Documentary director Teller

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The award-winning entertainer describes the project that served as his feature documentary directorial debut, 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 as much as you want to talk.

Teller: (Nodding head yes)

Tavis: (Laughter) I’m going to 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 because they wanted me to sign off on having you on the program.

Teller: Okay.

Tavis: So I said, “Tell me about the project.” When they explained it to me, honestly, it sounded boring.

So they were all excited about a project about a painter, painting. Okay. 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. He says, “This is a lot like watching paint dry,” (laughter) because there is a certain amount of that when you do this project.

It’s a detective story, in its way, because there’s this 35-year-old mystery of how did Vermeer make paintings that look so much like photographs. 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?

The theories over the years have been that Vermeer is like some sort of supernatural creature who was 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: Why would you want to step into this particular – of all the controversy you could have stepped into, (laughter) why step into this one?

Teller: I was brought in – well, both my parents were artists, so I’ve always been around painters. 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. He was the person who invented the video toaster. He’s the person who created – his company created Lightwave, which is that thing that when you see “24” and there’s a nuclear explosion, that’s how they’re doing it.

So this guy knows 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: 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.

Tavis: Yeah.

Teller: When we started it, we were all fascinated with the technical aspect of it. We were all fascinated with the detective story aspect. 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, and he’s just driven like – well, for example, he has this theory of how Vermeer did the paintings and involving a little bit of a mirror.

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 from 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. 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 of – 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 he completely builds Vermeer’s studio there in San Antonio, Texas. That’s a guy you gotta love.

Tavis: Let me get technical, just for a second here. (Laughter)

Tavis: It would appear to one who does television that you guys shot this with, like, cameras on his brushes. 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: Fortunately, Tim is a techie, 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, because 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 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, because now that digital photography is so cheap, 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 was 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 that 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 a 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.

I think it’s really wonderful to remind people that you don’t get the good stuff easy. 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.

Teller: Yeah.

Tavis: (Laughter) We got the point. That nonverbal communication, we got it.

Teller: Yeah.

Tavis: For art purists, does this, you think, ultimately make them respect Vermeer more, or say, “Eh.”

Teller: I don’t know what an art purist is. I know that there –

Tavis: You know snobs. There are snobs in every field.

Teller: Yeah, you talk to an artist, and the artist says, “Wow, cool.” Imagine that Vermeer wasn’t just a great composer of paintings, wasn’t just, 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, art purists don’t have anything to do except talk about the art. (Laughter) Right? They don’t have to feed their families by selling their paintings.

Tavis: Fair enough, fair enough.

Teller: They can sit back and say, “Oh, no.”

Tavis: Just talk.

Teller: Yeah, so Vermeer was an inspired genius who simply walked up to a canvas and magically painted with light. Which is perfectly fine, but 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. There is something about Tim that says it’s a very can-do attitude towards art that I think this movie celebrates. I also think that some art critics and historians just don’t like the idea of working that much. (Laughter)

They’re used to pontificating, which is pretty easy work. They don’t like the idea that somebody really might have to just sweat. Tim told me that he would get up and typically shortly into the painting session he’d take two or three aspirin just to keep his back from cramping up.

Because leaning over this canvas, was 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? I ask that because whenever – I just said this not long ago, but whenever I’m in the company of icons or reading.

You come to 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 see my glory, but you don’t know the back story.” I want to know the back story.

Teller: Yeah.

Tavis: 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, and so the idea that art and science – this is around the same rough period that we have people like Da Vinci around, where art and science, they’re hand-in-hand.

Da Vinci writes about art and Da Vinci paints and Da Vinci writes about scientific inventions. The idea 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. He was doing something impossible. He was trying to do something that hadn’t been done for 350 years, and he did it.

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. Just being around somebody with that much passion for life, it’s exhilarating.

Tavis: So this has been sort of a debut for you. Has the bug bitten you? You want to do more of this, or are you back to Las Vegas on the stage?

Teller: I don’t ever decide where I want to be, I decide what I want to do. So –

Tavis: Say that again, I like that.

Teller: I don’t ever decide where I want to be, I decide what I want to do.

Tavis: What I want to do – I love it.

Teller: So Penn and I never wanted to “be” on Broadway. We never even wanted to be off-Broadway. We wanted to do the show that we loved doing. The passion for that show eventually kept us around long enough that we got a chance to get lucky and get off and on Broadway.

In this particular case I’ve always loved motion pictures and spend a lot of time attending to them and studying them. This opportunity to direct this thing arose, and I was also – it was nestled in the middle of an amazing group of people.

You give the director credit for things, but the director – without the editor that I have on this movie, whose name is Patrick Sheffield, looking at 2,400 hours of footage and saying, “Well, what could we do with that? How do we tell that story? How do we pull a story out of that,” I would be nowhere.

Without – I could go on. I’m not the guy talking to Tim in that movie, when Tim is talking to the camera. That’s our producer, Farley Ziegler, here in Los Angeles on Skype with him.

So I just want to step aside and say a director deserves only so much if he’s got this fabulous team.

Tavis: You are generous to a fault, and I’m sure they deserve that praise, though. While I got you here, before I let you go, I want to hear this from you. For 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. 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 on stage. 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’ve done good here. You done good.

Teller: Oh, that’s –

Tavis: You and your cast and crew.

Teller: That flew by.

Tavis: Yeah. Well, that means you’ve got to come back again.

Teller: Okay.

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

Teller: Invite me.

Tavis: Yeah, okay. I just did.

Teller: Thank you.

Tavis: Whenever you have time. “Tim’s Vermeer” is the project. You’ll want to check it out.

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Last modified: January 30, 2014 at 3:08 pm