Teller, the magician and famous debunker, directed the documentary "Tim's Vermeer." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
Penn Jillette is the one that speaks; Teller is the one that doesn’t. That’s how it’s gone for years with the magicians and professional debunkers. In truth Teller has spoken publically a couple times, including a bit at the end of their 1989 film “Penn & Teller Get Killed.” And in person, of course, Teller can speak — eloquently, verbosely, engagingly. With the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” he and Jillette observe as inventor Tim Jenison tries to prove a theory raised by the artist David Hockney and Charles M. Falco: that post-Renaissance artists, notably the artist Johannes Vermeer, may have used optics to help create their photo-realistic paintings. Directed by Teller, it’s not like an episode of their long-running show “Penn & Teller: Bulls—!” It lacks the irreverence but keeps the fascination with the scientific — and in this case artistic — method.
Had you been aware of Hockney and Falco’s thesis before?
No. There’s a mildly amusing story. Penn and I have known Tim for 25 years, at least. He was even an investor in one of our Off-Broadway runs. A number of years ago Penn sent him an e-mail. He said, “Tim, I’ve been in Vegas now for 12 years. I have young children. The only people I talk to are toddlers and Teller. I need to have an adult conversation like I used to have late at night in New York. Could you possibly fly out to Vegas and just have a conversation with me about anything other than show business?” Tim flew out. And he said, “How much do you know about Vermeer?” He said he thought he knew how he did it. He took off from his belt a video camera — because Tim’s the kind of guy who carries a video camera on his belt — and showed Penn a piece of video, that’s actually in the film, of the way he copied the photograph of his father in law. And Penn said, “Wow, that’s amazing. What are you going to do with it?” Tim said he might write a paper or do a YouTube video. Penn said, “Stop. This has got to be a movie.” The next day the two of them went to Los Angeles and pitched it as a movie.
How did you come to direct it solo?
They knew I was obsessed with making things clear. And there’s a lot of crazy stuff that needs to be made clear in this movie. There’s a lot of technical stuff and exposition that we sneak in there. They knew I was good at telling a story. I was more excited than nervous. I should have been more nervous.
What were some technical challenges you faced?
This movie couldn’t have been done this way even five or six yeas ago. It’s thanks to digital video. And Tim was the pioneer of digital video. He was the first guy who linked up video to your home computer, which is what made this whole revolution happen.
It’s a film very subtly indebted to modern technology, but at the same time it’s about a very forward-thinking antiquated technology.
From the beginning, this was about time travel. It was about Tim’s desire to take this invention back to Vermeer’s day and test it under the exact same circumstances Vermeer may have worked under. It was Tim’s longing to be back in that day and be side by side with Vermeer and see if it could work.
The actual painting is the bulk of the film. How did you approach handling the day-to-day aspect?
It was really like a diary. Tim would set up his own cameras every day. But early on we discovered Tim, who’s really not a performer, was not comfortable staring into that big, hideous ant of a camera. So we set it up like a teleprompter. Tim would be looking in the camera lens, but instead of just seeing a lens, he would see a Skype feed from Farley [Ziegler, the producer] in Los Angeles. They would have a conversation at the end of every day. That’s a big part of why it feels like you’re Tim’s friend, because he’s really speaking to a friend.
So the camera was sort of like Errol Morris’ Interrotron?
Very much so!
Though you and Penn have a long history of debunking, this doesn’t really engage in the debate over the thesis’ veracity.
There’s no historical artifacts and no written evidence that Vermeer used this method. However, there is progressively more strong evidence that there are artifacts in the paintings. Tim has discovered more in a recent scan of that painting [the one he recreates in the film]. But it’s not surprising that they would be interested in technology. It was post-Renaissance, and they were manufacturing good quality optics. They were manufacturing lenses and mirrors. The microscope had been invented. Telescopes were very popular among science hobbyists. So the idea that lenses would be available is not even slightly far-fetched.
How did you decide on this approach?
There were a lot of different ways we could have gone. The film was originally titled “Vermeer’s Edge,” because we thought it was about the edge of the mirror. We thought it was about the edge Vermeer may have had on different painters. We thought it was about technology. Then as we looked at the footage, we realized it wasn’t.
Were there abandoned angles that you started on?
We actually shot a scene in London. We thought this was analogous to the Jack the Ripper mystery, because it’s an unsolved mystery that people have speculated a lot on. So we got a camera crew and we went to one of the alleys where Jack did one of his dirty deeds. And we hired an actor to play a ripped whore and lie in a pool of blood on the sidewalk. We talked about old mysteries, then Tim made an entrance and made the analogy. But that was forced.
It’s not like an episode of “Bulls—!”
We had at one point thought to make it exactly like a "Bulls—!" episode, where you have a scene of Penn and me doing a bit, then you go back to documentary footage of Tim. To get the clarity of this very complicated idea and to make it easy and fun for the audience, we really had to cut out everything peripheral. This really is only the story of Tim making the painting. It’s not a polemic. We’re not arguing with anyone. There are no villains in this movie. It’s a really weird movie. In “Bulls—,” there were always villains. We always had crazy people with crazy theories. We would let them get their whole theory out, and let them hang themselves. In this, there’s none of those people. It’s just about a guy with a longing to go into the past and test his theory.
It’s a very contemplative film. It watches the grunt work of creating art.
In many ways it’s a movie about how to get to beauty, you’ve got to go through ugliness. You have to go through suffering and pain. You watch Tim copying, dot-by-dot, everything he sees in the mirror. I think a lot of people who’ve seen this movie who are in the arts feel like it’s telling their story. It’s the idea that the way to get to beauty is to go through ugliness, suffering — and in our case lots of jokes, because fortunately for us Tim is not a very serious guy.