Paul T. Goldman Director Jason Woliner On That Wild Finale [Exclusive Interview]

That’s fascinating that you didn’t have conversations with all of the talent beforehand. What about some of the bigger names: Dennis Haysbert, Frank Grillo, those kind of people? Did you talk to them about, “Okay, here’s what we’re really thinking for this” for those more veteran actors?

I talked to them, but in a way that — I tried to be as upfront as I could about this process with everyone, including Paul. And so I would Zoom with all of our guest stars. I would write them a letter. “I’m doing this unusual project. It’s about a real guy who wrote this book.” Luckily, we had shot this pilot in 2017. I was able to show them a few scenes and be like, “This is what the show’s going to feel like. It’s going to be this real guy in these scenes that he wrote. We’re going to be exploring the making of those scenes.” And then I would Zoom with them and just talk to them and try to get them on board. But it was also, I didn’t say anything on those Zooms that I would’ve minded if Paul heard.

It was never like, “Hey, we’re going to really prank this guy” or whatever. I was never like, “This stuff’s bad,” because I don’t think it’s bad. I think of it more like outsider art. This is a kind of un-Hollywood, untrained dialogue and performance. But to me, that’s interesting.

Also, I may be in the minority, but I think when you watch “The Paul T. Goldman Chronicles,” most of the action shows that get made are not considerably worse written than his stuff. I became a legitimate fan of his book because his stuff is not bad. To me, it was better than a lot of the regular stuff out there because there’s this fascinating subtext that you’re absorbing something that’s fiction that someone wrote based on their own life and healing wounds from their own life. There’s so much going on here that even if the dialogue is a little wooden or unusual or whatever, it still, to me, was so much more interesting than most things.

So I was never like, “Hey, we got this fun thing. We’re going to mess with this guy.” It was just like, “You’re going to be acting with a guy who’s not a professional actor. He wrote this. But what I want you to do,” I would tell all these actors, “is to play this stuff as though you were just committing … just commit to it. Just do it like you’re in a prestige drama. Sell these lines.” I always thought it would be really interesting to have great actors doing this material and to see how they could elevate it.

And some people have said, which has made me really happy, that in some parts of the show are a testament or are a love letter to acting, which you see what people can do, and you forget that you’re — certainly there are laughs, more towards the beginning, of the unusual nature of the writing. But it kind of falls away in a lot of scenes. And you’re just watching it. You’re just watching great actors commit to this material, and it just becomes a new tone that you get used to. I never wanted to do just a “so bad it’s good” kind of thing or try to make “The Room.” I was always trying for something more interesting than that.

So I would just tell actors, “Play this as though it’s a great script, and just act it. And let’s see what happens.” I also didn’t want actors winking or playing along or feeling like they were pulling something on anyone. So that was all I told them. And that, I think, helped allow for some of the genuine awkwardness and uncomfortable moments on set that, yeah, like I was saying, were not easy to live in, but I hope would make for interesting scenes in the show.

I felt a lot of things when watching the show: Disbelief, humor, exasperation, secondhand embarrassment. But there’s also this undercurrent of sadness to the whole thing. How did your feelings about Paul evolve while working on this?

I experienced all those things while working on this, and I do think the story is profoundly sad in a lot of ways and about pain and trauma and he’s for sure a very unique person. But I think what we were exploring, I always felt was very universal in terms of the need to feel loved and how we go about finding love and finding purpose in the world, and how we narrativize our lives and make these simple stories in our heads that allow us to function. He does all that in a, I would say, very unique way. But at their core, these are all very universal things.

And Paul is likable in person. On set, everyone liked him, and I hope that comes through where you do see people reacting a certain way. Melinda McGraw, who play Audrey, genuinely likes him. I like him. Everyone around liked him. I got to like him very early on. But then I would discover complexities or things he had done that did not portray him in the best light, and it was really a process.

But at the end of the day, I do like him. And I think you can like someone who has not behaved perfectly or has made mistakes or has elements of their personality that you would find objectionable. It’s complicated. [laughs] It’s a lot. But it’s okay to live in a complicated world. It’s okay.

“Paul T. Goldman” is streaming on Peacock.

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