Interview With Jessica Goldberg ~ Creator of The Path

Jessica Goldberg is a woman making big waves as a playwright, screenwriter and producer. She is the creator of Hulu’s highly successful show, The Path, starring Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (True Detective) and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal). In our interview Jessica tells me about her early years, her family and her writing. We also explore what inspired her to write The Path and how she developed the storyline around the ‘Meyerism’ cult-like movement.

Jessica Goldberg

PC: I thoroughly enjoyed watching The Path. I had not watched it until I interviewed Clark Middleton (Richard). I was intending to watch a couple of episodes to get a feel for his character and then I got hooked. It is an incredible show.


JG: Thank you. Clark is so special: he is a beautiful human being too.



PC: But then you had to kill him off! (laughing)


JG: I know, but actually, when we thought of that in the room it was devastating, because we loved his character so much, but that’s how we knew it would be impactful – because it was almost too hard to do it. And I needed a big move, you know?



PC: And now he has Twin Peaks!


JG: Yes now he’s on Twin Peaks and also, with our show, you can always come back as a ghost; Dr Stephen Myer, now that he’s dead, he’s worked more than when he was alive.



PC: Then I shall keep hoping. Tell me about your family and where you were born.


JG: I was born in Hyannis, Massachusetts. I spent the first few years of my life in a little town called Provincetown. Then my parents moved to Woodstock, New York – so I grew up around a lot of musicians and music.



PC: Oh perfect!


JG: Yes, there were a lot of people… you know, The Band were out there. I went to Woodstock.



PC: Do you have siblings?


JG: I have a brother and a sister. My sister is in North Carolina now and my brother lives in an apartment in my house, he and his girlfriend live there.



PC: What were you like as a child? Were you a girly-girl? Were you a bookworm? Were you a loner or were you adventurous?


JG: I was definitely a bookworm, that’s what I wanted to be: a novelist. We didn’t watch a lot of television.



PC: Because you had music!


JG: Yeah, a lot of music. I was adventurous in my imagination and then as a teenager I had my wild years. As a kid I was pretty…



PC: Studious?


JG: Yes.



PC: You said you wanted to be a novelist. Was there a defining moment that prompted that or was it just a gradual realisation that, that was what you wanted to be?


JG: I remember writing novels in 3rd grade. I didn’t find plays and TV – in fact I never really thought about TV – but plays and movies I found in college. But as a young person I just loved storytelling and reading books.



PC: What path (pardon the pun) did you follow to pursue that? You went to Juilliard didn’t you?


JG: Well first I went to University in New York where I discovered playwriting and [through] that became what I wanted to do: be a playwright. Then I went to Juilliard and I did New York theatre for many years. And I think, what happened to a lot of playwrights is…you know they teach now, Hollywood tries to suck you up and, especially as you get older, it’s very enticing.



PC: How does being a playwright compare to writing for television?


JG: In a weird way TV is more like writing a play, in that it tends to be super character-driven. It’s really about the interaction between human beings. Movies, I think, have to contain more plot in a shorter period of time, often, and in TV it’s really developing these characters.

Out here almost everyone I went to school with at Juilliard, is working in TV. I think it’s like: you know you become a teacher, you do musical theatre to make a living or you write television.



PC: I was reading an article where you talked about before creating The Path, you were going through a really tough time – with the death of your father and the breakdown of your marriage – and that you lost your way somewhat. How did you rise back up from that downward spiral?


JG: In my life, when I have been depressed or sad, writing in my life has been my church I guess; it’s sort of been a way to take all these crazy emotions and make sense of them or put them in a package. Whenever I’ve had dark times, that is sort of the way I’ve dealt with it. This was a particularly sort of surprising situation (I wasn’t expecting to get divorced and it was such a double whammy) but that’s just always where I went as a kid when I didn’t understand things – I was like: making it into a story, that helps contain it. But making the show really helped me, I feel as if I’m in a totally different place now. At the time I guess it was really huge.



