It is disconcerting, at least for a few moments, to hear Teller speak. This would be Raymond Joseph Teller, for more than 30 years the composed, more-or-less silent half of the famed Penn & Teller magic/comedy/iconoclast duo. But speak he did, confidently, articulately and at length last fall during the Toronto International Film Festival, where his volubility almost equalled that of his more famously voluble sidekick, Penn Jillette.
Teller, 66, and Jillette, 58, were in the city for the premiere of Tim’s Vermeer, a documentary about a Texas-based inventor’s demonstration that Johannes Vermeer had to have used optical aids in painting such masterpieces as Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665) and The Music Lesson (1663). The film, directed by Teller and co-produced by Jillette (who’s also its narrator), is in commercial release this month in Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.
“Tim” is Tim Jenison, rumpled geek and self-made millionaire (for his video production and post-production software and hardware) who’s been a friend of both magicians but an especially close one to Jillette for almost a quarter-century. They met through Brad Carvey, like Jenison an inventor, but also the older brother of Dana Carvey, the Saturday Night Live alumnus who shared the bill with the magicians during a late-1980s run at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City. Jillette and Jenison initially bonded over a shared atheism. Then, Jillette said with a laugh, Jenison “proceeded to single-handedly change me into a libertarian, too.”
“Tim’s really, really smart – way smarter than me, way more hard-working, way more accomplished. I’m always learning something from him,” said Jillette, explaining the inventor’s appeal. “It’s inspiring to be around that. I once said to [TV political analyst] Lawrence O’Donnell, Jr.: ‘I like to be the stupidest person in my circle of friends.’ And Lawrence said, ‘Fortunately, that’s easy for you.’”
When Jenison decided around 2008 that he was going to paint Vermeer’s The Music Lesson the way he believed Vermeer had originally painted it some 300-plus years earlier – with the assistance of mirrors and lenses, Jillette insisted a documentary had to be made. However, after pitches to Hollywood TV and movie producers went nowhere, Jeison and Jillette decided to finance the project themselves and enlist Teller as director. “He’s always directed the Penn and Teller shows,” Jillette observed. “And even if he hadn’t done a documentary like this, I figured with a good director of photography and a good editor, Teller’s sensibility would be right.”
Teller was “thrilled” to come aboard. “I love jigsaw puzzles, in a certain way, and there’s an element of that here,” he said. “To understand this story, the audience has to really know a lot, and figuring out to unfold that is exactly the kind of thing I love to do – plotting things, organizing plots.”
“We went down all sorts of blind alleys,” he added, writing no fewer than 58 drafts before settling on the straightforward narrative of Jenison’s attempt to paint The Music Lesson in precise detail, using the controversial techniques that Vermeer may have employed. “And that was plenty complicated enough,” Teller added.
“One Penn analogy or metaphor was of Tim solving an old mystery, like in a detective story,” Teller said. “So when we were in England [the real Music Lesson is housed at Buckingham Palace], we found ourselves shooting Penn in an alley where Jack the Ripper had murdered one of his victims while this actress playing a dead whore lay bloody on the ground!”
Both magicians acknowledged that ascribing the brilliance of The Music Lesson to something besides Vermeer’s superb eye and deft paintbrush will strike some as a kind of devaluation of artist and art. For Jillette, that’s an old-fashioned, even “insane” understanding of art. “If a work of art – whether it’s a painting or a poem or a movie or a musical composition – touches you, has meaning for you, is beautiful. That’s what matters,” he said.
“If it matters how you do it,” he added, “it becomes sports, not art. How you cross the finish line, on foot or by horse or on a bicycle – that matters in sports. But what that finished product says to you is what matters in art. And didn’t Andy Warhol say, ‘Art is whatever you can get away with’?”
Chimed Teller: “If someone likes this movie, is he going to like it more from knowing that we fumbled around and went in all these wrong directions first? You don’t care about that in the theatre. The fact we eventually got a nice, simple story is what you care about”
“What you see in the film is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg of the intellectual effort, the calculations that Tim went through,” Teller said. “It isn’t just the sweat you see in the movie; there’s a lot of sweat that’s less photogenic that’s not in there. But that’s part of what makes it amazing.”