Directors Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel discuss their Sundance doc Finders Keepers (pictured), which focuses on a bizarre legal tug-of-war between two men over one of the men’s severed leg.
In Maiden, North Carolina in 2007, Shannon Whisnant opened a BBQ smoker he bought at an auction and discovered a severed, embalmed leg, cut just below the knee, stored inside.
John Wood, the recovering addict and amputee who lost the limb through a plane crash, had placed the smoker containing his leg in a storage unit, but couldn’t keep up with the rent.
When Wood recognized the smoker and tried to reclaim the leg, Whisnant refused, stating that he was now the owner of the smoker – an all the contents stored within. He wanted to charge admission and show it off as an exhibit.
The resulting custody battle between the two men, which eventually ended up disputed on a reality court TV show, became the impetus for Finders Keepers, an 82-minute documentary co-directed by Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel, which world premiered as an official selection at the 2015 Sundance U.S. Documentary competition.
Carberry and Tweel spoke to realscreen about their project, which was partially financed to the tune of US$81,132 via a 2013 Kickstarter campaign.
How did you hear about this bizarre story?
Bryan Carberry: In the aftermath of this whole media blitz, our producer, Ed Cunningham saw it on the news, and in 2008 he overheard some people talking about it in an Oklahoma steak joint. He went over to their table and found out that they were from Maiden, North Carolina.
I did some investigative journalism, tracked down our subject, talked to him over the phone and then went to North Carolina with a camcorder, and found out how great this story was.
Why did you decide to make the documentary?
Clay Tweel: One of the things that we were really surprised by when Ed came back and showed us footage, was just how complex and interesting these characters were. They were hinting at some family drama they had between them, and also the fact that there was this crazy tabloid story, but just digging a little deeper, underneath it there was something that could be a compelling narrative.
Did you fund the entire film through Kickstarter?
CT: The Kickstarter funding was a good way to get through the extra filming trips that needed to happen back in 2013 and principal photography and some editorial rolling. We actually ended up having to fundraise a couple more times over the course of post-production, but Kickstarter definitely was big thrust to help us do that principal photography and get the movie done.
Outside of Kickstarter, was it difficult to secure financing? It seems like a no-brainer.
BC: I’m no authority on this, but with docs, I never feel like it’s a no-brainer. It’s always going to be hard to get money for something. Especially at the beginning, at the outset, it’s a crazy story – and I think that may have been one reason why people may have been a little hesitant.
CT: One of our producer investors came up to us after a rough-cut screening and said, ‘Congratulations, you delivered on the promise of the hook.’ The hook was so good, but nobody was sure that we could make a compelling, feature-length movie out of something that seemed so crazy.
When did you know that you might have a film?
CT: We were pretty confident from the outset because our characters are too good. Shannon just talks in soundbite gold. And if we can find a narrative arc that would really propel us through the middle of the movie, it’ll be satisfying.
What was your most surprising discovery while filming Finders Keepers?
BC: We were interviewing these satellite characters, the friends and the family members, and realized how deeply and how much the leg being found in the grill impacted them and their lives and how the leg meant something else to everybody else on this journey.
CT: I thought the story had more to do with the dynamic with one of the character’s father and being able to see how the idea of letting go of things in your past, whether it be an emotional block or a physical thing like a leg, kind of mirrored itself in almost every character in the film. I did not expect that.
Where is the leg today?
CT: It is in an undisclosed location under lock and key.
BC: I wish we could bring it to Sundance. That’d be cool.
- Finders Keepers plays at the Sundance Film Festival on January 29 (Library Center Theatre, 11:45 p.m.), January 30 (Salt Lake City Library Theatre, 6:00 p.m.), and January 31 (Yarrow Hotel Theatre, 9:00 a.m.)