When I was offered the chance to interview Penn and Teller about their new documentary Tim's Vermeer, I thought it was a joke. I suspected garrulous Penn would make a wonderful interview (he did). But Teller--would he just sit there with the droll countenance of the iconic, silent straight man persona he's perfected over decades in Vegas stage shows and their acclaimed debunking series Penn & Teller: Bullshit?
Things got no clearer when I was told I'd be speaking to Penn separately, and that Teller would be paired with the film's subject/star Tim Jenison. Again, I wondered if this pairing would mean Teller wouldn't actually speak to me. But it was a print interview, so the gag would be lost right? My request to videotape the interview was politely rejected--citing a security issue. Was this a clue Teller would talk?
By the time the interview actually rolled around, I had thought way too much about this, imagining every scenario that can be imagined and preparing an insanely long list of questions. Whether Teller did talk or didn't, I'd be covered. Of course, I could have just asked his rep, but I didn't want to admit I was confounded to begin with. "Will your client actually speak to me?" sounded rude if not stupid. So, I spun my wheels. And all for naught because when I walked into a conference room where he, Jenison and Tim's Vermeer producer Farley Ziegler awaited, Teller approached me with a warm smile and an open palm, and introduced himself with words and everything!
As the more bombastic and verbal half of their act, Penn is known for being a man of big ideas, big opinions and little shyness in sharing any and all of them. Teller proved to be a perfect partner, deeply thoughtful and funny, keenly aware that entertaining an audience is just as key to educating them. (Or vice versa.) And so we talked about Tim's Vermeer, a film that follows an affluent entrepreneur's intellectual quest to reverse engineer the painting method of one of the 17th century's most mysterious masters. It was one of the best conversations I've ever had on the job. For me, seeing a glimpse of the man behind Teller's silent persona gave a greater depth to the whole "magic" of it, which was terrifically fitting with this film and his career as a whole. So we're sharing it all below:
You can hear Teller for yourself (a rare opportunity!) and follow along with our full transcription:
(After I shook Teller's hand, I sat down across from Tim, and hit record.)
Tim: What’s your name?
Kristy. I write for Cinema Blend.
Tim: Oh, you wrote the review?
Oh God, you read my review.
Tim: It was so sweet.
Thank you. I really liked the movie, but that’s, wow, that doesn’t normally happen. I don’t know. Now I’m flustered.
Tim: I’m sorry.
That’s fine. I’m totally professional. It’s going to be fine. Ok, so I want to start with you Tim. In the film, you create these paintings that are really exquisite, but you repeatedly insist that you’re not an artist.
What do you think defines an artist?
Tim: Well, Vermeer, as opposed to me, chose the subject, did the composition, and created this beautiful image. And I just, I was standing on his shoulders or piggybacking or plagiarizing, I guess is the best word, his picture, and you know, I couldn’t--I could come up with something, but Vermeer just, slam dunk every time. And you know, who knows how he did that, but I couldn’t do it.
Do you still paint?
Tim: Nope. I painted some experimental paintings to get ready for the Vermeer, just enough to learn how to operate a paintbrush and haven’t painted before or since.
So, Teller, in making the film, what did you feel your responsibility was to the subject matter and to Tim in its creation?
Teller: In making a documentary film, you’re taking a bunch of undifferentiated human experience and pulling a story out of it. And that’s hard. In this movie, it was particularly hard. Because when we first got into it, we were fascinated with all of the detective story, technical stuff that we were going to learn about Vermeer and we originally titled this Vermeer’s Edge, because we thought we were going to be a story about Vermeer. And then we lived the experiment and when we lived through the experiment and looked back at it and began to study the material we had, we had 2400 of footage, from which to draw this hour and 20 minute-long movie and there was a certain amount of bumbling around and trying different things. We tried--for example--we tried a version where Penn just told the story from his point of view and then it seemed to be a movie about Penn and then when we looked at the footage, it wasn’t. It was a movie about Tim.
And for a while, we though we would experiment with presenting it like a Penn and Teller’s Bullshit episode where Penn and I would come on and do a little bit, which is not inappropriate, because a 45 degree angle mirror is a magic principle. So, we wrote a whole bit about the magic principle of the 45-degree angle mirror and said we’ll go from that to Tim explaining his 45-degree angle mirror. We even shot, when we were in London, we went to the place where Jack the Ripper did his dirty deeds and we hired an actor to play a ripped whore, lying on the sidewalk in period costume with blood coming off of her and Penn did this monologue about old, unsolved mysteries. We were going to tie that in and even you’ll see in the movie, there’s a little section outside Buckingham Palace.
We don’t hear it, but we see you guys.
