Nov 26, 2012 No Comments ›› Pat Dollard
Excerpted from NYT: Fuming for two months in a jail cell here, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula has had plenty of time to reconsider the wisdom of making “Innocence of Muslims,” his crude YouTube movie trailer depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a bloodthirsty, philandering thug.
Does Mr. Nakoula now regret the footage? After all, it fueled deadly protests across the Islamic world and led the unlikely filmmaker to his own arrest for violating his supervised release on a fraud conviction.
Not at all. In his first public comments since his incarceration soon after the video gained international attention in September, Mr. Nakoula told The New York Times that he would go to great lengths to convey what he called “the actual truth” about Muhammad. “I thought, before I wrote this script,” he said, “that I should burn myself in a public square to let the American people and the people of the world know this message that I believe in.”
In explaining his reasons for the film, Mr. Nakoula, 55, a Coptic Christian born in Egypt, cited the 2009 massacre at Fort Hood, Tex., as a prime example of the violence committed “under the sign of Allah.” His anger seemed so intense over the years that even from a federal prison in 2010, he followed the protests against the building of an Islamic center and mosque near ground zero in New York as he continued to work on his movie script.
Until now, only the barest details were known about the making of the film that inspired international outrage. Initial reports made it seem as if the film had been thrown together in about a year.
But a longer, more intricate and somewhat surreal story emerges from interviews with Mr. Nakoula, church and law enforcement officials and more than a dozen people who worked on the movie — those who knew its real subject and those who were tricked into believing it was to be a sword-and-sandal epic called “Desert Warriors.” Together, they paint a picture of a financially desperate man with a penchant for fiction who was looking to give meaning and means to a life in shambles.
There is a dispute about how important the video was in provoking the terrorist assault on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the United States ambassador and three other Americans. Militants interviewed at the scene said they were unaware of the video until a protest in Cairo called it to their attention. But the video without question led to protests across the globe, beginning in Cairo and spreading rapidly in September to Yemen, Morocco, Iran, Tunisia, Sudan, Iraq, Pakistan, Lebanon, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The making of the film is a bizarre tale of fake personas and wholesale deception. And as with almost everything touched over the years by Mr. Nakoula — a former gas station manager, bong salesman, methamphetamine ingredient supplier and convicted con man — it is almost impossible to separate fact from fabrication.
A few years ago, Mr. Nakoula told some of the crew members he had gathered, supposedly to make “Desert Warriors,” that the project would have to be put off. He had cancer. Treatment was needed, far away, and they would not be able to reach him. His family shared a similar story with church officials.
Mr. Nakoula, it turns out, was not going away for cancer treatment, although the time did overlap with the prison sentence for bank fraud, which the crew knew nothing about. (Mr. Nakoula pleaded guilty this month to violating his supervised release in that case and received a one-year sentence.)
He claims that he only wrote the film — five versions of the script — and served as a “cultural consultant.” One of Mr. Nakoula’s sons, Abanob Basseley Nakoula, 21, said in an interview that his father had written the script in Arabic and then translated it into English. The son said he helped him with grammar.
But Mr. Nakoula, who described himself to some cast members as the writer and producer, explained to a confidant that his plan was to fool actors into thinking they were making a movie built around an ancient tribal villain named George, dubbing in the name “Muhammad” later whenever anybody said “George.”
As early as 2008, he had cobbled together a 20-page treatment for a film he wanted to call “The First Terrorist.”
In Mr. Nakoula’s responses to questions from The Times, conveyed through his lawyer, Steve Seiden, he had no second thoughts about the way he had handled the cast. “They had signed contracts before they went in front of any camera, and these contracts in no way prevented changes to the script or movie,” he said.
Abanob Nakoula said: “The actors were misled. My dad thought the film would create a stir, and as a precaution for their safety, there are no acting or production credits at the end of the trailer or the full-length movie.”
A Slippery Identity
The amateurish project might have disappeared quietly, the way many forgettable messes do in Hollywood’s underbelly. Yet three years after completing his script treatment, Mr. Nakoula was on a makeshift movie set inside the suburban Los Angeles headquarters of a nonprofit organization called Media for Christ, whose founder has been critical of Islam. There Mr. Nakoula was surrounded by actors wearing false beards, and there was a goat slipping on a tile floor. Alongside him was his director for hire: Alan Roberts, known for soft-core pornography movies like “The Happy Hooker Goes Hollywood.”
Mr. Nakoula noted that the head of Media for Christ, Joseph Nassralla Abdelmasih, was “a friend for five years.” Mr. Abdelmasih attended the 2010 protests against the Islamic center near ground zero. Other contacts in the world of anti-Islam activism would also play pivotal roles. Helping to publicize the film were Morris Sadek and Elaia Basily — activist Copts living in Northern Virginia — and Terry Jones, the Florida preacher whose own Koran burnings had stirred violence abroad.
That Mr. Nakoula is a hard man to pin down is no accident. He told the cast and crew that his name was Sam Bassil, which he sometimes spelled differently. Federal prosecutors convicted him in 2010 under the name Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, but he recently admitted to the court that he had changed his name in 2002 to Mark Basseley Youssef.
What he did not mention at the time, however, was that in 2009, according to court records, he changed his name yet again, this time to Ebrahem Fawzy Youssef. (His lawyer said Mr. Nakoula was unaware until recently that the latest change had been finalized.)
Facts presented by Mr. Nakoula as rock solid tend to weaken upon inspection. For instance, he told federal probation officials that he first came to Los Angeles in 1984 for the Olympics as part of the Egyptian soccer team. But a Web site listing official players on that team does not include Mr. Nakoula. Nor was there evidence that he was on the squad’s staff.
He claimed during production that the budget for the film was $5 million, raised mainly from Jewish donors. Actually, it cost no more than $80,000, apparently raised through his second ex-wife’s Egyptian family and donations from other Copts, according to a person who discussed the financing with him.
Even though the shoot lasted only 15 days, there was enough footage for a feature-length movie, which exists, running roughly one hour and 40 minutes. Mr. Basily, the Virginia activist who has donated to Media for Christ, said he watched the entire film on DVD early this year and found it historically accurate.
All that has been seen on the Web is the 14-minute YouTube trailer, which by the time it hit the Internet in July was titled “Innocence of Muslims.”
Mr. Nakoula was able to finish the project even though people who ran into him over the years found him puzzling. When he rented offices in suburban Los Angeles, other tenants noticed that he came around only at night for the most part and stored stacks of Marlboro cartons there, among other things. When he took a stall at a flea market to sell drug paraphernalia and tobacco merchandise, other stall holders noted that his wares never seemed to move and that he spent most of his time on the phone, shouting in Arabic.
And Coptic Church officials said they considered Mr. Nakoula an unlikely candidate for the kind of religious zeal behind “Innocence of Muslims” because he had attended services so infrequently. But Mr. Nakoula said fervor and witnessing persecution are what drove him to create the film.