Interview: Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel on the Documentary “Finders Keepers”

Posted on October 7, 2015 at 3:30 pm

Bryan Carberry and J. Clay Tweel have made some of my favorite documentaries, including “King of Kong” and “Make Believe,” bringing us into worlds that at first seem exotic and downright weird and seamlessly making us feel a part of small fringe communities like competitive video gamers still in cutthroat battles via the near-antique “Donkey Kong” or teenage magicians. Their latest is Finders Keepers, the story of one of the most improbable lawsuits ever filed — over ownership of a severed leg. John, the man whose leg it was wants it back from Shannon, the man who accidentally and unknowingly bought it in the disposition of storage facility contents seized for nonpayment and wants to keep it because he thinks it is his ticket to fame and fortune. I spoke to Carberry and Tweel about finding the funding for the film via Kickstarter and normalizing a story that seems at first to be outlandish and grotesque.

Co-producer Ed Cunningham first started covering the story. Carberry explained, “Initially Ed was coming off King of Kong in 2007 and looking for his next thing so this was kind of like his baby for awhile. He went out of his pocket for a bit flying out there with his little handycam. After a couple of years there wasn’t really much funding behind this and I came across Ed’s footage and we thought, ‘Okay, this needs to happen.’ It’s amazing by then crowdfunding came along and we got the Kickstarter together for eighty thousand dollars. That paved the way. It got us go out and shoot the bulk of the story and get into the edit room.”

They talked about creating sympathy and even identification with the characters. Tweel said, “We try to structure our documentaries in the same way that a lot of narrative fictional films are structured, kind of like a screenwriting type of format and so in doing that we are trying to tell the most universal story possible, whether it’s about arcade video game players or teenage magicians or two guys fighting over a leg. We’re constantly in search of the underlying truth in the ways in which our audience can connect with these people. And so really we struck gold here not just because John and Shannon are funny and quirky but they are also very vulnerable and honest and so are their family members. And so we were able to get to the kind of deeper levels to the story that you can relate with, like you can relate with a sister who has a drug addict as a brother and she is trying to protect him but also he’s hurting her. We felt like the parallel stories of these guys kind of mirror each other in so many different ways and that was something Bryan and I were very much interested in exploring.”

Ed Cunningham was the one who first made the people in the film feel comfortable talking very candidly in front of a camera. Tweel said, “Basically, he just laid everything out on the line. A) He was able to give them “King of Kong” and say, ‘This is the treatment we give. This is just a fair account. We’re not going to be playing this up or anything.’ But once you have a camera pointing at someone for long enough, they are just describing it like you’re a friend on the block or something. It’s completely natural for them because they’re with it they’ve been with it for so long so when they are talking without grinning or whatever about them hanging the leg in a tree in the front yard or something it’s because that’s their life. It’s not strange to them. And after working with them for a couple years it wasn’t strange to us either. The first time we screened at Sundance for the people we couldn’t believe the laugh it was getting because it had become incredibly normal for us having worked with it every day.” It also helped that Cunningham and Carberry were both born in Virginia, so the people in the movie did not think of them as Northerners trying to make fun of the hicks in the South.

One of the most fascinating elements of the film is that the documentary itself contrasts with at least three different “reality” television shows that became involved, including Judge Mathis, who finally resolved the dispute and sent John to rehab. So this is a documentary that includes the impact of a more heightened version of what they do. Carberry said, “I think that the reality TV version of the story is they are coming at it from a different angle and they are not there to give more of the context behind the story that we are. So we as much as possible like to let people talk themselves and let things kind of happen organically where reality TV is more operating on machine, a little bit like they have schedule and they’re cranking up shows. We’re just trying to show how that affects our characters.” “They are more hands on and we are hands off,” added Tweel.

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