Teller: Well, that was originally a whole Penn and Teller bit.
Tim: It was hilarious.
Teller: It was funny! But again, when we looked back at the footage, what the footage kept revealing to us was that this wasn’t a movie about Penn and Teller and it wasn’t a movie really about Vermeer. It was a movie about a guy who has decided to solve a very difficult problem and test his solution in a very novel and thorough way and that led us closer and closer to it being about Tim’s personality, Tim’s character.
And then I remembered a piece of footage that I had shot with Tim in which I said to him, "So, Tim, are you going to succeed?" and he blanched for a moment and then he said what turns into the opening lines of the movie. "At night, when I’m in bed, all I can think of is this goal of trying to paint a Vermeer." And that sentence suddenly sort of rang bells and clarified the whole movie for us, because now, you know, when they were putting together The Wizard of Oz, the producers assigned the composers to write a song of longing for Dorothy, so that when she’s back in Kansas, she can sing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and you’ll know what it is that her heart longs for and suddenly, when we looked at that footage of Tim saying about dreaming about the Vermeer, it seemed like that song of longing and that guided us from there. Then, we were able to hang on this one simple action of, 'I want to paint a Vermeer, I have painted a Vermeer' all of the crazy stuff that you have to understand to get from one point to the other. I was a school teacher for six years. I taught Latin at a public high school in Trenton, NJ.
I did not know that, but that makes so much sense considering Bullshit and this. Because I mean they both break down complex thoughts in a very thoughtful way but then also show the showmanship that you’ve obviously entailed with the years on stage and stuff. That’s what was so interesting to me is that this film, I heard about it through somebody who somehow left out it was a Penn and Teller movie and I was like, that sounds really boring.
Tim: It does.
But then five minutes in, I’m completely captivated, because first off, with your comment about longing and everything, it’s like you said, I can hang my own creativity on that. I completely connected to that thought of I have this thing I want to do and it feels so impossible. And then from there, you know, kind of seeing all of the things you’ve created from the talking duck, the fan on the rollerblades. At that point, I was in.
Tim: Skate-o-matic, it was called.
What is it called?
Skate-o-matic. I like it. Like there I was in, at that point I was locked in to the movie. That was where I was like, I get this. I don’t know what that says about me. (I made a circle with my hand.)
Tim: You made this motion when you said that.
People hate sitting near me in the movies. (I laugh.)
Teller: You’re also partly drawn into the movie, not in a small degree by that Conrad Pope score, right?
Teller: You sit there in the beginning and you see these gorgeous Vermeer images and you get this sense of mystery and antiquity and romance.
You know it reminded me of the underwater scenes in Jaws, like not the dun, dun, dun, dun, dun. dun, but like when it’s just this sense of wonder and this sense of this world that feels so beyond us.
Tim: I’m totally out of order here, but can I ask you a question?
Teller: Yeah, yeah.
Tim: What did you tell Conrad that he made that?
Teller: We actually, we said we needed a theme to go for the Vermeer pictures, right? That’s what we initially said. But then, the place where I gave Conrad direction was here. It was when you were painting. For a while Conrad started in a direction of trying to accompany the stressful boring parts with music that would express stress and boredom. And at that point, I said, "No Conrad, let’s stick with the Vermeer idea, because what we want is to keep reminding people as they’re watching Tim go through all of this torture, that there’s this golden thing at the end that he’s aiming for. Remind us of the romance. The pictures will tell us the story of the work."
Tim: (to me) I’m sorry. I’m wasting your time.
No, that was actually a really good question!
Tim: I don’t know how he did it, but that is very expressive.
Teller: That was the one, there was some question about other musical segments when he first brought them in, but the ones, the two that were just absolutely right from the beginning were the Vermeer theme and the Tim the Inventor, which is the music that goes underneath, the duck and all of that stuff, because all that stuff, jus sort of so cartoon/mad scientist in a nice way.
There’s a whimsy to it.
Teller: Yeah, that says, "It’s ok to like this guy, because this guy is a guy who has fun with life."
Farley - And I will say that he--
Teller: That’s Farley Ziegler, our producer
Farley: I’m just going to say that he, the composer serendipitously, or however that happens, he knew, he had read the Hockney book long ago. He found it at the library, thought it looked interesting, read it, loved it. So, he was completely, when he saw the rough cut of the film, he so got it. And I was going to say, he had an intrinsic, deep understanding. So, he already had kind of a perception of it that was so interesting and was in sync with Teller. And Teller, after conversing with him and getting his orientation, Teller really engaged the deepest part of Conrad’s creativity by saying, "You get it and go with that."
