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Filmmaker Interview: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

Daniel Goldhaber’s eco-thriller HOW TO BLOW UP A PIPELINE, which made a splash at its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and was picked up by NEON, follows a crew of environmental activists who band together to sabotage the track of a critical oil pipeline in Texas. The film was inspired by the 2021 non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm. It stars Ariela Barer, who is also the film’s co-writer and co-producer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, and Jake Weary. At TIFF, we sat down with Goldhaber, Ariela Barer, writer and executive producer Jordan Sjol, and editor Dan Garber to discuss the writing of the film, its story, and the importance of climate change to each of the filmmakers.

Please note: This interview contains some minor spoilers.

Science & Film: To what extent did you feel like the back-story of each of the film’s characters was important?

Daniel Goldhaber: We always cared about having a story that was driven by a collective ensemble, and we always wanted that ensemble to have a variety of backgrounds. [We wanted an] effective mosaic of just how far-reaching climate and environmental disruption is. Earlier on we thought [the characters’ backgrounds] might not be as big a deal, but then in realizing how much we needed to address it became apparent that we needed to be able to give every character a moment.

Jordan Sjol: The point about the different backgrounds is important to me. Dwayne is a character I care a lot about. It would be easy to pigeonhole this movie as [being about] young, coastal lefties who are still mad about climate change. I grew up in Wyoming with Dwaynes; his motivation comes from protecting his land and family.

Dan Garber: It’s great the way that what’s on screen also represents what’s behind the camera. There is an entire arrangement of different perspectives and backgrounds of those who contributed to the film, not only among the four of us but also everyone who appeared on camera and consulted on the script who all have their personal connections to climate change. Many of those personal details found their way from behind the camera into the film itself.

JS: We worked with people to develop these characters, so they are often very personal to people’s stories, which is what you [Dan Garber] are gesturing at. Forrest’s work developing his character is phenomenal. We filmed on the reservation that he spent time growing up on.

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D. Goldhaber: Everyone meaningfully rewrote their part.

Ariela Barer: I can speak to the process, which was that at the beginning we came up with all the people—we didn’t have characters, we had archetypes of people we could see in space and why their motivations would be interesting and important to address. We decided early on we didn’t want this to be a story of leftist revolutionaries in modern times being entitled or out of touch, because a lot of the times when consequences are addressed in a leftie movie like that it's because the group falls apart because they all have too much ego or they get punished in some way. We wrote out these archetypes then I came up with eight names and those names didn’t change, except for Alisha.

We all wrote ourselves into the script, and we realized people would be looking for the filmmaker perspective within the story. They want to know exactly where we were coming from before they could assess how they felt about the politics. We had a tool at our disposal being that I’m a writer and an actor so could really insert myself into this. So we wrote a character—[Xochitl]—who is actively inserting herself into a narrative and separating herself. Playing with the politics of that and our voice in that makes a very thorny and interesting, empathetic character who is a lens for the politics. I was also coming from a place of Alisha being like, who are we to do this? Why make this movie, who is this going to help and who is this going to hurt? That interrogation is in their conflict; that is what I had the most interest in writing.

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S&F: Since the book itself doesn’t actually tell you how to blow up a pipeline, did you have reservations about taking the story that far?

AB: There was never a question, from the start we were going to show it.

D. Goldhaber: I found a text message from the day we all read the book that said. what if we adapted the book and literalized the action? That was the idea.

S&F: To the extent the book’s author was involved, how did he feel about the film’s direction?

JS: Also no hesitations.

D. Garber: One of the things that’s really nice about the book is it doesn’t fetishize any form of property destruction, it merely says, this is something that should be on the table if we’re serious about affecting change. It’s exciting when they blow up the pipeline, and the goal is to get people excited about that, but the film also incorporates so much criticism and doubt about the action that I hope it gives people a chance to think through those kinds of issues themselves, and if they choose to engage in an act of sabotage to be targeted about what exactly they’re sabotaging and how they frame the action. I think a lot of those questions are in the way we present the film even if it is a piece of pure entertainment on some level.

S&F: You show us people sabotaging personal vehicles, but we never see their owners, or any oil executives. Was that a choice not to show the other side?

AB: One of the most deranged things about our political state is how human we think of corporations. Infrastructure and corporations are not people, and property destruction is not really violence because you’re not hurting people in the literal act, so it was important not to humanize these things that are not human and that take priority over human life right now.

JS: We were interested in telling a story about people taking on a system, and it can be effective but also counter-productive to try to personalize the system. People are really mad about Jeff Bezos, the billionaires, but it’s really easy to hate that face and stop there and stop thinking about how you have to fight against the system and not just the person.

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D. Goldhaber: So much of the argument in the book is based on looking at a historical legacy of sabotage and property destruction and seeing that is a cornerstone of so many socially progressive movements. The central idea from the book that we were adapting is, how do we apply that to the climate movement? The reason the book is such a rousing text is that Andreas is articulating an enemy. We’ve all wanted to make a movie about how we live in an era of climate disruption, which was why we thought the book could make a movie that could actually shift perception of how to engage in this fight.

