FORT DE SOTO PARK — Christopher Columbus appears uncertain about stepping into the New World.
Should it be his left foot? No, the rowboat's bow is too high, and stumbling is no way for Columbus — actually Clearwater actor Corey Dykes — to make a historic entrance. More like a two-footed conqueror's stomp, then a hero's stride out of the camera frame.
Welcome to America, rather what the world might be like had America never existed. It's a $7.5 million what-if question from conservative filmmaker Dinesh D'Souza, who gave President Barack Obama what-for in the election year documentary 2016: Obama's America.
D'Souza opened up to the Tampa Bay Times about his new movie, which concludes four days of filming at Fort De Soto Park today.
Last year, 2016: Obama's America stunned Hollywood with $33.5 million in ticket sales. It became the second-most successful political documentary ever, lagging far behind Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 ($119 million) yet well ahead of liberal-leaning Oscar winners Bowling for Columbine and An Inconvenient Truth.
"After 2016 a lot of people expected we would do (a sequel), a film narrowly about politics: Obamacare or taxes," D'Souza, 51, said Wednesday, relaxing in Fort De Soto Park while extras costumed as conquistadors, Lucayan Indians and Columbus' crew milled about picnic shelter No. 12.
A nearby stretch of beach where Nina and Pinta replica ships anchored was the locale for Columbus' true New World landing. A temporary Asian-Indian village was built in the Arrowhead picnic area, as part of D'Souza's docu-fantasy vision.
"We decided to step back and do a big film about the meaning of America," he said. "How do you structure a film like that? What's the question you ask to get people thinking?"
D'Souza, director John Sullivan and producer Gerald Molen (Schindler's List, Jurassic Park) came up with a doozy: What if a sea quake 10,000 years ago sank America's land mass? Columbus sailing west might land in India. Civilization would be forever altered.
"It's a way of asking: What has America meant to the world?" D'Souza said. "That way we link it to the question: What will happen in the future if the influence of America shrinks?"
Which is how D'Souza's skepticism of the president in 2016: Obama's America could re-emerge. D'Souza denies that's his plan.
"There will be continuity but it will be much broader," D'Souza said. "One theme I'm exploring is (contrasting) the principles of America in 1776 and the principles of 1968, the year of cultural revolution. . . . I picked that year to create a tension between two poles of America. ... Obama simply becomes a fulfillment of the ideology of 1968. . . . He will make appearances because he's in power but he won't be a central figure anymore."
Instead, D'Souza says America will examine the nation's role as an "engine of modernity," listing innovations through the centuries ranging from modes of transportation to the Marshall Plan, pharmaceuticals and the civil rights movement.
"At the earliest times, going back to the 15th century, many people of Europe . . . began to say: 'There's this place called America that we can try. It's a new world, and we can almost start history all over again.' I love that idea."
A softer approach to Obama is dubious, given the rhetoric of D'Souza's earlier documentary, accusing the president of weakening U.S. influence in the Middle East, allowing a "United States of Islam" to develop as a result of guilt over past colonialism. 2016: Obama's America also excoriated the president for tax increases and indifference to rising national debt.
Simon Maloy, research fellow at mediamatters.org, a Washington, D.C., agency monitoring conservative media, doubts D'Souza will be kinder with America.
"His routine for the past few years has been sort of this steady drumbeat of false and outrageous attacks against the president," Maloy said in a telephone interview. "I assume it's possible that his new project will be a sunny and positive look at American greatness.
"But so much of what he's done recently defines America as something in opposition to Barack Obama that, I don't know, maybe it'll be a companion piece or something."
On the other hand, America may not turn out as inflammatory since Obama's own sequel — his 2012 re-election — renders such accusations moot. Like Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, D'Souza's movie ultimately didn't lead to the filmmaker's choice of candidate. D'Souza makes America sound like defending the concept of American exceptionalism that conservatives claim Obama undermines.
"There's no question that in America now ... the principles responsible for American greatness are threatened," D'Souza said. "They're threatened by more than Obama; they're threatened by a more pervasive sense that not only is the pioneer spirit outdated but that it's kind of a bad thing. . . . That's part of what we want the film to question"
Most of the $4.5 million D'Souza raised so far for America comes from 2016 investors, who "thought they were making donations" and ended up with surprising profits.
America's theatrical debut is expected around July 4, 2014, so there's still time to shape its message and to influence next year's midterm elections, although D'Souza downplays this.
"If we release it around the Fourth of July it becomes a patriotic film; it's not just about politics," D'Souza said. "And the film, in fact, won't be just about politics. But there's also a midterm election debate, and there's no question we're going to be talking about what America means to us. We'll look at things that built America, and things that seem to be weakening us."
Observers like Maloy expect those themes to lead to the anti-Obama sequel D'Souza insists America isn't.
"It's difficult for me to think that he'd produce something that would be truly laudatory of the country and steer away from the sort of shenanigans he's performed in the past," Maloy said. "As long as he gets the facts right — and that I have very little faith in — if he does that's fine. His track record wouldn't lend itself to that conclusion."
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow him on Twitter @StevePersall.