'Tim's Vermeer': Teller talks (yes, talks!) about his astounding documentary

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In the new documentary Tim’s Vermeer, Texas-based inventor and non-painter Tim Jenison attempts to prove that seventeenth century artist Dutch Johannes Vermeer used an optical device to craft his masterpieces by adopting that technique to painstakingly recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson. If that sounds like a snooze on paper, the film is anything but, partly thanks to Penn Jillette‘s enthusiastic narration, and his magic-partner Teller’s assured direction. but mostly because of the possibility Jenison might actually drive himself insane attempting to complete his Herculean task. (EW’s Owen Gleiberman recently described the movie as “exquisitely fun” in his “A”-grade review.)

Yesterday, I spoke with Jenison and Teller about the film — which opens in Los Angeles and New York this Friday — their future plans, and Nazis-on-the-moon.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the course of watching Tim’s Vermeer, I went from thinking “I don’t care whether this guy recreates this painting or not,” to “I really hope he does succeed,” to “I just hope doesn’t die.”
Tim Jenison:
Risking your life for a painting!

Was there ever a point when you worried you were going insane?
TJ: No, no. But it was way harder than I thought. We thought maybe the film would take a year to do and it just turned into this project that would never end. It ended up taking four years basically to do the film. Once I had finished the painting, my experiment was finished but then Teller had to make a film out of it.

How many hours of footage did you have by the end?
Teller:
2400.

And how did you make 2398.5 of them disappear?
TJ: They’re all on the cutting room floor. It’s a big pile!
T: By making the decision that this wasn’t going to be a movie about Vermeer, it wasn’t going to be a movie about Penn & Teller, it was going to be a movie about a person with such unbelievable determination that he could do something that people regarded as impossible.

Teller, how did you get involved with this project?
T: Tim and Penn had resolved to make this movie on their own because they were unable to persuade any regular film producer that it could ever amount to anything that wasn’t excruciating. As it turns out, it was excruciating, but only for Tim. For the viewer, Tim’s excruciation is a great deal of fun. They called me up and they said, “Do you want to direct this movie?” I thought, You know, this might just change the history of art.”

Your hypothesis, as I understand it, is that the painters who developed this technique kept it a secret, which is why there is no physical evidence that they used this method.
T: Beyond the paintings, there’s no evidence. As a magician, I really understand that. I mean, keeping an industrial secret that enables you to have an edge over everybody else seems like a really sensible thing to do. As Hockney (British painter David Hockney) points out in the film, some of the painters wouldn’t even write down the formula for the paints, lest somebody at home be able to create that perfect lovely blue. You know, when Apple puts out their new product, they don’t publish their directions on how to make this product. Those things are kept as industrial secrets. As Tim has taught me, Vermeer’s painting sold for very good money. To buy a quality painting of Vermeer’s was the same price as a house…
TJ: Well, maybe half a house.
T: …So you really want to corner your market.

I won’t ask how much your experiment cost. But could you have bought a Vermeer for amount of money you spent painting your own?
TJ: No. I saved a lot of money by doing my own. There is one Vermeer that’s still out of captivity. It was owned by Steve Wynn, the Vegas casino magnate, and he sold it sold for $28m, I think. And that’s almost certainly the least valuable of all the Vermeers. So these paintings are highly prized and they were in Vermeer’s day.

Teller, I thought your directorial debut might be a horror movie, given you codirected a couple of short zombie films a few years ago.
T: Oh, well, there’s three more of those on the way — and expect to see me in that genre.

Sticking to the horror theme, Tim, the documentary mentions that you had some involvement with the Nazis-on-the-moon film Iron Sky. Tell me more!
Oh, yeah, yeah. Well, my company NewTek makes LightWave 3D, which is used to do computer-generated movies and they’re one of our customers. They’ve made some really gorgeous footage with a very small team and we were just looking for some of the examples of LightWave to be used in the film and they were very cooperative and said, “Certainly, put it in.” Godwin’s law says eventually there will be a Nazi reference. (Godwin’s Rule of Nazi Analogies states “As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.”)

Tim, have you picked up a paintbrush since finishing the film?
TJ: No.

Do you think you ever will?
TJ: There is another experiment I might do. There’s another artist, Caravaggio, who came before Vermeer’s time, who almost certainly had a similar approach. Caravaggio set the art world on its ear and started a whole school of art called the Caravaggisti and I think he could have used a simple flat mirror [to paint]. There’s a lot of strange things about Caravaggio. He would never let anyone watch him paint. He owned a lot of mirrors on his death. He knew a mirror-maker. He was a crazy guy. He would go around Rome starting sword fights and he would say, “Well, I’m Caravaggio! Cut me some slack!” Very eccentric person. I would like to see if I could paint a little bit of a Caravaggio some day.

What’s the next project for you folks?
T: Well, I have the ongoing project of the Penn & Teller show in Las Vegas, which we do five nights a week, 42 weeks a year. And my next directorial project is a theatre piece, I’m doing The Tempest with music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan, from their repertoire, and then magic by me, some movement by Pilobolus. We’re opening it in a tent in Las Vegas outside the brand new performing arts center in April.

Tim?
I’m between obsessions. If you have any ideas, let me know.

You can check out the trailer for Tim’s Vermeer below.


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