In a run-down theater on a seedy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard this summer, an independent movie made its debut. The acting was amateurish, the dialogue clunky and the costumes no better than those sold for Halloween. Even with a pretty young woman beckoning pedestrians inside, fewer than 10 people attended.
But three months later, the movie — "Innocence of Muslims" — would be blamed the world over for inciting mobs in Egypt and Libya. The movie was filmed and first released in Southern California, but much else about its origins remains a mystery.
A man who identified himself as an Israeli American filmmaker claimed in telephone calls to news outlets Tuesday that he made the movie with backing from wealthy Jewish donors, but there were indications Wednesday that the name and story he gave were false and that the movie was tied to a group of Middle Eastern Christians who live in the U.S. and hold extreme anti-Islamic views.
One activist from Riverside County said the film was produced by naturalized Americans who came from Arab countries. Steve Klein, who said he served as a script consultant, said that he and the producers originally called the movie "Innocence of Bin Laden" in hopes of drawing underground Islamic extremists in the Los Angeles area.
"The movie was only supposed to show in Hollywood," said Klein, who described himself as "an unsophisticated James Bond."
He added, "We passed out fliers at mosques around California where we knew there was a small percentage of terrorists. And the idea was to locate … those folks who believed Osama bin Laden was a great guy and to try to get them to come to the movie."
Klein said the movie was filmed this year, but he would not reveal the shooting location or the names of the producers. "Innocence of Bin Laden" premiered at the Vine Theater in late June, according to three people with knowledge of the event. One said that the movie was notable for its terrible acting but did not seem anti-Muslim.
Less than two weeks later, a 14-minute trailer for the movie — now called "Innocence of Muslims" — was posted on YouTube by a user identifying himself as Sam Bacile. The scenes in the trailer portrayed the prophet Muhammad as a buffoon, suicidal, gay, lascivious and condoning of pedophilia.
"Every non-Muslim is an infidel. Their lands, their women, their children, are our spoils," Muhammad says in one scene. Characters refer to him as a "bastard" and in one scene, a veiled woman asks Muhammad to "put your head between my thighs."
A crew member told The Times the cast and crew were told the film was to be a war drama called "Desert Warrior." In his email interview with The Times, the crew member, who asked not to be identified, said the dialogue in the trailer that makes specific attacks against Islam was re-recorded after the actors left the set.
"The original actors said one word, and then the producer and editing team (whom I don't know) dubbed," he wrote. "It's unmistakable that most dubbed portions are a different voice than the original actor."
A statement released on behalf of the cast and crew deplored the movie and the deaths of the four Americans in Libya. It said those involved were duped.
"We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose.... We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred," the statement read.
The trailer posted in July appears to have attracted little notice. But last week, a second version of the trailer was posted — this time in Arabic. Morris Sadek, an Egyptian-American Christian activist who has been a virulent critic of Islam, began promoting the trailer on his Facebook page, saying that it revealed the "truth" about Muhammad's life.
Subsequently Al-Nas, an Egyptian television channel, began broadcasting clips. Protests in Egypt and Libya quickly followed and became violent.
After the killings at the consulate in Libya, a person identifying himself as Bacile told the Associated Press that he made the movie for $5 million with donations from 100 Jews. He described himself as an Israeli Jew and a California real estate developer.
Those claims struck some as unlikely.
"No one uses that kind of rhetoric unless they are extremely unfamiliar with the culture of the Jewish community and how protective they are against anti-Semitic attacks.... What he has done is play into an anti-Semitic fantasy," said author Max Blumenthal, who has written extensively about anti-Islamic groups.
The movie, with its unknown actors and poor production quality, does not appear to have cost anything approaching $5 million. Searches of public records — including court, voting, telephone or property databases — showed no one named Sam Bacile in California.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday afternoon that a Coptic Christian man who uses the alias Nicola Bacily had acknowledged managing a company that produced the movie. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, 55, insisted that Sam Bacile was a real person and had directed the film.
Klein, the script consultant, said he believed Bacile was a pseudonym. In an interview at his Hemet insurance office, Klein said he had met Bacile twice and talked to him on the phone numerous times, including Wednesday morning. He said he believed Bacile was a Middle Eastern Christian in his 50s.
"I don't know Sam that well," Klein said.
Klein is well-known to those who monitor right-wing extremists. The Southern Poverty Law Center has an extensive file on Klein that goes back decades.
An ex-Marine who served in Vietnam, Klein founded Courageous Christians United in 1977. According to the center, its members staged protests outside mosques and abortion clinics. In 2007, Klein sued the city of San Clemente after it ordered him to stop planting anti-illegal immigration fliers on cars.
For the last couple of years, Klein has hosted a weekly program on an Arabic Christian outlet called The Way TV. An office manager at the station said the channel — broadcast in the U.S., Canada and the Middle East — focuses mainly on spreading Christianity, but that Klein's program dwelt on criticizing Islam.
Klein heads another group that distributes fliers at high schools criticizing Islam. Those fliers and Klein's online writings echo many of the trailer's most offensive depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
Muhammad "had sex with a 6-year-old girl," Klein wrote in a post last year.
On Wednesday, with news crews massed outside his office, he said Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton should have protected her employees better from the rioters in Libya and was to blame for the deaths of the American ambassador and three others.
"I'm not responsible for the actions that they go out and do. Why would I be bothered," Klein said.
Times staff writers Jessica Garrison, Harriet Ryan, Abby Sewell, Robert Faturechi, John Horn, David Zucchino, Richard Verrier and Sam Quinones contributed to this report.