Film In Conversation
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
While the film’s subject matter lends it tension and provocation, it’s also as thrilling a genre film as an American filmmaker has made in some time.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Adapted from Andreas Malm’s 2021 book
A nonfiction political treatise about the potential necessity for acts of environmental sabotage does not initially seem like a great subject for adaptation into a film. But a film adaptation is exactly what the How to Blow Up a Pipeline (2023) filmmakers—director, co-producer, and co-writer Daniel Goldhaber; co-producer, co-writer, and co-star Ariela Barer; co-writer Jordan Sjol; and co-editor Daniel Garber—managed to do with Andreas Malm’s 2021 book of the same name. What began as Sjol’s half-serious remarks about wanting to adapt a work of academic theory—a minefield of untapped “IP” in an era dominated by it, he joked—gave way to Goldhaber’s mental images of kids struggling with a bomb in the middle of a desert. From there, Barer wrote the first ten pages of a script. With frequent input from Garber, the three writers finished the script, and 18 months later the fictional heist film was complete.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline (credited as “A Film By” Goldhaber, Garber, Sjol, and Barer, an indication of cooperation and authorship that echoes that of the film’s characters) does not hide from the theoretical arguments that inspired it, though the film is anything but dry or academic. While its subject matter lends it tension and provocation, it’s also as thrilling a genre film as an American filmmaker has made in some time. That these thrills are designed around today’s most pressing story, which serves not as mere window dressing for the heist but an integral philosophical and practical component, makes it one of the year’s must-see films.
Ahead of the release, the four filmmakers made time to sit together for an interview, and though Goldhaber acted as their primary spokesperson, all four chimed in freely and passed the baton as necessary. They spoke for nearly an hour—too long, alas, for these pages. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.
Forrest Cardamenis (Rail): You shot on film, and there are real pyrotechnics. How did you get there?
Daniel Goldhaber: Film came in fairly early in pre-production because of all the daylight exteriors we had. Sun loves film, film loves sun. We also wanted the film to feel like it was happening, like an actual record of something, and shooting on film creates a record. That really helped focus the cast and crew.
In terms of the pyrotechnics, it was actually cheaper to just blow up the pipeline than do VFX. We had to build the pipeline no matter what. That was the hard, expensive part. There is some CGI enhancement to the explosions—things we cleaned up in post, ways of putting the shot together we couldn’t do practically—but the more practical stuff you have in frame, the more computer stuff you can get away with.
Rail: We get fairly lengthy sequences of bomb making and all sorts of close shots of the pipeline—was that also a factor? If you have process shots, you need real stuff for the actors.
Goldhaber: Yeah, it’s not just about it looking real. It needs to be real for the actors. You cannot simulate the lovely experience of being out in the desert shooting for fifteen days and getting bloody noses everyday when you come home because there's so much dust and dirt that you’re kicking up being out in the elements. That’s something else I think shooting on film contributed to.
Rail: Were you close to the script the entire time?
Daniel Garber: Yes, but there are a couple of scenes we ended up just removing entirely. A lot of the bomb-making process stuff leading up to the actual operation was quite long. Figuring out the right duration of those things and exactly how to work the process stuff in with the development of the characters and the politics of the film was one of the big challenges of the edit.
There were also some places where it felt like the writing was not finished until the very end of the process. The scene in the library where Xochitl is being radicalized and roping Shawn in and the very end of the film when Xochitl has the TikTok monologue—those were two scenes that captured the entire perspective of the film. How we handled those two scenes in particular were going to determine the identity of the film.
Those were both incredibly difficult to figure out. We must have edited the library dozens of times. We kept shooting stuff until the very end of the day during pickups and discussing how to augment the sequence at the end of the film. We went through so many ideas of what the movie could be, but it wasn’t until after we had gotten into TIFF and maybe a week from picture lock when we were actually confident we knew what we needed those things to be.
Goldhaber: When you ask the audience to put the pieces together in their head, you get these very bizarre things where something that goes wrong in act one will pay off in act three in totally strange ways. Something not working in one of the character flashbacks will start destabilizing all of the flashbacks. Something that happens in Xochitl’s flashback changes the way Michael is received as a character because you have set up a certain expectation of how the flashbacks work.
