Building a Mystery: The Toynbee Tiles and Jon Foy’s Filmmaking Quest

Photos by Kendall Whitehouse.
Jon Foy & Toynbee Tile

For filmmaker Jon Foy it began, as many mysteries do, with an unexpected twist of fate — in this case, a prank phone call in the middle of the night picked up by someone other than the intended target.

But before that, there were the tiles. Starting sometime in the 1980s, cryptic messages began to appear embedded in the roadways of cities across the U.S. and South America. Linoleum tiles, most roughly the size of a U.S. automobile license plate, were fused into the asphalt, carved with some variation of the message:

TOYNBEE IDEA
IN MOVIE 2001
RESURRECT DEAD
ON PLANET JUPITER

Although the largest number of the tiles appeared in Philadelphia, nearly identical tiles have been spotted in U.S. cities from Washington, D.C., to Boston and as far west as Kansas City, Mo., as well as in the South American cities of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Santiago, Chile; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. (To see a slideshow of examples of the tiles, click here.)

When a friend first told Foy about the tiles in 1999, he thought the person was playing a joke on him — until he saw a tile for himself. The mysterious markers might have remained a mere curiosity for Foy had he not encountered Justin Duerr when a prank phone message intended for a friend of Foy’s was inadvertently picked up by Duerr — who thought it was a message for him from the mysterious tiler. When Foy spoke to Duerr to apologize for the confusion, he learned about Duerr’s obsession with the tiles — and knew he had to make a movie about the search to uncover the identity of the tiler.

It took several years to get the film off the ground. In 2005, Foy left school at the University of Texas at Austin to return to Philadelphia to work on the project. Largely self-funding his efforts while working as a house cleaner and a participant in pharmaceutical research studies, for five years Foy followed Duerr and fellow investigators Colin Smith and Steve Weinik on their quest to uncover who was behind the tiles and why.

Last fall, Foy submitted a rough cut of his film, Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, to the Sundance Film Festival — barely getting it in under the submission deadline. He walked away with the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles is available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and other video-on-demand services. The movie begins a limited theatrical run in September with screenings at the IFC Center in New York and International House in Philadelphia.

See the trailer here:

Knowledge@Wharton recently sat down with the 32-year old Foy to discuss the tiles, his quest to make a documentary about the investigation to uncover their origin, and the economics of independent filmmaking.

An edited version of that conversation follows.

Knowledge@Wharton: Let’s start with the tiles: When did you first find out about the Toynbee Tiles?

Foy: I first discovered the tiles in 1999. I was working at the Ritz at the Bourse, which is a [Philadelphia movie] theatre. A friend of mine, Adam, told me about the tiles. “They’re these things embedded in the streets. They’re everywhere and they’ve got these messages about resurrecting the dead.” I thought he was pulling my leg. On a break I went to look for a tile he said was by the Liberty Bell, which is within walking distance of the Ritz. When I saw it, I thought, “Oh my God. It is real.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you meet Justin Duerr, who is the focus of your documentary?

Foy: It was about a year later. I was bumming around in the summer of 2000, sleeping on couches, hitchhiking — stuff like that. I was having a late night of prank phone calls with my friend Tim. We found a site online where you can type in a message and a phone number, and it will call that number and deliver the message in a robot voice.

We called a bunch of people that night. We prank called Adam’s house, [which was known as] the Cat Box, that housed eight people or so.

Knowledge@Wharton: A what did the voice say in the prank call?

Foy: I can play it for you. [Plays the recording on his cell phone:]

Robot voice: Monday, four-o-five a.m. You have a message from The Insect God courtesy of IMBot-dot-com: “Toynbee Tiles. Toynbee ideas. Resurrect dead on planet Jupiter. The media has lied to you. We are from the future. Be warned.” Press one to replay. Message delivered by IMBot-dot-com.

Foy: Did you notice that was at 4:05 a.m.?

A few nights later, I was staying at the Cat Box because Adam said that I could sleep on his couch. I was trying to sleep when the phone rang and the person who turned out to be Justin picked it up. I was aware of Justin because he was notorious for being this underappreciated genius artist on the music scene, but I had not met him at that point. I was able to overhear the conversation [and realized Justin believed my earlier prank call was intended for him].

