How the Creators of High Maintenance Crushed the Stoner Stereotype
Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, the couple behind the critically acclaimed Web series High Maintenance
Photo by Jena Cumbo for the Village Voice
"It's OK, I'm the guy who can do this!"
Katja Blichfeld is trying to pick a morsel of beet salad from her teeth, and her husband, Ben Sinclair, is doing his best to assist: leaning over in his chair, his arms outstretched, index finger poised in midair. Blichfeld demurs; Sinclair insists. "If anyone should do it," he says, "it should be me!"
Blichfeld and Sinclair, the couple behind the critically acclaimed Web series High Maintenance, are grabbing a late-afternoon bite at the lobby restaurant of the Standard Hotel in the East Village. They have a room upstairs where they're sketching out the next round of episodes (they spent the winter in L.A., and still have subletters living in their Ditmas Park apartment). It's the first day of spring, and outside, fat, wet crystals of snow quickly coat the ground.
"Critically acclaimed Web series" may sound like an oxymoron. But High Maintenance has quickly become an emblem of the cinematic possibilities of the Web-video medium. The series centers on a pot dealer, known only as "The Guy" — played by Sinclair — who makes deliveries on his bicycle throughout über-hip Brooklyn. On Valentine's Day, Blichfeld and Sinclair accepted the Writers Guild Award for Best Short-Form New Media for the episode "Rachel," about a cross-dressing stay-at-home dad, played by the British actor Dan Stevens — best known, here, for his role as Matthew Crawley on Downton Abbey.
See Also: HBO to Air New Episodes of Hit Web Series High Maintenance
Initially, the couple filmed thirteen episodes on their own time, with their own money, and released them in four "cycles" using the video-sharing site Vimeo. The first episode, "Stevie," appeared in the fall of 2012. They share writing and directing duties while Sinclair does the editing and Blichfeld, a casting director, handles the casting. To date, those thirteen episodes — all between five and twenty minutes in length — have racked up 6.5 million views.
In November 2014, Blichfeld and Sinclair put out three new episodes that were actually funded by Vimeo — the first deal of its kind for the streaming site, which up until then had provided a platform for independent filmmakers but had not entered the original-content game. Three more were released in February, each one costing viewers $1.99, or $7.99 for all six.
If you partake of the stuff, you'll appreciate High Maintenance as a refreshingly honest depiction of marijuana use. But you don't have to smoke weed to enjoy the show — it's not really about pot, but about the people who buy it, and the reasons why.
Those reasons are at once mundane and deliciously revealing: A young woman tries to distract herself from her fiancé's increasing obsession with doomsday scenarios. A shut-in with a sick mother and an obsession with Helen Hunt craves the company that the transaction with The Guy provides. An older woman wants to help her friend, who has stomach cancer, work up an appetite. A screenwriter procrastinates.
When Sinclair and Blichfeld put the first episode online, they thought it would be a fun experiment. They never guessed that their baby would grow into a show that has not only changed how we think about online video, but heralded a new era of transparency about the way we toke in 2015.
Sitting at a small, round table at the Standard, Blichfeld and Sinclair are impossible to miss. Sinclair has cultivated a distinguishable look. His most distinctive feature is his nest of a beard, which grows straight out in a bushy tangle. The second thing you notice is his forehead. In much of his screen time on High Maintenance, Sinclair's brown eyes stretch wide with astonishment and the creases lining his tall forehead deepen, as if to indicate a lifetime gazing in astonishment.
Blichfeld's straight, blond hair — courtesy of her Danish parents — is swept up in a messy bun, bangs falling over her forehead. She wears a black turtleneck with a baggy, short-sleeved beige sweater over top. Sinclair wears a gray sweater over a plaid shirt. They look cozy, as if they're ready to curl up on a couch and take a nap.
Blichfeld, who is 36, and Sinclair, who turns 31 in May, are both Westerners. Blichfeld grew up in Long Beach, California, Sinclair in Scottsdale, Arizona. They met in 2009 at a Los Angeles party hosted by a friend of Sinclair's brother. ("My brother was trying to set that friend up with Katja, but I swooped!") Both lived in New York at the time but were visiting the West Coast. They were married on New Year's Eve of 2010. "We got together pretty fast," Blichfeld says, smiling.
"It was a whirlwind of excitement," Sinclair deadpans.
"I domesticated really quickly after that. No, honestly, I was ready to roost when I met her."
"Oh, yeah," Blichfeld confirms, her eyes on Sinclair. "He was like, 'Let's do this.' "
"I got into homesteading — "
" 'Let's bake bread, Katja!' You were getting those yogurt cultures on Etsy."
"He was all about it."
It wasn't long after they were married that High Maintenance began to take over their lives; they shot "Stevie" just eight months after their wedding. "We were just making High Maintenance for fun in the beginning," Blichfeld says, swapping her salad plate for her husband's avocado sandwich. They weren't planning to make any money off of the show, nor did they expect it to be met with such acclaim.
