High Maintenance is a show about weed, but more than that, it's a show about solitude and anxiety, celebration and self-indulgence—all the human moods and occasions that go better when you're stoned. Each episode dips into the lives of a new set of characters just as they're deciding to pick up some pot; the only constant is the bike-riding zen master of a weed guy who delivers it.
Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the husband-and-wife duo who created High Maintenance, began by producing it themselves on a tiny budget and distributing the short episodes to their cultish audience for free online. (Sinclair also stars as the weed dealer, known only as The Guy.) After a recent infusion of cash from Vimeo, the stakes are higher: High Maintenance's newest episodes, now $1.99 each, are markedly more complex; advertisements sporting Sinclair's bearded mug dot New York City billboards and buses; and for the first time, Blichfeld and Sinclair can afford to pay their cast and crew.
Last week at a Manhattan High Maintenance screening filled with the nebbishy postcollegiate types who make up The Guy's core customer base, I asked Sinclair and Blichfeld about their sidelong writing process, balancing ambition with intimate storytelling, and how to talk to your parents about being a stoner. An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation is below.
The show has gotten noticeably more ambitious in the last two cycles of episodes. Was it a conscious decision to go bigger and longer? What has that been like?
Sinclair: We're expanding and contracting. We're always going to follow the compass of our own gut instinct, and our gut instinct is usually to play around and see the elasticity. We figured out early on to say, 'fuck numbers, fuck views,' and to just pay attention to, 'What aren't we seeing on TV that feels true?' We started to feel like that was our barometer: Would I watch it, and is it a cliché?
Blichfeld: When we got this Vimeo money, we endeavored to keep the show the same as much as possible. We didn't want people to watch it and be like, 'Oh no, they sold out. Now it's a different show.' But now that we have money, we can actually pay people. No one was being paid before. That's the major difference.
Has the money allowed you to be more creatively ambitious?
Blichfeld: Ben wanted to be a teaching fellow at one point, and then he became disillusioned and quit, and we had always wanted to portray that story on the show. We'd ask about schools, and they'd be like, 'Sorry y'all, that costs some money.' And we were like, 'We don't have any, so I guess we won't tell that story.' Now, we're able to tell those stories.
Sinclair: We doubled our crew, and we expanded outside of just apartments. And to be honest, there are times when Katja and I will watch these last six episodes, and we'll be like, "Did we fuck it up?"
Blichfeld: Yeah, we say that every time.
Sinclair: In the next episodes, we're hoping to get back to letting the apartment speak more for the character than the actual events in the character's life. It's fun for the audience member. It's like the paint bucket in MS Paint: You just click one color, and then it just fills the whole thing out. That's the weirdest analogy I've made today so far.
We're good at tone. That's the thing we excel at, and that's the thing we feel comfortable continuing to do. And tone is most evocative in an apartment, because a person's style sets their tone.
How do you approach writing an episode?
Sinclair: Dude, it is not easy to pin down the sequence of events of how a story comes together. If you're a writing couple, and you just meet once a week to work on your writing, I don't know how you do that. Because we are just—
Blichfeld: We're up each other's assholes all day.
Sinclair: And it takes us a while to commit stuff to paper, but we make so many mental xeroxes of ideas that they become solidified in our heads, and when we finally get on set, we know exactly what we need. It's based on trust, and faith, and our own ability to remember what we were thinking—which is kind of dicey when you smoke so much pot.
Blichfeld: That's why it's great that we're a team. We're like, "Do you remember that idea? Because I don't remember it. What did I tell you last night?"
Do you get high and write? Does it impact the creative process?
Sinclair: We get high and do everything.
Blichfield: We're stoned a lot of the time.
Sinclair: It's a complicated relationship. Almost every day, I'm like, 'We smoke too much. This is an issue.' However, ever since we started admitting to the world at large that we smoke a lot of pot, we have been really well-rewarded for it. [Gestures toward screening audience] This is crazy.
Blichfield: Even in small ways, with the interactions we have with people in our lives. It sets up this environment where people feel free to communicate honestly with us. A stranger on the street will come up to you like, "Hey man, I love the show," and then just talk about themselves in this crazy way. Or if it's our family: There was a time when we may not have been as forthcoming about everything with them as we are now, and it's really opened up the doors for honest communication in our lives. It's cool. It's a weird side effect that we were not counting on.
Was there ever any pushback from families about you doing a show about weed?
Blichfield: At the beginning, when we started getting press, my mom was like, "I don't know if you should be going around outing yourself as a stoner. I don't know that that's really going to be good for your career." And I was like, "Well, too late." Now, she's obviously singing a different song.
Sinclair: Breaking the pot seal with my parents opened the door to all kinds of real conversations that we hadn't been having before. I was a little bit of a troublemaker. I would sneak around, work against my parents for a little while, because I needed something to buck against. It was the suburbs. It was so boring. But now we're at a place where I ask them their regrets, or if they were scared when they had me—all of these cool questions—because I was able to be honest with them. And they saw that they didn't have to worry about me. "Oh, OK. He's smokes pot, and he's OK, and he's accepted, and we're proud of him."
We went to this retirement party for my mom. She's a cantor at a synagogue in Scottsdale, and it was all of the members of this congregation—which, by the way, is like, fucking red-state Jewish congregation—who were all over it. They'd be like, "That show has helped me through some weird times." It's fucking cool.
Do you think people's openness with you has anything to do with the fact that The Guy, Ben's character, is such a sage?
Sinclair: He is and he isn't, man. That guy sticks his fucking foot in his mouth all the time.
Yeah, but he's charismatic, and—
Sinclair: He is charismatic. He's an idealized version of what we would like to be. A person who's non-judgmental and lets shit roll off his back, but will still stand up for himself if he's in a position that's not good for him. We strive to be strong but yielding. And he really embodies that.
While we're producing the show, it'll be like, "What scene is it? Oh, it's my scene? Alright," and then I can just do [The Guy]. But in the moments in life when I really need that, it's so much more difficult. It's interesting that he's right there, but he's only right there if you're relaxed enough to accept it. When we're making the show, and even when it's a stressful day, somehow I can relax enough to get it.
Blichfield: Yeah, he's exactly who we want to be.