PC: I hear you. I lost my own father last year and it’s just so hard, never mind with the added trauma of divorce.


JG: It’s bizarre. I mean, I had experienced death (through a friend dying in a drunk driving accident in high school) and everyone tells you, ‘death is death,’ but until you really experience it, it is really hard to wrap your head around.



PC: Losing a parent is one of the worst to deal with. A lot of people talk about the influence their parents had on them, or the inspiration they took from them. How did your dad influence you?


JG: You know, that’s interesting. My parents gave me, and particularly my father… he had a record store so I grew up listening to Bob Dylan and a lot of jazz and I feel like he gave me Leonard Cohen; that sort of poetry of music and poetry of language.



PC: I read you had shipped something like 4000 records from his store to your house after he died. Is that true?


JG: Yes my brother has a lot of them downstairs and I have some of them upstairs. I have to get through them one day.


Jason Katims and Jessica

PC: So in creating The Path, where do you begin brainstorming ideas? What’s your process?


JG: Usually you think about something much more… whenever I have developed a TV show or movies out here, I write out what I want, to have the whole sort of idea laid out.

I was working on this show Parenthood with my boss Jason Katims (who produces the show with me) and we were on break and I just hadn’t written for myself in a long time. I had just read the Going Clear: Scientology book, which was super interesting, I live where there are a lot of their churches, and I was having my own sort of crisis of faith. I just decided when creating The Path that I had these characters’ marriage in my head: a marriage in which someone lost faith and I just didn’t really know where it was going. It was a very odd process. I hadn’t written for myself in a long time [I thought],‘I’m just going to shut a door, and see what happens if I don’t pick up the phone when it rings, and just write something for me.




PC: You literally kind of took some of the organic principles and practices from various religions – and I hesitate to use the word ‘cults, but cults – to create to create a movement. Can you expand on how far you explored other religions?


JG: Once I started researching I read a lot, but not even just accepted religions more the practices and the Meyerism in The Path. I tried to take from lots of eastern religions. But studying any religion – even really acceptable ones like Mormonism or Orthodox Judaism, even born-again Christians – there’s so many rules and so many things you can’t believe or you can’t do. So I was sort of taking those pieces as well, and then trying to figure out how to make them my own, and then, once we found a buyer for the show, we hired four writers and that became our project. We made a little Bible for the show, a literal Bible.



PC: I’d never heard of a show doing that before, that’s really interesting that you created that. You gave it as a sort of guide to the movement to the cast as well?


JG: Yes the cast got it, everyone has it. We add to it as we go because we are like, ‘Oh we need a new holiday.’



PC: Are you constantly thinking about a show when writing it? For example: when you are sitting on a beach, are you thinking, ‘Oh I can use that,’ when you see something?


JG: Yeah, you hear stories all the time. Even this morning on the radio, there is so much stuff about terrorism and what people believe, and sometimes that stuff ends up with you thinking, ‘Oh that would be an interesting thing to have on the show’. People do all sorts of crazy things for their God, or whatever.



PC: It’s equally good because, when you first see the premise for a show, I think immediately you think, ‘Oh, it’s going to be like Waco and weirdos and stuff,’ but The Path is as much about human relationships and family relationships isn’t it?


JG: That’s what I love about this show and yes, you know I have been really surprised (and I think Clark said this too) that people come up to you all the time; the most normal people in the world have times in their lives where they need something to believe in or grow up in something. I find it really is fascinating: who you meet and they are not ‘freaks’- just normal people.



PC: It is refreshing that Hulu were prepared to showcase a show with a controversial subject. Was that a hard pitch to sell?


JG: No, we got lucky. It wasn’t an ‘easy sell’ but I think it helped that people like Aaron Paul and the other actors wanted to do it; but yeah, people were not jumping up and down to do the show.



PC: Talking about the cast: really you got the cream of the crop didn’t you?


JG: I know. They are amazing! They are so good! I’m so lucky! It is a really strong ensemble.


