Interview: Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair (HIGH MAINTENANCE)
HIGH MAINTENANCE began its journey to an HBO primetime as an independent web series and a Vimeo series. With each incarnation of the show, the focus has remained on the lives of New York’s weed smokers. Each episode delivers inclusive storytelling through its signature style of vignettes, showcasing intimate and irreverent snapshots of a culturally and economically diverse city.
For the creators, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the web series has been a creative effort to further their ambitions in entertainment outside of writing and directing. Incidentally, they stumbled upon a cultural phenomenal and a digital cult classic.
On the heels of the show being renewed for a second season on HBO, Blichfeld and Sinclair spoke to OnWriting about transitioning the web series into a half-hour format, their writing process and the empathy factor.
How did you decide on the storytelling approach to HIGH MAINTENANCE? Have you approached the writing differently now that the show is on television?
Katja: Our approach in the beginning was shaped by our limitations and minimal resources. It ultimately came out of a real desire for Ben and me to make something together with our friends and to tell stories. In the beginning, when we would come up with characters and stories, we had to look around and see what we had access to—locations, people, talent. Then, we’d go from hoping that something we were excited about would match up with what we could access.
Ben: In that way, it was like working on a collage. We were seeing what elements we had available in our life. I’m a video editor, so it was about getting the right footage and putting together what we could make happen right around us.
The web series felt very Brooklyn-y, and now the HBO show is like a full New York story. Do you think about location first when you’re coming up with the story, or are you initially inspired by the character?
Katja: Usually the character.
Ben: However, that can change if there’s a really sweet location we can use. For instance, this venue I love let us know that if we ever wanted to do anything there, we should. It’s a great place and now we’re thinking about how to use that space.
Gothamist is calling HIGH MAINTENANCE the best show on television about New York City.
Katja: This entire journey has taken us by surprise. We didn’t have that goal when we started, which I think a lot of web series makers may have in their head. A lot of web series creators come from writing backgrounds or comedy backgrounds and I think the end goal for them is to get a TV deal, right? We really didn’t. That wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for us. When we started, we were just fucking around and wanting to have fun together.
Ben: With this project, what set us apart was that we were trying to do our personal best every time. There was never a problem with devoting our personal best to this project.
Katja: There was motivation behind it for professional gain. It was more like, ‘Oh, I hope Ben can get access to better auditions.’ ‘I hope his studio will see what a cool casting director I am. Maybe they’ll hire me when they see what kind of actors I pick.’ It was more like that.
Did those things come true?
Katja: A little bit. I think people started to think of us more as filmmakers than those other jobs. I got more casting inquiries after I started HIGH MAINTENANCE, but then I didn’t even want that job anymore.
Are your roles the same as they were when you were creating the web series?
Katja: We fulfill less roles, but we’re working much harder because now there’s more to do. Ben is still editing, he’s still acting still directing, still writing and still producing. I’m still writing, directing and producing.
We did hire another editor to get ahead of things and do some of the heavy lifting while we shoot. We have a casting office and hired a casting director with a casting associate. This first season was still pretty collaborative, but we’re control freaks and we’re never going to 100% let go of the reins. We definitely got some muscle in the form of those people.
Do you have a writer’s room?
Ben: We don’t have a writer’s room. The nice thing about being married to your co-worker is that you don’t have to schedule time to meet because you’re just always there, so you can never blame someone’s schedule.
Basically, the process is we talk and talk. If we have a good idea, we’ll write. We’re now discovering how to put our ideas together and pitch them to each other. We’ve found, over time, that you have to give the other person the space to react however they want to your story: positively, negatively or whatever. You can’t take their initial reaction personally. We developed tactics to not see the other’s face while the pitch is being delivered. We pitch each other in the dark or send each other an email saying, “I have an idea, read it whenever you get a chance.”
Having had the web series come first, do you think there is a distinct difference to the HBO show?
Ben: We had a lot of anxiety about keeping HIGH MAINTENANCE the same. That was kind of our mantra; to keep this the same as much as possible. It was also a very important thing to understand that television was not going to be the same. We had to be flexible with our attachment to the way we used to do things.
A lot of our television crew told us they had never crewed a show that worked quite like ours did. Our production was a little more intimate, a hybrid of low budget, indie filmmaking and a high-budget TV schedule. That was really nice to hear. The process was not forced upon us, but because there was a legit TV show now, we felt that we were able to achieve the goal of staying the same while being flexible.
