The first thing you need to understand about Paul T. Goldman is that it is based on a book by the author of the same name. The book has "true story" right in its title (
That is what director and executive producer Jason Woliner (of Borat Subsequent Moviefilm fame) sets out to explore in his six-episode Peacock series that stars Goldman, whose real name is Paul Finkelman, as himself, exploring the story of his life in a mixture of documentary interviews, dramatized recreations of scenes in his book, and behind-the-scenes footage from set.
"I became obsessed with his book and with his voice, and was really just fixated on figuring out the best way to bring what I love [about] it to a filmed format," Woliner tells Metacritic. "The more I got to know him, it became very clear that he was the most interesting part of this whole thing — more interesting, I would say, even then the story itself — and what he found important or interesting about the story was possibly different than what I thought was very interesting about the story. I thought, really, Paul was the story."
To hear Goldman tell it, his "true story" is that his second ex-wife, whose name has been changed to Aubrey Munson (played by Melinda McGraw in the series), was a con artist, a prostitute-turned-madam, and a sex trafficker. He claims he caught on that she wasn't the simple stay-at-home mom she presented herself to be on her dating app profile when she asked him to write multiple checks to "BCBS," claiming they were for health insurance for Blue Cross Blue Shield. But when he wrote the full company name on the second check, it wasn't cashed, and he drove out to the address to which he had sent it, only to find a trailer that she supposedly owned.
He couldn't let it go that she had taken him for money, when all he wanted was love and a father for his young son, and he did everything from connect with her previous ex-husband to learn about other lies she was telling him, to hire a private investigator and begin working with a psychic to try to get more dirt on the woman. He claims he found what he needed, using audio-less video footage of Audrey meeting with two other women in a park, where they talked, went over paperwork, and, at one point, appeared to be praying, as proof she was a madam meeting with her "girls." And yes, he contacted the police and the FBI about his suspicions with that "evidence."
Whether Goldman really believes his ex was doing these grander-scale terrible things is something Woliner attempts to get to the bottom of it in his own way in the docuseries. But one thing is clear: Goldman spun a grand tale so he could paint himself as a hero who happened to find a crime ring no one else could.
If you follow Goldman's literary career, you know Duplicity is just the first self-published story he has on his author list; he also spun off his main character into The Paul T. Goldman Chronicles, in which Goldman's exploits as an everyman vigilante get even wilder (and are no longer marked as factual). But he kept coming back to Duplicity as the major story he wanted out in the world, and he adapted the book into a screenplay (for which he admits in the Peacock series he had to invent dialogue) and began tweeting at producers and directors to try to get someone to bite.
About a decade ago, Woliner did. Now, he talks to Metacritic about the process of bringing Goldman's story to the screen, including avoiding straight adaptation, and what responsibility he felt to investigate Goldman's claims.
You've been working with Goldman on getting his story adapted for so many years, how did your thoughts and feelings about his story evolve over that time, and how did that evolution shape the story?
The book is very funny to me in a lot of ways, very interesting, fascinating — also very dark, and there's a very valid way to look at this as a humiliated guy's revenge against his ex-wife. And then you meet Paul, and he's so light and goofy and lovely — and everyone on set loved him and all the actors loved him — and when you meet him, he doesn't seem like a person driven by anger. And I don't think he is. And so it was like, "Well, what's he after?"
This was a very brief marriage, and a lot of this process was exploring that: Was this a real marriage? Did they love each other? Did he love her? What is his definition of love? What is the human relationship to this person? And so, it was really just going in with a lot of questions.
It's not like I landed on one thing. I do think in large part it is a quest for identity, it is a person who has an idea of what he was raised to think he should be or should have, and his attempts to get it, and, in an unusual way, for whatever reason — reasons we do explore in the last episode — and when that doesn't work out, when that blows up in his face, what he does about it. And to try to do it in a nonjudgmental way — to not say, "Paul is a hero" [or] "Paul is a villain."
And yet, he paints those lines very clearly in his own storytelling. So, do you think the light and goofy personality as you just described him as having is legit? Or is it something he wears to hide anger or cover hurt that he didn't get the relationship he wanted?
He has a very likable personality in real life. I also have to acknowledge there are parts of the story that are extremely dark and unpleasant. And I always knew that putting that out there, there's rough stuff in here. He wouldn't describe it like that. When he approached me, his mission was about getting this into the world, and when you put this into the world — when you put this in front of millions of people — people are going to tell you, in this case, that your story is not the story you think you're telling.
He's not a right-wing guy, but there are parts of his story that will resonate with men's rights [activists].
How much investigation into Goldman's story did you feel your team and cameras should do?
I felt like by the end I needed to investigate all of it, and we do. Part of the process was trying to figure out how important was it to debunk everything that I found to not exactly be true. I think most people watch it and think he's not being 100-percent true about all these details. And so, because it is a documentary, in my view, and about real people and real people's lives, I felt there was a responsibility to not just let him put out his version without doing my best — and my producers and our team — to determine the truth of what actually happened. And so, a lot of the final episode is about that, and then also presenting that to Paul and seeing how he reacts when we present different perspectives or determine, in my view, things to have been different than how he understood them.
I do think when you deal with real people you have a responsibility to reality. And so, a lot of it is giving him the keys, letting him tell his story, but I didn't feel like it would be a fair or full project unless I did my best to determine what was real and present that.
His son Johnny plays very heavily into the story because of how much Paul said he wanted to find a new mother for Johnny after he and his first ex-wife split up. How did you determine whether Johnny should be one of the talking head interviews, offering his take on what his dad is saying?
Paul was always trying to get Johnny involved. The first time we met with Paul, Johnny was 12 and still living with Paul, and he really wanted John to be interviewed and I didn't feel comfortable putting a 12-year-old kid on camera. I think I asked him one question and then I didn't want to interview him and we kept him away from it. It has a lot of very adult content in this and I didn't want Johnny to be part of it. Now, finishing the show, Johnny is in his early 20s and we reached out to him asking if he wanted to participate and, not to spoil anything, but he is a part of the final episode.
When it comes to the actors who share the screen with Paul, you have veterans including Dee Wallace, W. Earl Brown, James Remar, Dennis Haysbert, and Frank Grillo. What did you tell them about what they were signing up for, in terms of the scripted and behind-the-scenes footage and the fact that this story is something Paul says is true?
All of our amazing guest stars, I wrote a letter to, I sent them footage from the pilot with his scenes with real actors, and then I Zoomed with them, and I was completely upfront with everybody about what they're getting into. The last thing I wanted to do was anything that felt like a prank; especially coming from having directed the last Borat movie, I thought people's antennae would be up for a prank. At the same time, this show does traffic in interesting, awkward situations and we didn't shy away from awkwardness on set.
We didn't have episode scripts; I had 100-something pages of scenes he wrote and a five-page outline of how I thought the episodes would go and which seems to be in and what I thought I was trying to say. I also said, "This is going to change. You're not greenlighting scripts, you're basically taking taking a leap of faith with me to do this show." And the same thing with actors. I was just like, "Yeah, we're gonna shoot these scenes, we're gonna shoot behind the scenes, we're gonna be rolling all the time, and we're gonna see what happens." And I was like, "Ultimately you're reenacting scenes." This is a very unique way to do a documentary, but it is at the end of the day, in my view, a documentary about a real person. And these scenes are basically a method through which we can peek into his brain, into his decisions, into his worldview. For an actor, I think it was an exciting exercise. And I never wanted anyone to feel like, "What the hell is this?"
Paul T. Goldman streams new episodes Sundays