JS: I’m in grad school and I study infrastructure, so I’m really interested in infrastructure. Danny and I were talking to pipeline engineers in Houston about how you do this [action] and the engineer was telling us about valve stations, and we asked where we could see some. He said, you passed like 30 on the way here. The infrastructure that is destroying the planet still fades into the background. So much of Andreas’s point is that it is massive, and it is unprotectable. If there is any idea that feels dangerous, it is that this is unprotectable.

S&F: Can you say more about what you mean by unprotectable?

D. Goldhaber: We cut it, wisely, but we used to have a text at the start of the movie saying, “there are more than 200,000 miles of active liquid petroleum pipeline in the continental U.S.” For scale context, that is over 100 times the size of the U.S./Mexico border. So, when it comes to being able to monitor something…. Unmonitorable. We’re not saying, go out and blow up a pipeline, we’re saying, we need to build better systems of infrastructure, sustainable ways of living, and ways of living and building that are not so unbelievably vulnerable, because that puts people and our society in a vulnerable position not just because of climate change but because of how easy it is to disrupt. That is something we saw with the war in Ukraine, and COVID. When there is one bump in the supply chain, because of the way we build, everything goes topsy turvy. That’s not going to keep working.

S&F: For all of you as filmmakers, where do you go from here in terms of what you feel motivated by and what you want to work on next?

AB: For me, as an artist, I don’t know how to tell a story that feels any less important than this. The thing I spend my time thinking about is this existential doom we’re all facing, and processing that through art is where I feel like I’m moving towards.

JS: I completely agree. The movie is about climate change because it is a prevailing psychic weight on everyone all the time.

D. Garber: I don’t want to be the umpteenth filmmaker to tackle a specific subject if it’s not going to be a unique and engaging angle. This film for me was adding something to a conversation that has been unfolding very slowly over a long period of time. Since my background was in documentary, I’ve seen a lot of projects come and go about climate change that have been tiny blips on people’s radars and haven’t moved the conversation forward. These are hugely expensive endeavors, very time-consuming for the people who work on them, so I have to wonder, what is the value of working on those projects rather than either engaging in direct action yourself or making a film about a different subject entirely? I would love to work on another film that tackles climate change, but I want to continue doing so in a way that feels like it is advancing my own understanding of the subject and that feels like it is going to be edifying or impactful for other people.

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D. Goldhaber: This project grew out of another project Jordan and I were writing that Ariela was also around. That’s how this collaboration started. That film was about: how do you live with extreme privilege in apocalypse? Where do pleasure and joy fit in? But as a big budget action movie. Jordan and I were writing and as we were finishing the first draft Jordan recommended How to Blow Up a Pipeline to read and that was where the idea for this film came from. It’s very connected to the thing that hopefully I’ll direct next. Ariela’s working on something too that I hope we also collaborate on.

S&F: As the film continues to show around the world, do any of you have specific hopes or fears about how it will play in different countries?

AB: I think it’s going to solve climate change [laughs].

D. Goldhaber: I’m hoping we’ll have our European premiere in Hamburg in early October, and that’s a place I’m very excited for because that is the center of this movement in Europe. Frankly, I think this movie will play well everywhere because it’s an issue that touches every life, and that is why people go to the movies, to see things that are relevant to them. Whether this is movie that every government or every system of power is going to be okay with is a different question, but that is something you’ll probably face wherever this film screens. It talks about ideas that are very threatening to power structures; quite literally this movie is about destroying a power structure. That is also what makes it exciting. I really hope we’re able to get into theaters, physical spaces where we’re able to build community around these ideas.

D. Garber: Even in the U.S. people latch on to different character in the ensemble. During test screenings we would always ask, who are you favorite or least favorite characters? And there was no consistency. I have to imagine in some countries not everyone will be able to relate to every person—there may be some who are easier to latch onto, but I hope somebody in the ensemble will be of value to someone in any country.

AB: While this is a deeply Americana movie and story, the influence on the structure came while we were writing and talking to a lot of straight-up revolutionaries from around the world. One person in France was talking about how the movement got second life there because young people joined and made it cool and hot, and he said, that’s all you need to bring people in. That was a big influence when we were making it: we had to make it cool and hot, as well as politically engaging to bring people in. Being cool and hot is universal. [laughs]

D. Goldhaber: Americana has been a profoundly important tool in propaganda for building and maintaining the American empire and its sphere of influence. Very consciously what we were doing was saying, there are these really entertaining ways of making movies that are almost uniformly used for evil, and what if we turned those against themselves, and said, hey, entertaining heist, action, high-octane thriller for progressives. People do love the American aesthetic around the world, let’s reinvent what that means.

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