To the uninitiated, HBO’s High Maintenance can be saddled with the label of a stoner show. In reality, it regularly produces some of the most profound and beautiful storylines on television thanks to the vision of its two auteurs Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld who have a hand in writing and/or directing every single episode, dating back to the series’ origins as a Vimeo webseries in 2012. HBO bought the show in 2016 where Sinclair and Blichfeld contained their varied stories that follow the personal lives of disparate New Yorkers who only have one thing in common: their weed dealer, known simply as The Guy (portrayed by Sinclair). It’s impossible to ignore the fact that Sinclair and Blichfeld used to be married before Blichfeld came out after season 1 and the pair divorced. The reason this private fact is important is because High Maintenance has arguably produced its best episodes in its aftermath, with Sinclair and Blichfeld still close and still committed to making a special show. Below, the pair talk to Backstory about the recently-concluded fourth – and best – season of High Maintenance and what the future might hold.
Backstory: How do you actually begin a season from a writing standpoint?
KATJA BLICHFELD: Every time we get a new season ordered, Ben and I individually go off and write our own wish list. Those can encompass everything from scenes we want to dig into, characters we want to see, actors we want to work with, even jokes. It’s really a hodgepodge of things. Then we share that with each other and chat about it. Then we get int the room with the writers and share those lists with them and do a big download where we go around the room and do what we can an emotional check-in. We unpack where we all are emotionally. It gets very real, which we love. People go around and talk about what’s going on in their lives and things that are on their mind in that moment.
The show doesn’t have a traditional narrative through-line throughout the season. Each episode can mostly stand on its own. Given that, how do you go about not only structuring a single episode but also structuring a full season?
BEN SINCLAIR: We have this big board with all the index cards on them and eventually ideas start to link up with one another. This profession pairs with this emotion or this character. Then we start talking about how do we want people to feel at the beginning of this episode and how do we want them to feel at the end? That’s when you see episodes slowly starting to form.
BLICHFELD: I always feel surprised when things emerge that look like an arc. Things tend to take on a little more structure through those wish lists and downloads. We eventually start to see patterns and overlapping and those are generally where we start. There was one season where we more formally tried to form an arc for The Guy and I think we all had mixed feelings about how that went. We were happy with it but it’s always a bit of a dance in terms of how many details we include about his personal life. Last season he got a romance and we all enjoyed that. But Ben said going into this season that he didn’t think The Guy should have as much of a front seat this season.
Ben, why did you feel he needed to take a step back this season?
SINCLAIR: I felt like for season 3 I wanted to be the main actor of a season. I did it and then I got my ya-ya’s out. So for season 4 I guess I was hoping we could get to this self-contained short story thing because when you’re doing a season-long arc, if you move one thing the whole thing has to shift with it. I thought having compartmentalized short stories gave us more flexibility in the individual storytelling itself.
You used to write the show with just the two of you and then you eventually opened that up to other writers. What went into that decision and what kind of qualities do you look for when you bring in outside writers to the show?
BLICHFELD: I think we felt like the point of view was going to be pretty narrow if we continue to write the show just the two of us. We realized the need for growth and to continually expand. And then just practically as the episode order grew so did the need for more brains and more hands to do the writing. There really isn’t any hard and fast rule for what we’re looking for but we do look for people who are very curious, who are observational and who are thoughtful. What’s been cool is they end up coming from so many different sources. We’ve had playwrights, essayists, authors and then a sprinkling of people who actually had television experience. One of them was even one of our camera operators which I think is a unique situation. I don’t know any show that has that kind of crossover. That’s been one of my favorite things about how the show is grown is brining on these collaborators.
SINCLAIR: This year Katja and I shared a script with every other writer because we both work well in duos. So each of us could go work with another writer and have their flavor induced into our flavor. Then because we’re also the directors we’re able to continue writing right up until and during shooting. So our writing process is a little more fuzzy and blurry. We like to roll with the punches.
To me, this was the strongest season from a directorial standpoint as well. How do you feel you have grown as directors?
SINCLAIR: I think personally I took more directorial risks. The truth is Katja and I don’t work as closely as we used to and part of that is because of this big community we’ve built around the show. I think we’ve also both changed in terms of what we’re trying to work on as directors. I know Katja would be happy to film two people talking in a room and she does that so well. I think episode 2 (the Blichfeld-directed “Trick”) is the strongest episode this season and there’s a lot of two people sitting in a room talking. For me as a director, I’m trying to balance static images with something truly psychedelic. I’ve been interested in creating and using the screen as a canvas. I’m just in a more visual place than I used to be.
Katja, Ben mentioned “Trick,” – in which an intimacy coordinator (played by Abigail Bengson) begins a relationship with an asexual magician (Avery Monsen) – which I think is the best episode of the season and maybe the series. The relationship between someone who works in intimacy and a person who doesn’t like to be touched was portrayed really beautifully. What was the genesis of that episode and what was it like to direct it?
BLICHFELD: That’s one of my favorites too. The height of the Me Too movement was going on around that time and we were sharing stories about things they’ve heard from other productions and around then TIME did an article on the career path of being an intimacy coordinator for film and TV so that people feel safe during scenes. That conversation was interesting to us. It was my favorite one to direct by far because it was a great alchemy of elements coming together in the right way. Abigail who plays the intimacy coordinator is so special. This was the first thing she’s ever been in. Then when we met our real-life intimacy coordinator who would be working with us on the show (HBO has been particularly pioneering in employing one for each of their series), it was uncanny how she and Abigail shared something. There was a spirit they both possessed that was similar. Everything came together just right.
This show has been your lives for almost an entire decade. While it remains likely that it gets picked up for a fifth season, have you started to look into the future to other projects you would be interested in pursuing once High Maintenance ends?
SINCLAIR: It’s hard to speak with any certainty because of what we’re all dealing with right now. But that being said, I did just finish the first draft of a feature script that I have been working on for the past two years. It’s very different from High Maintenance or anything else I’ve done. There’s something very appealing to coming back home to High Maintenance to make short stories with this group of people but also sometimes you have to let the fields fallow for a bit before returning.
BLICHFELD: There are definitely a lot of things I want to do. High Maintenance ends up taking so much of my year so when it’s over I need to recharge and then go out in the world and collect more ideas for the show. So I end up putting a lot of my ideas in the High Maintenance bucket. But I’ve always wanted to do film. To be able to luxuriate in one narrative for the span of two hours sounds great to me after making so many what feel to me like short films. I’m really craving the real estate of a feature. So all my attention outside of this has been around what feature project could I do. My partner (writer Adele Thibodeaux, who co-wrote the season 4 episode “Voir Dire” with Blichfeld) and another writer are working on a screenplay right now that I hope we get to make at some point. I think film would be a great medium for me and my temperament. The pace of TV is so fast and we end up having to make so many creative compromises because of budget and time. So I would love to just have some time.
If you enjoy what you’ve read – we hope you’ll join us by buying Issue 41 as a single issue or subscribing to Backstory Magazine!
For more info about all the other amazing articles in issue 41 and beyond, view our Table of Contents.