‘High Maintenance’ Creators Thriving Under Controlled Conditions

The spirit of Dogma 95 lives on as married co-creators Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld grow their web show to HBO

Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, creators of High Maintenance.

Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, creators of High Maintenance. Photo via HBO

I love High Maintenance. And not just because Ben Sinclair, the star and half the creative team behind the Vimeo web-series turned HBO pot comedy, was the first person I met at a campus party in college. (Standing in line for Jell-O shots with a guy who looks like an 18-year-old John Malkovich, reciting the opening lines of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf…it’s the kind of memory that sticks with a person.) It’s as much about how well Sinclair and his wife/co-creator Katja Blichfeld, managed to create a world that keeps expanding outward, like the tendrils of a certain leafy green supplied by the show’s protagonist (a weed delivery guy, appropriately named “Guy.”) Over the course of its six seasons on Vimeo, a seemingly disparate series of interactions evolved into a meta-narrative of inter-connectivity between its subjects, who at first were only tied together by their dealer.

After being picked up on HBO, Sinclair and Blichfeld had a tricky balancing act of introducing (or re-introducing) several major players to a new audience, while satisfying the munchies of the long-standing super-fans. The results are a fantastic sweep of a Brooklyn lifestyle as diverse as its residents. (To be sure, between the Sinclair/Blichfeld partnership and that of the married creators of Westworld, HBO is just one couple away from a trend story about the network hedging its bets against the next wave of Difficult Men by forcing them to share the showrunner status with their wives…something I am firmly in support of.) I sat down for a quick post-lunch catch-up at HBO’s headquarters with Sinclair and Blichfeld to discuss how the various constraints–among them finances, logistics and locations–of their initial web series helped them manifest a greater TV show.

Observer: So, between you, Lena Dunham and Sarah Violet-Bliss (TBS’ upcoming Search Party)…

Ben Sinclair: I know, it’s so many Oberlin kids.

Observer: When we were graduating, I think maybe it was the FIRST year Oberlin had a film department. And yet we’re dominating TV right now!

BS: It’s true, though I don’t remember messing around with film in college…I would step into some friends’ films or web series, but that was mostly after graduation. These fucking Oberlin kids, man. The very last interview we had was for New York Metro, and it was another person we had gone to college with!

Observer: I watched the High Maintenance HBO pilot with a friend of mine who had never seen the Vimeo web series, and I thought I’d have to fill her in, since several of the characters have previously appeared on the original show. But she totally got it. And then I watched with a friend of mine who had seen the original episodes on Vimeo, and he was pointing to characters I hadn’t even recognized from the first incarnation. He was filling me in on their backstory.

So how much of a barrier to entry do you expect there to be for people who have never seen the High Maintenance web series vs those who have?

Katja Blichfeld: Hopefully, none. Hopefully what you just said is the case. Hearing that, I’m like “Wooo!” Heartening.

BS: And to be completely honest, that first episode you saw was not supposed to be the first episode of this new season. I would say these stories felt very living and breathing and changing and mutable, up until this past March, really. We were still deciding the order, for some of them. We had not planned out a whole season before, and that was the big difference between this and what it was before. We had to consider that you’ll come back in six weeks and have a full experience of our design.

Observer: How Hannibal of you! So let me ask this then: do people need to watch all these episodes in order? Or is this more of an episodic anthology show, like Black Mirror?

KB: You can watch them out of order, but there is a small reward to watching them in order. The idea is that you should be able to enter at any point.

BS: And that’s been the case, from the web series until now. We’ve always stuck by that guideline. That you should be able to watch each episode on its own: it should be a short film with a beginning, middle and end that you can follow clearly. 

KB: Though there does need to be that reward for people paying close attention. I get really excited when creators shout-out to fans with really small things. I guess you just hope someone will notice. 

Observer: Someone wrote an article recently about how Mr. Robot‘s has so many visual Easter Eggs that literally no one has found them all yet. Every barcode, every URL that appears on screen, can take you to a different location.

BS: That sounds like so much delegation. 

KB: You know, one of the biggest joys, that we haven’t really talked about yet, is how HBO has this “use as intended” stuff. Because we’re not a network TV program, we can show more things.

BS: Sponsors aren’t going to be mad if someone, you know, opens a can of Coke. 

“The biggest freedom it, turns out, is to be able to portray the world as it looks.” – Katja Blichfeld, co-creator of High Maintenance.

KB: That has been a cool thing that we hadn’t really thought about beforehand. I remember when we had that FX deal, we were writing and I’d be like “Oh, we can’t say Fuck!” I thought that would be the biggest freedom, to swear. But no, the biggest freedom it, turns out, is to be able to portray the world as it looks. I think they even have a rule on HBO that they don’t want you to have fake brands. 

BS: That was an exciting phone call with legal!

Observer: Let’s back-track a bit. How did you come up with High Maintenance?

