How Vimeo's 'High Maintenance' is Making the Web Series Format Dope as Hell
It's rare to find a comedy series that has enough realism to keep you engaged with the characters and enough farce to keep you laughing. Enter High Maintenance -- the first-ever Vimeo Original web series.
The show follows "a cannabis dealer known simply as 'The Guy' who slips in and out of the lives of his clients -- an eclectic array of New Yorkers with neuroses as diverse as the city they live in." Interested yet? The duo behind the series includes Emmy-winning casting director Katja Blichfeld and actor/editor Ben Sinclair. It's a highly "snackable" web-series that takes the politics out of pot and puts the emphasis on the stories of people who happen to use it.
At first it seems strange to have a show tout a casting director as its first qualifier, but the casting in High Maintenance is probably it's most outstanding feature. As the world of filmed entertainment changes, casting is perhaps one of the biggest areas affected -- the application and very definition of an actor is changing. People write characters for their friends, pull people off the streets or document reality presenting it as fiction. It's nothing new, as the use of non-actors has been explored since the beginning of cinema -- but due to digital technology it does feel like we're entering another era of Italian neo-realism. In High Maintenance, the characters just feel like real people, yet the camera is not voyeuristic. As the audience, we're placed in a juxtaposition between banal moments and farcical situations -- but we're always in on the joke.
Here's our chat with the husband-wife creative team behind High Maintenance.
We don't audition our actors, so what ends up happening is they get to our set and feel like they were invited to a party -- rather than that feeling of having to "prove" themselves.
NFS: What are the benefits of releasing directly to the internet? Bypassing censors, etc.?
Katja Blichfeld: Sure, bypassing censors is definitely a benefit. We like to say "fuck" a lot, as you might have noticed. Besides that, this direct distribution model allows for us to make each episode exactly the length it needs to be, rather than having to tailor it to fit a television programming block.
Ben Sinclair: Plus, we don't have to create content that fits within some sort of network mission statement or consider what advertisers would or wouldn't be okay with us portraying.
NFS: How do you decide on coverage? It doesn't feel like a single camera show, but it's a very graceful multi-camera setup. Visually what was your starting point?
BS: Thanks. Our access to resources was really where we had to start from. In the beginning we were just using a single camera and that worked fine since we were just shooting a 6-page script in one room. But once we started adding to the length of our stories and expanding our casts, it became necessary to bring in a second camera so that we could speed things along. Still, "Qasim" was shot in less than two days with one DP (Charlie Gruet) who's an animal! There were over a hundred shots in that episode and he just knocked that shit out of the park.
NFS: What steps do you take in creating the environment for the actors to get these natural performances?
KB: We don't audition our actors, so what ends up happening is they get to our set and feel like they were invited to a party -- rather than that feeling of having to "prove" themselves. We tend to write for specific actors when we can, so usually they don't have to reach too far outside of their wheelhouse. And in those instances we cast an actor without knowing them personally, we try to stay flexible enough to allow for character changes to happen on set. Nothing major, obviously, but sometimes an actor will reveal a quality on set that was not previously apparent and we'll just try to flow with it -- work it into our vision.
BS: Plus, we don't get too precious about our words. If an actor says a line and it doesn't sound right -- the syntax or the words seem awkward -- we'll encourage the actor to rephrase so that it's more in their own words.
KB: We want people to sound contemporary and colloquial, so we do all we can to make sure that happens. And we like to leave in the mistakes.
BS: We like when someone trips over their words. That's real life.
NFS: What was the starting point for this idea? Did you create it on spec and then get noticed or was it funded from the start?
KB: Ben and I wanted to work together. We're married. We're best friends. We thought it would be a fun way to pass the time on weekends here and there. We didn't know how many episodes would be in the series, and we didn't have an overarching idea of where it would (or even could) go when we started. At best, I thought I'd have a nice calling card for my casting abilities and Ben would have some cool stuff for his acting reel. I wanted to see him play a nicer guy than he was getting the opportunity to play.
BS: We self-funded the first 13 episodes with one of our best friends, manager Russell Gregory (he's the third EP on the show and manages us). Pretty much everyone on his roster has been featured in the show in some way or another. We knew from the beginning we would have great talent to pull from, so that was a great place to start.
We're really into the idea of "low-hanging fruit". That's how I came up as a filmmaker -- working with the resources at hand and trying to make the best of those
NFS: How would you describe how the series has evolved -- both in storytelling and visually -- since its first few episodes?