"I don't think they knew in the beginning that they were so good at it," says Russell Gregory, a close friend of Blichfeld and Sinclair and an executive producer of the show. "I don't think they understood that they had something."
Blichfeld had worked as a casting director for 30 Rock throughout the show's seven-season run, winning an Emmy in 2013. Her work had brought her into contact with a number of comedic actors. Not all of the talent she auditioned made it to 30 Rock, but a handful ended up on High Maintenance.
Max Jenkins, who plays one-half of a catty, cynical duo dubbed "the assholes" in the episode "Olivia," met Blichfeld at a casting-director seminar. "I was completely enamored by her white fur hat and her beautiful Sharon Tate face," he says.
Jenkins and his fellow "asshole," Heléne York, recall the shoot for "Olivia" as painless. "It was the most intuitive set I've ever been on," Jenkins says. "It was bliss. It was ecstasy. It was like we were on drugs, but we were most certainly not." (The "weed" that the actors smoke on the show is a combination of dehydrated herbs.)
Each episode's title comes from a throwaway reference to another character, who usually doesn't turn up in the episode itself. (Scrolling through Instagram, or maybe Facebook, on her phone, York's "asshole" spits out, "Fucking Olivia, unbelievable, you can't just not wear a bra." Olivia herself never appears.) Upon repeat viewings, you start to notice some of those throwaway characters popping up in other episodes. "It's a referral-based service," Sinclair says of his character's job. "So these people do have a common thread."
Sinclair credits the cozy atmosphere of their shoots to Blichfeld. "Katja's much more conscientious than I am," he says. He pauses to fish his iPhone out of his pocket. "Let me just get down this idea really quick," he says, then mutters into his phone's recorder: "Smoking too much of a friend's weed."
Because the initial episodes were self-funded — each cost between $500 and $1,500 to produce — they were mostly shot in friends' and actors' apartments, which adds to the show's realism. One episode, "Trixie," features a real-life couple, Candace Thompson and John "Pizza" Peery, who play a couple renting out their loft to a series of obnoxious Airbnb-ers.
Thompson and Peery are close friends of Blichfeld and Sinclair who also make their own short videos. So they didn't blink when the High Maintenance crew came traipsing into their actual living space in Bushwick to film "Trixie." The crew ended up using the couple's loft for another episode about a year later. "I came home and there were, like, 30 people in my house," Thompson recalls. "There was a makeup person and a set photographer. I was like, OK, we fancy now!"
Eventually it became clear that Blichfeld and Sinclair weren't just doing this for fun. Sinclair had borrowed a helmet from Peery for The Guy to wear during his bicycle delivery scenes. Peery had painted a white owl on the helmet, which has become one of The Guy's signature props. "They'd give it back and be like, 'Wait, people want us to make more episodes...can we borrow that helmet again?' " Peery says. "And they finally just bought it off me. It's theirs now."
The quality of High Maintenance belies its scrappy, let's-put-on-a-show production ethos. But the intimacy with which the show is put together — Blichfeld and Sinclair are constantly tossing around ideas, to the point that they have a waterproof notepad in their shower — has resulted in an equally intimate portrait of Brooklyn's own lovable assholes, one that has resonated strongly with New York viewers.
"I think it took about a year for me to start getting recognized approximately every time I was below 14th Street," Jenkins says. He now has a prominent role on NBC's The Mysteries of Laura, but people are more likely to stop him on the street for High Maintenance. York, who has had a recurring role on Showtime's Masters of Sex, also finds she's recognized most often for High Maintenance. "Mostly people are like, 'Oh my god, the assholes!' "
Despite the satirical bent of the series, there's a radical empathy underlying the depiction of each New York "type." Early on, Blichfeld and Sinclair thought their show would be about The Guy — his background, why he sells weed, how the delivery system works. But they realized they were more interested in the people with whom he might interact. As a result, there are some episodes in which Sinclair appears only for a moment, functioning as a form of public witness to his clients' private selves.
Blichfeld and Sinclair are "inherent observers," York says. "They're just endlessly curious. No matter what you're doing, they're going to be into it, because they think the differences between people are what makes everything so dope."
Photo by Jena Cumbo for the Village Voice
In November, Saturday Night Live aired a Digital Short called "A New Day." The short riffed on a directive put forth by Mayor Bill de Blasio earlier that week to stop the NYPD from arresting people found with 25 grams or less of marijuana. The announcement came just two days before Vimeo released its then-newest batch of High Maintenance episodes. In the SNL video, stoners of all stripes emerge bleary-eyed and full of hope from their Brooklyn brownstones. Woody Harrelson climbs on top of a car, bong in hand, and declares, "Free at last!" A prim woman pushing a stroller shakes her head — and then pulls out a baggie of weed and grins.
