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The High Maintenance Creators on Their First HBO Season, Interrogating Their Fans, and Why ‘The Guy’ Is Less Chill These Days

Ben Sinclair and Michael Cyril Creighton in the High Maintenance finale, “Ex.”

High Maintenance wraps its first run on HBO tonight, a six-episode season that told 11 short stories, each reflecting a different corner of human experience in New York. It caps things off with the return of Patrick (Michael Cyril Creighton), one of the web series’ most affecting characters, and in a High Maintenance first, we finally get a glimpse into the Guy’s (co-creator Ben Sinclair) life. Show creators Katja Blichfeld and Sinclair joined the Vulture TV Podcast recently to discuss their influences, which characters they feel most deeply for, and why the Guy is less chill this season. Listen to our conversation here, and read an edited transcript below.

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Gazelle Emami: I wanted to start with a hardball question.
Katja Blichfeld: Jump right in.

GE: Who do you think are the most high maintenance people on High Maintenance?
Ben Sinclair: [Laughs.] Quinn is pretty high maintenance. Quinn is the character from “Tick,” she is the recent mother who lives with her father, and she has a lot of things to check off before she can feel comfortable.

KB: Johnny was pretty high maintenance. The wannabe actor from “Meth[od]” who keeps the Guy for, like, a couple of hours. He has a lot of needs.

BS: But everyone has needs. Everyone is a little high maintenance, but some people are more shameless about exhibiting their needs than others.

GE: So you’ve done your first HBO season. And I’m curious, when you were starting out, how you decided what mix of stories you wanted to tell. You have a story about a Muslim girl, you have a raver dad, and so on — were you thinking very consciously about “what do we cut, what do we keep” to have a season that feels diverse in the types of stories represented?
KB: We wanted to make sure that we brought back a handful of our characters from the past episodes. We thought it would be something a lot of our fans would be hoping for. We wanted to revisit some of those people, because some of those episodes we shot like four years ago. We’ve been living with them for a long time and had, throughout the years, talked about,”What could their fate be?” But then we also thought it would be important to get some new characters in there. So we did it 50-50.

BS: The way the stories come together, we’re just going about our days in the city and we’ll be together and we’ll be alone, but we’ll report on someone or something we saw. Then we’ll just write that down on a note card and put it in this big pile of ideas that we’ve been batting around over the years. And it feels like we’re molding or sculpting the season. It felt like, “Well, we’ll put all of these things and we’ll shake it up and see what sticks.” It’s really an organic process and there is no method to it that you could describe. It’s just so loose and whatever we have access to.

KB: But this was the first time we’ve had the opportunity to plan for a bunch of episodes at once. We never had to consider an arc of a season because we were always just doing these as one-offs, whenever the mood struck us. So that was new for us, to have to look at a big picture and be like: Is there some redundancy here? Are there too many men? Too many women? Is there too much feminine energy, too much masculine energy? Is it too straight? We were definitely trying to seek some sort of a balance somewhere.

Matt Zoller Seitz: How strong is the cultural anthropology instinct in your work?
BS: It’s pretty intense. I think, especially you, Katja, you are more drawn to things like Tumblr-ing. For a while you were really into Tumblr, and now you’re doing a lot of Instagramming. You’re more into the trends and the pulse than I am. I’m really into things having to do with story structure and just weirdos and wackos. We’re both into weirdos, actually.

KB: Yeah, we’re both into weirdos. But I am really interested in, what are the kids talking about right now? That’s not something that we portray, but I’m interested in what groups I’m not a part of are talking about as much as I am my own peer group. And I’ll go looking for those answers, I guess, online.

GE: I noticed on your Instagram recently, you posted an ad for a morning rave, which is featured in the episode “Tick.”  I had no idea that that was a real thing in New York.
KB: We’d started hearing about “sober raves,” some people call them, “morning parties.” The one we filmed is called “Shine On,” but there are so many others. There definitely are a lot of people who go to Burning Man — there’s that vibe going on. We kept running into people who knew someone who had gone to one or they themselves had been to one and we were like, “We have to check this out.”

BS: Do you remember when we went to Five Rhythms? This is a dance meditation group, where you just dance for two hours and there are five musical rhythms they alternate between and you have a leader who’s trying to get you to not just do repetitive dance moves, but to move in a way that you weren’t expecting somehow. And we saw this older dude who was like … 70?

