Eleven years, 70 friends and $60,000 later, the screwball-meets-noir-meets art world feature ‘The Big Kitty’ wraps

You’ve heard apocryphal stories about people making movies on their maxed-out credit cards, but this remarkable story of bringing a full-length feature film on a shoestring to fruition is not fiction.

On a sudden whim, Melbourne visual artist Tom Alberts decided in 2008 to make a film that celebrated the kind of screwball comedies and hard-boiled, black and white 1940s movies he loves: tough guy detective, tougher DA, and a beautiful babe at the centre of a disappearance downtown somewhere, sometime, in the ‘40s.

Titled The Big Kitty, this 70-minute homage to old school Hollywood is described as a “comedy of Noir, cats, hats, love and misunderstanding”. 

Alberts might be an award-winning artist, but he has not won any awards for filmmaking – not yet anyway – because he had zero idea about how to go about making one. 

But he did know his way around how-to manuals of the “Writing, Directing, Shooting and Editing a Feature Length Film for Dummies on a Miniscule Budget” kind. 

What he didn’t need to bone up on was how to act (he stars as the tough guy detective Guy Boyman, and he’s a natural) and together with his wife, artist Lisa Barmby made every single set, prop and costume. 

Their 100 handmade constructions include a train carriage, a car made from wood and paint, billboards, bandstands, stage posters and flyers, laboratory equipment, liquor labels, ‘Tuff ‘man-size’ cigarettes, matches, money, cameras, clocks and radios of the era while costumes included a chauffeur’s outfit and the princess’ wardrobe. They even made fish for a fishmonger’s scene.  

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They also had no trouble attracting a cast and crew of about 70 people. 

The Russian Princess Yukova Illinaditch at the centre of the story is played by Barmby, who collaborated on every aspect of the film. And the couple live with another one of their lead characters – their cat – who goes by name of Monsieur Baptiste in life and simply Cat on screen.

The other 68 human cast and crew came from their circle of friends, most of whom emerged from Melbourne’s art colleges and the raffish St Kilda scene of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s when chain smoking Peter Stuyvesants (soft pack) and only dressing in black was compulsory. 

Friends pitched in for the madcap adventure of all-night shoots on sets Alberts built in his studio, in laneways and in a dance studio turned into the Catabianca nightclub.

Barmby and Alberts and their posse of swells might have been labelled the beau monde if they had lived and partied in Central City in 1949 where The Big Kitty is set.  

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The filmmakers themselves exude an effortless, mid-century glamour off-screen that makes them look as if they could just have stepped out of a ‘40s film noir.

Their friends pitched in for the madcap adventure of all-night shoots on the sets Alberts built in his St Kilda studio, in laneways and in a Richmond dance studio turned into the  Catabianca nightclub, complete with a kookily dramatic, avant-garde ‘Apache’ dance number. 

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The ’40s costumes, the pot-boiler dialogue (“I was after Cat, but was Cat really after me?”), the surrealist sequence in which Guy Boyman is wickedly drugged, the references to famous paintings, the in-jokes about Goya and Manet, and, of course, the many meals the debonair couple supplied after filming sessions, were irresistible too. 

The cast includes the artists Rick Amor, Lewis Miller, Gavin Brown (who plays a society artist who paints Picasso-esque works), Jane Burton, Robert Hollingworth (as a hoodlum), Deborah Klein, Angela Cavalieri, Heidi Yardley (as a spiritualist) and Shane Jones who plays the Irish accented police commissioner. 

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When Daily Review first reported on The Big Kitty in 2013, it had already been five years in the making. Finishing shooting and post-production has taken another six years. 

Alberts jokes that when he walks through a door in one particular scene, he exits it five years later. Suntans come and go on the characters, but given the film is black and white skin tone is hardly an issue.

Surprisingly, no one looks much older given the feature’s gestation and, miraculously perhaps, none of the 70 cast and crew have died in the past decade. Even Monsieur Baptiste is still with us. 

But the long production process is what happens when the idea, the work, the autonomous learning and the budget that amounted to $60,000 of Alberts’ and Barmby’s savings has been fitted in around the couple’s day jobs as artists which has included extended jaunts to Paris and Venice where the two have painted and exhibited their work. 

But this month they finally got to declare “It’s a wrap” on The Big Kitty after the couple’s lingering post-production was accelerated by a serendipitous connection with Maryjeanne Watt a professional post-production supervisor who they were introduced to by a mutual friend, a life model. 

The only caveat on the professional editor’s involvement was ‘no one can end up on the cutting room floor and try and make everyone look good’.

Watt was so intrigued by the self-taught, self-funded filmmakers’ project that she introduced them to film editor Anne Carter, re-recording mixer Keith Thomas and online editor Peter Pilley. They were similarly taken with Alberts, Barmby and The Big Kitty and donated their time and skills to the project. They have been the only film professionals involved in the film’s making.   

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Carter spent three days a week for about three months with Alberts and Barmby finessing and re-editing Alberts’ cut of the film.  

The first-time filmmakers’ only caveat on the professionals’ involvement was, Alberts says, “No one can end up on the cutting room floor. Try and make everyone look good and we probably can’t do anymore filming”.

Given the lack of ‘coverage’ (multiple takes of the same scene from numerous angles) Carter worked hard to cut the film to build a narrative drive that adds an almost breathless pace to the story that finds its characters in 20 scenes  and locations that include a shoot-out, a mad laboratory, the police commissioner’s office, a flashback, a Hollywood party, an artist’s salon, and a backstage scene where Rick Amor’s line is “Five minute call for The Blob”.

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“I just could not believe it,’’ Carter tells Daily Review of the extraordinary ambition, work, time and good humour Alberts and Barmby put into The Big Kitty.

“Tom is an absolute perfectionist and I just so admired what they have done and how they have lived their life creating this.” 

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The film – which has also been translated and subtitled by Barmby into French and Italian – is expected to have its premiere by early next year at a yet-to-be-announced film festival.

6 responses to “Eleven years, 70 friends and $60,000 later, the screwball-meets-noir-meets art world feature ‘The Big Kitty’ wraps

  1. Fingers crossed, I hope it’s a grand success. It’s all down to the strength of the script …. style can get you a long way, but it helps if you’ve got a Chandler or Cain on a typewriter in the back room!!!!

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