In Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles, director Jon Foy follows a group of friends as they work to uncover the person who has, for over 20 years, been creating and placing tiles in the streets of Philadelphia and beyond. Rather than merely street art/graffiti, the tiles have strange, urgent, sometimes paranoid messages about “resurrecting the dead on planet Jupiter.” Through years-long protracted detective work, the team comes up with reasonable explanations for many of their questions, but still others remain.
After submitting to Sundance on a lark, the film was accepted and ended up winning the Directing Award for Documentary at the 2011 festival. A slew of festival and theatrical screenings followed, including a record-shattering run at International House. (Note: I personally sold almost 2,000 tickets at the six screenings.)
Resurrect Dead was released on DVD this past Tuesday, January 31. The Philadelphia Film Society is sponsoring a DVD release party this Monday, February 6 at The Trocadero where the filmmakers and cast will be in attendance. Additionally, there are upcoming area screenings at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute, Colonial Theater, County Theater and Ambler Theater.
I sat down with Jon Foy on his birthday to talk about the film’s impact, the joys and struggles of being a first-time filmmaker and the refusal of some viewers to believe that the story is true.
Cinedelphia: You’ve gone to great lengths to tell your audience to make sure to see Resurrect Dead in a theatrical setting. Why is that?
Jon Foy: One of the things about watching movies in the theater is that people think, “I’m going to see it on this big screen.” Somewhere subconsciously they’re probably thinking about all these good memories associated with that. But what I think one advantage of going to the theater is that you can’t pause the movie and go check your email. Having less freedom usually makes the movie better. It’s usually the case where you have to stave off your impulses to pause the movie when you’re watching at home, even with great movies…
C: There’s some sort of social contract involved when you’re watching something in a theater with a bunch of people. Maybe you would hold out your bright phone and look at it, but you’re really an asshole or completely oblivious if you do that. Or talking really loud to the person next to you.
JF: I was amazed and mortified when I had a semester of Film Studies at University of Texas and the students would talk over and text during films that were screened. I just felt like if the aspiring filmmakers aren’t giving respect to the films on the screen, then who’s going to do it?
C: How was your experience self-funding and distributing your first film? Do you feel like the current model of releasing films is worth it, artistically and financially?
JF: If the question is, is it worth it, then absolutely. If the question is if there’s lots of money, there’s not. But then I’ve been in DIY punk bands that have survived on very little money. I definitely think it’s worth it because I’m lucky that this is my day job. I’m lucky that I could be working on my film, distributing my film and the trade off is that I have to live very cheaply. I just compulsively want to make music and movies, which seems like a good way spending my time. It’s enormously satisfying but it’s not really the kind of thing that makes you completely happy in the moment. In the moment, there’s a lot of stress and doing things that I don’t want to do, but then I look back and am happy at what I’ve done. Some things are more satisfying than others. I find editing and writing music to be very satisfying, shooting less so. I don’t think updating the website’s events page or Facebook is very fun, but when you’re forced into a situation of running a business by yourself there’s going to be aspects of it that you like and some that you don’t.
C: You have this payoff in the story where you discover something, but to get that out to people it took a couple years of editing, submitting to Sundance, and getting people to pay attention to it. By the time it comes around, you might be excited because people are experiencing it, but it’s not that same excitement as when you were creating it. How do you deal with that, like being asked the same questions nightly at Q&As?
JF: You have to have a high tolerance for repetition to do this. I feel sanguine about it in the case of Resurrect Dead because the flipside is that I keep saying, “How good is life? All I have to do is show up and talk about my movie.” I love talking about my movie and I could do it over and over. So, that’s fine. I think you make a great broader point which is that the way you experience something the first time it happens (in life) is different than the way you experience it when you capture it on film. The way you capture it in film is a different presentation and experience, a different framing of it that you can watch over and over again with other people. I probably watch my movie more than most filmmakers watch their movie. But other directors don’t usually do their own editing or color correction, so I think that’s part of it. There’s a lot to pay attention to, many different things to focus on each time. A lot of times I’m focusing on the colors and music.
C: How do you feel about the way the film is presented in theaters?
