"It's pretty incredible," says Alan Spearman, laughing over the strange events that have brought Nobody, his 62-minute documentary, to the attention of daytime TV watchers. The Commercial Appeal photographer and emerging filmmaker is overwhelmed by the e-mail he's gotten since Nobody, the lyrical film he made with fellow CA shutterbug Lance Murphy, was featured on Dr. Phil last week in an episode titled "Hobo Daddy."
"We'll just have to see if it leads to anything," Spearman says, fingers crossed.
Nobody, a visually rich meditation on homelessness, won the 2006 Hometowner Award at the Indie Memphis Film Festival and was later selected to screen at the Full Frame Film Festival in Durham, North Carolina. Full Frame is widely considered the premier festival for documentaries in North America.
In July, the filmmakers were contacted by representatives of Dr. Phil and told that the TV therapist wanted to build an entire program around Jerry Bell, the homeless Mississippi river rat at the heart of Spearman and Murphy's award-winning film. A month later, Murphy led a production crew from the show through a wooded area in Biloxi, Mississippi, looking for Bell's camp.
Dr. Phil learned about Bell when Kayla, Bell's daughter, who hadn't seen her father since she was 2, contacted him.
"I just couldn't think of why anybody would want to make a film of some homeless, dirty guy floating in a blow-up boat down the Mississippi River," Kayla told Dr. Phil as she and her mother Glori raked Bell over the coals for not paying child support.
"I don't think they were completely fair to Jerry," Spearman says, questioning the facts and timelines presented on the show. "Besides, our goal as filmmakers wasn't to glorify Jerry's lifestyle or to hold him up as some kind of role model. Lance and I wanted to make a film about the life of a person you might pass on the street every day without ever even seeing."
"Jerry had no idea who Dr. Phil was; he just wanted to see his daughter," Murphy explains. "I did everything I could to prepare him. I figured that the show would be confrontational, and for the most part, it was." But it wasn't all Jerry Springer-esque either.
When Murphy and Bell arrived in Los Angeles for the taping, a producer for Dr. Phil offered to pay for a set of false teeth for Jerry "if it would make him more comfortable." Bell said yes.
"The whole teeth thing has been an ongoing theme," Murphy says. "When Jerry left for the Gulf Coast in his canoe, I wanted to make sure he had plenty to eat. So I'd gotten him these big tubs of peanut butter. But it was crunchy peanut butter. He said, 'You know I can't eat that.'"
After taping, Bell was flown back to Biloxi where a limo was waiting for him. Spearman says Bell asked the driver to take him to the edge of the woods and drop him off. "We didn't get that on film," Spearman says sadly.