Few web series have garnered as much critical acclaim and subcultural fandom as High Maintenance, a show about The Guy, a nameless pot dealer who bicycles around New York, delivering weed to an unrelated cast of New Yorkers in various neighborhoods and apartments. For two years, High Maintenance was produced by married duo and series co-creators Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, who also stars as the only consistent recurring character. Now, Vimeo has decided to fund the production of the series, placing it as their first foray into original web series content, and giving Blichfeld and Sinclair an opportunity to make six new episodes of the fan favorite.
While The Guy is the only consistently recurring character, the show certainly is not all about him. Each episode centers around a different customer, giving the viewer insight into their day-to-day lives and relationships. This character-driven storytelling device allows for a lot of room in each episode to explore the nuanced intricacies of these strangers' lives without having to follow them around for an entire season, or "cycle" as Blichfeld and Sinclair have called this division. Generally comical, but often subtly poignant and touching, High Maintenance depicts a genuine look at Brooklyn life, for stoners and others alike. Here, Blichfeld and Sinclair discuss the process of creating content for the Internet, what it's like to be married to your creative partner, and what it was like to have the TV critic goddess, Emily Nussbaum, praise their show.
How did you come up with the idea for High Maintenance?
Katja Blichfeld: We started with just wanting to work together because we’re together a lot and we inspire each other in various ways, and we’re entertained by each other. We just thought it would be a cool thing to make something together and have something tangible to show for ourselves. Once we expressed that desire, it was just a matter of what it would be. I don’t think we ever had any thought besides making something for the Internet. It seemed like that is a low-stakes thing to do. If it’s bad, you just take it down or don’t share it with people. [Laughs.]
I think one day we were riding bikes, and we actually don’t know who came up with the idea for it do be a weed deal, but all we knew was that it needed to be short, under five minutes. We thought it would be cool to film an interaction that could happen in real-time, and ideally something that could be shot in one location with few people. Once we zoomed in on those parameters, it became clear that a weed delivery fulfilled all of those things.
Ben Sinclair: Yes, it did check everything off that list.
Blichfeld: And that was a sort of consistent thing happening in our lives. [Laughs.]
Sinclair: The most exciting part was the ability to bring a group of people together every time, and get to build an artistic family based around this one concept.
Blichfeld: We also knew we had no budget. We knew we’d be paying for all the production costs ourselves, and we didn’t really have a lot of money, so we knew it would be people we knew.
Sinclair: You could get somebody’s time without saying, “I need you for a week.” You could say, “I need you for a day.”
Blichfeld: If you change the cast each time, then you can do that. So it was really just a work-around, and it ended up being a cool device. A lot of things that people cite as being cool things in our series are actually work-arounds, things we were just doing to fix a mistake that ended up better than what was originally intended.
Since one episode is so different from the next, do you think that’s what draws people to the series?
Sinclair: I think that would be a hard show to make, and we were told when we first signed on with our agents that selling an anthology show like this was going to be very hard to do.
Blichfeld: That’s just not the expectation when people turn on a series. They want to check in with this group of people every week, and see where they are and how they’re progressing through life and relationships. We just couldn’t afford to do that in the beginning, so we didn’t. Then it gave us all of this freedom and now we’re at a point where we’re still going, so now we can start bringing back people we introduced earlier.
Blichfeld: We didn’t know that was gonna happen when we started. We didn’t have a grand plan for the characters, not even Ben’s character. We’re still trying to figure out what happens to him in the end. We have ideas, but it’s constantly growing.
Sinclair: If I had my way, we would just do a couple episodes a year.
Blichfeld: It would be cool if we did a few a year and people were okay with that. [Laughs.]
In the new cycle, some of the episodes are a little bit longer than the ones you made in the past. Was that something you were trying to do?
Blichfeld: It just happened.
Sinclair: However the story gets told, it’s done when it’s done. If that’s a 19-page story, then we gotta figure out how to shoot that in three days, man, because we don’t have much more money to have more days of shooting.
Did you ever consider moving away from the Internet and towards a different platform?
Sinclair: We had a script deal with FX for nine months, just trying to develop a script to shoot a pilot of High Maintenance. It did not feel right while we were doing it. Luckily, both sides were amicable in saying that this wouldn’t be a good fit for FX and we agreed. And Vimeo just happened to be on the other side of that figurative hallway. They were like, “Hey, what do you want?” and we told them.
Blichfeld: What we wanted was to just keep doing what we were doing and to not have to change it, and not have to fit it into anyone’s box. We just wanted to keep doing this on a small scale, with our friends.
Sinclair: We wanted the original intent still intact throughout the whole thing.
Blichfeld: It was nice, it felt seamless. We’re still on Vimeo, there was no change. They’re so sweet. That’s how it is here. I remember when we first came in to [their office], someone said to Ben, “Why do you look so angry? What’s wrong?”
