Tim Jenison & Teller On ‘Tim’s Vermeer’
Tim Jenison introduced his idea for an experiment in which he’d try to recreate a painting by Joannes Vermeer – using technology he believed that the Dutch painter used – to his longtime friend Penn Jillette. Before long, his passion project was in development as a documentary called Tim’s Vermeer with Teller at the helm.
Jenison was drawn to Vermeer’s paintings for their near-perfect photorealism, and was determined to figure out what the catch was. “You see a Vermeer on the wall next to a bunch of paintings and it jumps out. They have a very different look to them,” Jenison told Uinterview exclusively. “Even among the Dutch masters, who all painted extremely well, there’s something about the Vermeer. It’s like when a little kid brings in a picture he made of a superhero and you go, ‘Oh, did you lay this over the top of a comic book and trace it?’ ‘Yes, I did. How did you know?’ It just has this look that it can’t be right. It’s just too good; it’s superhuman.”
When Jillette told Teller about his idea to turn Jenison’s experiment into a documentary, Teller jumped at the chance to direct it. “’Oh boy, this might change art history! I want to be involved!’” Teller said, recreating his initial reaction to the project. “I got really excited about it. Because I know that Tim is a deep thinker and a really smart guy, and I thought this is a detective story that I want to be a part of.”
Tim’s Vermeer is currently in limited release.
Jenison: Just the look of it. You see a Vermeer on the wall next to a bunch of paintings and it jumps out. They have a very different look to them. Even among the Dutch masters, who all painted extremely well, there's something about the Vermeer. It's like when a little kid brings in a picture he made of a superhero and you go, 'Oh, did you lay this over the top of a comic book and trace it?' 'Yes, I did. How did you know?' It just has this look that it can't be right. It's just too good; it's superhuman.
Jenison: Yes. I was most interested in the lighting. And, if the lighting was wrong, my experiment wouldn't have worked. In "The Music Lesson," you can see where the windows are, so you know exactly what the lighting is there. And all the things in that painting are things that you can get ahold of. I had to build some of them, but you knew what they looked like. I was able to build this room and have confidence that it was exactly like what Vermeer was seeing 350 years ago. Teller: With almost the same heating plan. Jenison: Yeah, we're not going to talk about that are we? Does the statute of limitations run out on that? Teller: I don't know. Jenison: Yeah, we had a little mishap with a propane heater. Teller: Which I believe Vermeer had too. He had his patio heater.
Teller: Oh boy this might change art history! I want to be involved! I got really excited about it. Because I know that Tim is a deep thinker and a really smart guy and I thought this is a detective story that I want to be a part of.
Jenison: Were there any days when I didn't want to call it quits [laughs]? I had these guys breathing down my neck. Teller: It would have been a gross embarrassment. Jenison: Yeah, I mean there were cameras pointed at me 24/7 almost, and conference calls â "How's it going?" "Oh, it's not going that great." "Okay, let's get going." You know? And I couldn't stop, regardless of how I didn't want to keep going. And I probably would have kind of tapered off my interest in it, once I'd kind of proved to myself that that's probably the way he did it. I could have stopped painting. But the movie required I keep painting. I became kind of torture-like â drip-drip torture, dot-dot torture. Doing all of these little dots on the rug. Teller: It's the Schrodinger's Cat kind of circumstances, right? The observer really changed the thing observed. Jenison: Yeah, it was kind of surreal. Until I got the painting almost finished, I still didn't know if it was going to work. That rug was the last thing that needed to be painted and I didn't know if it would look good or not. But once I got into it, it was kind of downhill from there. It was gratifying to see it. It compensated for the physical torture of it. It really was hard, painful work. Teller: And funny, therefore. Painful for him, funny for us.
Jenison: Yeah? [laughs] Teller: It would have been an even funnier comedy â about a great inventor with a great idea who is wrong. Jenison: Can we talk about something else? [laughs] Teller: No, I mean stories without happy endings make good stories. Oedipus Rex is a dandy of a play.