KB: Not even just one, there were a few. But, oh yeah, I know who you’re talking about.

BS: There was this 73-year-old dude who was dancing very limp, and he was really into it. And there were all these very young women dancing all over him.

KB: Yes, very young, nubile women doing some sort of very slow mirror dancing with him. It was fascinating.

BS: That was one of the roots for that episode.

KB: We were like, “Who’s that guy? Does he have grandkids?” But then we found out about all these other parties and checked them out, and then we were like, “No this is actually way more visually interesting,” because at Five Rhythms there were just people in their workout clothes. But at these dance parties, people really were getting into like full costume and wigs and glitter.

BS: Then we were having lunch on the last day we lived in Ditmas Park, and we sat down across from this woman who had recognized me from the web series. She said she puts together these day raves. And that is how we got connected with her, just running into her on the street.

MZS: It’s fascinating to hear you describe this because I feel like I’m listening to journalists. I don’t know if anybody does this anymore, but it used to be that almost every major newspaper had one place for what we call “pure reporting” where there’s no news hook. Ben Hecht’s A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago is probably the best, most famous example of this, where he would just talk to a bus driver and tell his life story, and the challenge is always, how do we tell this guy’s life story in 750 words?
BS: We’re really drawn to the banal. Just what seems very unique to one person’s life, but is actually very relatable to everybody.

KB: Or what seems really weird to an outsider, but is just that person’s everyday reality. And it’s kind of mundane for them.

MZS: I’m guessing y’all are Robert Altman fans.
KB: Oh, for sure.

Jen Chaney: I was going to ask you guys to talk about some of your influences. I read an interview you did a few years ago where you talked about how you were influenced by Six Feet Under, but specifically the first few minutes of each episode, which is a mini-story about somebody biting the bullet. Can you talk more about that and other things that influenced you?
KB:  For anybody who has not watched Six Feet Under, you should watch it, or I won’t tell you what to do, but it’s really good. It’s our favorite drama, ever. The first few minutes of every Six Feet Under episode, you’re dropped into someone’s life and they’re not a series regular, they’re not a character you’ve seen on the show before. And after you’ve seen a few episodes, you know that, inevitably, they will meet their demise within a minute and a half, probably. And then, we move on.

BS: It was also in 2010 and ‘11 when we were thinking about this, when there were so many short videos on the internet happening. There were a lot of people trying to crack the viral video …

KB: It felt like it had reached its saturation point.

BS: So everybody’s trying to make these two minute, usually just funny things, and we were more interested as the depth, as the length of the Six Feet Under intros were able to capture with just pictures, really. A lot of times, the person wouldn’t even talk.

KB: And we also thought, why can’t a short internet video be cinematic or why does it have to be humor-based? Why couldn’t it be dramatic or none of the above? But have a narrative. A strong narrative. Influence-wise, I always say the Danish filmmakers that were really kickin’ it in the ‘90s like Lars Von Trier or …

MZS: The Dogme 95 movement.
KB: Completely. That’s what made me interested in film. Celebration is my favorite film of all time. They didn’t want artifice. Like, if someone’s pregnant, they want them to be pregnant. Natural light. Diegetic music. And free from genre. They didn’t want anything easily classified as a specific genre. It’s definitely what influenced me. And YouTube. That’s what we respond to. Naturalism.

BS: This is such a pretentious one, but Chekhov. I was obsessed with Chekhov in college. I went to Russia to study at the theater that Chekhov did most of his work at, the Moscow Art Theater, and I went to his grave expecting to feel something and felt nothing. That’s exactly the kind of Chekhovian moment I was looking for. Looking back on that, I didn’t enjoy my experience in Russia, but I look back on that as some of the most formative times of what I was interested in, in terms of tone and storytelling. Just noticing that the small moments are usually more intense than the large plot moments.

GE: You were talking about naturalism in the work you do, and I’ve read you talking about auditions and how you like for it to feel natural — you don’t like to have people reading lines that you’ve written necessarily because it can feel kind of stilted. How does your process work in terms bringing this naturalism to the characters you write? 
BS: We try to imbue our actors with self-worth before they start working with us, and let them know we invited them there because this part was for them. We try to make them feel very comfortable that they are the character.

