Penn & Teller’s fascinating documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, follows inventor and engineer Tim Jenison’s exhaustive and tenacious investigation into one of the art world’s most intriguing mysteries: how was 17th century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer able to paint so photo-realistically more than a century before the invention of photography? Jenison, who was the visionary behind the desktop video revolution, embarks on an extraordinary research project spanning eight years that takes him around the world. Opening January 31st, the film directed by Teller and produced by Penn Jillette also features Martin Mull, Professor Philip Steadman, David Hockney and Dr. Colin Blakemore.
In an exclusive interview, Teller revealed why Tim’s story appealed so much to him, the unique challenges this documentary posed, why there was no way to know how it would turn out or if they would succeed in proving Tim’s hypothesis, the ingenious way he solved the film’s production logistics, how the project evolved from a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode to something much more, how Tim’s attempt to recreate The Music Lesson revealed Vermeer’s original technique in an intriguing new light, why artists are always fascinated with technology, Hockney’s involvement in the project, and Teller’s upcoming theatrical production of The Tempest in Las Vegas. Check out the interview after the jump.
TELLER: If you’ve seen the movie, you know what it was about Tim. Tim is an inventor. That’s a fascinating profession to begin with. And Tim’s inventions are often kind of goofy. But in this particular case, he applied all of his inventor’s ingenuity to a 350-year-old mystery. So now you’ve got an inventor who’s turned detective. And now on top of this, you’ve got a scientist who once he’s got a hypothesis about how this mysterious deed was done then goes and has the unbelievable tenacity to really test it to the nth degree. When we first premiered this movie at Telluride, the film critic David Thompson came out and said, “I think the reason that I love this movie so much is the same reason why I love so many movies so much which is it’s about somebody doing something that seems impossible who just sticks with it until he finally gets there.” It’s a movie about climbing a mountain.
This is not your typical documentary. How did directing this compare to your other directorial efforts and was the degree of difficulty greater bringing this to life for an audience?
TELLER: Absolutely. When you’re directing fiction or when you’re directing theater, there’s a script. You start with a script. You know ahead of time how the thing is going to come out. In this case, we had an experiment that was clearly an experiment and that could have failed. What this was, was once Tim had gone through all of the experience, we were now looking at all of the stuff that we had shot and saying, “What is this about? What is this story really about?” When we first went into it, we thought this was going to be all about Vermeer and Tim was going to be our guide in the foreground. It was all going to be focused on this guy in the past. But as we shot it, it just became more. Let me tell you we also had crazy ideas for how to present it. We thought maybe we should present it as a Penn & Teller: Bullshit! episode. We would come out and we’d do a little magic trick using 45 degree angle mirrors. And then, we’d turn it over to Tim who would explain his 45 degree angle mirror principle. That sounded plausible. But then, when you looked at the real experience, it seemed like we were trying to showboat on Tim’s drive. At one point, we had this really beautiful but crazy idea that since Tim was a video guy, we should present it like a video game. You’d have this column at one side that was the remainder of Tim’s life force, and it would be ebbing away as Tim continued to make the painting. But in the end, the simple thing of looking at all this material and saying, “This is about a guy who wants to make a painting,” enabled us to sift out all the peripheral stuff and just keep it like a movie. A movie has to be simple. A movie has to have a simple drive to it. It’s very different from every day experience. You don’t know the story of your day until you go home and write your diary entry. This was like writing the diary entry but on four years of work in a very complicated project, and I think we found the simple line.
Watching Tim recreate Vermeer’s The Music Lesson is like watching an elaborate magic trick. Is part of the appeal the fact that there appears to be a mysterious sleight of hand at work and, like Tim, we’re obsessed with knowing how Vermeer did it?
TELLER: For centuries, people have been mystified by Vermeer. They’ve looked at those paintings the way you look at a great magic trick and said, “That just looks impossible.” And there are two ways you can explain a great magic trick. You can say, “I’ll figure out how this trick is done,” or you say, “That’s a supernatural event.” I believe a lot of people in a sort of lazy way cop to the supernatural event. They just basically said, “Well Veneer was just better than any human being has ever been. His eyes must have worked differently from mine, because mine certainly can’t do those tricks.” And they usually end up calling that genius, not realizing that the fact of genius is genius is usually a really good idea accompanied by somebody willing to work more than you would ever believe they would work. The fact that Veneer spent on an average six months on a painting suggests very strongly that this was not something that he just went up to the canvas and dashed off by the muses coming and guiding his hand, but actually had a good idea and then either figured out or adapted some not very well known appliance at the time to be able to do it better than anybody else. I mean, also even if he was using something that’s a previously existing apparatus, he had such beautiful images. You have to start with a beautiful image that’s worth doing all this work for. And some of the Vermeer paintings, not all of them, but some of them, are some of the most beautiful images a human mind has ever thought of.
Do you think Vermeer’s use of optical technology to paint photo-realistically diminishes his reputation as an artist or was he an artistic genius because he found an innovative way to draw on principles of photography 150 years before that art form was invented?
TELLER: Tim has uncovered some evidence that’s not in the movie because you can’t put everything in or it stops being a fairytale. Movies are essentially fairytales and that’s a rule you’ve got to sort of stick with. But Tim has uncovered a couple of other artists who did some paintings that were that level of photographic. Vermeer really stands out, because these other artists have these very ordinary scenes that we don’t remember, and Vermeer’s are quite extraordinary. Does it diminish his excellence? No, not in any way. It just makes me think that instead of him being a space alien with extraordinary talents, maybe he was just a brilliant human being which is more encouraging to me. It does me no good to imagine that there are human beings that simply can do anything. I have to say I’m not a huge superhero fan. I like movies about people doing stuff.
