet psychic was not going to be my friend anymore. And I didn't go in with the idea that I would attack this person. I really like her. I got along with her. We filmed at her house. She was very sweet. It was only in watching the footage and listening to, I think, 11 hours of recorded tapes between them that this picture emerged.
I was like, “Oh, no, she was being very reckless. She was making these predictions, riling up this very impressionable person.” And that led to all this other stuff. And then when I got to see that in person, when I looked at that footage of us back in 2017, where she's acting out the real Audrey killing her parents, I was like, “this is absolutely irresponsible.” And I felt a responsibility to put that in the show and actually show how throwing fantastical bullshit at an impressionable person can cause harm in the real world. And so I was like, “Okay, Terri's not going to be my friend after this.”
I think what has happened in the last few days - because I've been talking to Paul, you know, quite a bit since the show come out has come out - but I think since Terri has been burned, I think she may have gotten into his head a little bit and is like, “you know he's not your friend.”
Of course, fine. But I think she's in his ear now saying “he's not your friend. He betrayed you”.
You know, part of why in that last scene I got very emotional, very unexpectedly, when he's watched the show and he's telling me how he feels. And I was trying to figure out why I was so emotional, because you can tell for the rest of the show, I hate being on camera. I obviously knew we were filming that moment - but I did not expect my face to turn red and to feel like I was going to cry.
And I don't know if it was because after all this time, he was still giving me something better than I could have ever hoped for, could have ever written in terms of an ending and a resolution and how he responded.
I didn’t know if I was proud of him, I didn't know if he was hurt and saving face, I don't know if this is the last time we would ever see each other. I was like, “this is very moving right now how he's responding - but I don't know if we're going to always be friends.”
And it is a weird relationship because I'm sure the standard is you maintain a level of distance. And I mean, Terri Jay has my phone number now. I doubt we'll be speaking again and I'm fine with that. I know I've made my peace with that cause I feel very comfortable with how I presented that and feel very honest about that.
With Paul, it crossed a barrier. I consider him a friend. He's someone I like. And that's a dicey place to be when you're trying to also make something that is honest and true and uses a real person who has to live the rest of his life as a means to reveal something about humanity. It's a tricky thing to navigate. And I can't I can't think of anything quite like it. But we'll see. We'll see what we're like in the future. I don't know.
Well, I think you've unleashed a very special person on the world. I think he was incredibly compelling. I think he should be proud of that. He brought those adventures to life and he's good. I think he's a really good, unique actor.
I hope so. Yeah. And I think a lot of people - maybe post-Rehearsal [Nathan Fielder’s latest show] people had their antennae up for cruelty in this kind of work because of however people responded to the ending of that.
And it was never about - and you know this - laughing about him because he was a bad actor. He's not a trained actor, he's not a professional writer. But I always felt there was something interesting, and almost approaching it more as outsider art or something.
It's like, “Well, yeah, this is not a Hollywood style of acting or writing” but through presenting it like this, I was hoping we could get something interesting out of it. Some subtext about why he would write these scenes, why he would want to present himself like this - watching, you know, Frank Grillo an action star basically repeat back to Paul what he clearly always wished someone would tell him, which is “your work has not been in vain. You have value. You know, I'm from the government. We've been secretly watching you and we think what you're doing is amazing!”
I had a feeling that it would be very powerful to watch that on screen. And so, you know, to me, it always went beyond, you know, just laughing at someone.
Well, respect to you and everyone that shot that thing, and your editor, or editors, good God, there was some great editing in your series.
They were incredible. Yeah. Incredible editors on this.
The cut to him narrating and then looking back at Osama bin Laden's mug shot on the wall, for instance — chef's kiss.
That is word for word from the book. And it's one of my favorite passages in the book. And I mean, if anyone enjoyed this series, definitely by the book. There's so many great scenes, many great things we shot that we didn't include just because they wound up feeling redundant or just not really necessary. But we shot at least 20 more scenes. I would say that we didn't even have time to put in there that were pretty great, but just kind of felt like we were treading water a little bit.
You're going to get sick of people asking about season two. Thanks, man. And I'm sure you've brought in some new Peacock viewers, myself included.
Oh, there you go. Look, all I want to do is support the Comcast NBCUniversal Corporation. At the end of the day, if I can make them a few extra bucks, I'll be able to sleep at night.