Tom Alberts and Lisa Barmby are artists who live in Melbourne’s St Kilda with their cat, Baptiste. The bayside suburb with the raffish reputation is home to many of their friends who, like them, graduated from art school in the late 1980 and early 90s, and have forged careers as painters, photographers and printmakers.
Alberts, 51, is highly regarded for his narrative-driven paintings, portraits and self-portraits. Last month he won the $20,000 Rick Amor Self-Portrait Prize. Barmby, 50, who has been married to Alberts for 14 years, is often referred to as her husband’s muse, and is known for her atmospheric paintings of Venetian scenes.
This month however the couple’s unique and ambitious “Big Kitty” project is drawing to completion and will be revealed next year.
The pair have made a film, but this is not the usual case of mid-career artists moving into video work.
Not at all. Their film is the product of five and half years work, 700 minutes of footage, at least $10,000 of their own savings, and the happy involvement of between 70 and 100 of their artist friends who are a who’s who of Melbourne’s art scene.
The result is their 80 minute black and white “film noir” homage called The Big Kitty. Alberts has written and directed the feature film which stars himself as private detective Guy Boyman and Barmby as the Russian Princess Yukova Illinaditch. The thriller spoof is set in “Central City” – a town that is neither American nor Australian, but simply “new world”.
Alberts came up with the idea one afternoon in 2008 when returning home from a visit to the National Gallery of Victoria. “I was sitting in the car and I said ‘I would love to make a film’. And then it struck me that I was never going be more young, more able, and with more money than to do it now.”
Alberts had no idea of how to make a film other than his love and knowledge of 1940s and 1950s “film noir” and screwball comedies. His favourite films include Out of the Past, Laura, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, Vertigo and anything made by Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges.
“It wasn’t a learning curve, it was a learning right angle,” Alberts says, sitting in the small living room of his and Barmby’s flat in a late 1940s building that looks like it’s straight out of Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
“There was such a huge quantity of things to tackle. How do you direct a film? How do you write a film? What does a script look like? What does the “third act” mean?”
So he made a list of all the scenes he thought his 1940s set movie should contain.
These scenes included: A shoot-out, a nightclub, a laboratory, a meeting in the police commissioner’s office, a weird dream sequence, a flashback, a Hollywood party, an artist’s salon, and a backstage scene.
Alberts says that Melbourne made the perfect setting for a “film noir” thriller. Though he and Barmby won’t reveal what is the “big kitty” of the film’s title, they shot in a hard to find graffiti-free laneway, their flat, Alberts’ and Barmby’s studios and borrowed locations.
These included a cafe, the Tiki Lounge in Richmond, which was transformed into a nightclub complete with a big band and an “Apache” dance sequence where a woman is spectacularly twirled above a man’s head. The 24 hour shoot with dozens of extras and volunteers involved Alberts and Barmby running back and forth to the camera (a Canon HV20 Camcorder) when they were not acting on screen with some help from cinematographer Fabrice Bigot.
The most extraordinary aspect of “The Big Kitty” is that Alberts made every set, costume and more than 100 props himself. These include a train carriage, a car, billboards, bandstands, stage posters and flyers, laboratory equipment, liquor labels, cigarettes (Tuff ‘man-size’ cigarettes), matches, fish, money, clocks, radios and every costume including a chauffeur’s outfit and the Russian princess’ wardrobe which includes a palette and paint brush inspired hat.
“I couldn’t find a 1940s press camera and people said I’d have to hire one but I made one from a Coke can, some gaffa tape and an old flash camera from a $2 shop,”he says.
Every single scene was story-boarded by hand then digitally animated before shooting.
“The Big Kitty” includes cameos from dozens of Melbourne artists including painter Gavin Brown (who plays a society artist who paints crazy Picasso-esque works), photographer Jane Burton, painter Robert Hollingworth (as a hoodlum),the portraitist Lewis Miller, printmakers Deborah Klein, Angela Cavalieri, painter Heidi Yardley (as a spiritualist) and Shane Jones who plays the Irish accented police commissioner.
Barmby says that the involvement of so many friends meant one way of paying them back was plying them with food and drink after filming or taking their “stars” out to dinner – which is where their costs mounted.
“You have to make sure a friend who helps you out is made to feel special,” she says.
About 95 per cent of the film is completed with all the post production done on Alberts’ computer tucked next to the dining table on which he made the costumes and props.
The plan is to have the film completed by New Year. The couple hope to have a glamourous red–carpet opening befitting the alluring Princess Illinaditch, the heroic and handsome Guy Boyman, and the mysterious Big Kitty at a suitably glamourous movie theatre in St Kilda early next year.