Q&A: Jon Foy, Director of Toynbee Tiles doc Resurrect Dead

From house cleaner and pharma guinea pig to Sundance winner

Earlier this year, West Philadelphia’s Jon Foy surprised everyone (including me) when he won a Sundance award for his documentary Resurrect Dead, which explores those weird Toynbee Tiles that you’ll find in the asphalt around Center City. Until Sundance, no one had ever heard of this guy. Last week, the New York Times gave him a “Critic’s Pick”, calling Foy’s editing “dexterous,” his score “moody,” and the documentary “compelling.” This weekend, you can see for yourself when Foy’s debut film premieres at the International House. Here, the 32-year-old filmmaker on life before (and after) Sundance.

You seem to have come from out of nowhere. What were you doing before taking the prize at Sundance?
While I was making the movie, I was playing in a punk rock band. And I cleaned houses. That was my day job. I also stocked shelves at a food co-op. I was doing drug studies—human guinea pig type stuff—as a lot of my friends do. This is not out of the ordinary for my circle of friends.

Drug studies. Wow. Any horrible experiences?
Well, I never had a bad reaction. But I went in to test out this one drug that I needed to pay for a composing class at Philadelphia Community College. The drug test timing was moved around, and I had to drop the class due to the scheduling. So I go into the drug study. They had to do a surgical procedure, just to screen for the study. They had to anesthetize me, put me down. They put a camera at the end of a tube through my mouth into my intestines and injected some kind of vomit-inducing drug that causes the gall bladder to clench up. And then they would catch some of the bile. Meanwhile, my girlfriend had just had a relative die of a fluke thing under anesthesia for some pretty safe surgery. So, I was mortified. I did wake up, and then I found out that I was not in the study, because my blood work was slightly off. All that, and I didn’t even get into the study, which totally sucked.

That’s awful. Did you at least get paid?
I think I got a few hundred dollars. It was surgery, and I had to stay overnight. But for an unskilled worker as myself, you could do worse as far as ways to make money. Some people take serious risks. Coal miners. People on ladders. We all pick our level of risk. And it’s what I get for dropping out of college.

Please tell me that you’ve been able to quit your day job—and the drug tests.
Yeah, although my financial situation is dire right now. But I think it will stabilize. In the long run, it seems like I’ve got a good shot at making a career out of filmmaking, and I owe a lot to Sundance. When I got the invite from Sundance, I told my housecleaning boss the next day and asked to get taken off the schedule, and he was very supportive of that. He took me off the schedule, and I’ve been off ever since.

What’s with the housecleaning?
It seems like a bad job. You think Oh, to make movies, you need money and connections. And yeah, it’s tough without those things. But I like to think of filmmaking as an ideas game. The way to get ahead is not about money and a nice camera. It’s who comes up with the best ideas. Working as a housecleaner, my mind was free. I was able to retain much of my mental real estate by cleaning houses. I was able to write music in my head as I cleaned.

Now that you’ve won an award that many of your peers would kill for, what’s next?
I don’t know exactly. I’ve been thinking a lot about making a musical—a musical film, that is, as opposed to in the theater. Maybe even a Toynbee Tiles musical, though I’m not sure that’s possible or prudent. But a musical is what I’m most excited about, though that’s a function of the fact that the part of my brain that I need for most of my other ideas hasn’t been freed yet. But the part of my brain that I need to churn out songs—that’s free. I just wrote a new song yesterday, just in my head… When I came back from Sundance, I made a list of 14 things I’d like to do, including a TV show, a concert piece, musicals, short film, feature film, and a novel. And I’d be really excited to do any of these.

Any ideas that are just so crazy that you don’t see them ever coming to fruition?
Aw man, never say never. I think of a lot of my ideas like that, but I don’t want to discount the possibility. I’m usually not interested in an idea unless it strikes me as insane.

Once Resurrect Dead premieres at International House, look for a limited theatrical release followed by a DVD. Keep track and view a trailer here.