Grantland Dictionary: Sportscasting Edition

Paul Silas, NBA Lifer

Janky Clown Productions

Contact High

Inside the arduous creation and thrilling return of the web series ‘High Maintenance’

“This fucking beard, man,” Ben Sinclair says, yanking at his facial hair, in a room that’s pitch-black save for the glow of a giant monitor. “It’s scraggly and in the way.” It also makes him instantly recognizable to the fervent cult that adores his web series High Maintenance1 and stops him on the street to tell him so. Seeing as he stars as a weed delivery guy known only as The Guy, that means a high incidence rate of actual weed deliverers: They love to tell him, “I’m dealing right now!”

We’re in the dark cave of a color correction suite on the west side of Manhattan, where Sinclair, 30, and his wife and partner, Katja Blichfeld, 35, are putting the finishing touches on a new batch of eagerly anticipated episodes. The two are bone-tired: Despite a financing partnership with Vimeo, where these new episodes will premiere today,2 the operation has remained nearly as DIY as it was when it was just the two of them.

“I could take a nap right now,” mutters Sinclair, in a patterned Christmas-style sweater, as he plops his head all the way under the desk. With her eyelids fluttering shut here and there, Blichfeld — in clogs, a colorfully striped men’s dress shirt, and the kind of patterned head wrap that the rap group Migos might approve of — silently seconds the notion.

The series was originally conceived as a cross between a calling card and an art project. Sinclair was a struggling actor3 fed up with playing derelicts on Law & Order: SVU; for extra cash, he’d edit bat mitzvah videos. Blichfeld, long the primary breadwinner, was an Emmy-winning casting director for 30 Rock who harbored dreams of writing and directing. They wanted to work on something together.

The parameters of their creation are modest. In every episode, The Guy takes us into the homes of weed-loving strangers embroiled in dramatic minutiae in New York City. The episodes are microscopic: Most wrap before crossing the 10-minute mark. The sets are the claustrophobic apartments of the manic people who have made the decision to live in this city.

As The Guy meets and greets the one-off characters — the creatively blocked cross-dresser, the PTSD-suffering comedian, the asexual magician — he becomes a kind of benevolent spirit. The Guy is the through line connecting this collection of damaged, lonely people. Using the same traits that once typecast him as a possibly murderous drifter — artfully mussed male-pattern baldness, that bushy beard — Sinclair has become the type of guy to whom you’d want to unburden yourself.

In these capsule stories of love and despair and meshuggenehs, there isn’t a moment spared. Every second is painfully human. The Internet, for the most part, isn’t beautiful. High Maintenance is.

“Every time we finish an episode,” Blichfeld says, not really joking, “we’re convinced everyone’s gonna turn on us. We worry ourselves sick!” But with the premiere of the new episodes days away, there’s a brand-new pressure. For the first time, with the Vimeo deal, Sinclair and Blichfeld will attempt to sell High Maintenance episodes, at $1.99 a pop.4 “I don’t think we’re gonna make a lot of money,” Sinclair says, not really joking either.

And so while giving Jamie, the color correction guy, polite notes (“I like the weird tungsten lights,” “The warmer one reminds me of an Instagram filter”), Sinclair and Blichfeld ponder the big question: How many more people might come to know and love that bushy beard?

The initial string of High Maintenance episodes was self-funded by Sinclair and Blichfeld along with their production partner and best friend, Russell Gregory. The episodes ranged in cost from $500 to $1,500 apiece. They were shot and produced whenever the team had time, and then released willy-nilly for viewers to discover and consume at their own pace. But this time there is a platform involved, and a release date, and a shooting schedule. Hoping to establish itself as an alternative home for original content, Vimeo — something like Netflix and YouTube’s hipster cousin — has selected the show as the flag bearer for its new endeavor.

The show has garnered significant viewing numbers, with upward of 100,000 viewers per episode. But when speaking of the partnership, Vimeo CEO Kerry Trainor puts business aside to geek out a bit. “The decision to branch out into original content was very specific to High Maintenance,” he says. “We were all massive fans of the show. When we found out they weren’t moving forward with a network deal that had been on the table, we were thrilled to finance Katja and Ben’s vision.”

Trainor is referring to a proposed script deal with FX, which would have provided a chance to expand the small charms of High Maintenance into the traditional 30-minute TV model. That formula had worked wonders with Broad City, which this year jumped from little-watched web series to a Comedy Central stalwart with a rightfully earned reputation as one of the best shows on TV.5

In the winter of 2013, after releasing a new cycle of episodes from the first season, Sinclair and Blichfeld began to attract industry attention. They signed with an agent from powerhouse CAA and began having, Sinclair says, “a lot of bottles of water on a bunch of plush couches.” Eventually, FX pushed for an adaptation, “and then we listened to that, and it was a mistake … ”

“It wasn’t necessarily a mistake,” Blichfeld interjects.

“But for this project,” Sinclair says. “It’s its own thing. It came out of not fitting into a mold. It didn’t make sense.”

“It was off,” Blichfeld concedes. “Honestly, the only thing that was appealing about having a cable television show was the money.”

The decision would be left out of their hands: FX decided not to move the script into production. And High Maintenance landed with Vimeo. Working with the company has meant a real budget and the end of day jobs. But in exchange for complete creative control, the money changing hands has been relatively slim.

“We’re basically making teachers’ salaries,” Blichfeld cracks.

“But not, like, New York teachers’ salaries,” Sinclair chimes in.

“Right,” Blichfeld says. “The salaries of teachers in rural states.”

As the duo examines a scene of a couple walking through Prospect Park, Sinclair furrows his brow. “It looks like … an Anne Geddes shot? Like an early-’90s thing where you take out all the color?”

Blichfeld takes the bait. “We need babies dressed in adult clothes. And, like, a bouquet of purple roses.”

With a few clicks of the keyboard, Jamie has fixed things up, and suddenly Sinclair can’t contain his glee. “Dude, Jamie, this is looking awesome.” He laughs to himself, incredulous that what they shot in the park, where clouds hovered ominously, has turned out so well. “I can’t believe this looks right!”

The talented Jamie is a friend of a friend. Since the beginning, Sinclair and Blichfeld have been lucky enough to surround themselves with people like that. “Stevie,” the first episode of the series, stars Sinclair’s sister-in-law, the actress Bridget Moloney, as a high-strung assistant. Shot in a hotel room while Moloney was in town from L.A., in the few hours before a rehearsal dinner, it’s a snackable delight.

And yet the couple sat on that first batch of footage for eight months, tinkering and scheming, never quite convinced they had something worthwhile. Eventually, they figured out they had to eliminate The Guy’s backstory — making him strictly a supporting character and leaving his identity as hidden to the audience as it is to his customers.6

High Maintenance won’t be remembered as the seed for a TV show. It won’t be remembered as the short that got them the agent that got them that movie deal. High Maintenance exists on its own, a special, scrappy, homemade entity that is lovingly slaved over.

Other elements of the show developed organically. Sinclair and Blichfeld had little technical experience, and the cast and crew were littered with amateurs, so much of the early footage was unusable. Which meant, Sinclair says, that “a lot of the earlier episodes was just cutting around the fuckups.” But that created a style. The show often clicks into lovely little fast-cut montages of daily activity: taking the kid to school, trudging through the snow to the movie theater, reading, eating, fighting, smoking. Quickly, they provide a sweep of a person’s life. “The fuckups led to the fast pace. That gives it a lot of its drive.”

By the second episode — in which the excellent Greta Lee stars as a lovable grifter, the infamous “Homeless Heidi” — a certain charm was observable. In one scene, Lee rolls around in bed, pulling together a blanket tent with her new fellow. “The one where they’re building the tent in the bedroom?” Gregory, the producer, recalls with joy. “The lighting was just right. The tent was so fun. It was like, ‘Wait, this is really gorgeous. This is a real thing. Oh, OK.’”

High Maintenance is indeed uniformly gorgeous, capturing New York in a bright, clear, but not overly softening light. It moves briskly, at times rhythmically. It’s also versatile. But early on, Sinclair and Blichfeld established a loose rubric for the sequencing of an episode. Roughly speaking, it’s “character exposition,” “title card,” “situation development,” “introduction of weed element,” “B story,” “weed delivery,” “climax,” and “button.”7 It’s a solid base for a series of miniature, unique explorations.

