High Maintenance episode "Sabrina." Photos Courtesy of Vimeo & Janky Clown Productions
If even a tenth of the looming onslaught of narrative webshows is as good as High Maintenance, we can stop fearing the death of television. Just over two years ago, husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld began writing, producing, and directing episodes of their short-form web series without a budget or any guarantees on viewership. Their premise uncovered an esoteric aspect of New York City life known only to the residents who depend on it—full-service marijuana delivery. Each episode follows a cannabis customer whose story is exposed through interactions with the recurring delivery guy, played by Sinclair himself. As inherently enticing as that might be, it may not have resonated if not for the flawless execution of every production aspect since the show's first episode. Ben and Katja scrapped to refine their product, tapping their own networks as a professional actor and a casting director, respectively. The formula killed: first, it garnered internet virality that stuck, leaving them with a vast and loyal audience. Then, it got them a production deal.
Since its debut, High Maintenance has become the savior of its genre, giving a new level of legitimacy to narrative content produced independently for the web. Ben’s face is painted on walls in Brooklyn to promote the show, and I’m pretty sure I even saw him on top of a yellow cab once. And even now, as the show becomes increasingly more legit, High Maintenance continues to defy conventions. It’s now a Vimeo Original Series, the first to be funded by the platform that the series first appeared on. The creators maintain full creative control and ownership, and thankfully the budget hasn’t muddled the show’s core values. Last week saw the premiere of three new episodes, the final releases in a set of six created with Vimeo. Every technical element is tighter, the locations are better, and there are more characters, but the delivery guy remains a simple, humble mirror for the characters, guiding you through their personalities and making you laugh at every turn.
Far from the warehouse loft setting where I first met Ben and Katja, this interview took place in Vimeo’s office in the Gehry-designed IAC building in Manhattan:
The Creators Project: You guys started making High Maintenance on zero budget and yet it had this level of quality that’s rare in web series. How’d you make it look so good back then?
Katja: Lenses, lighting, and having the right people to operate them.
Ben: I think it’s sound, lenses, and editing. Lighting you can still kind of screw around into something that works. We didn’t get dedicated lighting people until the last three free episodes.
Katja: Let’s just say our director of photography was working very, very hard. Also the actors—we've worked with actors who are really good. I think a lot of web series that have little to no money use inexperienced actors. We got lucky with our backgrounds and the relationships we have. We were able to use seasoned actors, people who were actually experienced or were playing not far from themselves, so they came off really well.
Ben: The number one goal for us was to create a relaxed atmosphere, and I think we were able to do that by not spooking our actors with huge sets and huge things. It felt like they were complicit in some sneaking around on the subways or whatever with us. It felt like we were all breaking the rules together which was fun.
What comes first when creating a High Maintenance customer, the actor or the character?
Katja: Most of the time, in the beginning, the actors came before the characters.
Ben: But now it's much more the character first. In the six newest episodes, we would have a character and then do an actor search to fill that role. I think the shows at its best when we’re like, ‘Y’know, I want to spend a weekend with that guy.” The last episode of this new set, “Sabrina,” came out of us saying, “Who de we want to hang out with?” And I was like, “I love that guy who played Chad, Chris Roberti. Man, he's so nice. He's such a nice guy. Let’s spend a weekend with him.”
What’s the biggest benefit of having a budget, so far?
Ben: The budget allowed us to play around with expanding our vision. We got to try more things out. We thought we could get more vivid portraits of these people’s lives by getting outside of their apartment and seeing them at work and seeing them eating dinner with friends, because New Yorkers tend to be outside of their apartments a lot. That being said, there was something really cool about the constraint of writing a story based on what we had access to. As we go, I think we'll probably shrink things down a little more into the apartment and let what is in those four walls decide how we tell the story and give a more nuanced portrayal of what’s going on in that person’s life.
Can you give me a breakdown of the crew and equipment on the very first episode compared to what it looks like now?
Ben: Crew on first episode--there was sound lady, camera lady, Sarah Violet Bliss who was directing…
Katja: The two of us, [High Maintenance producer] Russell Gregory... like six people total.
Ben: In the newest ones, it’s a crew of 25. We had a cast of six main characters...
Katja: Seven main characters!
Ben: Seven. Equipment on the first episode—we had a R 22 recorder. Then we stopped using that used two Zoom H4Ns, one with two lavaliers and one with a boom microphone plugged into it. Play, play. Stop stop. That first one was shot with a Canon T3i, the lowest of the Canons.
Katja: We tried to use mostly natural light.
Ben: China balls. Black wrap on top of the China balls with the clip light in it.
Katja: And then our only cost were the hotel room, a cab, and some bahn mi sandwiches.
Ben: The new ones are filmed on two Canon C300s on two Easyrigs, and the last episode was shot on a Sony F5. Total crew is about 25, including a production designer who was like, "We don’t own that painting so we have to take it down," whereas before we would just shoot it and say, "Hope nobody gets mad!"
Katja: Also, a gaffer, a grip, and multiples PAs!
High Maintenance episode "Sufjan"
Amazing! Any downsides since the show blew up?
Katja: The only stumbling block is that the show has become recognized as this thing now. We know that the actors and crewmembers have expectations now coming in, whereas before there were none because there were none to be had.
Ben: We make sure to pull new actors aside in the beginning and say, “Listen, you have no control over how you’re portrayed over here. I’m going cut the shit out of this. Your mouth is going to move to lines that you said in another scene. We invited you here because we believe in you. We didn’t even audition you. Just go with it.
Katja: If you’re here, that means we think you’re brilliant, so just trust it. That has worked really well. We’ve made so many new friends in this process. Actors, crewmembers, other people. It’s so cliche to say a production “feels like a family." Sure, everybody says it, but it’s true.
High Maintenance episode "Sufjan"
For more inspiring stories of fearless filmmaking, watch the first episode of The Creators Project's Art World series, A New Wave of Iraqi Cinema: