High Maintenance (web series) “We value plausibility, so I think that keeps things grounded. If it doesn’t seem possible, then we’re not going to portray it.”

Upon first description, the premise of Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s High Maintenance — an episodic web series concerning the various encounters of a bicycle-bound New York weed dealer — sounds like the surefire set-up for a lighthearted sitcom with room for a plethora of jokes about cannabis and Manhattanites. However, while there is plenty of room for weed jokes and gentle New Yorkisms in their series, the finished product is a far more subtle, poignant, and literary experience than one might expect. With each episode a free-standing vignette centered around a different character, all united by the common thread of visits from a nameless weed dealer (titled “The Guy” and played by Sinclair himself), High Maintenance plays like a long-form video collection of short stories, with subject matter including bird-watching, obsession, asexuality, self-improvement, cross-dressing, and end-of-world paranoia. The episodes are sometimes funny and sometimes tragic, but always told through Blichfeld and Sinclair’s pointed, casual, and occasionally absurdist voice.

In November, the series’ fifth season began on Vimeo, now financially backed by the website as part of its first foray into Netflix-style original content. The first three episodes of the season — “Geiger,” “Genghis,” and “Ruth” — continue in the show’s multifaceted, unpredictable mélange of stories, tones, emotions, and characters. The season will conclude February 5 with three new episodes, “Esme,” “Sufjan,” and “Sabrina.”

Blichfeld and Sinclair discussed their filmmaking roots and the show’s ongoing evolution with Tiny Mix Tapes.

…So I’m in an area that a train occasionally passes through, so if it sounds like I’m exploding at any point in time on this end of the line, that’s what’s happening.

Katja Blichfeld: Where are you?

Well… I’m at my mom’s house.

KB: Where is it?

Next to the train tracks in Menlo Park, out here in sunny California.

KB: Oh, Menlo Park. Gotcha.

Ben Sinclair: Thomas Edison was from Menlo Park, no?

Uh, I think he was from the Menlo Park in New Jersey.

BS: Oh, fuck. I fucked it up.

No, I’ve gone through that same thing many times myself. Because they called him ‘The Wizard of Menlo Park,’ and I’m like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m from Menlo Park!’ And then it turns out it’s a different Menlo Park.

KB: I mean… It’s not untrue though.

I mean, yeah, I can still hype it up. What people don’t know won’t hurt them.

KB: We won’t tell.

So how’s it going?

KB: Great! Full disclosure: We’re each having a beer right now, because we work at Vimeo and every Friday at 4:30, out comes the beer cart. They roll it around the office, and usually the person who takes it around is the newest employee, and they wheel around this cooler and people get beers and chitchat. And right now —

BS: They’re playing Jenga out there.

KB: Yeah, they’re fucking playing games out in the bullpen right now. It is really tech-y here.

Did you say they’re playing Jenga?

KB: There’s a Jenga game. There’s Cards Against Humanity. There’s a shuffleboard situation.

It’s like a rookie hazing ritual for the newest employee to take the beer cart around?

KB: It’s very gentle. There’s no hazing. It’s so that everyone in the company gets to interface with each other at some point. It’s pretty smart, actually.

So you guys are having a beer at the tech office and I’m at my mom’s house.

KB: You’re so cool.

BS: You’re the Wizard of Menlo Park. [Laughs]

KB: Yeah, the Wizard of Menlo Park.

So first of all, I really loved the three new episodes. They were totally all over the map. The show’s at this great place now, where I never really know what to expect out of an episode.

KB: That’s a great compliment! Thank you.

So how did you guys first get interested in writing and filmmaking, and what were your first forays into that like?

KB: I think both Ben and I were those kids of the 80s who played with camcorders and edited in-camera and made movies with friends —

BS: Music videos, mostly.

