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June 08, 2023

Aliens invade Philly, Wildwood in comedy duo's short film 'Higher Grounds'

Ahead of this weekend's Lighthouse Film Festival, the creators of the sci-fi movie discussed the project's long journey to the screen

Film Movies
Higher Grounds Philly Movie Provided Image/Kramer Visual

'Higher Grounds,' a sci-fi comedy short film, imagines an alien invasion in Philadelphia with the world on the line and a bunch of characters who have better things to do.

What do you suppose would happen if humanoid extraterrestrials were to invade our planet? Would people panic? Make peace offerings? Unleash all the armies of the world to defeat them?

None of the above, according to the South Philly duo behind "Higher Grounds," a new short film that makes Philadelphia the center of earth's reckoning with an alien takeover.

When humans observe a massive alien spacecraft hovering above the planet and spewing oxygen into the atmosphere, society interprets this as an effort to neutralize carbon dioxide concentrations and spare humanity from the horrors of self-inflicted climate change. In the streets and all over the news, the aliens are hailed as saviors who have come to enlighten our beautiful species.

As it turns out, the aliens are only pumping up oxygen levels in order to use an "atomic acidifier" to incinerate the entire planet.

Fortunately for humanity, the aliens are really no better than us, despite their advanced technological capabilities. The aliens have sent a pair of unpaid field drones to take care of burning Earth to a crisp. They both resent the mission and their exploitive superior, General Zartogg, played by actor John O'Hurley, who is beloved for his role in "Seinfeld" as J. Peterman, Elaine's wistful and capricious boss.

The sci-fi premise in "Higher Grounds" was developed by co-writers Joe Kramer and Christian Graham, who directed and produced the nearly 16-minute movie in Philadelphia in 2017. It was just released publicly on Vimeo a few weeks ago and will be screened this weekend at the Lighthouse Film Festival on Long Beach Island. That provides a sense of how much time and effort can go into the making of a high-fidelity, small-budget short film.

Kramer plays the lead role as Ralff, a disgruntled blue alien who takes a shining to a pretty barista, Cleo, at a coffee shop in Port Richmond called Higher Grounds (set in the former River Wards Coffee, now a ReAnimator, on Richmond Street).

Ralff wants to delay destroying Earth to see if he can win Cleo's affection, but she views the entire alien invasion as an annoying inconvenience. It's messing up her Saturday plans to go to the beach in Wildwood, and what's worse, Ralff and his co-worker, Razzorakk, are partly at fault for that. They illegally parked their flying saucer in a restricted area and it prevented another barista from taking over Cleo's shift in time to catch her ride to the shore.

"Taking what seems like it should be a really big, Earth-shattering event and just mashing it with the mundane stuff that we all kind of think about and worry about every day — that's funny," Kramer said about the contrasting plot elements of "Higher Grounds."

Kramer's primary occupation is freelance writing, directing and producing for various clients and brands in Philly and New York City. Graham works full time in video production for Free People, the URBN apparel brand based out of the Navy Yard.

In 2015, Kramer generated indie buzz with his previous short film, "Running the Gammatar," whose comedic formula is similar to "Higher Grounds." In that project, a Godzilla-like monster comes to Philly to wreck the cityscape and disfigure people by spewing fire at them. Weirdly, many residents in the city just carry on with life like it's not a big deal. Kramer plays a shallow bachelor whose flakey dating style lampoons the way young people struggle to connect with each other, mainly because they're too wrapped up in themselves.

It's a theme that carries over into "Higher Grounds," except this time, the apathy of the characters is a product of their professional stagnancy. The aliens and people alike get taken advantage of by bosses who don't care about them, and it leaves them dissatisfied with their lives.

"What is going on here?" Ralff wonders as he strolls through the Italian Market, unable to grasp why women aren't into him. "I'm usually so good at detecting the needs of others. Is it my haircut? Is it my breath? Is it that I'm 3,000 years old and still in an entry level position?"