Aaron Paul, Jessica Goldberg and Hugh Dancy

PC: I was watching an interview with Hugh Dancy this morning (as a bit of extra research) and I still couldn’t get over his British accent.


JG: Yes, he does not have a British accent at all [in the show].



PC: Not a hint!


JG: Not a hint. We love him. We love writing for him – he can do all those long speeches.



PC: He just really makes you feel it, because honestly, I like all the cast, but I think he stands out. In some of his scenes my fists are clenched or my heart’s beating fast because he is so intense and his character puts you on edge.


JG: His character is very damaged and his part was definitely the most challenging to cast; we cast Michelle and Aaron early, and we were waiting for the right person to emerge. Then Hannibal finished and we jumped on him. All the actors in the show are amazing; we’re SO lucky to have them!



PC: He is rather good-looking, let’s face it.


JG: He is a handsome one. He has all these Hannibal fans that love him. I watched a little Hannibal but I never realised: it has a very strong fan base.



PC: How comfortable are you in writing the ‘sexy’ stuff?


JG: I love it: I mean, I find it really fun. I’m in my middle-aged fantasyland. I think it’s a fun part of the show.

It’s nice. His (Cal’s) sex stuff is super-complicated. Michelle and Aaron’s characters’ sex scenes are more about love certainly, and it really helps that they have great chemistry.



PC: But often it’s just about needing each other isn’t it? They are drawn together despite everything and have a lovemaking session.


JG: We definitely have fun in the writers’ room writing those scenes.



PC: It’s often hard to write about sex and I think some don’t always write it that well. Maybe I’m being unfair, but women seem to be able to capture the tenderness more or maybe even the more edgy side of it (having said that Sebastian Faulks described it very well in one of my favourite books Birdsong).


JG: There is so much sex written that is like, ‘Sex is fake boobs.’ That kind of ‘stripper sex.’ To me: it’s intimate, complicated, raw and emotional. People have pointed out that the show explores the pleasure of it.



PC: Absolutely. What about the environmental aspect of the show: was it important to include, not just the issue of the toxic water, but also showing them growing their own food etc.?


JG: That is such an important part. That area where the cult is on the compound in Nyack (where the show is mostly set) is actually owned by nuns and it’s a Catholic retreat centre. We went to see it and it felt like… the most close I feel to God is in nature.

That location is just stunningly beautiful: you have the Hudson River, you got these mountains, you’ve got the woods – and we try in episodes to sort of really bring in the natural world, the mysterious mountains and forests – and that’s when I think, ‘How could this just have happened?’ It’s so insanely beautiful.



PC: It’s all come together nicely – the cast, the setting – you have been very fortunate.


JG: I hope so. We feel very lucky, yes.


Jessica with Aaron Paul

PC: What is the most challenging aspect of writing the show?


JG: Well the show itself is quite challenging because you know, I think [compared with] when you are in a show where there is a murder every week, the show doesn’t have that kind of engine, it’s really driven by character.

Although now we have this larger mystery of is God real?  in season two. The whole thing is super-challenging.

It takes us months and months to come up with these stories. And just for me (like I said earlier, my brother lives downstairs and when my Dad died my Mom moved near to me, a mile away, so I have a lot of help) I don’t know how much I’d be able to do it as a single parent. So that part is hard, but the storytelling itself is incredibly challenging! You know maybe every show is – you have probably talked to people who say the same – I am always curious about that. We definitely struggle with the stories, and how to tell interesting stories, and make them about these people.



PC: What about the end game? Have you had an end game from the beginning? Is there a set path? (I keep using the word ‘path’!)


JG: I say ‘path’ all the time too (laughing). Yes, I’ve always had an image for the end of the show: I mean it’s not a story; it’s an image – where the show will end up.



PC: When you were writing the end of season two, before you were certain the show was going to be picked up for renewal, did you write it as a finale which could be adapted to continue in season three? How does that work?


