Blazing the Internet TV Show Trail with ‘High Maintenance’s Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair
It’s been nearly two years since we first featured High Maintenance, the stoner-friendly web series from husband/wife duo Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld that follows an unnamed weed dealer (Sinclair) as as he makes deliveries to a diverse and never-ending assortment of NYC residents. Since its 2012 debut, High Maintenance has grown from a scrappy DIY web series to getting picked up as Vimeo’s very first funded original show, and today marks the premiere of its brand new season online. Ahead of High Maintenance’s return, I talked to Blichfeld and Sinclair about why they opted out of the traditional television pilot route, what we can expect from the new episodes, and which guest stars they’re most excited to share with the world.
Congratulations on the deal with Vimeo! How’d that all come about, and why did you ultimately decide to stay there?
Katja: Well I mean, we were living on Vimeo — that’s where we hosted our show, and we loved the experience of using Vimeo and it’s how we view a lot of content that we view and a lot of our filmmaking friends use it as a tool for sharing media with each other and works in progress and things like that, so it sort of felt like a no brainer to us to do that. We never set out to do this — not on this level, anyway. We’d always set out to create something and make something together, but we weren’t setting out to make a long-term project and gain a worldwide audience and that sort of thing. So when we initially started out and started getting some traction after releasing about six episodes, we started hearing the chatter about how maybe it should be a TV series, and we got together with an agent around that time as well, who was also very encouraging of trying to bring it to the cable side of things.
Ben: To push it through the machine.
Katja: Yeah, because that’s what people know how to do and that’s the traditional trajectory of things, especially a web series that gets any amount of attention, because it is so hard to cut through all the noise and get eyeballs. So when somebody does, that is the immediate thought, like Oh, why not try to get even more? And we were resistant at first — we liked the low stakes feeling of what we were doing. We didn’t want to bring all that pressure on ourselves and we didn’t have experience necessarily on that scale of production — we had experience behind the scenes, but not as the creators and writers of something, so we were resistant at first. But then after some time and after getting a little more confident in our abilities and looking at how much money people who do that make… [laughs] …which, to be frank with you, that was really attractive, and we have aspirations to be homeowners some day, so it was exciting to consider. And you know, we did have a deal with FX and that’s not a secret, and it was a really educational experience, and it didn’t go poorly or anything — it was just like tale as old as time: You try to develop something, it doesn’t work, everybody moves on. But lucky for us, Vimeo was waiting in the wings, and immediately as soon as that deal fell apart they were there saying “Hey, we just allocated funds for this exact purpose — would you guys like to be the first people who we give money to?”
Ben: And our biggest desire was to not change anything as much as possible, because we had just come from an environment where people were very much intent on making our show “better” and we really liked our show the way it was.
Katja: I mean, it can always be better, but…
Ben: …you know, “better.”
Katja: It was just strange to have people who had nothing to do with the creation of that universe give you pointers on how to adjust things when, you know…they just seemed disconnected.
It seems like networks confuse “better” with “broader” in a lot in those situations.
Katja: Often, yeah. And that got scary for us.
Ben: And then we realized at some point that money is money — it’s gonna come and go in this life — but our face and our brand and our life’s work is really the most precious thing. And for right now, it really is our life’s work.
Katja: Well it’s a really personal project. If you look back at those first 13 episodes, so many performers in those are close personal friends or our family — our niece is in “Matilda,” [Ben’s] dad is awesome in it, our sister-in-law is in the first episode — and it’s our personal stories and personal feelings about things getting worked out, so like anyone who creates something, we feel a really deep attachment to these stories and felt really protective of this universe that we created. It just made complete sense to go somewhere where…we didn’t even have to go somewhere, we were there.
