Chatting with Penn, Teller, and Tim about ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

Tim+Jenison+Tim+Vermeer+Portraits+Toronto+LFcRDFyOv-tlYes folks, I’ve heard Teller talk, and to me, no less. If you’re a fan of the act that is Penn and Teller (which obviously is him and Penn Jillette) like me, then that’s a real treat. Back when I saw their film Tim’s Vermeer, I heard Teller speak a bit after the NYFF press conference, but getting to have a conversation with him is a horse of a different color. Earlier this week, I got to speak to them both about their documentary Tim’s Vermeer (which is out now…my highly positive review can be found here), along with Tim Jennison himself. I spoke to Teller and Jennison first, and then Penn alone for a bit afterwards (I also met and chatted a little with producer Farley Ziegler, but I didn’t actually interview her), so you can find both of the interviews below. Enjoy!

Here’s Teller and Tim first…

Joey Magidson: This was my favorite documentary of last year, first of all. Honestly, a lot of the times the documentaries that I see are Oscar centric and rather heavy…let’s face it, they’re downers, to be honest.

(Both laugh)

JM: There’s no Nazis in this one. You actually get to giggle, so I appreciate that.

Teller: No more injustice!

JM: This one was also fascinating to me since I can’t draw a stick figure…

Tim Jennison: Me either!

JM: And yet! Something like this, to see every step, it was just so compelling to watch, even if it’s hard to make it sound riveting when describing it to someone.

TJ: As soon as you say 17th century and oil painting, people are snoozing at that point. Luckily, that’s not what the movie is about, though we thought it might have been about that at one point when we started, but nobody really knew what would happen. That’s really the strange thing about the film, the cameras were there pretty much from the inception, through all the challenges, until the last stroke. Thanks to modern technology, we were able to just keep the cameras rolling, 24 hours a day.

JM: (Turning to Teller) Which must have been fun for you when it came time to edit…

T: Well, we had it all boiled down to just 2400 hours of footage, so what’s that, a 2000:1 ratio? Fairly high. One of the things that we did early on that was smart and is a credit to our producer Farley Ziegler was we hired our editor Patrick Sheffield when we started shooting. So, from the moment footage was coming in, he was responding to it, he was accumulating it, so we were able to think about what we were shooting next, at least in part, so the story gradually formed itself in our minds.

JM: When you have this much footage, that has to be helpful, right?

T: Yes and no. This was a complicated story to make simple, you know? When we first started we thought this was going to be a movie about Vermeer and his technology, and as you know, it’s not. It’s about a man who gets a bug up his ass and is determined to get that bug out, if I may carry that metaphor to the level of pure disgusting.

TJ: You know that expression a wild hare up your ass? It’s spelled h-a-r-e, did you know that?

JM: Either way is gross!

TJ: Everyone says it’s about obsession, I hear that word a lot, but for me, it just about wanting to do this experiment. Adding a film crew to it though, made it serious as a heart attack. It wasn’t the kind of thing I could say “oh, it didn’t work”, you know…it had to work. Nobody knew if it would work too, when we started.

JM: Maybe it speaks to me being a little obsessive, but I never felt that. I just really wanted to see what was next, in that sort of detective movie way.

T: I think obsession is the lazy person’s word for determination.

TJ: I like that, I think I’m going to frame that one.

T: Isn’t that nice?

JM: Exactly. I’m someone who’ll be building something and spend all day going back and forth to the hardware store to make sure I do it right. You know, mounting a television on a wall in nine hours isn’t like painting a Vermeer over the course of years, but still…

TJ: It was a full time job for sure, for years. Fortunately, I was able to take a sabbatical from my day job, and way harder than anything I’ve ever done before. It was way harder than we even imagined too, going into it. We thought it would take about a year to finish up, and we started in 2009 and just finished in August, so between four and five years in the end.

JM: When you were first starting out, did you have an idea of how you wanted the movie to look?

T: I had crazy ideas, they were always sticking there. There was a version in my head where we would shoot every interview in reflected mirrors, like that kind of affected artsy fartsy guy stuff. At one point Penn and I decided this was going to be shot like a Penn and Teller: Bullshit episode, where you’d have a little section with Penn and me doing a gag, then you’d go to Tim…

JM: Then some nudity, of course…

T: (laughs) Well, it was the wrong painting…

TJ: You don’t want that from me! (Laughs)

JM: I like how that’s what I remember from the show…

T: Yeah! We actually shot stuff too. When we were in London we went to the place where Jack the Ripper did some of his crimes, we hired an actress to play a ripped whore in period costume, lying on the cobblestones with blood dribbling out of her neck, while Penn did a little monologue about old unsolved mysteries, comparing Vermeer to Jack the Ripper. Whenever we looked at these things that we shot though, they always seemed like they were drawing us away from the fact, which is that you want to follow this guy with his astounding level of intelligence and determination and humor, going through this amazing and history making experiment.