"There's definitely a cynicism to it," Kramer, 37, said of the project's humor. He and Graham credit "Seinfield" co-creator Larry David as a major influence on their style. They also admire the work of Wes Anderson, whose upcoming movie, "Asteroid City," has many thematic parallels to "Higher Grounds." 

The making of "Higher Grounds" is a testament to the labor of love that goes into producing short films. Principal photography was mostly completed in about seven days, often with a crew that worked from 5 a.m. until 9 p.m.

Many of the scenes in "Higher Grounds" were shot around Old City and Port Richmond. The rooftop scene was filmed at the Franklin Institute, which was more than happy to accommodate the production.

"One reason I really like shooting in Philly — as opposed to if you were to do this in New York or L.A. — is that because there is less of it happening, people get much more excited about it," Kramer said. "There's a lot less red tape. If you need a location, you're so much more likely for someone to say, 'Oh, a movie, that's cool. That sounds exciting.' In the other cities, I feel like they are inundated with that all the time and it's a much bigger hurdle. There's something more novel about it here."

But not everything went so smoothly for the filmmakers.

"There were a number of last-minute crises," said Graham, 34.

Before production began, "Higher Grounds" had brought on a dedicated art director who was supposed to double as a makeup artist, specializing in this kind of sci-fi genre. About a week out from shooting, Kramer contacted the art director to go over plans and expectations for the film. The art director explained that he suddenly was not on board with participating on weekdays, since he had a day job to work, even though the schedule had been made clear to him months in advance.

"Out of nowhere, we didn't have a makeup artist. We didn't have a prop master, art direction or anything," Graham said. "It seemed like the floor fell from underneath the entire production."

Elizabeth Peterson, the film's production designer, came to the rescue by recruiting her own family members to help execute the movie. They handled morning makeup sessions for the two aliens — a four-hour task — and took ownership of the overall aesthetic feel of the project.

"I was sick of seeing this city always look so gritty, hard, downtrodden — like gray and dirty. Mafia stories," Kramer said. "We really wanted to show it in a much more poppy, bright, fun light."

Post-production wasn't much easier.

"The visual effects are what ultimately took so long," said Graham, who played the store clerk reduced to a puddle of green goo by alien gunfire. "We really didn't have the budget to do it quickly."

There were about 115 shots that needed visual effects, from the TV screens shown on countertops to the alien gunfire and flames. Most of this work was contracted out, and the film received a crucial finishing grant from Philly's Scribe Video Center along with support from the Greater Philadelphia Film Office.

In an age when most people consume short, viral video clips on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Reddit, it can be incredibly hard for short films to garner attention. This is especially true when there isn't a major cultural scene to support independent filmmakers in a given location.

The Philly area is rising in the world of bigger-budget screen projects, from "Mare of Easttown" and "Concrete Cowboy" to "Hustle," "Dispatches From Elsewhere," "Servant" and the upcoming Apple TV series "Sinking Spring."

Indie films more often need to be sought out to be seen.

"Something that's kind of undeniable is the center of gravity that New York is for this kind of industry," Graham said. "There are a lot of really talented people working here, and there are really solid film schools here, too. The lion's share of our crew had Temple's film program in their background. But when you live 90 minutes from a city where so much of the industry is, that's just going to be such a draw for so many people who would be working here. It certainly doesn't necessitate that absence. It just contextualizes it."

Still, Graham thinks Philly's filmmaking community is growing, albeit gradually, and he and Kramer hope projects like "Higher Grounds" inspire others to pursue their own projects.

"There are resources. It's not a black hole, but it's nothing like what New York has," Kramer said.

To date, "Higher Grounds" has been screened at the Japan Indies Film Festival, a satellite event of the Raindance Film Festival. It was a finalist for an Audience Award there. It also was a finalist for Best Comedy Series at the Austin Comedy Film Festival, where Kramer and Graham submitted scripts expanding on the project. And in early May, it was screened at the Coney Island Film Festival.

"The response that we've gotten at festivals has been great," Kramer said. "People seem to really enjoy it and it has gotten even more laughs than I anticipated it would."