Amherst Magazine

Testing a Theory

By Josh Bell ’02
Magician Teller ’69 follows inventor Tim Jenison’s attempt to recreate a Dutch painting. [Documentary] Onstage every night in Las Vegas as part of the Penn & Teller show, magician Teller ’69 makes an impression without ever saying a word. While his partner, Penn Jillette, is the verbose one, making jokes, taunting the audience, boasting about the feats of magic on display, Teller remains silent, letting his skills at crafting illusions speak for themselves. That same dynamic is present in Tim’s Vermeer.

The documentary—directed by Teller and produced by Jillette—follows inventor and technologist Tim Jenison’s attempt to recreate a painting by 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer.

Teller ’69
Teller has now found success in a new field.
Photo by Beverly Poppe

“We’ve known Tim for a long time,” Teller says, explaining that the idea for the movie came while Jillette and Jenison were having dinner together.

Jenison told Jillette about his theory that Vermeer had used mirrors and camera obscura to capture the remarkable detail in his paintings. Jenison had created his own device using mirrors and lenses, and was planning to paint his own version of Vermeer’s The Music Lesson, despite having no training or experience as a painter. While Jenison hoped to make a YouTube video or write an academic paper, Jillette had bigger plans.

“Penn said, ‘No, you’re not. This is a movie. This is obviously a movie,’” Teller says. “They hopped on a plane, went to L.A. and tried pitching it. Nobody would buy it.”

Enter Teller. As the de facto director of the Penn & Teller stage show, as well as the director of a number of theater productions (his macabre show Play Dead recently ended its latest run in Los Angeles, and his version of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with music by Tom Waits, premieres in Las Vegas in April), Teller had the requisite experience to direct the movie, plus an obvious connection to the main players.

Tim Jenison polishing a 17th-century-style lens

Tim Jenison polishes a 17th-century-style lens that he made for his experiment.

“But also I was a schoolteacher,” he says. “And they realized that in this film, there’s a lot of stuff that you have to learn without really realizing that you’re learning. It just sort of has to slide by.”

The film combines lessons in technology and art history with a detailed character study of Jenison. Although Jillette gets plenty of screen time as a narrator and guide (and Teller himself can be glimpsed a handful of times), Jenison is the star. “The more we looked at the footage,” Teller says, “the more we realized that this was not a film about Vermeer’s technology, this was not a film about Penn or Teller—it was a film about this amazing and fascinating, driven, genius guy.”

The movie documents the years Jenison devoted to studying Vermeer’s work and perfecting his own device for replicating it, and the months he spent meticulously recreating first the room depicted in The Music Lesson (complete with furniture Jenison built with his own hands) and then the painting itself.

Tim Jenison adjust his model’s wig

Jenison adjusts his model’s wig. Shane F. Kelly, © High Delft Pictures

Since its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, Tim’s Vermeer has garnered critical acclaim and awards buzz, making Teller a success in a whole new field.

At the same time, Teller is dedicated to his Vegas stage show, for which he and Jillette are always developing new illusions, and the pair also have some top-secret TV projects in the works. That’s in addition to The Tempest and any other stage productions he might direct.

“If I found a [documentary] idea that captivated me, I wouldn’t hesitate to pursue it,” the magician says. “I don’t care where I am or what my title is; I just want to be working on something that fascinates me.”