Documentary director Teller

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The award-winning entertainer discusses his feature documentary directorial debut, the acclaimed Tim’s Vermeer.

One half of the renowned comedy-magic team, Teller—with his partner Penn Jillette—has enjoyed successful runs on Broadway and sold-out world tours and is the current longest-running headline act in Las Vegas. Despite his trademark of never speaking, Teller has appeared in speaking roles in several films and television shows. He's also written five books, had essays published in The New Yorker and has a career as a magic consultant for live theater, TV and films. He made his feature documentary directorial debut with Tim's Vermeer, which he and Penn exec-produced. Teller taught high school Latin, is a talented painter and also plays the vibraphone.


Tavis: Teller, the silent half of Penn & Teller, talks metaphorically loud and clear in the first documentary he’s directed, a fascinating, funny and intriguing film called “Tim’s Vermeer” in which an inventor, Tim Jenison, tries to figure out one of the great mysteries of art history, just how Johannes Vermeer created 150 years before photography those canvases of light, color and perspective that no one else was able to ever duplicate. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Tim’s Vermeer” directed by Teller.


Tavis: So, first of all, this is PBS and you can actually talk tonight. You can talk as much as you want to talk [laugh]. I’m gonna make you talk. I want to hear you talk. So let me start with this. Speaking of talking, my staff, a number of them, have been talking my ear off for days about how I had to see this project.

Teller: Well, it’s for work, so you had to.

Tavis: Well, no. They wanted me to see it ’cause they wanted me to sign off on having you on the program.

Teller: Okay.

Tavis: So I said tell me about the project. And when they explained it to me, honestly, it sounded boring. So they were all excited about a project about a painter painting? Okay. And then when you see it, it really is nothing like boring. It’s quite fascinating.

Teller: It’s one of the jokes that Tim makes during the story. I mean, he says, “This is a lot like watching paint dry” because there is a certain amount of that when you have to do this project. You know, it’s a detective story in its way ’cause there’s this 350-year-old mystery of how did Vermeer make paintings that look so much like photographs.

You know, in the course of making this, we went to Amsterdam and saw originals of the Vermeers. And you stand just that far away from them and you think you’re looking at a fantastic color slide. How did he do that?

And the theories over the years have been that, you know, Vermeer is like some sort of supernatural creature who is able to record the brightness of everything precisely like a light meter. But the human eye can’t do that. So this mystery’s been floating around and there’s been a considerable amount of controversy about it.

Tavis: Yeah. And why would you want to step into this particular – of all the controversies you could have stepped into, why step into this one?

Teller: I was – well, both my parents were artists, so I’ve always been around painters. And the solution, the magic trick that Tim believes that Vermeer was using involves a 45 degree angle mirror which is one of the basic principles of magic. So these are two things that drew me right in.

But also, I’ve known Tim for about 20 years along with Penn. We’ve been friends for a long period of time and we always knew that Tim was a genius.

But he was always a genius in electronics, you know. He is the person who invented the video toaster. He’s the person who created – his company created light wave which is that thing that, you know, when you see “24,” there’s a nuclear explosion? That’s how they’re doing it.

So this guy knows a tremendous amount about how to make a convincing image, so he might be just the right kind of character to track down this answer.

Tavis: Well, when one sees this, it is, to my mind at least, as much about Tim and his process as it is about Vermeer.

Teller: It’s more about Tim. When we started it, we were all fascinated with the technical aspect of it. We were all fascinated with the detective story aspect. And then the more we looked at the footage, the more we realized this is really about our friend, our friend of such – he’s sweet, he’s funny, but he’s maniacally driven.

Well, for example, he has this theory about how Vermeer did the paintings and involving a little bit of Vermeer. He does a preliminary test making an absolutely immaculate copy of a high school photograph of his father-in-law, which is what you saw in that clip.

Now anybody else would go, well, I guess that kind of proves it. Not Tim. Tim says, okay, I have to find out whether this really would work under the conditions that Vermeer really worked under. So what does Tim do?

He goes to Delft, to the museum there, takes photographs of all sorts of angles of every piece of furniture that would have been in the Vermeer painting that he’s going to try to paint all over again. Then he goes back to his warehouse in San Antonio, Texas and recreates Vermeer’s studio. I mean, he makes the chair based on these photographs with one of these electronic carving machines so that he gets exactly that.

He learns to grind his own paints. He sits there with a lump – he melts silica into a lump of glass and then sits there and grinds the lens that he’s going to use just to be sure that he’s not having a lens that’s too good. He wants a lens only as good as Vermeer’s and completely builds Vermeer’s studio there in San Antonio, Texas. That’s a guy you got to love.

Tavis: Let me get technical just for a second here.

Teller: Sure.

Tavis: It would appear to one who does television that you guys shot this with like cameras on his brushes. I mean, obviously it’s a multi-camera shoot, but when you look at the high-quality nature of the way you see Tim doing everything he’s doing, tell me about the way you shot this.

Teller: It was – fortunately, Tim is a techy. So a lot of the time, there was nobody there while this was being shot except Tim and his cameras. He’d come in every morning and this was not easy for him ’cause Tim’s a night person.

But now that he has to become Vermeer and has to paint by daylight, it means he has to get up when the sun gets up. He’d come in and he’d spend, you know, an hour or two setting up the cameras to get the cameras right on the next piece of work that he was doing.