BS: Katja and I wanted to work together, even before we were married. We knew that we wanted to have some kind of collaboration with each other. I’d been gaining video experience through commercial contests and FunnyOrDie video shit. And Katja had been casting for a couple of years, and had a group of actors that she felt like she hadn’t been able to get the parts that they deserved.  

The idea–and we get asked this question a lot–but I think the original idea was that we wanted to create something in real-time, for the Internet, and no one was going to want to watch a movie over 2 minutes. But 5 minutes is what we allowed ourselves. It was about finding an interaction with a beginning, middle and end, that would be easy to shoot. We didn’t really discover all of the different layers of how this would benefit us before we actually did it. 

Once we had that, though, we started seeing “Oh, but now you can also create a social web, of people who pass around a referral.” “Oh, but now you can also move with these characters outside their apartments!” It all started from just wanting to create an interaction that we could record in real time, that had an air of…I don’t know…(snaps fingers) jazz to it! You know, jazz cigarettes!

We didn’t overthink it. I think that’s why we did it. Because we didn’t overthink it.

Observer: Good thing you’re being asked now!

KB: It is interesting to reflect on. Because when we do think about it, we’re like “We don’t really know what the hell we were doing.” We were just like “I want to make something with you!” I found Ben so charismatic and entertaining, and I felt like we needed to show that to the world.

I think also the limitation of not having money for places to shoot, we knew we couldn’t take over a space for more than a day, logically, without causing too much disruption to somebody’s life. We knew we had to keep changing the location up.

Observer: I read that New York Times profile and felt very stressed out for whoever’s apartment you were using.

BS: The difference now is that we have two apartments per building. We have a holding nearby. For us, the everyone on top of each other thing was part of the intimacy of our show. It’s part of how it’s created, and we didn’t want to lose that going into this incarnation. It was important that all the creative decisions came from the same sources as they did in the web series, but also that our interaction with our actors…that they wouldn’t come being like “Oh, this is my chance at HBO. I’ve got to say every line word-perfect to this.” We also wanted them to make the words their own, to find the spontaneity we had when we had a schedule still to keep. We were never allowed to go overtime, because our budget would have been fucked if we had. There were so many constraints.

Observer: It almost seems like you are playing with some ideas from the Dogma 95 school.

KB: Honestly, for me, that was my biggest influence.

Observer: One of the biggest questions I think fans of the web series had about the show coming to HBO was how you were going to deal with the time constraints of filling a half hour episode, if each narrative was just as long as it needed to be. How did you handle splitting up these tableaus to fit a more structured (and longer) narrative?

BS: We wanted to under-promise and over-deliver. We believe–though we don’t know–that when HBO asked for six episodes of High Maintenance, they thought they were going to get six short stories. When the legal came to us–another great legal story!–they told us that for programming, people would like it between 20 and 30 minutes. That’s how the programmers were going to make it work…there was no guarantee that we were ever going on broadcast early on.

So we thought “Well, we don’t want to make 22 minute episodes and just have it there,” so it just seemed ideal to keep it the same when possible and smash as many stories in that 30 minute time-slot as possible. Ideally, I wanted it to be two episodes had three stories, two episodes and two stories and two episodes had one story. That’s a lot of fucking stories. We kind of averaged that to two per episode.

Observer: Your protagonist’s character has changed somewhat from the Vimeo series. Maybe he was more…happy? And now he seems so stressed out. Is that a reflection of the leap to HBO?

BS: Maybe, sure a bit. But it’s also what happens to you in New York City.

KB: I mean, the guy is stressed too!

BS: It’s no secret that these are intensely personal stories. And while we hope that they feel diverse in the people that we follow, yeah…they’re whatever Katja and I are feeling, disguised as other skins.

So yeah, I think last year was tough. I think those three letters put a lot of pressure on us. There were shifts in our social life, family, career.

KB: As there are in life! It’s been two years since we put anything out.

Observer: Were there any specific stories that you weren’t able to tell before, that you’re now able to with a larger platform and audience?

KB: Honestly, a lot of what we did was stuff we came up with once we had the offer. And then some scripts and stories that had been talked about years before, but had been rejected. Things we wrote that didn’t work the first time, but coupled with some new idea we had. We’d be like “Oh, we just hit all the story points for that script we were doing two years ago! Cool! That wasn’t for nothing!”

BS: We do have a different naming convention for the episodes than we did with the web series, because with two stories, you can’t just pull a character name. The naming convention is a little more theme-based. I think the titles tell a lot.

KB: If anyone pays attention to the titles, they will see something emerging.

Observer: It’s your own version of the Easter Egg.

BS: Exactly.

High Maintenance premieres new episodes Fridays on HBO at 11 p.m. ET. Episodes can also be found on HBO Now & Go.

‘High Maintenance’ Creators Thriving Under Controlled Conditions