Daniel Goldhaber's film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a loose adaptation of Andreas Malm's manifesto of the same name, follows a group of characters on a mission to destroy an oil pipeline in Texas. It is a film with unabashedly extreme politics smuggled in via exciting heist-like thriller. It is entertaining, yes, but it also creates a portrait of the modern climate justice movement that taps into the urgency of the moment more so than any film of recent memory.
Goldhaber, along with his co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol, have taken the radical reflections that Malm offered in his writings to give the film its narrative shape and form. These ideas have been written about positively at places like the New Republic just as there have been those who are more critical in publications including the New York Times. The film acknowledges many such criticisms, with the characters discussing amongst themselves the weight of and reason for what it is that they're doing, but Goldhaber still wants it to be known that this is a narrative film above all else, even with its radical ideas.
I briefly ran into Goldhaber when the film first premiered back at the Toronto International Film Festival and recently spoke to him over the phone, ahead of it's theatrical widrelease (including SIFF Uptown beginning April 7). As a warning, while the manifesto is not something that can be spoiled, our chat touched on significant aspects of the ending of the film in terms of how it relates back to the book.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
At the time when we ran into each other, your film was premiering right in the middle of Pakistan being hit with immense floods as part of an increasing series of cascading climate catastrophes. Since then, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released what they are calling their final warning in what feels like the last of many they’ve already given. In this process of going out to talk about the film on the cusp of its release, what role do you see How to Blow Up a Pipeline having in this conversation about this existential threat?
I think the film’s role is a very, very, very small part of an ecosystem of change that involves current activism and cultural production to create the circumstances by which enough political and social will can be generated to force a systemic change on an important issue. Obviously, I think when it comes to climate change, there has never been a more important nor a more large-scale systemic issue to confront. I think that the movie is only a very small part of that ecosystem of change and ultimately I see it as trying to generate cultural, social, and political consensus to the notion that attacking fossil fuel infrastructure could be seen as an act of self-defense. I think that if you engage with that on both a legal and moral standpoint, you start to uncover some really interesting ideas and questions about what kind of tactics the climate movement should or should not engage in.
That line, this is an act of self-defense, is not in Malm’s manifesto. Who was it among your collaborators that came up with that and how did this kind of thesis take shape in the film?
It’s interesting, I can’t tell you who came up with it. We spent a lot of time workshopping the end. The final monologue, we shot different versions at several different times. It was really this constant process. Malm wrote a manifesto and we were looking at a 100-minute movie. You can’t put everything in, and not everything that works on the page works in spoken dialogue. We were adjusting that up until the very end. The last line of the movie may have been the final decision we made. It almost took the making of the film to get to a place where we realized what is actually the fundamental idea of the movie.
The film itself is an embodiment of collaboration and a coalition coming together. What conversations were you all having about creating these distinct characters who are each different yet still driven by this shared understanding of the stakes we all are facing?
We really wanted the movie to be a cross-section of the American climate movement. One of the great things about a heist film is that it naturally suggests an ensemble and a collective effort. We just wanted that collective to represent as many different viewpoints and vested interests in the climate fight as we could. Not just because we wanted to be honest to them, but because I think we were also hoping for as many points of identification in the movie as possible. A lot of that distinction comes from their political ideologies and their different lived experiences that informed their reason for doing something like this. But I also think it was definitely that we wanted to make sure that they weren’t able to be distilled down to their rhetorical place in the narrative.
There are two characters who are from the Pacific Northwest and even have some degree of protection via privilege in the case of Lukas Gage’s character Logan. There is this ongoing idea that maybe they are more reckless or caught up in their own personal excitement—in the thrill of it. What was the thought process for including that aspect in this cross-section of the climate movement?
When we started thinking out the ensemble, probably the first character we talked about who needed to be there was the annoying punk, kind of anarchist character. You know, just because there is one in every kind of activist movement [laughs]. It’s just kind of the nature of the beast. We also wanted that character to be somebody who was still not distilled down to that personality. Ultimately, I actually think Logan’s arc in the movie is one of the more compelling ones because he goes from being somebody who is only interested in this for explicitly selfish reasons to being somebody who sacrifices his body to save two lives of oil workers. We shouldn’t want to be too reductive about them.
You wanted them to be human in all their multifaceted flaws and fears. They’re not criminal masterminds, they’re people trying to do the best they can and growing to understand maybe that this was bigger than them.
Exactly. You have to acknowledge, and this is something that comes up at multiple points in the movie, that even when somebody has a good ethical or political reason for engaging in an act, they still might be driven by ego. They still might be driven by a desire to be seen as involved. They might be driven by trying to quell their own climate anxiety. That isn't necessarily a bad reason for doing it. I think that’s partially about acknowledging those selfishnesses without saying that that delegitimizes the acts themselves. Because they don’t.
The inciting flashback scene that serves as the spark of this idea of blowing up the pipeline involves a documentary filmmaker who is trying to cover the crisis but is actually unable to address it beyond shining a spotlight on it. Was this you being self-reflexive about your role as an artist?
Yes and no. Yes, the documentarian was absolutely us acknowledging that we’re aware that there is a futility sometimes or a complicated relationship between making a film with actors and the reality of climate change on the ground. But it also was more immediately directly inspired by my own personal experiences working in climate and activist documentaries. Feeling that disconnect between the people who make films and the people they make films about. There is an inherently and frequently extractive nature to those relationships.
Where you need to show up to get this story only for you to then get all this fame and attention while the people are still left having to face down day-to-day troubles.
Yeah, working for documentary filmmakers making climate documentaries who own properties, multiple vehicles. They’ve made nice, plumb careers out of this. That’s totally acceptable on some level in the sense that, obviously, How to Blow Up a Pipeline is something that is also a career opportunity for me. But I think it’s a question of how does one project themselves in the world. What kind of compromises does one make with their work in order to achieve that widespread support from big funders? It’s a lot of watching how people don’t stand by their message, work in an extractive capacity with communities, and then also profit off of it. That is the story of the climate movement in a microcosm. The failures of this kind of corporate climate movement.
When it comes to movies about this kind of sabotage, I’m especially thinking of Night Moves, there was this kind of pessimistic undercurrent. You should not try because you will fail. When you were going about writing this film, how did you strike a balance between that and climate fatalism while also showing that this can’t be fixed overnight?
That was this part of this process that we didn’t really come up with a solution to until the end, in post-production. Essentially, we knew that there would be a success in blowing up the pipeline. We knew that ultimately it was going to have an Ocean's Eleven thing. But if it's just a happy ending, then you’re right, it doesn’t really acknowledge the reality of the movement.
We tried a lot of different endings and had a lot of different material. But part of the problem you get into is that no one of those things is enough. If we put a little of the gas prices going up or there being a police response, the audience just wanted more. It got to the place where we had to realize that we had to kind of deny anything more. The movie is called How to Blow Up a Pipeline and they blow up a pipeline. They get away with it and they all have a good reason for doing it. At the same time, there is a sacrifice from all of us. I think this acts, to some extent, as the story of activism and activists. Even if you have a good reason for doing it, even if the plan works, there is a cost on a personal level. If there wasn’t, it wouldn’t have the same level of impact. The movie is about the reasons why people do the things that they do and the sacrifices they make to do those things.
They can’t just ride off into the sunset totally scot-free.
Right, I think that would do a huge disservice to activists today who are sitting incarcerated, being charged with terrorism, for having done things far less serious than what we depict in this movie. They are sitting in prison being charged with terrorism for being present at a protest, for being present at a concert, for having dirt on their shoes. That’s a huge issue.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline opens at SIFF Cinema Uptown April 7.