My family couldn't have been better. My daughter Natalie was sort of my "Girl Friday" â assistant on the film, associate producer. Teller: She actually transcribed every word everyone in the movie says. So we had it all in text with little notes thanks to his daughter. Jenison: And my daughter Clair posed. We locked her head in a clamp for hours. And my daughter Lauren helped out. My daughter Lauren got me started on this whole thing by giving me that David Hockney book back in 2002. And my wife is an artist. She just thought it was a great project. Couldn't have had a better family. They were totally supportive.
Jenison: It was great! Hockey started this crazy flame-war when his book came out, Secret Knowledge. Art historians just went nuts. They said, "This can't possibly be right. You're trying to dethrone these great masters and say they're cheating because they used optics to paint." So he was the guy I wanted to talk to. Despite writing that book, he didn't really know how Vermeer made a painting. He thought that they were going into a dark booth and tracing outlines and then coming out of the booth and somehow finishing the painting. But, what I came up with was sort of the missing link that made it possible to actually paint that. I've never painted in my life. And I was able to paint something that kind of looks like a Vermeer. So I was really anxious to show Hockney. It was hard to get ahold of him because he's kind of a hermit; he has this moat around him. He just loves nothing more than painting and he likes to spend all of his time painting. He invited us to visit his studio, his house in Burlington, and it was just great. He took a look at the thing, and you can see his reaction in the film. He said, "Yeah, this is probably it. This is probably the missing link." After we finished the film, he has been very supportive. He really thinks that this is probably how he did it.
Teller: Surprisingly, very little. Jenison: Tomorrow is another day. Teller: [laughs] Tomorrow is another day. But Tim doesn't make any extravagant claims. Tim just says this is a way Vermeer could have done this. He's not saying this definitely, because there's no way to prove that until somebody comes across... You know, Mrs. Vermeer sends a letter to Mr. Vermeer saying, "Johannes, Junior broke your mirror yesterday. You know that mirror you put at a 45-degree angle and you paint by? We'll get you a new one." Really, until we come across that kind of documentation of some kind or some other artist of the time saying, "This is the device that I use and I sent one of these to Johannes Vermeer." There's no proof proof. But there's certainly, this is a substantial amount of evidence. As Hockney says throughout the movie, the paintings are documents. The fact that there are pieces of evidence in the very painting itself – in particular that seahorse smile distortion that Tim notices. I feel strongly that he was using something like Tim's device, if not the very device. Jenison: I think that just the fact that a non-painter, totally untrained person like myself, could make a painting that looks like that is the best evidence. The best argument against it, I think, is that not a word of this has appeared in print in 350 years, as far as we know. But, I'm hopeful that somebody will see the movie and start to look for some documents in Dutch or Latin or Italian – I don't know – and find something like this.
Well, I'm a computer graphics guy. I'm a geek. It's looks to me like Vermeer was a really smart and artistic geek. So, my estimation has gone up. [laughs] Teller: If you look at Vermeer... I think some art historians like to use the word "genius" as a substitute for supernatural. They say Vermeer was a genius, by which they mean he did things, which no other human being could do. And, I mean that quite literally. We make the point in the movie that the human retina cannot make measurements of the accuracy you see being measured in those paintings. So, let's say Vermeer would have to be a space alien. Now, if my choice is to believe that Vermeer was a space alien, or Vermeer was a really smart guy with a great technology and a fantastic artistic eye, I would much rather believe in the human being, who is willing to put in that kind of work. I think the other thing about people – art historians – who object to the idea of using those devices... I don't think they like the idea that someone would have to work really hard. I think they like the idea that it would just float out of the air and go get up there on the canvas. There's no way that those paintings would have appeared there without somebody working his ass off. Jenison: Yeah, Vermeer only painted something like 40 pictures in 20 years. He worked very slowly – about an average of six months per painting. Compared to somebody like Rembrandt who painting something like 1,000 pictures in the same about of time, which is also kind of evidence that maybe Vermeer was... I know personally that there were so many brushstrokes that go into that one painting. It takes a long time. When I saw the [original] painting for the first time, in person [at Buckingham Palace], it was just so different. I was just astounded by it, and the closer you get... I wore these binoculars that let me get close to the painting and see like a microscope. I couldn't believe it. The closer I got, the more detail there was.
