Now entering season two, High Maintenance, is the first original content play by artsy distribution platform Vimeo. Produced by casting director Katja Blichfeld and actor/editor (and husband) Ben Sinclair, the series offers up vignettes of New York life through the conduit of a weed delivery guy on a fixie. Episodes last season glimpsed the overly regulated life of a gym addict, the perils of Air BnB hosting, and—arguably the finest—the life of a cross-dressing stay-at-home Dad.
Written, and acted and cut on nothing but a small budget and a bunch of favors, High Maintenance breaks all the rules of online video strategy with its lack of big payoffs, and simple, economical storytelling. But maybe that’s why it’s popular. In its new season, available behind a paywall and worth the price of admission, High Maintenance pushes further afield – the angst of a gentrifying couple whose biggest conundrum is whether they’re smoking too much (“Sufjan”); or a mushrooms-fueled weekend away that goes awry (“Sabrina”). Blichfeld and Sinclair on the weed, the hustle, the DIY and the pressures of a successful web series.
THE RED BULLETIN: You guys do DIY with quality. What will you never skimp on?
BEN: We don’t want it to look shitty.
KATJA: We’re always going to rent a lens. We also learned not to skimp on sound. Although we used to, and we learned that you have to pay for it in post (production). If you don’t get it right the first time, it’s going to cost more later. We’ve been lucky because the resources that are at our disposal, are really high quality. The people that we know, the actors that we’re friends with, happen to be a high caliber of actor.
Was that part of the genesis of this? Seeing what you had around you already and doing something with it?
K: We were already programmed to look around and say what do we have, what can we do with this, and go from there.
B: After we did this, it turns out all these directors that we look up to so much do the same thing the whole time. Robert Altman was really into just showing what he saw, portraying life as it was, people talking over each other, and imperfections here and there. And it just guides your ideas into a more solid area. And an idea without that is a fragile thing that can float away as soon as you think of it.
And fragility is destroyed by that monstrosity, the Internet. Why didn’t you fall into the trap of conventional web video storytelling?
B: The show is designed for the Internet in that you can enter the universe of High Maintenance through any episode. You don’t have to watch them in order. The thumbnails are pretty bloggable. We also release three short episodes (at a time). Enough where you can choose to watch another one at least two times, but also it kept you wanting more and it made it feel like this good dissatisfaction that an artist hopes to get out of his audience. Like, ‘I’m not done yet..’
How did you grow it?
K: We grew it very organically. We didn’t put a lot of time into trying to make it happen. We were making these episodes here and there. It wasn’t a full time occupation and it didn’t feel important to us to hustle to get a lot of people to watch. We were really doing it for the love of it. And lucky for us people liked it enough to tell their friends to watch. In the second cycle somebody posted the “Olivia” episode on Reddit and it was 100,000 views on that day. That brought in a whole bunch of eyeballs that evangelized the show and changed things for us.
Do you strategize more now?
B: The thing we care about the most is whether Katja and I are interested enough. That’s the only thing we know whether it’s working or not. Our gut has all the answers and it’s not worth doing if it’s not fun, because we’re not making money. It’s a FUBU project (laughs). It’s for us, by us. It’s a FUBU joint.
Perfect segue into the drugs question.
B: The drugs are the hook, but the emotions and the characters and the environment are the rod and the line. That’s the real instruments to get what you want.
K: Really the weed delivery element we thought it would be a good device to tell a story in five minutes or less that we could maybe tell in a real time. We thought, ‘Oh, a weed deal! They don’t stay longer than five minutes!’
The issues your characters face seem pretty trivial.
B: I think our job as short film satirists, is to show how insane reality is.
K: Or how ridiculous human beings can be.
B: We want to externalize something that feels familiar to a lot of people, a feeling of dissatisfaction from your current state.
K: I think I was a bit nervous that our point wouldn’t be clear, that we were trying to show these people are assholes. They are non-evil versions of assholes. That we were making a comment on how ridiculous this is. Is this you? This might even be you … What are you complaining about? Is it really a problem?
What are you trying to get across with each episode?
K: Letting people know they’re not alone, trying to leave people with a feeling of connectedness to others. That’s the best compliment we can get. When someone says ‘We watched the show, I love the weirdos and neuroses you portray’. Or, ‘I saw myself in this character.’ We wanted to connect with people, and that’s it. And now we’ve been lucky enough to get the feedback that, it’s happening. We connected.