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June 25, 2017

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Q+A: Penn & Teller’s ‘Tim’s Vermeer’ attempts to solve one of the great art mysteries


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“Tim’s Vermeer” by Rio headliner magicians Penn & Teller.

‘Tim’s Vermeer’

“Tim’s Vermeer” by Rio headliner magicians Penn & Teller. Launch slideshow »

Rio headliner magicians Penn & Teller have made movie magic capturing video-technology magic in an attempt to solve one of the world’s greatest art mysteries. It has all wound up in a unique film produced by Penn Jillette and directed by Teller that first premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

“Tim’s Vermeer” has gone on to win at other film festivals and wound up on the Top 15 short list for Best Documentary in recent Academy Awards voting. Now the movie that has had limited release is on a national and global rollout and will screen here for at least two weeks starting March 7.

Penn told me that Sony Pictures Classics, who is distributing the production, said that it has never seen such a positive reaction to a documentary in 20 years and had never quite seen a movie like it before.

Penn has known Texas-based inventor Tim Jenison for more than 20 years. Tim sets out to solve the question of how 17th century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer painted “Girl With a Pearl Earring” so photo realistically — 150 years before the invention of photography.

His epic adventure spanned eight years, and Penn & Teller filmed five years of it, including Tim’s pilgrimage to Holland, where Vermeer painted his masterpieces, to the North coast of England to meet artist David Hockney, and even to Buckingham Palace to see a Vermeer masterpiece in the Queen’s royal collection.

Tim is considered the visionary force behind the desktop-video revolution. His technology company, NewTek, in 1985, led the way in developing a series of highly successful products, including DigiView, one of the first video digitizers for a computer. As an early enthusiast for personal computers, Tim saw it as the integrating medium for electronics, music, film and video.

I talked with Penn & Teller about their extraordinary undertaking.

It’s so sad that you didn’t win an Oscar, but I guess welcome to the politics of Hollywood old-school networks. You aren’t poor, and you are magicians more than documentary filmmakers.

Penn Jillette: It’s an honor to be nominated. If you want to talk about real show business, the thing that’s shocking everyone is that it’s selling a lot more tickets than the others that got nominated. It’s doing killer worldwide. Sony believes, and I think they’re right, that it will probably really do well in Japan and China. This is the movie they’re hoping for most overseas because Vermeer is very big over there. The movie is very American in terms of its heart, but the interaction between an American entrepreneur doing this impossible task and a 17th century Dutch painter, I think is pretty interesting.

As the producer, did you want to make this movie because in a sense it’s real magic?

Penn: No, I didn’t want to make this movie at all. My friend Tim, who I’ve known for about 25 years, came to me and told me he was doing this unbelievable, miraculous thing. I met him because Dana Carvey’s brother worked with him, and I was working at “Saturday Night Live” with Dana Carvey. Really it was Dana Carvey saying I’ve got these two nerd friends that I think you’d get along with really well. One is my brother and his friend; they’re inventors. Dana introduced us, and we did get along wonderfully.

It’s a really goofy story, this was five years ago, and my children Mox and Z were at that time 2 and 3 years old. I emailed Tim and said that I realized in the past three months, I had not talked to anyone outside of my family or that I wasn’t working with. I’d had wonderful talks with Teller, love talking to my wife Emily, but I hadn’t talked to a friend for three months. Tim flew out from Texas, and we went to Rio de Brazil here for steaks, and I told him to talk to me about something that has nothing to do with show business.

He told me that he was going to build a room and paint a Vermeer nobody has ever painted before. I said, “Tim, you failed. I asked you to talk about something that had nothing to do with show business, but this is a movie.” He argued, “It’s only a YouTube video and a paper; no movie. No one cares about this.”

I tried for six months to palm it off; I tried to get someone else to do it. I talked to everybody you could possible talk to. I talked to National Geographic and Discovery and BBC America; they were all interested, but the negotiations kept dragging on. Then they would talk to me, and the way they would talk about it seemed a little crass. I realized that I was pushing my friend into having someone else do this. My plan was just “thanks to Penn Jillette” at the end of all the credits. I finally said I think we have to do this.

So after six months of trying not to make this movie, I then jumped in. We even talked to other directors before we came to Teller. The more we banged around on it, the more I thought Teller would be the right choice. Then Teller got involved; it was five years. It came out wonderfully. The people you’d think would be our worst critics raved about the film. It’s just unheard of.

How long did it take Tim to do the painting?

Penn: Most of that five years. There is not a molecule of paint that touches the canvas that isn’t covered by at least three cameras and most of the time nine cameras, There are 25,000 hours of footage. We had a great editor who would go through it; everything was really well labeled, all on five 2-terabyte hard drives all slaved, all laid out.

Technology is that amazing. Fifteen years ago, no one on earth could have afforded to make this movie. It’s more than “Days of Heaven,” more than “Apocalypse Now,” but now data storage is cheap enough that you can afford to do that and store it. Some people have said, “You know, we don’t believe Tim really painted this or parts of it are fake,” and we just say to them go watch it all in real time.

The reaction has been incredible, far beyond anything we ever thought it could be. We also really believed that it was a small movie, but Sony saw it and flipped out. Bob Dylan saw it and let us use his song for the closing credits. Conrad Pope, the musician, ended up using a real orchestra. Sony ended up paying a lot for it. It ended up being an expensive movie.

