Tom Alberts and Lisa Barmby: Cat People

January 11, 2022
Feature film The BIG KITTY took 12 years to make for the Melbourne artists, but it was well worth the time and effort.

The BIG KITTY won Best Experimental Feature Film at the Paris International Feature Film Festival. It had a private screening in Venice. It screened at the 74th Festival de Cannes; The 15th Festival Rochefort Pacifique; St Tropez Festival de Antipodes; to name a few. It must be very gratifying to have had such enormous success with your first cinematic venture.

Lisa – One of the most beautiful things is that The BIG KITTY makes people smile and laugh! I mean, it still even makes us smile and laugh, in spite of ourselves.

Going to Cannes with The BIG KITTY, and having our film screened in three separate cinemas, was simply beyond our wildest dreams. Walking along to a red carpet event in my silver princess dress, Tom so dashing in his black tie, I suddenly had this realisation that of all the 199 part time jobs I’ve had in my life this one takes the cake! With full accreditation to attend the whole festival as well!

Tom – Yes, very gratifying. It really was beyond our wildest dreams! Unfortunately, the whole world was plunged into the Covid nightmare just as our film was ready to begin its life. The first festival we were in, the wonderfully-named ‘Another Hole In The Head’ Film Festival, in San Francisco, 2020, was virtual. We even won Best Trailer and it was really miserable that we couldn’t be there for a real festival. But Cannes and St Tropez were really wonderful experiences that we will never forget.

Can you give a brief synopsis of The BIG KITTY?

Tom & Lisa – During a mysterious blackout at the Catabianca Club, the Princess’s beloved Cat is stolen right from her lap. “Cat is gone!” screams the shocked Princess and newspaper headlines. As the city is swept up in her story, the Princess hires Private Detective Guy Boyman to track down Cat. Or does she? Something dark and dangerous is prowling the backstreets and deserted alleyways of Central City. Everyone seems to have an angle on what is becoming a deepening mystery for Detective Boyman. It’s a madcap, screwball comedy and a joyous tribute to the film noirs of the 1940s Hollywood Golden Age.

What is it about this period that inspires you?

Tom – What inspired us was that period’s strong stylisation, glamour, beautiful grooming, ladies in crazy hats! And that inky black and white cinematography. It’s our first film, so I thought we would have a shot at getting that stylisation and clarity right. I should also add that colour cinema comes with a lot more problems.

Personally, I went through a phase of reading all those Hammett and Chandler and Cain novels when young. I then got into the movie versions and became a big fan of Humphrey Bogart. That period from 1938 to 1958, the Golden Era, was a period of intense productivity and creativity. It’s when the motion picture truly discovered what it was and explored its scope. Many really interesting, talented people were allowed to try things in film noir pictures because they were the so-called “B” movie and didn’t have big budgets or important stars. So, there are really wonderful crazy films, all starting with The Maltese Falcon (1941) which is sublime and incredibly watchable still. Some of the influences were: Out Of The Past (1947) with Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum; Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People (1942); Ministry of Fear (1944) with Ray Milland; Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944); and Sunset Boulevard (1950); and everything by Hitchcock. Equally because The BIG KITTY is a comedy, we were influenced by the ‘screwball’ comedies of that time, notably the films of Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges – Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in particular.

The BIG KITTY has been your labour of love and was in the making for a number of years. When did you first have the idea to make it?

Tom – Yes, the whole process of making The BIG KITTY was twelve years, we’ve never had a project last so long. When starting out as an artist, I had the question: Should a painter interested in figurative art, narrative, figures in space and lighting be a filmmaker? I really struggled at various times with this question. But it was the beginning of computers, digital cameras, NLE (Non-Linear Editing) digital editing with Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects and HD video that made me realise it was possible. Various factors came together in 2007 and in talking with Lisa and a friend it finally came to life.

You both were responsible for writing, directing, filming, set constructing, lighting, editing, and acting in the film – quite an amazing workload. Could you talk about this technical aspect?