Sinclair: First day of shooting I was running around with a scowl on my face, which is my working face. Someone asked me, “What’s going on?” I said, “What’s not going on?! The world is collapsing!” They were like, “No, we’re cool!” and they just skateboarded away or whatever they do. [Laughs.] That’s been the vibe here. They have a shower, so we’ve been able to ride our bikes here and then take a shower.
Blichfeld: When I found out there was a shower here, my mind was blown. [Laughs.] I was like, “Sign me up!”
Do you think staying in New York is essential to the show?
Blichfeld: I mean, right now it is, because it’s where we live.
Sinclair: Wherever we are and whatever is happening with us can turn into an episode, essentially. It’s a matter of us picking through the meniscus of our life, the things that are appealing to us, the things we keep hearing at friends’ gatherings, the kind of things we keep on running into, and we work it in. There had been one time when we talked about a whole season where The Guy moved a couple pounds of weed from the west coast to the east coast, and every episode was a different state or different place in the middle. There was that idea, but that’s just one of a thousand ideas. If we ever wanted to move to Portland one day, people need weed in Portland, too. Although, I don’t know if it’s going to be legal yet. We’ll see. It’s really just a mirror of what is happening in our minds, in our guts, and in our hearts.
Blichfeld: I agree, we feel like we could do this show everywhere, but I don’t know if the rest of the world will agree because we just keep hearing, “It’s so New York!” I don’t know if people’s expectations would prohibit them from enjoying it in the same way, but I would love to try to do it in another city at some point.
Sinclair: When we shot the episode, “Matilda,” I’m from Arizona and that is our niece. While we were there, there was a guy I knew from Jewish youth group in high school, who operated the crane for Arizona Cardinals games, and knew how to work a red camera, and we were like, “Alright, so I haven’t talked to you in ten years or whatever, but do you wanna do this?” It was him, Katja, and me. I was working sound and our niece was there. That worked. It was a place to start and it was a nice surprise that it ended up in New York. We just wanna keep on making whatever is happening with us.
High Maintenance is hilarious, but the tone of the show is often emotional, bittersweet, and sometimes a little dark. How do you strike that perfect balance between making people laugh and making people feel something for these characters?
Sinclair: The first dark episode that we shot was “Helen” and that was the third episode that we shot, but sixth episode that we released. We realized that if you’re going to go to that dark place, my feeling is that you have to make people laugh.
Blichfeld: We were on the Internet at a time when it was just comedy videos. We thought there would be an expectation in place that there was going to be laughter on the other end of clicking that button. I think we felt that we had to establish our tone and universe before we could break from it. It was a little too early to just break. Some people have told us that “Helen” is their favorite episode, and it’s arguably one of the saddest ones. Once we started getting feedback to that effect, it was a green light to do anything. I say this a lot, but it’s true, we’re really emotional people and can go from laughter to tears within very short amounts of time. Some days our day starts really great and by the end we’re crying and slamming doors. That’s how our life is. I think we experience emotion really intensely, and sadness is a part of that range of emotions. I also like sad endings, I like being left not feeling good sometimes at the end because that’s life. Sometimes things don’t have a happy ending.
Sinclair: We have a framed Dancer in the Dark poster in our home, courtesy of Katja Blichfeld.
Blichfeld: [Laughs.] It’s true, it’s one of my favorite movies!
Sinclair: Also, no one is telling us we can’t do that, so we do. It’s not like we have to be on a network that caters only to one type of genre, or one type of feeling.
Blichfeld: Or their advertising block is all this product and we need to make people feel this way to sell that thing. There’s none of that.
Sinclair: Information is passed around these days by way of Evangelists with blogs and whatnot. If we’re appealing to an ASMR niche, someone might post or mention that on an ASMR blog, and then that is the conduit for people.
Blichfeld: We’re not trying to appeal to people.
Sinclair: We’re able to appeal to different niches: a cycling niche, a weed niche, a fashion niche in the Rachel Comey episode, a cross-dressing niche. Those people are gonna take what they need from the series and then leave the rest, and if they wanna take more they can, but this is just the way that it ended up being.
In “Rachel,” Dan Stevens stars as a cross-dressing dad. How did you get him involved?
Blichfeld: He was in a Broadway show, and one of the other cast members of that show is friends with our third executive producer, Russell Gregory. I think she posted some episodes on her Facebook, and he saw it that way and liked it. He was like, “Oh, you know these guys?” He wrote us an email and said he really liked the show, and wrote a piece about it in The Telegraph. That was really sweet of him. We got together with him, and he turned out to be a really nice guy and had just relocated with his family to Brooklyn. I think he was just looking for cool, new friends, and luckily we all hit it off really well.
After we learned he wanted to work with us, we filed that away and decided it would happen but wanted to come up with the right story. To do that, we wanted to get to know him a little bit better, and through that process we became friends with him and got to know him better. We came upon the idea when we realized he was this nice dad and a sweet husband, and a family man. He wasn’t some actor type, going out partying and drinking every night. His idea of a nice evening is sitting at home by the fire with his wife and some friends, and having a chat about important things, feelings, and literature. After spending that time with him, a bunch of ideas that we had coalesced into what you see in the episode. Rachel Comey had also written to us last year saying she wanted to work together, and we were just waiting for the right opportunity.
