PHAWKER: Just to start off with, for the sake of readers that might not know anything about The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles please explain…
JON FOY [pictured, below right]: Sure. Well, it’s a documentary about a mystery. It explores this sort of urban legend-esque type of phenomenon. Someone’s been laying these tiled messages, and they’re embedded in the street. They look like little plaques. They’ve got messages about resurrecting the dead. They’re sort of cryptic. They’ve been in the street for almost three decades, basically across the U.S. and South America. Nobody knows who does them – or why, or how, at least at the beginning of the story that was true. So it’s a documentary but it’s kind of like a mystery, with some kind of overtones of sci-fi. Some people say horror, although nothing horrible happens to anyone in the film.
PHAWKER: Roughly how many are there in Philadelphia?
JON FOY: Who knows? They can come and go. We’ve seen many come and go, but as for right now, I’d say at least 100 in the city. Four of them just appeared right outside the movie theater where it’s playing tomorrow.
PHAWKER: Oh, really?
JON FOY: Yeah, last week they disappeared. Four of them. It’s really pretty eye-opening.
PHAWKER: I haven’t seen the movie all the way through. Is the mystery solved at the end?
JON FOY: Well, people debate that. I think so. As a story-teller, it’s more about telling a satisfying story, and I think it’s a satisfying story. It’s not all resolved, but we do present our findings. In my mind, there’s a whole lot that we present. I mean, it gets pretty thick – kind of like layers of exposition and details and stuff like that. There’s plenty to chew on.
PHAWKER: Why are they named Toynbee? Where’s Toynbee name come from?
JON FOY: The historian Arnold Toynbee, who was a noted British historian. He would sort of talk about history in large strokes. He would talk about the rise and fall of civilizations – the Egyptians, the Romans – things like that. He would try to put together theories about what caused the rise and fall of civilizations. I think – I’m not 100% sure about this – but I think that he published the largest publication in the English language, which would be his Study of History. So, you know, big ideas. They’re called Toynbee tiles because of all of the messages. The messages on the tiles typically read, “Toynbee idea, in Kubrick’s 2001, resurrect dead on planet Jupiter. They refer to themselves as tile, and they’re made out of floor tiling we believe, so we call them Toynbee Tiles.
PHAWKER: You mentioned a couple more of these tiles just showed up outside the movie theater. Do you think this is someone just punking you guys, or is whoever has been responsible for these tiles all along just did these outside of the theater where you’re gonna show the movie?
JON FOY: We don’t know for sure. We, the film makers, didn’t make tiles. We felt it would muddle the story if we actually made tiles, so we don’t do that. We think it’s a copycat who is laying them outside the movie theaters where we’re showing. They appeared outside of IFC Center in New York City, they just appeared in front of International House on 37th and Chestnut where we’re gonna show tomorrow through the weekend. Some of them say the Toynbee message and some of them have variations, some of them have House of Hades. We’ve identified what we think to be a copycat who leaves these messages about House of Hades, but they also copied Toynbee Tiles.
PHAWKER: Now, what is House of Hades?
JON FOY: It’s just a copycat graffiti artist, we believe. It’s somebody else who is laying tiles.
PHAWKER: Who goes by the name House of Hades?
JON FOY: We don’t know. That’s the mystery. And I should say, it’s a mystery that’s not explored at all in the film.
PHAWKER: Did that only become apparent to you after you’d pretty much wrapped up the film, or did you just decide not to pursue it?
JON FOY: We decided not to include it in the film. We did pursue it. House of Hades, we believe, is a brand of copycat made by a different person or set of people that started in 2006. We think they started in upstate New York, in Buffalo. They’re going strong, there are many House of Hades tiles in NYC and Philadelphia. Some of them are just copies of Toynbee Tiles with the same message. Some of them have other messages about House of Hades, but they’ll still reference the Toynbee Tiles. They’ll use some of the same language, some of the same images, and obviously the same style of tiling. We didn’t include it in the movie and that just has to do with streamlining the storytelling. The story in the movie is pretty dense with detail. I didn’t wanna start setting up stuff that just kind of fizzled out without any kind of resolution. We don’t have any resolution for House of Hades. As far as we know, it’s just a completely unsolved mystery.
PHAWKER: But you’re fairly confident that you’ve identified who is originally responsible for these? Is that true?
JON FOY: Yes.