Teller: Conrad said, because he’s a pro. He’s a professional film composer, so Conrad said, "I will do whatever you’d like me to do on this movie." And I said, "I want you to do what’s right for this movie. Go do it."
Tim: (chuckling) No pressure!
Teller: You’re the composer. You go do it. Bring us stuff. We’d like to respond to it, but we’re not going to tell you how to write for this movie. Also, it was a great conversation too, because I said to Conrad, what’s this movie about and he said, well I’ll tell you two things. He said, I taught music composition course in Vienna and he said, at the end of my class I’d pause expecting questions. There were no questions. He said, "I began to realize that the old European tradition when you go to school, you listen to what the professor has to say, you take notes and you absorb that, as opposed to the American tradition.
I think Tim is about the American tradition of asking those questions and challenging those things." He said, "The other thing I think about is, I think about how many times did Bach make this motion--that is drawing the stem of a note. How many times did Bach, let’s say for the St. Matthew Passion? How many times did he draw that note and how physically stressful to write physically the St. Matthew Passion and all of that stuff?" He said, "And I think that’s one of the other subjects of this, that art is really physically an amazing chore, a physical chore to accomplish."
And that’s what really comes across in the film, I mean, we see you (Tim) building the Vermeer room from scratch and you cut, I can’t remember tool names, but you cut this massive tool in half to better create, like, I mean, just the sheer, and then you’re like, with the lens, you look bored to tears, but you’re still so focused on what you’re doing. At what point were you, were there moments where you were like, "What am I doing here?"
Tim: Not per se. I knew what I was doing, but there were times when I said, "I know what I’m doing, but I shouldn’t be doing it." It got totally out of control, but you know, I basically had to take a sabbatical from my day job, because this turned into a full time job and I feel really fortunate that I was able to do that, but...
At one point, you mentioned that the film, they asked you that if they weren’t making a film, would you still be doing this, and in the film, you say no I wouldn’t.
Tim: That’s right.
Do you think you really would have quit at that point?
Tim: I would have. I would have proven it to myself sufficiently that the machine worked.
But with an audience you felt like you needed to make that.
Tim: With Penn and Teller breathing down my neck I felt like I needed to do that. You don’t mess with those guys. You know, but it was really, we had all put so much effort in--not to mention money--into it and really the only thing to do was to finish the painting, regardless of how hard it was.
Within the film you also speak about the fact that like this pretty much convinced you that this was how Vermeer worked. But then you said, if only there were some kind of document, but the fact that there’s not, David Hockney points out, is probably like trade secrets and all that. Was there any part of either of you that was worried about unearthing Vermeer’s trade secrets when he very specifically kept them hidden?
Tim: You mean like it’s unethical to reveal his secrets against his wishes?
I mean, I’m glad you did it, but I’m curious, was it something that like bothered you at all while you were making the film.
Tim: No I think what I was trying to do was show that Vermeer was also a great inventor, in addition to being a great artist and that the two go hand in hand. There’s this idea that somehow Hockney was tearing down the artist, talking about optics.
Teller: My experience is this. If you do a magic trick, and then give somebody the short explanation, we did it with a thread, they’ll go "Eh." But if you do a magic trick and you say we used the thread and here’s how we used it and give them everything that they need to know to understand it, their enjoyment increases vastly. Now if I look at a Vermeer, I’ve got to say, my enjoyment is deepened a great deal from just being baffled by how he did it, from thinking, 'Wow, a human being was able to do this.'
I mean, that makes sense to me, because watching the film, at one point someone refers to it as working like a machine in the painting, but at some point, as you said, he’s setting up the composition and figuring out the specifics of how to do this. There’s such a great amount of work there, but have you guys received push back from the artistic community about the theories shown in this film.
Tim: Not yet.
Teller: Not so far. Not so far, but I think it is because Tim doesn’t over-claim. He doesn’t say, "I’m sure this is how this was done." He just says, "Here’s a way that could have worked."
Tim: It’s pretty hard to argue with that.
Teller:And that’s certainly true and if someone says, "No I don’t believe it," well they’re certainly entitled to do that, but they can’t discount the evidence that Tim brings out.
So, where, at what point during his intellectual quest did you think this is a movie?
Teller: I had decided that it was a movie from the time we decided to make it a movie. I mean, you’ve go to keep in mind, Penn was the driving force behind this as a movie. Penn heard the idea and said, "This is a movie!" Tim was completely content to write a paper on it or put it up on YouTube. That was it, and Penn said, "Uh uh. This is a movie," and the went and they tried to pitch it to funders, but as you say, I’m walking in, I’m saying, "Ok, we’re going to do this really exciting movie about a guy who sits there for 130 days and paints a painting."
And I’m out.
Teller: You’re out cold.
