They recognized the story was a keeper: 'Finders Keepers' at Sundance

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
Severed leg. Barbecue smoker. Executive's son. Dickensian entrepreneur. The makings of 'Finders Keepers'

Documentaries at the Sundance Film Festival often involve serious stuff like climate change, education reform, racism and even terrorism. "Finders Keepers" is nothing like that, nothing at all.

Sure to be one of Sundance's most talked-about docs after its Park City premiere on Tuesday, the comic and catastrophic "Finders Keepers" is the way stranger than fiction story of a custody battle over a mummified human leg featuring antagonists who once appeared on TV's "World's Dumbest Hillbillies" (they came in at No. 16).

Filled as well with peripheral folk such as a forensic veterinarian and part-time leg deflesher who would be completely at home in a Flannery O'Connor short story, "Finders Keepers" has such a startling dramatic trajectory that filmmaker Bryan Carberry, who co-directed with Clay Tweel, means it when he says, "I wish we could take credit for writing it."

Yet what makes "Finders Keepers" such an unexpected film is that what starts out strange ends up in unforeseen poignancy, as the adversaries come to find, to surprise all around, that this legal struggle for an amputated leg changes both of them in profound ways.

"One of the tougher challenges of editing this film is finding that correct tone," admits co-director Tweel. "The story could be fun, morbid and then tragic and then bounce back and forth between them in the second half of the movie."

The man who lost the leg in the aftermath of a 2004 crash of a private plane was John Wood of Maiden, N.C. His father, a prosperous top executive of the Ethan Allen furniture company, died in that crash, and Wood wanted keep his severed leg to use as part of a future memorial to his father.

Much to Wood's surprise, that leg initially came to him with all the flesh still on it. "He put it in a freezer for a year; he tried to keep it from rotting," relates Tweel. "Then a friend gave him embalming fluid and he wrapped it in a towel and DIY mummified it." Adds Carberry, "Then he put it in a possum trap high in a tree 'so the critters couldn't get it.'"

But Wood, the black sheep of his family, was also dealing with longtime drug and alcohol addiction, and when he lost his house he put the leg in a barbecue smoker in a storage locker. When he fell behind on rent, the locker's contents were auctioned off to a man named Shannon Whisnant, who was understandably surprised to find a leg cut off just below the knee in the smoker he'd just bought.

The Dickensian Whisnant, a self-described flea-market entrepreneur with a love for the spotlight, saw this leg as a way to make his fortune. Refusing to give it back to Wood, who soon emerged as the original owner, he got a vanity license plate reading "Ftsmoker 1," made T-shirts to sell reading "I'm Friends With the Foot Man" and in general believed this was his date with destiny. "Hell, it was mine," he says of the leg in question in the film. "I bought it."

The back and forth "inexplicable polarization" (as Wood calls it) between these men is the heart of "Finders Keepers," much of it visible as it played out in joint appearances that range as far afield as German TV and include a key visit to Judge Greg Mathis' long-running syndicated show.

The first step in this story becoming a documentary came in 2008, when producer Ed Cunningham, whose films include the Oscar-winning "Undefeated," overheard people talking about the foot in an Oklahoma City steak house. He tracked down Wood and Whisnant, did initial video interviewing, and made deals that included access to both men's cache of tapes recording their multiple appearances.

Cunningham often works with another producer, Seth Gordon, and the project knocked around their office but never quite got made. It got jump-started in 2012 when Carberry, tasked to help Cunningham archive and then shelve the material in deep storage, told him how great all the footage was, a judgment Tweel agreed with.

"We could see how complex and interesting it was," says Tweel, with Carberry adding: "The characters were so compelling, so rich, for this story never to be told seemed like a gross injustice."

The directors raised more than $81,000 on Kickstarter (premiums included those original "Friends With the Footman" T-shirts), did interviewing of their own, and watched as the story took turns they hadn't anticipated. As Carberry says, "People who come for the leg custody battle will stay for the character redemption story." And they'll be glad they did.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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