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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In 2005, Foy caught the documentary Rock School , about Philly’s Paul Green, at SXSW. The film’s editor was a pal from the Philly music scene, and seeing his friend’s work applauded by critics made his Toynbee movie seem practically attainable.

“You see your friends do stuff like that and you think, ‘Well, I could do that, too. They’re not that different from me,’” Foy says. After chatting up the filmmakers and getting some key words of encouragement, Foy packed up his few possessions, leaving school and Texas to return to Philly with big plans to start on the project he and Duerr had discussed five years earlier.

He had no money, no home and a single utilitarian camera. He’d never made a movie; he figured it would take most of the summer. He had only a vague idea of how to start and no idea of how to finish. He’d only been in sporadic contact with his presumed filmmaking partner over the last five years.

“So I contacted Justin and told him I was going to move back and drop out of school and we were going to start shooting this movie,” says Foy. 

 Duerr signed on, and they went about putting together a team. The first recruit was co-producer Colin Smith, now 29, Foy’s occasional roommate and former bandmate. Smith has the long hair and full beard of someone who belongs either at an ashram or hanging lights for Ozzfest. He has a chill, grounded perspective that would work well in either place, and often served as a foil for the more intense, sometimes reality-obscuring vision of Foy and the other members of the film crew. In fact, he functioned as the voice of reason so often that the group dubbed him their Scully among Mulders.

The last of the quartet to come aboard was Steve Weinik, now 31. He was the only one with a wedding ring and an administrative job, but an artist like the others—a knockout photographer. He’d first encountered the tiles “when I was, like, 13 years old. I was like, ‘What’s a Toynbee?’ ” says Weinik. “It stuck in my head.”

Years later, he used downtime at his desk job to scour the Internet for clues. “I quickly found out that Justin was the foremost authority and reached out to him,” says Weinik. Recognizing kindred curiousity, Duerr persuaded Weinik to come on board to aid with the research and photography.

With the cast and crew complete, it was time to figure out how to make a movie.

“You go in with certain ideas and you recalibrate as you go,” says Foy ruefully of the early filmmaking process. He started out by filming Duerr at some of the Philly tile sites reading the messages into the camera, but they soon realized that this wasn’t particularly compelling. The four newly minted filmmakers decided to hit the highway to check out tiles in other cities, trying to retrace the footsteps of the artist. Foy would film the road trip, and they figured maybe the investigation would make for a good story, even if it didn’t go anywhere.

“I assumed that ... we wouldn’t make any headway in terms of actually solving any kind of mystery,” says the ever-pragmatic Smith. But he piled into the car anyway.

Their first trip took them from St. Louis to Cleveland to rural Michigan to Washington, D.C., and a bunch of places in between. Sleep and bathroom breaks were secondary to cramming in as much mileage per day as possible—lives, jobs and vacuums were waiting back in Philly.

Sometimes they’d arrive at a site to find the tile had vanished, eroded by traffic or bulldozed by new construction. But after that first trip, the film became an obsession. The four spent hours researching in libraries and online, investigating even the most obscure references. They saw potential links in a Mamet script and in crackpots on Larry King’s call-in show. When a lead showed promise, Foy got his camera and they hit the road.

They became familiar with underground art collectives and fanatic subgroups, and found themselves attending a short-wave radio convention and knocking on recluses’ doors. They even spent some quality time with a man who makes machines that he claims can talk to the dead.

“The movie was going on, but we were also documenting the investigation, and that was something that had its own life,” says Foy. Almost to their surprise, pieces started coming together in both their film and their mystery. What had begun as a messy heap of gut feeling and optimism gradually started taking shape.

But there were constant interruptions from daily life, and the actual, technical aspect of making a movie was harder than Foy had expected when he’d left Austin. Through all this, he’d had been painstakingly figuring out how to cobble together a film. On the old computer in his bedroom, he taught himself how to frame shots, configure lighting, compose a score, mix sound and edit video—work that would have occupied several departments on a movie with a normal budget.

Though it was buoyed by the occasional grant, Resurrect Dead was primarily funded by odd jobs. The four men cleaned houses, repaired buildings, pushed pencils, slung drinks, parked cars and swallowed pills for science. There wasn’t enough money to buy new equipment. There was barely enough even to keep putting the film together piecemeal.

They fueled themselves with a steady ration of potato chips from 7-Eleven and a fervor that Duerr thinks stems from “the creative background that we grew up with, a sort of punk-rock mentality. You just do stuff. The thing is its own reward.”

The thing was their only reward for six years.

As the years went by and the film failed to materialize, people around them started wondering about the men, now in their 30s or very close to it. “For years, my friends would be, like, ‘How’s that documentary coming along?’ sort of teasing me,” says Weinik. “‘I don’t think it exists.’” The group’s paranoia about discussing their investigations didn’t help this.

Foy in particular sacrificed a lot. “Jon put a lot of his life on hold, avoided making major life changes and kept working the same shitty job for however many years so that he could be in a position to work on the film,” says Smith.

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COMMENTS

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
possible.

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

“seriously.
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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