TJ: You know, I saw these rough cuts and I thought they were fantastic, and everything they tried looked great to me.

T: There are lots of reasons, you know, like the 45 degree angle mirror he uses, it’s a major principle in magic too. You put two 45 degree angle mirrors into a square box with the mirrors facing the walls and the box looks like it’s empty. It’s a magic principle that he’s used to solve this ancient mystery, but it just felt wrong.

JM: I can see that, as much as I’d have loved to have watched the gags too. Watching the movie, you really do get caught up in wanting to watch this guy do it! Especially for me, you know, everyone’s heard of Vermeer, but they don’t know too much beyond what they learned in Art History 101. So, to combine that with technology was fascinating to me.

TJ: It’s kind of a little Da Vinci Code aspect to it.

JM: Except with less religion!

TJ: Yes!

T: A lot less, actually!

JM: It’s interesting, I’ve heard a lot of people have wanted to get into it with you about taking the mystery out of their art. People get weird with their art.

TJ: They do, and the art history crowd had just went ballistic over David Hockney’s book, and the flame wars are still going on about that. It is a controversial thing though, people want their heroes, and they want them to be supernatural too, I guess.

T: And supernatural is so discouraging too. If you imagine that Vermeer was a space alien with a kind of retina that a human being can’t replicate, then there’s no interesting story to the making of the painting. He’s just a genius and a genius is a god and a god has no explanation, so that’s the end of it. If you realize that a human being could have made these paintings, it’s just so much more interesting. The analogy that I like to make is that gods are like those figures in the Saks Fifth Avenue window. They’re people that you could never be anything like, so you’d never look good in the clothes, you know? When it becomes human, when it becomes clothing that you can imagine yourself in, there’s a kind of joy about it.

TJ: You know, if I’m right, it’s impossible for a human to paint a Vermeer without anything else besides a brush, and if you’re an art student, trying to learn to paint in that style, it’s a deal killer. That’s it, I’m no good because I can’t do it. Nobody can do it.

T: And the fact that nobody can do it is really encouraging.

JM: I was about to say, that makes it more interesting to me. Like I know people can paint the animal on the back of the send away art school pamphlet…

(both laughing hard)

JM: I can’t, but I remember the commercial “if you can paint this, you can have a career”…

(both start laughing hard again)

JM: That was my first cue to do something else with my life! It’s interesting though to think about this controversy, since people do seem to want to have gods in their life, no matter what your passion is, be it art or film or whatever. It’s weird how people get that “how dare you” attitude.

TJ: I remember sitting in my high school art class, which was the extent of my training, and Mr. Thorp, my teacher, was showing slides of the Dutch Golden Age and Vermeer is included. At one point I raised my hand and said “these guys were just trying to make colorful photographs. They were just trying to get at realism with oil paintings”, and he went “no, no, no, there’s narrative that you don’t understand”. I don’t remember exactly what set him off, but he was set off and took umbrage at that, and I’ve never forgotten that. Maybe this whole project was an attempt to disprove what Mr. Thorp said.

(Teller cracks up)

JM: I’ve been there, with like Shakespeare in English class, for example. It’s just more interesting to me when it’s something that can be solved, as opposed to a secret.

TJ: Like a lot of painters, Vermeer was kind of secretive. You know, we didn’t know how we did it, there weren’t art critics at the time. There was a guy who went to visit him and see them back when he did it, and said that the Vermeer’s were “curious in their perspective” when he described it. Even then though, everybody knew that there was something different about Vermeer.

T: And the idea that he would keep this method a secret, I mean, whether it’s just lost to time or whether he kept it a secret…if he kept it a secret, that’s just good
commercial sense!

JM: Ancient copyrighting!

T: I can produce a product that you can’t produce, I’m not going to tell you how I do it! Penn and I don’t advertise on the internet how we do our bullet catch…

TJ: How do you do it?

T: Well…

TJ: Never mind!

T: You almost caught me!

(Both laughing)

JM: Hey, listen, you’re talking, that’s a big enough get!

(They laugh)

JM: You mentioned not having art critics then and it reminded me of Mel Brooks’ movie History of the Wold: Part 1 and the scene where they show the first art critic and it’s just a caveman peeing on a cave painting.

(Both laugh)

JM: I keep it classy, what can I say?

TJ: It’s a beautiful thing.

