Teller Speaks! The Magician and Director on Art, Tech, and His Fascinating New Doc


For magicians Penn and Teller, art is work. In their act, these professional skeptics break down the process that makes stage magic appear supernatural. Such demystifying is also the main concern of Teller-directed Tim’s Vermeer, a provocative documentary about technologist Tim Jenison’s quest to understand and replicate the optical techniques that were likely used by Dutch Master painter Johannes Vermeer.

Jenison, an old friend of Penn Jillette’s, devoted four years to re-creating Vermeer’s The Music Lesson (1665), a work Jenison maintains that Vermeer painted with a photographic accuracy beyond what the naked eye could accomplish. The Voice talked with Teller about how Jenison’s approach to art mirrors his own, why the mechanical aspect of art is so inspiring, and how the right music can make dots on a tapestry appear romantic.

See also: Making Vermeer’s Genius “Fathomable” in Tim’s Vermeer

Your film speculates that there is a disconnect in our distinction between art and technology. Why do you think that distinction persists?

I blame it on academia. Academics very often don’t have to do the art that they write about. They also don’t have to make a living from the art that they write or teach about. So I believe they’ve never gotten their feet wet, their hands dirty, and said, “OK, how would I go about making a painting that I would sell to support my family?” If you talk to real artists who actually produce things, they’re not woofty. They don’t view artists as supernatural beings who just walk up to a canvas and paint with light. They use whatever tools they can to achieve the effect, because the important idea is to get the idea that’s in your heart to the heart of someone else.

Imagine if someone like Steven Spielberg or George Lucas decided they wouldn’t use digital technology because that was not fair: “I will only use things that Cocteau used.” Well, even Cocteau was cheating; Cocteau was running films backwards. So I really do blame this on the fact that academics don’t have to make art.

You once said that we like making connections so much that we ignore the majority of times when making intelligible patterns is impossible.

We do look for easy and poetic connections between causes and effects. That’s what magic is all about. Magic is all about connecting a cause with an effect that doesn’t work in the real world, but that ought to work. All those first impulses.

A key part of your act with Penn was that you were trying to encourage the audience’s skepticism, to think critically. Do you think there was ever a risk for Tim that, in trying to understand Vermeer’s technique, he was fostering connections that most of the time he’d just ignore?

Not with Tim. Tim really does live in the real world. That’s the beauty of the way Tim thinks about things. He started off when he was in high school. Some art class he was attending displayed some Vermeers, and Tim said, “Those look like photographs.” Even in high school he said this. He spent the largest portion of his career staring at imagery and developing an eye for the stuff until he could intuitively say, “That has photographic accuracy. That doesn’t look like Rembrandt.” In Rembrandt’s paintings, you can see brushstrokes. In Vermeer’s paintings, it looks like somebody devised a gorgeous, imaginative scene painted with complete accuracy.

So the idea that a human being would need a method to do that, that was something other than guessing how bright stuff was, was haunting to [Tim]. In a paint store, when you’re trying to match the paint with your wall at home, you pick up a whole bunch of paint chips and you hold them up against your wall. And it’s only when you’re holding those chips up do you know if you have the right color. Tim had been thinking for a long time about how to do something comparable. He was sitting in his bathtub in Amsterdam when he got an image of a 45-degree angle mirror. Which is a great thing for me, because a 45-degree angle mirror is one of the fundamental tools of stage magic. When you look at a box on stage that appears to be empty, and then three women suddenly step out of it, chance are very good that they were using a device inside that box that was masked by 45-degree-angle mirrors. That really resonated with me. Tim found his way to that by eliminating a lot of other options.

Tim jokes about how provocative his project will be when he says that he hopes that it will ruffle some feathers in the art community. That’s part and parcel with the way you and Penn usually try to demystify what appears to be a magician’s supernatural abilities. But if your film is a provocation, it’s because you’re emphasizing the labor inherent in Tim’s attempts to replicate Vermeer’s innovations. Does that mechanical aspect of the art take precedence because of the aura that now surrounds Vermeer’s art and the Delft school? Or could it just as easily have been about work of modern art with no widespread reputation whatsoever?

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.

Talk about Conrad Pope’s score. He has the unenviable task of trying to make something as mundane as the process of making little dots on a tapestry — he has to make that romantic.

Exactly. At one point, he gave us music that sounded a lot like making dots, that was saying, “This is a very repetitious process.” And we said to him, “Actually, what we need in there is Tim’s longing. We want to experience the meticulous, exhausting process of doing the painting with this glowing vision of Vermeer in the background at all times.” That’s what makes that sequence work. Actually, I specifically said to [Conrad] about the painting, “I’m going to say to you what Hitchcock said to Benny Herrmann on Psycho” — this is the driving sequence, where Marion Crane is just sitting in a car for a long time — “‘This is your job; you take care of that.’” And he did. [Conrad]’s a marvelous composer. We looked around a lot for somebody that would be able to capture the romance that underlies Tim’s intentions. Because while it’s scientific, the project’s intent is romantic.