High Maintenance came along at a turning point in the way we think about weed. Over half of Americans believe the drug should be legal, and nearly 70 percent feel that pot is less harmful than alcohol, according to a Pew poll. When it comes to depictions of the drug's users in popular culture, we've officially moved past the hemp-hoodies-and-Doritos phase. More than any other cultural artifact, High Maintenance normalizes marijuana use. There are other TV shows — Broad City, Workaholics, Looking, Silicon Valley — on which characters regularly light up. But High Maintenance rarely gets its laughs from the way people behave when they're stoned. Before they had even settled on the idea of centering their show on a weed dealer, Blichfeld and Sinclair knew they wanted to depict people smoking pot in a way that felt true to their experiences.
"I think we said something like, 'and we'll show pot smoking, and it will seem normal,' " Blichfeld says. "We did have a desire to portray stoners as being productive members of society and sort of normalizing [pot smoking]. We were excited when we finally landed on the idea that [The Guy] would be this — "
"An embodiment of non-judgment," Sinclair offers.
"And an embodiment of nonjudgmental behavior. That was really our jumping-off point."
Both husband and wife have smoked weed for ten-plus years. The day after he married Blichfeld, Sinclair told his parents that he smokes pot: "I said we use it to manage depression and whatever, stress." He wasn't sure how his father, a teacher, would respond. But to Sinclair's surprise, his father was accepting and understanding. Sinclair's dad even pops up in an episode called "Qasim," as a grinning spiritual guru who leads a pseudo-cult. Sinclair's real-life niece, Kate, also features prominently in the episode "Matilda."
"Including her on that was a big deal for our relationship with my sister's side of the family," Sinclair says. "But the way they've embraced it, especially since it's pot-themed — like, they didn't know anything [about pot]. That's been incredible, and to the point that her gifted middle school in Scottsdale is, like, really behind the show. They think it's pretty cool that Kate was on this thing."
Blichfeld adds, "Once we were honest about [smoking pot] — and it was a thing that seemed like it would be a big deal but it wasn't — one starts to question, 'Well, what else have I been hiding about myself that I think is such a big deal?' "
Two hours and two toothpicks after their lunch at the Standard, Blichfeld and Sinclair contemplate heading back to their room to make a shot list for a new episode. They won't say what they're working on, partly because it'll change so much by the time it hits the Web, whenever that will be. Construction trucks rumble outside the window, and the snow hasn't let up.
The couple has been trying to make an effort to get out into the world and socialize — their version of field research. They like to check out open houses and surf Airbnb properties for inspiration. They visited their families over the winter, and they think parents will figure prominently in the next cycle of episodes. They've also been fighting a lot lately. "Sometimes we have huge fights and then we smoke and we're like, 'Aww, I love you, I'm sorry!' " Blichfeld says.
The fact is, their marriage is tied up in a risky experiment. High Maintenance is one of Vimeo's bestselling titles. But Blichfeld and Sinclair say there's a huge disparity between the number of people who paid for the new episodes and the number who have watched them for free.
"I had expectations," Sinclair admits, running his fingers through his beard. "I couldn't help but to. And I'm a little like, whaa? It does seem like the paywall is an issue."
"I mean, it doesn't 'seem,' " Blichfeld interjects. "The paywall is an issue." With Vimeo's backing, the couple can now afford to pay their cast and crew, and they don't have to work day jobs. But they're not exactly rolling in it.
It's easy for the couple to succumb to cynicism. "Personally, I'm in a spiritual wasteland right now," Sinclair says. "Like, I have very not-great feelings about the future of humanity." He and Blichfeld fantasize constantly about leaving New York.
And yet, Blichfeld and Sinclair have managed to channel a particular brand of New York anxiety into a surprisingly humane work of art. With The Guy, they've created an antidote to the archetype of the eye-rolling Brooklyn hipster who's been there and done that. Sinclair's dealer is in awe of everything: the smell of root vegetables in a pressure cooker; a woman in a pink feather boa playing her keyboard on the sidewalk; a cone overflowing with soft-serve. He's a kind of spirit animal for the stress-smoking masses who could use a reminder that there is wonder to be found in this city.
And when the city inevitably drags you down, it's nice to be reminded, in twenty minutes or less, of its gentler side. Gregory, the executive producer, recalls shooting the episode "Dinah" in February 2013. The crew only had a couple days — everyone was volunteering their time — and they had planned to shoot in Prospect Park. Then Winter Storm Nemo dumped two feet of snow all over their plans.
"I was the panicked one," Gregory says. "I was like, 'Oh my god you guys, it's gonna snow! Superstorm Nemo is coming!' And Ben and Katja were like, 'Oh man. That's gonna be beautiful.' "
Lara Zarum reports for theVoice
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