JM: It is interesting though, to come back to it, the people who don’t like what you’re doing. I find it more interesting it is though, to see a documentary on how to make one. Hypothetically, anyone could make one, though you know, it’s not realistic…

TJ: Hypothetically and I think practically, anyone can do it. It’s a lot of work, I mean, Vermeer painted on the average a painting every six months, which is incredibly slow, though they sold for good money. I really think though, I could show you how to run this machine and you could paint a Vermeer, it’s as simple as that, and I think anyone who watches this film could do it as well. I mean, once you know the basic trick of it, it’s all real simple.

T: I’m not quite sure. There are things, mental gymnastics that you went through at the time, that I think require a special talent and ability.

TJ: Well, to paint The Music Lesson was kind of the hardest thing you could choose to do with this device, but for example that father in law picture…

T: Copying the father in law picture is doable…

TJ: I think anybody could do that…

T: Well, you got me doing that!

TJ: Yeah, exactly.

T: He put me at the kitchen table and it’s weird the state of mind that you go into, because you really do lose complete consciousness of yourself and you just become this eye matching thing, it’s this almost meditative state where your hand is going and you’re just matching.

TJ: You’re really not thinking…

T: Yeah, you’re just doing this thing that human beings are really good at doing, which is tone matching side by side.

JM: Like I said, even I’m incredibly bad at art, but I used to date a fashion designer and I’d use her art programs on her computer to make these fake FYC ads that some of us at The Awards Circuit do, and even that, I’d notice how after a while using all those tools, they’d start to look decently good the more you play with it. It’s not a Vermeer, but there’s something to that idea.

TJ: Well, hypothetically anyone could learn to be a concert pianist, but realistically all concert pianists start when they’re five years old. This is not like that…

JM: Yeah.

TJ: You can paint a Vermeer without training and that’s kind of a bizarre new concept. You can certainly paint a picture of someone…

T: You might not get an image that’s as beautiful in its composition as The Music Lesson, that’s a weird ass composition. That’s largely front to back, with all these crazy overlaps. That’s not an idea that I would get. You have to be a Vermeer to get that sort of idea.

TJ: What little I learned about composition in Mr. Thorp’s class in High School, it seems to break the rules everywhere. It’s lopsided, everything important is on one side, there’s a big open space on the other side…

T: There’s a flat back wall too, which would be really dull unless of course if you’re really interested in infinite gradations of light, you know?

JM: That’s how I would cheat in art class, I’d just say that I was breaking the rules instead of trying!

(both laugh very heartily)

TJ: Abstract expressionism!

JM: That, or laziness, whichever you prefer. I’ll take it! To wrap up though, I thought the film was phenomenal.

TJ: Thanks.

T: Thank you.

JM: It was also fun, and fun documentaries don’t come along too often.

T: I think Walt Disney was right when he said that his nature films were true life adventures. I think that’s a much better term than documentary.

JM: And it fits for this one! Thanks so much guys!

Now here’s Penn, which is a shorter conversation, but certainly an interesting one as well:

Joey Magidson: So I was just talking to Teller and Tim, and just listening to Teller too, which is fascinating when you’ve grown up thinking that he doesn’t talk! Like that episode of The Simpsons where he goes “I’m not the first Teller you know”…

(Penn laughs)

JM: This was my favorite documentary of last year…

Penn Jillette: Thank you.

JM: It’s a fun one too, like I was telling them, and that’s rare.

PJ: You don’t get happy documentaries too often.

JM: There’s no mention of the Holocaust here

PJ: No atrocities!

JM: There’s a problem that’s solved at the end…

PJ: Yeah! That’s the real rarity (laughs)

JM: This did make me feel pretty lazy though…

PJ: Yeah, right?

JM: Tim makes me feel very unaccomplished. That being said, the movie is fascinating, though it can be hard to explain that sometimes to people…

PJ: It’s watching paint dry.

JM: Literally. And people have heard of Vermeer, but maybe once in a class and without any in depth information beyond what you had to remember for a test, so that’s another hump I think. Still, it’s so good, so it’s worth having to explain why it’s almost a mystery to people.

PJ: Yeah.

JM: For you, this had to have been even more interesting to watch because you know Tim.

PJ: Tim’s a good friend of mine, I’ve known Tim a very long time.

JM: At what point did you think that this might be a movie and not just something cool that your friend was up to?