The installments flit from the big — familial strife, unrequited love, illness — to the small: How does one humanely kill a mouse? In one episode, a teen girl in braces from the Southwest enjoys a bumpy Big Apple vacation. In another, an aspiring Uberman introduces us to the questionable benefits of polyphasic sleep and the magic crystals of a multidimensional alien angel being known as Qasim. At this point, the show has established that there is nothing we shouldn’t expect to see.

As Sinclair and Blichfeld went along, talented people began gravitating to them. Stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress became a fan, then excitedly emailed Blichfeld to see if he could get involved.8 British actor Dan Stevens, best known as Downton Abbey’s Matthew Crawley, also reached out with appreciation and was subsequently given a role.

In “Rachel,” Stevens plays a father and a writer without much purpose or drive, but with a growing penchant for getting dolled up in the slim-fitting dresses of Rachel Comey.9 “They dangled the idea in front of me as a challenge, and I immediately accepted,” Stevens recalls. “It’s a beautiful little tale.”

It’s the last of the first set of episodes, and at nearly 15 minutes, one of the longest. It’s also deliciously bittersweet — Sinclair and Blichfeld’s finest work to date. And that’s the beauty of being a fan of High Maintenance — observing as the “art project” lurches forward, learning and adapting, raising its stakes.

“He definitely feels like a different person,” Sinclair says, watching The Guy on the screen lay down a slo-mo beating in a self-defense class. “I always talk about him in the third person.” He’s also something of an idealized version of Sinclair himself: “less anxious, more toned down.” And what about the outfits, which incorporate a lot of open shirts and toe shoes? “Oh, yeah, those are all my outfits. I just like wearing a tank top under a shirt because it breaks up the monotony of my chest.”

Sinclair and Blichfeld often pull from real life — particularly the post–Annie Hall New York anxiety that is the show’s life source. But their respective backgrounds influence how they work in different ways.

“When my parents wanna say they’re excited to see you, they say, ‘We’re anxious to see you,’” explains Sinclair, who was raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, where his mother was the cantor in a local synagogue. “Which comes off weird, right?” That anxiety is imbued in Sinclair’s creative process — he’s always thinking, always firing off new ideas.

Blichfeld, on the other hand, subscribes to her fellow Danes’10 concept of Janteloven. Literally, it’s the Law of Jante. Loosely speaking, it’s the idea that you are not more special, nor better, than anyone else in the group. Unlike her husband, Blichfeld is more likely to put her head down and do the work.

At this point, the show has infiltrated every aspect of their lives. They flesh out ideas over dinners, or hikes, or showers. Wait, showers? “We have a waterproof notepad,” Sinclair shrugs. At night, to decompress, they watch RuPaul’s Drag Race. “It’s like a palate cleanser,” Blichfeld says. “It’s so relaxing.” “Dude,” Sinclair says, in the familiar intense joviality of The Guy, “it’s a good show.”

Once on set, things move quickly. “It was two days of shooting total,” Buress recalls of his episode. “It was really loose, but focused at the same time, if that makes any sense. They made sure that I played a comedian because they didn’t believe in my acting range and I don’t blame them. Nobody yelled at me. I didn’t yell at anybody. The fart at the end of my episode was real.”11

That episode was shot in Buress’s actual apartment, a common practice for the show. With the Vimeo deal, the operation has become a touch more professional; for the first time, Sinclair and Blichfeld enjoyed such luxuries as parking permits. But Season 2 was still a run-and-gun affair.

There were drunken street fights while shooting in Crown Heights. There were busted generators in Sunset Park. “Our location manager knocked on somebody’s door and was like, ‘Hey, I’m on this show, can we, uh, use your electricity?” Sinclair says. “And the guy’s like, ‘OK, I’ll go watch it and I’ll tell ya.’”

“He’s like, ‘Give me a half-hour,’” Blichfeld adds. “Apparently, he approved.”

