The X-Tiles: A Decades-Long Art Mystery Turns Into a Shot at Sundance

By Micaela Hester
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Feb. 16, 2011

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But as the film lurched toward approximate completion, another problem was on the filmmakers’ minds—what to even do with it once it was finished. Film festivals? Internet? Back drawer?

Duerr, most concerned with making their findings public, recalls urging Foy, “‘Man, just start making DVDs and giving them to your friends. Who cares?’” He laughs. “I’m glad he didn’t do that!” They began submitting the rough copy to film festivals. But one by one, responses came back: No. No. More no.

“Every couple of months people would say, ‘All right, it’s time to give up,’ and one of us would say, “No, no, let’s just ride out this wave a little longer,’” says Smith. “Send it off to the big ones, because, you know, why not? You’re going to jump in the pool, you might as well see what the deep end’s like.”

In late September 2010, Foy took his advice and applied to Sundance as something of a Hail Mary pass. They’d already been rejected from most of the festivals they thought they’d had a chance of getting into. Foy looked up the submission guidelines after work and was crushed to realize that Resurrect Dead would have to physically be at Sundance HQ in less than 24 hours.

“I read that and my heart sank,” says Foy. “So I called up my girlfriend and said, ‘I missed the boat on Sundance. I’m just going to come over to your house and play video games.’” He told her how impossible it was—it was nearly 9 p.m.; he’d have to complete the entry forms, burn the DVD, race his bike to the 30th Street post office, pay a precious $150 for overnight shipping, and even then cross his fingers. But as he laid it out, it seemed less and less impossible. He got off the phone.

Eight weeks later, he got the call from Sundance.

Duerr remembers the festival as “a cross between a Franz Kafka novel and the television series The Prisoner .” The foursome and their crew arrived to find a disorienting whirling chaos of lights, cameras and action. Filmmakers hyped their projects. Interlopers and wannabes raided the booze and swag bags. Press stalked the circuit, scrambling to be the first to hit ‘send’ on a review. Moviegoers stood in lines to get into other lines to get into other lines that would hopefully get them into screenings.

The bedlam was distressing, to say the least. Before leaving, Duerr expressed that he’d “like to get celebrities and movie stars to buy my art,” and packed some originals. But after a couple days of gamely attending events crammed with shills and starlets gyrating to deafening dance music, Duerr took refuge in the familiarity of a supermarket. In the days leading up to the film’s late-in-the-festival premiere, he spent much of his time hanging with Cap’n Crunch and Mr. Clean. “All of the fellow creative people were amazing, wonderful people,” says Duerr. “The rest of it—not so amazing.”

“We felt like small fish in a big pond. An enormously big pond,” says Foy. At Sundance, he was a minnow on a mission, determinedly talking up Resurrect Dead with industry people and meeting other filmmakers. He set a grueling schedule for himself, but says it was invaluable—like the night he and Duerr first met, Foy recognized that he was in the presence of expertise, and drank up what everyone had to say.

All the filmmakers in the U.S. Documentary competition were kept bouncing between events as a group; almost desperately, the competitors bonded as if in neighboring trenches. They swapped stories about making their films over pancakes and cheered each other on at their screenings. Many of their competitors had several films under their belts or even a pre-festival distribution deal, but the first-time, DIY quartet were treated as nothing less than peers.

“It’s easy to get cynical about the film world because it’s so competitive and the reality of it is so rough,” says Foy. “But the Sundance people are very good about creating an atmosphere where people are very down-to-earth and very earnest about what they’re doing. The documentary filmmakers are all like that ... Everyone’s just so happy that they got so lucky.”

The premiere was surreal. “Everything sits completely differently when you watch the movie in the theater versus watching it on Jon’s computer,” says Smith. “Everything’s bigger. The sound is so big. It puts it in a different context.” The work they’d been keeping secret for so many years was screened before a sold-out crowd of industry professionals and enthusiasts—and they seemed to like it.

After a screening, one woman told Duerr, who had now spent more than a decade futilely trying to excite people about the Toynbee tiles, that she’d been moved to tears by his story. Days later, he still couldn’t believe it. He also got a personal congratulation from fellow artist Matt Groening, a judge at the festival this year. They got some good writeups in Variety and Hollywood Reporter despite being scheduled as “the caboose of the documentaries,” as Foy puts it, premiering after a lot of the media had gone home.

Smith remained characteristically chill about it all. Even as the awards ceremony approached, he encouraged the others not to put too much value on awards. “I was like, “Look, buddy. Don’t sit around planning your camera shots ... It’s not healthy to sit around and expect stuff to happen. Don’t get your hopes up, but have fun.’ ” He gives a big, bearded smile. “I was wrong.”

The first awards announced in their category were the Audience Award and Special Jury Prize—the two categories where wild-card films historically have a chance of making it to the podium. After the awards went to Buck and Being Elmo , Foy relaxed into his seat. That was over with, at least. But then Best Director was announced. And it was him.

“I felt like I was out of my body,” Foy remembers. “I felt like I was in a dream. I felt a little drunk. I felt outside myself, like I was watching my life on TV.” Sometimes reality throws you a Hollywood ending.