PJ: Well, it didn’t really come about in the expected way. It came about…I had reached a place in my life, I had two young children, I have two young children, they’re still young, but they were younger then, the way that works, and I realized that I had gone months without having any conversation outside of my family or not being paid for it. I was either working or I was with my family and there was no conversations with friends whatsoever. So I called Tim up, when he tells the story he says it was a desperate call, though it didn’t feel that way to me, and I said to him that I hadn’t talked to anyone in a long time, come have supper with me. Tim flew from Texas to see me, and since we were in Vegas, we had a big hairy steak. I said “tell me something that has nothing to do with work, that has nothing to do with show business, that I can’t possibly work on”, and Tim asked what I knew about Vermeer. Like you said, I said I knew maybe the first page of Wikipedia, that’s probably it. And Tim reached for his hip and pulled out his video camera, like he always has on him, and showed me video of the father in law picture that he did. That’s actually the only video that we did not shoot for the movie. He told me that he was going to build everything in a warehouse in Texas and paint a Vermeer, so I told him not to do anything yet, this has got to be a movie. Tim said that he thought it would be maybe an art paper or a five minute video on Youtube, and I said that we should do more with this. I also said that “by the way, you failed. I asked you to talk about something besides show business and now we’re making a movie”. The first thing I did actually too was try to get out of it. I knew this had to be documented, but I had enough work going on, so I took Tim around to LA and all around New York, pimping it, trying to sell it. You know who I’d go to, Discovery and National Geographic…

JM: Hey PBS, make this!

PJ: Exactly. And I was actually a liability. They thought that since I was there they thought it might be some sort of a Punk’d thing and I was fucking with them. And I guess we got pretty far, my managers told me we got close to making a deal until my patience ran out and I said to Tim “fuck it, let’s just go and make a movie”. A few months later, we brought Teller in, and that’s where things really changed. You can tell where the movie would be different if it were just an hour TV special. You’d have a dinosaur voice going “Vermeer was…”, so Teller got involved and really dug in. It’s about 17th century technology, but it’s also about 21st century technology. Just 15 years ago, this movie would have been impossible…ten years ago, even five. I say that because you’d come in and shoot 15 minutes of him painting and then a week later do the same, whereas we have every single brush stroke covered on at least three camera, and sometimes nine. Tim doesn’t have a crew around him either. When does the scene where he unveils the painting and he’s crying, he’s the only one in the room. He’s the one who set up the cameras, is running them, and so on, so there’s kind of an intimacy that wasn’t even possible to shoot in movies ten years ago.

JM: Indeed, and he’s just such a unique personality too…

PJ: He certainly is, yeah.

JM: There aren’t a lot of folks like Tim, who would be able to do this just like he did.

PJ: Well yeah, he says over and over again that he would have given up if it weren’t for the cameras, so there’s one place where the filmmaking did intrude on the reality.

JM: At the New York Film Festival when I saw it, he told a story about how much he hated all of you at a certain point.

PJ: (laughs) Yeah.

JM: And then the art vs technology debate that’s sprung up, it’s both fascinating and weird to me, like I spoke to Teller and Tim about. I like Tim’s theory better than the purists, so I can’t quite wrap my head around the outrage.

PJ: I don’t know, I just think it is much more rich and powerful and human to take the superhuman out of it. Those who don’t say “why” I just find less interesting. It closes more doors.

JM: Agreed. I like the idea of a secret and wanting to know how it’s done, kind of like with magic too.

PJ: Sure. That’s the whole thing.

JM: There’s a fun to knowing that there’s a trick. If anything, Tim shows just how hard it was!

PJ: That’s certainly our point of view.

JM: My favorite moment in the film is when you say “my friend Tim painted a Vermeer”, and it’s a small moment, but it says so much, since Tim, while not a god…

PJ: He can do a lot of things that a lot of people can’t do.

JM: Indeed, and he’s almost like a real life James Bond here, just without the martinis.

PJ: (laughs) Yeah, you need to have the goods to make it work.

JM: Maybe more of a Q?

PJ: (laughs)

JM: It was just a lot of fun to sit through.

PJ: Well, thank you. That was the idea. I’m glad you think that.

JM: I was a little bummed that it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar honestly, beyond that I got a prediction wrong at one point…

PJ: (laughs)

JM: Beyond my own vanity though, I just like when there’s a nice dichotomy of subjects in the running. Still, quality overcomes that, so it’ll have a good future.

PJ: Yeah, people seem to be liking it a lot. It makes me happy.

JM: It’ll capture people’s imaginations, I think.

PJ: I hope so, yes.

JM: Even just the idea of watching someone on this unique little mission.

PJ: He does go all the way.

JM: That he does. And he’s not quite an everyman, especially when he goes to Europe for research…

PJ: You gotta know a little bit, yeah.

JM: But yeah, he does something extraordinary, even if I won’t go paint a Vermeer myself now.

PJ: I think a lot of people will try now.

JM: I’ll be curious to see if people do it, that’s for sure. As a big fan of your show, I was excited for this one, and I loved it, once again.

PJ: Thank you.

JM: My pleasure. This was a lot of fun.

PJ: Thanks. Thank you so much man!

There you have it folks, and be sure to see Tim’s Vermeer, now playing in select theaters and everywhere soon. It’s a real good time.

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!