He thought there was some kind of strange, possibly supernatural thing going on where [some people] were able to intercept the fact that he was investigating this mystery. He’s [saying things] like, “Oh my God, how do these people know who I am? How do they intercept this? They must have heard one of my phone calls or something.”

As soon as I picked up on the fact that Justin didn’t realize [the earlier message] was a joke, I had to apologize before this went any further.

I walked up to Justin’s bedroom and introduced myself. [I explained that] it wasn’t a malicious prank; [we just thought] it would be good for laughs to call Adam and pretend we’re the tiler.

Justin didn’t seem to mind. Justin has the kind of personality where he was like, “Oh, it’s a joke? Okay. Well, anyway….” And he started pulling out his photos and all this stuff [about the tiles]. He started talking about the grammar of the tiles and really nerding out on the tiles. It just hit me on this gut level where I said, “Justin, we’re going to make a movie about this.”

I checked in with Justin maybe a couple times over the course of five years. I would run into him on the street and I’d say, “Justin, we’re still going to make that movie, right?” And he’d be like, “Yeah, right.”

I wrote to him in 2005 and said “Now’s the time to do it. Let’s shoot the movie.” And he said, “Sure, let’s do it.”

So I took time off from school [at U.T. Austin] — which eventually became dropping out — and moved to Philadelphia and started scheduling shoots with Justin. Really quickly it hit me that I had completely taken a wrecking ball to my life. I had no idea if we were going to find anything or, if we did find something, if it was going to be an interesting story.

Knowledge@Wharton: In the five years that you worked on the film — throughout much of which you didn’t know how the search would turn out — what motivated you to keep going?

Foy: I think you have to be delusional to start something like this. You have to start down a road where it doesn’t seem possible that you’re going to get to the end point.

Looking back, there was no reason to think that there would even be much of a story. For about a year and a half or so, we were assembling clues and following the story like a mystery. It felt like we were getting into this very unreal world. I was always saying “There’s going to be this movie.”

Then there came a period of time [a couple of years into the project] when people started whispering, “This isn’t going to happen.” We’d go through stages where people wouldn’t ask about the movie because they assumed that it was abandoned and they didn’t want to bring it up.

Knowledge@Wharton: Were there times when you actually thought of abandoning it?

Foy: Oh yes, absolutely.

[There were times when] I thought I was ruining my life. I seriously thought, “I’m doing something really stupid. I should be going back to college [rather than] following this Quixotic dream.”

I had moments when I would walk away, [saying], “Screw this, it’s not possible, I’m throwing my life away.” But then, two days later, it’s all still sitting there — the piles of tapes are all there on my desk. And then I’d say, “All right, fine, I don’t quit.”

There was a period [when] it just wasn’t working with the footage that we had. I gave up for a while. [But then I realized], “It’s all there. I can tell the story to myself and it’s a satisfying story.” So it’s not a story problem, it’s a filmmaking problem. These are things that I can tackle. I have to find the way to tell it correctly.

Knowledge@Wharton: In a sense, the movie is the story of a story: Rather than merely the tale of the mysterious tiles, it’s the story of Justin and the others searching to uncover the story of the tiles.

Foy: That’s right. I looked at this movie as a relationship story. Justin is seeking this mysterious, enigmatic figure who’s making the tiles. He’s connecting with this figure on a personal level. To me, that’s the emotional spine of the film.

Early on, I perceived that I could make a movie for people who are curious about Toynbee Tiles — but that’s a relatively small portion of people. You want people to care about these tiles because they’re rooting for this character who cares about the tiles. I had to sell people on Justin and get them to care about whether he solves the mystery.

Knowledge@Wharton: Once the film is more widely distributed and people start talking about the movie’s theories online, are you worried that will hamper the experience of watching the film?

Foy: Yes, but this is the nature of the Internet. The Internet favors the dissemination of information like spoilers. To fight against it is like going against the current of the Internet.

That’s true of any story, but it’s especially true of mysteries. Mysteries are disappearing because you can disseminate information quite easily. I think that, in a way, it makes mysteries more special.

