How Unconventional Storytelling Sparks Creative Camerawork in 'High Maintenance'
From the weed dealer to tight NYC apartments, these three cinematographers tell us about their filming style.
Brian Lannin. Original illustrations of the three DPs for High Maintenance by Amber McCall
This approach helped propel High Maintenance, co-created by Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, into a hit web series and now an HBO series premiering September 16. But it can also present some interesting creative challenges to the show's cinematographers. Typically, DPs are responsible for creating a consistent style and feel for a show, but when the only thing the characters share is that they buy weed from the same person and it all takes place in New York City, it opens up a lot more possibilities.
"[We] keep the episodes living in the same world, but I never feel constrained in what I'd like to do visually by a show bible. There is a flexibility and a desire to have each look a little different from the others," says Dagmar Weaver-Madsen, one of three cinematographers who have been shooting High Maintenance since its early days. She gives the example of an episode in the upcoming season that follows a teenage girl where Weaver-Madsen felt a handheld camera would allow the audience to "sync up with her and her world" while in another episode, the stability of a Steadicam and tripod made more sense.
While High Maintenance offers a higher degree of flexibility than a more traditional program, naturalism remains its primary style.
"We keep it naturalistic but sculpted on the lighting side and want to make sure that the audience doesn't feel a layer of artifice between them and the story and characters," says Weaver-Madsen. "They know these people and these interactions. They might find themselves in these situations and keeping the lighting more natural helps with keeping it approachable."
Charles Gruet, another of the show's cinematographers, calls this "capturing portraits of believable, personable, characters and telling a story that we can all identify with." While the web series of High Maintenance was mostly dialogue in confined spaces that the cinematographers had to help keep the viewers' interest. As the show has evolved, with longer episodes and more complicated narratives, it's allowed the DPs to expand their approach and get more creative.
Another of the guiding aims of the show through all its episodes is capturing an authentic New York City—whether that's a luxurious hotel room or (more typically) a cramped apartment.
"Ben and Katja build new worlds with each character and I love being able to work within the worlds and add to it when I can," says Brian Lannin, another cinematographer for the show. "Even though we are shooting in a lot of familiar domestic locations, which may not seem to be the most exciting thing cinematographically, I'm always thrilled to photograph it because of the scripts are just great."
That's not to say shooting it is easy by any means. To help viewers quickly get a sense of a newly introduced character, the scripts often include montage sequences. That means lots of locations and a fast-paced shooting schedule, "often on the move, in and out of a location and on our way to the next one," as Lannin puts it. "It's part of the magic of the show."
Lannin is well experienced with capturing an authentic New York City show on a microscopic budget, having shot the well-received indie film Fort Tilden. Unlike High Maintenance's one- or two-day shoots, Fort Tilden lasted 18 days, putting more work onto the tiny crew.
Tight spaces are an ongoing challenge for any show shot in New York City. Moving around in tiny locations can be tricky as the many components of the crew must work on top of one another. The cinematographers emphasize that having to come up with the best way to work within such a small space presents a puzzle that can be particularly satisfying to solve and often leads to more creative thinking in setting up shots.
In the second-to-last scene in the episode "Sufjan," shot by Gruet, the main couple gets into a heated discussion about money and cutting back on smoking weed, with lots of quick back-and-forth exchanges. Creators Blichfeld and Sinclair (in whose apartment the scene was being shot) had the idea of shooting it as one continuous take. That meant framing out a bookshelf that had been noticeable in the "Olivia" episode and hiding lamps and lighting devices behind boxes the couple had as they were supposed to be preparing to move.
"Working within confined spaces, that's New York!" says Gruet. "We shoot in actual locations and not on stage. I feel this lends to the authenticity of the show and guides us towards our compositional approach. And of course, they are usually fifth-floor walk-ups."
The tight spaces offer another benefit: "It means you get really cozy as a crew and can't help but become a small family," says Weaver-Madsen.
Weaver-Madsen has done cinematography for a range of projects, including music videos, commercials, and films such as Unexpected, which premiered at Sundance in 2015 and 10.000KM, which premiered at SXSW in 2014. Whatever the project, she begins with one main question: What is the story? This brings up related questions: What are the main emotional beats for the story? What should the audience feel? What character do we want them to identify with?
"These questions work for all types of projects — from features down to commercials," says Weaver-Madsen. "You're using visuals to subtly affect the subconscious and help shape the tone of the piece and thus the emotions the audience is experiencing."
She adds that each project requires its own look, with a bolder or more stylized appearance in some cases, and more naturalistic in other cases. Such flexibility is ideal for a show as multifaceted as High Maintenance.
Gruet's background in nonfiction film has aided him in this effort to infuse a sense of naturalism into the show—and also to be adaptable. He shot the feature documentary Meet the Hitlers, and for programs including "CNN Heroes" and "Stand Up 2 Cancer."
"When shooting nonfiction, it's important to listen to what the subjects are saying and anticipate emotions, movement, even the edit," says Gruet. "This translates well when shooting fiction because I love to watch the rehearsals. It allows me to get in touch with the emotion of a scene and helps inform my instincts on where to observe the scene from."
To this end, Gruet particularly enjoys the use of handheld cameras, which helps him keep the filming loose, lighting the space rather than the actors, so they can move freely from take to take. This means Gruet is free to move the camera and adjust when the actors do.
With such an interest in naturalistic styles, it's no surprise that High Maintenance's DPs find inspiration in the natural world. When Weaver-Madsen sees an interesting light pattern or reflection, she records it, and considers how to work it into her projects. She finds wind a useful way to think about the movement of the camera — sometimes moving in a slow and steady breeze, other times a stillness that shifts into a fast rush.
She finds paintings to be a rich source of inspiration, "They are often manipulating light in unnatural ways but still trying to keep it appearing real and that's very similar to our job as cinematographers. Use the light to guide people's eyes in the image and also emotionally cue them in."
For Gruet, much of his inspiration comes from the actual world around him. "I like to observe people and situations, and how natural light affects faces, skin, structures, and also how practical lighting sets a scene," he says. "Your life experiences are reflected back into our work, so it's important to try to get out into the world and see and experience as much as you can."
HBO's High Maintenance premiers Friday, Sept. 16 at 11 PM ET.
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