Hulu’s ‘The Path’ Tackles Tricky Subject of Religious Faith

They say you should never talk about politics and religion.

While there’s little hope these days of escaping the first, Hulu’s new drama series “The Path” is boldly tackling the second.

As conceived by Jessica Goldberg and Jason Katims, who worked together on NBC’s “Parenthood,” “The Path” explores the power of faith — and the lack thereof. It’s a classic family drama mixed with a psychological thriller set in the world of an emerging religious movement (don’t call it a cult).

“It was a very difficult sell,” admits Goldberg of shopping the script. “I think people really responded to it, but were ultimately afraid. I think religion is just a subject people don’t feel comfortable taking on.”

Not Hulu. “Obviously a Jason Katims script goes to the top of the pile,” says Craig Erwich, Hulu’s head of content. “First and foremost, we want to be in business with premium talent. ‘The Path’ just seemed like a natural extension of what he and Jessica have done so well, but with a provocative, of-the-moment subject matter at the heart of it.”

Brinson+Banks for Variety

Fresh off his lead role in NBC’s “Hannibal,” Hugh Dancy stars as Cal Roberts, the charismatic leader of the Meyerist Movement, a group based in upstate New York that believes in a higher purpose, “seeking the light” and “unburdening sins.” Devoted husband and father Eddie (“Breaking Bad’s” Aaron Paul) has begun questioning his beliefs, but his wife, Sarah (“True Detective’s” Michelle Monaghan) grew up in the movement and couldn’t be more steadfast in her belief. For Eddie, being honest with the group would mean losing her — and his family — forever.

It’s those auspices that has imbued Hulu with confidence in the series, no matter how challenging the subject matter. It’s the first original drama launched under Erwich, who took the top content position two years ago.

“My feelings about the show eclipse the fact that it’s our first,” Erwich says. “Whether it’s our first, second, third or 10th, I love this show.”

Back in 2014, Goldberg was going through a tough year personally: Her father died, she got divorced. “I made that connection to write about someone going through a crisis of faith, when they wake up and the frame they had for their whole life is gone,” she says. She turned her personal pain into a script.

Her agent encouraged her to muster the courage to share it with her boss at the time, “Parenthood’s” Katims. “There is an intimacy that happens in the ‘Parenthood’ room because you’re sharing so many personal stories, and yet you don’t really know the person,” says Goldberg. “We don’t go out for beers, you know?”

Katims (“About a Boy,” “Friday Night Lights”) immediately responded to the script, and they started shopping it. Eventually, it landed on Erwich’s desk.

But inventing a religion — as much fun as it might sound — turned out not be to that simple. The pilot went through several drafts as Erwich charged Goldberg with exploring some complicated questions. “Why would you want to be in it?” he asked her. “What are the ways it seeps into the fabric of everything you do? What are the rules of what you can eat? Who you can date?”

A land mine they all wanted to avoid was being compared with Scientology. “We were very careful about that,” Goldberg says. “Obviously it’s such a litigious group, and there’s such fear of it in Los Angeles.”

They took threads from several religions, Eastern and Western — from the “ladder” that is the building block of Meyerism to the “30-day walk” that Paul’s character goes on to the punitive policies for ejecting those who reject the faith. And, of course, the lawyers for the studio, Universal, ultimately went through it all with a fine-tooth comb, Goldberg notes. (There was one legal hiccup: The show was originally titled “The Way,” but it was changed after the real-life ministry objected.)

“Some of the projects that I’m most proud of have come out of independent film. To me, this is the new independent film.”
Michelle Monaghan

One point Erwich challenged Goldberg on was the scale of Meyerism. Originally, it was conceived as a successful institution; he encouraged her to re-imagine it as less established. So in the premiere, when members help the survivors of a tornado, they don’t arrive with helicopters but with vans. “Watching this organization come into its own felt like a more interesting place to start,” Erwich says.

He also asked for a little more of that “Friday Night Lights” fairy dust, which became the addition of older son Hawk (Kyle Allen) to Eddie and Sarah’s family. “That character has ended up being such a beautiful part of the show, and I think it was really helpful in painting the world,” Goldberg says.

She’s enjoying the latitude to explore challenging themes that Hulu offers vs. that of broadcast TV. “I have worked in network TV and developed pilots in network TV, and the encouragement to explore darker parts of the human terrain is just so thrilling as a writer,” she says. “Even though network TV has gotten darker, it seems to only get darker in the way of violence and women being abused.”

