Teller talks (because he can) about directing ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

Teller, the magician and famous debunker, directed the documentary "Tim's Vermeer." Credit: Sony Pictures Classics
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.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

By Piya Sinha-RoyLOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Marvel Entertainment's chief emeritus Stan Lee may be in his ninth decade, but it hasn't stopped him from adding…

National

Islamic State says beheads U.S. journalist, holds another

Islamic State insurgents released a video purportedly showing the beheading of U.S. journalist James Foley, who had gone missing in Syria nearly two years ago.

Local

VIDEO: NYPD seeks shooter in East New York…

Cops are on the lookout for an unknown shooter who aimed and missed hitting a man on a bicycle, instead nearly striking a nearby officer in East New York.

Local

NYS state forces thrift shops comply with ban…

Nine New York City thrift shops were reprimanded by the state attorney general for selling children's clothes with drawstrings around the neck and waist.

Television

'Pretty Little Liars' recap: Season 5, Episode 11,…

Caleb's not a ghost. Spencer might still be an attempted murderer. And Hanna's going to die next week. In other words, we actually got some…

Movies

At 91, Marvel creator Stan Lee continues to…

Marvel Entertainment's Stan Lee is adding outposts to his creative empire to interest a new generation of children in super heroes of all shapes and sizes.

Television

Mira Sorvino explores immortality on 'Intruders'

Mira Sorvino's new show "Intruders" centers around a secret society that achieves immortality by taking over the bodies of other people.

Television

5 things you need to know about new…

"Doctor Who" returns Saturday with a new star, Peter Capaldi. Here's some things to know about him (mainly his turn as sweary spin doctor Malcolm Tucker).

MLB

Shane Greene travels unlikely road to Yankees stardom

Shane Greene was throwing a bullpen session on a quiet field at Daytona Beach Community College one day when the ball started moving.

NFL

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL…

2014 Fantasy Football: Rankings, list of top NFL tight ends (TE)

MLB

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

MLB Power Rankings: Angels supplant A's, Nationals climb

NFL

David Wilson returns to triple jump, sets sights…

Giants fans know David Wilson can jump. They are just more used to seeing him go for backflips, not distance.

Style

11 timeless gifts for registries or just because

Gifts to prove you're a style maven once and for all.

Parenting

How everyday moments can inspire kids' creativity

"The Artist's Way for Parents" author Julia Cameron gives advice on how parents and children can be creative together.

Tech

How to stay safe online

Stop worrying about keeping your online passwords safe, and start worrying about keeping your username a secret. Actually, worry about both. According to Shaun Murphy…

Tech

OpenTable now lets you pay your bill via…

The restaurant app OpenTable added the ability to pay your bill (and tip) with your phone, thus cutting back on a few dining annoyances.