How to Blow Up a Pipeline is unlike any film you’ve seen before. Both a classic heist movie and a new twist on the genre, it’s filled with subtle nods to iconic stories that came before, while simultaneously feeling like a breath of fresh air. And this time the stakes are higher than ever because it’s the future of humanity on the line.
Adapted from Andreas Malm’s manifesto of the same name, the film takes the core ideas of this academic text and turns it into a riveting tale. What seems at first to be a simple heist story instead unfurls as a multi-faceted and complex tale of humanity. The source material is in the ideas rather than the narrative and, because this is a story of climate sabotage that has never been told before on screen, it’s almost impossible to guess where this movie is going to take you in its succinct 90-minute runtime. That makes it truly thrilling from start to finish.
From a creative perspective, the film is also expertly crafted. A stunningly distinct visual style is at the core of this film, backed by a lilting and atmospheric soundscape. The direction is gritty and visceral: set in the desert of West Texas you can feel the dirt underfoot and the dust in the air, but you can also keenly understand the desperation that has led each character to attempt to blow up the aforementioned pipeline. In a plot that skilfully weaves the present-day heist and past backstory, we learn the tales of normal people growing up in refinery towns that cause cancer, Indigenous communities who are continually oppressed, local people displaced from their land for expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, and radicals trying to fight the system. While it’s not a choice everyone would take, the story masterfully explores the ways we think of violence in the long and short term, and asks questions about what human beings will do to defend themselves and the future of our species.
Because while the stories of these choices are born from desperation, this film is not a plea for sympathy. Instead, it is a rallying war cry. The echoes of the choices these characters make aren’t free from consequences, but the ripples they may create suggest a future where people take back their power. Where the fossil fuel industry can and will be stopped by any means necessary.
Read my interview with Director Daniel Goldhaber, lead actor/co-screenwriter Ariela Barer and producer Daniel Garber, below. Answers have been edited for clarity.
EU: Can you tell me how you first came across the book and how the idea to adapt it into a fictional story came about?
Daniel Goldhaber: Jordan Sjol (the film’s co-writer) heard about the book shortly after it came out, and he’d always had this pie-in-the-sky dream of adapting a work of academic theory into a genre movie. He shared the book with me and Ariela, and when I read it I immediately had this image of a group of kids in the desert struggling with a bomb, and thought maybe there’s a heist movie in this. From there we started doing research, and talking to different activists to figure out a way in and Ariela, in a burst of creativity, wrote the opening of everyone abandoning their lives, which is where the ensemble came from. Those three things came together in the screenwriting process, it was very organic between the three of us.
EU: It was fascinating to see how you explored different links into various areas of climate justice for all of these characters, highlighting the different ways the climate crisis intersects with other oppressions. How did you develop that set of characters?
Ariela Barer: When we first started writing the movie with Jordan we realised that so much of the media about climate justice or activism often centres privileged people and white people. Those are often the people who get the opportunity to make movies and it becomes a cycle. So we decided if we were going to make this movie it would only be worth it if we really involved the people who would be most affected by an action like this, or by inaction on this issue. From there we started our research process of talking to activists and people we knew who were already being affected by these issues. A lot of these stories come from our friends who were willing to give themselves and their stories to this movie; they’re credited as story consultants because they were so vital in the honesty behind the characters and the storylines.
EU: As you touched on, a lot of both activism and the movie industry focuses on white, privileged stories. What has the reaction been in general to this kind of story being told?
Daniel Goldhaber: I’ve felt heartened and the most fulfilled in this project when I think there’s a positive reaction and conversation with people who are engaged in direct action, who are doing the work, who are organising, who feel this movie is helpful to them and can be a tool for the movement. I think that’s what makes me on a personal level feel fulfilled. Obviously there’s been some criticism and engagement with the project, but I think as a whole the reaction from activists has been positive.
EU: The book makes a strong argument about the a difference between violence against people and property damage. It seems impossible that this would be able to be translated into a narrative as it’s such a conceptual idea, but you did it so well in showing the difference of long-term sustained violence that has driven these characters to desperation. How are you dealing with people who argue about the ‘glorification of violence’?
Daniel Garber: We don’t consider this to be a violent action at all, because the only harm that occurs to actual people within the film happens to the activists themselves. I don’t think it glorifies the action, whether or not you consider it to be violence. The film is clear about how difficult it would be to pull something like this off, and how costly it might be for the individuals who choose to take part in direct action like this. It’s because they feel like they must and those sacrifices are worth it for them, but that doesn’t mean that every audience member would watch the film and immediately say that’s me, and I’d be willing to make a similar sacrifice. So I think that people will have a somewhat complicated reaction to it, which is probably productive.
We don’t want to lead people into a place where they have delusions about activism being ‘easy’ or not requiring confrontation of the physical realities of things such as police violence, for instance, or any number of other things that could go wrong in pulling off an operation like this. It’s very risky.