Sinclair: We really do have a tendency to wait until something falls in our lap. We are not extremely aggressive in something. We really do wait for that inspiration to hit, which was why it’s an interesting thing for somebody to say, “We’re buying six episodes, so make six episodes.” We were like, “Well, fuck. What were we inspired by this year?” You know what I mean? The week before we shot our last episode, we were writing it from scratch.
Blichfeld: There was a whole group of people asking us for the script and we said, “Oh, god this is probably what TV is like!” You have to do it, now! It was a weird experience for us, but good.
Sinclair: I think there is a middle ground between the six-episode order, and what we had been doing sporadically on free weekends. I think there is a way for the longevity of our show to exist between worlds, where there’s enough oxygen for that show to build on its own.
Are you working on any other projects right now?
Blichfeld: Kind of, not super actively. There is such a small group of people working on this, so a lot of the post-production falls to Ben as the editor. Like we said, we let things take their time. Just because we’ve shot something doesn’t mean it’s ready to go. Now we need to sit and think about those clips, think about the performances and let other things come to fruition in the story and character development, even after it’s been shot. That takes up a lot of our time and creative energy. We’re all about High Maintenance right now, but we did try to pitch another show earlier this year that nobody was interested in. Thank goodness, actually.
Sinclair: If I were to see that show on TV, I’d be like, “Motherfucker…” [Laughs.]
Blichfeld: [Laughs.] We’ll probably turn it into a feature, truth be told. Because it would actually be better as a feature. I think we’d like to direct other people’s work, but if it’s a feature we’d like to work on our own. I don’t think we’d want to direct someone else’s feature for our first outing, but I think we’d be totally into coming in and being guest directors for a television show, if someone would ask us. If it’s something we’d be a good fit for, great. If we are not a fit, we’re not gonna touch it because, first of all, we don’t like to set ourselves up for failure, but also, why bother? We like things to be right.
Sinclair: Following our guts. I have known all the times in my life when I should’ve followed my gut. I do feel that in terms of our show, there have been a couple of times where I just felt a cup of acid pour into my stomach. Once I was saying something that was, at the time, good, I would say it out loud and I would feel this cup of acid pour into my stomach. Following my gut has been my compass in all of this, and I think it’s yours as well.
You were recently talked up by Emily Nussbaum in The New Yorker. Have you ever been surprised by anyone else telling you that they’re a fan of the show?
Blichfeld: We cried when that happened. Emily Nussbaum is the most important critic to us, so just to be on her radar to begin with was overwhelming. To hear anything after that was unbelievable. That was surprising. We’re always surprised. We’re surprised constantly. We get all kinds of emails where we’re like, “How does this person even know about us?”
Sinclair: When Jenji [Kohan] emailed in the middle of the night just because she was up late, that was an amazing experience. We woke up in the morning and it was crazy.
Do people recognize you on the street now?
Blichfeld: He gets approached pretty much daily. Multiple times a day.
What do people say when they see you?
Blichfeld: Usually people just want to say, “I love the show.”
Sinclair: A couple of times it has been a person who is dealing pot at the moment, and they see us.
Blichfeld: Sometimes it’s just people asking for a picture with Ben.
Sinclair: I’m gonna start a system where I say, “You have to tell me a very interesting fact. It could be personal, trivial.”
What’s your favorite episode that you’ve worked on?
Sinclair: "Matilda" was a really cool episode because it was such a family affair. That felt like a family lamboree band. We’re not very close in distance to our family, so to be able to spend that time with a twelve-year-old budding woman, we developed a cool relationship with her.
Blichfeld: Yeah, we’ll always have that memory with her forever. We’ll have a record of it. That episode also felt nostalgic for us because of our childhoods. We had memories of being suburban kids who were kind of bored and lonely, out in the beige suburb lands. There’s nowhere to go except malls, and you can’t drive and your parents are busy working. It’s lonely in the suburbs sometimes, and we both remembered going to big cities for the first time as kids. Ben was saying he remembered the first time he gave money to a bum in Chicago and it felt so “adult” and “gritty” compared to his suburban life. [Laughs.] I think we wanted to capture those feelings, and we did. That and the fact that we were having an actual visit with our niece while we were doing it.
Sinclair: The vibes going on with the shooting of the episode and the visit were very similar. Also, in the next cycle, our two episodes that we shot last were fucking fun. Everyone was dog tired, but really happy to be there and very close.
If you could get stoned with one person, dead or alive, who would it be, and what would you do?
Sinclair: I would love to get stoned with Nikola Tesla. I would just watch his electrical performances. I think that would be the trippiest thing. The dude used to shoot thunderbolts from his hands! He did! He put on these wonderful displays of electricity at the World’s Fair. He said he contacted aliens, he had a lot of weird stuff to say. Fighting with Edison, had some problems.
Blichfeld: There’s too much pressure, I can’t think of one! I honestly don’t know. I think your answer is great though. Who could beat it?