Tim Dax isn’t difficult to recognize. The actor is a bodybuilder with what seems to be an ancient helmet tattooed on his head, an armored appurtenance around his neck and stars over his nipples. That would suggest a rather constricted range of roles. He’s managed an appearance on CSI as well as modest roles in minor horror flicks like I Spill Your Guts and Mr. Bricks, and — under a different name but the same tattoos — one immodest solo in a gay adult film. (The blog Joe.My.God, which first pointed out that film credit, notes that Dax has described himself as “straight but with a twist.”) But now he is part of the most stunning and talked-about movie of the season — albeit one that few have seen in its entirety, including Dax himself.
Several months ago, Dax and dozens of big-screen hopefuls showed up at a small production studio in an industrial facility northeast of Los Angeles. They had responded to casting notices on the Internet for a film about warriors from the ancient world, thinking it might be a chance to break out in a rough job market. Instead, they found a strange production whose poor quality became a running joke among the cast. Most of the film was shot against a green screen that was painted on a wall in a warehouse. Actors weren’t given scripts ahead of time to rehearse their scenes; instead they were fed their lines just before appearing on camera. Even when they flubbed their lines, the director was satisfied with their delivery and didn’t ask for retakes. The dialogue itself seemed strange to the actors, but, happy to have the work, they didn’t question it.
The experience was so weird that Dax chose to forget about it — until the protests over the movie broke out in Cairo and the U.S. ambassador to Libya died in the torching of his consulate in Benghazi. The film that he was told would be titled Desert Warrior instead showed up in a 14-min. fragment on YouTube and was called Innocence of Muslims. Some of the actors’ original lines were overdubbed, and the movie turned out to be a cinematic denigration of the Prophet Muhammad. The clip went viral in a bad way, with terrible consequences for diplomacy and security.
Dax had been told he would play the biblical character Samson. When he arrived at the studio in Monrovia, Calif., he found out his character was actually a servant. In one part of the YouTube clip, Dax’s character is overdubbed as addressing the Prophet as “Muhammad the bastard” and pushes him into a tent. The clip then cuts to a scene in which the Muhammad actor puts his head between the thighs of a woman.
“Did it make any sense? No, but did anything make any sense on that shoot?” Dax recalls in an interview with TIME. “We all scratched our heads and looked at each other and said, ‘Are you serious?’ ” The filmmaker, Dax says, would look at them in response as if to say, ‘Yes, I’m serious. That’s what I wrote.’ “
That filmmaker was originally identified as Sam Bacile, purportedly an Israeli-American real estate developer in California who financed the project with $5 million from Jewish donors. But that explanation turned out to be as flimsy as the movie’s alleged script. No one in Hollywood seemed to know Bacile, and Google searches didn’t turn up any people of that name in real estate. “He’s never popped up on our radar,” says Gary Marsh of casting network Breakdown Services. “Anything that is legitimate goes through us.” The Associated Press eventually interviewed a man who confirmed having managed the production of the film and who was found at the same address where the man claiming to be Bacile had been reached by phone earlier. That man, named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, was once charged with carrying out federal bank fraud against Wells Fargo in 2008, according to U.S. District Court documents.
The filmmaker Dax met on set called himself Sam. He seemed to be in charge of the project and rarely interacted with the cast except to announce that it was time for lunch. “He was always courteous and kind of sweet and always paid us at the end of the day,” he says, adding that Sam told him he would be invited to a screening of the film. That never happened. And Sam’s objective with the film? “He always left that in question.”
If anything, the producer’s ability to make the film outside Hollywood and with the consent of the actors highlights how advances in filmmaking technology have made it easy for someone who isn’t a professional to put together an independent film with a political agenda. “Because we live in the age of YouTube, a propaganda film like this can be instantly spread over the face of the earth,” says Michael Taylor, producer and chair of film and television production at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. “If you have anything resembling a decent script, you can get anyone to be in a movie.”
And that has proved true despite the misgivings from the actors. “It was odd to us when we read some of the lines to each other. We said, ‘We’re out in the middle of Monrovia shooting this crazy little movie with no budget.’ ” Dax says. But still, they went on. “We were a handful of actors trying to make ends meet, so throw in a couple of bucks and we’ll say, ‘No problem. Let’s do it.’ “