PHAWKER: Is it one person or more than one?
JON FOY: We believe that it’s one person. Obviously these are things that are explored in the film – this is kind of spoiler territory – but yeah, we present it as one person. We talk about the history of it, how it developed, we kind of go through a timeline. There’s a certain amount of conjuncture to all of his, too. That’s worth mentioning.
PHAWKER: I’m assuming though that you’ve never been able to contact this person or run your theory past him.
JON FOY: That would be a pure spoiler.
PHAWKER: We’ll hold off on that then.
JON FOY: Then you may as well just not see the movie because you’ll already know exactly everything that happens, what we talk about, and how it ends.
PHAWKER: I understand, I don’t wanna do that. But let’s back up here. How did you get on board with this? I know it started with a prank phone call. That’s how you two guys met up, right? You were trying to prank his roommate, correct?
JON FOY: I was with a friend and we were prank calling Justin’s roommate Adam. Justin used to live in a punk house called The Cat Box. This was back in the year 2000. There were maybe eight people living in this house, I don’t know exactly how many. I was prank calling the house, talking about the Toynbee message, pretending to be the people who made the Toynbee Tiles – it was sort of jibberish of a message, it was obviously about the tiles. Justin, unbeknownst to me, had been seriously pursuing the mystery. When he got the message, it was a real kind of shock to him. When I found out about this – I actually overheard a conversation when I was at the house one day – I introduced myself to him. I apologized because I didn’t want it to be a malicious prank, I just thought it was, you know, a little bit of mischief. When I found out he got the message instead of Adam, I introduced myself and we just hit it off. Right there that night, he just started showing me his tile photographs. You know, talking about it in a very passionate way. I thought, “This is gonna be great,” it was just a good call. I said, “We’re gonna make a movie about this.” And I really meant it. But years and years went by – five years – before we actually started shooting.
PHAWKER: Just because it was difficult to get things off the ground?
JON FOY: Yeah, it’s always difficult to get things off the ground. I have to be at a good place in life to make a movie. I mean, making a movie is pretty complicated and requires equipment and money, and I just didn’t have that at the time. It’s debatable how much I had that even when we did shoot. I got by on a shoestring budget. But we made it work.
PHAWKER: And you had been studying film in Austin, is that correct?
JON FOY: Yeah that’s true. The real truth of it is, I was switching between community college and University of Texas, and I was switching my majors. I decided I would switch to film major. I did that for one semester, then I took some time off from school and moved to Philly to shoot this movie. Now it’s been six years.
PHAWKER: Are you from Philly originally, or did you just come here?
JON FOY: I’m from the Philly area, Upper Dublin. I moved here in 1998, I was 19. I lived in Austin from about 2003-2005.
PHAWKER: You started making the film in 2005, and it took until when until you were finished?
JON FOY: We submitted a rough cut to Sundance, probably September of 2010.
PHAWKER: This took that long because you were financing this piece meal?
JON FOY: You have to understand, we all had a lot of projects going on. I was in a band with my producer Colin Smith, also one of the main investigators. The movie wasn’t the only thing I did all those years. I also was mostly doing most of these things myself, and I had very little experience doing this stuff and I didn’t have much money or help or anything like that. It’s kind of one of those things where they say you get time, quality, and money. You can do it cheap, you can do it fast, you can do it good, and you can only pick two. I decided I wanted to do it good, do it cheap, but I spent a lot of time.
PHAWKER: What was the name of your band?
JON FOY: Red Devil.
PHAWKER: This would be a punk band?
JON FOY: Yeah, me and Colin played in a punk rock band. Also, Justin as well. Our bands would play together sometimes. Justin and Colin both still continue to play in bands.
PHAWKER: You were aware of the Toynbee phenomenon before you’d met Justin, correct?
JON FOY: I was, because of Adam – the guy that I was prank calling. He told me about the Toynbee Tiles, I think sometime in 1999. We were working together at Ritz at the Bourse.
PHAWKER: Because you could see all the movies?
JON FOY: Yeah, I always had an interest in movies. Working in movie theatres you daydream about making movies. I saw a lot of great things.
PHAWKER: The tiles have been spotted as far away as South America?
JON FOY: Yes, that is correct.
PHAWKER: Is this a recent thing, that they’ve been still showing up there? Or is that an older kind of thing?
