The quiet half of Penn & Teller spoke eloquently about making “Tim’s Vermeer” during Wednesday night’s Q&A following TheWrap’s screening at the Landmark Theaters.
Teller, who directed the quirky documentary, told the crowd that the project grew out of a dinner between magic partner Penn Jillette and old friend Tim Jenison. Eager for distraction from his kids and the duo’s successful Las Vegas show, Penn implored his pal to visit and talk “about anything that has nothing to do with showbiz,” Teller said.
Before the dinner was over, Teller said, Penn had convinced the wealthy software designer that his quixotic quest to paint like Johannes Vermeer should be turned into a movie.
Jenison, whose software company developed Video Toaster and Lightwave 3D, was obsessed with figuring out how the Dutch Master managed to paint so photo-realistically in the 17th century. Ever the scientist, he set about trying to recreate the materials Vermeer might have used.
Teller said his partner asked him to direct the movie because it was “Penn’s opinion if I directed it, it would have a peculiar slant to it.” Certainly, he added, expecting an audience to sit through a painting of that scope was a peculiar approach.
The documentary traces the project from start to finish, explaining techniques such as camera obscura and interviewing Martin Mull and renowned painter David Hockney along the way. Teller admitted that they shot lots of footage – 2,400 hundred hours of it – during the five-year project.
“It took quite a while to find the spine,” he said.
Among the tactics the filmmakers considered, but dropped, but using a “Bullshit” approach. The magicians work on that Showtime series shows in the clear explanation of technical issues. Teller, who is directing “Play Dead” at the Geffen Theater, said that they decided that they “had to get out of the way” and focus on Jenison.
Many of the updates the increasingly weary Jenison provides in the documentary come from his one-on-one Skype sessions with producer Farley Ziegler. “This movie couldn’t have been made five years ago because we didn’t have the technology,” Teller said.
He said that they shopped the project to financiers before they began, but got no nibbles, attributing the lack of interest to the fact it “sounds like a crackpot idea.” Once they were done with the project, they brought it to Sony Classics, which quickly scooped it up.
Teller got a chuckle from the crowd when he talked about one point mid-way through the project that he asked Jenison, “What if you don’t succeed?”
He said Jenison got a deer in the headlights look and replied: “There won’t be a movie.”
“And I said, ‘Oh yes, there will,'” Teller recalled.
“I think that was one of the things that kept him going.”