The husband-wife filmmakers behind the new HBO series High Maintenance hardly fit the sterotype of the buttoned-down, driven entrepreneur. For starters, they're kind of laid back about their creative process. And then there's the fact that they openly acknowledge smoking weed in real life. A lot of weed.
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But, regardless of that lifestyle choice, Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld have still pulled off an impressive feat: the creation of a successful cable TV series about a pot dealer in Brooklyn. Theirs was an entrepreneurial coup, considering that back in 2012, the couple started out posting "no-budget" web videos they made with their friends.
Those first, free episodes aired on the video-sharing site Vimeo before attracting micro-funding funding from the site in 2014. Then, the big time: an invite from HBO.
What High Maintenance also attracted en route was considerable buzz (not the drug kind), making its pre-HBO 19 episodes a hit (again, not the drug kind). Last year, the premium cable giant ordered six longer, more luxuriously filmed episodes, which debuted Sept. 16.
What's important here is that High Maintenance isn't so much about drugs — the main character, the dealer, known only as The Guy, is played by Sinclair — as it is about New York's wacky, eccentric, sometimes mean, sometimes pathetic, characters. In last week's debut episode, The Guy delivers to a Vin Diesel wannabe who terrifies him with a samurai sword and refuses to pay, except in pennies. The Guy, feeling threatened, beats a hasty retreat. "Vin Diesel" and his silent, scary partner then reveal themselves to be harmless British method actors trying out new roles.
During a Q&A session Monday at the Independent Filmmaker Project's Film Week, Sinclair and Blichfeld described their affinity for trying out just such interesting characters. "We've only scratched the surface," Sinclair told about 70 hopeful young filmmakers. "There's an infinite number of stories out there and character types. … We feel we've hit the jackpot with this concept."
Blichfeld agreed. "The city is so full of inspiration," she said. "Just go to T.J. Maxx and stand in the home goods section! You begin to realize, 'Every person I'm looking at has a story!' Every f—ing person!'"
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Not that growth isn't on the horizon. The couple spoke of bringing in creative collaborators to "get some other points of view" and to ease the burden of the many creative decisions they have to make, as they shoot scenes on the streets of Brooklyn, weave 11 stories across their six HBO episodes and create recurring characters, sometimes with big-name actors (Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens; Orange Is The New Black's Yael Stone; Bird Man's Amy Ryan).
Blichfeld, an Emmy Award-winning former casting director for TV's 30 Rock, and Sinclair, a film editor and self-described "pathetic" bit-part actor, are also talking to creatives outside the United States about licensing and launching High Maintenance series overseas. But there'll be no such licensing here at home, Sinclair assured the audience. "We're not going to set up a High Maintenance-Seattle," he said, "it's not like the Hard Rock Cafe." Big laugh.
Another decision the filmmakers have held firmly to is — given the freedom HBO's money offers — is to not lose the qualities that drew people to the show in the first place. "We realized we couldn't leave the intimacy because that's what people were responding to, the small quiet moments," Sinclair said. HBO proved a big help in that regard. "The ground rules were extraordinariy favorable for us," Sinclair said of their negotiations. "They were like, 'Just keep doing it the way you were doing it.'"
To a large extent, the High Maintenance set under HBO's aegis has also remained the same, the couple said: a de-emphasis on star perks, the use of people's real apartments as sets ("It's a real pain in the ass to get everyone in there," Sinclair quipped), the casting of people the filmmakers find interesting — and no pot on set (mullein, mugwort and rosehips stand in for marijuana). "We try to find a place where we can plug them in because we want to hang out with them," Blichfeld said.
What's different from the Vimeo days is that the crew is much bigger — and unionized, with strict rules. The filmmakers can't just pop into a local cafe to film spontaneously, as they once did. "Everything is planned out, a lot more controlled," Sinclair said.
Again, comparing "then" with "now," he and Blichfeld offered several comments relevant to young filmmakers and other startup entrepreneurs:
Even successful people have failed.
"We have a bunch of failed entrepreneurial projects," Blichfeld cheerfully acknowledged. They're on the web for all to see, she said, adding: "You have to try and fail a bunch of times."
Remember who has done you favors.
In the early days, friends of Sinclair and Blichfeld were their crew, their go-fors, their editors. Recently, using their HBO nest egg, Sinclair says, "We've actually gone back and paid everybody for their services on the web series … I was so glad to do that."
Keep only the work you like.
"I think liking your own stuff is very important," Blichfeld said. "A lot of people are so excited that they made something, they forget to ask whether they like it or not."
In her and Sinclair's case, "We weren't trying to get something specific: a script deal! I don't think we even fancied ourselves writers, or feel the urgency some people feel." That lack of urgency and stress, she said, is what fueled the creativity on High Maintenance.
Do other things.
"Do other things that you find useful as well [as your entrepreneurial work]," Blichfeld counseled. "That thing that you're making on the weekend with your friends may never amount to anything. It may just be 'that cool thing' you did. And you have to be cool with that."
If possible, have a trial run with your business/product.
"Working with Vimeo on six episodes [that Vimeo paid for, vs. the couple's earlier free web videos] was invaluable," Sinclair said. "Where else do you get that, except with minor league baseball?" Their trial run also assured HBO trust that the couple knew what they were doing.
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Finally, there was the inevitable question Sinclair said they get all the time: What happens to High Maintenance when marijuana legalization becomes widespread? And here Sinclair was as laid-back as apparently he and Blichfeld have always been: "We're not going to worry about it because it's such a slow-going process," he explained. "Additionally, there are people who don't want to be on the books as 'a weed consumer,' so there will still be black market."
As to what the couple are personally going to do should legalization arrive in New York: "First," Sinclair said jokingly, "we're going to buy some weed."