Lisa – Tom was wholly responsible for writing the film script, which started with a list of the type of scenes that he wanted in the film – a nightclub scene, an alleyway scene, backstage, fortune telling seance, car driving scene, a chase through the streets, etc. If Tom was in the scene, I was directing, and if I was in the scene, Tom was directing. The beautiful lighting, faithful to the 1940s period, is the work of Tom. The lighting was very precisely arranged, no filming took place until we had the best possible lighting. Which included barbecue lights and a multi bulb light box that Tom constructed, all arranged on tripods around us. Continuity was one of the trickiest hurdles we had with doing so much ourselves. Tom wrote story boards but now and again we were wearing so many hats on set for the one shoot – me doing makeup, hair, and catering, both doing costuming, while perhaps one or the other, or both of us, were also doing various takes with our actors for the one scene. I kept having to ask myself: Which hat am I wearing now? It was unnerving sometimes, with complicated scenes, worrying whether we had got it all right, because once the set had been dismantled it was impossible to redo it.

We edited The BIG KITTY together up to a certain stage. We had a few scenes that were very difficult to put together, which I’d say is due to having no extra coverage and to our lack of experience. We eventually had the fabulous services of our editor – Anne Carter, who loved our film and said she thought she could help us out. We accepted graciously as long as she understood that no one would end up on the cutting room floor. I think perhaps this was a new angle on editing for Anne, but she was on board, and we couldn’t believe our luck. Anne came to our apartment three times a week for a couple of months and worked her professional magic.

Tom – On set, we worked as the Directors, Camera Operator, Sound recorder, Drama coach, Gaffer, Continuity/Script person, Lighting Grip, Hair/Makeup, Catering, Electrician, Costume/Wardrobe, Set Decorator, Props Person, Craft Services, Special Effects, Transportation, and much more. We did everything ourselves. And we were doing all these tasks and playing our characters as well. It makes us tired just thinking about it.

Filming worked out to be really quite a simple formula: If Lisa was acting in the scene, I would operate the camera. If I was in the scene, Lisa would operate the camera. If we were both in the scene, one of us would set it up, focus on the other actor/s, then push the record button and run in to play the scene.

We did a lot of preparation, and script rewriting, and had a few handy guidelines for our cast. So, we were usually really prepared to do a shoot – which usually took months of planning to get it to happen.

The BIG KITTY features a terrific cast of mainly non-actors – many of whom come from the Melbourne art world. Did this present any particular hurdles?

Lisa – Au contraire – our artist actors (as we like to call them), were an inspiration. Casting our actor artist friends was one of the most wonderful things about our film. There was no audition to be in it – one just needed to want to be a part of our project. And their particular individuality nourished the roles they were portraying. We had a great time discussing which of our artist friends might be best for a certain role, and we were particularly delighted and honoured when they accepted. There are also a few artist friends who’d heard about the film and asked if they could be in it. Well, if they were keen, we were keen. We wanted everyone to have as a good a time as possible, and to look their stylish best as their character.

Tom – It was my intuition that in fact visual artists would make good actors, they study the world/people and are often good mimics. There are also a lot of movie buffs amongst the artists in our film – so we thought that would give some context. Lisa also had a really wise guiding principle: Make everyone look good.

Over time, we gave a few tested and true pieces of advice to our volunteer artist/actors: Move slow and talk fast. Do as little as possible. Be aware of the frame – no use making gestures that are off screen. Eyes are the most important acting tool – especially in close-ups. The secret of comedy: play it straight – no goofing or hamming it up.

The film will surely give hope to young filmmakers in that it shows that it is not always necessary to have a huge budget in order to realise a cinematic project. 

Lisa – Regarding the budget – in reality, it was the amount of credit we had left on our credit card, so we kind of just winged it like that. It may not require a huge budget, but it requires a huge amount of determination, physical and psychological effort, and will power. It is one thing to start a project and quite another to finish it. 

Tom – Definitely young filmmakers should be energised and encouraged by our film. It shows just what is possible against the odds. And, certainly, The BIG KITTY is an example of complete beginners, without training or anything really, putting their minds to it and working for a long time to make something happen. I would say that it was very much worth the work, struggle, money, and everything that went into it. It has certainly given us a deeper appreciation of film and renewed and increased our respect for filmmakers. Postproduction and Distribution are probably the bigger problems for people wanting to be in the industry. I think we are an example of something that should definitely be a part of film culture – which is experimental, and adventurous, and independent – we did it because we wanted to.