Since [the movie premiered at Sundance], yes, people have posted spoilers. One hopes the storytelling gets you wrapped up on an emotional level where you’re rooting for a character. It’s harder to spoil that.

Knowledge@Wharton: Was there any tension regarding how much of what you uncovered should be disclosed in the film?

Foy: Yes, absolutely. This is something that we thought about long and hard.

First of all, you have to realize that [the protagonists in the film and I] are two house cleaners and a house painter. We were very much captive to circumstance.

I invested a lot of time and money making this movie, and — years into the process — we turned up [some interesting clues]. We’re very proud of what we turned up. We think it’s a story that deserves to be told. Then the question becomes “What do we do?”

We considered pulling the plug and walking away from the whole thing, but that seemed too drastic. It’s a public story. [The tiler] was putting the stuff out in public — there has been national news coverage for decades about [the tiles]. Given that anyone else could have solved this, it was only a matter of time before the information got out anyway.

So then the question was: How is it going to get out? One of our fears was that there would be a telling that was one-sided and unsympathetic. We feel as if we tell a fuller story where people can understand all the implications of it. It’s a very sympathetic telling.

[But] I’ll concede that there’s a certain amount of contradiction at the core of this film.

Knowledge@Wharton: You nearly failed to submit the film to the Sundance Festival. What happened?

Foy: I had applied to what I considered to be top-tier film festivals and was not getting accepted into any of those — and I was ready to give up. I wasn’t paying attention to film festival deadlines. [When] I got home from work one evening, I looked at the Sundance deadline and saw that [the movie] had to be in their office the next day. It was already evening, and I thought, “There’s no way that I’m going to get this into their office tomorrow.” I was very depressed and called up my girlfriend and said, “I want to come over to your house, play video games and drown my sorrows.” She said, “Are you sure you want to give up? Really?” She knew how much it meant to me.

I said, “Well, hypothetically, I could still see what version I’ve got lying around, burn the DVD, start the submissions process, wire them the money, then bike down to the post office and over-night [the DVD].”

It was like, “All right, let me get off the phone and do this.”

Knowledge@Wharton: When did you hear the film had been accepted at Sundance?

Foy: About three days before Thanksgiving I was cleaning a corporate apartment in West Philly. I was walking home because my bike was broken. I had missed a call and when I checked my voice mail it was John Nein from Sundance, who said, “You should give me a call back at this number and if I don’t pick up, then try my cell at this number.” I was really excited. My initial thoughts were, “Oh my God, Sundance is calling me, maybe they’re going to take the movie.” [Then] I thought to myself, “Wait, wait, wait, how could this possibly happen? I’m not going to let myself think about this anymore because once I start getting excited, then I’m going to have to climb down from these high hopes.”

So I immediately cut those thoughts off and [told myself], “Look, Sundance didn’t take the movie. Maybe they’re [just calling to say], ‘You did a good job and we’re sorry we couldn’t take it.'”

I was so stressed that I wanted to go out to get dinner and then call them the next day.

Knowledge@Wharton: Did you actually wait to call back?

Foy: No, I called back right away. [Nein] said, “Jon, I loved your movie. We all loved your movie.” That’s when tears started coming to my eyes. I thought, “Oh my God, more than one person watched this movie and they liked it? People at Sundance watched my movie? That’s crazy.”

He said, “Would you want to premiere your film at Sundance?” And I said “Yeah.” He told me all these details, and I was walking circles, lost in tears. At the end of the call he said, “Do you have any questions?” And I was like, “No, yeah — I have a question for you: You’re calling from Sundance Film Festival.” Because there is Slamdance, Nodance and all these [other similar sounding] film festivals. “You’re calling from the Sundance Film Festival. And you’re calling me, Jon Foy, with my movie, Resurrect Dead — and you want me to play at your film festival?” And he said, “Yes.”

I went to work cleaning houses the next day and I told the [homeowners], “You’ll never believe what happened, I got this call from Sundance.” And they said, “Wow, that’s great. Hey, listen, I think you missed dusting a part of this corner.”

Knowledge@Wharton: How much did it cost to make the movie?

