One of the most pleasant surprises of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival is Tim’s Vermeer. Made my legendary magicians and bullshit busters Penn & Teller the film is about the remarkable achievement of their friend Tim Jenison. A professional computer/optics expert and amateur inventor, Jenison became fascinated with the work of the great Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer whose ground-breakingly realistic work has confounded art critics and historians for centuries. Controversial recent theories have suggested that Vermeer used primitive camera lenses to essentially paint photographs and with a deep background in video technology, Jenison was not only qualified to see how that could be true, but also had a theory of how it was done.
Armed with the resources, dedication, eccentricity, and free time necessary to pull it off, Jenison dedicated a year of his life to proving the theory by recreating Vermeer’s studio, crafting a practical device Vermeer might have used to pull off the work, and meticulously recreated a classic painting using only tools and resources available in the 17th century. The only catch was that he’d never painted before, but with the invention he’d devised that didn’t matter. So Penn & Teller filmed the entire journey and presented the Tim’s journey in a manner as clever, funny, insightful, and moving as any of their finest work. Collider got a chance to chat with Penn, Teller, and Jenison at TIFF, delving into the making of their latest project, their underrated 1989 film Penn & Teller Get Killed, and, oddly, the relationship between Martin Mull and Jimi Hendrix. Hit the jump for the full chat.
Tim Jenison: I got interested in Vermeer when I read David Hockney’s book Secret Knowledge. He showed that art took a very dramatic turn somewhere in the 1500s-1600s. It suddenly became very realistic and Hockney thought that was because of optics. And then another book that came out at almost the same time was Vermeer’s Camera by Philip Steadman. He proved that Vermeer must have used a lens just by geometry. He analyzed the geometry in six of the paintings. There’s a little picture in Philip Steadman’s book that shows a miniature dollhouse that Steadman made alongside a Vermeer and this just smacked me between the eyes because the wall was lit the same way. I knew as a video guy that humans don’t see a wall the way cameras do. That’s what got me thinking about it and made me think that Vermeer had to use a lens, because people just don’t think like that. Your eye can’t see it. I guess I was in the right place in time to realize that. Because of working on video compression and things like that, we know what’s important and what the eye can’t see and what it can’t. So, that got me thinking.
Then I was in Holland for a tradeshow. I had seen the Vermeers that day and was in the bathtub afterwards when it stuck me: a simple way, a low-tech way to match the colors from reality to paint. If you can do that, you would be hand painting a photograph without any photographic chemistry. So after I got home, I tried it on my kitchen table. I hand copied a photograph using a simple mirror at a 45 degree angle. You base it on the edge of the mirror. If you get the color right, the edge of the mirror disappears. If the paint is too bright or too dark, you can still see the edge of the mirror. It’s only when it’s perfect that it works. That’s your litmus test. If you follow the mirror, if you trust the mirror and obay the mirror, you end up with an exact copy of the photograph. So, I thought that Vermeer must have done this. It turned out to be not quite that simple. When I got to the real room and made Vermeer’s room, I had to add more stuff to the machine.
How did your family react when you told them you would be spending months rebuilding Vermeer’s entire studio to make a single painting?
Jenison: Um…I didn’t tell them (Laughs). I was afraid to tell them. But my daughters are all artists. They went to art school. When I did the test on my kitchen table, Lauren, my oldest daughter, came in and she said, “what are you doing?” She took a couple snapshots and that shot ended up being the one that’s in all the articles now. When I was in the middle of painting the Vermeer, I got faint praise from my family. It grew on them like it grew on me. There wasn’t any particular moment of time where anyone said, “oh my god that’s amazing.” Natalie came in one day and said, “oh, that’s neat.” (Laughs). But I was happy with that. That’s a great compliment from her.
How early on did you [Penn & Teller] start to turn this into a movie?
Penn Jillette: Well, I had Tim come out to Vegas because I wanted to talk to a friend. We’ve been friends for a long, long time. The friendship with Tim goes way, way back before the project. We had a nice supper together and I asked him to talk about something that had nothing to show business. He asked me what I knew about Vermeer and I didn’t know much. You know, beyond Wikipedia. We started chatting and he told me about this and that he intended to build a room and paint a Vermeer. I said, “Hold everything. Don’t do a thing until we get a crew on this.” Then we spent a few months trying to convince companies to give us money who have actually now come to us and want to buy it. And we tried to get a director. I intended to just turn it over to someone. To get a documentary crew to come in and make the movie with us kind of watching over it. We failed. I don’t know for what reasons. I think it was mostly my fault. I think with my name on it, people thought it would be kind of a punk thing. I guess all the reasons we failed aren’t important, but we did. Then after a lot of thinking and talking to other directors we decided to ask Teller to join us.
How did you [Teller] find the process of directing this having never made a documentary before?
Raymond Joseph Teller: Intriguing. There’s a big problem solving aspect. We had 2400 hours of footage that we were looking at. With that amount of footage you can tell almost any story just shy of a murder (Laughs).
Jenison: And it was getting close to that.
