TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. There are more and more ways for the creators of TV shows to bypass the TV networks, like creating web series. The web series "High Maintenance" was named best web series of 2014 by LA Weekly. "High Maintenance" was co-created by our guests, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, in 2012. Sinclair stars as a pot dealer known only as the guy, who rides his bike around Brooklyn, delivering to an assortment of clients. But it's not a stoner comedy. Each episode, which ranges from around five to 20 minutes, is more like a funny and sometimes poignant character study of the clients and why they get high. Blichfeld and Sinclair, who are married, use their own money to create the series and shot on location in the apartments of friends as well as in their own apartment. The early episodes of "High Maintenance" are available free. But last year, the video-sharing website Vimeo made "High Maintenance" its first original series, which means they started funding the series and charging a small fee for the episodes.
Katja Blichfeld is an Emmy award-winning casting director who worked on the TV show "30 Rock." Ben Sinclair is an actor and editor. FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado spoke to Blichfeld and Sinclair. They started with a clip from an early episode of the series. The episode starts with a couple making dinner when they realize a mouse is caught in a glue trap in their kitchen. They freak out, order some pot from their guy, and when he arrives, they're still obsessing about the mouse.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")
BRENNA PALUGHI: (As Brenna) We're so [expletive] stressed out. There's a mouse.
BEN SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Oh, well, just set a trap guys.
MOLLY KNEFEL: (As Molly) That's the problem. There is a trap. And it's a glue trap. And the mouse is stuck in it. And it's screaming. And it's very clearly suffering. And we don't know what to do.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) You just kill it.
PALUGHI: (As Brenna) No, it's inhumane.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Well, it's not actually inhumane. I mean, we caught a mouse in a glue trap, and we didn't see it 'til a couple hours later. And then it chewed its [expletive] leg off like James Franco in that rock climbing movie. And it dragged itself off and it expired in the dog dish. So it's like - might be more humane to kill it.
PALUGHI: (As Brenna) No, this is not an apartment where things die. This is an apartment where things live. We do not torture in this apartment, and we do not kill.
KNEFEL: (As Molly) I mean, to be fair, we already gassed it, and it's, like, totally covered in Pam.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) That sounds like torture.
KNEFEL: (As Molly) Yeah, I mean, it's doused in Pam. So I think maybe we should just kill it.
PALUGHI: (As Brenna) OK, fine. Will you do it?
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yes, I will do it.
ANN MARIE BALDONADO, BYLINE: That's a scene from the series "High Maintenance." Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, welcome to FRESH AIR.
KATJA BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you for having us.
BALDONADO: Why were you interested in making the series about a pot dealer? What access did you feel like the pot dealer offered you into characters?
SINCLAIR: It's really just that the pot dealer can get inside of somebody's apartment and then kind of engage in this activity that's illegal that both him and the client are complicit in. There is kind of this - I don't know - slightly sexy thing, but it's also short enough - five minutes - that you can have like a whole deal in under, you know, five minutes' time.
BALDONADO: You're able to build so much character in this short amount of time. Do you focus on the small details or does the storytelling just kind of happen? I'm thinking about there are just such great details in a lot of the apartments, and I'm thinking particularly of the episode "Helen," which is about an adult son who lives in an apartment with his sick mother, a user of - see, the kind of artwork that they have in the house or the piles of stuff just feels very much like a New York apartment. And then he gets these packages coming into the house. And then you realize he's trying on different shirts because he has a crush on the dealer, and he just wants to look nice. And it's just - so many of the episodes are really funny; so many of them are sweet. And this is just one that's super bittersweet. Could you talk about those details that seem to just say so much about the characters?
BLICHFELD: That was one of those instances where we kind of cast the apartment and thought to ourselves, who - well, we have access to this place, and it's so uniquely tiny. How can we make it look even more claustrophobic and small? And who would live there? And I think really that's where the idea came from, was having the space first. And then, of course, we art directed it. I mean, we pulled everything out from the walls to make it look a little smaller. We dug out some things from some thrift shops, and we made some fake art, and, you know, stuff like that. I mean, we definitely made it look a lot worse than it usually does. But, yeah, that was an instance where the apartment came first.
BALDONADO: I want to ask a little bit about casting. Everyone in the series is so great. And mostly it's people I haven't seen before. There are a couple of people I recognize from other shows. For example, Greta Lee, comedic actress, is in one of the first episodes. She's been on the Amy Schumer show and the "New Girl" and other movies. But other than that I didn't recognize a lot of people. Can you talk about casting this series?
SINCLAIR: Well, Katja is a casting director, or that was her entree into the entertainment industry. And she had been meeting actors on - while casting "30 Rock" and other shows for about a decade. But our - we don't have a traditional audition process. But the thing that could be equated with that is just us hanging out with the person that we'd like to write for. I mean, that's what happened with Dan Stevens. We basically hung out with him a half-dozen times before we realized what character would fit best for him.
BALDONADO: Let's talk about that episode. Dan Stevens, the British actor, who - a lot of people would know from playing Matthew on "Downton Abbey." He's in one of the episodes. And it's actually the episode "Rachel," which you guys just won a Writers Guild of America award for, and congratulations on that.
BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you.
BALDONADO: Could you describe the episode for us a little bit?
BLICHFELD: Sure. It's about a man named Colin who is a stay-at-home dad. He's a writer. We allude to the - he's a screenwriter and we allude to the fact he's won an Emmy recently. And now he's in this place where he is stuck. He's got writer's block. He's procrastinating. His wife is working very hard every day. She is - she works for a clothing designer named Rachel Comey. And the wife is the breadwinner. And she is getting increasingly frustrated with her husband who she realizes is procrastinating. She doesn't know the extent of his procrastination. But the viewer learns that he is just basically sitting around smoking weed all day and trying on dresses and basically cross-dressing in the privacy of his home. And then he - go ahead.
SINCLAIR: Then he orders weed from the guy. And has a long talk with the guy while wearing a dress, which is kind of nerve-racking for him, but the guy doesn't seem to mind at all.
BALDONADO: Well, let's listen to part of that episode, "Rachel." In this scene, the client, played by Dan Stevens, has ordered some pot from the guy, and he's let him in, and he's wearing a dress.
(SOUNDBITE OF WEB SERIES, "HIGH MAINTENANCE")
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, man, this was a good little read. Thank you so much.
DAN STEVENS: (As Colin) Good, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's good, isn't it? It's a lot of - some good stories in there. I'm glad you liked it.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) I mean, I was like why isn't this guy calling me? I have so many good stories about clients, man - crazy [expletive] people.
STEVENS: (As Colin) (Laughter) I bet you do.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, OK, look, man - you're wearing a dress right now. I can't pretend that you're not wearing a dress. You don't usually wear dresses, but you look - you look good.
STEVENS: (As Colin) Oh, thanks, man. Thank you, man. I appreciate that.
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) I have another customer who cross-dresses.
STEVENS: (As Colin) Oh, you do?
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Very frumpy.
STEVENS: (As Colin) Yeah, yeah, the - the taste in the community can be a bit patchy, you know?
SINCLAIR: (As The Guy) Yeah, his taste [expletive] sucks. Your taste is - it works man. I'm like where's my dress?
STEVENS: (As Colin) (Laughter) Yeah, it's Rachel Comey.
BALDONADO: That's a scene from the episode "Rachel." And that's also the episode that Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair won the Writers Guild of America award for. Now, Katja, you were in casting for a long time. You were a casting director for the show "30 Rock." And you even won an Emmy for that. "30 Rock" is such a great show and it had this great cast, and it also had guest stars over the seasons - you know, Elaine Stritch, Elizabeth Banks, Jon Hamm. So what does a casting director do, or what did you do as a casting director on that show? Did you have to sort of work on all of those levels?
BLICHFELD: Oh, for sure, and, I mean, we were - I was part of a team. It wasn't just me. But our day-to-day in the casting department was - and this is really what took the most work, I think - was filling all of those sort of lesser roles, those one-scene roles, or those under-fives as we call them in the business. And those were actually, in my experience, even harder to cast because it's so much easier to present a role that is several scenes - a juicy role - to an actor - and especially on a show like that - and get kind of your pick of whoever you want. But when it comes to sort of those smaller roles, there was this standard in place for really great acting and really great comedy. And you couldn't just sort of throw any old person in a scene with Alec Baldwin, even if it is just one line - even if there's no lines. So it really was challenging, I think, week after week to try to find people who would be humble enough to come and just say a line or two but also fit the role and could sort of hold their own against people like Alec Baldwin, Tina Fey, Jane Krakowski and sometimes one of those major guest stars.
BALDONADO: I want to play a quick clip from "30 Rock." And this episode was the 100th episode. Actually, Ben Sinclair, you're in this episode.
BLICHFELD: (Laughter) Yeah, you're a mess in that one.
BALDONADO: You're playing the role of Brooklyn hipster. And just to give a little background on this scene, for some reason Tracy Jordan - the character Tracy Jordan played by Tracy Morgan - is sort of freaking out or maybe won an Oscar. And he's trying to get back his dirty image. So he's in the street kind of freaking out. And your character, Ben, the Brooklyn hipster, reacts to it. Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "30 ROCK")
TRACY MORGAN: (As Tracy Jordan) I am a Jedi.
SINCLAIR: (As Brooklyn hipster) Hey, look. Tracy Jordan is ironically reappropriating his bad past behavior as a commentary on Fitzgerald's dictum that there are no second acts in American life. I want to take a picture of him with my old-fashioned camera.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) No, no.
BALDONADO: And then he falls in the river. Someone falls in the river. Ben, that's you in "30 Rock." I wanted to ask you - I would think that being an actor in New York City would be so difficult. I was looking at your IMDb profile and I saw that you were in an episode of "Law & Order: SVU." And I kind of feel like every actor in New York has to make an appearance in one of the "Law & Order" spinoffs.
BLICHFELD: It is a rite of passage, yes.
BALDONADO: So I just...
SINCLAIR: You know...
BALDONADO: Think it must be hard.
SINCLAIR: It was hard, and I didn't get any parts until I met Katja. And she was like why don't you just let your beard grow? Once, if...
BLICHFELD: And act like yourself.
SINCLAIR: And act like yourself. There is, like, a headshot of me where I'm wearing, like, a members only leather jacket. And I look, like, real serious and I'm shaven and my head is shaved. And I look like...
BLICHFELD: Like he's trying to be, like, a tough guy.
BLICHFELD: Leading guy.
SINCLAIR: Which is total - total crap because, like, I am, like, a guy who is, like, very not tough at all. I've never been in a physical altercation in my whole life. So it was interesting for me to stop caring about trying to be this person I wasn't and just letting that laid-back guy who likes to sit around and smoke pot, to be honest. And that chill guy was able to come out with the beard. But Katja was the one who noticed that I was much better at being this relaxed, open dude who could really talk to anyone. And that's what she says one of her reasons for making "High Maintenance" was, was to kind of show that other side of my acting ability.
BALDONADO: Well, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair, thank you so much for talking to us.
SINCLAIR: Thank you.
BLICHFELD: Yes, thank you for having us.
GROSS: Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair created the web series "High Maintenance," which Sinclair stars in. They spoke with FRESH AIR producer Ann Marie Baldonado. Coming up, David Bianculli reviews two new shows he considers part of the new TV revolution. This is FRESH AIR.
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