Penn Jillette considers the magic of ‘Tim’s Vermeer’

Penn & Teller produced the new documentary “Tim’s Vermeer” but don’t be fooled. It’s not some elaborate con, a sleight of hand, an act of deception.

The film, which follows the efforts of inventor Tim Jenison to replicate the revolutionary painting techniques of 17th century master Johannes Vermeer, offers a radical theory to explain Vermeer’s photo-realistic works: Vermeer produced them through an elaborate process employing mirrors and the camera obscura.

amNewYork spoke with Penn Jillette about the movie, which opens for a one-week Oscar qualifying run on Friday before returning early next year.

How did such an unlikely project come about?

The way it came about is just so stupid. I wanted to talk to a friend that had nothing to do with show business, that could not lead to work. I realized it had been like six months that I had not talked to anybody outside of my family and outside of work. There was no one that I talked to that I wasn’t making money from. So I called Tim and said, “Fly into Vegas, and let’s just chat.” I started a conversation with, “Talk to me about something that has nothing to do with work.” And Tim said, “How much do you know about Vermeer?”

What about Tim as a subject?

This is not what I’d say to Tim, of course, but I also thought people would love learning about Tim. Learning that there’s that kind of person. Learning what Tony Stark would look like in the real world. This is what Iron Man would really do.

It seems like the sort of material some would view with serious skepticism.

I thought that Tim and I would just waltz into BBC America or Discovery or National Geographic, we had meetings with all of them, and say “Tim’s going to paint a Vermeer in his garage and we think you should cover it.” My idea was that I would kind of lay it off on someone else. … What I didn’t realize was that I was the problem on that. When I went in with Tim and said, “He may have figured out how Vermeer did his paintings,” people immediately went to the fact that this is the guy who does b——- and we’re being set up. We were dealt with as those we were Sacha Baron Cohen.

What’s your view of what the movie reveals?

What we’re saying is not diminshing. What we’re saying is, “Here’s a guy who invented photography in the 17th Century. Here’s a guy that created the way we see the world.” It’s so much bigger.

How does Tim’s work parallel your conception of magic?

What we have always said in magic, which I also think is the sophisticated view of magic, is that magic is supposed to be very dfiferent from special effects. It’s not supposed to be the willing suspension of disbelief. … Magic, modern magic, entertainment magic, is supposed to be an epistemological study.