The moviegoer: “Teller” (born Raymond Joseph Teller), half of the magic act Penn & Teller with longtime partner Penn Jillette. Teller recently directed the documentary Tim’s Vermeer, about his inventor friend Tim Jenison attempting to construct a mechanical device that will let him paint as photorealistically as 17th-century Dutch master Johannes Vermeer. Tim’s Vermeer is now available on DVD and Blu-ray from Sony Pictures Classics.
The movie: The Towering Inferno, the multi-Oscar-nominated (and multi-Oscar-winning) 1974 disaster picture about a fire that traps hundreds of people atop a new super-skyscraper. Produced by Irwin Allen, directed by John Guillermin, and written by Stirling Silliphant (adapting two separate books), The Towering Inferno sports an all-star cast that includes Steve McQueen as a San Francisco fire chief and Paul Newman as an architect who sees the trouble coming.
The Dissolve: Why The Towering Inferno?
Teller: I was on a binge of watching disaster movies. I remembered something of the quality of the acting of The Poseidon Adventure, but I was stunned to see that The Towering Inferno is also incredibly well-constructed, and it’s scary. I expected it to be crap, but it’s thrilling, much more so than any of the disaster things I’ve seen that are more recent. Part of it may be that back then, people were actually doing fire stunts, so there’s that thing that comes from the authenticity of actually doing those gags.
And the writing is good. Here’s the problem with disaster movies: You watch something like Earthquake, which is a piece of shit, and all that happens is, there’s an earthquake, and people suffer. Then there are all these contrived stories stuck into it, to try to give you the impression that you’re watching a story. Well, in a movie that’s about something unpleasant happening, if you don’t have the possibility of getting away from it, there’s no drama. It’s why the vampire legend has survived in the movies for a very long time, because vampires, unlike certain other kinds of monsters, have weak spots. You have some hope of being able to get away from the monster. If you catch the monster at the right moment, you can drive a stake through its heart. In Earthquake, it’s a lot of people running around and screaming, and mediocre special effects on all sides, and a lot of rumbling. It’s poor Charlton Heston in a ludicrous marriage, having a ludicrous affair with Geneviève Bujold, who runs around without a brassiere a lot.
In The Towering Inferno, you have something very, very distinct. You have a group of people trapped in a dangerous area who need to escape. There can be some real drama about that. And to add to that, this is a movie whose effect has multiplied by probably 10 since 9/11. The imagery is of things we thought were hypothetical. We thought we’d never see anything like this. We thought we’d never see people in desperation, leaping from a burning building. Well, now we have. So it has a resonance that it didn’t have when it was made.
May I say also about The Towering Inferno: I love carnival mentalities, and Irwin Allen has, famously, a carnival mentality, but with this vast level of skill and vast resources to draw from. He has really all the finest artists and designers around, working on making that movie work. You also learn something from it. You learn the rig by which firemen transport people out a building, in a little chair or by a cable. You actually learn something from that. You don’t learn anything from Earthquake.
The Dissolve: You attribute The Towering Inferno to Irwin Allen, and not the director or the writer?
Teller: I don’t know if that’s exactly an either/or. Irwin Allen didn’t direct it. Irwin Allen only produced it. But we’ve gotten into this very French way of thinking of the director as the author of the movie, overlooking the fact that the director is part of this enormous collaboration. Great performances grab my eye, and I think Steve McQueen is quite wonderful in that movie, and I think Paul Newman is fine. Although that thing that drove Hitchcock crazy about Paul Newman when he worked with him was that he has to do his Actor’s Studio reaction to everything. If he sees somebody terribly burnt, he has to wince. As any director will tell you, there are times when what you want is to let the audience do that wince, instead of doing it for them. You don’t really see any of that in Steve McQueen. McQueen plays everything under—very intellectual. He treats the whole thing as a problem to be solved.
There’s one moment when McQueen’s told that someone needs to get on top of the building and blow up the water tanks, and he says, “And how does that guy get out of there?” Then there’s a silence from the guy proposing the idea, and McQueen responds, “Shit.” In that one Steve McQueen “shit,” you get the essence of his character, who’s the most American sort of heroic character you could possibly imagine.
The Dissolve: Why were you watching so many disaster movies?
Teller: I don’t watch much TV, but pretty much every night of the week, right before I go to my show, I watch either some recent or older movie. It’s just part of my daily intellectual regimen to see things I haven’t watched for a long time, or I’ve never seen. Like, last night I watched Red River. Which is not very good, really.
The Dissolve: Oh?
Teller: Yes, yes, it’s Howard Hawks and John Wayne, and Monty Clift is really amazing in that. He’s as good as Kevin Costner is in Silverado, which… I never had much interest in Kevin Costner, and then I saw him in Silverado and thought, “Gosh, this guy is a real star.” That was in the days where he was allowing himself to be funny. Then he got very, very serious and got very, very uninteresting to me.
Anyway, I’ll just go through kicks where I’ll watch different kinds of things.
The Dissolve: And disaster was one of those kicks?