[Laughs] No, not like this. This was the missing five years out of my life. It really was a huge, huge undertaking – both for me and for the filmmakers. Teller is probably already thinking about the next several movies he'd like to make, but I don't think I will. Teller: I take everything in my life project by project. My next big thing is I'm directing a version of the Tempest for A.R.T. – The Regional Theater that brought Porgie & Bess and Pippin to Broadway. That's my next big project – music by Tom Waits, magic by me, and it's a big deal. It's a huge venture. And whether the next thing after that is a movie or a show, or maybe even six or seven days in a spa, getting like three massages a day. [laughs] I think that's a jolly good next project for me.
Teller: In this, it's not like a piece of fiction where you figure out what the ending is, and then you make all the action lead up to the ending. We didn't know what the ending was going to be! You record everything you possible can. Thanks to Tim's expertise with technology we were able to record a lot, so we ended up with 2,400 hours of footage for a movie that's an hour plus long. It's like a 2,000 to 1 ratio, so it was pretty high. This was more sort of an archaeological thing, where you go and you find you have all of this material and you go in and you construct the story out of these pieces that you have already. It was something of a challenge to plot. When we first started the movie, we called it Vermeer's Edge, because we thought it was about Vermeer. But it isn't really; it's really about Tim. It's about Tim – the kind of guy he is and the kind of task he takes on and the kind of detective story that he follows. We initially cut the movie down to like six hours. We sort of looked at that and said, "Where's the story in this?" We tried all sorts of angles. We thought, should this be constructed as a Penn & Teller bullshit episode? Where Penn & Teller come out and do a little bit and then we go to Tim painting. We tried that and it was awful. Because it was like, "We'll showboat on Tim's project!" Awful. We tried making it all Penn's story – from his point of view about his pal. And a little bit of that survives in there. In the end, when we looked at the footage, we said this is about this amazing guy, who has set himself this Herculean task and is going to go through whatever he has to go through to do it – and how funny it is to watch someone suffer. Jenison: Well, Teller is glossing over the incredible challenge that it was because the audience has to know a lot about this story. You have to know what we know about Vermeer, what does David Hockney know, what's wrong with the human eye that you can't just paint? Why can't you just take a camera obscura and just paint on it? Because everybody thinks you can really do that. Teller and the film crew, I don't know how they did it, but they tell you just enough without overwhelming you. Teller: You have to understand the clues to follow the detective story. You've got to understand what each of these little pieces of evidence means, and it was very tricky to slide that in in a way that didn't seem like, "Ooo PBS documentary!"
Jenison: It's a successful experiment I think. But the art, it's Vermeer's creation. Even if he made this machinery, he still made those beautiful pictures. They are no less beautiful than they ever were. I just used his painting to build this room, and then used what I thought was his machine and used something that looks like his art. I guess if it was hanging in a museum somebody could be convinced that it was art, but I don't look at it that way. I do look at what Teller made as a work of art. The film tells a story in a very interesting way. I have nothing but admiration for the guys that made this film. Teller: It's really a movie about the big secret that nobody outside the arts understands. You have this conversation with us and then you'll take that and you'll turn that into something wonderful and you'll take out all the dull bits and you'll make it all really understandable. There will be a tremendous about of work that the public will not know that you went through to make this into something good. With magic tricks, the biggest secret that magicians have is that they're willing to go through an amount of hell you wouldn't believe just to do a card trick. They're willing to spend six months, ten months, years learning to deal the second card out of the top of a deck just so they can fool you with one little magic trick. And you would never believe that someone would go through that much work. And I think that's one of the things that makes Vermeer so miraculous is that when you look at it, it hits you in that moment. You just cannot conceive of somebody like Tim hunching over a canvas with an aching back for six months, which is probably exactly what Vermeer went through. And so, people in the arts particularly tend to love this movie because it tells their story, whether they're journalists or writers or dancers. It's that's sort of a universal story for people in the arts.