Jimmy Israel, who briefly worked on Desert Warriors , the crude film that would become Innocence of Muslims , speaks out: “I don't quite understand how this film could create this.”
The bizarre video that has been cited in deadly protests in Egypt and Libya has been disowned by its actors and linked to a mysterious figure — allegedly the manager of a film company — named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula.
An AP report suggests that Nakoula may be the "Sam Bacile" who posted the video on YouTube; my conversation a man who operates a real estate company under the name Jimmy Israel, and whose website was linked to the film's production, offers another link to Nakoula.
Israel, who said he worked previously in theater and film production, said he came to the project, which was at the time called Desert Warriors, through his friend, the original director, who he refused to name. "I was going to produce it for him," he said, "but the original producer came back."
Israel said he initially auditioned for a part in the movie, where he met a man who referred to himself as Sam Bacile or Bassiel. He was then asked to help with the production instead. He read the script, which he described as "awful — terribly bloody," but hoped he might be able to influence the film as the production progressed. At the time he was told by his friend — the director — and Bacile that the film was about the historical persecution of Coptic Christians. "That's what I understood it was about," said Israel, who noted that there were flashbacks to Muhammed "being a hypocrite," in the script, but nothing quite as inflammatory as what made it to YouTube. An actress involved in the production told Gawker that the script she worked from had very little to do with Islam or Muhammed. Indeed, the video on YouTube is crudely dubbed over at many points.
Israel's time on the production was early and short: "I worked for two days going over the script," says Israel, "finding the casting venue, and putting the ad in Backstage, and trying to find a SAG deal." (BuzzFeed located him because a casting call for the film features a jimmyisrael.com email address).
"Bacile," or someone, decided to turn down the deal due to budgetary reasons. Israel suggests that, despite earlier reports that the film had millions of dollars of outside financing, the total outlay for the project couldn't have exceeded $100,000. He evidently owes Israel and others money, though Israel didn't specify what for.
"I thought I had a chance of pushing with Sam to change the screenplay," says Israel, who left the project almost immediately. "I would not stay with the film if Sam would not agree to certain changes. I don't work on that kind of film, I'm glad I was replaced."
The result, he said, is a "terrible film that's very poorly made."
In Israel's telling, it was Sam Bacile — a man he met a number of times, and who insisted that was his real name — who turned the film into a piece of religious incitement. "Sam portrayed [Muhammed] as being a sex addict and killing people left and right and having henchmen kill people and so forth," he says, "I don't know about Muhammed at all." The reason for his initial participation was money: "It was really just for hire, I'm not a wealthy man."
In my discussion with Israel, which ended when his phone apparently died, he provided a bizarre sketch of Sam Bacile, who it seems very likely is, in fact, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. (While Israel said he had never met anyone by that name, the name Bacile gave to Israel for the SAG registration was Abnob Nakoula Basseley, and Israel describes him as about the same age as that given in the AP report.) At one point Bacile claimed to have cancer, which didn't turn out to be true. He allegedly went on trips to Egypt to "raise money" for the film. It's hard to rule anything out; I can't be sure, for example, that his friend he would not name, the original director, exists. Likewise, I can't be sure that this isn't part of some larger deception — anything from a prank to some kind of bizarre intelligence operation. It's phenomenally strange.
Israel insists that his anonymous friend, whose initial involvement with the film was overshadowed by Bacile, had no idea things would get out of hand. "Oh yeah, he's got a lot of regrets," Israel said. "He did it primarily for the money," he claimed, though when asked how he thought a film like this could possibly be commercially viable, Israel conceded: "It's very hard to imagine that any distribution compmnay would distribute this."
Israel, who identifies as a "pacifist" liberal with no affiliation to organized religions, and who claims to have no strong opinions about Islam, despite having heard some "alarming" things about the Quran at "seminars," says he supports freedom of religion and expression. "You don't want to go too far," he told me, "and maybe this did."
"Certainly it is very insulting to a muslim to see their Jesus or their Moses being portrayed as a horrible person," he said. "My influence was nil. The effects of the film are because of the way Sam made the film."