Foy: This is a tough question. There are the hard costs of what I needed to do to submit it to Sundance. I would put that around $15,000 to $20,000.

Knowledge@Wharton: How did you raise the funds?

Foy: I largely self-funded this movie. I did get two grants from PIFVA [Philadelphia Independent Film and Video Association] — I want to give a shout-out to them — but that was a relatively small percentage of the movie’s budget. And I did a Kickstarter [fund raising] campaign.

I fronted the costs by self-funding as a house cleaner and doing drug studies and whatever I could. I was just scraping together the money to cover hard costs: gas, subway fare. We were taking the camera around in a tool box, taking the subway to locations and buying hardware store lights. We went through a lot of batteries, microphones, tapes — that stuff adds up. Once I got into Sundance, a lot of other costs kicked in.

Knowledge@Wharton: What costs kicked in once the film was selected for Sundance?

Foy: Obviously there’s the transportation and lodging at Sundance. There is a lot of little stuff that adds up: Shipping, making DVDs, making the HDcam master. There’s the cost of hiring a publicist, getting the poster designed, things like that.

I applied for a credit card and borrowed [the money] and I took out personal loans from people. Kickstarter [raised] $13,600 — although Kickstarter takes a little bit of that out, so it came to be more like $12,000 or so. I’m embarrassed that I still owe people posters and DVDs to fulfill Kickstarter [pledges] — those cost a certain percentage of the money, too.

It’s death by a thousand wounds. It’s not like I can point to three things and say “This was $5,000 and this was $5,000.” It’s more like, “This is a $100, this is $300.”

A lot of it is just the fact that I stopped cleaning houses and I’ve been working [on the film]. I live a pretty cheap existence — I’m not super proud of this, but these are my shoes. [Shows that the bottoms of his sneakers have holes through to the inner lining.] This will give you an idea that I’m not living large here. I make every dollar stretch.

Knowledge@Wharton: Will the film receive theatrical distribution?

Foy: This is really exciting: We’re opening at the IFC Center on Labor Day Weekend for a week-long theatrical run.

Knowledge@Wharton: What are the economics of a theatrical run for this type of film?

Foy: I’m doing theatrical at a loss. Most movies lose money theatrically until you get to a certain point. Even big movies [spend] so much on advertising that it’s questionable whether or not they break even. But on our level it’s costing money. How many people actually see documentaries in the theatre?

With the theatrical deal, I front the costs to hire a booker who pitches us to theaters. The theaters give us a percentage of the box office gross and I split that with the booker.

I front the hard costs of screeners [preview DVDs], advertising, posters and all that. Hopefully, we break even, but the theatrical stuff is really about raising the profile of the film.

Knowledge@Wharton: What about distribution on DVD, online, etc.?

We split up the rights. Focus Features has the [distribution rights for] VOD

and DVD. A yet-to-be-named company is taking cable and broadcast rights.

The DVD and VOD deal with Focus Features is a revenue sharing deal. They’re giving me a relatively small advance, and then we’re sharing a percentage of the DVD sales and all that.

The broadcast money is going to bankroll everything else.

Knowledge@Wharton: Who is that with and how does that deal work?

Foy: I can’t announce who it is because we haven’t signed the deal, but it’s going to be a premium cable channel. They pay a flat licensing fee and have the exclusive right to show [the movie] on their TV channel for a set amount of time. And then the rights come back to me, and I can try to relicense it.

In this world of independent documentary film, broadcast is still where the biggest share of money is. Fewer people buy DVDs. And we all know that fewer people are going to the theatres. More people are streaming [movies] on Hulu and Netflix. Everyone in the independent film world is scrambling to figure out how to monetize that. Every year, these movies make less and less money because people pay less and less money.

Friends don’t know what to make of what’s happened to me. Some people have these misconceptions that I’m rich now or that everything’s coming easy to me. That’s not true at all. When people think that I’m rich, I want to [say], “I haven’t gotten paid at all.” Who would write me the check? It’s not like Sundance writes you a check for a million dollars.

It’s not a given that you’ll sell your film. And even if you sell your film, it’s not a given that you’ll get a lot of money.