The biggest difference since the Vimeo deal has been the looming release date. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, if our DP doesn’t have that job on Saturday, we’ll shoot,’” Blichfeld says. “It’s, ‘We have a crew hired, it’s happening, we’re doing this.’ And if that script doesn’t feel ready, well, better stay up a couple more nights and get it done, because we’re shooting it! Which I can’t say was super enjoyable to me.”

high-maintanence-geigerJanky Clown Productions

Sinclair and Blichfeld aren’t so sure they operate best in this structured model. They daydream of a situation in which they’re budgeted at tens of thousands of dollars per episode and produce only three a year, to be released when they see fit. “Of course it makes us feel good to hear, ‘Where are the next ones? I need more!’” Blichfeld says. “But I wish expectations could be held in place. The reason you liked it is because we took our time and only put something out when it was ready.”

They’re also candid about the difficulties of their current approach. Taking the Vimeo money has meant more exposure, with corresponding responsibilities: more marketing decisions, more publicity demands. But that hasn’t come with the traditional corresponding support; there are no assistants fetching coffee or answering the phone around here. At one point, the receptionist brings in the food that Sinclair and Blichfeld ordered — they split a steak sandwich and a crispy quinoa artichoke burger, because they are at least trying to eat more healthfully — all laid out on ceramic plates, and they let out squeals of appreciation.

They’d like to sleep more, pay their actors and crew better, cut their shooting days down from the current 13- and 14-hour marathons. They’re happy not to have jumped into the crucible of network television, and appreciative of the control they’ve maintained. But they don’t pretend like that control comes without costs. These days, as long as they’re awake, in some form or another they are most likely working on the show.

And that, in its own particular way, is immensely inspiring. High Maintenance won’t be remembered as the seed for a TV show. It won’t be remembered as the short that got them the agent that got them that movie deal. High Maintenance exists on its own, a special, scrappy, homemade entity that is lovingly slaved over. In that manner, it’s a paean to just doing it. It might be insanely hard, but it might also be worth it.

“Once we’re done, we’ll have like 45 minutes of content,” Sinclair says of the first three new episodes. “And [sometimes] I think, Oh my god, how hard we worked when it’s only like one episode of a TV show … and then I think, Well, it’s just different.”

A few days after the color-correction session, Sinclair and Blichfeld escape the cave for a night in an airy arts space in Brooklyn. It’s the premiere party for the second season, and the two are nattily attired: Sinclair in a blazer and tie, Blichfeld in fetching palazzo pants. Milling around are TV critics and start-up dudes and cast members from previous episodes of High Maintenance, which is slightly discombobulating. No, you have to keep reminding yourself, you do not know that person. You just saw them get high on the Internet once.

When the episodes air, the reaction is raucous. Seeing The Guy back and on the big screen for once is plenty stimulating. But there’s an evident new heft to the material. The episodes — in which we meet hopeful teachers and tentative lovers and panicked survivalists, all a little lonely and a lot high — are longer, more ambitious, and more fully realized. The cuts are deeper, the little victories more joyous. A man’s flaccid penis is laid in a bowl of milk, and it’s about the sweetest thing you’ll ever see. Without a doubt, this is the best the show has ever been.

Taking the stage afterward to booming applause, Sinclair and Blichfeld are overwhelmed. After endless days of self-sequestration as they forced the show into being, they get to soak in the love. Maybe they’re even accepting, at least for a few minutes, that they haven’t failed. That they have made a beautiful thing. “This is surreal,” Blichfeld says, gesturing to the long, packed hall of fans cheering them on wildly. “If you could see what I’m seeing … ” Before they step off the stage, Sinclair, who’d been spinning his wedding ring nervously, leans over and gives Blichfeld a kiss on the lips.

Back in the color-correction suite, Sinclair and Blichfeld had warned that there was a darkness trailing these new episodes. But they weren’t making any excuses.

“We don’t mind making you feel bad,” Blichfeld said. “That doesn’t concern us.”

“You should feel bad,” Sinclair added.

“Yeah,” Blichfeld said. “How would you know what it’s like to feel good if you never knew what it’s like to feel bad?”

Filed Under: TV, High Maintenance, Ben Sinclair, Katja Blichfeld, Vimeo, 30 Rock


Amos Barshad has written for New York Magazine, Spin, GQ, XXL, and the Arkansas Times. He is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ AmosBarshad