TELLER: That Tim lived in Texas, and I was doing a show in Las Vegas, and my editor and producer lived in Los Angeles, and we couldn’t all be in the same place at the same time all the time. So, there were some really clever things that we worked out. Fortunately, Tim is a techie so he could come in every morning and set up his up to nine cameras on his work. He would aim it to the particular part of the painting that he was working on for the day in a wide shot. He had some fancy Red cameras and he had some little Canon cameras. It was interesting that for part of the movie we had some excellent cinematographers and for part of the movie we had Tim. As he was doing his 130 days of paintings, we needed to keep a chronicle of that. But I couldn’t be there. I had a show in Vegas. So what we did is we set up a Skype feed and a teleprompter mirror. Early on, I tried having Tim talk straight to the camera. When Tim talked straight to the camera, he looked like a deer in the headlights. He had this horrible look of a man staring into the eye of a giant one-eyed ant. So, to ease that on him, we set up the camera, but in front of it we set up a 45 degree angle mirror, just like the one he was using except it was translucent, and underneath we had a computer that showed the face of our beautiful producer, Farley Ziegler, who lives in Los Angeles. Farley would get on the horn with Tim every day and have a conversation. And so, that was a big challenge.
Can you talk about your experience visiting artist David Hockney at his home on the North Coast of Yorkshire?
TELLER: It was heart stopping because David Hockney doesn’t do much documentary stuff. He does his own documentaries, but he’s had unpleasant experiences with people doing documentaries involving him. He was not eager to participate in the documentary, but he was happy to meet Tim. So we said, “Okay, we’ll just come out and visit you.” But quietly, we put some little HD video cameras in our luggage just in case he would let us shoot. He had us out to his fantastic studio in Britain on the coast and he took us over to his family house where he’d been brought up with his mother. He gave us a beautiful, lovely lunch, and he and Tim sat next to each other, and within ten minutes Hockney went, “Oh this guy’s my brother. This is my ally.” And so, the tension built over lunch because we hadn’t shown Hockney the invention yet. Finally, Hockney said, “Are you going to show me this thing that you invented?” and Tim said, “Sure.” As we mounted the stairs to the top floor studio in his house, I said to Hockney, “David, would you mind if we shot this?” and he said, “Oh certainly, certainly,” because by now he knew we weren’t crackpots. If Penn & Teller ask to come to your house, you might think there was a put on going on. But once he met Tim, he knew that wasn’t the case.
TELLER: The biggest surprise for me was that Tim’s initial invention, the simple mirror, wasn’t enough. He had had me sitting at his kitchen table operating that mirror making my own copy of his father-in-law’s picture. And I thought, “Well this just works. This is great. This is going to be fine.” And then, half way through the film as you know, Tim finally gets to see the original painting in Buckingham Palace and he comes out reeling, because the real painting doesn’t look anything like the reproductions that he’s seen. The real painting has a level of detail that he wasn’t counting on when he made his initial invention. The entire thing could have failed at that point if Tim hadn’t been just so determined and dogged and willing to tinker endlessly to try and come up with the right idea. He would work during the day and think about it, and then he would go home and think about it at night. Tim’s very good at visualizing things. Tim will wake up in the middle of the night with an image in his head. He got this amazing idea to do something that certainly hasn’t been done in recent years which is to use a camera obscura type appliance, but instead of projecting onto a white surface, projecting onto a mirror which is a devastatingly brilliant idea. That ended up being the solution. I thought we were just going to sail right through it and he’d just paint the painting and that would be that. Little did I know that we would encounter an obstacle that would have stopped anybody else.
What do you think it is about technology that artists find so appealing?
TELLER: Artists, as opposed to historians, are always fascinated with technology. You talk to almost any artist and they will be intrigued by every new technical development. Hockney is a perfect example. Hockney learned about the iPad and the Brushes Drawing program, and Hockney said, “Wow! I could actually paint in light. I could paint in luminescence.” And he began painting on the iPad and then sending these paintings to his friends. I’ve even been the recipient of some of these wonderful iPad and iPhone paintings. That’s always the way with artists. Artists are always hungry for what’s new. I guess there are some artists who are very content to work let’s say in a watercolor medium and they’re fine with that. But the ones that are really groundbreaking are usually fascinated with technology.
What was the most enjoyable or rewarding aspect of directing this project?
TELLER: Getting to know Tim more deeply. I had always been a fan and I knew him in a friendly, nodding sort of way. Making a movie about somebody gets you real intimate with them because you are forced to confront them with hard questions. In fact, the opening moment of the movie, the moment that actually sends the whole movie on its journey, came from a time when Tim was really fairly discouraged about something. I sat him down and I said, “Tim, are you going to succeed?” and he blanched. And then he said, “Well, you know at night when I’m lying in bed, all I can think about is this goal of painting a Vermeer. If I can do it, it will be pretty remarkable because you know I’m not an artist.” Those are the opening moments of the movie. I felt like I was really looking into his soul there.
What do you have coming up next that you’re excited for audiences to see?
TELLER: I myself have a theatrical production of The Tempest in Las Vegas with music by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. It’s from their existing repertoire but they’re letting us use it. And the magic is by me and some movement by Pilobolus (Pilobolus Dance Company). It’s a really fresh, happy, zesty, scary version of The Tempest.