The Inside Story Behind 'Finders Keepers,' This Year's Most Unbelievable Documentary

·Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Shannon Whisnant poses with a leg lamp in a scene from ‘Finders Keepers’ (Photo: Adam Hobbs)

Eight years ago, a man named Shannon Whisnant found an amputated human foot in a barbecue smoker he’d purchased from a storage locker in Maiden, North Carolina. His gruesome discovery became national news, drawing the attention of John Wood, the amputee to whom the foot belonged. Wood asked for his limb back. Whisnant refused, under the principal of “finders keepers.”

Now, just knowing the basic facts, whose side are you on?

“I think when you see a blurb about it, most people just flock to John’s side because it’s his leg,” Bryan Carberry, co-director of the new documentary Finders Keepers, told Yahoo Movies. “And so then we just set out to be like, ‘Hey, what if we can show where Shannon’s coming from?’”

Watch a trailer for ‘Finders Keepers.’

In Finders Keepers (in limited theaters now and available on VOD Friday), filmmakers Carberry and Clay Tweel delve into the strange tale of Whisnant and Wood, two colorful characters from opposite sides of the tracks whose lives are irrevocably altered by a single, detached human foot. Wood never intended for the appendage to be sold; his lower leg was amputated after he was injured in a plane crash, and he kept and preserved the foot with the intention of creating a memorial for his father, who died in the same crash. Unfortunately, Wood was also in the throes of alcohol addiction, and when a storage locker full of his possessions was sold — including the foot, somehow stashed in his old barbecue smoker — the amputee was barely aware that it had happened. Meanwhile, Whisnant — who was initially repulsed by his discovery — began to think of the leg as heaven-sent, a gift to lift him out of poverty and obscurity by thrusting him into the limelight he’d craved since his troubled childhood. The acclaimed documentary is funny, grotesque, and surprisingly touching: a story about universal human struggles and the power of the media, wrapped in a crazy news item and hidden in a barbecue smoker.

Related: 'Finders Keepers’ Is Sundance’s First Great Find

Seven years in the making, Finders Keepers was the brainchild of producer Ed Cunningham (The King of Kong, Undefeated.), who began filming and collecting news footage — much of it recorded on VHS tape by the subjects themselves — in 2008. In 2013, he handed over directorial duties to Los Angeles-based filmmakers Carberry and Tweel, who had worked with Cunningham on the 2010 teen-magician documentary Make Believe. The pair raised additional funding via Kickstarter and went down south to complete filming.

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John Wood transports his amputated leg (in bag) on a motorcycle in a scene from ‘Finders Keepers’ (Photo: Adam Hobbs)

The passage of time was invaluable in telling this story. “The movie would be vastly different if we’d tried to make it in two years,” Tweel told Yahoo Movies. Over the course of the film, the audience sees Whisnant — a big, bearded man who dreams of becoming a comedian — come to terms with the fact that his “foot man” notoriety might not be a golden ticket to fame. Meanwhile, Wood struggles to move past his addictions and the traumatic loss of his father, while clinging to the belief that recovering his lost foot will heal his pain. Though Whisnant is presented first as the obvious villain, the directors soon reveal that both men’s stories are more complicated than they appear. “The more we find out about John doing questionable things,” explained Carberry, “the more we find out about Shannon’s really tough upbringing and how he almost deserved this leg.”

The leg itself remains out of sight for much of Finders Keepers. As the backstory unravels, the journey of the leg from Wood’s body to the barbecue smoker — with some jaw-dropping detours, including the freezer at a local Hardee’s — is shown through animation. “John, in some of his early interviews, had talked about the fact that by him not showing the leg to the media, it created this mystery and drew people further in,” said Tweel. “And so we used that to our benefit as well.” Partway through the movie, the directors reveal the repugnant limb in the same way Wood did: With a high-profile German talk show appearance that Wood, who was in the throes of drug addiction when he shot it, came to deeply regret. “We wanted the audience to see it through the lens of how John felt when he showed it,” said Tweel. “It’s disgusting both physically and emotionally,” added Carberry.

One thing the audience doesn’t ever see is a face-to-face meeting between the film’s two protagonists, outside of that German talk show and one other television appearance. (Local news documented an early confrontation between the men in a Dollar General parking lot — see the clip below — but the directors couldn’t find any footage of actual words being exchanged.) “I think pretty early on, we realized these guys weren’t interested in reconciliation of any kind, and that was not their trajectory,” Carberry explained.

Watch a clip from ‘Finders Keepers.’

That said, one of Wood and Whisnant’s rare joint appearances, on the reality court show Judge Mathis, changed the trajectory of their story in a profound way (which we won’t reveal here). “Judge Mathis is possibly the hero of the movie,” Tweel said only half-jokingly. “So many people say that the media is a villain in this story,” noted Carberry. “And that’s definitely how our characters thought of the media every step of the way. But then it is strange that Judge Mathis comes out of nowhere and saves the day.”

Since premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, Finders Keepers has generated substantial buzz and excellent reviews, not to mention interest from Hollywood studios in dramatizing the documentary. (“For sure, that is in the works,” confirms Tweel, who declined to give more details.) Perhaps not surprisingly, the two stars have reacted to the film’s success very differently. For Wood, the movie has offered closure on a difficult chapter in his life. “John said that every time he watches the movie now, he cries in a different spot,” said Tweel. “And he talks about how the movie held him accountable to staying sober, in a weird way — the fact that we were around, and he knew that we could come back and check in with him.”

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Actress Aubrey Plaza discusses ‘Finders Keepers’ with directors Clay Tweel (left) and Bryan Carberry at the Sundance Next Fest. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Sundance)

As for Whisnant, he alternates between proudly promoting the film and complaining about it. (Much of this commentary happened via his Twitter account, which is now hidden from the public.) “After a [recent] screening, he said he was disappointed in it. Which is different than what I’d heard earlier from him about how he liked it,” Carberry said with a sigh. “His main two complaints were always, one, it could have been longer, and two, it could have featured more of him.”

Even though the dispute over the foot has long been settled, Wood and Whisnant’s lives remain strangely enmeshed. During recent interviews, Whisnant has said that he fell and broke his ankle in 17 places, and because he walked on it before it healed, his foot might need to be amputated. “This cosmic, karmic connection between these two never ceases,” said Tweel. “The fact that the ‘foot man’ might possibly have to have his foot amputated would be ridiculous.”