Teller Speaks: He's Directed a Horror Magic Show and a Documentary About Vermeer

Tim Jenison from Tim's Vermeer
Tim Jenison from Tim's Vermeer

"I'm the busiest human being on earth," says Teller, and that is startling whether it's true or not. You don't expect anything -- let alone such bold assertions -- from someone who rarely speaks on camera, a man who has built his reputation as the soundless, mysterious half of the Penn & Teller magic act.

Behind the scenes, in an interview with L.A. Weekly, Teller barely stops talking. With the number of fresh projects he's been juggling this year, silence is not a luxury he can afford to keep.

In addition to his popular show with Penn Jillette, which he still performs about five times a week in Las Vegas, he's directed the new documentary Tim's Vermeer, opening in February, and the magic show Play Dead, which is running at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 15.

In person, Teller is a natural storyteller, and a wickedly sarcastic one at that. He acknowledges the irony of speaking to a reporter: "I've been known to speak offstage, yes," he deadpans. "But for you I imagine it's as if your armchair started to talk, so I understand the novelty."

Teller speaks with obvious relish about Play Dead, which stars macabre magician Tim Robbins.

"Be in an environment with an extremely funny, happy arch-fiend doing a show for you in which you will be periodically plunged into darkness," he says. "You will scream and laugh and see luminous spectres reaching out to touch you. A thrill ride that also has some really nice, serious thoughts about life and death woven into it."

Some of the show's material is inappropriate for young viewers or "the faint of heart," in part because of its frank discussion of death. But for all its existential themes, the show is equal parts throwback kitsch. Teller admits that Play Dead is an adult version of a midnight spook show, the 1930s post-movie magic act that gave teenagers an excuse to make out in the dark. "Bring a date," he quips.

Teller has been directing Penn & Teller stage shows and TV episodes for many years (he also did a gory version of Macbeth in 2008 at the Folger Theatre in D.C.) but his first big cinematic effort, Tim's Vermeer, is picking up early buzz at film festivals like Lone Star and Telluride.

Tim Jenison copies a picture of his father-in-law in Tim's Vermeer
Tim Jenison copies a picture of his father-in-law in Tim's Vermeer
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

The film follows the efforts of Tim Jenison, renowned tech inventor and founder of software giant NewTek, as he investigates the artistic techniques of 15th-century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. Historians have extolled Vermeer's works, like The Music Lesson and Girl with a Peal Earring, for their stunning detail and photorealism, and some have even speculated that Vermeer used more tools than just his artistic eye.

Jenison expanded on this theory, suggesting that Vermeer may have used a lens and a mirror to reflect the images back to himself, a simple variation on a camera obscura. With special glasses that place a mirror close to his eye, on an angle (pictured above), Vermeer could look towards his canvas and see the mirrored image waiting there like an old-fashioned paint-by-numbers, allowing him to copy real scenes in perfect, painstaking detail. Jenison went to test this theory Mythbusters-style, by embarking on a three-year project to create his own Vermeer using the same methods.

That concept plays better on film than it does on paper, and Teller is the first to admit it. "Just spoken about in isolation, the project sounds dry," he says. "I imagine that some of the people they pitched this to thought, 'We've gotta do a movie about a guy making a painting? What kind of movie is that?'"

He reasons that the difficult pitch is why Jenison and company couldn't find anyone to buy the project. After being rejected by the BBC, a core team of Jenison, Penn, Teller, editor Patrick Sheffield and producer Farley Ziegler decided to make the film on their own.

Jenison is a friend of Teller's, a relationship that is based on mutual admiration, one tech wizard to another. But it was Penn who stumbled across the potential for the film, when he and Jenison were having dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse. According to Teller, the Penn & Teller duo were experiencing some personal friction before this project fell into their laps.

"Penn had been working with me in Vegas for about 15 years," he explains. "But those conversations where you get together with friends -- where you get together at 11 o'clock at night and talk until 3 in the morning, those conversations that take you someplace where you never knew it was going to take you -- that wasn't happening anymore. And he felt hungry for that. He felt a little lonely and depressed."

Teller doesn't mention how he was feeling at that time, or what exactly he thought about his magic partner's disillusionment. But he continues:

"[Penn] called up Tim in Texas and said 'Would you do me a favor and just fly out with me? Have dinner with me, and just talk about anything other than show business.'"

So Jenison flew to Las Vegas to have dinner with Penn, and that's when Jenison unhooked a video camera from his belt and showed Penn the first stage of his artistic experiment. Jenison had filmed himself -- armed with only a paintbrush and his own mirror contraption -- copying a photograph of his father-in-law in perfect, precise detail, a scene he would later recreate for the movie. His technique was a different kind of magic, one that illuminated an artist's brilliance rather than obscuring it in shadows. When Penn heard the full plans for the experiment he was amazed -- until Jenison said he was thinking of presenting his findings as a YouTube video.

"Penn said 'Stop! Do not do another thing! We're gonna do a movie about this!'" Teller relates this part of the story with a Cheshire Cat smile. "So Penn's vain attempt to get away from show business shattered immediately."

Upper left to lower right: Philip Steadman, Teller, Tim Jenison, David Hockney and Penn Jillette.
Upper left to lower right: Philip Steadman, Teller, Tim Jenison, David Hockney and Penn Jillette.
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classic

What followed was the long process of making an eccentric dream a reality, which included building an exact scale model of the scene from Vermeer's The Music Lesson in Jenison's Austin-based warehouse. The team flew to Vermeer's home town, Delft, where Teller picked up some atmospheric shots. Then they ran afoul of the Queen of England, who at first denied Jenison access to the original painting, which she houses in Buckingham Palace. Then, at the very last minute, she changed her mind. Jenison was allowed a private audience with The Music Room, an experience that caused him to break down in tears.

"It's a detective story," says Teller. "We thought this movie was going to be about Vermeer. What we found as we worked on it was that this was about Tim and his passion for this project. All about Tim and what a genius he is and how he's willing to go to any lengths to find the story."

Teller's next story is another plunge into live theater. Next year he is directing Shakespeare's The Tempest for the American Repertory Theater in Boston, giving it the kind of magic effects he feels the show deserves. It's bound to be a spectacle, he says, with music by Tom Waits and movement by Pilobolus.

One can imagine how the story of Prospero, an aging sorcerer in exile, could fit with Teller's special brand of dazzle. "Because it's about a magician," he says. "A magician giving up his magic. And what would it take to make you willing to give up magic, when it's your passion?"

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