KB: Yeah, music videos that we lip-synced to. My friends and I scripted things with our Barbie dolls and made Barbie movies. Funnily enough, one of my earliest works was an anti-drug film that I made. I was like 10, and me and my friends — these neighborhood girls Pamela and Angela — had the camcorder, and we always made little movies together and made this little short. It was a cautionary tale about drug use, where this guy basically buys a bag of coke in an alley, and of course it was a bag of flour and it was HUGE. We had no concept of units that drugs should be measured out in because it was literally like a full-on kilo, like a full bag of flour. It was a pretty thin plot that ended with the guy jumping off a structure, which was the addition to the back of Pamela and Angela’s house. He did all this blow and then jumped off of a deck-in-progress. And their backyard was totally torn apart for the building, so we constructed what looked like fresh grave in the yard, and threw a rose on the grave while Martika’s “Toy Soldiers” played in the background. And that was one of my first films. I guess, when I really think back, I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I wrote plays in sixth grade. Me and a couple other kids in the class wrote the fall play for our school.

Was that also cocaine-themed?

KB: [Laughs] No, I went to an evangelical Christian school. Which was funny, because there was a Turkish family that came to our school that year. There were four kids in different grades, and I decided we should base the fall play around this family. Which… looking back, I feel so bad. We kind of just forced this poor family into being the protagonists of our school play, and it was all about us teaching them about Thanksgiving.

Ben and I are in a really supportive relationship. And I was the bread-winner for the first half of our relationship. I was the one who proposed to Ben. So there’s been some traditional roles that have been subverted in our lives, and it makes sense that we would reflect that in our work.

Oh god.

KB: And evangelizing; giving the message of Christ to this poor Muslim family. That was what it was.

BS: The first time I ever operated a camera to great effect was when my brother and his friend Andrew were making a “Smells Like Teen Spirit” music video, and I was the camera guy. I remember the, like, “dong-gi donk” guitar sound — those first chords opened up on the moon, and then I zoomed out and my brother and his friend walked over the top of our roof and their plan was to jump off the roof. It was like a 9-foot-high roof. So they were gonna jump off and then land on the ground and pick up their guitars. So Andrew jumped off the roof and picked up his guitar, and my brother jumped off the roof and fucking broke his foot. And he was like, “Turn it off! Turn it off!” I was 7 or 8 — very young. And he went to the hospital and I showed the video to EVERYONE. Everyone I could. And then the fucking tape disappeared, because he was embarrassed, probably. So after that it was just a bunch of music videos and lip-syncing. And then when I was in college, the first thing I ever edited was my senior year, we had to do a final project and I just didn’t want to write a paper. It was in my Russian Literature class and I filmed an alternate ending to “The Brothers Karamazov.” It was weird, but whatever, I learned how to edit there. And then after college, I kind of started learning how to do low-budget filmmaking. I taught myself via commercial contests and YouTube tutorials from, like, teenagers in Menlo Park. [Laughs] And just basically did self-taught, shoestring-budget filmmaking and just tried to win commercial contests, and made that my living for a couple of years. And then I met Katja.

KB: And here we are.

BS: And here we are, yeah.

What’s a commercial contest?

KB: You know how like, around the Super Bowl, like Doritos will have a commercial-making contest, like “Win $100,000 if your commercial wins!” There’s tons of those going on at any given time.

BS: And in the mid-aughts, there were a lot of them, but not a lot of people knew about them, and there were low entry rates. So I would just target the ones that had the lowest amount of entries, and if the amount that you could make was significant, then the effort was worth my time.

So you made commercials for Doritos?

BS: Well, those were the most popular ones. I would go make a commercial for, like, Hunt’s Tomato Sauce, or whatever, and they would have some little assignment that you were trying to fulfill. Right before I met Katja, I had just won something for a Nissan Cube campaign. And I went to L.A. feeling very confident — and also thinking that I had cancer, but it was just a sore neck — and then Katja and I kind of met at a party in L.A. vis-à-vis my brother and our sister-in-law and another friend, and we kind of just really hit it off there, and have been attached at the hip ever since.

KB: Yeah, we’ve been together ever since.

Is it because you guys both first made films with people jumping off of roofs in them?

KB: Maybe so. It wasn’t until we just said that that I made that connection.

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