Teller: Right. So there was a lot of work that went into something as simple as coming up with the idea of this movie, which is as simple as stated in Penn’s closing sentence, “my friend Tim painted a Vermeer.” We went through many, many clever ideas for presentation. At one point we were going to present it like a Penn & Teller Bullshit episode with clever little wrap arounds. We thought about presenting it like a video game with a graph that showed how much life Tim had left with it slowly depleting. But the more we looked at the footage, the more it became apparent that this was Tim’s story and Tim was the driving force behind it. Then we had exactly the right way to show Penn and Tim’s friendship. Penn became the supporting character behind it, the audience identification figure. Then it became clear to us.
Tim, did you ever come close to quitting in the middle of the process and would you two [Penn & Teller] have let him, if he tried?
Jenison: Yeah, I came close on multiple occasions and had multiple cameras surrounding me as I was thinking about it. I had these guys calling me up on conference calls every day. I had to call up the producer every day explaining what I had done that day. So it really wasn’t an option. At one point Teller said, “you know Tim, if you don’t succeed, this movie is going to be very different.” I said, “there isn’t going to be a movie if I don’t succeed.” And he said, “oh yes there is.” (Laughs). So that’s the kind of pressure I was under. It was real, but it was a powerful motivator for me and helped me plow through the roadblocks that I was hitting. I have a lot of hobbies in various states of completion and this would have been one of them. Penn said to me at one point, “if we weren’t filming Tim probably would finish the painting, but he may have died first.” So, I couldn’t let my friends down.
Teller: The original title of the film was Vermeer’s Edge, because we thought the edge of the mirror was interesting and also Vermeer had an edge on other painters. At that point we thought the film was primarily about Tim’s discovery. That’s not really the story that we ended up telling. That’s an aspect that’s a story about this kind of person addressing this kind of project, with this level of energy, focus, and ingenuity. That’s the focus of it. So, although we considered bringing in the skeptics as part of the film, bringing the film to the skeptics afterwards was how we decided to approach that. Because this is really about a guy who is perfectly capable of setting himself an almost impossible task to do, achieving it, and then being satisfied with it. He didn’t need the stamp of approval from the world to do it. Although he did appreciate the stamp of approval after.
Jillette: They’re gearing up at the New York Film Festival when we premiere it there after this. The Met and so forth are gearing up to see the reaction. They’ve already sniffed around.
Teller: Is that right?
Jillette: Yeah, from reviews and write ups. Not from us doing any seeding. But the Met has been in touch with Sony and wants a screening.
Jenison: Do you know a source of bulletproof vests?
How did Martin Mull end up being the expert who you brought into look at the results of Tim’s earliest experiments?
Jillette: Well, he’s a very good friend of mine and one of my real heroes. It depends on which circle you’re in which Martin Mull you know. Many people know him as a painter don’t think about him much as an entertainer. And then many people who know him as an entertainer, don’t think about him much as a painter or as a monster guitar player. He’s a sessions quality guitar player.
Jillette: Yeah, he’s a monster. He would have been part of the Wrecking Crew if he weren’t doing art and comedy.
Jillette: Well, Martin invented Letterman. Without a doubt. There are very few people who can do two things and Martin can do three. I don’t know if you know, but Jimi James in New York in the 60s had a four person group with Martin Mull playing rhythm guitar. Then he decided to go to England and Martin didn’t want to go with him and then Jimi backed into a trio and changed his name back to Jimi Hendrix. But the original Jimi Hendrix Experience was with Martin Mull on rhythm guitar. All those songs, “Fire” and all that are Jimmy playing over tracks are Martin Mull’s guitar parts. So you know, Martin shows up in places. Also, he’s in my movie The Aristocrats. I’m doing another movie now and I’m going crazy trying to find a place to put Martin into it because I can’t really make another movie without putting Martin in it.
I’ve always loved Penn & Teller Get Killed and wondered how Arthur Penn (Bonnie And Clyde) ended up directing that and how involved he was? He doesn’t strike me as someone who would simply work for hire.
Jillette: Bernie Brillstein found him along with Sam Cohen and we were thrilled to pieces to have him. We got to work with one of the greatest directors alive. We of course said “yes” right away. He was very involved. He dove right in and didn’t disappoint.
Teller: We went into Sam Cohen’s office and he asked us, “Who would you really like to direct this movie?” He had this book of directors behind his desk. We picked it off the wall while we were waiting for him and were flipping through it. Arthur had just done this movie called Dead of Winter, which we had really loved. A very startling movie. So we saw his name and thought, “Boy, what if we could get Arthur Penn?” Then we put the book back, Sam Cohen came in picked up a pen, started to chew it and said, “I think I have the right director for you, Arthur Penn.” It was pretty uncanny.
Jillette: Really? I don’t remember that at all. That would be uncanny.
Was there any battle over the ending? Because it’s spectacular but about as far from a Hollywood ending as possible, so did you have trouble with test audiences or anything like that?
Jillette: Warner Brothers hated it and they pretty much buried the film. Overall I think people don’t like it in the studios. I think part of their plan with that film was to give us enough rope. (Laughs). But I don’t remember anybody fighting us on it, do you?
Teller: No, I remember that at the one screening I sat in on in San Francisco, the audience loved the ending. Because it’s funny. It’s really funny and they got it and had no problem with it.
Did you ever develop another movie in the studio system?
Jillette: No, they never asked us.