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By Voice Film Critics
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When you get involved with a project, there's a lot of chance involved. And in this case, Vermeer happened to catch Tim's eye, and his pursuit of it was inspired by having read [British painter David] Hockney's book [Secret Knowledge]. According to the Hockney-Falco Thesis, these images were being projected directly onto canvases and traced in some ways. But, as we show in the film, you can't trace the color value.
This got under Tim's skin. It sounded so plausible, especially since Hockney had done all that research. And [art historian Philip] Steadman proved that Vermeer used a lens; geometrically — there's just so much evidence in those [Vermeer] canvases that Steadman wrote about [in Vermeer's Camera]. Tim was just caught by this fascinating missing link he hoped that he would find. And in the course of trying to test that, an entirely different thing happened. We see that Tim learned that this process did not make things easier, that there is a huge amount of invisible work that goes into a work of art.
The technical thesis of the film — that Vermeer may have used mirrors to make his paintings — ends up being subordinated to the idea that when you start out on a project, and you're going to go through to the end of it, you're going to have go through a lot of ugliness, a lot of ridiculous, painful situations — like almost gassing yourself to death on a cold day in your warehouse. And it becomes about the adventure about the difficulty, and challenge, and remorseless determination to get something completed. Making this film was a lot like making this painting.
I imagine that the hardest part of the process of making this film, for you, was sifting through all this footage and determining what needed to be highlighted. Did you sift as you went, or did you review the footage all in one lump?
We had 2,400 hours of footage, which is a very high ratio. We hired a brilliant editor early on, Patrick Sheffield. And Patrick really understood the process, so as the footage was coming in, he was going through it and picking out what seemed like the most worthwhile moments, so we got rid of all the crap along the way. Still, what's really hard is for the audience to take this thrill ride — and it is a thrill ride, from beginning to end — they have to understand really complicated concepts, and it has to not seem like [schoolwork]. So a big part of working on the film was determining how we sneak exposition in a way that the audience will enjoy. For instance, we have those lovely illustrations of the camera obscura with the little bulbous Dutch woman waving at the viewer. Incidentally, those animation sequences were done using Lightwave, which was created by Tim's company.
We also had to figure out what sequences things were coming in. I'm a big believer in — this may be too obscure, but I'm going to say it anyway. I'm a big believer in, as a performing person, withholding information until the moment when it's exactly right. One of our earlier iterations of the film showed how the mirror worked as the overture, the first moments of the film. And as we worked on it, we realized that that was not the time to do that. First, you have to know who Tim is. And you also have to know what Tim longs for.
So we boiled the film down to five or six hours of footage, and I remembered an interview that I had done with Tim in his warehouse in San Antonio, shot in beautiful, perfect Vermeer light. I said to him, "So, Tim, are you going to succeed?" There was this appalled moment of silence, and then what turns out to be the opening words of the film: "At night, when I'm laying in bed" — I know “laying” is wrong, but of course we had to keep it in there, because it's Tim — "At night, when I'm laying in bed, and I'm trying to get to sleep, all I can think about is my goal of painting a Vermeer." I remember that conversation, and said, "Patrick, go dig that out." We put that at the top of the movie, and suddenly, we had a shape for the movie. It was like Dorothy in Kansas saying, "I want to go somewhere over the rainbow."
That process of narrativizing Tim's process …
I like that term, "narativizing." It's exactly right because, in real life, you don't know the story of your day. If you get to the end of the day, and you get to your diary entry, you know what the story of your day was. We had four years of undifferentiated human experience that included a lot of technical stuff, a lot of funny stuff, a lot of dull stuff, and we had to go into that and say, "What is the core of the story?" What we came up with is what Penn says at the end of the movie: "My friend Tim painted a Vermeer. He painted a Vermeer in this warehouse in Texas. Is Tim an inventor or an artist, or is that distinction important?" This film is to some extent about Penn and Tim's longstanding friendship. You feel that; we don't make a big point of it, but you feel that, because it's one friend talking about another amazing friend.
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