MZS: So you don’t do auditions?
KB: We’ve done some. We didn’t do any for the web series. The only ones we did auditions for was, we had an episode called “Genghis” where we had to cast kids who seemed like they were in high school, so for that one, we did read people. But for this current season, we started off with our casting director holding regular auditions, putting people on tape, reading our script, reading the sides. It was just so weird for us because we had never done that before with our show.

BS: We started doubting our writing.

KB: It wasn’t broken, the way we were doing it before. So why are we doing it a different way now? And I understand, now, we sort of used all of our friends in the show …

BS: You know what is funny is, after this dog episode, everybody’s like “that dog is such a good actor.”

MZS: I love that dog. Your DP seemed to think that he was making choices.

BS: It started to feel that way, but in general, I don’t think dogs are actors … and this dog was motivated solely by food.

GE: I wanted to talk a little bit about episode four, “Tick.” You see technology bring the father and his daughter back together, and it’s a really sweet moment. And in the next episode, “Selfie,” you see the flip side of technology and its negative effects. I was curious how much you’re thinking about these themes, and showing the nuances to how technology can affect our lives, for example.
BS: I’ll say that, showing technology on TV is one of those things we’re always talking about, and being like, you cannot ignore the fact that people use technology primarily as the communicator with most of the people in their lives. I’ve heard some showrunners talk about how texting isn’t cinematic, and I’m like, not the way you’re thinking about it, but certainly it can be. The way people type, you can see their thought process happening and what they delete and what they choose to show.

KB: But to your question, when we write isolated episodes, or I should say stories, ‘cause we do write the stories and then they get pieced together into episodes. And they weren’t all in that order, those stories grouped together — those were not necessarily all grouped in that fashion.

BS: Max [Jenkins] was supposed to be a fifth stand-alone episode, and Johnny, the buff guy, was supposed to accompany episode four. “Tick” was supposed to be the first episode.

GE: What made you change it?
KB: Well, we were like, if we come out of the gate with that episode, “Tick,” it’s a full half hour, it’s like a short film. It’s a couple of stories, but they’re interwoven in a way that makes it one. And we don’t have any other ones like that. So we felt weird about putting it first and having people maybe come to our show for the first time and thinking, “Oh, maybe that’s what it is.” We didn’t think it was representative. And then after we completed that “Johnny” story, it felt so much like one of those classic ones we did in the beginning, of being in one apartment, real-time. Wouldn’t that be fitting to put that first …

BS: And then we realized it was about masculinity and being an impostor. And we’re like, “Oh that has the same themes as the other ones.” The whole thing is up for grabs until we deliver to HBO, really. It’s just the editing process, because we write and direct and edit. We don’t have to ask anybody’s permission to change anything.

MZS: Are you not getting notes from the network?
BS: We are getting some notes, but delightfully minimal.

KB: And pretty much because we ask for them. I guess they offered some unsolicited, but very few. They’ve been very supportive of what we’re doing and not questioning too much.

BS: I hope that when we work with directors and writers in the future, ‘cause we will, that they feel as loose as we have felt in making this.

JC: Do you not plan to direct an episode again?
KB: We just won’t be able to.

BS: It was a lot of energy to do all that. It was 11 short stories, and it took about a year to do. So, it was like one short story a month.

KB: There were times I wish I could have just put on my writer’s hat for an episode and worried about dialogue and not had to worry about the shots and all that. There were just times when it would’ve been nice to have been able to work from another vantage point, and not have to carry the whole production.

GE: When we talked before, you mentioned that this season you mostly have two stories per episode, about 15 minutes, but that you wanted to, going forward, maybe make them even shorter. What appeals to you about making it shorter?
BS: It’s just fun to try. It’s like, let’s really use the “show, don’t tell” concept and let’s put as much information into a little amount as possible.

KB: And if you are endeavoring to make it that short, you are forced to kill your darlings. And that’s great. That’s a great restrictions to have on yourself for that reason.

MZS: It occurs to me that we’ve been talking about this show in some detail and no one has yet mentioned marijuana. That’s the entire sort of conceit of the show — I’m not saying we should talk about it, but I find it interesting that it hasn’t come up.
BS: It’s something that’s very much a part of our life. It’s as much a part of our life as coffee. And we’re not talking about coffee all day, either.

