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Google your name, make a movie on what you find

When a sometimes actor from Los Angeles seeks out all his namesakes on Google, he finds there's a lot to learn about identity.

One-time actor Jim Killeen has made a movie about his experiences tracking down others with the same name on Google. Jim Killeen/Google Me

You know you've done it. Like just almost anyone who knows how to use a computer, I'm willing to bet you've googled your own name to see what's out there about you, and to see who else has the same name.

In the case of a sometimes actor from Los Angeles named Jim Killeen, that search instinct not only led to at least 24 namesakes, but also to a documentary about his experiences tracking some of them down and visiting them around the world.

Killeen's film, Google Me, which he is debuting on Friday on YouTube, is an exploration of identity, modern technology, the human soul and, among other things, chili.

Along the way, Killeen tracked down six fellow Jim Killeens: a priest from Cobh, Ireland; a traffic engineer from Edinburgh, Scotland; a CEO from Melbourne, Australia; a "sexual swinger" from Denver; a retired police detective from New York City; and a father of eight from St. Louis.

The goal? To find out who Jim Killeen is, in all his shapes and sizes, and to try to pin down what, exactly, is in a name.

Killeen's movie, 'Google Me,' is based on this premise: 'It all started when I Googled my name.' Jim Killeen/Google Me

"It's a search for connection," Killeen told me of his forays through Google, across the world, and into filmmaking. "My whole thing all along is that we identify so strongly with our name, because it's how we interface with the world, and how the world interfaces with us. So on one level, it's maybe the most important label you have. (But) on another level, you are not your name. You're an individual. You didn't pick your name. It was a label that was handed to you."

For Killeen, relying solely on Google for his search was the point of the entire project. He was well-aware he could have also used phone books to look for additional namesakes, but didn't want to.

"Google is certainly the connective tissue," he said, "the backbone, the spine of everything we did. No matter how you look at it, it was an online experience that led to" the making of the film.

Killeen's name also made the scope of the project manageable, yet varied enough to sustain a film. It might have been different, after all, if his name was John Smith.

"It was really a happy accident," he said. But "I would have done it anyway. It would have just been (a much larger) sample pool I would have had to work with."

Still, once he found his scattered Jim Killeens, he did turn to the phone to reach out to them. After all, as connected as many of us are, not every priest from Cobh, Ireland, is all that Internet savvy.

So, Jim Killeens all over the world began to get calls from out of the blue.

"'My name is Jim Killeen in Los Angeles,'" Killeen would begin. "'This may sound a little crazy, but I'm making a documentary film about meeting with'" as many other Jim Killeens as he could find.

"I was totally aware that I could look totally out there," he said, "so it was very important for me to sound sane and composed on the phone."

It must have worked, though, because the six other Jim Killeens agreed--after some reasonable hesitations--to get onboard with the project.

For Killeen himself, traveling to three other countries and three American cities ended up giving him what he clearly feels is a set of new, very valuable insights into human nature and the nature of identity.

"I learned through doing it that people are amazing," Killeen said. "You're perfect strangers on one level, but perfect strangers that share something. So that gives you incredible license to get personal, to go into their homes and ask them incredibly personal questions."

He spent a great deal of time with each new Jim Killeen, getting to know them and their families. (The production crew soon realized they had to refer to the men by where they were from, as in "Jim Denver" or "Jim St. Louis.")

He also would ask the same set of questions of each man, including queries about man's purpose on Earth, what each was most proud of, and what they regretted in their lives.

"My personal favorite," Killeen said, was, "'What shouldn't I be asking you about?' Immediately, you can see it in their face, and they go right to that secret."

Jim Killeen the filmmaker now dominates the Google results for a search on that name. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

He also used a gimmick, a "speed round" of questions about their favorite colors, actors, comedians, food, and so forth, that allowed him to piece together a rapid montage of each man's answers.

Another gimmick that shaped the film was that Killeen invited each of the six subjects to go with him to the town of Killeen, Texas, for its 125th anniversary. Making it there in time for the celebration meant the film had to be put together at almost lightning speed. All told, Killeen made the film in a year.

But the benefit of visiting the Texas town--in addition to the fact that the Texans rolled out the red carpet for the production--was that all seven Jim Killeens got to spend time together.

"We were kind of stars in this city," Killeen said. "They went out of their way to support us. They gave us VIP treatment at the rodeo, and we entered the Jim Killeen recipe into the chili cook-off."

The Texas meetup also led to what are clearly some of Killeen's favorite moments in the film.

Among them was a conversation between Jim Killeen the Irish priest and Jim Killeen the Denver swinger. Neither was able to convince each other to change their ways of thinking, however.

"The swinger said, 'We've agreed to disagree,' and they joked that the priest had agreed to come to a swinger's party and the swinger agreed to go to mass. I said, 'Father, you got the short end of that stick.'"

For now, at least, Killeen has no plans to seek a distributor for Google Me. He said he plans to release the movie for free--in a low-resolution format--on YouTube on the same day it will debut at a film festival in Southern California.

The YouTube version won't feature licensed music from the Alman Brothers and Cat Stevens that's included in the DVD version of the film that Killeen will be selling on his Web site.

He said he is aware that he may be cannibalizing sales by giving the film away for free, but thinks that based on research into other films that have followed the model, that YouTube will actually end up driving sales.

"It broadens the audience by such a factor," he argued, "that it's the smart decision. That said, the money's already spent (on making the film). It's either coming back, or it's not."

Reality show on the way?
Historically, Google has been unhappy about people using its name as a verb. Clearly, there's nothing the company can do to stop people from doing so, and Merriam-Webster has even added the word "google" to the dictionary as a verb.

But Killeen said the company has been nothing but supportive of his project.

In part, he said, that's because he got in touch with an old friend who turned out to have very close contact with Google chief legal officer David Drummond.

"I was like, 'Home run!" I was worried they might come in and try to stop us," Killeen said.

Now, as the film gets ready to go public, Killeen said he has had discussions with a cable channel about turning the Google Me concept into a reality show on which someone Googles their name each week and follows the results the way Killeen did.

In the meantime, he's still trying to wrap his mind around the things he learned about identity, and what it means to live in the Digital Age.

"The ability to reach out like this is so new," he said, "yet you're reaching so deeply into someone's life. I don't think we've rationalized yet what the etiquette is of having this newfound ability. We seem to say, 'Yeah, you should Google your date before you go on a date.' But is it OK to say you Googled them? Is it OK to say, 'I saw what you paid for your house?' As a society, I don't think we've gotten on top of that yet."

As part of the film, Killeen invited all his namesakes--at least the ones who agreed to work with him on the project--to visit Killeen, Texas, on that town's 125th anniversary. Jim Killeen/Google Me