JON FOY: They were first seen years ago, some of them stay. The thing about that is the tiles can stay in the road until they repave the road. Some of them stay in the road. We dated one of them from the early 90s, if not late 80s into 2003. This was on 4th and South St. Millions of people must have walked over this tile. It was right by where the Starbucks is today. We know for sure it was there in 1994 and it was there until 2009 when it got destroyed. Your question about whether the ones in South America are recent, we can date them back to the 90s. Also, interestingly enough, I just found this out – House of Hades has laid tiles in South America, too, which is astounding.
PHAWKER: Have you identified these House of Hades guys?
JON FOY: Nope. It’s beyond the scope of our investigation. It came a little later, the timeline with House of Hades is a little later. We picked up in 2005 and they didn’t start until 2006. We concluded our investigation – the one you see in the movie – in early 2007. So, with House of Hades it didn’t time out exactly right. But it is an ongoing mystery. I’m completely baffled by House of Hades.
PHAWKER: There are some people you spoke with in South Philly? Some kind of old school South Philly types that had some insight into this, is that correct?
JON FOY: Yes.
PHAWKER: Do you wanna elaborate at all, or would you rather leave that up to the film?
JON FOY: Yeah, I’d rather leave that up to the film.
PHAWKER: Also somehow HAM Radio operators figure into this?
JON FOY: Shortwave. I don’t think HAM Radio is the same as Shortwave. It might be the same, I’m not sure. We went to a Shortwave convention and got a lot of support and attention in the Shortwave community, which has been cool. It’s one of the interesting places the mystery goes.
PHAWKER: There was an instance where Justin came out of a 7-11 convenience store and a tile had been freshly laid, and he was minutes away from running into this person, correct?
JON FOY: Yes, correct. That was in summer of 2000, and that was around the time I met him. It was actually right before, because when I met him he showed me pictures of that. Although, I’m not sure of that timeline. I know that after that happened, he wrote a whole piece for a fanzine about his experience and all that. I read that around that same time and it made a big impression on me.
PHAWKER: You believed that was not the House of Hades people, this was the Toynbee Tiler?
JON FOY: Absolutely, because House of Hades didn’t start until six years later.
PHAWKER: Does Philadelphia have the bulk of these? Or are there other cities or locations that have just as many or are just as common?
JON FOY: Philadelphia has the bulk of them. Now, if we’re gonna talk about House of Hades AND Toynbee Tiles, there’s quite a few House of Hades tiles in NYC, and they’re also scattered around elsewhere. If we wanna talk about Toynbee Tiles, which is what the movie focuses on, they were around more in the 90s and early 2000s. Since then, a lot of the roads have been repaved. They used to be as far West as Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Chicago, Boston, all over the place, really. As far West as Kansas City and as far South as D.C. or Baltimore.
PHAWKER: Do you believe the Toynbee Tiler is still active?
JON FOY: I do. Amongst the four of us who investigated in the movie, there’s no consensus. We do all actually agree that the original tiler is still laying tiles.
PHAWKER: Just to clarify, at Sundance you won Best Director or Best Documentary? What was the actual award?
JON FOY: No, I won the Directing Award for U.S. Documentary. Sometimes people think that’s director. As far as I know, there is no award called Best Director. There is no Best Documentary award, although probably the top award would be Grand Jury Prize. The Directing Award is another one of the top prizes. Sometimes people say I won Best Director. However you wanna say it.
PHAWKER: In the film, you guys encounter some sort of Jupiter Colonization Organization? People who aspire to colonize Jupiter, is that correct?
JON FOY: Yes. But we didn’t actually meet the real people. It’s part of the backstory.
PHAWKER: What comes next after this? Are you already looking ahead to the next project?
JON FOY: Yeah, I am, I feel like I’m a little late getting started, but I really wanna start working on the next film. This is mostly a one-man-band kind of project, although I have had a lot of help from people. I’m primarily my producer, I’m the director, I’m also the financier, I’m the editor doing all of the technical delivery, I’m also the publicist in Philadelphia – I haven’t had enough time to start the next project, but I really want to. I came back from Sundance with a list of 14 projects that I’d be really excited to do. Most of them are films, some are fiction, some are documentary, I think there was a TV show in there, a concert piece, a couple musical ideas, some writing, ideas for short stories – there might have been a novel in there, I don’t remember. I’d have to check my list. My attitude is, if any of these get some traction, that would be exciting.