You are both well-established Australian artists. Was it a seamless shift from painting to cinema? And do you have thoughts of embarking on another film project any time soon, given the international acclaim that The BIG KITTY has received?

Lisa – One of the beauties of our film, which makes it so special for us is that all the actors are well-established Australian artists, along with one French artist. Tom and I have both dabbled in theatre and film previously. I studied drama in Paris at Cours Florent, being, I think, the first Australian graduand. Tom had made a couple of short films, and I have worked on a few TV shows and films. I think that we both greatly love cinema, and so were curious. I would have to say it was not a seamless shift from painting to cinema. For, no matter what one is doing, one has to give it one’s all, especially when you are a team of two, with no back up. Once we committed to the filming of a scene, it was all-consuming. We had to have everything in place: costumes, set, dialogue, schedule and above all the confidence to make it work. The last thing we wanted to do was waste our artist/actor’s precious time that they so generously offered. We wanted our cast to enjoy their day or days on set, to look good, feel good, and hopefully be able to hang around for champagne and a bite to eat to celebrate the hard work. Regarding making another film, well, time will tell. 

Tom – After our experience making The BIG KITTY, we certainly have ideas for doing something more and we have discussed doing some projects together, but nothing definite yet. It has been exciting to go to the Cannes Film Festival, Festival des Antipodes and others to introduce our film to the world. However, I do love painting above all else and it’s a difficult thing to do, it takes everything you can give it. It certainly wasn’t, for me, a seamless shift. I would often have to abandon my complicated plans for a scene to get on with my painting. It’s part of the reason it took us so long. I had four or five solo exhibitions, and lots of smaller painting projects, teaching etc. during the time of making the film. But it also sometimes occupied all my thoughts, and it is exciting to prepare a shoot, and get everything lined up, and build sets, and make costumes. It can really dominate your days and nights. So, no, it wasn’t seamless, but it was very exciting – with suffering from exhaustion and overwork an acceptable downside.

Could you each mention a couple of films, and why they are your favourites?

Lisa Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) based on Tennessee Williams’ play. Elizabeth Taylor’s powerhouse performance is all the more poignant as she continued filming when the love of her life, Mike Todd, was killed in a plane crash. I respond to Liz’s emotions being pushed to their limit. Liz is irresistibly beautiful, desperately fighting for an impossible love, doing a brilliant southern accent. Inspired, I worked on a monologue from A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof as an audition piece at Cours Florent.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) based on Truman Capote’s novella, starring Audrey Hepburn. I know Capote wanted Marilyn Monroe to play the role, but I think casting Audrey as Holly Golightly is perfect. It’s unexpected. I think I watched it twenty-times before coming to live in Paris in 1989, giving me a little of the courage to dare to live life my way. What’s not to love – Audrey herself, I’d named my cat after her, the Givenchy wardrobe, the shambolic apartment, the crazy parties, the music by Henri Mancini, her cat, and, once again, that desperate search for love.

Minnie and Moskovitz (1971) by John Cassavetes. Starring Gena Rowlands as Minnie, a museum curator in a toxic relationship with handsome Jim, played by Cassavetes. When Minnie has Moskovitz, the hot dog eating car-park attendant fall in love with her, she has to reassess her values. She explores the truth about love and ageing with her elderly girlfriend who tells her that the desire for love and sex doesn’t diminish with time. Gena, in so many films by Cassavetes, is dealing with an excess of emotions which make me think about my own path in life.

Pane, amore e… (Scandal in Sorrento) (1955). My favourite comedy, starring Sophia Loren and Vittorio de Sica, is pure gold. Its beautifully nuanced performances are an hysterical delight. We even quote the Swedish woman saying ‘Drink, drink?’ in The BIG KITTY.

Tom – Eraserhead (1977) David Lynch’s film is an inspiring independent feature film made on a tiny budget and is truly a visionary work. It was part of my inspiration for The BIG KITTY.

Sullivan’s Travels (1941) I fell in love with Veronica Lake, who stars in it, and being really moved by the idea about comedy at the heart of it (the Church scene).

Vertigo (1958) It’s beautifully filmed in lush rich colours against deep, sombre tones. Kim Novak is bewitching, and Scotty is me falling for it. It completely blew my mind the first time I saw it and has never lost its power over me. Hitchcock at his very best (and most strange).


Leave a Comment