As public opinion regarding marijuana continues to rapidly evolve, nothing in the pop-culture realm reflects this wonderful New Weed Order better than the grassroots success of DIY web series High Maintenance, which follows the adventures of an unnamed pot-delivery guy as he pedals his way through New York City.
The show's first cycle of shorts was created and produced wholly independently by IRL cannabis couple Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, but now Vimeo has announced plans to fund a new round of episodes, marking the company’s first foray into original programming, and leaving Blichfeld and Sinclair in the admittedly enviable position of trying to satisfy everyone else's suddenly sky-high expectations. Not that you need to be high to appreciate this much buzzed-about tale of weed culture in the waning days of pot prohibition.
“We're selling characters, not cannabis.” Sinclair, who also plays the Guy, explains. “The temptation is always to write about the pot deal, and usually I'm the one who's trying to bring that in, but Katja has been very good about reminding us both that our whole weed thing is that it's not supposed to be a big deal. It's about people, and their lives, and why they use weed."
Married on New Year's Eve 2010, Blichfeld and Sinclair began writing the first episode of High Maintenance six months later (it premiered in 2013). Originally, they gave the Guy an elaborate backstory about failing his PhD thesis in psychopharmacology and dead-ending into black market marijuana, but it felt false and intrusive. Instead, over the course of 13 episodes (so far), we've learned precious little of the Guy's particulars. We don't know where or how he lives, whom he works for, how he re-ups his supply, how he got the job, or anything about his origins, love life, interests, or friends.
Set free from all that, he's our transparent eyeball, providing a unique portal into the lives of his customers. Because, while the Chinese-food-delivery guy never makes it past your front door, the weed-delivery guy must be let all the way into your apartment. And so, through the Guy's often red eyes, we encounter a cross-section of New York’s various pot smokers that rings so true I often prescribe myself, from my adopted home of California, two or three episodes as a first-line treatment against homesickness.
VICE: Now that you've signed this deal with Vimeo, what does the future of High Maintenance look like?
Katja Blichfeld: Vimeo is giving us funding for at least the next six episodes, and the only condition, really, is that we need to produce them and release them by the end of the year. So our plan is to shoot in the summer, and release episodes in the fall. In the meantime, it's like we're sort of artists in residence here. Right now we're just hanging out in their office, writing. And availing ourselves of the snacks that are everywhere.
Ben Sinclair: Yeah, there's a shitload of snacks. It's actually a big problem. I'm supposed to be bicycling around the city in this fictional world, and in reality I've got some handles on my body. You can really grab me from the side.
Is that a faster pace than you're used to? Writing, not cycling.
Yeah, it is. But to stretch the amount of money we have to work with as far as possible, we've got to shoot these six episodes pretty much back to back. It's been interesting to balance so many characters at once. I think some of the stories will definitely have a bit more overlap because of that. It might be a little more Altmanesque.
Blichfeld: This is also the first time we're actually charging people to watch the episodes, and I think we're both eager to see how it's received in that way. After Vimeo recoups their costs, we get 90 cents out of every dollar that we sell. Which for an artist is kind of unheard of in the distribution world. Really, we just want to keep doing what we've been doing. And if we are able to make any money at all off of this, then we can keep going. But if not, I don't know how many more episodes we'll be making. We've got to pay the bills.
I love the way you portray marijuana users—their diversity and complexity—without falling back on any tired, old stereotypes. Do you ever consider marijuana itself a sort of character on the show?
It's funny that you ask that, because on the way here we were trying to brainstorm some ideas for stories, and that was part of our discussion: how to regard weed and its usage in this new cycle of episodes. I think it's more on our minds now than it used to be. In the past we'd start with the characters and try to work in a way that they would use weed, or the reason they'd have it in their lives.
Sinclair: Yeah, typically we put in the interaction with the Guy last when we create our stories. The whole thing we feel about pot is that it just is. But people's reactions to pot are varied.
Blichfeld: We personally are both regular marijuana users, and I think the way we portray it is pretty much reflective of our feelings about it. And that includes times where we feel like maybe we're smoking too much, and not just for financial reasons. Perhaps we're smoking to avoid dealing with personal issues, or some adult responsibilities that we're not looking forward to having to face. But ultimately we use it as medicine, to relieve stress, and to enhance our creativity.
Sinclair: When I'm editing, I smoke—a lot. Because I'm stuck there at my computer for days on end, and weed helps me get into a flow zone where that time just disappears. And I can just let it go. For some people, I know pot can be distracting, but for me it actually increases my focus. Getting started can be tough when you're stoned, but once you're there, it's really fun to move clips around and explore the possibilities. I stop judging myself so much and start to just play.
Would a show like this have been possible even five years ago, given how rapidly society's view of marijuana has been evolving lately?
If we had the idea five years ago for a pot show that's not about pot, yeah, it could have existed, and maybe some people would have liked it. But I do think that because of the times we're living in now, more people like it. So we really represent the intersection of where web series are going and where weed is going. We just kind of hit that point where the two lines meet.
Blichfeld: Also, five years ago a lot fewer people would have been comfortable publicly saying, “Hey, I love this show about a weed-delivery guy.” I don't even know if our parents would have been as openly proud of what we're doing. But now Ben's dad has actually been on the show. In the "Qasim" episode he plays the guy in Arizona who's channeling the alien.
Sinclair: And our niece was in the “Matilda” episode. She goes to this school in Arizona for gifted children, and they've all seen it. The school is really proud of it. So that definitely shows the big effect legalization in some states is having on our audience and the culture at large.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of working with friends and family?
The first 13 episodes were built on friendship and favors, essentially. The advantages of that are many. All of our shoots feel like a party, and we definitely have been very conscious of wanting to keep that going. That being said, the disadvantages are that we happened to get a multitude of press this past year, and the show became a bigger deal than anyone ever anticipated. Which adds an element of there being more at stake, and people get a little nervous because of that. So when you're working with friends, with that added pressure, it can sometimes get confusing emotionally between the needs of the friendship and those of the show.
Blichfeld: Still, the biggest advantage is that we know these actors as people, so we're able to write for them. Writing is always better when you know the voice of the person saying the words. Often we're literally in our friends' apartments, shooting with them, and I think that really contributes to the feel of the show in an important way. We didn't start with a big group of people doing this. The first few episodes we shot there were maybe six people in the room, but as things grew, the people we worked with would bring other talented people into the mix, and now all those people have become our friends.
Ben, do you ever get recognized in New York? Do people hit you up for weed?
Sinclair: No, they don't. But sometimes I'll be biking and somebody will ride up next to me, with a bag on, and say, “Hey, I love the show.” And I'll ask, “Are you doing it right now?” And they'll say, “Oh yeah!” That's happened to me at least half a dozen times.
Blichfeld: Or recently we were having weed delivered at a friend's place, and the delivery woman walked in and saw Ben and her head just short-circuited. She couldn't believe it.
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