MZS: That’s what it reminded me of again, to bring it back to Altman, Altman always had a device like that in his movies. He had the spring for medflies in Short Cuts or he had the sound truck in Nashville that’s moving from location to location. That’s what gets us into the story.
BS: Absolutely. It’s also great because it does orchestrate a very conversational moment. People tend to talk a lot when they smoke pot.

KB: Or when they’re buying it. It is a weird thing, even for people who order marijuana to be delivered on a regular basis. It’s a unique circumstance to have that person come into your space, and you’re making this illegal transaction. It’s not like you can schedule it a 100 percent and be like, so, you’ll be here at 3:30, right? And I always say too, you’re not usually cleaning up for your weed dealer, I am sometimes, I confess. Most people, based on the stories I’ve heard from people we know who deliver weed, they’re coming in to people’s lives at weird times …

BS: We asked a weed dealer the other day, what are people saying to you as soon as you get in there? And they basically say, “I’m a this kind of person who does this and this. Can you recommend something for me?” So they’re giving you a little biography of themselves in order to diagnose you with something, or to give you a cure for whatever ails you.

What’s interesting about things about people taking a substance, taking a mind-altering thing, is it’s about vulnerability. And people’s inability to feel vulnerable …

KB: Or to feel okay with feeling vulnerable.

BS: And it dulls everything a bit. It dulls the bad feelings, but it also dulls the good feelings. That’s the cycle a lot of people are on, where they’re just like, feeling bad because they don’t feel happy, and then taking something and feeling nothing for a while. And then feeling bad they don’t feel happy. And keep doing that cycle over and over again. You can serialize that shit. Our show is a little bit lighter than that, but underneath all of it is a lot of isolation, and a lot of people trying to deal with their vulnerability of being in this city, which is a total bitch. These people are just trying to numb.

GE: Ben, your character, the Guy, doesn’t usually get a story. In the finale this season, we do get a bit of one. Which was great to see as a viewer, but I’m curious if you debated that at all, if you were nervous to make him too much of a person …
BS: It’s a delight to tease …

KB: And a relief. Oh, we’ve got something we can reveal.

BS: Sometimes people are like, “We would like to see more of him.” And the fact that you are thinking that is such a great thing to us. It’s so much better than “I’m sick of this guy.” We love to make such a big deal out of such a little detail of his life. But that’s because the only information you get about the guy is these little bits we dole out. And it feels much more of a like, gasp, than it actually is.

KB: But when you know nothing, it’s just like, any little kernel is “Ohh, mm!”

BS: It takes a lot of pressure off us to make it interesting. And also, we’ve always said, and continue to say, what you think about him is kind of the point. He’s a surrogate, he’s whatever you want him to be. And a lot of people are projecting this shamanistic, Buddha-like aura onto him. And I guess. I don’t think he’s that chill …

KB: Well, not anymore. I think this season, I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, he’s a lot less chill. The Guy says a lot more this season and gets frustrated a lot more.

BS: He’s feeling the grind this season.

KB: Now it feels like a real job for him. It used to be a little more fun, and now he’s like, Ugh, this sucks.

GE: Can we talk a little bit about Patrick? He’s the character I feel the most deeply for.

MZS: We should describe him.
KB: Patrick is an agoraphobic man in his 30s who, for a long time, lived with his sick mother in a rent-controlled apartment situation, and then she passes and he is now left alone, and he is one of the guy’s customers. We learn in the first episode that we meet him in, which is called “Helen,” that he calls the guy for company. He’s not himself a weed smoker. But he’s been using this excuse that his sick mother is smoking this pot. And then he’s calling the Guy because he has a little crush on him, and he enjoys his company, and the Guy’s very kind and generous with him. He’s very emotional, and he’s obsessed with Helen Hunt.

JC: Not to disparage Helen Hunt — I like Helen Hunt very much — but why did you choose Helen Hunt?
KB: We know someone who at one time was pretty into Helen Hunt.

BS: He was one of the first people I met when I went to college. And he was an RA and he decked out the entire hall in Helen Hunt. There were these two pictures of Helen Hunt on everyone’s door with their names by them. And I was like, What … is going on here …

GE: Are there characters that you feel more deeply for? Just as creators?
KB: He is one of the ones that we feel for.

BS: To this day, we’ve seen that episode hundreds of times and it’s really hard to get through without like …

KB: Well, because he always has tears ready to go. He has some very wet eyes, that Michael Cyril Creighton. His emotion is very easily accessible. So it makes it easy to feel for him. But character-wise … I mean, I feel for all of them!