JG: We didn’t know – particularly after season two, we definitely had no idea. We kind of felt strong after season one, but we try to write with faith that they will pick us up. We try to write it so that people will want to come back and see what happens next and switch up the paradigm: so now Eddie is the chosen one and Cal seems very upset about it.



PC: When will season three air?


JG: Probably March or around then.



PC: The ‘realignment’ and ‘unburdening’ practices are interesting: it is a really civil way to address an issue that otherwise you would end up having an argument about.


JG: We sort of go, ‘Okay, everybody has some form of confession in their religion so what can our version of that be. We go, ‘Stephen Meyer is coming out of the ‘60s. He founded the religion in the ‘70s in this counterculture time.’ So just trying to take elements of stuff that was interesting from those kinds of movements at that time. Separate them into this more mystical thing that’s going on.


Michelle Lee, Jessica Goldberg and Michelle Monaghan


PC: A lot of the plot revolves around clashes over leadership: how much of it is to do with political power playing out between the characters rather than just their religious beliefs? How much of it is a power struggle?


JG: That is a super-interesting question! For Eddie there’s a real experience going on, he’s definitely struggling: in the way that saints archetypally struggle with feeling [of being] called to something, but not wanting to do it. But most of the other struggles, certainly for Cal, it’s about the sense of wanting to find his self-worth and, for him, power means a lot — and it’s more about that than the actual religion. And I think Sara, who is always our total … she was such a zealot in the first season, you know she really sort of gets messed up through the seasons.



PC: The young actor who plays Hawk (Kyle Allen)- is brilliant as well. He plays his character very well.


JG: Isn’t he wonderful? He sent in a tape with that crazy hair and we were like, ‘Oh my God! He looks like Heath Ledger!’



PC: That’s exactly what I thought – and I loved Heath Ledger, one of the best with still so much to show us.


JG: It’s incredible and he doesn’t seem like a normal teenager —in his character you are never going to be super hip or cool — but he was so right for the part. I think he’s having a really good time. He is a very strong actor, so I’m so excited.



PC: In the scene where he has his hair cut, did he come to you and say, ‘I want rid’ or was he required to do that for the role he plays?


JG: That was very controversial and I was like, ‘Oh we are going to have Hawk cut his hair,’ and people were like gasping, ‘No! No! No!’ They were very upset about it. It was worse than when we had Cal masturbate on people! As if cutting Hawk’s hair was worse than that! So controversial!



PC: ‘We are never watching this show again!’


JG: It is funny how upset people get about certain things.



PC: Have you had much backlash generally? Another show I am heavily into The Blacklist – the show runners and writers have come in for a lot of flak from the fans, who ‘ship’ different characters. In the season finale the fans whose characters they ‘ship’ didn’t get together and those fans have been very vocal.


JG: It’s so interesting: people just love their shows and they get very upset. I stay a bit away from it all, just because it can be too influential. I definitely feel like it’s good to sort of keep a little bit of a distance from what people are saying. I find it funny they get mad at Sarah (Michelle’s character), that I always find funny, because the men, like Cal, do such awful things.



PC: Cal can do no wrong!


JG: He can do no wrong and then when Sarah does ‘awful things’ they jump on it. It’s very hard to watch a woman do ‘bad things.’



PC: Now moving onto the music questions: are you… you are a big music fan surely, aren’t you?


JG: I am a big music fan. I mean, I find that I listen to less new stuff and, now that I have a daughter, I listen to a lot of pop music.



PC: Ha, lucky you!


JG: She gets in the car. She turns the radio onto the pop station.



PC: I’ve gone the other way now, I listen to BBC Radio 2, I’m like, ‘what’s happening to me?’


JG: Yeah I’m not as ‘hip’ as I used to be. On our show, I think we have this amazing music supervisor, Liza Richardson, and she finds some great music.



PC: Can you recall the first record you bought? Actually I suppose you may not have needed to buy any, since your dad ran a record store.