JF: The movie was made in a lo-fi fashion. I didn’t go to a fancy place and get a fancy sound mix. I don’t get too worked up about the picture quality. This answer is similar to a lot of the other answers. A lot of the feelings I feel about the film are related to my expectations, which I had almost none of when I made it. I was making it as a personal project for very cheap on my own. I didn’t know what I was doing and was pretty open about that. The lucky thing is that if you can get people absorbed in the story a lot of that doesn’t matter as much. It does matter, but the way a lot of these technical things will matter is that they can ruin the film if they’re not done up to a certain level. I feel like I was able to do everything competently enough. I’m not a cinematographer. I don’t think the camera work was bad, but just weird because it was done by someone who didn’t know much.
C: Did you get comments on that?
JF: Yeah, people would say “you’ve got this real noir look with these hard shadows” (in the interviews). A lot of that is because I went to the hardware store and got 100-watt light bulbs and I’d go over to Justin’s house and stick that bulb in a regular lamp two feet from his face. Technically I’d think a lot of people would say that’s horrendous. But it worked well enough and evoked the right mood. I think it’s easier to believe that something is real when it’s lo-fi. David Byrne said, “the more polished a voice, the harder it is to believe what a singer is saying.” So he used his unpolished voice to his advantage. I mean, I think his voice is fairly polished in my opinion but he has a lot of weird character to his voice. But I don’t know that his voice necessarily makes me believe him. (Laughs)
C: Going back to what you said about having to absorb people in the film, how do you feel like this phenomenon is conveyed to people who may have no background in the tiles at all?
JF: It’s interesting. We’ve screened in Poland and the UK, all sorts of places that have never seen the tiles. It’s a little different because some people see it as less real. If you live in Philly, you’ve probably seen the tiles and know it’s real. There’s always this contingent of people who think we’re making it up and that it’s a hoax. We screened in Spain and some people just refused to believe that it was real. People would say, “Where do you get these characters?” I’d say, “These are just my friends!”
C: Do you think that’s because things are included like animation or the soundtrack, which make the film seem more magical.
JF: Yeah, I think that’s right. There’s reenactment, there’s drawings and music. There are all sorts of things that are artificial. I tried to imbue it with a sense of magic and whimsy because I was trying to approximate the feeling in the investigation, which did feel magical. It felt like we stepped into the Twilight Zone. So I tried to evoke that feeling with the music and cinematic devices. But the core of the story is true.
C: What’s been your experience as someone who’s made a film with a fairly significant reveal in it? Do people ever go too far with how much they explain in an interview or review?
JF: The pattern that has emerged to me is that there tends to be two types of conversations about the film. There’s one type when people haven’t seen the film, where you kind of have to sell them on what the story is. It’s a hard-to-pitch movie. There’s a lot of documentaries where there doesn’t take a lot of explaining. But if you say that someone is trying to solve the mystery of the Toynbee tiles, you have to explain what that means. Afterwards, there are just straight spoilers because that’s how the movie is. It’s difficult because I’m happy to talk about those things but at the same time I’d prefer to not have people read an interview about how the movie ends.
JF: I think that’s right. In a lot of ways, many movies and stories are based on the fact that there is something undetermined, so in any story there’s some element of mystery. But for ours, since the whole movie is structured like a mystery there are a lot of legitimate questions that come out of the film as well.
Cinedelphia: What would you say that the impact of the film has been on the community of tile-interested people? You mention online communities in the film.
JF: I think people are excited and energized. A lot of people who knew about the tiles thought it was great. They did not expect such an interesting story. But there are some people who say we’ve spoiled the mystery by giving away too much about it. I still feel that there’s enough left unexplained.
C: Are there any efforts being made to preserve the tiles since they are ephemeral and could be paved over at any moment?
JF: There’s nothing that I know of. I think we should definitely preserve these in Philly. I was very disheartened when the South Street tile was paved over in 2008. Justin first noticed that one in 1993. It was on South Street: think of how many people walked over that thing! The tile was right by the mural of one of the Three Stooges, which was something that people wanted to keep in the city. There are certain other things that people want to preserve to keep the character of the city and it would be nice if we tried to preserve the tiles because of that.
C: I’ve noticed some interesting screenings on your website, like that Michael Moore selected your film for a screening.