Tim Jenison

Click to enlarge photo

“Tim’s Vermeer” by Rio headliner magicians Penn & Teller.

Click to enlarge photo

“Tim’s Vermeer” by Rio headliner magicians Penn & Teller.

I did something very old-fashioned in show business, very old-fashioned as a producer. The way movie business is done now is you go to the festivals, show your movie, and then the next day you meet with the people who are interested; you do wheeling and dealing. I didn’t want to do it that way. It’s so kind of ungentlemanly. We finished the movie, and I told Teller it was a Sony Pictures Classic.

I flew to New York, the movie was not finished, and I said this movie needs Sony in front of it. I’m not going to anyone else. It needs to be a Sony movie. I showed them the movie, and they said it was incredible, and I said wouldn’t it look good with the Sony blue up in front, and they said yeah.

Sony said no one’s done this in 20 years. It’s the way they used to all do business. We made a great deal, and they have been wonderful partners. You might want to underline this: This is the day a filmmaker says he loves the studio!

How on earth do you direct 3 million hours of a man doing a painting?

Teller: Remotely is the answer, honestly. The actual painting segments, for example, were simply autobiographical with him. He happens to be a tech expert, so every morning he would come in and set up his own cameras on his own work. We would look at his stuff every day and make corrections as needed, but a lot of the shots are just his idea. Also the conversations that are happening when he talks to the camera, there’s nobody in the room with him.

We set up essentially a sort of TelePrompTer arrangement where it appears Tim is looking at the camera. He’s actually looking at a 45-degree angled sheet of glass that reflected a computer screen with our Los Angeles producer Farley Zeigler Skyping with him every day. So some parts are done with me; the first one we shot actually in Europe. I had to go over to Holland to do a lecture for some psychologists, so we got together a film crew and shot all of the Dutch at once. It wound up involving a lot of commuting.

This was a five-year exercise, a five-year commitment. How do you describe five years?

Teller: Penn set us off on this whole adventure. He had the conversation with Tim, and Tim explained his project. All Tim planned to do was maybe a YouTube video or a paper on it. Penn said, “Stop everything right now; this has got to be a movie.” So Penn launched this crazy ship; not the first he’s launched. He’s wonderful that way. Everyone needs a wonderful madman in his life. Once launched, there are a lot of things you don’t know. You don’t know how long it’s going to take, you don’t know what the story is going to be, and you don’t know if the person involved is going to succeed or fail.

I asked Tim, “Are you going to succeed?” He says the opening words of the movie. He says, “At night, when I’m lying in bed, all I can think about is this goal of painting a Vermeer, which would be pretty remarkable if I could do it because I’m not an artist.” He said, “But of course if I don’t succeed, there won’t be a movie.” And I said, “Oh no, there will be a movie; it will just be a very different one.” It could have come out that way.

Explain to me how an artist who has never been a painter managed to achieve this extraordinary re-creation of one of the world’s most famous pieces of art. What do you call him?

Teller: You call him a scientist. He’s a scientist doing an experiment. He’s taken what is the real art of Vermeer, which is a composition, and just simply reproduced the setup from which Vermeer worked. Then as a scientist, he’s testing his method of getting an absolutely accurate representation of that onto the cameras. So in a certain way, he’s a craftsman, except a craftsman who’s learning his craft while you watch.

You can actually see the early shots of him trying to copy the photograph of his father-in-law. You can see he’s mucking around. He’s jamming his paintbrush into the paint like a kid finger painting. By the time he’s at the fine end of the real painting with one hairbrush making tiny curlicues, he’s learned a bit how to handle a brush. But, then again, he’s had several years to learn it.

It’s not a copy because he’s not copying the painting. It’s a reconstruction, I guess you could say. He has reconstructed the subject and then reconstructed the act of painting. Capturing the incredible light that nobody believed was possible in the first place.

We learned a good deal of science while working on this, and one of the scientific things we learned is that the human eye does not function like a light meter.

Just how remarkable of an achievement was this from what he was able to do and what you turned it into as a documentary?

Teller: It’s something you would have to judge, but I have to tell you it wasn’t easy. When we all went into this, this movie was called “Vermeer’s Edge,” and it was a scientific documentary on some research being done into Vermeer. What you end up with is “Tim’s Vermeer,” which is a story of a very remarkable guy who sets his mind to doing something with a determination that is perhaps unequal in human history in some ways.

The key for us was to decide that this wasn’t a science paper and this wasn’t a cute exercise; most importantly not a Penn & Teller “Bullsh*t” episode-style thing. Every time we looked at the footage of our attempt to integrate magic stuff, we kept saying the real gold of this movie is our friend. The real gold was hiding in plain sight; this remarkable, remarkable human being who is humble. He’s exhausted, but he’s terribly determined.

Every time we came back to Tim being the real star of the movie, not Vermeer, not Penn & Teller. The moment we really decided that Tim was the subject of the movie, everything began to fall into place. We finally had the right direction for the movie. We could have gone in 50 different directions. All we had to do was really step aside and say we know this remarkable man, and we’d like you to meet him.

Is what he created real magic and not theatrical magic?

Teller: People tend to regard Vermeer as a supernatural being, and to me supernatural beings are always much less interesting than human beings. Supernatural beings are boring. They just wish for things, and suddenly they happen. Human beings actually have to work. In this particular case, the magic is all in the work.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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