Rail: How long was your assembly?
Goldhaber: Two hours twenty, which Dan hates me for saying. We cut a good forty-five minutes.
Rail: That’s a lot. How much was the bomb making?
Garber: A lot. But also, the library scene was initially six minutes and now it’s two. We decided, “Actually, maybe this film isn’t a book; maybe this film is a film and if people want great detail of all these arguments they should buy Andreas’s book.” So, part of it is about reorienting scenes around emotional arcs for the characters and not feeling like there’s this burden to be informative.
Rail: How do you balance making good agitprop with making a more—for lack of a better word—“artful” film?
Goldhaber: I wouldn’t say we wanted to make agitprop. I think the inspiration for the film for me personally came from a place of anger and powerlessness. The initial desires for it to be propagandistic came from a place of wanting to do something. The development process helped us put that anger into the characters instead of having it be the expression of the film. We wanted the perspective of the movie to be of eight people who do something. If you have the ability to empathize with them on their own terms it takes away the need for the movie to have a political alignment. That’s something that Ariela was really key in guiding. I said, “Let’s make propaganda!” and Ariela was like, “Let’s interrogate that feeling!”
Garber: I also think that if the goal is to get people to engage with these ideas in a serious way, something that comes across as transparently propagandistic is not the best way to go about that. You want people to engage with the idea, the need to affect change, and think about how we ought to go about that. The best way to get them to do that is to give them all the pieces of the puzzle for them to think through for themselves and come to their own conclusion rather than trying to get everyone to think in exactly the same way.
Rail: The easy joke here is that if you get four people leftwing enough to see the merits of blowing up a pipeline together, they won’t agree on anything else. How at odds were the four of you working through this?
Ariela Barer: I wouldn’t say we were at odds beyond Goldhaber being loud about his propagandistic intentions in a room with an Alexa. Those were our biggest fights, me saying “Don’t say those fucking words near something with a microphone!” Beyond that, we all generally had the same intentions with the film and wanted to unpack our own feelings and whether we thought this was the answer, and who the characters that would argue for or against it are.
Goldhaber: If there’s an idea that one person likes that the collective doesn’t, there’s a better idea that everybody likes. Taking the time to get to that idea that everybody likes is the purest and best version of that idea.
Barer: A lot of the spirit of this movie from the beginning was about a successful leftist act where in-fighting does not destroy the group as most leftist acts in movies tend to. That spirit carried into the group. We knew these larger ideas were carrying us through this thing together and that we were all on the same team and wanted to make this fun fantasy heist movie where we pull it off in the end. That energy really did drive us in a productive and fun collective way.
Rail: The last shot with the sign, “If society doesn’t punish you, we will.” That wasn’t a call to arms?
Goldhaber: We hope people come to the movie with their own ideology and their own perspective and that they are moved by a film they see as a challenge. Different people respond differently to the end of the film. There are absolutely people out there who read it as “The only thing that comes out of an act of sabotage is a greater escalation of sabotage” and see that in a different moral light.
The creation of a radical flank generally leads to an escalation of radicalism. One might look at that and say that is necessary to solve the climate crisis, but that’s something the viewer projects onto the film. If the cost of an action is climate apocalypse, what tactics are necessary and defensible to prevent the end of life on earth as we know it? We want to ask a question, not provide an answer.
Garber: And if climate apocalypse needs to be averted, but at the same time you don’t want this escalation of tactics, you have to ask what else we can do to avoid the creation of this radical flank. Assuming some people who watch this movie have mainstream political views and the movie calls out some of their tactics as failed, the question is how the mainstream respond to the creation of a radical flank. What kind of things are they willing to do? How will they budge?
Sjol: One of the points Andreas makes in the book is he doesn’t want anyone to blow up pipelines because he doesn’t want them to have to. Part of being very public about calling for actions that are as militant as actions he calls for in the book is to say that these will be the consequences if we continue going down this road.