The art of invention: Teller & Penn document a friend’s quest to paint a Vermeer


As any artist knows, inspiration can spring from the unlikeliest of places. For example, the idea for Sony Pictures Classics’ acclaimed art-world documentary Tim's Vermeer emerged during a simple dinner conversation between magician Penn Jillette and his longtime friend—and the subject of the film—computer engineer Tim Jenison, founder of the software company NewTek. At the time of that dinner date, neither man was looking to collaborate on a movie; in fact, the whole point of their outing was to give Jillette a chance to leave the entertainment-industry shop talk at home, along with any discussion of the other major topic dominating his life: child-rearing, having recently become a new father. Basically, all the conversation-starved Jillette wanted was to enjoy some stimulating grown-up jawboning with an old friend, so he invited the Texas-based Jenison to hop on a plane bound for Jillette's Las Vegas stomping grounds. "When we sat down to eat, Penn told me, 'I don't want to talk about show business,'" Jenison remembers. "So I said, 'Well, how much do you know about Vermeer? Because I've been doing these experiments and I think I've figured out how he painted those pictures.'"

A brief pause for some historical context: the "Vermeer" that Jenison quizzed Jillette about is Johannes Vermeer, the 17th-century Dutch artist renowned for painting canvases of such detail and clarity, his images are practically photorealistic…despite the fact that photography (as we know it today) wouldn't be invented for another 200 years. For centuries, art historians have sought to understand the process that might have allowed for the creation of such vividly realized portraits as The Milkmaid, The Geographer and, perhaps Vermeer's most famous picture, Girl with a Pearl Earring. Various theories had been advanced over the years, most notably a controversial proposal put forth by British artist and author David Hockney that Vermeer had relied on a camera obscura—an optical device that dates back to ancient Greece and essentially allows for the projection of an image onto a screen or, in Vermeer's case, a canvas. Hockney's hypothesis served as the starting point for Jenison's own investigation into the painter's history and working methods, eventually leading him to create a contraption consisting of a camera obscura and an additional pair of mirrors that allowed him to create sketches strikingly similar to Vermeer's work. To put his device to the ultimate test, the engineer and art enthusiast had decided to recreate a Vermeer—specifically The Music Lesson, painted between 1662 and 1665—down to the smallest detail. There was only one not-insignificant obstacle: While Jenison is an accomplished inventor and engineer, he isn't, and has never been, a formally trained painter.

Listening to his friend's theory and, more importantly, watching the videotaped evidence Jenison had brought along to dinner courtesy of a small camera he had clipped to his belt, Jillette's show-business savvy quickly reasserted itself. "He told me that this idea of recreating a Vermeer was similar to one of his magic tricks, and asked what I was going to do with it," Jenison continues. "I said that I would probably write a paper or make a YouTube video and he replied, 'That's a dumb idea—you should make a movie. Let's go to Los Angeles and start pitching this.’” Thus ended Jillette's vain attempt to take a night off from show business…

And thus began the journey that would result in Tim's Vermeer, a film (as well as a painting) that took some four years to complete and opens in theatres in early February following a successful film festival run last year. (The film was also one of the 15 features shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar at this year's Academy Awards.) Although he was the instigator behind the movie, Jillette declined to direct it himself, instead turning that chore over to his literally silent partner, Teller, who forms the other half of their world-famous magic act, Penn & Teller. Though he never utters a word during their appearances onstage (the pair currently have a permanent home at the Rio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas) or screen (where their shared credits include the 1989 movie, Penn & Teller Get Killed, as well as the 2003-2010 Showtime series, “Penn & Teller: Bullshit!”), the 65-year-old Latin teacher-turned-illusionist proves a natural-born conversationalist when given the opportunity.

"I had already been introduced to Tim's invention when they called me on the phone about the film," Teller recalls. "Penn showed the footage to me backstage after one of our shows and it was the perfect thing for me to be interested in, because both my parents were painters. I've also been a magician for the largest portion of my life and one of the central tools of magic is the 45-degree angle mirror, which we use almost exactly the way that Tim does [in his invention]. I knew it was going to be a tricky thing to pull off as sheer entertainment, because in order to follow this very weird, very slow-motion thrill ride, the audience has to know a lot. I mean, at heart, this is a suspenseful detective story and you have to get the exposition in there or people don't know what the risks are."

Perhaps not surprisingly, raising the funds to make a real-life detective story starring a 20th-century inventor and a 17th-century artist proved a challenge in the current Hollywood climate, particularly when the star of the film wasn't a household name, let alone an actual painter. "We tried pitching it to a few people and it looked like a risky proposition," Jenison says. "We had a general idea that it was going to work, but we really didn't know. After all, I was going to paint a Vermeer and I had never painted before. We couldn’t get anybody to spring for it, so eventually Penn said, ‘Let's produce it ourselves.’”

While Jenison converted a rented warehouse into an art studio containing both his device as well as a life-sized replica of the scene depicted in The Music Lesson (right down to the furniture and the harpsichord upon which the pupil is practicing the titular lesson), Teller assembled a small but dedicated crew that included producer Farley Ziegler (who produced the hit 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, which also featured an appearance by Penn & Teller) and editor Patrick Sheffield. Shooting practically around-the-clock on digital cameras, the filmmakers eventually amassed thousands of hours of footage chronicling the daily grind (and, as viewers will see, it really does become a grind) of Jenison's multi-year experiment, as well as interviews with the "artist" himself and footage of him interacting with such interested parties as actor/painter Martin Mull and David Hockney himself, who agreed to meet with Jenison during the latter's trip to England where he hoped to score a private audience with the original copy of The Music Lesson, currently hanging on the wall of—wait for it—Buckingham Palace.

Meanwhile, back in Las Vegas, Teller was faced with the daunting prospect of distilling this abundance of material into a coherent narrative that would accomplish his twin goals of enlightening the audience without putting them to sleep. "We went down many blind alleys," he says of the lengthy editing process. "We shot lots of footage you don't see in the film and that I'm sure will be plentiful in the DVD extras. At one point, for example, we thought the entire movie would consist of little Penn & Teller bits with documentary footage in between them. In fact, when we were in London, we shot a whole segment in one of the alleys where Jack the Ripper did his dirty deeds with an actress dressed in period costume as a whore lying on the cobblestones covered in blood, while Penn did a rap about unsolved mysteries. We also had this crazy idea of presenting the movie as a videogame with a bar on one side of the screen showing the amount of Tim's life force left in him as he continues to paint the damn painting.

"But the more we looked at the footage," he continues, "We saw that Tim—who does not consider himself to be a performer—is actually a wonderful, fascinating human being and being side-by-side with him is the core of the movie. What we saw kept leading us back to this fundamentally simple idea that's summarized by Penn at the end of the film when he says, 'My friend Tim painted a Vermeer in a warehouse in Texas.' That sentence provided us with the one piece of absolute clarity we had. It told us to get rid of the affectation and tell Tim's story honestly and that would be enough."

The straightforward narrative suggested by that sentence also convinced Teller to omit any mention of competing theories about Vermeer's methods or interview art-history specialists who might be critical of Jenison's experiment. "The film's contention is that this might have been the way Vermeer worked and in that sense, it doesn't overstate its claim. Tim doesn't say, ‘I know this is how Vermeer did it,’ he says, ‘I don't know if this is how Vermeer did it, but it certainly could have been.’ I'm happy if skeptics question it because we question it, too. We just didn't think it was worthwhile covering in the film. I remember writing Penn an e-mail saying that I didn't think we should interview people in response to Tim's painting, because the story the film tells is Tim setting this goal for himself and achieving it. He's not dependent on the opinion of other people; he's the most skeptical of his own work and so this whole project was Tim taking this theory and testing it in a furnace of fire." (Jenison himself adds, "It's still up in the air whether Vermeer did this—it's certainly not proof.")

The relative formal and narrative simplicity of Tim's Vermeer is probably the last thing viewers will likely expect from a Penn & Teller production, given that both men have frequently dedicated their illusionist talents to exposing half-truths and flat-out untruths in often outrageous ways. But, far from being an anomaly, Teller says that the film complements their longstanding interests. "There's an academic school that likes to think of Vermeer as some weird godlike figure who can walk up to a canvas and magically paint with light," he explains. "But that's the point of view of old hippies and lofty academics. It's a lot like some of the things we dealt with on ‘Bullshit!’: looking into something supernatural where the natural version was so much more interesting.

"The idea that painters actually work is shocking to some people," he continues. "They are often the same people who think that concert pianists open the score and just sit down and play it. Whereas I'm well-acquainted with the fact that to get to beauty, you have to go through a lot of work. The biggest secret behind any magic trick is that I'm willing to go through a lot more trouble than you'd believe to do a stupid trick that's just to make you laugh. There's a trick in our show that I put in a couple of years ago that's about three minutes long and it's a very old-fashioned idea of a big red children's ball that comes to life and obeys me. I put 18 months of work into that before I put it into the show for the first time and it was tremendously boring! But every night I'd work for an hour on the thing and every few days I'd make a discovery. I think it's beautiful to know that to get to beauty you have to work. It's something you can forget in the television age when you look at the products on TV and think, 'Wow, all I have to do is buy that!’ I think this movie is a reminder that getting to beauty is a real achievement."

And there really is beauty, not to mention inspiration and no small amount of entertainment value, in watching Jenison dedicate his life to this harebrained scheme of painting a Vermeer, even as it threatens to consume his life and—in one particularly difficult stretch that requires him to recreate a Turkish carpet seen in the painting down to the very last dot—his good-natured temperament. "That was the farthest thing from my mind," Jenison says of his sure-to-be status as an inspirational figure. "But after one of my co-workers saw an early edit of the film, he said, 'I've gotta start working on my novel.' And Farley says that she hears that a lot, that it's an inspirational story. I just tried my best. I thought it was an interesting experiment and I had no idea how much work it was going to be. As I say in the film, I probably would have put it on the backburner at some point and not finished it, but I had cameras pointed at me 24/7 almost and people calling me every day checking on my progress, so I just couldn't turn back. In retrospect, it was a wonderful thing and I feel so fortunate that I had the time and resources to do it."

For his part, Teller feels that his leading man is being a tad modest. "Being around Tim is an inspiring experience, because he's the kind of person who will build his own Everest and scale it. I think that a lot of people in the arts, as well as a lot of writers, are very sympathetic to the theme of the movie. You know that once you've had this conversation with me, you're going to go through this period of misery where you're sorting this story out and turning it into something beautiful for the readers. That's your job. And it's work! If it comes out spontaneous on the page, it's because you made it that way—it's not that it just happened that way."