A man who travels around the world to preach doesn’t usually find favor in the modern-day era of technology and skepticism. But the “Barefoot Evangelist” defies expectations. He has attracted the attention of “20/20” and Time Magazine and is now the subject of commercial director Sean Tracey’s first documentary feature, The Jesus Guy. The title suits the man who has renounced his possessions, goes by no other name than “What’s Your Name?” and has visited 47 states and 13 countries during his 16-year evangelical journey. In The Jesus Guy, Tracey maintains an objective eye to follow What’s Your Name? as he encounters believers and non-believers alike. The film has garnered praise from film festivals around the country and has inspired Tracey to continue on the path of moviemaking.
Melissa Rose Kimbler (MM): You’ve been directing commercials for more than 15 years and currently serve as the chief creative director of your own commercial production company, Sean Tracey Associates. How do you think your background affected your first foray into documentary moviemaking?
Sean Tracey (ST): I was spoiled and used to having anywhere from 15 to 40 professionals (cinematographer, set designers, audio, makeup, etc) working with me on location or on a commercial. At the same time, many times it felt like a huge ball-and-chain when I wanted to change my mind about something, try shooting a scene in a different way or in an alternate angle or location. Too many people and too big a craft service and video village to be quick about anything. This documentary was my opportunity to be like MTV’s “Unplugged.” No smoke, no mirrors, back to basics. I started the film with an assistant and audio person on location, but that just got in the way of meaningful encounters with people on the street for the subject. So I gave them up too after a couple weeks. It was just me, a camera, a lav, a shotgun and a bunch of batteries and the barefoot Jesus Guy. I guess I followed his lead in simplicity. Being less conspicuous certainly got me footage not possible with a full crew.
MM: Did you decide that you wanted to make a documentary before you met The Jesus Guy or was it as a result of your meeting? What was your first impression of him?
ST: I had been looking for a subject for a documentary for some years. I hadn’t felt strongly enough about any character carrying the whole movie until I met What’s Your Name. My first impression of him was serious. He can have quite a commanding presence at times. My first interaction with him was one of those times.
MM: Do you call him by his given name, Carl James Joseph, or by his preferred moniker, “What’s Your Name?”
ST: I still call him “What’s Your Name?” I guess I got used to it.
MM: You have been praised for keeping an objective eye on your subject. Did you ever find that it was difficult not to include your personal feelings?
ST: No. I made a decision and commitment not to do it.
MM: What was it like having the Oscar-nominated documentarian Albert Maysles as a mentor for the project? What sorts of advice did he give you during the process?
ST: I remember once, on the road with What’s Your Name?, I felt that he was opening up to me like a friend, and I may have been crossing what I thought was some “line” of objectivity. I called Albert and asked him what to do. He said not to be afraid of becoming his friend and opening up to him. It was good for the film and his ability to trust me with any situation. He was right. The film became more and more an intimate portrait as the subject got to know and trust me as a friend.
MM: Since the world premiere at the Sidewalk Moving Picture Festival in 2007, The Jesus Guy has been an official selection at numerous festivals. Any plans for a theatrical release? What about making films in the future?
ST: We have our foreign distribution lined up. There’s been interest in a limited theatrical release, but I don’t have anyone locked in to handle it yet. I really came from a career of working with scripts and actors (dramatic dialogue)… so I would like to find a dramatic feature project. I already have another documentary in the works. Have to let that subject be a surprise!
For more information, visit www.thejesusguy.com.