The Mystery of Doug Block
Documentary filmmaker and Stuyvesant Town resident Doug Block (“51 Birch Street,” – 2005, “The Kids Grow Up” – 2009) is the executive producer of “Resurrect Dead The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles,” a new documentary now playing at IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue, at West 3rd Street. The film won “The Directing Award: Documentary” at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. It was directed by Jon Foy. How Block and Foy met, and ended up working together, is one of those serendipitous stories of the wonders of the internet.
“I get this email, the night before Thanksgiving,” Block recalled. “It had this subject header: ‘Help I just got accepted into Sundance.’” The email was from Foy, a member of “The D-Word.” “The D-Word” is Block’s website for documentary filmmakers and enthusiasts. Foy explained that he had made his film over the past five years, self-funded from odd jobs “run and gun, doing it all myself.” Foy said that he submitted his movie to Sundance, on a lark; the film was accepted. In a text book case of “be careful what you wish for, you just might get it,” Foy had never thought about what would happen if his documentary was accepted into Sundance. He needed Block’s advice on how to finish his project and navigate the film festival terrain – press screenings, publicists, additional funding, finding a place to stay in Sundance, etc.
Foy sent Block a DVD of “Resurrect Dead.” The documentary concerns the obsessive search of Justin Duerr, a Philadelphia man, to find the creator of the Toynbee Tiles. The Toynbee Tiles are actual tiles, bearing cryptic messages, that have been embedded in the asphalt of city streets and highways across America and South America. Duerr is aided in his quest by two friends, Steve Weinik and Colin Smith. “I was hooked on the story. I thought it was really well told and was a well made, entertaining film,” Block remembered. “It feels like you’re being pulled into this great story with these quirky characters trying to solve this baffling mystery.”
“I knew he needed help, I just didn’t know what my role would be,” Block explained. Block, who was busy with his own projects, wanted to be helpful but did not want to be sucked into the “nitty gritty” of producing. Block chose to be an executive producer, which he described as being more of a manager or a super consultant. “I’m helping him in every way I can think of, giving advice and mentoring and very much teaching him the ropes.”
Block described Foy as being “flat broke.” They started with an internet campaign, using kickstarter.com, that involved a promotional video for the film. They raised fourteen thousand dollars.
Doug said that while Foy was trying to finish the documentary, he was overwhelmed by requests for interviews and screening copies of the finished product. “A lot of my job was to say ‘Jon, deep breath, in the end nothing matters except getting your film physically to Sundance by your screening date. On January 24 the lights go down in the theatre and you want your film being the best it can be.’”
Once they actually arrived in Sundance, Block, who has had quite a bit of Sundance experience, as a director and as a producer, said it was fun to squire Foy around. They were admitted to all the parties and Block introduced Foy to people he knew. “I made it clear (to Foy) that ‘this is about establishing you as a filmmaker and about starting a long term career for you. Don’t focus so much on selling the film. Have a good time, enjoy it. It’s only downhill from here.’”
As for Foy winning “The Directing Award: Documentary” at Sundance Block said, “You couldn’t have asked for a better prize. That prize is less about the film and more about the director. It basically says ‘this is a talented director.’”