‘Paul T. Goldman’: The Ending That Director Jason Woliner Had to Crack
Written by on January 26, 2023
Jason Woliner unpacks a fateful kitchen conversation, one that he said makes the mindbending Peacock series end on a “hopeful” note.
[Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Paul T. Goldman,” including the ending.]
When making a show like “Paul T. Goldman,” you leave a lot of things to chance. After spending the better part of a decade documenting one man’s effort to turn his own memoir into a hit, director Jason Woliner entered the home stretch of the project with some question marks still lingering.
“Paul T. Goldman” — both the man and the show — is not easy to summarize in a few sentences. (Here’s a longer dive into what they both are and aren’t.) Over the course of six episodes, Woliner oversees the journey to turn Goldman’s book “Duplicity” into a glossy Hollywood adaptation. Kicking off a long list of unconventional-yet-surprisingly-successful choices, Goldman stars as himself in scenes he wrote. In between the dramatizations, Woliner outlines the circumstances of Goldman’s life from an outsider’s perspective, drawing attention to where perception and reality may not completely align.
In the Peacock series’ final episode, that long-simmering production process of transforming Goldman from a self-published author into an action star with spinoffs in the works takes a backseat. Woliner, with some new knowledge in tow, brings Goldman face-to-face with the idea that the giant cabal that formed the basis for much of his book’s intrigue might not actually exist.
Even if that had been the end of the “Paul T. Goldman” saga, Woliner still had one more key structural idea that would make the post-production process a race to the finish. In one last instance of life merging with art, the last major sequence of the series is the “Paul T. Goldman” premiere screening. Making that giant loop back left Woliner and his team to finish a nearly 11-year process in one last three-week sprint.
After finishing a show that saw Goldman through highs and lows, tested the patience of creator and star, and arrived at a place with some feelings still unresolved, Woliner spoke with IndieWire about the choices that went into the “Paul T. Goldman” finale.
IndieWire: It seems like in a different version of the show, that kitchen conversation where you explain the photo and the tickets could have been the more traditional ending.
Woliner: We went to his house that day and that was a four-hour interview. We had just met the day before with Tony Zwiener, aka Albert Borelli. I was very convinced I knew the truth of that side of the story and was going to present it to him. But Paul could have shut down. It’s such a long shot to talk someone out of a reality they believed in for 15 years. And even though based on the evidence he had, I always suspected it wasn’t a big sex trafficking ring. Still, this has been what he’s believed. This is what he based all these books that he wrote on. I had no idea how it was gonna go. I did think that was going to be an interesting moment, so I’m glad we got to do it. That apology, he volunteered that himself. I didn’t ask, “Will you apologize to Tony on camera?” It just happened in the moment.
Paul’s story parallels so many people’s online experiences these days and their explanations for how the world works. In a way, part of this feels like a success story of actually getting someone to see that their way of seeing the world may not be 100 percent correct.
That’s what it felt like to me. We started doing this in 2012, there was no QAnon. And there was no Pizzagate, there was no Trump as a serious public presence. While I’ve been working on this thing, all these things have emerged. Society is as divided so much online and everyone, not just conspiracy people, is dug in. I’m dug in. It’s very hard to change your perspective about something because these narratives are what allow us to function. You take all of this confusing information the world is throwing at you, and you decide the story that you’re gonna believe.
The interesting thing that I haven’t seen anyone else do is then using that to write these spinoffs and go on these adventures in this fictional plane of reality. I really didn’t know if I was going to talk him out of that. But when I did, I think it was because he trusted me so much, which is something that has allowed the whole show to happen. A few people have watched and felt conflicted about the amount of trust he’s put in me. Clearly, I’m making a different show than the exact one that he sees in his head. It’s more critical of him. The tone is different. People can see onscreen that he trusts me and don’t know how to feel about that. But a friend of mine just pointed out — and I hadn’t thought of it this way — but it is by virtue of that trust that he is able to get out of this. It was extremely powerful to be in the room for that.
It did make for, I think, a hopeful ending of the show, that people can change. People can accept new information. It’s not easy. We all have family members and loved ones, friends that get dug into this stuff. We’re bombarded with this shit. And smart people just go down these roads. Of course, child sex trafficking is evil. And of course, it’s real. But it also is the easiest thing to latch on to and get outraged about and post about and ignore evidence when it doesn’t match what you want to believe. Paul is not dumb. And Paul is not crazy. What was nice is that, here, no one was hurt. Nothing violent happened. Tony’s life wasn’t ruined. We can take a thing that actually hasn’t really harmed anyone and be able to examine the exact things that you’re talking about.
You’ve mentioned that you had an inkling that not every single detail of Paul’s book was true. But if you knew everything you knew now about who all these people really were, is it a project you still would have wanted to make?
I intentionally didn’t reach out to these guys until the very end. We were thinking it’s because we didn’t know if they were criminals in some ways. We didn’t know if these guys were gonna threaten to sue us even just by calling them. Cadillac does live down a long stretch of dirt highway, and it’s crazy to drive over there. Of course, we met him, and he’s the most charming, charismatic guy. We were always planning to reach out at the end, and then try to get every real person the opportunity to voice their perspective.