Teller: The things that interest me in life are laughing and having little hairs stand up on the back of my neck, which if you get right down to it, is what I go to a movie for. I guess crying is really a part of it, too. There’s nothing I like more than a movie that chokes me up. So disaster movies are something I had neglected, and thought I should really pay some attention to.
The Dissolve: Red River is beloved by movie buffs. Do you put much stock in the notion of a cinema canon?
Teller: You know, there are movies in the canon that I positively worship. I worship Psycho. If you had to boil down my cinema love to a single thing—if I had to choose a desert-island movie—Psycho would be it. Because Psycho combines so much. It has one singular extraordinary performance by Anthony Perkins, that has never been exceeded. There are performances that stand out, like Perkins in Psycho, like Hattie McDaniel in Gone With The Wind: those hyper-real, deep, profoundly beautiful, utterly original characterizations. Psycho also speaks to its own age, from a time when everybody was interested in psychoanalysis. It speaks to Hitchcock’s connection to his early days as a silent filmmaker, with every image really being a formulated idea. It has that fabulous Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, which is based on a very early piece of his. That score was not really written for the movie, it was adapted from a piece of art-music he did earlier in the 20th century. So it’s full of these happy connections of things, and on top of it, Psycho kind of invented the form. You could argue that Diabolique is similar, and Diabolique was certainly part of Hitchcock’s inspiration. And I also love Diabolique. But there’s something about the level of performance and the sweetness and the humor and the sadness of Psycho that I can’t resist.
I sort of approach each movie individually. I do think things that are regarded as classics are usually at least worth investigating. When I was in school, I studied Latin and Greek because I thought that if people have been studying this as part of their curriculum for 2,000 years, then there’s probably something in it for me. And it turns out, there really is. There’s not only the language stuff, but there’s the literature you can’t get in the translation.
So yes, I do regard “the canon,” although I find Citizen Kane boring. I think it’s magnificent, but dull, because Orson Welles’ performance is so wooden. For a movie to be truly great, you can’t just have all of the visual decisions be interesting and right. You gotta have at least one person in there giving an astounding performance. I think Double Indemnity is a masterpiece: the perfect movie. That has three extraordinary performances. One thing I noticed about films that I like is that they tend to have actors from different schools of acting, using different flavors. When you get Fred MacMurray, who’s really a comedian, side by side with Edward G. Robinson, who’s so deep… and then I’ve never seen a Barbara Stanwyck movie that hasn’t killed me. She’s just always good.
There are some in the canon that I come back to again and again. If you want a movie that does the job of making you cry almost from the opening frame, The Best Years Of Our Lives is a masterpiece. There are some that are out of the canon that I come back to again and again. I come back to Frantic, the movie with Harrison Ford. I love that movie. I get in the mood for Frantic. I get hungry for Frantic. It’s a deeply indulgent movie about a guy’s preoccupation with that sexual object that preoccupies him. And it’s all steeped in Paris. I’ll come back to that maybe once a year, and that’s not part of the canon.
I have to say, my canon is heavily Hitchcock-based. There’s really nothing I like watching more than North By Northwest. I love the structure of North By Northwest. The construction of that movie is so artful, and so full of beautiful twists. You know, when I hear about people like Robert McKee using models from the old days, and hear what he pulls out of something like North By Northwest, I go, “No no no! Don’t do that.” Do what the old artists did. They’d send their students to the museum and say, “Copy this painting.” And by observing it directly, they would learn things. Don’t abstract what it is that you’re supposed to learn in your own shallow way. Let the students themselves learn what’s powerful in a piece of art.
The Dissolve: That sounds a little like the lesson of Tim’s Vermeer.
Teller: Maybe that was my underlying motive for bringing it up.
The Dissolve: What is the lesson of Tim’s Vermeer, though? On a basic level, your movie seems to suggest that art is a mechanical process, and that if Tim can replicate the process, he can make art. But is that art, what Tim does? Is Tim’s Vermeer ultimately suggesting something else?
Teller: The bottom line on Tim’s Vermeer is that there is, amongst art historians, this sort of woofty idea that genius consists of somehow magically being able to place everything that’s in your head onto a canvas just by walking up and waving your brush over it—that the only thing that counts as genius is a belief in a supernatural being who can do this kind of stuff with no work. I think that comes from academics, because academics fundamentally don’t do, they talk about. They fundamentally think about things from the outside, and not from the point of view of someone who would actually have to execute those things.
I had this fantastic conversation when I was first meeting with Conrad Pope, who did the gorgeous score for Tim’s Vermeer, and I said to Conrad, “What, to you, is the movie about?” And he said, “It’s about making this movement.” And he made a quick gesture with his right hand: a short, straight line. And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “That’s drawing the stem of a note.” He said, “Think about how many times Bach had to make that motion with his hand in order to write the St. Matthew Passion.” Think about how many times, physically, he had to do that, and how exhausting that would be, and how much work there is behind all of those things that academics are pleased to say about them, “Oh, that’s just genius.”
