Poster of the Sundance Film Festival award-winning documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Poster for the documentary
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery
of the Toynbee Tiles

In Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, its filmmaker-investigators attempt to make sense of a puzzling series of road tiles carrying cryptic messages, variation of the phrases “Toynbee Idea / In Kubrick’s 2001 / Resurrect Dead / On Planet Jupiter.”

What do the messages mean? Who laid the tiles? And how are then-radio-host Larry King, playwright David Mamet, newspaper publisher John S. Knight and a covert organization called the Minority Association connected?

As with any mystery, it’s hard to talk about the story without giving too much away. Luckily, Jon Foy, the director of Resurrect Dead, has another story to tell: How a curious house-cleaning musician earning $10 an hour spent years investigating the case and figuring out how to make a documentary that ultimately won him a directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival.

I talked with Foy by phone as he posted flyers in Philadelphia for Resurrect Dead‘s theatrical opening there next week. As we talked, a new mystery presented itself…

Adam Schartoff: Would you describe the trajectory for your film’s production?

Jon Foy, director of Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles: There was skepticism that the film would ever get done, but support for the fact that the investigation happened. We went through this period, for a year and a half (from the summer of 2005 to early 2007), of solving the mystery. After that we entered a new phase. I was playing in a band with Colin (Toynbee Tiles message board moderator and Resurrect Dead producer Colin Smith) and we had a falling out on tour. Things were looking really rough for the film because I couldn’t edit it. I just couldn’t make it work. That lasted for about six month to a year, where I was completely stalled.

One of the main problems is that I had originally conceived Resurrect Dead as a vérité film, about solving its riddle in real time. Vérité filmmaking is very tough, though it’s something I admire very much. It just wasn’t something I was able to do.

Schartoff: So, the footage was just languishing. What got the project moving again?

Jon Foy - Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles

Jon Foy, director of the documentary
Resurrect Dead: The Mystery
of the Toynbee Tiles

Foy: In my head I knew there was a movie in this footage. I came to realize that it was a storytelling problem, not a problem with the story itself. Then, in early 2008, I saw Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line. I thought, “What an amazing film!” But what’s more amazing is that it was a past-tense film. It was a mystery but it unfolded using various devices that were created from the material — interviews, reenactments, other visuals. At the time I had been so focused on doing these interviews, in the moment, at the actual locations. It wouldn’t work because the investigation was spinning us off into all different paths, some that didn’t pan out. It just wasn’t coherent. I discovered that what’s important is what people were saying, not where they were standing when they were saying it. You can shoot a whole interview in one location as Morris did with Robert McNamara in The Fog of War. As the subject is speaking, you’re not thinking about the fact that he’s in that room. You’re involved in what he is saying.

So, my film made a fundamental shift in 2008, taking on a new form which is what you see now. I began re-assembling the film. I began taking notes imagining how I could restructure it. I began to eliminate all the redundancy, all the things that didn’t make any sense and all the things that didn’t pay off.

I decided that I wanted to make a film where there was a series of setups and payoffs. [When] I would ask questions like, ‘What happened with all the Minority Association documents or the David Mamet play?,’ there would be answers to these questions. The interviews that we conducted were done in 2008 and those make up the spine of the film. Once I had that, then it was about going back and figuring out how to fill in the visual aspects of it and how to write the music.

Schartoff: When did you have a rough cut ready for festivals?

Foy: We had a rough cut in 2009 and submitted it to Sundance in 2010.

Schartoff: You had no experience in submitting to festivals and then you get accepted into the bluest of all blue chips? Not bad for a new filmmaker.

Foy: There was never a plan for what would happen if we actually got into Sundance. We never thought that would happen. In the early phase I might have fantasized about getting into the big film festivals, but I was delusional. When we got the call from Sundance, that changed everything very quickly. I told my boss the next day — I was housecleaning at the time — that it was my last day. I basically just stopped and decided that I could be running the business of this movie and my time was worth more. If I could get a team together and some structure around the film, my time was better spent.

(At this point in the conversation, Foy gets distracted. He’s discovered what might be a Toynbee tile.)

A new Toynbee tile

A new Toynbee tile?

Schartoff: What’s going on?

Foy: We just passed by a really cool tile.

Schartoff: Just now?

Foy: Yeah, Justin (collaborator and film subject Justin Duerr) and I were just walking down South Street and we ran passed a new tile. When I say “new” I mean 2010.

Schartoff: You were unaware of this one?

Foy: I never knew about this tile.

(In the background, Duerr, who’s been posting flyers during the conversation, claims he’s seen this tile before. After some analysis, the tile appears to be a knock-off and we continued talking about the film.)

Schartoff: So now you were working on the post-production responsibilities full time. How did you know what to do?

Foy: I had this philosophy about that. I had all these questions, but I didn’t want to hire lawyer. My thinking was, an entertainment lawyer costs $350 an hour. I get $10 an hour to clean houses. I thought, I should be putting in 35 hours before I asked an attorney to work for one hour.

I was at a screening of The Matador (Stephen Higgins and Nina Gilden Seavey’s bullfighting documentary) at South by Southwest. I met the filmmaker and he suggested going on The D-Word (a message board for documentary filmmakers started by Doug Block). I spent a lot of the time reading over the posts, going back to 1999. I went through all the legal posts, from start to finish, something that took many, many days. It was a crazy thing to do but I actually learned a lot about what documentary filmmakers do about clearance laws, for example. Doug was consistently one of those people on there giving advice to people for years. And it was good advice. You could tell he knew what he was talking about. Then I saw his film 51 Birch Street. His films are, as you know, very personal. You walk away from 51 Birch Street feeling like you know Doug a little bit. Between The D-Word and seeing his movie, I just thought this would be a great person to write to.

Schartoff: So you wrote to him out of the blue?

Foy: Yes! I wrote him that I had gotten into Sundance, I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing and that I was terrified. He wrote me back right away. The sequence of events was kind of crazy. I got the call from Sundance, the next day I worked my last day of work, and within 24 hours Doug gives me his phone number and I’m calling him up. (Block would end up signing on as Executive Producer on Resurrect Dead.)

Schartoff: You’re cleaning houses one day and in Sundance the next. What was going through your head?

Foy: I was in a state of euphoria for that first 24 or 25 hours. That gave in, pretty quickly, to fear. I’m the kind of person who judges myself, not so much on what I’ve achieved but more so what I could’ve achieved. I guess I’m a perfectionist but I hold myself to the standard of what was within my grasp. So I felt a lot of pressure to not screw it up. But it felt great. It still does feel great! I don’t know how to explain this exactly but I’ve got this inner voice that’s pretty abusive. So while I was making this movie, I didn’t think very highly of what I was doing.

When I got to Sundance, I guess I was expecting to meet these, I don’t know, super-human people. That maybe they were really pushy, or really connected… I don’t know. But when I began meeting them, they were just really down-to-earth people. Just great, genuine people. And that’s one of the best things that could’ve happened to me. My story of Sundance is about my cynicism melting away.

I also think there is a huge component of luck. I don’t want to take too much credit. Great films don’t always get noticed or rewarded.

Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles opens in New York City this Friday, September 2, 2011, and select cities, including Los Angeles, over the next two months. It’s also available now on-demand via Focus World, the new VOD label of Focus Features. Check Resurrect Dead’s official site for show times. Find more documentary news and features on POV’s blog, or follow POV on Facebook or Twitter.

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Guest blogger Adam Schartoff is a freelance film journalist living in Brooklyn, New York. He's the founder and programmer of the Brooklyn-based film series Filmwax.