Penn Jillette goes to the movies

Last modified: 9/25/2013 11:10:35 PM
GREENFIELD — “Tim’s Vermeer,” a documentary co-produced by Greenfield native Penn Jillette, a famed mythbuster, comic and magician, has been the talk of the recent Telluride and Toronto film festivals.

The documentary follows an obsessive Texas inventor named Tim Jenison, who adapts 17th-century technology to prove a theory that Dutch master painter Johannes Vermeer’s astounding realism was aided by camera-like devices newly developed — yet possible — within Vermeer’s lifetime.

The buzz in the entertainment media has been loud. The Hollywood Reporter called it “a sleeper hit,” and “one of the great gems” of the Telluride festival. The critic who reviewed it thinks the documentary is Oscar-worthy. Variety has called it “an uncanny crowd-pleaser — the secret weapon in Sony Classic’s fall arsenal.” According to Jillette’s press agent, though, the film is expected to have a broad release in March.

And that’s just the start of the entertainer’s latest projects.

The ink was barely dry on these and other critical raves when Jillette went online to pitch yet another movie idea, on Donald Trump’s website. Jillette was a contestant on Trump’s TV show “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Jillette is hoping to raise $1 million for a thriller film he’s calling “Director’s Cut.” He raised $137,274 on the very first day.

On top of that, Jillette will be back home in Greenfield on Nov. 1 for a book-signing event at World Eye Bookshop, in celebration of the paperback edition of his most recent book, “Everyday is an Atheist Holiday!” The time of the event hasn’t yet been determined.

Still surprised by success

Jillette, who still owns a home in Greenfield, says he likes to come back to visit his nephews and other family members.

“I’m eager to get back — not only for World Eye, but socially,” Jillette said in a telephone interview Friday from Las Vegas. “I’m not doing many personal appearances these days in towns the size of Greenfield.”

When asked what he thought of the high praise that “Tim’s Vermeer” has garnered,” Jillette replied, “I’m shocked that people just don’t throw garbage at me. When you work on something, and you love it, and then you take it to the public, you don’t know how they’re going to accept it. It’s very, very wonderful when they love it.”

“Every single piece of success that I’ve had shocks me,” said Jillette. “If you talk to Madonna, or Lady Gaga, Howard Stern or Paul McCartney — they all think they should have been more famous. Paul McCartney thinks The Beatles should have done better. Howard Stern is always pushing for more.”

“Teller and I never expected to really succeed,” he continued. “My dad was a jail guard and a coin dealer. Teller’s dad was an artist.”

“I know you are supposed to aim for the stars, but Teller and I never did. Our dream was: Could we make as much money as our dads, doing what we wanted?”

Film producer, author, radio show host, TV star, magician — Jillette, 58, has come a long way from his schoolboy days in Greenfield, when he was photographed by The Recorder while riding unicycles from Greenfield to Lake Wyola with his old pal, Michael Moschen. With their hands free, they were both juggling.

Jillette and Moschen, a Greenfield High School classmate, developed a juggling act and both went on to become renowned performers. Jillette graduated from Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey College. He met Teller in 1975, and the “Penn & Teller” show is now the longest-running headliner show in Las Vegas.

Penn and Teller have appeared more than 20 times on David Letterman. Their controversial Showtime TV series, “Penn & Teller: Bullshit,” was nominated for 16 Emmy Awards and was that network’s longest-running show.

In April, Penn & Teller received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s near the star that was dedicated to Harry Houdini.

Jillette has made other television appearances on “The Simpsons,” “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” and “Dancing with the Stars.”

Besides Penn and Teller’s books, “How to Play with Your Food,” and “How to Play in Traffic,” Jillette’s 2011 book, “God, No! Signs You May Already Be An Atheist and Other Magical Tales” made the New York Times best-seller list.

Funding his movie

In “Director’s Cut,” Jillette is to star as the film’s villain.

It’s about an older FBI agent and his gorgeous new partner working on a serial killer case where the murderer is mimicking well known killings of famous serial killers of the past,” Jillette says on his fundraising site. “The movie has a great cast, and as it plays out we hear the director’s constant commentary (as voice-over) over the scenes. He shares tidbits about the making of the movie and stories about working with the actors. Especially the leading lady. In fact, the director seems strangely focused on his starlet. Fixated beyond what one might expect from a professional film director. It’s creepy.”

“Director’s Cut” is a crazy idea for a movie,” Jillette says on his fundraising site. “It’s scary, funny and very meta. I like movies that are scary, but I don’t want them to be dirt dumb. I want a movie that gets my blood racing, makes me laugh, but also gives me something to think about, with maybe a little sexy thrown in. Hollywood doesn’t make movies like that. They make torture porn and comedies but they don’t put them together.”

As of Friday afternoon, Jillette’s “Fund Anything” site had raised at least $200,000 from 879 donors; all the $10,000 “producer” donations had been filled, but Penn has offered a film credit to anyone donating $20. Other gifts are offered in return for donations of various amounts.

The “pitch” for his movie is R-rated, for language.

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