This is not a movie that would have been possible even 10 years ago ’cause now that digital photography is so cheap, you know, you can put a lovely Canon camera up there and mount it here and mount it there and get very good quality pictures. But, yes, there were lots and lots of cameras. There were 2,400 hours of footage that we pulled this movie out of.

Tavis: What to your mind is the message here for those of us who are non-artists? And what is the message here for those who are artists, assuming that there are two different messages and they’re not the same?

Teller: I think that most people who consume art, who watch it from home, who go to museums, they’re riding along on the joy of the final artistic product. And they don’t really know very much about how much goes into getting there. So there are lots of people who look at a Vermeer and they like to believe that that just appeared out of nowhere.

And in this movie, we see that probably Vermeer, if he was using a process like Tim’s, spent many hours a day for six months at a time hunched over a canvas meticulously doing each and every little stroke.

And I think it’s really wonderful to remind people that you don’t get the good stuff easy and that’s one of the big things for me. Getting something as good as a Vermeer, that just doesn’t pop out of nowhere. You have to work your – for it.

Tavis: For art…

Teller: I don’t know if you can say that on PBS.

Tavis: Yeah, well, you got close enough [laugh]. We got the point. Got nonverbal communication.

Teller: Yeah [laugh].

Tavis: For art purists, does this, you think, ultimately make them respect Vermeer more or say…

Teller: I don’t know what an art purist is. I know that they’re…

Tavis: You know snobs. There’s snobs in every field.

Teller: Yeah. You talk to an artist and the artist says, wow, cool. You know, imagine that Vermeer wasn’t just a great composer of paintings, didn’t just have fabulously beautiful ideas, but actually may have developed or been involved in the development of a piece of technology that got this level of realism way back then when nobody else was doing that kind of stuff.

Tavis: But that’s my point. Art ain’t supposed to be about technology. It’s about you and your craft at the canvas, not about technology.

Teller: Well, that’s if you think of it like a football game.

Tavis: Art purists. That’s what I’m talking about.

Teller: Well, you know, art purists don’t have anything to do except talk about the art, right [laugh]? They don’t have to feed their families by selling their paintings, right?

Tavis: Fair enough, fair enough.

Teller: They can sit back and say…

Tavis: Just talk.

Teller: Yeah, and say, you know, Vermeer was an inspired genius who simply walked up to a canvas and magically painted with light, which is perfectly fine. But, you know, it’s depressing because it means that I – if I’m an inspired kid and I want to do art and I believe the only way you can get to art is by being an inspired genius who can do what no human being can do, that’s depressing for me.

That says you can never do it. You know, there is something about Tim that says it’s a very can-do aspect, can-do attitude towards art that I think this movie celebrates.

Tavis: Yeah.

Teller: I also think that some art critics and historians just don’t like the idea of working that much [laugh]. They’re used to pontificating which is pretty easy work. They don’t like the idea that somebody really might have to just, you know, sweat.

Tim told me that he would get up and typically short into the painting session, he’d have to take two or three aspirin just to keep his back from cramping up. Because leaning over this canvas, you know, is hard. Don’t let me give the impression that the movie is like a terrible tale of suffering. It’s a funny tale of suffering.

Tavis: That it is. I concur with that. What was the personal takeaway for you from what you learned about Vermeer? And I ask that because whenever – I just said this not long ago. Whenever I’m in the company, though, of icons or reading – you come in my library.

There are all kinds of biographies and autobiographies in any of my three or four libraries because I love to read of the journey that those persons who have had success in life, how they got there. There’s an old adage, you know, you see my glory, but you don’t know the backstory. I want to know the backstory.

So what was the takeaway for you as an artist from what you learned about this other artist named Vermeer?

Teller: I had never previously had even a hint that Vermeer might have had a scientific bent. So the idea that art and science – you know, this is around the same rough period that we had people like Da Vinci around where art and science just, you know, they’re hand in hand. And Da Vinci writes about art and Da Vinci paints and Da Vinci, you know, writes about scientific inventions.

The idea is that we shouldn’t be separating those as much as we tend to. We tend to go to either art school or science school and not both. I think that’s about the closest to a surprise for me. The other surprise for me was that Tim pulled it off. I mean, he was doing something impossible. He was trying to do something that hadn’t been done for 350 years and he did it.

You know, as you know from having seen the movie, halfway through, he realizes that his invention doesn’t quite do the whole job and has to reinvent it halfway through. But just being around somebody with that much passion for life, it’s exhilarating.

Tavis: While I got you here before I let you go, I want to hear this from you. Those of us who’ve seen your work, Penn & Teller, over the years, for you, what is the power, what is the authority in the silent part of your performance? The silence is what?

Teller: Intimacy. The silence is intimacy because when you have words between yourself and another person, that person doesn’t really have to look at you and absorb every little detail of what’s going on with you.

But when you strip that away, you’re quite naked onstage. You’re quite naked between you and the other person and there is a kind of intimacy that you get out of that that language really can’t substitute for.

Tavis: Love it. Mr. Teller, you done good here. You done good.

Teller: Oh!

Tavis: You and your cast and crew.

Teller: That flew by.

Tavis: That means you just got to come back again.

Teller: Okay.

Tavis: You’re just in Vegas. Just hop over.

Teller: Invite me.

Tavis: Okay. I think I just did.

Teller: Thank you.

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Last modified: March 17, 2014 at 1:06 pm