It’s “High” times for the Nutmeg mixer now that the smokin’ Vimeo series is HBO’s latest breakout.
Forget reefer madness. It’s time for reefer gladness. With the debut of “High Maintenance” on HBO, the hit cannabis comedy web series that Gizmodo called “the greatest show not on television” is now on television (Fridays at 11 p.m.). Nutmeg sound editor and re-recording mixer Andrew Guastella provided audio post for all six 30-minute episodes of the HBO series, a role that sprang from his personal involvement with “High Maintenance” since its debut.
Created by husband-and-wife team Ben Sinclair and Katja Blichfeld, “High Maintenance” premiered on Vimeo in 2012 as a self-funded anthology series of five-to-15-minute day-in-the-life shorts about a cross-section of archetypal New Yorkers connected, for the most part, only by their never-named weed supplier, The Guy (as in, “I’ve got a guy”), played by Sinclair.
A nightmare OKCupid date, an asexual magician, a polyphasic sleep enthusiast, a Helen-Hunt-obsessed shut-in, a cross-dressing dad, unhappy hipsters, oblivious Airbnb guests, Starbucks scriptwriters—The Guy delivers to one and all, a benign confidant, confessor and sometime matchmaker to the over-stressed, over-crowded and over-vermined. No judgements, with maybe one exception—the “Assholes,” as The Guy dubs a particularly toxic pair of co-dependent clients on his iPhone’s caller ID.
Blichfeld, the Emmy-winning casting director of “30 Rock,” and Sinclair, an actor who was previously mostly cast as “homeless man” or “wild-eyed guy,” co-wrote and produced the self-funded show on a shoestring, purposely limiting the episode length to fun-size (“Because internet,” says Blichfeld) and calling in favors from friends and friends of friends.
Enter Nutmeg mixer Andrew Guastella, who was on board from the very beginning, after being asked by Tom De Napoli, guest director for the third episode, if he’d be interested in providing the audio post for the episode as “a passion project.” Translation: there was no budget.
“I jumped at the chance,” says Guastella. “I wasn’t concerned with money. I just wanted to work on something that I enjoyed. I watched his episode and I was taken aback by how well-done it was, especially compared to other web series I’d watched.”
Guastella worked on the episode in his apartment, where he had “a basic version of Pro Tools, some standard plugins and Izotope’s RX audio restoration software.” During the approval process, Guastella met Sinclair, who loved what Guastella had done with the episode and asked if he would lend his services to the series. Guastella agreed, went back and mixed the first two episodes and then every episode that followed.
“I enjoyed the show so much that I usually watched each episode several times,” he says. “The first time I’d watch it as a fan. Then I’d watch it again as a mixer and listen for the things that I needed to work on—noise reduction, level adjustments, dialogue edits, etc.”
“High Maintenance” was high calibre from the get-go, quickly attracting cult-like attention and rave reviews from the LA Times, The New Yorker, Entertainment Weekly and Time magazine for its alternately hilarious and heart-tugging take on modern angst, while attracting guest stars such as Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” and Hannibal Buress of “Broad City” fame. In May 2014, after 13 episodes, Vimeo funded six new episodes as its first original series, a Vimeo on Demand exclusive. In April 2015, HBO announced that it had picked up “High Maintenance” and ordered six new episodes, making the show the first to move from Vimeo to television (not coincidentally, HBO made the announcement on 4/20, “The Thanksgiving of smoking pot,” as The Guy says).
Guastella was asked to continue as mixer on the HBO series but the move to cable required more than he could achieve in his apartment. Fortunately, with HBO’s blessing came an HBO budget, and Guastella worked with Nutmeg Managing Director Jon Adelman and Director of Operations Lauren Boyle to bring “High Maintenance” in house, providing Sinclair and Blichfeld with Nutmeg’s full suite of post-production capabilities for the new HBO episodes as well as final audio delivery of the 19 Vimeo episodes for HBO, HBO Go and HBO Now. Whereas for the web series, Guastella’s goal was to optimize the location sound, for the HBO episodes, his role expanded to include sound design, foley, music editing, ADR and re-recording mix.
The Soundtrack of New York
Throughout all of the above, for both the Vimeo episodes and the HBO episodes, the audio post requirements remained the same: perfect, but not too perfect.
“Ben and Katja prefer authenticity over perfection,” says Guastella. “The production quality increased with every episode but they really strived to maintain the realistic feel of the show right through all of the HBO episodes. I had more tools at my disposal at Nutmeg but they’re not too interested in super-polished audio. As a sound guy, I want everything to be crystal clear. They wanted the dialogue to sound good but not necessarily immaculate. They wanted the show to sound like New York.”
And therein lay Guastella’s goal: to create the distinctive, ever-present audio milieu of the metropolis and its huddled masses that “High Maintenance” so eloquently evokes, where clueless commuters clip their nails in crowded trains, where bedrooms are “more like an area,” where Ditmas Park might as well be Siberia, where weekend subway service is often nonexistent, where traffic, construction and cacophonous neighbors are endemic.
“The background noise in New York never stops,” says Guastella. “New Yorkers don’t always hear it—we learn to tune it out—but it’s always there. Cars, trucks, horns, sirens, jackhammers. Designing a soundscape that encompasses all of those at just the right levels is essential to establishing a New York audio ambiance.”
Guastella drew inspiration from his own life to fill in the occasional gap.
“My wife and I lived in an apartment where our downstairs neighbors would just yell and yell and yell in the middle of the night. And then they would start stomping around. And then their dog would start barking. One night they were going at it and all of a sudden there was this loud something—probably a door, I’m hoping—and then, silence. I was working with Ben and Katja on an interior scene that felt a little too quiet and I suggested having the next-door neighbors start arguing. Usually, that sort of thing is written into a script, but not in this case. So, I recreated what had happened in my apartment. When I was finished, we wondered: Is this distracting, or is it just New York? We decided that it was just New York. It was authentic and, again, authenticity is Numero Uno for them.”
A Shaggy Love Story
The anthology nature of “High Maintenance” meant that every episode brought new challenges in the form of different locations, different actors, different activities. Guastella welcomed them all but does have a favorite: the first episode of the HBO series he sound-spotted with Sinclair and Blichfeld (ultimately the third episode), titled “Grandpa,” which is a love story of sorts told from the perspective of a dog. Singled out by numerous reviewers as the best episode of the series, “Grandpa” showcases Guastella’s talents front and center.
“That episode was an enormous challenge in every aspect of audio,” he says. “As great as the production sound mixer was, all you hear in the original audio is the dog trainer on set saying, ‘Come here, sit stay, back up, don’t move.’ So, we had to record a lot of ADR and then make that ADR fit in the environment. Also, once you wipe the audio slate clean, you lose all the production sounds that you would normally have the luxury of using—doors opening and closing, cups hitting the table, people getting in and out of a couch—and you have to add all those back in again.”
Then there was the dog itself, which required “an enormous amount of foley.”
“I used some stock sounds, but I didn’t ever think, ‘What can I use from the library?’ What fun is that? Anyone in my position loves a challenge. And I also love dogs. So it was a win-win. I have my own dog and I live with two others: a Yorkie, a Beagle and a Doberman. Many times, I’d be working on the sound editing or design for the episode and I would need a dog making a particular sound. I’d go home and record it that night and I’d have it the next day. It was a pretty nice workflow.”
Guastella compiled his own library of effects by following the dogs around with a location recorder and boom, capturing the sound of them walking indoors on tile, hardwood and carpet, and outdoors on the grass of a dog park. “Once I had my dogs’ footsteps recorded, I spotted them in and used time compression and expansion to fit them to the dog’s movements on set.” That way, he says, he was able to achieve a much more realistic sound than if he had just edited in each footstep one at a time.
Guastella even recorded the sound of his dog’s collar.
“You have to think of every single layer when you’re redesigning the sound for a particular scene. A person walking a dog doesn’t sound too complicated but you have the dog’s nails hitting the ground, you have the dog collar shaking, you have the dog’s breaths, maybe a bark or two, and then you have the dogwalker: her footsteps, the rustle of her clothes, the sound of the multiple leashes she’s holding, the jangle of the keys and water bottle on her hip. So, for just a person walking down the street with a dog, there are tons of layers. Some of the simplest scenes were actually the most rewarding for me because there’s so much sound going on in them.”
“High” Times in Studio K
Of course, the very subject matter of “High Maintenance” called for a different kind of audio innovation. Guastella promptly recorded himself twirling his beard when he realized the sound mimicked marijuana crackling in a bowl. For the Vimeo episodes, he created and recorded his own version of the Tupperware-type container The Guy used to carry and display an assortment of carefully labeled little plastic bags containing different varieties of weed. For the HBO episodes, in which The Guy switched to a hard plastic case, Guastella did the same, once again capturing the sounds of fingers running over the bags and the crinkling of the bags themselves.
There was one other sound that Guastella created, one that necessitated a purchase.
“I had a bong in the booth for almost two months. I obviously needed to have realistic sounds—the water bubbling, the glass slide, the air clearing—so I went out and bought a $30 bong. I didn’t use it, per se, when I was performing the foley, but every time someone would come into the studio, they’d say, ‘Is that a bong?!’ It’s tucked away in a drawer now.”
Until, perhaps, Season Two, which HBO has already ordered.