Daniel Goldhaber: I always try to avoid language that refers to what happens in the film against the pipeline as an act of violence. I think if you’re attacked in the street and fight back against your attacker, rarely do you say that you committed an act of violence, you say you defended yourself. The problem is that culturally we see the infrastructure of mass destruction and mass death as a given, and the idea of defending ourselves against it is an act of violence. On its own, I think that is a problem. It’s worth questioning: if this is causing harm, is it even violence or is the movie asking you to fundamentally confront your notions of what violence is? That’s something at very the heart of this project.
EU: What has this process been like for Andreas?
Ariela Barer: Andreas has been involved from the very beginning. We sent him an email when we decided we wanted to write this movie and we got an automated response that he was on vacation for a month. He broke his vacation and two days later he responded and gave us the rights. He’s been incredibly helpful in the writing, the edit and the promotion. He’s also just a great person.
Daniel Garber: It seems like he thinks like this is all a kind of dream too. It’s not like he had any expectations that his very serious intellectually rigorous work would be adapted into a Hollwood heist movie of all things.
Daniel Goldhaber: He came to set and I don’t think he was expecting the scale of production when he arrived, so it was really cool for him. What I love about Andreas is he’s a Marxist academic and very intellectually rigorous, but he also has a great sense and understanding of media strategy. We were upfront that we were going to adapt the book and that would also require aspects of the film to push back on its premise in ways that the book maybe doesn’t push back on itself. And of course, the book has to be simplified in a way to adapt it, working and operating differently as a movie in the media space than a book can. He immediately understood the distinctions between the two, so he came knowing and supporting what we were doing, while also being a very comforting intellectual presence. Throughout the process we could always turn to him and ask if the project was upholding the ideas of his work, while also being in a different medium and context.
EU: The choice to tell the characters’ stories in the form of flashbacks is a key part of the storytelling, was it always a plan to tell the story in this way?
Daniel Goldhaber: We’d originally planned almost the entire movie as a real times operation, but when we tried to do that there wasn’t a lot of room for character in the heist part of things, without it feeling really crammed in. Once you get into the heist you really just want to watch that play out, but the characters and their stories are the real heart of the movie. So flashbacks became a key part of the story, as we had this idea to directly riff on the structure of Reservoir Dogs. There was this really fun idea to take this ingenious genre structure with a cult status legacy and try and apply that aesthetic to this totally different thing we’re trying to do. We ended up riffing on various genre heist movies to mix them up and use them to talk about these ideas.
EU: I think you can also see that reflected in your creative choices in the direction and score
Daniel Goldhaber: Our composer Gavin actually came to set and sampled all these desert sounds and built instruments and sounds which comprised the score. We had really great rhythms and a soundtrack base that he was working on in conjunction with the edit. But for a lot of the process, we couldn’t find the melody, just the rhythms. Then we went to see Blade Runner and it had this mournful evocation of dying planet future in that use of synths, so we riffed on that quite late in the process. It was a real collaboration between me, Ariela, Dan and Gavin all talking and pushing each other creatively.
Daniel Garber: Gavin was also nervous about wanting to get the heist elements right in the score, whereas the more melodic stuff he was confident he could do. Finding the right textures of that was definitely a challenge and the synth was a big choice in that.
Daniel Goldhaber: One of the challenging things about the style was we never wanted to editorialise too much with too many fancy shots or ways that made it bigger. It was a real challenge of wanting it to really feel like a capital M movie while also feeling really present and like it was unfolding in front of you. That was always the conversation that made this really tricky; if you felt the hand of the filmmaker too much it would blow the illusion of the film a little bit, so it was really about finding stuff that felt like it emerged naturally from the project that still had that movie quality. That guided most creative decisions.
Daniel Garber: That extends from the camera work to the score, which is really rooted in the characters. A lot of the camera work feels very documentary-esque as we’re following the characters as they execute this operation. With a lot of the takes the cameras really were responding to what was happening on the ground, so the camera is never anticipating what’s about to happen and the score is grounded in the individual characters’ perspective. I think that was present in the whole logic of every creative decision.
EU: Ariela could you also tell us about your experience as both a creator and an actor in this project?
Ariela Barer: I’ve been acting much longer than I’ve been filmmaking, thought I’d always wanted to be a filmmaker. I think by making Xochi the person at the centre holding it all together it made the acting easier, because I was replicating what it felt like being behind the camera and the emotions of worrying if things will fall apart and fail. A lot of the anxiety and the tension that Xochi quietly carries throughout the movie could be transferred from behind the camera; it almost became an experimental process for me because there was no real room for compartmentalising any of that.
EU: How was that experience for the rest of the ensemble?
Ariela Barer: The actors were great. A lot of them read the book and it was really funny watching Hollywood actors getting star-struck by Andreas. They also contributed a lot. Forrest (Goodluck, who plays Indigenous character Michael) really made Michael who he is. In the script, he was the wildcard bomb guy but Forrest came in and completely filled it out, he’s credited as an executive producer for all the in-depth work he did on that character.