John Wood in “Finders Keepers”
The story of Finders Keepers, a rollicking and sneakily emotional film that screened as part of U.S. Documentary Competition at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is almost too good to be true. But as the filmmakers said after the film’s world premiere, they could never have predicted what unfolded—or that it would take six years for them to follow it.
It’s a tale you may have heard in the news, or on any number of reality TV shows. After Shannon Whisnant bought an old grill at a storage facility auction and found a human leg inside, the dismembered limb became a highly contested property issue, with Whisnant claiming purchasing rights over John Wood’s…bodily rights.
For Whisnant, it was a matter of principal as well as a chance to achieve fame; for Wood, it was a reminder of the plane crash that killed his father, maimed him for life, and sent him on a tailspin of addiction. While Finders Keepers is far from the first attempt to tell the story, it has depth, humanity, and a turn toward redemption that the infotainment cycle could never have captured.
“I verbally heard the story two weeks after the leg was found,” recalled producer Ed Cunningham. “So I did the research, found a great article in the Charlotte Observer, and called and asked [the reporter] what are these guys like and she said they’re amazing. Then in March of 2008 we started filming with them, and started collecting archival material at almost the same time as the story was going on.”
“Both of these families were so open and honest with us that we were really able to get into the complexity of who they are, and go through both sides even deeper than we imagined,” said co-director Bryan Carberry.
But as several questions from the audience intimated—and as Wood’s body and facial language suggested whenever his adversary was mentioned—such equanimity can seem problematic once it’s clear how attention-hungry Whisnant was and remains.
“If [attention] happened to be what he wanted, we gave him a platform to tell his side. Hopefully we did that truthfully,” Carberry said.
“Ed was always very honest with them. Without the other one, the story just wouldn’t be what it was. So they knew that early on,” said co-director Clay Tweel. “Just because it gives Shannon what he wants doesn’t mean he didn’t effect change for John and for himself. They’re antipodal forces that change each other’s lives.”
While Wood was on hand at the film’s January premiere to receive congratulations on the sobriety that he achieves by film’s end, and to show off a fine pair of overalls, Whisnant was noticeably absent. According to Cunningham, he’s currently in jail for contempt on a weapons charge, and hasn’t had a chance to see the film yet.
On this point of who was getting what from whom, Cunningham was refreshingly candid and thoughtful about the unavoidable pitfalls of making a movie out of real people’s lives. “You’re exploiting people when you’re making documentary films. You have to come to grips with that,” Cunningham said. “What you have to do is hopefully rise above what other people were trying to do with this story. And try to actually let these people tell their story, instead of choosing what their story is.
“But there’s no doubt that there was a lot of times, because I was the lead contact with these guys, I felt conflicted about exactly what we were asking. We were doing essentially what CNN and all these other folks had done. What we tried to do was realize we were on torched land. To be respectful, and do it in a way that would represent who Shannon is a bit more deeply.”