It's quite a success story. High Maintenance, the Vimeo web series that debuted in 2012 and became popular for its sometimes funny, sometimes weird, sometimes poignant—and always interesting—character studies of New Yorkers who buy their pot from a dealer simply known as The Guy, is now a full-fledged television series premiering on HBO tonight.
Meeting with Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the married couple behind the series, in a conference room at HBO's Manhattan headquarters, I ask if they ever imagined their web series transitioning to television when they first began making it a few years ago.
Blichfeld, who was working as a casting director when the duo began the side project, responds, "Not when we started."
Sinclair, who plays The Guy, breaks in: "No. I remember there was one day of pie in the sky! We had been working on it a couple of months maybe. We were like, 'Hey man, it would be pretty cool if we got on HBO, wouldn't it?' "
"I don't remember that," Blichfeld says, musing, "It might have been our own private stoner moment. I was just like, 'Oh, maybe I'll get better casting jobs because of this.' "
Actually, High Maintenance wasn't even intended to be a web series at the start, Sinclair says. "It was just us throwing something at the wall to see if it stuck."
"We wanted to make a few shorts that all were connected somehow, but we weren't conceptualizing it as a web series," Blichfeld explains.
"The real goal was to figure out how to work with actors and directors and create a community," Sinclair says. "It was more meant to be a community project than it was meant to be a vanity project or anything like that."
High Maintenance has grown into something well beyond a "community project," and there will, of course, be aspiring showrunners who will attempt to follow this pair's pivot to television by creating web series of their own, but neither Sinclair nor Blichfeld advises producing a web series thinking it is a sure-fire way to break into television. "If we had focused on that, I can't say that it would have happened the same way. It was such a passion project," Blichfeld says.
Talking to Blichfeld and Sinclair, you get the sense that they would still be happily producing their passion project in the form of a web series to this day if HBO hadn't come a-knocking. Here, the couple talks about their path to television, the importance of maintaining creative control and the downsides and benefits of being married to your creative partner.
Those early High Maintenance shorts were made on a shoestring budget with a handful of crew members, and outside interest in High Maintenance was incremental as Sinclair and Blichfeld progressed with their low-budget creative endeavor. Vimeo offered to fund the making of a web series four years ago, take their filmmaking to another level. "Once Vimeo gave us money, we learned what it was like to make a show with money even though it was a very small amount," Sinclair says, noting they were able to hire more crew and rent locations they couldn't afford before.
"Baby steps," Blichfeld adds.
"We took an intermediary step between web series and HBO. If we went from web series directly to HBO way back when, we would have freaked out," Sinclair says. "We were very lucky that we've been able to grow this just a little bit at a time and not bite off more than we can chew. That's been our whole . . ."
"MO," Blichfeld chimes in.
"MO," Sinclair continues. "Set out to accomplish what you know you can."
It's unique that anyone gets a chance to build and develop a concept the way they have before getting it to television. "Oh my god, it's not lost on us," Blichfeld says.
When HBO picked up High Maintenance, it was great news, but Sinclair and Blichfeld knew they had a lot of work ahead of them writing and shooting longer stories. They were somewhat relieved when HBO ordered a six-episode first season. "That's what they came at us with, and we were like, we don't think we can do any more than that," Blichfeld says. "Sounds good!"
Sinclair and Blichfeld wrote (and directed) all six episodes themselves, bringing back familiar characters, including Dan Stevens's cross-dressing Colin, but creating all new material rather than borrow storylines from the web series. "We still did it the same way that we've always done it, which is to try and engage in as much spontaneity between you and me," Sinclair says, looking at Blichfeld, "capture everything that's good, and then fucking massage that thing over many, many, many passes and writing and editing until it's done, until we are entertained by the 1,000th time we watch the episode."
Their top concern was continuing to deliver the High Maintenance that fans had come to know and love on the web—just in a longer format. What makes the web series so popular—in Sinclair's mind—is the sense of intimacy, the sense that The Guy is really interacting with genuine New York City characters. "That is what people have been responding to this whole time is the feeling of intimacy that comes with this show. You feel like you're in a real apartment because you are in a real apartment with a person who ideally does not seem like they're acting. Those were the things we knew how to do. We've done it 19 times prior to coming to HBO," Sinclair says, referring to the Vimeo version of High Maintenance. "Our strategy for keeping it the same level of intimacy was to keep the same creators solely as the same creators."
If High Maintenance is picked up for a second season, the pair will hire other writers and oversee a writers' room. "We had to create a template—just us," Sinclair says of the decision to handle all of the writing of this first season themselves. "We felt that was the most important thing—to carry the full responsibility of keeping it the same or evolving it. It had to rest on us."
The size of the High Maintenance crew swelled to more than 70 people once they began shooting episodes for HBO, and Sinclair and Blichfeld brought as many people as they could, including three cinematographers, from their original crew into the fold. "As much as the unions would let us hire, we hired," Sinclair says.
They also continued shooting in real New York City apartments like they did when High Maintenance was a web series.
Were they able to do anything they couldn't do before production-wise? Initially, Sinclair says no, then realizes there was something they got to do. "We got to do more biking shots, which is a great way to see New York City," he enthuses. "I was really glad that we could feature some of that mode of transportation. You have to have a cop car with you and all that shit. It's just dicey to do it when you don't have the proper gear."
Having a bigger production team and budget have benefits but also create complications. "One thing we weren't able to do this season was do a company move in the middle of the day. We were never able to put stuff in the trucks, move to another location, unload, and then start shooting," Sinclair says. "Moving stuff costs so much money. Every time we had to shoot in multiple locations, we had to be able to walk the whole crew. We had to find two apartments that had to be three blocks within each other. There was so much of that puzzle work happening in the scheduling."
As creatively satisfying as it has been to grow High Maintenance from a web series to a television series, it has also been an extraordinary amount of work, and it would be a lot for any creative partnership to endure, particularly one involving a married couple that also has to maintain a personal relationship throughout the process.
"This was a hard year for us because of all the pressure of succeeding on this platform. It strained us," Blichfeld says, "but it also . . ."
"Made us feel stronger," Sinclair says.
"It's so weird," Blichfeld continues. "Our marriage is the best it's ever been. No, seriously, because we got through a big, high-pressure situation together that was prolonged. The process had its ups and downs. It's no secret. We say it all the time. We both struggle a lot with codependency. Those issues are in our episodes a lot this year in really exaggerated ways. That's because those are real things that we deal with. Our process was very codependent in the past. It was like I couldn't write anything unless we were both sitting down together and talking it all through."
While they have worked on being more autonomous, Blichfeld says she can't imagine not writing and working closely with Sinclair, and he feels the same. "I can’t imagine that anyone would like [High Maintenance] as much as people do if either one of us single-handedly did it. We really temper each other's work so much. I would say I am always just throwing stuff out there and pushing it as far as I can, and you're pulling it back a lot," Sinclair says, turning to Blichfeld. "We're playing off each other's strengths and filling out each other's weaknesses."