Bargain hunter Shannon Whisnant likes a good deal, but when he bought a grill at a North Carolina auction, he got an unexpected grisly bonus - a severed human foot.
What happened next was so bizarre the international news media took notice. Whisnant and the man who the leg belonged to, John Wood, became entangled in a battle over leg ownership, eventually ending up on an episode of TV show Judge Mathis to settle the argument.
The story is now a documentary, Finders Keepers, which is playing as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival.
When director Bryan Carberry first heard about the story, he wasn’t sure what to make of it.
“My initial reaction was - that’s insane. It’s crazy. It sounds like it would make a good short, maybe… the question was how do we carry [people’s interest] into an 80 minute plus film.”
But after digging deeper through historical news footage and learning more about the individuals behind the ludicrous event, Carberry felt compelled to film the story.
“[We] kinda realised how deep it went and how many layers there was to the story. It wasn’t just jokes and fun and whatever, there was real tragedy behind it.”
“Listening to their stories, realising everyone had a backstory, everyone had a role to play in this crazy thing that happened.”
Wood’s family was initially apprehensive to be in the media spotlight again after their experiences being caricatured and ridiculed by tabloid news.
“They were a little reluctant because of the media circus that had gone on. Shows like World’s Dumbest Hillbillies had featured them. They were kinda sick of it at that point.”
Carberry says the family eventually agreed to the film when they realised it was a chance for them to tell their story. Wood’s sister, who supported him through many of his hardships, is one of the key voices in the movie.
“Hearing her insights and what she’d been through and how she plays a big role in this drama. John’s mum, Shannon’s wife, all these people that World’s Dumbest Hillbillies didn’t want to talk to, they were the ones that finally were being allowed to share their thoughts. That blew us away.”
After getting to know Whisnant, known locally as ‘the foot man’, the filmmakers were able to understand his reasoning behind wanting the leg.
“He comes from a poor rural upbringing. From six on up he’s been - he calls it horsetrading - going to swap meets, [and] finding things.
It’s programmed into him. When he finds something and when he buys something to capitalise on it and make the most off it you can. So when he comes across a leg he’s going to the do the same thing. He also saw it as his ticket to fame.”
Juggling both Wood’s and Whisnant’s, at times, larger than life personalities, was a challenge for Carberry.
“In docs, usually one of the biggest challenges is getting the characters to open up to you, but in this case they both love the camera so much they wanted to spill their guts out. But it became hard to drop the personas they’ve been acting out over the past few years, so getting under the surface became a trick.
“One key was keeping the cameras out, and keeping them rolling the whole time, because no one can keep up the persona 24-7. Ultimately they were sincere with us.”
With the story appearing bizarre from the exterior, Carberry says it’s been good to see people really connect with the characters and the emotion behind the headline.
“People have been surprised that it’s more than a tagline of two guys fighting over a leg. It’s nice to see that someone could get emotional over a story like this. That’s great.”
Carberry says that, at its crux, the story is one audiences can relate to, despite outrageous first appearances.
“I’m not sure how to say this without sounding pretentious, but it’s kinda like a modern fable… It’s grotesque and seemingly over the top but I feel like people can recognise the ‘leg’ in their own lives, and how we’re programmed from a young age to want something and not let go of it, even if it’s doing more harm than good.
“It’s about the things that tie you down [and] being able to let go of them.”