“When I go back over what I’ve done in the last decade, things surrounding the movie are definitely what I’m most proud of,” says Smith. “On a personal level, it’s such a profound satisfaction. It’s nice to be recognized, but the processes were their own rewards.” Positive meetings with distributors indicate that Resurrect Dead will soon have a home, though the group is characteristically (and sensibly) close-lipped on details, saying only that they “think we’re going to find a nice home for the movie.”

Foy quit his housecleaning job to head off to the Berlin Film Festival as part of a Sundance showcase and has several new film projects percolating. “Honestly, the most rewarding thing ... is that I can make another film,” he says. “The idea that I’ll be able to go on, that I’ll be able to come up with the next story and people will take it more seriously and I’ll be able to get it off the ground—to me, that’s the most rewarding thing that can happen.”

As for the secret of the Toynbee tiles—well, you’ll just have to catch the movie.

Edited by Emily Guendelsberger

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Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. rosan said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 10:43AM

“I thoroughly enjoyed the "Mystery of the toybeen Tiles" by Micaela Hester I hope you're writing a book. I'd buy it. the struggle these guys experienced was depicted so poignantly! I was moved. thank you”

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2. Anonymous said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 03:18PM

“I've been reading Philly Weekly for a very long time, and I'm a big fan, and I think that this particular article is the best I've ever read. All Philly writers, artists, musicians, and people who aspire to do anything creative ought to read this. Twice.”

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3. pete hoge said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 04:07PM

“This article shows why Philly is so great.

Little things turn into big things and all of
the sudden what was impossible becomes

In NYC no one can hear you scream.

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4. ted k-s said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 04:16PM

“A wonderful article on the adventure some good friends of mine undertook. I've watched Jon struggle for years with frequent bouts of bad luck and self-doubt, and couldn't be happier for him and his hard-earned success. I can't wait to see what he cooks up for us next!”

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5. Ed said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 06:26PM

“Pretty funny that the Toynbee tiles are being associated with these guys. The foremost expert? My friends and I figured out this "mystery" in the 1980's,early 1990's. it will be interesting to see the film but its just funny that this dude thinks he was the first person to investigate this stuff(haha) Maybe it seemed like it bc he was so late to the party. I can't wait for the documentary on the continuing mystery of the Golden Rabbit! Or maybe the doc on the undiscovered band called U2.”

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6. jpiroli said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 06:31PM

“By "investigate", he means investigate successfully, as in solve the mystery, uncover the identity and meaning of the tiles, etc. If you succeeded in doing that, you've kept a good lid on your findings.”

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7. abigale said... on Feb 16, 2011 at 09:25PM

seems like Ed is a little jealous.

did you produce an award-winning movie about these tiles?!
i didn't think so.

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8. bernieS said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 02:12AM

“Jon and his colleagues worked their asses off for years to make this film. They had no expectation that it would go anywhere, but they never gave up. I witnessed firsthand some of the hardship and struggles they endured, and nobody deserves this success more than them. Congratulations, guys!”

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9. Allie said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 11:31AM

“Having known Jon for years, and seeing his interest in the Toynbee tiles develop into an award-winning documentary project, I couldn't be happier. Jon is truly talented, and I look forward to his future projects.... and seeing the Resurrect Dead doc, since I have not yet!”

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10. Railroad Joe said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 12:52PM

“As someone who has been following the tiles since Bill O'Neill's website wayback, I gotta say that I wish we could here in Philly see this damn thing already. These guys sound terrific, their website forum is tops and the movie looks great too from the snippets of footage I've seen. But when, oh when, will folks in the birthplace of Toynbees finally get a screening. C'mon guys!”

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11. brandon said... on Feb 17, 2011 at 08:23PM

“Wonderful feel good story. I am so glad that their dreams came true and I can't wait to see the movie playing at the Ritz.”

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12. jpiroli said... on Feb 18, 2011 at 11:55PM

“Dear Railroad Joe - The filmmakers promise that the Philly premiere is not being hindered by slackerdom, but rather by complicated movie-world bureaucracy. Please hold tight and the goods will eventually be delivered to Philly.”

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13. Craig said... on Feb 20, 2011 at 04:27PM

“I had never heard of Toynbees but I am excited to see the movie. I am also excited read more of Micaela Hester's work. What a wonderful article.”

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14. Anonymous said... on Feb 24, 2011 at 02:36PM

“Is it Sivy "The Birdman" Verna? James Morasco? Railroad Joe? Or someone new? I can't wait to find out!”

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15. matchbox lotus said... on Mar 4, 2011 at 05:16PM

“Awesome article about an inspiring story!”

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16. Anonymous said... on Mar 4, 2011 at 05:25PM

“I've heard things about the Toynbees tiles, but this article not only made me want to see the film about them, it made me want to make a movie myself! If this is Micaela Hester's first story for Philly Weekly (which I think it is), I can't wait to read more from her. Fantastic job--both author and filmmakers.”

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17. Anonymous said... on May 8, 2011 at 12:27AM

“Just saw the movie and I have my doubts about its authenticity. Ed, please tell us more about your findings in the 80's and 90's. Very curious to hear your take.”


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