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:
IN MOVIE 2001
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.
When a friend first told filmmaker Jon 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, Foy followed Duerr and fellow investigators Colin Smith and Steve Weinik for five years 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. He walked away with the Directing Award in the U.S. Documentary Competition.
Knowledge at Wharton recently sat down with Foy to discuss the tiles, his quest to make a documentary about the investigation to uncover their origin, and the economics of independent filmmaking. To read the full interview, click here. Check out the slideshow below to see some examples of the mysterious tiles.