JF: Michael Moore runs a film festival in Michigan that is curated by him and his staff. They don’t accept submissions, they select you. Somebody contacted me to ask for a screener. One of his people wrote and said that he had screened it and liked it, so they wanted to show it six days from then. That’s really short notice to organize a screening but my theater booker, Jim Browne from Argot Pictures, fielded that really quickly and they showed it. I didn’t get to make it out to that but I would have liked to.
C: It looked like the film was called back to Pittsburgh twice.
JF: We had a great time in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh is close by and it has the last of the really nice, colorful, big tiles there. We went on a trip around the city taking pictures of tiles. We had a sold-out screening at the Three Rivers Film Festival and the same theater asked us back for a screening at one venue and then later another.
C: Could you talk about this online screening event that happened a couple weeks ago?
JF: It’s called Constellation TV. They stream the movie and we did a chat through the movie so I could field questions. At first I didn’t understand it, but when we were doing it I thought it was a good idea. If you want to interact with the filmmaker, I think it’s a good way to do that if you can’t be there in person. Let’s say you don’t live near a major city that showed the film. If you’re at a screening you can’t really ask the filmmaker stuff through the film, so it was nice to chat during the film. It’s like doing a DVD commentary. They’re still trying to tweak the format because it’s new. Afterwards I did a Skype Q&A. I think people tend to think about why they should go to a movie theater. A lot of people say that they want to see it on the big screen. That’s party true, but there’s also an element where it’s social. You’re with other people and when they laugh you get a sense of that. It’s a great experience. You don’t get that if you just stream it at home. But, again, another advantage to movie theaters is that it forces you to watch the whole thing without pausing it. It’s the same way with Constellation. To me, that’s an advantage. It was pretty cool.
JF: Looking back it’s kind of funny that people think we were expecting that because we had no idea. I think it’s fair to say that the turnout in Philadelphia wildly exceeded our expectations. It was great. By day four I walked out and said “we’ve sold out yet another screening, this can’t keep happening.” I have to say that being in the independent documentary film world, I’ve been to many different types of screenings for this film. I’ve been to screenings where it was huge and a great audience (like at International House) and I went to a screening where I did a Q&A with one person. You never know what you’re going to get. You just set it up and hope for the best. In the case of Philadelphia, we did more ticket sales than all of the other screenings combined. It’s a great Philadelphia film and it connected with Philadelphia and every filmmaker would love something like that to happen.
We’ve got some screenings coming up at Bryn Mawr, Ambler and the Country Theater in Doylestown. They’re all great theaters. I’ve spent a lot of time at Bryn Mawr. I love movie theaters; I’ve worked in three myself. There’s just something magic about movie theaters and if you work in one, I always had this residual feeling of magic even though I was going to work and not getting paid as much as I’d like, they were always fun jobs for me. There is this sense of wonder about film and movie theaters that I still have. So when I think about these theaters in Bryn Mawr, Ambler, Doylestown and International House, I feel that.
C: Can you speak to anything you’re working on next?
JF: In the short term, I want to do another feature documentary, which is probably going to be my next project. I’m also working on a follow-up short with Justin and Steve to put the word out about Justin’s art. He’s going to have an art exhibit in April at Gallery 309. We’re going to do a couple screenings to try to drum up some interest. Justin is working on an autobiographical graphic novel. We’re trying to keep some of the spirit from our team going by working together. I want to start scripting a narrative film, but I see that as being a much longer project. I’m co-writing a fictional adaptation of Resurrect Dead with a brilliant filmmaker in LA named Elia Petridis. He proposed a remake of Resurrect Dead to me and I came on board. Now we’re in the beginning stages of writing a script for that. It’s very exciting. I love the documentary world but I also have ambitions of doing fictional film. I want to do both.
C: There’s an upcoming DVD release of Resurrect Dead.
JF: The DVD was released on Tuesday, January 31. We’re doing a release event this coming Monday for Movie Monday at the Trocadero. It’s going to be a fun time. Most of the people from the movie are going to be there to do a Q&A. It’s being put on by the Philadelphia Film Society, who have been really cool about putting this together, so I couldn’t be happier.
Resurrect Dead will screen at the Trocadero this coming Monday, February 6, at 8:00 PM as part of a DVD release party sponsored by the Philadelphia Film Society. Director Jon Foy will be in attendance.