BS: Really the main thing that's changed is that we're going outside of the client's apartment much more now, and that's been the obvious difference -- both visually and story-wise. Through the process of making these 19 episodes, we've learned what we like about doing them on a small scale within four walls and what we've liked about breaking out and going into "the world". It's been a process of expanding and contracting and I think we're starting to figure out what our sweet spot is. It's something between those early episodes and what we've just released, I think.
KB: Right. When we initially started, we kept all the stories small and contained -- within four walls, as Ben says -- because that was all we had to work with at the time. Again, our limited resources seemed to inform the story structure (and the look) and kind of defined the show in the beginning. There's something lovely and intimate about some of the early episodes, like "Helen", that we'd like to get back to.
It's going to keep increasing exponentially I think, as people become more and more comfortable viewing content online and as more and more people discover they don't have to wait for a TV executive to give them permission to make a show.
NFS: The show is addicting. As someone who doesn't watch television because I don't like the addictive nature of the format, I found myself renting all the episodes like it was the last day on earth. Drug references aside, was it your intention to make the show addicting? If so, how did you go about achieving that?
BS: We took our cues from our own media consumption habits, and of course those of our friends. We like to binge-watch. However, we also know how time-consuming that can be. It's a real commitment to watch a series sometimes, you know? We liked the idea of 3 episodes at a time. Enough to get your fill, but not so much that you are putting off like, life responsibilities, to watch. We call our episodes "snackable" and that seems right-on still.
KB: But I'll keep saying it -- we didn't have a ton of strategy beyond that. The fact that we've grown a viewership of this size -- it's surprising! We didn't know people outside of our social network and family would be watching.
NFS: Your show marks an important evolution of the web series. It's the first web series I've actually watched and enjoyed. Where do you think the format is headed?
KB: I think the writing's on the wall. Look how Transparent, House of Cards, and Orange is the New Black are being critically lauded and scooping up all kinds of major awards. And rightfully so. It's just a sign of what's happening and what's to come. Vimeo, Netflix, Amazon, Hulu -- those guys -- they're going to continue to function as studios for people making digital content and then there will be all the people making stuff independently. It's going to keep increasing exponentially I think, as people become more and more comfortable viewing content online and as more and more people discover they don't have to wait for a TV executive to give them permission to make a show.
NFS: Do you have any advice for people writing / planning / shooting their first web series?
KB: Write about the people and situations that move you or make you laugh. Don't try to guess what is going to attract an audience. You can't. I mean, you can a little bit, but it can also be a totally losing battle. The episodes that I feel have been the most personal -- the ones that most reflect Ben's and my point of view or are portrayals of things from our own lives -- are the ones that are sometimes the most beloved. Just sayin' -- there's something to keeping things true to what you know.
BS: We're really into the idea of "low-hanging fruit". That's how I came up as a filmmaker -- working with the resources at hand and trying to make the best of those. So we don't bite off more than we can chew or just outright set ourselves up to fail. We also heavily rely on the skills of our talented friends. We would be absolutely nowhere without our cinematographers, our sound mixer, our gaffers -- you get the idea. So arm yourself with a talented crew and set achievable goals. It really keeps things so much more enjoyable. Don't, for the love of god, skimp on sound. In this day and age, production values matter. Web series look really good now.
KB: Be careful if your intentions fall into the "vanity project" category. Give your audience a lot of credit. Even if they can't put their finger on it, they will know if you are just turning a camera on yourself to stay busy or make more "content" for your webpage. You've got to have something to say that's substantial or thought provoking, evocative, hilarious -- whatever. Just be aware of how many people out there are putting out content every day. There's an overabundance of stuff to sift through. It's got to feel worth it to your viewer.
NFS: Additionally a mention of the technical side would be interesting to our readers; what you shot on, what you edit with, y'know, the tools you use.
BS: I edited the first many episodes in Final Cut Pro but just switched to Premiere last year. As for the camera and lenses, we upgraded to better cameras in 2014. The first 10 episodes were on DSLRs with prime lenses, but then we started using better cameras ("Qasim": Sony F700; "Matilda": Red Epic; "Rachel": Sony F5; and for these last 6 episodes that we released we used the Canon C300 and Sony F5). We rotate our DPs so the equipment varies.
A big thanks to Ben and Katja for taking the time to answer our questions. Have you seen High Maintenance? Join the discussion below. Also, here's some BTS: