chat room

High Maintenance’s Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld on Bringing the Short Film to Television and ‘Acknowledging Their Privilege’

TV, as a form, is constantly in flux. Twenty-two episode seasons become thirteen become ten. Dramas shrink to 30-minute quasi-comedies. Traditional 40-some minute dramas stretch to fill a full hour. High Maintenance, the beloved web series that today makes the jump to HBO, represents another evolution: the arrival of the short film on television.

It certainly isn’t the first show to bring a short-film aesthetic to a mainstream TV network — episodes of Louie often have that feel, while Joe Swanberg’s upcoming Netflix show Easy works in the mode of omnibus films like New York, I Love You. But High Maintenance is the purest version yet, the operative word here being short: All but one of the six episodes in the new season contain two, approximately 12- to 15-minute-long stories that, like shorts, leave you with more of a feeling, rather than charting a beginning, middle, and end. It’s the latest instance of a major network giving creators the freedom to do what they want, and as a result, rework current paradigms — HBO let husband-wife duo Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair essentially put their web series onto television, rather than forcing them to change their vision to fit a traditional structure. Watching the HBO season, it feels possible to imagine a future where short films could gain more popular recognition as episodic television than they ever have as movies.

A byproduct of the televised short film is the diversity of storytelling it makes possible, simply because each episode features different people. The new season of High Maintenance brings back many of the same characters it did in earlier web seasons, but it notably opts to give a broader view of New York life than it has ever before: Take two of this season’s stories, which focus on a Pakistani Muslim NYU student (Shazi Raja) and a Chinese couple (Kristen Hung and Clem Cheung) who collect cans. In an interview with Vulture at a press day in New York, Sinclair and Blichfeld talked about writing narratives that speak to the current cultural climate, acknowledging their privilege, and why they want their stories to get even shorter in future (hypothetical) seasons.

Before I watched this season, I was curious to see how the structure might change. I loved how you kept the stories short, versus adapting it to fill a traditional, 30-minute episode. Was that something you pushed for?
Ben Sinclair: We very much didn’t want to make one long, 30-minute story. We did love the snackability of the short stories but ultimately our prime goal would be to have an episode on a Friday night release as we used to, where we used to release three episodes at once. We wanted to keep it as much the same as possible. So, fucking three stories is really hard to write in 30 minutes, but ideally, one day, if we get to keep doing this, we can get our episodes down to nine and ten minutes and have three per 30 minute cycle.

Katja Blichfeld: When we came in, we were lucky HBO really wanted to have it be the most the same as it could be, whatever that meant. I don’t think even they were 100 percent sure what that meant, but they were so open to the conversation about how to do that. I even think there were some people at HBO that might have been expecting us to just hand in six 15-minute little [episodes], you know what I mean? But we were like, no, we have a half-an-hour block of real estate. Let’s make this money work and write multiple stories for each one.

BS: We wanted to underpromise and overdeliver.

KB: We were so relieved they wanted us to just continue where we had left off. They weren’t asking us to reboot it, they didn’t ask us to retell any stories from the past. The whole fact that they’re including our old body of work and bringing it on to the platform was this huge vote of confidence for us where we were like, “Oh, cool!” Like they really do want us to just keep doing it. They’re not trying to like, stick a flag in it and be like, we did this.

I know you had been in talks with FX before you went to Vimeo. Is this something you found unique about HBO versus your conversations with other networks?
KB: Yeah, definitely. I mean like, the other deal that we had, we were rebooting. It was a different thing.

BS: Once “recast” was said to us, I shut down, I …

KB: [Laughs.] He was like, “Is that me?” I don’t think it ever was, for the record, [about recasting] you, but there were mentions of retooling old episodes which was a bit of a blow to us. We were like, “No, they’re finished.” Why would you redo them?

BS: We asked point-blank, like, is …

KB: I don’t want to talk so much about this. I hate focusing on this, it’s so in the past, why even bother?

BS: Yeah, exactly.

Now that you are on a mainstream platform, it feels like you’re bringing the short film to television in this way I have not seen before. We’ve had Louie, which has kind of that feel, but this is pushing things even further in that direction. As filmmakers, is that something that you would hope would happen, that this would popularize short films in a way where people would watch them in an episodic way?
BS: That wasn’t the stated goal at the beginning, but man, when we go to film festivals, those are the programs we go to, we go to short films because there’s something so satisfying about the length — demanding so much control from the director and from the audience, it’s like a real controlled environment. I feel like it’s such a difficulty to keep a feature long and interesting for 72 minutes and then close it up in just the right way.

KB: Seventy-two is on the low end too.

BS: I know, that’s the minimum …

KB: Try, like, 120 [laughs.]

BS: For those of us who like instant gratification, it’s a very 21st-century medium that hasn’t fully been explored yet.

Are you seeing more opportunities for indie filmmakers on television?
BS: Oh, yeah. On Netflix, there’s that [upcoming] Joe Swanberg series, [Easy]. Mark and Jay Duplass are also doing an anthology-style series on HBO about a room. What’s awesome about it is you can do anything.

KB: Literally there’s no idea that we’ve had yet where we’ve been like, gotta save that for when we do the feature — no, it’s like, you just throw it in this show. Almost anything can work somehow.