Katja: We have a reluctance to characterize ourselves as writers first and foremost. We do feel like we’re writers, but our writing is really only to serve our filmmaking and creative desires. We know that we can’t get on a set and be like. “All right, let’s go.” You have to give people something to work off. That part has been interesting for us to overcome. Actually, one of the major differences in scaling up is that suddenly it’s not just your three friends who are going off of your script. With friends, you can have conversations with them and they know you might change some things. Now, we’ve got upwards of 100 people who can’t do their jobs without the guidance of the document and they’re all regarding it as gospel. It puts a different kind of pressure on our process.
Ben: Things have to be completely thought out.
Katja: There’s not as much room for that spontaneity that we were able to have and enjoy when it was a smaller scale production. It’s been interesting for us to adjust how we feel about ourselves as writers and also adjust our writing practice.
Is there a specific recipe for when The Guy appears in the story or is it organic story to story?
Ben: We begin with our interest in the whole story, the structure of the story and then The Guy interaction.
Katja: That being said, we did make ourselves a little rubric to follow. There is sort of an order of things when The Guy comes into the picture. Of course, we need to figure out where he intersects with the protagonist and we’ve obviously expanded our way of thinking about how he does that. Now, it’s not always with the customer. We’ve come up with other ways for The Guy to have run-ins with people where he’s not necessarily delivering weed.
Ben: Yeah, definitely, I feel like we go back to that rubric when we’re stuck and our ideas are all over the place. We’ll start over and figure out what’s the character introduction, the situation introduction, the weed delivery, the b story, the climax, the button, and break it down.
Are you intentional about your characters being diverse? In some ways, your show is reminiscent of the impact of Humans of New York.
Ben: We try to be inclusive while not laboring over it.
Katja: It’s true. We try to make sure that our characters don’t all feel like they would be at the same dinner party. That’s kind of it. We’re sort of thinking about how we’re putting these stories together. In the past, they were piecemeal. We would come up with one at a time and produce one at a time. We weren’t really thinking ahead as to what would come after that.
Now, we are having to think of a whole number of stories that are all going to be aired within a short amount of time of each other. We have to deliver them all at the same time. We wanted to make sure that there were all kinds of splotches of paint on that pallet.
Ben: We do think about people like colors. I’m glad you said splashes of paint.
Katja: Everyone feels like-
Ben: A shade.
Looking at the pilot episode of the HBO series, you achieved several niche, yet universal diverse New York stories.
Ben: We called episode one Meth(od). The first character, Johnny, is an amalgamation of all the insecure masculine men. And who is more insecure than an actor?
Katja: We know a few people in our lives who un-ironically authored that character. Not really in our current lives, but people we’ve noticed in the past that we always were like “Oh my god, that is a character. We’ve got to use them.”
Ben: The behavior, the sword, the matte, the polo, all that stuff is from real life. When we were writing the character, it was like “Oh, he would totally be the kind of guy who did this like that one guy did.”
Katja: Yeah, the assholes – those characters showed up on our web series – are always at the top of our list to bring back for the HBO show We were really excited about that.
In the second episode, we have this character Eesha, who is an 18 year-old college student from out of town staying with her aunt and uncle. That story was inspired by everything from my religious upbringing and immigrant parents to our experience visiting big cities when we’re both from the suburbs and not knowing how to get access to weed. It was a soup of nostalgia. We used to live by Fourth Avenue in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn. There’s a pretty big Muslim population over there. Muslim teens were a really big part of our landscape on a pure walking on the sidewalk level. As we were developing the story, there was a point when we were like, “Oh why can’t she be a Muslim girl.” We used to see them smoking in the neighborhood. So, it’s sort of a little bit of everything. Who do we know, what are we seeing, what do we want to see.
Do you have a line or a scene from one of the first episodes of the HBO series that you believe encapsulates the HIGH MAINTENANCE universe?
Katja: There was someone who put out a piece recently about us and they took to the reference to prison empathy training from episode three. There’s a scene where The Guy goes and delivers to a bunch of technology dudes who are building VR software and games. One of the things they’re building is being used as empathy training for prisoners to understand their victim’s point of view. So, somebody used that as a pull quote to characterize our show as being empathy training for living in an urban environment. I was really touched by that and really struck by that. I think it’s because our primary goal in telling stories is to be sensitive and non-judgmental. We want to normalize the behavior that in other places outside of urban environments, might be seen as deviant or taboo or weird. The fact that anyone would think that about our work is really cool.
Ben: To be hailed for our compassion is a very lovely thing.
Katja: It kinda sums everything up.
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