January 31, 2014

Penn & Teller; Tim's Vermeer

Review: "It is a collision of art and science that is thought-provoking, breathtaking, and wildly inspiring. Tim's Vermeer's a must-see for even the most casual intellectual."

My interview with Teller can be heard above.

My interview with Penn can be read on the next page:

Talking with Penn Jillette about Tim's Vermeer

In the film, you present Tim as having a wide array of intellectual curiosities in his life. What about this one in particular made you think this needed to be a movie?

Well, you know, I wasn’t ever looking to work with Tim. I wasn’t ever looking to make a movie. My agenda, in this past five years, making a documentary did not even cross my mind. Most people who make documentaries are sniffing around for a documentary to make. I wasn’t one of those guys, you know. I made The Aristocrats. I made a few movies, but I’m not looking. As a matter of fact, it was a real accident. I mean, I had two young children. I still have two young children. They were younger then. That’s the way things work.

I’ve heard that.

About five years ago, I realized that I had not talked to anyone outside of my family that I wasn’t being paid to talk to in months. It was really true. I hadn’t had one conversation, not even with a Starbucks person. Every conversation I was paid for or was with my family, and so I called Tim. When he tells the story--which I’ve heard him tell--he says it was a desperate phone call. It didn’t feel that way for me, but maybe it sounded that way. I just said, “Listen, Tim, baby, I haven’t talked to anybody in months. Come talk to me. Come have supper.” So, he jumped in his plane in Texas and he flew to Vegas.

Like he does.

Like it was an emergency intervention! And we went out, because it’s Vegas, for a big old hairy steak. And we’re sitting there having a steak and I said to Tim, “Listen man, talk to me about something that has nothing to do with work and I can’t possibly be working. I don’t want to have any meetings, no interviews. Talk to me about something that’s totally outside of the business.” And Tim said, “Ok, what do you know about Vermeer?” And I said, you know, first page of Wikipedia, and he said, "Well," and he reaches on his hip, which he always has, pulls out a video camera and shows me what we call the father-in-law footage of him painting the father-in-law.

Oh, so he already had that?

The father-in-law picture. The one that you see in the movie is him painting another one, talking to me about it, but he’d already painted the father-in-law. And he said to me... You know, the whole story of this movie is never said in any interviews or in the movie, which is his youngest daughter went to college. That’s all that happened.

So, he just had all this free time?

Yeah, exactly.

Empty nest sent him into an intellectual quest around the world.

Just missing his daughter. That’s all it was, his youngest daughter.

Is she the one in the painting?


That’s perfect.

So Tim said I’m going to build the room and I think I know how Vermeer painted this. I’m going to build it all myself. I’m going to paint this Vermeer in my warehouse. I said, “Well Tim, you failed miserably. This does have something to do with my job. We’re going to stop everything and we’re going to make this into a movie.” And Tim said, “I thought it’d be a one paper in an art magazine and maybe a 5 minute youtube clip.” I said, “I think it’s cooler than this. I really do man,” and then I tried to get out of it. I tried to not make this movie, really hard. I took Tim all around LA and all around NY, you can guess all of the TV stations you’d go to Discovery, National Geographic, the whole (circuit).

Teller was saying there was a certain level of distrust because it’s you guys, there’s going to be some sort of other thing going on.

Well Teller wasn’t involved then, but everybody thought I was just bullshitting. I was just punking people or something. Then we got to here, I had misremembered this and then Glenn, our manager, told me that we were very close to a deal. Somebody said they’d give us money and you know what they would have done, (takes on a deep, serious tone) "dinosaur voice." And we went out right here in midtown and went out with Tim for a lunch break and I said to him, “Fuck it. let’s just makes it. Why are we dealing with other people. Let’s just make it.” There would have been all sorts of constraints. It would have been a much lower budget, maybe thankfully. And then we spent a while deciding who was going to direct it. I mean, I guess you’d think Teller was the first choice. He wasn’t the second choice, but we didn’t really think whether he’d be right or not. And finally we’re like, let’s talk to Teller and Teller completely got it and understood it and at that moment when Teller comes on, it goes from, the idea, the one sentence of the movie, you know, a guy paints a Vermeer in his warehouse in Texas, that was going to be anyone’s movie, but all of the other stuff. All that kind of beautiful texture and everything that goes around it, that’s all Teller. So, there was never a moment when I said you know, let’s make a documentary. It was all just talk to me about something else, oh I guess this should be a movie. Oh, I guess I’m going to have to make the movie. Oh, I guess I’m going to have to really be involved in the movie.

So it actually kind of follows his journey, where he’s like, I’m going to make this room. Oh, I actually have to build all these things for myself. They don’t exist.

Yeah, and I also, one of the things I’m most proud of in the whole movie is that it’s a happy movie. You know, most documentaries are real drag city, and they’re supposed to be. It’s important stuff and it’s a good way of communicating with people. You need all the atrocity documentaries, but this is a documentary that’s just, the reaction we get from people is they feel really excited and happy and inspired to do stuff, which is pretty great. It’s pretty great to have something like that.

I completely admit, I cried when you do the final reveal. 

The other thing, that I don’t think many people are talking about, but fascinates me, is it’s about 17th century technology, but it’s also about 21st century technology. This movie is impossible 15 years ago. 15 years ago, this movie is more expensive than Days of Heaven or Apocalypse Now. We had 9 cameras working on Tim while he was working. Every brush stroke is covered by at least 3 cameras. There are 10 2-terabyte drives full of information on this. It is more technologically amazing than Avatar.