Through its 10-episode run, “The Path” takes some gritty turns, but Goldberg says her message is ultimately a hopeful one about faith. She wants to raise questions about what we believe, and what lengths people will go to for those beliefs. “I found in my own research that at the heart of all these religions were just the most beautiful, positive stories,” she says, “and it’s individuals who corrupt them.”

Dancy’s prodigious work habits have earned him a nickname on set: “Fancy Dancy.” The production was on a tight schedule, block-shooting two episodes back to back, so Monaghan and Paul would keep their sides closely at hand. But not Dancy, who had all of his lines memorized, even his long, evangelistic speeches.

“Aaron and I would kick each other and be like, ‘Look! He doesn’t have any sides again!’” says Monaghan.

Monaghan was the first actor to sign on. She was coming off the critically acclaimed first season of HBO’s “True Detective,” so she was choosy about her next project. “One of the things Jessica and Jason were really smart about was knowing we needed someone we could root for, someone who was normal, because that’s the person who leads you through the world,” Erwich says.

What sealed the deal for Monaghan was that the show was going to stream on Hulu; she relished the chance to get in on the digital ground floor. “Independent filmmaking is really kind of lost now,” she says. “Some of the projects that I’m most proud of have come out of independent film. To me, this is the new independent film.”

Paul wasn’t looking to return to TV after six years on AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” but his reps insisted he look at the script. Admittedly, it took a fair bit of wooing. “He definitely went on some personal journey to decide whether he’d back on TV, but I think the material must have spoken to him in some way,” Goldberg says.

Aaron Paul, with series creator Jessica Goldberg. Courtesy of Hulu

Paul says the project was ultimately impossible to ignore. “The world that these characters live inside of is just so fascinating to me,” he says. “The struggle with faith, doubt and their love — it’s just a very complicated mess they’re all in.”

The role that proved hardest to cast was of the enigmatic leader, Cal. “He’s got to be charismatic, menacing and sympathetic,” says Erwich. “There’s not a lot of people who can check off all three boxes.”

Once it became clear that “Hannibal” had reached the end of its run, the offer went out to Dancy. But like Paul, he wasn’t necessarily interested in returning to the small screen. “Because it was so quick on the heels of ‘Hannibal’ ending, it took me a while to get my head around that,” Dancy says. “Eventually what appealed to me was that they wanted to create a set of people that were looking for faith in their life. He’s somebody who’s trying to hold it all together, because he still believes in the greater message.”

By all accounts, Dancy pulls it off. “I’d totally follow him into whatever sort of movement, cult, religion, whatever you want to call it,” says Monaghan. “He’s good like that.”

The series was filmed on location in Nyack, N.Y., at a spiritual retreat run by nuns. “It does a huge amount of work in terms of showing the viewer why somebody might join this [movement], because it’s very idyllic,” Dancy says.

Director Mike Cahill brought a distinct visual style to the filming, using only natural light and three cameras to create a spiritual feel — a style he dubbed “epic verite.” “It’s definitely going from the real, pedestrian world into the world of the mystical,” says Goldberg.

Consider the scene where Paul’s character has to “unburden” — admit to a sin he hasn’t committed, adultery, because he can’t reveal his true crime, skepticism, which would result in his excommunication. “He would rather confess to something he absolutely had nothing to do with than to admit the truth, because if he does, he’s going to lose everyone he loves,” says Paul. He goes through every emotion on the spectrum: anger, denial, panic, rage. It’s a powerful scene, shot with a 360-degree camera in the middle of the room.

“We talked a lot about the show not feeling like the network TV version of a cult,” says Erwich. “It has to be a place where you understand why people would want to be there. At the same time, it has to have jeopardy to it. It’s a fine line.

Paul came from a very religious upbringing — his father was a Southern Baptist minister. “I grew up reading the Bible. I had to memorize certain scriptures,” he says. “So I could relate to this guy. I could relate to the whole movement.”

That’s what mattered to him ultimately, and what he thinks will matter to viewers. “These characters don’t believe that they are in a cult,” he says. “They truly believe with everything in their being that they are a part of something special.”

So while Eddie and Sarah struggle with so-called normal marriage and family issues, they also deal with the oddities of cult life — they don’t eat meat, and require that their son drop out of school at 16 to “take his vows.” Hawk tries to distance himself from others, but of course, he falls for a local teenage girl. That’s not going to end well, causing even more tension in an already fractured household.

“For someone whose faith gives her tremendous strength and sense of control, watching [Sarah] slowly start to unravel was really a challenge,” says Monaghan.

It all climaxes with a cliffhanger that sets up a second season, should renewal come. “I think it’s incredibly brave and exciting,” says Paul. “It’s like nothing that’s ever been told before.”

Addie Morfoot contributed to this story.

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