The group at the center of The Path, a dark, engrossing original series that premieres tonight on Hulu, may or may not be a cult.
“It’s not a cult,” they tell people. “It’s a movement.”
Well, that depends. If you consider a group of 6,000 people who have a compound in upstate New York, take hallucinogens to find “the truth” and see visions of owls and serpents to be a cult, then the well-intentioned characters in The Path are definitely a cult.
The series stars Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), Michelle Monaghan (True Detective) and Hugh Dancy (Hannibal) as high-ranking members of the cult/movement who have varying degrees of certainty about who or what controls the hearts, minds and souls at that compound. It’s not exactly a love triangle; it’s more of a belief triangle.
Jessica Goldberg, a writer-producer on NBC’s Parenthood and the creator of The Path, spoke with Playboy.com earlier this week about the back-to-back life crises that inspired her to write the pilot and her own brushes with extreme esotoric movements.
The show is set in upstate New York, near where Transcendentalism, the Second Great Awakening, the Latter-Day Saints and Woodstock all started. You’re from that area, right?
I’m from Woodstock, and I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s. We had the Rainbow People. We had the Rajneesh, which we called the Orange People. I worked at a video store in high school, and my boss had converted to become a Sufi. The area was full of seekers—people looking for ways of living meaningful lives, who came from this left-of-the-dial thinking. And then I started researching and had not realized that the Golden Texts for the Latter-Day Saints were from this area. Upstate New York has been a breeding ground for these utopian social experiments.
Is the idea of the doubter where you started?
I had gone through a rough year when I lost my father and got divorced, and I kept having these moments that reminded me of something from a freshman philosophy class about your life being shadows. I had that feeling, going through two huge things, that things weren’t real. It’s hard to explain, and I wanted to write about going through that.
The Path is about people in this group called the Meyerist movement. What do they believe? It’s part religion, part philosophy?
It’s a little of both. There is a universal truth, and we can personally be good. God created us in his image, and the Ladder is the journey to get us back to that original image. They believe there will be a manmade apocalypse.
Did you work out the tenets of the movement at the beginning, or did you just work out as much as you needed along the way?
I took some time off from writing on Parenthood and wrote a pilot with vague notions of the religion. When Hulu got interested, they asked me to write a second episode and I wrote some more rules for the second script. Then when Hulu picked up the show, the writers’ room and I wrote a bible. It has all the rungs and the exercises and the mythology, but it leaves room to fit our storytelling needs.
Who of the three leads was attached first?
Michelle Monaghan signed on first—and she is so great and so much of this show—and then we sent it to Aaron Paul. He was torn because he wasn’t super ready to come back to television, but something spoke to him about the part. He comes from a super religious family, and it’s such a grown-up part. Hugh Dancy was the last one because he was on Hannibal. We were having trouble casting that part. I got a call that Hannibal was cancelled, and we were very excited to get him.
The sound design and music are integrated pretty deeply into the show. How early were you thinking about that?
Mike Cahill, our director, came in with a strong sense of what the series would look and feel like. He really set that up in the pilot, and we immediately knew that the music was an important element of the show. Composer Will Bates gave the music an eerie, mysterious quality.
The Peruvian hallucinogen ayahuasca figures into the show. How did you come to include that?
We call it “the medicine” on the show, but it’s ayahuasca. I walked the Inca Trail in Peru and saw an ayahuasca retreat. We had an ayahuasca expert come into the writers’ room. She takes people on these voyages with the medicine. She calls it “the superhighway to the subconscious.” If I didn’t have a nine-year-old daughter, maybe I would do it.
Did you think much in terms of how much story to cover for a first season?
I started with two questions. I wanted to explore taking a first-generation religion and see if it could make the transition to a second generation, and I wanted to explore a marriage in which the two people have a conflict about their beliefs.
Cable and streaming allow you time for characters to breathe. I finally just finished Season 7 of Mad Men, and all Don Draper had to do was look at Peggy a certain way and I would start to cry. The shows built up some much intimacy and history over seven seasons. There’s a hunger for taking that kind of time with stories.