A new doc explores the global phenomenon of the Toynbee Tiles
Odds are that if you live in a major metropolis in the eastern half of the country (or even in Chile), at some point over the last three decades you have stepped on a Toynbee Tile and its cryptic message: “Toynbee Idea in Movie 2001 Resurrect Dead on Planet Jupiter.” For most people, the tiles never register. But for those who did notice them, their provenance and the person behind them became an obsession. Few were more dedicated in their pursuit of the truth than Philadelphian Justin Duerr, the heart of a new documentary about the tiles and the mystery behind them, Resurrect Dead.
Director Jon Foy worked and sleuthed alongside Duerr and amateur detectives Colin Smith and Steve Weinik for almost two years, as they tracked down the flimsiest of leads—clues that led them to everything from a shortwave radio convention to a short David Mamet play. The results are both creepy and compelling, and could possibly put an end to the mystery once and for all. We caught up with Foy over the phone just prior to the film’s Sept. 2 engagement at The IFC Center.
When did you first hear about the Toynbee Tiles?
I was working at a movie theater in 1999 and a friend of mine told me about them, and then I went out and saw one for myself. There was a tile that was right next to the Liberty Bell. Once someone points them out to you, you see them everywhere. In New York, there used to be a lot of good ones, but now there’s just one. [Then] I met Justin in the summer of 2000, and that same night he started showing me photographs of tiles and telling me about them. That planted the seed in my head to make a documentary. So that was something I filed away in the back of my mind. Eventually, I was going to film school in the summer of 2005 in Austin, Texas, and I decided it was a good time to make this movie.
How long did you work on Resurrect Dead?
We started shooting summer 2005 and the present-tense part of the story, which would be acts two and three, took place from summer 2005 through late 2007. That was the primary footage of the mystery itself. And then I tried to cut a movie out of that and I couldn’t, so I got the guys back in and had these long sit-down interviews and figured out how to tell the story. I wanted to make a verité doc, but it just wasn’t working. We had so many thoughts and leads and hunches that never really panned out, but they were convoluted and we had to go back to find a story.
There’s a pretty dense story, too—a lot of details. As far as putting the story to rest, a lot of it rests on Justin. I think Justin is the character who carries the film emotionally and we care because Justin cares. At the end, Justin does find this kind of revolution.
What do you think about the riffs on the original tiles that are now popping up across the country?
I think it’s awesome. I think the tiler was very much asking people to make tiles. So there are some people who say, “Oh, they’re just copycats,” but I think it’s in line with what he wants. What’s awesome are the Haiti tiles—they look fabulous. And someone just emailed yesterday about tiles in Buffalo. They look great—they’re colorful, they’re artistic. So somebody we’re presuming to be a copycat, we don’t know, has been doing this in complete secrecy for five years now. I can’t even imagine! But there have been a lot of other copies.
Were you surprised that such an esoteric documentary has been so embraced?
I come from this group of starving artists and you don’t foresee things really taking off like this. Really, this all started with Sundance accepting [the film]. And what’s important to realize is that I didn’t show the movie to anyone. By the time I was accepted into Sundance, that was about five and a half years into the process, and I might have shown the movie to, like, 10 people.
There was no way to tell if people would like it. And people need to kind of take a chance to watch this movie. I can’t tell you how many people have said, “It looked strange so I decided to watch it.” Most stuff has a built-in audience, and this movie—it’s an ongoing process just trying to describe what a tile is! It’s really a mystery. I think the better way to pitch the movie to people is that it has this feeling and tone of a strange sci-fi, X-Files sort of thing, and the thing that we’re focusing on will be explained in the movie.
When we started shooting, it was this enormous gamble on my part because I took it for granted that there was going to be this great story behind the tiles and we were going to get it out. And when we started shooting, I remember having a meeting with Colin and thinking, “Where is this even going?” I think that’s when it started sinking in, like, God, I took off from school and moved to another town? It was delusional.
Are you satisfied with the answers the movie provides?
I would say that we came up with a satisfying story. So for me, I’m satisfied enough to move on to something else. But there are still a lot of loose ends. The important thing to tell people is that the story arc in the movie is a satisfying story, but the tiles are bigger than the movie.
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