BS: I feel for all of them, too. This thing is more of a journal than we probably care to admit. But it really is our emotions and our feeling, insecurities, on somebody else’s skin. So it’s kind of our exercise in being vulnerable. I hate watching them live on TV.

GE: Do you watch them live?
BS: I tried to. I can’t do it anymore. I don’t like giving it out to everybody at that moment and knowing that from now on, this is for anyone else to have an opinion about or to take their own meaning from it. It’s just uncomfortable. But that says a lot about my vulnerabilities.

MZS: I guess you must hate reading reviews, then.
BS: Oh, no, I’m so gross and all over it. The “Selfie” episode is really hitting home with me right now. Because it’s really hard to know when people are talking about you, not to wonder what they’re saying.

GE: I wanted to ask about that episode in particular, in terms of the themes going on. It’s full of all these meta references. You walk through the set of Girls. You have Hannibal Buress talking about his role on Broad City. And then, there’s one element with Homeless Heidi’s character where it feels like it’s maybe a reference to how New Girl used a similar plot to yours, starring the same actress.

BS: Maybe it is … [laughs]. It’s not really a reference, it was more the inspiration, that feeling we felt was like, let’s just apply that feeling to this Homeless Heidi character because we thought it’d be an interesting exercise in how to tell a story. And it is a kind of meta story. We are claiming the reality of like, Broad City being a television show in our universe.

KB: And for the last few pilot seasons, we keep reading about all these shows in development that are weed shows … I think there is a little bit of that in this episode, too. Not about the weed shows, but even in the music that we had Chris Bear score for any time you see the Guy. It’s this kind of gangsta, cheesy, reality-show sound library. Like, “He’s a thug, he’s a criminal.” We’re having a little bit of a laugh, at a lot of things. At how network TV shows characterize Brooklyn, how they characterize pot TV shows, how they characterize …

BS: Even how idea theft … Gangsta Pimp was trying to sue Empire for taking his life story or something.

KB: We’re just acknowledging it, not really saying anything about it except like, ha ha ha, that happened. Wasn’t that funny?

MZS: Given the nature of the kind of stories that you tell, you have to be kind of on the job all the time …
BS: You don’t say.

MZS: Can you turn the meter off on your taxi or not?
KB: No. I wish.

MZS: Don’t you want to just write an episode about some people who go out and try to get away to nature?
KB: Yes! I went on a three-day trip with some girlfriends this week, and those two girlfriends have been on High Maintenance also, as characters. Every story they tell, it takes everything in me to not be like “Oh my God, can that please be an episode?” But everything can’t be an episode. Some things just need to be what they are, which is a funny anecdote someone tells you or a funny experience you share. But the nature of our work is such that it all goes into this soup.

BS: Luckily, it’s so fun. We have to do it all the time, but it’s awesome.

GE: What point are you at on a second season?
BS: We’re writing. The interesting thing now is, because it’s more mainstream, there’s been more people coming up to talk to us, and what they’re not expecting is for us to ask them like, “What do you feel shameful about?” You could feel really alienated about being spotted in public all the time, and be like, I want my privacy. But we’re trying to flip the script. So it’s a little more like, “Well, what about you? What should you be famous for?”

KB: And also just the interaction of someone coming up and being like, “Hey I know you, I like you …” and then you being like, “Cool, thanks!” And then what? Who’s that for, and what is that for? That doesn’t really get anyone really anything. So why not go one step further?

BS: And because people think I’m way more chill than I actually am, that I’m going to be like some sort of monkey-ish confidante. But I’m just like … a dude that’s really impatient all the time. All sorts of terrible things.

KB: And a lot of good things.

JC: Will it be the same number of episodes in the second season as there was in the first?
KB: I don’t know if it’s official yet, but you can expect more stories.

BS: So much so that we’re having other people help us do it. Because to get them out in around a year’s time, it’s going to take a little village.

KB: Yeah, and we’re already a little behind by that math.

BS: But goddammit, it is so fun to walk around the city and be like, it’s you. You’re the person that I’m thinking about, and then follow them for a little bit. It’s just a long series of daydreaming. We’re daydreaming all day it seems like, sometimes.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

High Main Creators on Their First HBO Season