Got a Girl Crush On: Katja Blichfeld Pt. 1
You may know Katja Blichfeld as the Emmy-nominated casting director of 30 Rock, but if you’re crushing on her the way we are, it’s most likely for her role as the co-creator, -writer, and -director of the hilarious hit series High Maintenance. The web series, which just got picked up by HBO, follows “the Guy,” a nameless pot dealer, as he makes his delivery rounds, acting as a fly on the wall and entry point into the lives of pot-smoking NYers. If you haven’t already tuned in, you can catch previous seasons on Vimeo before they move to their new home on HBO. We are crushing on Katja not only for her fine writing, casting, and directorial skills, but for her smart, funny, feminist, and generous nature. Katja and GAGC met this fall for a walk in the park, a toke, a coffee at Annex in Fort Greene, Brooklyn and a chat about all things kind.
*This interview has been edited for clarity.
GAGC: One of the things we love about High Maintenance is the abundance of interesting and complex female characters. Even though it’s a short show, you still manage to pack a lot in. We get to see their vulnerability, and even when you’re poking fun at them, we see their flintiness and strength. As a female viewer it’s really nice to see a variety of female characters rather than the one-size-fits all cardboard characters presented by Hollywood or more established TV shows. Are the female characters based on different facets of yourself or women in your life?
KATJA: Oh, sure. Yeah, I mean definitely. All the characters that we write end up being based a little bit on ourselves. When I write a female character I’m definitely transposing some of my qualities. I don’t think that I can help that, probably. But, particularly with these first nineteen episodes that we did, a lot of the female characters are actually inspired by the actresses who played them. A lot of them are real life friends that inspire me in various ways. Like my sister-in-law, Bridget Moloney, who is someone I met almost ten years ago when she graduated college. I was so enamored with her as an actress. Every time I read a script, I was like, where can I cast this wonderful, delightful woman? You know, it’s funny that she eventually became my sister-in-law, but she was sort of the impetus for, well, one of the impetuses for creating the show, because I knew that we had access to her and I wanted to feature her, and I had cast her a bunch of times so I knew what she could do. So she really was crucial, sort of inspiring, in getting the ball rolling. But so many of the women in the show also have a special place in my hall of muses or inspirational figures. Hannah Bos, who is a pretty prolific playwright and actress, back in like 2007 made a web series called Mimi and Flo and it was a Choose-Your-
GAGC: I love Mimi and Flo!
KATJA: Yeah? A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style web series. That kind of opened my eyes to the fact that you could do something that wasn’t just a two-minute joke driven thing for the internet. Also, my friend Candace Thompson who’s on the show, she made a really kind of out-there arty DIY web series called Other Peeps that was really made on no money but utilized the skillset that her and her partner John have and their friends’ skillsets. And they basically picked up trash off the street and used it to craft set pieces and props and things like that. So that’s been super inspirational to me but I also just, in general, have girl crushes on all of these women! Like, besides the work that they do, y’know? Like Candace in particular, she’s somebody who, every time I see her I’m like, what are you wearing! What do your nails look like! What does your hair look like! I’m studying every element of her presentation because I find her to be so, uh, I don’t know. She’s just so wonderful at expressing herself fully in her physical presentation and her work. And also my friend Brenna Palughi who is on our show. She’s someone I saw perform ten years ago and just got a kind of girl crush on her. Like, this woman is the second coming of Goldie Hawn! Like, I wanna work with her, I wanna put her in something, I wanna be her friend! So what’s cool is a lot of these women have inspired me artistically but also they’re women that I was like, I want to be your friend. And then, made them my friends! [Laughs] Like, forced them to be my friend, basically! And created art around them, you know?
GAGC: That’s pretty awesome. I mean you get that sense when you’re watching High Maintenance, because it’s kind of an exercise in communal crushing.
KATJA: Yeah! We feel that way!
GAGC: Yeah, it feels also like a crush on New York City and the way we live here. There’s a certain New York thing where you’re always looking in other peoples’ windows, trying to see what it’s like behind the facade. And as women we walk out with a little bit of a suit of armor, so it’s refreshing to get to see behind the mask. And even when it’s poking fun at these characters’ vanity, the absurdity of their concerns, there’s always lots of love. There’s a sense of understanding that this is the human condition.
KATJA: Thanks for saying that! We try, I think because we’re so hard on ourselves, Ben and I, ah, and so self-critical. I think that for us it’s important too. I think this is us sort of exorcising some of the self-hate that we struggle with sometimes as neurotic New Yorkers, and finding a place to have that unconditional love for our fellow city-dwellers and the city at large, and then hopefully ultimately ourselves through all of this. But I think we’re so, we’re so hard on ourselves so I feel like it’s definitely a little therapeutic. Also, it’s funny, I like the way that you described that, just the way that it feels like a crush on New York or a crush. You know, that’s only recently become something that we’ve noticed. We didn’t really set out with that intention explicitly, but we’ve sort of come to see over time, like, looking back over the body of work and hearing peoples’ comments, we’re like, oh yeah! We have really created, even just in the guy, this character who has this kind of unabashed appreciation for the weirdos! We wanted to create sort of this figure that’s benevolent and non-judgmental, like what we would want to be, an idealized version of ourselves. So, it’s cool that it translates that way.
GAGC: It seems like the idea of the compassionate weirdo is popping up in a lot of web shows. You mentioned Mimi and Flo which I love, and also Broad City. All of these shows are helmed by women or are very driven by their women creators or co-creators. It seems like right now the web is an especially fertile ground for women who are trying to tell a different type of story. I imagine it’s much harder to go through the traditional channels.
KATJA: I mean, I don’t think it’s difficult right now. I think we’re in a really cool time where I think special—I’m not gonna say special preference is given to women in the development world—but there is more of a desire for female-created and female-centric content and programming. I think every development person that I’ve interfaced with these last few years has been pretty explicit about their desire to nurture female talent so, you know, this just feels like something that’s been going on for a while. Broad City like, I’m glad you mentioned them because honest to god they are two of the most influential ladies to me. I met them when they still had just the web series and met them as performers, you know, thinking maybe I would cast them in something and I think maybe their agent set up a meeting to meet me as a casting director, and I totally fell in love with them. Big, huge girl crushes all around.
And at the time they had their script at FX and were telling me about that whole process and I had just come off of watching their whole web series and I was just like I love you! And then I totally spent the next several months being like you have to hire me to cast your show! I was obsessed.
I just wanted to work with them so badly. I knew it was there, something special that you just want to, like… it just radiates off of them and you just hope some of it falls on you, like some sparkle dust might catch on you and you can be imbued with their specialness or something. I don’t know! Or you just want to be their best friend! And, um, yeah I just laugh when I think back to when I was like please hire me to cast your show! Meanwhile was trying to make High Maintenance but had no direction and no real explicit goal for what it would be. We were just trying to do something fun! And I was sending them the first episode and the trailer and being like what do you guys think, is this anything, would you watch this?, and getting feedback from them. And Ilana has introduced me to a couple of people that have ended up being kind of crucial cheerleaders in my life.
It’s funny to think of how things would have gone if I had ended up casting their show. Like, maybe this would never have happened! It’s like, oh! That wouldn’t have worked. It was one of those weird things, too, where I really was like stalking them like please hire me! And they’re like, we love you, we don’t even know what we’re doing, we just got this show! And then the FX deal went away, they went to Comedy Central, and actually we sort of followed in their footsteps after that. We got a deal at FX, the script deal, like they did, and it, similarly, fell through. When they passed on us we were very heartened by the fact that those two women went and got their show. It made us feel like there are second, third, fourth acts. It doesn’t just end when one executive tells you no.
GAGC: It’s very important to be able to have those people either laterally or ahead of you slightly…a few steps down the path.
GAGC: One thing both High Maintenance and Broad City deal with that I think is interesting, and this is definitely changing, is the historical cultural narrative of pot smoking. Primarily, that men smoke more pot, or that men buy more weed and women get it from their boyfriends or from an older brother or something. Both High Maintenance and Broad City dismantle that idea. Women aren’t just smoking with their boyfriends. They buy pot for themselves and their friends for a variety of reasons. Were you conscious of the fact that you were changing the cultural narrative when you were writing High Maintenance?
KATJA: No. I would say anything pertaining to my weed agenda was a little bit selfish in the beginning. I remember when Ben and I were batting back and forth ideas of what we wanted to make something about. We knew we wanted to make a series. We did not know what it would be about. But when we were sort of brainstorming one thing I remember saying is whatever we do, the characters should be portrayed as functional stoners. And, not even just functional but like, successful. Like, not even just scraping by but actually doing OK for themselves. Just because we felt like we were those people and we knew so many people who were and many of them were women. Many, many of my girlfriends are functional stoners and doing quite well for themselves. So I definitely had it on my mind, and I’m sure Ben did too, that we kind of wanted to put something out there that was normalizing marijuana usage and I’m sure a lot of it was pretty selfishly motivated so that like our friends and, well not our friends but our families would feel similarly about it. And to be honest it worked. We just didn’t know how much it would work.
GAGC: Have you ever smoked pot with your parents?
KATJA: Um, my dad has never smoked. No, my parents don’t smoke. And Ben’s parents don’t either but they know that we do. And we don’t have to hide. My dad accidentally took mushrooms because of us.
GAGC: [Laughs] Oh, no! How do you accidentally take mushrooms?
KATJA: If they’re in a chocolate, and… You know, it was in the day, and he thought it was a regular chocolate. It was in a freezer at my parents’ house. We had forgotten it, left it behind, and he ate it and then went about his day and 45 minutes later thought he was having a stroke. But my mom knew that we had brought it for our own intended use, so when she sort of got him to run through the events of the day she deduced what had happened and was able to assure him that all was well and he was not having a stroke and that he would be find in a few hours. And he kind of went with it, and it was pretty great. I wasn’t there, but I spoke to him on the phone because my mom emailed me and told me I should call, and he was laughing so hard. I’d never heard him sound like that before. He drinks beer and wine or whatever but he doesn’t try anything else mind altering. He’s never been a person who takes pills…
GAGC: Oh, boy.
KATJA: Or anything, so this was the first psychedelic experience he ever had and he was 74. And he had a blast, he laughed a whole lot, he saw some weird things. He doesn’t want to do it again, apparently, but he had a nice time.
GAGC: Well, you only live once.
KATJA: I feel pretty cool that I helped facilitate that experience. I think it’s cool that he got to have a perspective shift, even if it was just for five hours.
GAGC: And it’s cool that he was able to roll with it.
KATJA: Yeah! Absolutely. He was in a safe place, and I think that was probably good for him on some level. Why not shake it up every now and again! He lives in a pretty small little town. So I think it was probably a good thing. Yeah, it was pretty funny.