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Q&A: Jon Foy, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

You've probably seen one, even if you didn't really know what you were seeing: A linoleum tile pressed into Philadelphia asphalt bearing this cryptic phrase: "Toynbee idea in Kubrick's 2001 resurrect dead on Planet Jupiter." Maybe you shrugged, maybe you mentioned it to a friend, but, most likely, it slipped through your mind like water through a sieve.

Not so for Justin Duerr, star of local filmmaker Jon Foy's debut Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. For him, these odd urban artifacts asked a question he couldn't shake, and the film follows him (and his collaborators) on a years-long quest to unmask and understand the elusive tiler.

The resulting adventure is more exciting than any tale involving microfiche, short-wave radios and internet message boards has any right to be. It's a story about obsession, persistence and a city's proliferation of hidden doors hiding rabbit holes. The film, which won U.S. Documentary Competition Directing Award at Sundance in January, had its local reveal in September at International House. Word-of-mouth led to five sold-out screenings.

Flying Kite caught up with Foy, a Philadelphia native and the film's director, producer, writer, editor and composer, by phone. If you want to catch up with him, see him speak at TEDxPhilly on Nov. 8.

Flying Kite (FK): How did you learn about this and get involved? Because the movie was made over many, many years.
Jon Foy (JF): I first heard about the tiles in 1999. I was actually working at the Ritz Theater, and my friend Adam told me about them. And at first I didn't believe him. I said, "Wait a second, you're telling me that all over the city, someone's embedding these in the street." But then I actually saw one, right by the Liberty Bell. I had the realization a lot of people in Philadelphia have: Oh my god, I've seen these things for years.

I met Justin in the summer of 2000 through a prank phone call. My friend Tim and I were making prank phone calls late one night to Adam. So, we made a message pretending to be the person who made the tiles. Adam lived in this punk house in West Philly, and Justin was one of the people who lived there. Justin got the message. Justin was really into the Toynbee tiles -- he was already traveling around, photographing the tiles. He didn't realize it was a prank, so it really freaked him out.

I overheard a conversation a few nights later when I was over at that house, and realized that he got the prank instead of Adam. I introduced myself to Justin and apologized. We just hit if off from there, and he started showing me all his photos and just talking about his thoughts on the tiles. Right there, summer 2000, I said, "Justin, we're going to make a movie about this." I really meant it, even though I didn't really have the ability to make the movie at that point. I was broke, and didn't have a whole lot of expertise.

FK: One of the things I found really interesting is that it's a movie about the actual mystery, and also a movie about the story of the mystery. And then it also becomes a movie about Justin.
JF: Well, that's how stories work. You follow the human emotion. With the tile mystery, there are only a certain number of people who would be interested in, let's face it, this really bizarre, obscure thing. So, I want people to care because Justin cares, and they care about how Justin feels and what happens to Justin. In the third act, it's about Justin reaching out for a connection with this person and the parallels between the two of them. And that's really what's emotionally driving things forward.

FK: And in some ways Justin's hunt for the tiler is a concurrent obsession with the tiler's obsession with the "Toynbee idea."
JF: There's this Hitchcock-ian term: a MacGuffin. I would say that the mystery of the Toynbee tiles is sort of a MacGuffin. It's what you come for when you watch the movie. But, like I said, that's a story that doesn't necessarily have legs in the way a human story does.

FK: Did you feel personally engrossed in the mystery of the tiles?
JF: I was definitely investigating with those guys. And I think for a lot of that time, we forgot we were making a movie. It's interesting, because the movie was the catalyst for us to take the investigation seriously. Once we hit our conclusion, things did kind of fizzle out. It's just the way the story ends. We decided to keep the whole thing under wraps until we could put the movie together and tell the story the way we thought it should be told.

FK: When my editor first asked me to go see this movie, he wanted to know if it was really a Philadelphia movie, or if it just happened to take place here. And it is such a Philadelphia movie. Especially the scenes with the eccentric neighbors in South Philly.
JF: I like to think this is a Philly movie. There's a feeling of outsider-dom to the whole story: the way that the tiler identifies as an outsider, the way Justin identifies as an outsider, the way we, the filmmakers, because we made this with very little support, feel like outsiders. And I'm going to go out on a limb and say there's an outsider-dom to Philadelphia itself. We do see ourselves as a city of underdogs.

FK: I think there's also the idea of community -- whether that's a group of people investigating something or people all living on the same block for 50 years.  
JF: Yeah. All that stuff is in there. I'm glad you say it's a Philly movie. People have kind of alluded to that, but not come right out and said it. I feel that to be true, but it's not like I sat down and said, "How can I make a Philly movie?" Everything I had to work with just had Philadelphia written all over it.

FK: Seeing a movie, sometimes the end can feel like an inevitability. But I feel like you were really able to capture the thrill of moments when you had small breakthroughs. I really didn't know what was going to happen next.
JF: That was the hope. We were kind of like kids who made this little club and pretended we were doing this big important thing. We weren't really sure anyone else would buy into it. And people do seem to buy into it in that way. They do think it's this magical sort of thing. I tried to recreate that feeling with music and cinematic devices. That's one thing that movies can do pretty well: convey a sense of fantasy and surrealism.

FK: The story is a bit gendered. I think that men and boys tend to have these fixations. I like that you had Justin's ex-girlfriend in the movie, complaining about getting dragged to all these different places (to photograph tiles).
JF: This is awesome. This is a question I've never gotten before. We didn't think about it a lot when we were making the film. You're right. It is a gendered film. It is a "guys" film, though not in any overt way. We can all identify with this feeling of "form a club, go on an adventure," but it would be a very different movie if it was all girls. I would try to make a distinction here: It's not like a testosterone kind of movie; it's more the silliness of schoolyard boyish stuff.

FK: I think it's also related to "geek" culture -- and I say that in the nicest way possible.
JF: (Laughs) Come on, we're total nerds here. There's a sharp divide: Some people don't like the movie at all, and some people really like it a lot. People who are nerdy tend to have two qualities that are really important for enjoying this movie: one is that you like to pay attention to details. And two, is that you have the ability to look at something and imagine something greater than just the thing in front of you. This capacity for imagination. And I think that if you don't bring those things to the table, you might not buy into the movie. You might say, "There are these things on the street. Who cares?" Or you might miss some of the details and say, "This story doesn't make sense." It's pretty dense storytelling, because we're talking about leads and clues and stuff. To me, that makes it a nerdy movie.

FK: I think that one thing this movie says to viewers is "pay attention." Pay attention to your environment, and you never know what you're going to see and where that's going to see you. And I think it was really a love letter to the mysteries of urban spaces.
JF: That has more to do with Justin's observations than mine. I'm an observer of people, and I observe Justin. And Justin observed the tiles themselves. For me, the story came alive through Justin. I think that Justin has an eye for spotting things, and not just tiles. I think, to his credit, he saw the tiles, and saw that there was more than meets the eye.  

LEE STABERT is a freelance writer living in Philadelphia. Send feedback here.

Jon Foy
Foy shooting
Justin Duerr with tile

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