As a video editor, that gives me heart palpitations.

Patrick, who edited it, the amount of footage he went through. So, you’re able to do this really crazy thing. You think of every brush stroke from three angles and most from nine, when you weren’t picking what moment he was painting. We really get to pick that and those dissolves. If this were made 15 years ago, you would have shot him for 15 minutes and then 2 weeks later, would have shot him for another 15 minutes, with the cameras all set up, but for most of that, when Tim is crying at the camera, at the picture, he’s the only one in the room. You see him setting u the cameras to begin with and he set up three cameras. We have a three camera shoot and the only person there is the talent. It’s a crazy situation. It’s also an odd documentary, in that it really is a document, going in real time. Yes, he painted the father-in-law picture first, but then I stopped everything. So, when you see then meeting with Hockney. It’s the first meeting with Hockney. First meeting was Steadman. It’s every drop of paint is being put on in real time, so it’s you know, Super Size Me, and those kinds of movies, turn out to be fake. He was lying about those, but this really is, not really a stunt, but it really is a document, which I think there will be a lot more movies like this and this may be seen as the first one. I can’t think of another movie it takes reality show technology and does something beautiful with it.

That’s a really good way of putting it. I like that. In Vanity Fair, you describe this as "a very American kind of plot line." How is that?

Well, you know. Teller was the one who was really obsessed with this being American. It’s completely unrooted in tradition. It’s just a guy who, I mean, albeit really smart, with a huge amount of gumption and a little bit, just a little bit of Tony Stark going on there. He’s a little bit like Iron Man flying his own helicopter and sports car and all of that. I want to go to Buckingham Palace and see this, you know. There’s a little bit of that, but it’s this sense that, you just don’t see a culture that’s rooted in tradition as having someone say essentially, “Fuck it, I’ll paint a Vermeer.” That’s a pretty American point of view.

Sure, but Tim’s assertion lacks hubris, like it doesn’t...

Isn’t that weird?


Isn’t it weird that he’s humble that when you say the sentence, you think about a big swinging dick doing it, and yet he does it with this great humility and gentleness. It’s a nutty combination. It has this pure individualism but without any malice…People get really bristling about you know, Tim’s going to be insulting Vermeer or taking him down or something. And they see the movie and there’s not one moment when he does not say a syllable against Vermeer. Every single thing he says about Vermeer is absolute awe and reverence and yet he wants to follow in the footsteps and doesn’t even, you know, after he climbs the mountain, he doesn’t even say, I conquered the mountain. He just kind of says, "Well, here I am. Good night."

You’re kind of re-angling the argument on what makes Vermeer an artistic genius.

Yeah, you know, I keep comparing it to the first time I heard Beatle bootlegs. The first time I heard that the Beatles worked on stuff, you know. When I was a child, I think every child, whatever music is coming out then, you think that somehow it just, the artist thought of it, then did it. You don’t think about the hours of creation that go into that. And to me, when you say, and I don’t mean to quote myself directly in the movie, but when you just say, "here’s a genius we don’t understand," all you’re saying is magic. You’re saying, "Oh there’s magic." How did Vermeer paint those paintings? Magic. And if you take magic away, you actually add to the human wonder and the glory. All three of us, are very strong atheists. In a certain sense, this is such a deep atheist movie in that it loves people. You know, you’ll see some fans of Vermeer that want to say he was one of a kind that could do this stuff that we could never understand.

There’s something divine about it.

And to go, “No, he really worked his ass off and he was really talented and smart,” and that to me, fills me with so much more joy than magic, poof, you know, and there are some people who still claim that Vermeer didn’t even have a room, but just walked up to a canvas and did that.

After watching the movie, that’s mind blowing to me. But the film was on the short list for best documentary, the Academy short list. What did that teach you guys about the awards circuit, as it is?

I don’t know anything about it. I still don’t. We didn’t. As I said, I am a filmmaker by definition, because I’ve made films but I’m not a filmmaker by culture, so I think that the idea that it would be, that it would be considered in any way for an academy award, was never said by any of the three of us. It was said by Sony way down the line, when it was finished. I think that anyone else who was on the short list, somebody working on the movie, probably said earlier, wouldn’t it be cool if we won an Academy Award. Our movie, it was never mentioned. When Sony first said that we’re going to try to see if we can get this considered for an award, we all kind of went, really? You know, we were so interested in, we were so interested in making a movie about art. We weren’t thinking much about making an art movie.

Did you at all think the discussion of art and science and the way you kind of reframed that discussion been part of why it didn’t make the top five, that that threatened somebody?

I have no idea. We’re just so not part of that scene. Tim is Texas, we’re Vegas, and those two places are not represented very much in the filmmaking culture. You know, as I said, there’s no, there’s no bitterness and there’s no wonder, because it never crossed our mind. I don’t even know what they’re looking for and I don’t know what they’re trying to say, and I don’t think it’s... There’s another possibility, that’s very very clear and real that there were five better movies than ours. You can talk about threatening and this and that, but there’s also that possibility. I don’t want to misrepresent myself. I get all of the screeners. I have some sort of vote. I’m a member of the Writer’s Guild and all that stuff, so I really do know more than a lay person, but it’s kind of outside of my sphere. Ultimately, I do a magic show in Vegas.

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