Tim: Or it’s about the 17th century really--
Teller: Yeah, oh that would be a big sell! You know, or the other thing that we think is because Penn and I are so noted as deceivers that probably people like ABC or PBS are saying that’s that Penn Jillette guy. This is going to be a Borat type of movie. They’re going to somehow produce this thing and make fools of us.
Tim: Another pitch we did, I think this lady said what maybe everybody else was thinking. She said, "This is a really great idea, but we don’t think it’s going to work. We don’t think you’re going to be able to make a Vermeer."
Teller: Perfectly justified. We almost didn’t.
Tim: We came close to failing.
Teller: If Tim hadn’t sat there and just thought about and tinkered with, then thought about, and dreamt about how mirrors acted in relation to each other, there would be no success.
Tim: And I naively thought going into it, there would be just set it up once, look through it, paint it. Everyday was a different problem in some aspect of it.
Teller: The process, is in fact, a lot more complex than you see in the film. Every time Tim is working a set of details, that’s a set of details that he’s had to in a photoshop type of way, pieced out that section of painting and focused on that, but that whole thing has to be organized, kept in proper relation to each other.
Tim: Yeah, what do you paint first? And how do you mix the paint? What about the lighting? A million things.
Teller: A multitude of problems, that if we had focused on each one of those, you would have been asleep.
Yeah, you guys seemed very selective. I mean, the movie flows really lovely. I said in my review, I cried at the end reveal. I was just so astonished. I’m geeking out. Pardon me.
Teller: That’s good! Listen, that’s what we live for. We went through the trouble to make the movie so you would have that opportunity and to hear that from you is really good.
Well, thank you. How have the discoveries that you’ve come across with Vermeer using optics, changed the way you look at art and technology?
Tim: Well, it hasn’t changed mine all that much, because I always though that technology was an art, as a technologist, maybe that’s my self aggrandizing, but I read a lot of computer software. It’s one of the things I do and people think of programming computer as a sort of mathematical crossword puzzle something, you know, formulas, and it’s not that at all. It’s an art of invention every time you have to write a new section of code, you have to invent a solution and you know, there’s elegance and there’s creativity there. So, I look at art as kind of the same thing as technology.
Do you think that’s why, I hesitate to call it debunking Vermeer, but effectively figuring out his tricks. Do you think that’s why that connected with you on such a level?
Tim: Yeah, there’s a lot of other great painters in the world and during Vermeer’s day, you had Rembrandt and you know, the whole Dutch golden age was just beautiful paintings, one after the other. But Vermeer just jumped out to me, like this guy is using some kind of technology.
And did it change at all how you look at art and technology?
Teller: I think anybody in the arts, including you, knows that the part of the art that the viewer sees is this tiny little bit of this vast amount of work, experimentation, trial and error, inspiration, technology, all of those things. All of those things go into that little moment that you walk up to that painting or you sit at the movie. We took almost a year editing it, right? It was close on a year editing this thing, you know, four years of work, and then plus a year of editing.
To find the shape of it all.
Teller: Finding the shape of it was that, and I should mention, with a more than a tip of a hat, we had a brilliant editor on this, (Patrick Sheffield), an editor who understood this material, not just in terms of a movie. He understood, I think better than everyone else in our group, everything that Tim understood. He was really Tim’s really close deep companion in this and the very first thing that we completed on the movie was he edited the I’m building a room sequence. And he edited it to the Propeller Heads song called "History Repeating," and if you want to have a good experiment, when you get the DVD, turn off the sound and play History Repeating against that and it works perfectly and it was really, it was rye and it was funny, it was delightful, and that was in there until we got the rest of the Conrad Pope score and then when we realized that Conrad and Penn were the two narrators of the movie, we realized we certainly couldn’t have the Propeller Heads narrating that. So, Conrad did that wonderful sort of, I don’t know, American classical, Aaron Copeland kind of hoedown thing. It’s fabulous, but you know, just tremendous amount of thinking on this is done by the editor.
Well, for my last question, I just want to ask you guys, what would you say to someone who’s concerned this movie is going to be too highbrow for their tastes?
Teller: I would say it’s really a funny movie. It’s an adventure. It’s a detective story. It’s about a guy you really want to know. I don’t know what else I would say. I’ll tell you this, I have no patience with highbrow stuff. You have to be at the level of Sherlock before Masterpiece Theater will grab me, so I have all of the patience of a 15-year-old boy and I made this movie with that pacing in mind.
Tim: Well, I’m certainly not highbrow. I’m not an art person. I just saw an interesting problem and went way overboard trying to solve it.
Teller: I think you went just far enough.
Tim: And comedy ensues.
Tim's Vermeer opens Friday.