I didn’t want to have information Paul didn’t have. I think the intention was to bring a viewer through this in the same way that I experienced it. It would have felt wicked to me to be indulging in all this stuff if I secretly knew that he was wrong about so much. It would be more manipulative and orchestrated. To me, it was just about letting Paul tell his story and examining it. I didn’t really want to have any big secrets from him. I always knew, “OK, I’m gonna just follow him on this project for as long as I can. But then, at the end, in the last few months of editing, do my due diligence.” I found Cadillac’s Facebook years ago, but there’s no information on it. He posted on some boat message boards, and I was like, “Well, people have very complicated lives. He could be into boats and still be a pimp as Paul says. I don’t know what’s true or what’s not until we really get down there and figure it out.” And I always knew I wanted to do that at the end.
The last episode delves a little bit into Diana, the real “Audrey,” and what happened after she and Paul split up. If she hadn’t declined to participate in this, what topics or questions would you have prioritized in those conversations?
I was really hoping to just talk to her and allow her to share her perspective on the whole thing. Obviously, it would be completely different than Paul’s. Cadillac told us that she was aware of the book and the book upset her. I also knew through court documents and police reports of the stuff that’s mentioned in the last episode. We didn’t have time for it in the show, but they did have one encounter about a year after their divorce. They ran into each other in a Publix supermarket. He said something like, “How’s tricks, honey?” and she started beating him up with her purse. They both filed police reports on each other. He tried to get her for assault. She wound up getting arrested, and I think spent a night in jail. Cadillac picked her up, and I think they were laughing about it.
And yes, I believe Paul went overboard. He was paying private eyes tens of thousands of dollars to try to figure out what her life was. And I have no doubt that he was also following her sometimes and engaging in stalking behavior. I also know that nothing came of it. I also knew from talking to the lawyers and the private eyes that Paul was a blip in this huge pattern of very bad relationship situations she had with guys that were, in a lot of ways, very similar. So I knew that section was going to present as many perspectives as we could. The viewer would have to make up their mind. But I would have loved to have just let her tell her story. I would still love to talk to her. I hope she’s all right. I hope her life is good. We were able to eventually reach out to a family member who acted as a go-between and just told us, “She’s moved on and she’s not interested in participating in this.” And, you know, God bless her. For my own interest, I’m sure there would be so much to learn. I’m sure every single element of it is fascinatingly different from her perspective.
Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock
Was there a version of Episode 6 where you went more into the process of how you found the real Cadillac and the real Albert Borelli and all the other people from the book?
The only reason we didn’t include that is it just seemed kind of obvious and boring to us. We called them. They were both perfectly willing to talk to us. Beyond that, we had a few great researchers who just went through hundreds and hundreds of pages of court documents. We did reach out to a lot more people. There were multiple ex-husbands, but both of them have kids with her and wanted to protect the kids. One of them was actually still afraid of her. He said, “I have a dog. She’s gonna come kill my dog if I’m in this.” It was really interesting to see people still have very strong reactions to her.
We also reached out to the real Svetlana. We figured out who she was. She did eventually marry an American guy and is living in America. And we’re like, “We want to talk about this guy, Paul, that you briefly dated in the late ’90s. We’re doing a documentary series about him.” She’s like, “Paul? Why…?” It’s an interesting thing where someone could have such an outsized role in your life. And this is not at all specific to Paul. You think about an ex, a mentor, an enemy, a boss, and they just stick with you. They just hover at the corners of your consciousness. And you’re not even a thought to that person.
Paul has been consumed by this and part of wanting to tell this story was to examine how someone can go through an unfortunate event in their life, and just let it become their life, and just stay in that moment for years and years. Of course, what he did with it was very unique and unlike anything I’ve ever seen. But I’ve seen people close to me, family members get caught up in a bad situation. You just get in this loop. My question to Diana would be, “How often do you think about Paul? How much of this is part of your life?” My hunch would be not very much. From my understanding, she had a lot going on and Paul, I would imagine, was a blip.
There’s been a lot of conversation recently, especially with true crime, about how to tell stories that deal with people’s real lives and do it in a responsible way. As someone who’s had to think about that for at least the last decade, across multiple projects, are there certain things that you keep in mind as a guidepost or that someone should keep in mind if they’re trying to do something in that vein?
Paul was really dying to tell his story. And in any documentary project, a biography is always going to be different than an autobiography. I, of course, never wanted to destroy Paul. I never wanted to betray Paul. I was honest with him the whole time about the format of the show. He came up with a lot of it. I waited until he suggested playing himself. I waited until he suggested talking to the camera. I kind of followed his lead, even though these are all things I wanted to do already. I really was careful about that.
A lot of the less pleasant, less savory parts of his story and his behavior during that era that we go into in Episode 6 was to protect him. If anyone sees this show, you have Reddit. Other people can come forward. I don’t want things to come out that make it look like I hid them from the show to make him look better. I always told him, “It’s going to be better to go through this stuff and allow you to defend yourself and examine it.” I tried to make this project much more honest in its presentation, not only to Paul but to the viewer in terms of what they were watching, my conflicted feelings about it, and my relationship with him.
I think a lot of true crime is very exploitative. I loved “The Jinx” like everyone else, and we rewatched the opening credits sequence while we’re making this show and trying to think of ideas of how we wanted ours to feel. But it has this badass song and it’s like moments of someone shooting a lady in the face. It’s despicable. You’re fully making cool “entertainment” out of someone’s tragedy. And that’s someone’s family member. There’s so much of true crime that is pretty gross. And there’s stuff that’s really fascinating. If anything, I hope that this show could examine some of those complexities while doing a lot of other things I was trying to do as well.
“Paul T. Goldman” is now available to stream in its entirety on Peacock.