South Philly duo creates science fiction comedy

South Philly native and Fishtown resident and film director Joe Kramer (in blue makeup) goes over a line before shooting a scene at the Italian Market for his short movie Higher Grounds. Contributed Photo.

So, who were those blue aliens walking around Center City a while back?

It turns out, they were key contributors to the plot of a short movie created and directed by South Philly native and current Fishtown resident Joe Kramer.

Kramer, along with current South Philly resident Christian Sarkis Graham, co-wrote and produced the 15-minute film Higher Grounds, which recently showed at the Coney Island Film Festival and was a finalist for Best Comedy Series in the Austin Comedy Film Festival, as well as a finalist for the Audience Award in the Raindance Film Festival satellite event, the Japan Indies Film Festival.

The duo received a lot of great praise for their finished product and a lot of strange looks while filming it throughout Philadelphia and Wildwood, New Jersey.

“We were popping up on people’s Instagram as ‘blue aliens walking through Old City’,” Kramer said.

The movie follows two aliens sent to Earth, more specifically Philadelphia, to initiate the obliteration of the planet while oblivious humans believe the duo is there to help cool Earth’s rising temperatures. Their mission intertwines with a coffee waitress’ exhausting efforts to ditch work and hit the beach on a Saturday afternoon. It’s described as an extraterrestrial short-form comedy that takes an orbital view of life on Earth. And there’s a lot of laughs along the way through Simpsons-like satire and Seinfeld-esque odd humor.

The film was influenced by Wes Anderson’s artistic shooting style and the movie Do the Right Thing by Spike Lee.

“That was a regular conversation point through pre-production when we were trying to get a sense of what this thing would look like and when the story was taking place and what the atmosphere would be like,” Graham said. “And the goal throughout this process was to get it as tight as humanly possible, so there was no wasted air or dead work. We wanted to have all the pieces as necessary as efficiently as we could.”

The film features South Philly’s Italian Market, the streets of Old City and a cafe in Port Richmond. Signage was created for the movie cafe, which is called “Higher Grounds,” not to be confused with an actual cafe called Higher Grounds on 3rd Street in Northern Liberties.

“The cafe that we shot at was in Port Richmond on Richmond Street,” Kramer said. “It had a different name but of course it’s critical in the film to call it “Higher Grounds.” Someone (from the actual Higher Grounds) showed up one of the days we were shooting and saw the sign and said you guys can’t name this cafe Higher Grounds. We had to tell them it was only for a movie.”

That was a rare hiccup in what was a pretty smooth and well-planned expedition into the independent movie, thanks to a seasoned cast and an incredible shooting and production team.

South Philly native and film director Joe Kramer (left) poses with actress Kristen Vaganos, South Philly writer and producer Christian Sarkis Graham (right) and actor John O’Hurley (sitting).

“We were very particular about how we wanted it to look,” Kramer said. “Every shot was storyboarded. I color graded it and I knew that I wanted it to be very particular and fit to be a heightened version of the previous film I had made. The visual style was set ahead of time but Daniel (Brennan) was huge in shooting it anamorphic-ally. It was such a big part of the movie’s look and that was all Dan. That hadn’t even occurred to us.”

Prior to Higher Grounds, Kramer’s short flick Running the Gammatar became a viral Vimeo Staff Pick that was featured on Funny or Die and Film Shortage and it fed a lot of momentum into his newer project. Kramer has come a long way from his first attempt at finding a career in science fiction. 

“The first job I wanted as a kid was to be a Ghostbuster,” Kramer said with a laugh. “When I realized that that was probably not a viable option, I switched to wanting to become a comic book writer and artist. I was obsessed with that until I was about 12. Then I saw my first independent film and suddenly I became aware that people do this. Like you can do this if you want to. I started making stupid films on the weekends and after school with my friends. And just kept doing it. Then in my 20s I started getting paid to shoot and edit commercials and stuff. And here we are still making these dumb little short films on the weekend.”

The inspiration came after watching movies like Evil Dead and Pulp Fiction. Kramer, now 37, just needed technology to catch up during his teenage years. He tried making films anyway.

“This was just before it was really a viable thing to edit on a computer,” Kramer said. “At the very beginning I remember having two VCRs set up next to each other and copying one (tape) to another trying to edit stuff together.”

Things have gotten much easier including finding actors to play out his story. John O’Hurley, known for his role as J. Peterman on Seinfeld and as former host of the Family Feud, took on a small role as the alien commander General Zartogg.

South Philly native and film director Joe Kramer enjoys some sunlight on the Wildwood beach during a scene in the short film Higher Grounds. Contributed photo.

“Associate producer (and lead actress) Kristen Vaganos worked with him on a commercial spot,” Graham said. “We had that little spot for the alien warlord general sort of dedicated. We had everything else in the movie finalized and wanted to try to pitch it to a recognizable face that we could find. We were making a list and she had suggested the name, which felt so satisfying for the two of us being such big fans of Seinfeld and his work on that show and the sensibility of that writing style being so formative of what we were doing.”

Then it was off to California, where oddly enough, Kramer met Seinfeld.

“We went out to L.A. to shoot that part with a green screen and weirdly the next day, we just ran into Jerry Seinfeld,” Kramer said. “All the stars were aligning.”

Kramer and Sarkis Graham hope things continue to shine. They had received a Philadelphia Independent Media Finishing Fund grant from Scribe Video Center and the Wyncote Foundation to help with the cost of making Higher Grounds, which was billed at about $50,000.

It will next show at the Lighthouse International Film Festival on Long Beach Island in June. So far the results have been great.

“Not only did the audience react really well to it, it actually was getting more consistent laughs than I had hoped for,” Kramer said. 

It can be tough to get laughs out of a subject like global warming, but Kramer and Sarkis Graham pull it off.

“It’s one of the first notes in the story that you hit,” Kramer said. “Of course we wanted laughs piled up on top of it because things go down smoother with laughs. But yeah, it’s something that is on both of our minds all the time and it kind of just couldn’t help but work its way in. We didn’t start with that idea but it just naturally came out. ••

Watch the movie here: