Talking to the Couple Behind the Web’s Buzziest Show, ‘High Maintenance’


Talking to the Couple Behind the Web’s Buzziest Show, ‘High Maintenance’

Photo by Paul Kwiatkowski

The beloved web series High Maintenance returned this week to Vimeo, making it the video platform’s first original series. Unlike the show’s acclaimed first season about a pot dealer and his array of New York City customers, the new episodes aren’t free, costing $1.99 each. The show was created by married couple Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, who were looking for a project to collaborate on, when they came up with a premise that allows viewers inside New York City apartments and into the private lives of their inhabitants. The dealer, who is played by Sinclair and known simply as The Guy, acts as your tour guide. We recently met up with the couple to discuss their unexpected popularity, monetizing their work, and creating their characters.

When you first set out to make High Maintenance, were you expecting all of this positive attention from critics?
Sinclair: We didn’t know critics were going to have anything to say about it. Katja was in casting and I was an actor and editor, and we just wanted to start working on something together for the experience of working on it more than the experience of getting something from it. Then it started to become an opportunity, like what haven’t we seen that we would like to see on TV, the internet, a web series, whatever, that would be cool to see. That’s when we started really having fun with writing stories. We played with characters that seem really familiar to us but aren’t well represented in media.

Did you anticipate the series to be picked up by anybody?
Blichfeld: Fuck no we didn’t! Really, it’s been such a surprise and it continues to be.
Sinclair: It’s all gravy, you know. We got what we wanted in the beginning which was just an opportunity to work together, so all the rest has just been just gravy and it’s cool because it’s not like we’re going to be disappointed if we don’t get something that we wanted.

Will it change things being on Vimeo?
Sinclair: No, the whole point of staying on Vimeo was to not change anything if possible. We released our first episodes on there because we love the layout and it’s got really great compression rates so your videos look good. All of our filmmaker friends who use video professionally use Vimeo. Youtube seems more about cat videos and for the masses. We read that Vimeo had 10 million dollars for original content, and I’m like ‘Ooohh!!!’ It is so artist friendly, the artist keeps 90 cents on every dollar of their profit and they sell directly to the viewer and the terms are up to you. They have been really awesome being supportive without being intrusive, and I think that’s kind of all you want in terms of somebody that’s going to be giving you money.
Blichfeld: If we would have gone another route it would have required a little bit of disassembly and rebuilding and thankfully we didn’t have to do that.

What I’ve noticed so far about the new episodes is that they seem to be a little longer. Are you aiming to have slightly longer story lines?
Blichfeld: We’re not trying to, it’s just happening.
Sinclair: But we got into this building an entire life in under 20 minutes game, and then we realized that we can make this more visually interesting and get out of the apartment. There’s a lot of more outdoors action, there’s a lot more bars and restaurants. But from the very beginning I didn’t want the first episode to be over five minutes. I still feel that way, not five minutes necessarily but we’re pushing a little more. With the audience, we’re like ‘I know you don’t know us and you didn’t grow up watching us on a sitcom or whatever, but maybe just give us a little more time.’ The whole point of it being so open jawed and so flexible is that if you don’t like this one, the next one’s going to be completely different and you might like that one. If one episode speaks to your perspective then we did our job.

What if anything will be different with the next season?
Blichfeld: The length of the episodes, as you pointed out, it’s a little bit longer, there are more locations. And it’s not free anymore.
Sinclair: There is an opportunity for people to support independent filmmaking. This is just a soup to nuts, we made a thing, we’re selling it to you, please pay for it. And enjoy it if you like it. It feels like an experiment in terms of a series in general, this a la carte viewing.
Blichfeld: The experiment is just that we are a show that previously was free and we’re going to see if people will follow us into a place where they have to pony up just a little bit of money. Ben calls it coffee money which I think is pretty apt.

That’s fair. It’s less than weed money.
Blichfeld: Yea man! It sure is!
Sinclair: In this city, Jesus.

How would you say that High Maintenance is revolutionizing the wide world of web series?
Sinclair: Well we would never say that. [Both laugh] But a lot of people say the show is inspiring for them to create their own work.|
Blichfeld: I think the time has passed now where people don’t immediately assume comedy with web series. There was a period of time where you would say web series and you immediately knew that meant a series of short little pieces of content that were between three and five minutes each and they were going to be full of jokes, punch lines. I know it’s not us that made the change, but I think more and more people are starting to play with genre. We’re part of that, contributing to it but I don’t know that we are single handedly doing anything.

Even though it’s centered around a weed dealer, it shows a lot about the private lives of people living around the city. What types of things do you like to reveal?
Sinclair: Just that everyone has their own sack of rocks, as Elaine Stritch’s husband said.
Blichfeld: We like to portray that everybody’s got their foibles and may appear like they have it all together on the outside, but at home there could be another story. Private lives are interesting. Ben has noticed on a number of occasions that in New York, people’s self expression comes out on the street and not in their home as much because a lot of people don’t have their ideal home situation sorted. A lot of people may have a roommate, or live in a neighborhood that is not desirable or optimal for their lifestyle because of budgetary constraints or what have you. Some people could live in what looks like squalor but on the street they look like a model. They just present themselves in one way but in their home life reveals something else. That’s interesting

Where do you come up with your ideas for all the characters?
Sinclair: They’re composites of our points of view, and from lifetimes of stories. Did you get to see the new episodes? So the milk thing happened to a person who is very close to us and we worked around that. We like to have this moment of surprise and reversal and sometimes it’ll start from the climax or other times it’ll just start from hanging around a person, an actor who we like and thinking they’re so goddamn talented, what can we do to focus all of their talents. Genghis was a good example. Avery is a friend of mine, we went to college together, studied abroad together and lived together after college for a year, and we just knew what he could do.

What’s your favorite part of making the show?
Blichfeld: This is going to sound cheesy maybe or canned but being on set feels like a party sometimes. Our group is small enough that everyone knows each other. I worked on 30 Rock for the entire duration of that series, and if I ran into people on the street who were part of that crew on the set, I wouldn’t even know it. On our production, everybody knows what everybody does and they hang out outside of work and people have genuine affection. We’ve had to get scrappy and it feels like we’ve all been in the trenches together in this.

Usually your character is the pawn between other people’s drama. Is anything going to happen to your character?
Sinclair: Yea, cycle 6. Not much, but there’s more. You’re never going to get as much as you want, but that’s part of the fun, keeping you wanting more.
Blichfeld: We do like sticking to this idea of you’re only gonna know him as much as the people who are with him in the scene know him.
Sinclair: He’s just the avenue for you to get inside of these apartments. But I think it would be better to want more of him than to get sick of him. We don’t want to give you the chance to get sick of him, because I’m annoying after a while. Talk to this one. I don’t stop talking, everything’s a joke, it’s annoying.