Ben: And it’s cool to be first. It’s awesome that we’re going to be first in this environment, because in terms of video sharing, this is the best compression rates on videos, it is the cleanest platform, and I think what’s smart with what Vimeo’s doing is they’re making the on-demand marketplace so it’s accessible from any point on the internet so you don’t have to come back to Vimeo on-demand. So you know, if for instance this gets posted on Splitsider, right on Splitsider you’ll be able to purchase and watch one of the new episodes and never have to leave your website. There’s a button with like a weed-shaped thing or whatever that you press, so it’s really up to you as a viewer, and it makes sense for how people watch media these days.
Katja: It’s the way you want to watch media. You want to have a seamless experience — you don’t want to have to boot something up to view a piece of media. That is becoming an archaic-feeling practice.
Especially because most viewers don’t have cable, Netflix, Hulu Plus, HBO GO, and all the other streaming platforms out now at once. Maybe the à la carte approach is the next step?
Katja: Totally. And I think everybody has a desire for things to just be on-demand. They may not want to pay for it, but just…
Ben: …one centralized location. And this is all an experiment — for them and for us — and there’s no doubt some people are gonna be like “Free and now I have to pay? Bullshit!” And that’s fine. Good. Don’t watch it. [laughs]
Katja: I mean it’s a little frustrating. We enjoy free content too, but there is this element of okay, now we’ve been doing this for two years the way that we’ve been doing it, we’ve received the comments that we’ve had and created this brand and everyone knows what it is. Well, if you want to keep seeing that, we do have to make a living — we’re not able to keep having our friends come do this shit for free on the weekend; that has an expiration date, you know? For the episodes to be at the level that they are, that requires a certain amount of care and time and effort, and that requires some money to live off of, and at the end of the day nobody’s getting rich off of this, but we do have to pay a bill or two.
Are the new episodes any noticeably different than the ones you made before you got their financial backing?
Ben: No. The deal was “Let us do it, and we’ll get you something.”
Katja: Yeah, I think the only time that was a thing was…for example, [Ben] had been wanting to tell a story about someone who wanted to be a teacher but then drops out midway because it doesn’t look fun. [laughs] And to do that and do it in a way that feels authentic, you need a school, and when you have no budget it’s really hard to go rent a school — we tried, we actually did try last year and it just wasn’t possible. So something like that enabled us to tell a story like that that we had just been sitting on for a while, and that was great.
Ben: But, to get that school…
Katja: …we had to use our whole locations budget.
Ben: And the rest of the episodes we shot that week were in our home and our assistant director’s home and another home. It’s not TV budget and it’s not a micro budget — it’s a nano budget. And that’s fine, that’s comfortable.
Katja: That’s comfortable for us. I think it was appropriate to taking the next step from no budget — I think it might’ve been crazy to go from that to like a network TV budget. I know that there would’ve been smart people at the helm to manage that budget, but for us, just to talk about psychological pressure… [laughs] …this was an appropriate, organic step.
The series has done a fantastic job featuring a lot of unknown or up-and-coming talent, which I’m sure is largely due to Katja’s background as a casting director. Can you run me through some of the performers you’re excited to give some exposure to this season?
Katja: Absolutely! We got this guy John Early — he’s not in these next three that we’re releasing but he’s in the upcoming episodes — he’s someone we have wanted to work with for a long time. Then there’s a woman named Hannah Bos who’s also in one of the January episodes.
Ben: Micah Sherman shows up in the “Genghis” episode — he’s so, so ready. He’s ready to go.
Katja: He should be on a television series now.
Katja: I mean, I feel that way about everybody, but he was a particular standout.
Ben: And Avery Monsen, who was in the “Genghis” episode — I’ve known him for a long time, and we’ve always known that he was very talented, and he has such a diverse collection of great skills and instincts…
Katja: …juggling, tumbling, magic, improv comedy… [laughs]
Ben: He’s like this weird awkward everyman. Who else…God, there’s so many.
Katja: Yael Stone from Orange Is the New Black. She’s really a tremendous talent, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of what she can do on our show, but we do have future plans for that character. And Tracee Chimo, who is a favorite of stage critics — she also has a small part on Orange Is the New Black — but she’s one of our protagonists in an upcoming episode, and she was so funny. And Beth Hoyt was great…
Ben: Chris McKinney was great…the list goes on. I mean, we love these people.
Do the actors improvise at all, or are the episodes mostly scripted?
Ben: 85% of it I think is when we write a script, we assume that 15% of it is going to change.
Katja: Whether it’s that we’re standing right there shooting it like “Ooh wait, hold on — let’s have him say this instead” or “Hold on — we don’t like what we wrote. It’s not you, it’s us!” There’s a lot of that sometimes where we’re sort of rewriting stuff on the spot, but other times we’ll just say “Say it in your own words — just make sure you get this point across.”
Ben: And sometimes we’ll go up to them like “This is the line we wrote. It kinda sucks, so can we figure something else out?”
Katja: We don’t rehearse or audition or things like that, so a lot of things happen on the fly, and I’m glad everyone’s cool with us doing that! [laughs] Sometimes the stage actors get a little freaked out by it because they’re accustomed to everything being so consistent, and then they get on set and they’ve learned all their lines and we’re like “Why did you do that? We told you not to!” But it’s not improvised, I think that’s a misconception. There were a couple episodes in the very beginning where we encouraged it more I think because we were less confident about our writing and because we intentionally worked with improvisers — we wanted them to do the thing that they do best.
At the premiere screening, you mentioned that you didn’t necessarily set out to make this a comedy, or at least you didn’t label it a comedy. Have your feelings about that changed? Do you want to avoid putting it in a box like that?
Katja: Me more than you, maybe.
Ben: I just know that I’m the youngest — I’m an attention whore only in that I grew up with older siblings and I was trying to always get attention — so humor was my pathway to do that, and it’s become like second nature to always try to figure out how something would be funny. And Katja is very into plausibility and authenticity and not making somebody take too much of a left turn when your world is so real otherwise.
Katja: Yeah, but I’m a huge comedy nerd, so for me I think I’m more intimidated by the label. And I’m always surprised by when we’re writing and I’m like “Ooh, look at these funny jokes I made!” [laughs] “Oh I’m funny, okay okay!” I just think it’s my bad self-esteem that gets in the way of me wanting to label it like that. And I also hate when there’s such an expectation to deliver one thing and then people get pigeonholed or backed against a corner and you just have to deliver this thing week in and week out — it’s just more fun to let it be whatever it is, which can be all things at one time. And luckily we’re living in a time right now where the television space is starting to figure that out. You’ve basically got what feels like hourlong comedic dramas like Orange and then you have half-hour dramas like Transparent — I mean, that is a drama and it is only a half an hour. So it feels compatible with the time we’re living in, what we’re doing, and it’s great that people are willing to loosen their expectations of how they are viewing something.
The premiere episode of the new season features a woman who makes ASMR videos, which I thought was hilarious. So I have to ask: Are you guys big ASMR fans?
Ben: She kind of is. Well, through the writing of this premiere she came to discover a taste for it.
Katja: I mean we knew about it, and then I started watching the videos so that we could write something, and then I was like Oh my God, I love this.
ASMR is kind of like the new pot smoking in that if someone walks in on you smoking weed it’s no big deal, but if you get caught watching an ASMR video, well…that’s awkward.
Katja: It is!
[laughs] Worse than porn.
Katja: [laughs] It feels like it, yeah. It’s so weird.
Ben: That is so funny.
Katja: It’s embarrassing. But it shouldn’t be! It’s nothing sexual.
Any specific ASMR personalities you’ve come to prefer?
Ben: There’s that Eastern European woman who’s pretty good.
Katja: That blonde Eastern European woman is pretty good. But I mean, I don’t watch them — I just listen to them.
“I don’t inhale.”
Katja: [laughs] Yeah, right? But it’s true, because I’ll click into another browser and I just leave it running and 40 minutes later, the bags are still crinkling.
High Maintenance‘s new season premieres its first three episodes today on Vimeo for $1.99 each.
Photo credit: Paul Kwiatkowski