What if aliens landed in Philly?
It doesn’t seem that outlandish when you really think about it, does it? In fact, Philly would be the place where this would happen. And the out-of-this-world comedy Higher Grounds considers this exact scenario.
I had the chance to chat with Joe Kramer and Christian Sarkis Graham, the creators behind the film. Kramer not only wrote and directed the film, but also plays the lead role of the alien Ralff. This isn’t his first directing credit either, as he directed the locally shot and internationally celebrated Running the Gammatar, a viral Vimeo Staff Pick featured on Funny or Die and Film Shortage.
Higher Grounds was written and produced by Christian Sarkis Graham, a local filmmaker most known for collaborations with Philly’s own Barrymore Award-winning hip-hop collective, ILL DOOTS, with whom he produced the award-winning documentary 20|20_REVISION.
The film’s visuals are brought to life by Daniel Brennan, whose previous work includes the music video for “Stand Up,” the latest single from Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist and North Philly native, Tierra Whack. The production is supported by the Greater Philadelphia Film Office and the leading Philadelphia rental and studio house, Resolution Rentals / Lightbulb Rentals.
I recently watched Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, so I have been in very much a “spacey” sort of mind, if you will, and in fact this film has many Anderson-esque qualities to it.
OH – and before I forget! Perhaps you’d like to see the film in person? You’re in luck. The next public Philadelphia showing will be as part of the FirstGlance Film Festival, which kicks off on October 5.
So let’s get into it, shall we?
ABOUT THE FILM
As the world grapples with environmental crises and societal unrest, the timing couldn’t be more perfect for Higher Grounds. Set against the backdrop of Philadelphia and Wildwood, the film offers a unique perspective on life on Earth. Higher Grounds combines retro sci-fi aesthetics with Larry David-inspired humor, featuring the comedic talent of John O’Hurley as the eccentric alien commander. The film satirizes humanity’s lukewarm response to climate change and our propensity for mob mentality during times of unrest.
“It’s about the first day intelligence on Earth; we’re sort of reeling here from one kind of crisis to another, and we see these descending agents from space,” said Kramer. “The film projects our hopes for what that might mean. Surely they must be here to save us. But they turn out to be just like us – rather than these sort of celestial-like figures, they are very, very much like us.”
Higher Grounds has already garnered attention and acclaim, as it received the Philadelphia Independent Media Finishing Fund grant from Scribe Video Center and the Wyncote Foundation. The film was also a finalist for Best Comedy Series at the Austin Comedy Film Festival in 2023, and received a nomination for the Audience Award at the Raindance Film Festival satellite event, the Japan Indies Film Festival in 2022.
A DYNAMIC DUO
Kramer and Graham first met around 12 years ago, both as creatives and artists. After Kramer’s success with Running the Gammatar, he began considering his next filmmaking move.
“When I thought about what I wanted to do next, I knew I wanted to write with someone. I immediately thought of Christian,” said Kramer. “We both always made the same kind of jokes with each other, and we seemed to like the same kinds of movies and shows. So without even knowing if he was a writer, as I only knew him as like a videographer and an editor, I said ‘Hey, I got this idea for this feature,’ and he said ‘Let’s do it.’”.
“There’s also an added sense of productive accountability if you’re writing with someone,” said Graham. “It’s easy to write yourself an excuse when working alone, but if you made plans to go all in and be creatively invested on a long term project with somebody else, then it’s an added incentive to keep at it.”
ON FILMING IN PHILLY:
The film was shot on location in both Philly and Wildwood, which proved to have its advantages. Philadelphians might even recognize one of the film’s settings in Port Richmond, set in the former River Wards Coffee, now a ReAnimator, on Richmond Street.
“I feel like there are a lot of benefits to shoot a movie here in Philly – it’s not inundated with production the way that somewhere like New York or LA is,” said Kramer. “We had a lot of extras who were just excited to come out, and also they’re not annoyed that every other week the streets are blocked off because there’s a big truck full of film equipment on it.”
The team was conscious to portray Philly in a very specific – and colorful – way.
“When you see so many movies that are filmed in Philly, it’s sort of portrayed in this one side of the city, which is gritty and run down,” said Kramer. “We wanted to put this city on screen in a much more vibrant, exciting and colorful way, and to have a sunny, optimistic kind of tone. We kind of wanted to inject in our presentation of the city and have some sort of voice to counter the the one note depressing kind of representation.”
The John O’Hurley of it all
One of the most fun parts of the film is the John O’Hurley cameo. So how did this come to be? It’s all thanks to the film’s lead actress, Kristen Vaganos, who plays the role of Cleo.
“She responded to a casting call and sent an audition tape in from Los Angeles. She just so happens to also be from Philly,” said Kramer. “She totally got the film, and we thought she was so funny and right for the character, so she flew back out to do the film.”
“We purposely wrote, shot and edited the movie so that we would leave this one little part of the aliens’ boss un-filmed until we had everything else in place, because the goal was to try to get recognizable face to cameo for it,” shared Graham. “It just so happened that Kristen had worked with John O’Hurley in a commercial in LA. She sent him the movie, and he really liked it and wanted to be a part of it.”
“It was really fortuitous because one of the most consistent reference points as we were writing is a lot of Larry David-inspired story lines,” said Kramer.
An Artistic Pivot
As it goes with so many creative endeavors, there’s always seems to be a snafu of some sort. In the case of Higher Grounds, it was their art director/make-up artist – the person the team had hired for this dropped out at the last minute. Despite scheduling being explicitly worked out and agreed upon, the production designer pulled out right as they were about to shoot.
“Everybody was hired, everything was booked, and all of the gear was rented. We had been saying up to that point everything’s really good to go, and we joked that the only thing that could go wrong is if this production designer dropped the ball – yeah,” said Kramer. “It felt like the floor fell from underneath the entire thing when we read that email.”
“I remember the two of us were in San Francisco on a shoot right before coming home, and we were supposed to start shooting the day we flew home,” said Graham. “Now we didn’t have a makeup artist, and we’re scrambling from across the country trying to find someone.”
But thanks to the help and dedication from family and friends, the show went on.
“They all went into overdrive, they spent a week going to junk yards and picking up all of these random props,” said Kramer. “They did such an incredible job.”
A final message to us earthlings
There are many messages that we can take away from Higher Grounds, but ultimately, the filmmakers just want audiences to have a laugh. But still, it can be hard to ignore the underlying themes of the film.
“We didn’t set out to write a story that touched on climate change, but it kind of just worked its way in,” said Kramer.
“On one hand, we were pretty adamant on not having this be a didactic message movie,” said Graham. “It’s not a particularly moralizing one – there is sort of a pretty heavy observation that we only have so much time left to really get out there and make the most of it.”
“It was on our minds, and it was going to filter its way into anything we were writing really,” said Kramer on the themes of climate change. “It’s something that’s kind of surrounding us – whether we want to face it now or not.”
“But ultimately, we just want people to laugh.”
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.