JG: My gosh! What was the first one? I had a lot of those 45s. I remember Cyndi Lauper, but later I got into all this ‘60s stuff: like in high school I got into The Band and Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd – all that kind of stuff.



PC: What would your playlist, if your daughter wasn’t in the car and you were on a road trip, look like?


JG: Now I like singer/songwriters. I love Wilco. I love more stuff like that: I love Ryan Adams – people who write.



PC: Do you like more meaningful lyrics rather than perhaps the hook?


JG: Yeah. My boyfriend turned me onto a guy the other day who’s amazing, whose name is Perfume Genius.



PC: Do you enjoy a certain genre? Do you have a favourite?


JG: Probably the singer/songwriter genre and I put Radiohead in that category. I was really excited at the end of the season on The Path to put that Radiohead record in. I guess, because I grew up with it, I love the folk stuff. My dad was super into jazz and I’m just trying to get into that now.



PC: Do you play an instrument?


JG: I did play the piano when I was a kid but my daughter’s a really good singer. We listen to tons of musical theatre (she loves musical theatre) and she knows every word of the ‘Hamilton’ soundtrack. That is a big part of our lives now- musicals.



PC: When you are writing can you have music on or do you need silence?


JG: I cannot. A lot of people love music but I need silence – not even classical music. Sometimes something like opera can be really evocative, but I do get really distracted by music.

I find music is easy. When I listen to it I love it – like in the car.



PC: What about live music? Do you go to many gigs?


JG: I wish I saw more live music. We have this beautiful venue called The Hollywood Bowl and I try to go twice a year. Last year I went to a classical show. I have seen Wilco there. I saw They Might Be Giants there.

Sometimes you just go and see a show. I wish I went more, but honestly, between my job and being a mom… I do go to a lot of musicals.

You know who’s really into music: Aaron Paul.


Jessica and Aaron on-set

PC: Yes he recently recommended a musician on his twitter account who is so good, called Albin Lee Meldau. I’m really into him now.


JG: Yeah, he has these concerts. He actually finds a musician that no one’s heard of and he has a concert in his house and invites people over and does like a private gig.



PC: Oh does he? Wow! Have you been to any of those?


JG: I have been twice, and one of the singers was so good that I would like to use his music next season. His name is Syml: he is amazing, you will love him.



PC: I really like the soundtrack on The Path. I listen to it often on Spotify.


JG: We use this guy called Daniel Spaleniak (I think he’s from Eastern Europe) he is great – we use him a lot. It’s so fun having these musical directors because it’s music you would never have come into contact with[otherwise].



PC: What has been the best live music gig you have been to…ever?


JG: The best was Leonard Cohen: I’ve seen him three times; last time was on his final tour before he died, so I feel pretty lucky about that too.



PC: Very lucky! I love his last album too.


JG: Yes, he was great. He was beautiful.



PC: And your second favourite concert?


JG: Miles Davis’s concert was amazing! I saw Wilco in a small venue in upstate New York with my parents – that was pretty moving.



PC: I just want to mention how lovely your assistant Paola Limon has been in organising this interview, so genuinely nice and very professional – been a pleasure dealing with her.


JG: Yes, I love her! She is amazing! She was an assistant on set and we moved her out here.



PC: Three questions I ask everyone I interview: what would be your most used word?


JG: Gosh. The word I use most often is ‘brutal’ – I know that because my daughter says it to embarrass me – but I like, lately, the word ‘hopefully.’



PC: How would you spend your perfect day?


JG: I would just put my family in the car – go down to a beach or something.



PC: What could you not live without?


JG: Probably: writing, wine, sometimes sex, and of course my daughter!


Thanks to Jessica, Paola and Davina Baynes.

The Path on Twitter

You can find Jessica on Twitter

This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Any opinions or views expressed within the interview are the subject’s own and publication does not imply endorsement of any such opinions or views by Absolute Music Chat or its personnel.

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