Weed media can be predictable. High Maintenance, a new HBO show that got its start as a scrappy but emotionally resonant web series, offers something different than the usual cannabis-fueled slackerdom. Written and created by Katja Blichfeld, an Emmy-winning casting director for 30 Rock, and her actor husband, Ben Sinclair, the series offers a true-to-life vision of New York City, full of diverse characters and uncannily recognizable situations. For those who haven't been following since its 2012 debut on Vimeo: each story is defined by its connection to an unnamed weed delivery guy, played with nonchalant realism by Sinclair himself.
Ahead of the critically acclaimed web show’s premium-cable debut, The FADER sat down with the couple behind High Maintenance to chat about the the show’s evolution, the ways in which the plot reflects their marriage, and how they worked together to make what’s quite possibly the year’s best collection of short stories.
How did you guys make the transition from putting it out yourselves, to gaining Vimeo’s backing, to cable?
KATJA BLICHFELD: It was really organic.
BEN SINCLAIR: It was great that it happened that way.
KATJA: We didn’t have much of a plan going into any of this. When we came up with the show, we didn’t even know it was a show. It felt like a project, and we didn’t know if it was a one-off project or what. Pretty quickly, it became clear to us that we wanted to do more than one.
BEN: Yeah, we kept on asking that [of ourselves] -- What is this?, the whole time.
KATJA: And then we were like, maybe we’ll send it to friends and they’ll appreciate it, and industry people might like what we do and give us more work in our respective fields. And that’s really all we thought would happen. So it was a surprise to us when press outlets started picking it up and people started tweeting about it or putting it on Facebook, all that kind of stuff. That was surprising to us. And how everything has happened since then has been similarly organic. From the Vimeo to this point was -- when we sat there and made those six episodes — we weren’t thinking, ‘And now, we’ll do it for television!’ We thought we’d be making them on our own with funding from Vimeo or somebody for all time until we were sick of it.
BEN: We’ve been so lucky because this whole time we’ve been like, ‘No! We want to do it the way we want to do it.’ And everyone’s been cool with that. We didn’t have any expectation that people were going to tell us no because we weren’t trying to make it anything. We were never asking for permission for anything, but people gave us permission before we even asked, to do what we wanted to do. Which is, I mean, we’re so lucky. That is not an experience that many people I’ve talked to have had.
KATJA: We are well aware we’re living the American dream.
BEN: But we weren’t looking for it.
“How do we do better? How do we actually reflect back the world that exists around us? What’s our responsibility in that equation?” - Katja Blichfeld
What were some of the growing pains, in terms of writing and production?
BEN: Personally manufactured anxiety is one.
KATJA: Suddenly having people on your set that aren’t people that you were friends with that you met at someone’s birthday. Now it was people reporting for duty.
BEN: I was told that our set on HBO was not like any other set that these more professionally seasoned people had worked on. It felt like a hybrid of what we used to do and the way [other] people do it.
KATJA: I think it probably felt like an indie movie film set. That’s what is atypical about it. For an episodic series, that’s different.
BEN: Because of our size, we weren’t as flexible either. We had to find the right apartments to shoot on the right dates with the actors who were available. And that part of it, I think, you can probably see in my character this season. He’s a little more stressed out. It’s because we were more stressed out. We used to work on one episode at a time and once we had three, we would release them in a cycle. Now, we wanted to make a dozen short stories but we had to think about them all at the same time. Which was incredible mental gymnastics to make sure that the quality is being upheld. That was a tall order that I’m glad we did ourselves this time. We both think it was really important that [Katja] and I take full creative culpability to keep this show feeling intimate.
It was more literary and darker than previous seasons, for me. Was there a reason you went in that direction?
KATJA: That’s just where we are.
BEN: I think in most good works, first I like to watch someone be happy, and then I like to watch them descend. I want them to get back to that place eventually in the end. It’s hard to watch something where someone is immediately crying and depressed right off the bat because then it’s like, oh this person is a bummer, I don’t know if I’m going to stick around. Like anyone who starts a small business, they do it for the love of it and the business of it hits them in the fucking face. And they’re like, Shit, what did I get myself involved in? That seems the most authentic to us. He’s like, Do I need help? And that’s what we’re asking ourselves: are we going to ask for help from other writers? Are we going to make this show bigger? Is it going to stay intimate and small with only a few customers? What are we going to do? It’s more exciting for us to live that out in front of you, the audience, then it is to know all the answers right off the bat.
This season was more socially conscious too. There were a lot more intersections of experience and identity portrayed, what was that like?
KATJA: Not everything is conscious, some things just happened. But we definitely wanted to make sure that we were participating in the conversation that anyone who is conscious is participating in right now. Asking all the questions that anyone conscious is asking. How do we do better? How do we actually reflect back the world that exists around us? What’s our responsibility in that equation?
BEN: And how do we not try to fix the problem?
KB: We’re two people sitting in a seat of white privilege, so what is the appropriate response? The answer is: we don’t know. Don’t purport to have any of the answers. Can’t fix it, but we can comment on it and we can acknowledge it. I think that was where we started from, like, let’s not push but gotta reflect the world — I mean, we live in New York City. The way we’ve set it up is that The Guy’s [delivery] service is referral based so, it makes sense that people who are friends with each other are going to be referring each other. And they’re all from that artist class of people.
When it started, it was a lot of people who seemed like they might live in Williamsburg and Bushwick and were kind of on the younger side and looked like they could have been friends in college or at their waitressing jobs. And then as time has gone on, we decided it would be interesting to see other kinds of people and they don’t all have to be weed smokers. Aren’t there other ways we can come up with for people to interact with this character that don’t include an actual weed deal?
What about you two personally, how does it work being husband and wife and also creative collaborators? I’m curious.
BEN: We don’t have time to answer that one.
A forthcoming book perhaps?
KATJA: Honestly, yes, one day it will all come out in a book.
BEN: We’re right now the strongest in our marriage that we’ve ever been. And that’s an honest statement. That’s not just well-timed for this interview.
KATJA: We’re lucky that this all coincided with this cool, monumental thing.
BEN: Throughout the season, if you’re looking, you can see a lot of themes surrounding us just dealing with each other. Codependency and issues like that.
KATJA: Codependency is a huge thing.
BEN: From the first episode to the end, there is something about a relationship in all of them. Some veiled, some not. All of that is us. It felt really good when we started finishing the edits, it was like taking off a suit of armor. We fight a lot. Over creative decisions, over how we support each other on set, over how people we have no control over treat us differently. And it’s because we care. And we’re very sensitive.
What do you hope this show will accomplish?
BEN: I hope that it encourages people to break away from formulaic structure in terms of storytelling. As a viewer, I think it’s exciting to have to figure out how to watch something as you’re watching it. I love that kind of active entertainment.
KATJA: I just hope people see themselves. Even people who may not on the surface or at the onset look like they have anything to do with the [show]. If you’re watching it as a viewer, maybe that person [on screen] doesn’t seem like they have anything that looks similar to your life. I would hope that as a viewer, I hope they see a mirror, you know? At some point in watching the show — all the episodes are different — I’m hoping that people come away like, ‘oh, how did they know?’ That’s what I’m always trying to get: recognition of humanness.