BS: And because we live in this city, we get to this point where we’re super-curious about everyone around us and it’s just this natural thing.

KB: Everything becomes like an inspiration session.

One thing I’m interested in is how you’ve branched out in the stories you’ve decided to tell in this new season. Someone asked you in a Reddit AMA last year about how the show focuses on a gentrified view of Brooklyn, and whether you would ever deal with the politics of what the show and characters represent. You seem to have shifted gears a bit this season, and found creative ways of showing a broader worldview of life in New York. You have the young Muslim girl, a Chinese couple, a journalism student challenging Ben about the fact that he’s a white weed-delivery guy and most of his clients are white. I’m curious how consciously you decided to incorporate different stories?
: Yeah, we thought about it. With the Chinese can collectors, we treated the story the same way: We have the curiosity about those people. We see can collectors every day, especially on [executive producer] Russell [Gregory’s] street. It was one of those things where it was just like, who are they? They’re not just collecting cans, what else are they doing? We just thought it would be fun, wouldn’t it be fun if you just took a little detour with those people and get a little peek.

BS: And that episode where the guy gets interviewed about his [race], it’s called “Selfie” for a reason. That whole episode is very much a selfie for ourselves. You as the viewer will be the judge as to what that really is, but yeah, we think about that stuff. We’re like how, how do we …

KB: How do we acknowledge our privilege?

BS: How do we acknowledge our privilege, and how do we create something this world will find useful somehow, hopefully. I really hope that we make work that addresses this moment right now, the things that people are thinking about …

KB: At least what we’re thinking about.

BS: We are all part of a conversation that’s like, yes, we do want to just write comedy-pathos short stories, but we also want them to be useful for today.

You’ve previously said you liked to do things were personal to you because those are the stories you feel like you can tell. Do you feel like you’ve started to feel more comfortable with telling …
KB: No, these are still personal.

BS: These are even more personal.

KB: I’ve got immigrant parents, you know, we have parents, we’re dealing with that. I was a teen living in a semi-religious, suburban upbringing. Even the things that people might look at it the surface and think we had to reach outside to write them, we didn’t. They just had different faces.

BS: That’s where the interconnectivity between of all of us really kicks in, when people are like, how can you write about that perspective like, bitch, that was my perspective! We’re all going through the same things. Originally that Eesha character [the Pakistani Muslim girl in episode two] was written as a boy, a peeping-tom boy based on like, me smoking cigarettes when I was an 11-year-old, taking off my shirt so it wouldn’t get the smell on it. We just start from what we know, that feeling, that moment early in life.

KB: But then we were like, we’ve seen a peeping-tom boy enough times, like, that’s not interesting, but like, I peeped for all you know [laughs].

In terms of casting this season, you have a lot of the same people coming back but for those roles where the actors maybe don’t get acting opportunities as regularly — like the Chinese couple and the Muslim girl — what was it like? Was it hard finding these kinds of roles to fill?
KB: When we cast Shazi Raja, I scripted it to be open, she didn’t have to be Pakistani. We just wanted somebody who was culturally from a place that could, would have large Muslim populations. So we had options of Arabic girls and African and Pakistani — it was kind of a grab bag and she was the one we were drawn to the most. And then we cast the family members around that. But to us it wasn’t important that they be from Pakistan.

BS: And the thing we noticed in her when we cast her was she had the side of her head shaved and she had these braids in her hair.

KB: She had a great strong look, just like piercings and like —

BS: It wasn’t what we were thinking at all. So then we cast Shazi and we’re like, “Shazi, what is going on with you?” And she told us about her, her family, and her aunt and uncle, and they’re more religious than her. We had already had this stuff in our script already, some of it overlapped, but she also supported some of the things we leaned into further as we went into rewrites. So that was the one that was the most casting dependent because we wanted a young woman with a Muslim [background], but there’s not a lot of those women around. That was a real tough one.

KB: Right, in terms of who’s working even, who’s young. When it’s such a young character, the pickings are more slim unless you want to do some huge casting call.

BS: But then on the other side of the story, like with the swingers episode, we’d been wanting to work with Amy Ryan for a while, we are friendly with her, her husband Eric Slovin is a friend of ours who’s at this party. Victor Williams is an actor we’ve been watching from afar in theater for a while now and I think he’s just the best. Miriam Shor, we’re mutual fans of one another, and that was just about, who’s fun? Let’s get them over here and let’s have a good time because it’s going to be a crowded, sweaty apartment so we’ve got to find good people to get in there. So it’s a real mixture between leaps of faith and picking people we’re faithful to.

What would you say is the biggest difference in terms of doing the web series versus doing for HBO?
KB: The pressure and the workload is different because it’s distributed in a way. It used to be an art project, and now it’s our job.

BS: We’re considering a six-week trajectory now, whereas before we were thinking three episodes you would watch in one episode at your desk.

Could you see it going multiple seasons?
KB: [Whispers] Yes.

BS: If we could, this show really gives us access to tell any story in New York. Really, it’s truly liberating, and if given the opportunity to, we could this for a long time.

KB: With more help, with more creative collaborators next time.

BS: We would love to be the people who helped short stories become the thing.

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

High Main Creators Bring the Short Film to TV