On some level, you’ve got to ask yourself, “Why are you doing this in the first place?” It’s not really about money.

Knowledge@Wharton: Why are you doing this?

Foy: Like so many other filmmakers, I’m chasing after life dreams.

Ultimately, it comes back to being able to actualize the creative ideas that I have — whether it’s music, movies, writing, whatever. If I have an idea for how the colors should look in the movie and I can make that come across on screen, that’s very satisfying to me.

I don’t make movies to make money. I want to make money to make more movies. The person who dies with the most movies wins, I guess.

Knowledge@Wharton: What is the current media landscape like for independent filmmakers?

Foy: The Internet has given us a landscape that favors consumers. Consumers have access to enormous vaults of content. The studios opened up their vaults, and you can stream anything online for pennies. That empowers consumers.

The content makers are at a disadvantage because media is being devalued like tap water. People say, “I’m only going to watch stuff for free. If you charge money for your movie, there’s plenty of other stuff that I could just watch for free. Why should I pay?” That’s driving down the price of everything.

The only filmmakers who are able to survive in this environment are ones who make cheaper and cheaper movies — or the ones who can make it to the very top. Everyone in between is getting squeezed out.

Consumers are going to start seeing films being made with cheaper budgets, because that’s what they’re demanding without realizing it.

It’s tough for [filmmakers] to have a family or to have health insurance. I haven’t had health insurance in my entire adult life. I still don’t have health insurance.

There’s enormous risk that we, as a society, expect starving artists to take. And we should think about that. Not everyone can do what I’ve done. I’ve gotten really lucky.

Knowledge@Wharton: After you finish the promotion of Resurrect Dead, what’s next?

Foy: When I got back from Sundance, I made a wish list of 14 ideas — with the idea that if I move forward on any of these, I’ll be happy.

Not all of them are films. I’m really into music. I fell in love with film scores from writing the score to the Toynbee Tile movie. I always had a latent interest [in film music] starting with Danny Elfman’s score to the early Tim Burton stuff, especially Batman.

I’m thinking of doing a musical. It would be sort of a mythological, dark fantasy for kids. I’m thinking of doing a personal, political drama. I’m thinking of doing a Calvin and Hobbes sort of story about an imaginary friend [who is] an anthropomorphic character, like a corporate logo.

I’m really into sci fi and fantasy. I have an assortment of time-traveling ideas that I’ve toyed with. I have an idea about a guy who lives backward in time which I think would make an interesting story.

I’ve got an idea for an animated sitcom set in West Philadelphia. I have a couple of ideas for new documentaries. I have a lot of ideas.

Someone told me about an interview with Darren Aronofsky where he said, “You’ve got to keep more than one idea around. You can’t be too tied to one thing because you’ll get your heart broken.” The nature of the movie business is you put your heart into several different projects and if one of them takes off, great.

Knowledge@Wharton: What impact has all this had on you — having your film accepted at Sundance and winning the award for direction of documentary?

Foy: Before I got into Sundance, I felt very cynical about the filmmaking world. Maybe some of that’s natural — the filmmaking world can be a cynical place.

But the independent documentary world that I stepped into was a place where people really do believe all these things that we aspire to. I realized I had become so self doubting and cynical. I felt like suddenly the cynicism melted away.

The common thread with the films I want to make is that [while] the films might have different tones, my voice as a filmmaker is ultimately going to be one that’s not cynical. I want to tell stories that, at the end of the day, are heartfelt.

People ask me about distribution deals and things like that, and those are all important things, sure. But if you want to talk about the real emotional effects of all of this, it’s this whole idea that you can submit cold and you can get into Sundance. You can chase your dreams, and this stuff can work out.

I want to tell people that it’s tough — if you crunch the numbers, you find the odds are against you — but at the same time I think that you just have to be delusional and you have to go for it. I would encourage people to do that.

You might fail at first, but if you stick with it, the law of averages says that eventually — let’s go into Wharton speak here — there will be a market correction. If you’re doing good work, [it] will eventually be realized.

All I have to say to [other filmmakers] — what I would have wanted people to say to me — is don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t give up. If you give up, you know what’s going to happen. If you don’t, you never know what will happen.

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