The final product may have been incendiary but Innocence of Muslims seems to have had its origins about five years ago in the hum-drum, unglamorous and often tawdry world of low-budget Hollywood film production—one inhabited by journeyman technicians and two-bit performers eking out livings on the lower rungs of the entertainment feeding chain. A veteran of that industry—who asked not to be identified – answered questions from TIME about his sometime associate, Alan Roberts, the purported director of the controversial film. He also provided new details about the producer—a man he knew as “Sam” and whom many suspect to be Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, the man questioned by federal probation officers in California on Saturday morning.
Innocence, says the veteran, was Sam’s brainchild. He was “the driving force behind the whole thing and it was all his idea.” Once called The First Terrorist, it was entitled Desert Warrior by the time it was cast. Sam, he says, had been planning the project for at least five years, long before the fall of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt last year. He hired a screenwriter to help flesh out an outline he had written and apparently financed it entirely by himself. That meant there was very little money in it. Says the veteran—who corresponded with TIME over email: “which is why it was all shot on green screen and looks so phony.” When Sam started talking up the project, he had less than $100,000 to spend. If true, the detail further debunks earlier claims by “Sam Bacile”—the name reportedly assumed by Nakoula to produce the film—that he had raised $5 million from 100 Jewish donors to make Innocence.
Alan Roberts got involved, says the veteran, because it was work. “What I knew about it was simply some filmmakers, like Alan Roberts, doing the next project that was presented to him,” the source says. “That is the way low-budget filmmakers, which I am myself, make our living. It is usually far more a business proposition than it is one of art and all that sort of thing.” Roberts, who had worked as a film editor and post-production on soft-core adult films in the 1970s and 80s as well as little-known projects such as Street Poet and Cielito Lindo, had no intention of creating an anti-Islamic film.
The industry veteran met Roberts in the 1980s when he was the co-owner of a low-budget movie company and Roberts, whom he has not seen in a couple of years, then worked for him selling a package of his movies for television syndication in the U.S. “Alan is a very nice and very friendly guy,” the veteran said. “He works hard and he’s usually pretty good at what he does.” While Nakoula has a history of bank fraud and other felony charges, the veteran said Roberts doesn’t have a criminal background.
The Hollywood veteran very much doubts that Roberts—who had had “no political axe to grind”—had any idea that there might be an outcry against the film. Actor Tim Dax, who appeared in the film, said in an interview this week that he thought the film was going to be about ancient warriors.
The depiction of Muhammad was Sam’s vision. “I do believe it was probably the intent of this Sam guy,” says the veteran. “He presented the ghostwriter he hired with about 20 pages of outline, detailing everything he wanted to take place in the movie. And I was told he was rather convincing in saying that the way he was portraying Muhammad was factual and could be looked up by anyone who wanted to do the leg work.” The Hollywood veteran says he knows nothing linking the project at that early point of its production to anti-Muslim ideologues like Steve Klein and Pam Geller, who have since become associated with it. Says the veteran: “There really was never any trying to make people mad or anything like that.” That’s not the way it ended up, unfortunately.