Teller, the one-name artist, says that “Tim’s Vermeer,” his debut as a filmmaker, “falls right in the middle of my areas of interest.”
The documentary is centered around painting. Teller’s parents met in art school, and both had studios in the family home, which was within walking distance of the Philadelphia Art Museum. Teller visited the museum frequently.
The “Tim” of the title is Tim Jenison, an inventor whose achievements include the “video toaster,” a concoction that turned a computer into a TV studio. Teller, who brings a Chaplinesque, common-guy persona to his projects, admires how Jenison’s invention leveled the technological playing field.
“He’s used his brains to let the little guy have more power,” Teller, who tends to come off physically small, said. “I have no objection to big corporations at all. But things don’t have to seem so out of the grasp of the little guy.”
Teller is particularly appreciative of that quality now that he has entered the indie-film world.
“A movie like ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago,” he said. “Getting that high-quality footage would have cost millions of dollars. It’s an example of the kind of thing Tim has always done.”
And there is the element of magic. Teller, of course, is half of the magic act Penn & Teller. The central subject of “Tim’s Vermeer” could easily pass for one of the high-minded, wildly original bits Penn & Teller have become known for. Jenison wants to crack the trick behind the paintings of Johannes Vermeer, the supernaturally talented 17th-century Dutch master. Jenison also wants to re-create a Vermeer. The project is phenomenally all-encompassing; Jenison re-creates the room Vermeer painted in and builds the objects, including musical instruments and furniture, that appear in Vermeer’s “The Music Lesson.” The process consumed five years. Oh, and Jenison is not a painter.
Teller — along with his partner, Penn Jillette, who narrates the film and is a close friend of Jenison’s — pitched the project to the obvious outlets, like PBS. No one bit. Teller guessed that the thinking behind the rejections went along the lines of “These guys lie all the time. This is probably a Borat gag.”
It’s not a gag. (The big giveaway: Teller, who maintains silence in his magician persona, spoke for this interview. As one might expect, when given the chance, he speaks at length and eloquently.) But there is a serious element of smoke and mirrors to Jenison’s quest. Well, mirrors, anyway. Jenison, working with a theory that had been floated before, sets out to show that Vermeer used scientific gadgets like lenses and a camera obscura to make his paintings. The key tool was a small mirror, used to reflect a physical scene in a way that it could be painted with video-like verisimilitude. This fell right in Teller’s wheelhouse.
“When you see a cabinet onstage and it’s empty, then they close it and reopen it and there’s someone in there, they have probably been using mirror masking, which is a clever way to fill spaces,” Teller said from his home in Las Vegas.
Not among Teller’s interests was becoming a documentarian. (For one thing, he dislikes the term “documentary”: “If everyone followed Walt Disney’s lead and called them ‘true-life adventures,’ they’d be more popular. ‘Documentary’ makes it sound like something dry and dull.”) “Tim’s Vermeer” actually started with Jillette, who is credited as a producer. After Penn & Teller relocated to Las Vegas, and Jillette settled into family life, he began to miss his New York City experiences of talking till late into the night about whatever interesting subject might come up.
“One day he was possessed by this longing to have a conversation on any topic, stay up till 3 and talk, talk, talk,” Teller said. “In Vegas, most of his talking was with Teller and toddlers.”
Jillette summoned Jenison to Vegas and asked him what topic they should discuss. Jenison said he had been thinking deeply about Vermeer.
“He said, ‘I think I figured out how he did it,’” Teller said. “He said he was going to paint a Vermeer.”
Jenison showed Jillette footage of a portrait he had made from his father-in-law’s high school photo. Jenison floated the idea of documenting his project in a YouTube video.
“Penn said, ‘Stop! This is a film. This could be a historic change in the way people view the making of art,’” Teller recounted. “This is a 350-year-old mystery being solved, and it’s very visual.”
Jillette and Jenison pressed Teller into service as the director.
“I said, ‘Sure, I’ll give it a try,’” said Teller, who had done some theater and directed a few short films.
Teller wasn’t overly concerned that Jenison’s project might have failed, making for a less-than-spectacular conclusion to the film.
“I asked Tim if he was going to succeed,” Teller said. “He went pale — he never truly considered he might fail. He said, ‘If I fail, there’s no movie, right?’ I told him there will be a movie — just a different one. That threat of humiliation on screens around the world drove Tim forward.”
Teller had a good feeling about Tim’s chances.
“As a magician, I’m pretty good at estimating what are the chances of something that looks unlikely, is it actually going to work?” he said. “It seemed like a pretty good theory Tim had.”