Premiering in 2012, High Maintenance follows a nameless cannabis delivery guy as he delivers much needed medication to stressed-out New Yorkers. It was created by husband and wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld. They produce the series with Russell Gregory as Janky Clown Productions. Two three-episode cycles have been released. They are currently in production for the next cycle. This essay is part of Televisual‘s “Indie TV Innovation” series.
In the five months since we released our web series High Maintenance, we’ve received several emails from viewers expressing a desire to help us with production. “I’ll come hold a boom mic.”; “Happy to coil cables!”; “Would love to be your coffee bitch.” they say. Admittedly, we’ve taken some of these fans up on their offers of free labor with great results, but this brand of enthusiasm has definitely caught us by surprise. We’ve often asked ourselves how we came to be so lucky to attract this kind of eager volunteer. We can only conclude that we must look like we’re having a lot of fun. And you know what? We are, and there are two components to that fun. The first is that we’re all friends and we’ve chosen each other’s company. We’ve only recently realized that the second component is that we’re able to achieve a strong creative flow if the environment is small, relaxed, and everyone’s having a good time. Here are some guidelines we use to establish a fun and relaxed production experience:
Working with Actors We Like
Since High Maintenance relies heavily on acting talent, we are lucky that our team of executive producers, armed with over 20 years of combined experience working with professional actors, has many relationships from which to draw. As a result, we are able to write with specific actors in mind. We are, in essence, asking the actor to bring their unique skill-set to the table instead of asking them to prove anything to us. It seems to result in our actors bringing a healthy amount of confidence to set. We find that this, in addition to keeping our crews small, paves the way for grounded and honest performances from our cast.
Working Within Our Means
It’s difficult to relax when you’re burning money with every passing minute. Furthermore, it may surprise some to know that cost to produce an episode of High Maintenance falls somewhere between $500 and $800. We don’t pay anyone, yet everyone comes in with an all-hands-in attitude. The costs come from equipment rentals, craft services, and transportation. We shoot mostly on inexpensive DSLR cameras (with nice lenses), we light with mostly China balls and c-stands, and our editor is also the co-director, co-executive producer, and star of the show. All of that being said, we try to be considerate of our cast and crew, and take great pains to make sure no one feels like we are taking advantage of their precious time. Therefore, each episode takes around sixteen hours over two days to shoot.
Working with the Flow
Flexibility is a necessity, especially on a shoestring budget. That means everything we do is subject to change. For instance, when we heard winter storm “Nemo” was to hit NYC when we were planning to shoot, we incorporated the storm into our story. When a noisy Latin American street festival suddenly popped up outside of our shooting location, we wrote it in as a B-story to contrast the quiet isolation of that episode’s A-story. We usually just write shooting scripts to convey the story and the imagery; but if a line of dialogue isn’t working for an actor, or a shot doesn’t look great to our DP, we ask the artists to change them to what they think would look or sound good, while still getting the story point or joke across. If the story is strong, than the script can undergo all kinds of on-the-fly changes.
In conclusion, we work with people we want to work with and put a lot of trust in their instincts and abilities. We think that, as a result, we’re capturing some of our collaborators’ best efforts. They are, after all, the reason why High Maintenance is what it is. We just write the script and emails to bring them all together. And provide the snacks. Snacks are very important.
–Katja Blichfeld, Russell Gregory and Ben Sinclair
Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy award-nominated casting director (30 Rock) and one half of Blichfeld + Daniels Casting.
Russell Gregory is a talent manager and owner of his own company, Regarding Entertainment. He reps a select group of actors, writers, directors and other creative types in film, theatre, television and music.
Ben Sinclair is an actor and editor who has appeared numerous times on television as some incarnation of a wild-eyed man (Delocated, 30 Rock, A Gifted Man, Law & Order: SVU, The Big C, Next Caller).