At Home With “The Guy”
BY ELEANOR LAURENCE
In a show focused on people and their spaces, High Maintenance’s bike-riding hero gets a place of his own in Season 2. Production designer Akin McKenzie reveals his creative process and the many details that went into building “The Guy’s” apartment.
HBO: What were your creative considerations when developing The Guy’s apartment?
Akin McKenzie: There’s something really special about how The Guy sees the world; it’s very nonjudgmental. He’s the key master into all these different worlds, so imagining him and imagining how he interacts with his own space was a fun project. His home was a full creation, and we spent a lot of time deciding what objects would be interesting to The Guy. You see a lot of that in the details of the space, whether it’s a little statute, or interesting patterns, or artwork you imagine being given to him. It’s finding the artistry and symbolism in the mundane.
HBO: What are some notable details from the set?
Akin McKenzie: There are “Easter egg” references to past episodes throughout his apartment. There’s Patrick’s weed box and The Assholes’ cheerleader statue, things we included from past episodes to give back to viewers who have spent a lot of time with the show. We wanted to build a level of realism in the space so that Ben [Sinclair], as The Guy, could feel a richness in the environment that he could tap into and interact with.
HBO: How did you go about making the set feel like a living, breathing apartment?
Akin McKenzie: In order to capture a unique character, you really have to observe how things fall into certain places naturally. In The Guy’s space, you’ll see a culmination of observing natural human instincts. You can look in and see, “Oh yeah, the toilet paper would be on top of the painting because there’s no other place to put it.” There’s a drawer that’s full of cords. It’s a real thing I have in my space: a cord drawer that has all the chargers. I no longer know what they are for, but every once in a while you think, “Maybe I’m going to open that drawer and find the thing I’m actually missing.” Those little details are fun to explore when it comes to creating spaces.
“Putting tiny accents into the space makes it feel very real, familiar and authentic. Think about how a real person interacts with his space and the natural serendipity.”
HBO: What’s the significance of the VHS collection?
Akin McKenzie: More than any specific movie, I think what speaks to The Guy’s character is the fact that he has VHS tapes. He assigns value to the things that too many of us no longer value, so it felt very much within his purview to have those kinds of collections. These things have stayed special to him, even after they became less special in the eyes of the world. I can imagine The Guy stoned, dusting off his VHS tapes and watching them for the 300th time. Ben went through each movie and removed tapes that didn’t feel right to him for the character.
HBO: Are there more of his qualities or characteristics you wanted to highlight in designing the space?
Akin McKenzie: There’s a kind of wisdom to him. Not unlike how we imagine him appreciating objects that are discarded, people often are too. The beauty of The Guy is he goes into different spaces, and has a level of intimacy with people who are, for all intents and purposes, strangers to him. He observes them with an openness and an understanding that allows us to see the goodness in people. The cast is such a large, diverse array of human beings, and I think the show in that regard grows every season, as we get to spend more time with more characters — all of whom feel very real and authentic to New York.
“Every episode, friends of mine are like, ‘Oh my god, it’s like they recorded my conversation.’ It feels that familiar to us. I’d like to think we brought all of that into The Guy’s space.”
HBO: Working on a show that is so focused on characters and the spaces they inhabit, what’s your process for developing their apartments?
Akin McKenzie: Sometimes you have what you think the character should be, and it’s the easiest but incorrect way to create the environment. If you re-adjust your instinct to something different than “what’s expected,” then you have something more authentic to actual humanity. We do not line up exactly to what we put out into the world, and part of the beauty of going into someone’s intimate space is seeing that.
“When you walk into a great space, you want to let it breathe. High Maintenance gives us that freedom, where the space can help create these characters.”
Akin McKenzie (continued): Especially when a weed dealer is coming over, someone you don’t necessarily dress up for — you don’t clean your house for them; they’re not necessarily a guest. There is an illegal aspect to the service they provide, so they have this unique ability to go into spaces that have not been curated for guests and see the space as it would naturally be. For me, it’s all about imagining that. Reference photos are an important part of how we construct this world. I push myself to visit new people, just like The Guy does. I also want to have a deeper understanding of them because it’s imperative to creating their world.
HBO: What have you discovered in observing the way people inhabit and construct their homes in real life?
Akin McKenzie: Every human has a level of art direction that they put into their space. Or sometimes what’s even more interesting is a lack of art direction. What curation means for an individual is always an interesting exploration. What they do for themselves, what just piles up because of neglect, or what is a utilitarian purchase. I think a production designer is at their best when they are working as a sociologist. We want to dig in and spend the time getting to understand and truly know unique characters, finding the rhythm in their life and creating that.
You know with High Maintenance, the craziest things I did in those spaces, only happened because I had reference photos of real spaces where similar choices had been made. Because humans themselves are crazier than our own imagination.