It all began a few weeks ago when an email arrived with the intriguing subject header: "Help: I've Been Accepted into Sundance." The name of the sender, Jon Foy, was vaguely familiar. He's a D-Word member, but not a particularly active one. It began:
"I know you're super super busy and this is totally out of the blue but I got the news and wanted to drop a note because I feel confused and elated and terrified. And I thought maybe you'd understand. In a nutshell, I self-financed a debut doc feature working odd jobs and drug studies and sent it off to Sundance on a lark. Made it cheap and dirty and run and gun. There was never a plan for what to do if accepted."
I told Jon to give me a call and he quickly filled me in. When some friends experienced a minor success with their low-budget documentary feature, he quit film school and moved back to Philadelphia. Figured he'd learn more by just going out and making one himself. And so he did. Shot it, directed it, edited it, produced it, composed the music, you name it.
Five years later he's finished and dead broke, living on food stamps and cleaning houses to scrape by. He's been turned down by a number of festivals and pretty much ready to give it all up when, on the very last day of submissions, he decides to send it in to Sundance. And gets picked for the coveted U.S. Documentary Competition.
The film is called Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles. I ask him to send me a screener.
I've been on a couple of festival juries this year (Full Frame and Dokufest), so I've seen dozens of documentaries at home on dvd. I hate seeing them that way. Tired from a long day at work, it's hard to have the patience and focus that a documentary feature often requires (which is seldom a problem when I watch without distractions in a theater). If I pause in the middle, I usually have to force myself to continue on, no matter how many accolades the film has gathered.
Not Resurrect Dead. At the heart of the story is a fascinating mystery. For the past 20 years, hundreds of tiles bearing the same cryptic message have appeared embedded in city streets throughout the northeast U.S., and as far away as South America:
IN MOVIE 2001
ON PLANET JUPITER
How did they get there? Who put them there? And what on earth does it mean? The film's protagonist, an artist living on the margins named Justin Duerr, has spent much of the past decade consumed with tracking down the answers. As the film progresses, he and a couple of endearing fellow enthusiasts uncover a series of increasingly strange clues and coincidences. And Resurrect Dead becomes as much a character study and meditation on obsession as a detective story. In the end, the mystery gets solved. Or does it?
It's not your typical Sundance doc, that's for sure. It's not timely or urgent. It won't save the planet. But it's hugely entertaining, and signals the arrival of a rare and unlikely filmmaking talent. Jon's music alone is one of great documentary scores of recent years, and the films' aesthetic reminds me of Errol Morris by way of George Kuchar.
And so I leap in. Within a week I'm officially the Executive Producer of Resurrect Dead, though that hardly describes my role. I'm a strange mix of adviser, cheerleader, confidant, hand holder, creative consultant, sounding board, therapist, networker-in-chief, career manager and keeper of perspective. In other words, whatever I can do to help without getting pulled into the chaos and time suck of fully producing.
The timing is good. After all these months of grueling outreach and promotion for The Kids Grow Up, it's both fun and rejuvenating to be guiding Jon through the process. I'm off next month to my first Sundance in many years and we already have the usual 20 people camping out in our 3-bedroom Park City condo (and I'll probably be the only one over 30). Josh Braun has come aboard as sales agent, a support team is being lined up as we speak, and everyone I talk to gets excited hearing about it, both the film and Jon's back story. There's something about these classic underdog, against-all-odds stories that puts a grin on even the most grizzled veteran faces.
Will Resurrect Dead sell like hotcakes at Sundance or beyond? Who knows? When it comes to distribution, who the hell ever knows? But Jon Foy is getting to live the dream, and my biggest hope is that he enjoys the ride. And keeps his eyes squarely on real the prize: a long career of making terrific films.