So that’s what Tim’s Vermeer really is: a celebration of the fact that genius is not supernatural, genius is natural, and that artists are human beings, and deserve credit for all the work they put into what they do. You know, Stephen Sondheim in Sunday In The Park With George has George making dot after dot after dot after dot, and later in the play, there’s a song with the line “art isn’t easy.” That also is fundamentally connected to Tim’s Vermeer. Vermeer maybe wasn’t just a brilliant composer of images, and maybe wasn’t just a brilliant imaginer of images, but maybe also had a scientific bent that allowed him to get a level of accuracy that most other artists of the period did not even aspire to. It seems to me to enhance our image of Vermeer, not in any way to dismiss him, to say, “I couldn’t paint a Vermeer, but what I could do is perhaps use Tim’s method to get pieces of an image very, very accurate.” That deepens what Vermeer is. He’s isn’t just a great painter and a great imaginer. He is also perhaps a scientist, and unquestionably a worker.
And then think about a house full of kids, and remember that at that time, a fine painting, like some of Vermeer’s paintings, would sell for a considerable amount of money. I mean, some paintings were the price of a house. You could then very easily change your image of Vermeer to imagine somebody working very hard. You know he took about six months per painting to produce something extraordinary—and incidentally, he wasn’t universally popular in his day, because the work was so very strange.
The Dissolve: As a creator yourself, were you able to apply what you learned from Tim, what you learned about Vermeer, and what you’ve learned from decades of movies when you made your documentary?
Teller: I was able to make use of my skill as a viewer, because the hardest thing about Tim’s Vermeer was to figure out what the film was. It’s a documentary, not a piece of fiction. When we went into it, we didn’t know if Tim was going to succeed. We were confident in him, but confidence is very different from certainty, and when he finished—and when we were finished shooting—we thought we had a movie about Vermeer’s technology. That’s what we actually thought the movie was about. And we tried to put the movie together that way. We tried, for example, modeling it after Penn & Teller’s Bullshit, where Penn and I would do a little segment about, let’s say, the use of mirrors in magic tricks, and then we would go to Tim inventing his comparative mirror. But when we put together little pieces of the film that way, we looked at it and we said, “You know what, that’s not right. That’s not what this film is.”
It took us many, many, many drafts—I’m under the impression that it was around 79 drafts—before the obvious hit us in the face, that this was a movie about the nature of someone who could actually accomplish something in his life. This movie’s about Tim: the kind of person who is able to focus and concentrate and work and not be discouraged, and keep a sense of humor and endure the physical difficulties and experience the heart-thrilling triumph. We began to realize this is a movie about Tim Jenison, and his attempt to paint a Vermeer.
We were really quite lost, and at one point, we were close to giving up, because there’s so much material in there. You need some kind of spine to hang it on. Then I remembered a piece of film that we almost discarded, in which I asked Tim, “Are you going to succeed?” And he blanched for a moment, “You know, when I’m laying in bed, all I can think about is painting a Vermeer.” Suddenly, when we saw that piece of film we said, “Okay, that’s the movie: Tim paints a Vermeer.” That very simple sentence: “Tim paints a Vermeer.” Once we had that idea, that put everything in its place. Because then all of that technical stuff that you have to understand can arise at the moment Tim has to address that technical stuff.
The Dissolve: You mentioned the practical effects of The Towering Inferno, and how those impress you because they were actual fire stunts.
Teller: Well, I guess you’d really have to test it out with me. You’d have to show me a digital fire gag and then show me a practical fire gag, and see whether I can tell the difference. But I fancy that the limitations of a real fire gag in some way affect the viewer. There’s something about this feeling of, “It doesn’t look absolutely perfect.” If Paul Newman throws a wet towel over his head and then runs into a scene, you know it’s a stuntman. There’s something about making those individual pieces into one single action—which is the principle of montage, really—so even though you know this is a stunt guy, and you know that was Paul Newman, you put them together in your head, and your imagination is being enlisted in a very interesting and positive way. Again, I’ve seen some great modern digital special effects that I have absolutely no problem with. But there is something, I think, very visceral about the way The Towering Inferno was put together.
The Dissolve: Does what you do for a living have anything to do with why you’re drawn to the practical stunts in The Towering Inferno and the mechanical processes in Tim’s Vermeer?
Teller: I think undoubtedly. I’m very interested in what gives a viewer a sense of the impossible. My job is to create imitations of impossible events, and when you look at a Vermeer, your breath is taken away. When you look at the good Vermeers, that is. There are some terrible Vermeers from his early days, when he didn’t really know how to use his methods. They look kind of like they were put together with Photoshop. But the good Vermeers, when you look at them, your jaw hits your chest, exactly the way your jaw would hit your chest if a good magician suddenly vanished before your very eyes.
The sense of encountering a gobsmacking supernatural event is very powerful. And what interests me about that is that it all has to be accomplished by some real-world method. It can’t just be imagined, it has to be created. So yes, I think there’s exactly that connection for me. One of the reasons I tend to like Hitchcock and the other guys who are so skilled in montage is that they take shot A and shot B, and that little shot between them is where the impossible happens. That moment of the cut is where the explosion happens in your brain. You’re watching all these little connective pieces of film, but where the movie is happening is between them all.