Issue 05

Smokin' Hot

With High Maintenance debuting on HBO, the creative duo behind the web’s stoniest series is about to light up your television.

Written by Erika W. Smith
Photographed by Tawni Bannister

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Since creating High Maintenance, buying weed has become quite the experience for Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, the husband-and-wife team behind the web series–turned–HBO show premiering later this year. The episodes, which they’ve cowritten and directed, depict the misadventures of a Brooklyn marijuana-delivery man (known as The Guy, played by Sinclair) as he deals to a varied cast of characters: a cross-dressing author, an asexual magician, a pair of cynical snobs (The Assholes), and comedian Hannibal Buress playing himself, to name just a few. Now when Sinclair, a 31-year-old actor whose prior résumé consists of roles like Homeless Guy and Drunk #1, and Blichfeld, a 36-year-old casting director who won an Emmy for her work on 30 Rock, call for their own smoking stash, the reaction they’ll get is anyone’s guess.  


“The best one was a delivery girl who came in and stopped dead in her tracks when she saw Ben. What was the great thing she said?” Blichfeld asks.  

“‘Is this real life?’” Sinclair answers.  

“I don’t even think she knew she said it out loud,” Blichfeld continues.  

“It just escaped her mouth in a way, like she was testing reality to see if she was in a dream,” Sinclair says. 

Sharing a couch at HBO’s Manhattan headquarters, where they sit to talk with Tidal about what we can expect from the show’s new iteration, they’re no strangers to PDA. The two touch each other’s arms and even pause to declare mini vow renewals when I ask how long they’ve been a couple, but with the biting humor that’s made High Maintenance so popular. At seven years together, it’s the longest relationship for both of them. “I hope it’s your last,” Blichfeld tells Sinclair. “It is our last,” he replies. “That’s what we agreed to.”



Do either of you have a past as a weed-delivery person? Where did the idea for High Maintenance come from?  

KB: We both have a lot of experience purchasing weed, but not selling it.  

BS: The closest thing was the summer that we conceived the show, I was working at Sprout Home, a plant store in Brooklyn. I was bringing plants to people and going in and out of a lot of entryways, but not illegal stuff. But still, you come into someone’s home with a tree and you post up for a couple of hours. 

KB: We were really interested in making something short that would just take a day to shoot, and we thought it would be cool if that story took place in real time. One day we just realized that weed deals are pretty quick and we could probably showcase a lot of different characters if we used that as our premise.  

BS: Also, we were both normal-to-heavy pot smokers, but neither of us fit that profile. That was the other place we were coming from: A lot of people we know smoke pot, and none of them are wearing tie-dye.  

KB: We might have worn some tie-dye that summer. Ben was trying to get a compost company off the ground. We were very much into that, and we were dreaming of “Wouldn’t it be so cool if we could keep bees on our roof and chickens in our yard?” I mean, I still think we would like those sorts of things.  


How will High Maintenance be different on HBO?  

KB: We’re trying to keep the feeling as much the same as possible, and HBO very specifically asked us to do that. But there is still a programming need to fulfill: Television programming is half-hour blocks. What ended up happening is we have self-contained shorter stories, so you get more than one story in a half-hour episode. 

BS: We’re still a very low-budget show, don’t get me wrong, but we’re trying to increase our output so we can every year come out with about a dozen short stories if we continue. 


Watching the show straight though, I noticed that the first several episodes stand alone, but the deeper you get, more characters return and the episodes become more interconnected.  

KB: You’ll see more of that. It happened because we like people. We worked with them, and then we were like, “Wouldn’t it be fun to see them again?” 

BS: It’s also the job situation. People don’t typically order weed just once. 

KB: Nor do they order it every day. So we’ve been trying to figure out, How busy is he? How many customers does he realistically have? How frequently is he visiting these people?  

BS: And we’re still figuring out—I can’t say we had a master web created at the very beginning. There is a show bible now, and the history of these characters is pertinent and ongoing. We want to maintain some modicum of familiarity going into these HBO episodes, so you will see some characters returning. But we also recognize that one of the interesting things about this show is you don’t know who the customer is going to be when the episode starts, so we definitely want to keep that happening and strike that balance between familiarity and change. 



Do we find out more about The Guy? 

BS: You learn more about him, but in the [2014] “Rachel” episode, you learned that he lies about wearing a wedding ring. So you might know some things that he says, but he’s a liar. He’s a Wonka. You might not like him if you know more about him. 

 

You’ve had a few well-known guest stars, like [Downton Abbey’s] Dan Stevens and Hannibal Buress. How do you decide to cast a celebrity? 

KB: We have definitely crossed paths with people who maybe have a little more name/face recognition, but I think we’ve always liked the fact that when you watch our show, you’re not necessarily burdened by the celebrity that accompanies certain people. There’s something kind of comforting about that. We’re not trying to get the biggest star for our show. 


High Maintenance showcases New York’s diversity—age, race, class— really well. Is that intentional? 

BS: It’s not something that’s really intentional, because we usually work with people we know. But in our casting directives, there has definitely been a focus on “Please, please, please can we get all types of people in for this part that’s not specified as any ethnicity?” 

KS: I think we are just trying to reflect back the New York we see when we’re out and about and when we’re at our friends’ homes. This season, we do play a little bit with people who are outside of The Guy’s normal circle and find ways for him to interact with those people, too.  

 

Ben’s the star of the show, so Katja, do you ever feel like you have to tell people, “I made this too!”? 

KB: I’m always with Ben when people are like, “You’re the man! I love High Maintenance!” and it feels fucking awesome because I’m like, “Yeah, that’s my husband, and we made this and we did this together!” But if it’s been a whole day of that, then there’s maybe a part of me that’s like, “Aw, man, I made it too!” But people who are filmmakers and are in the industry and the press, I think they understand what the participation is. 

 

What’s it been like working together creatively as the show’s gotten more popular? 

KB: It’s hard, because now it’s bled so much into our personal space that it almost takes up more space than the personal relationship we had before, just in terms of what we’re spending our hours and energy on. I think both of us are really looking forward to delivering the episodes and turning off our phones and going to Hawaii for six weeks to go remember how it is to be husband and wife and not coworkers. 

BS: We have only just recently started being like, “All right, we’re not talking about work two hours before bedtime. You’re not allowed to talk about work until the commute [there] is done.”  

 

 

Styled by Jessica Zamora-Turner Hair and Makeup by Sarah Graalman Production by Geoff Gibson

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