A novelist pitching the story behind Finders Keepers would have a hard time convincing people it was a plausible tale.
"A huge level writer that's known for quirkiness or a filmmaker known for quirkiness could pitch this," said Ed Cunningham, an ESPN broadcaster and producer on Finders Keepers, "but nobody else."
Indeed, this story is as bizarre as they come. And that's why Cunningham and part of his team that produced the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated is interested in doing a film about this too-strange-for-fiction saga.
It begins in September 2007, when a Maiden, N.C., man named Shannon Whisnant bought a slow-cooking barbecue smoker from an auction. When Whisnant took it and opened the lid, he saw what he thought was a piece of driftwood. But when Whisnant touched the object, some liquid oozed onto his hand. That's when he realized it wasn’t a piece of wood.
It was a human leg.
Whisnant phoned the police.
"I got a human foot,” Whisnant said on the 9-1-1 call. “It's plumb nasty, got me grossed out."
After some investigating, it turns out the leg belonged to a South Carolina man named John Wood, who had the leg amputated after a 2004 plane crash. Wood kept the detached leg because, for spiritual reasons, he wanted to be cremated with it after he died. Wood put the leg in the grill in his storage unit, but when he fell on hard financial times and failed to make a payment on the storage unit, the slow cooker was confiscated and sold at auction.
The leg was eventually returned to Wood, but when Whisnant realized the commercial potential of such an oddity, he wanted it back. Whisnant had already started to charge people money to see the grill, and he
figured he could make a windfall from the actual leg.
Whisnant sued Wood for the rights to the leg, and the two settled the case several months later on an episode of "Judge Mathis" that aired the day after Halloween. Mathis ruled that the leg belonged to Wood, but he ordered Wood to reimburse $5,000 to Whisnant.
"Bunch of weirdoes out here," Mathis said.
The Mathis decision ended much of the hoopla surrounding the story, but Cunningham and his team have followed the tale ever since. Among other subplots, their film includes Wood's journey to Ohio to have his leg stripped to its skeletal remains. It's a process that normally costs $15,000 to $20,000, but because Wood was not in position to shell out that much cash, he rode his motorcycle to Ohio to meet with a woman who used flesh-eating spiders, among other methods, to remove the flesh.
"The log line for this is, like, two and a half paragraphs," Cunningham said of the film's abbreviated descriptor. "Because there are so many incredible forks in the road."
Cunningham first heard about this story in 2007. He was in Oklahoma working a college football game for ESPN when he bumped into the high school coach of Sooners offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson, who just happened to hail from ... Maiden, N.C. Wilson's old coach told the leg-in-the-grill story to Cunningham, who started researching that night.
Cunningham was the starting center on the 1991 Washington Huskies team that won the national championship. He played five years in the NFL with the Cardinals and Seahawks, then began working his way up the ranks in football broadcasting. He started with Arena Football League games and eventually became a fixture on ESPN's college football coverage.
During the football offseasons, Cunningham started a side gig of producing documentaries. The story of two gamers battling for the world-record score in Donkey Kong turned into The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters. It was named the 2007 Sports Illustrated Sports Movie of the Year.
Last year Undefeated won the Oscar for telling the story of an inner-city school in Memphis with no winning football tradition that reversed its fortunes with a volunteer coach.
With Finders Keepers Cunningham was working alone on the project, self-financing it, until five months ago. Bryan Carberry, who worked with Cunningham on the documentary Make Believe, joined Cunningham around the beginning of 2013. But the film is far from finished, and to push it through production the team has created a Kickstarter campaign. Cunningham said he hopes this avenue can help him raise the extra $80,000 to $100,000 that they need to complete Finders Keepers.
The film, which the team hopes to have ready for public distribution by the winter or spring of 2014, is Cunningham's sixth feature documentary. He got his start as a redshirt senior at Washington working on a film called Our Dream Season, about the squad's championship campaign. Since then he has produced New York Doll, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, Make Believe and Undefeated.
Cunningham has a unique feel for the unconventional, having worked on films about teen magicians and Donkey Kong championships. But all of his projects, as good documentaries will do, go above the log line to examine motivation, character and the human condition.
In that sense, Finders Keepers is sure not to disappoint.
"[When] you really look at some of the choices that these folks made, and frankly what type of people they are," Cunningham said, "I think this will end up being a really broad, thematic movie that will deal with issues of faith and fate. And when your path gets altered, the choices you make and how do you recover from bad choices?"