The title alone of How to Blow Up a Pipeline has raised its share of eyebrows—and drawn condemnations from right-wing critics. The film, based on a non-fiction book of the same name by Andreas Malm, depicts a fictional attempt by a group of young climate activists to take action against the fossil fuel industry. But what is the political purpose driving the film adaptation—and does it actually teach viewers how to blow up pipelines? Director Daniel Goldhaber joins TRNN contributor Anders Lee to explain the vision behind the film, the intervention it seeks to make, and what lessons it can offer in a world on fire.
Daniel Goldhaber is an American director, screenwriter, and producer whose most recent work is How to Blow Up a Pipeline
Post-production: Jules Taylor
Anders Lee: Anders Lee here. Welcome to The Real News. The movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline tells the story of five young people, all affected by fossil capitalism in different ways, who take climate justice into their own hands with an active industrial sabotage. Inspired by a nonfiction book bearing the same name, How to Blow Up a Pipeline grapples with questions of desperation, of strategy, and the roles of both violence and art in social movements. To discuss these themes and more, I’m speaking with the film’s director, Daniel Goldhaber.
All right, today we’re joined by Daniel Goldhaber, the director of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which is now in theaters. Daniel, thank you for joining The Real News.
Daniel Goldhaber: Thank you so much for having me.
Anders Lee: You conceived of this movie with a few other people during the height of the pandemic when a lot of social movements, especially the climate movement, were overtaken by a sense of powerlessness. How did the pieces come together to make this movie happen out of that?
Daniel Goldhaber: Oh, that’s a big question. It was a lot of pieces. It was having a really great team to work with across the board, really amazing collaborators from my co-filmmakers to our cast and to our crew, and also to our financiers, who really gave us the support to make this movie exactly the way that it needed to be made. So this was really a team effort from start to finish.
Anders Lee: And I know the title of the movie is also the title of a book, of course, by Andreas Malm, who you had an open line of communication with throughout the process of making a film. What was it specifically about this book that inspired you to make a movie about it? And are you aware of any other nonfiction theoretical polemics that have been turned into narrative films?
Daniel Goldhaber: I don’t know of any others, but if somebody knows one, I would love to be able to answer the question with that knowledge. I think that there’s a number of things about the book that are really inspirational. I think reading it, you get a sense of action and activity that’s very exciting. I think, obviously, the title itself suggests an action on its own, and I think that that’s also very exciting, because the book doesn’t actually tell you how to blow a pipeline, but it suggests immediately a movie and a genre film in which you can actually get into the details. So I think it was that perfect fusion of subject matter, of some ideas that felt really valuable to explore, and then in concert with something that could also make for a really thrilling and fresh heist film.
Anders Lee: Right. And because you were in contact with Malm, which feels like a really interesting aspect of this, what was his reaction at first when you told him you wanted to make a movie out of this? And what was it like to work with him throughout the process?
Daniel Goldhaber: I think that he was maybe initially a little bit surprised, but I think only because you don’t really write a manifesto like this and expect Hollywood to come knocking at your door. I think that Hollywood is not exactly known for its radical sympathies. But after, I think, he got over that initial surprise, I think he was very excited about it. I think that he understood the ways that the movie and the book were fundamentally different, but also the ways that the movie could help communicate his message on a broader cultural level.
Anders Lee: Now you are the son, I believe, of climatologists, and you previously had made a documentary about climate change.
Daniel Goldhaber: I just worked on one as an assistant.
Anders Lee: Okay.
Daniel Goldhaber: Yeah.
Anders Lee: But one of the characters in the film is also part of a crew. He does the boom mic, I believe. What do you see having now done a nonfiction and a narrative movie about some of the same subject matter? What do you see as the main differences, and what are those experiences like in how they differ?
Daniel Goldhaber: Documentary and narrative, I think, have very different ethical considerations that you have to have in mind when you do them. One of the things about making a narrative film is you’re not toying with real people’s lives. You have a different contract with an audience. And also I think that you have the ability to sometimes… Something that my editor, Dan, says is that documentaries can be very good at representing the world as it is now, but not necessarily very good at representing a world that could be. And I think that with Pipeline, we very much wanted to represent a world that could be, and we’re suggesting and exploring a specific hypothetical action.
I think that, more specifically to the point of the problem of climate change, I think that there was a moment in which climate documentary was very valuable because there wasn’t a lot of awareness. That had to be raised. And again, as the child of climate scientists and keenly plugged into just how much skepticism there has been about the movement. But I think we’re at the point now where, especially in a post-COVID moment, everybody on planet Earth more or less has been touched by climate change, that it’s critical to remember that [inaudible] is climate, and that whether or not there are holdouts in the denial category, that nevertheless, we’re in a place of needing to change the conversation from awareness to action. And I think that you can’t really easily necessarily do that with a documentary, though I’m sure that there are great docs being made today about some of the actions being taken by activists. I think that with this, we wanted to explore a hypothetical action.
Anders Lee: And it makes me think of An Inconvenient Truth that’s being maybe the first wave of climate change in a cinematic way, which was, of course, came out in 2006. And do you think that a movie like How to Blow Up a Pipeline could have been made back then? Or is it unique to this zeitgeist we have in the early 2020s?
Daniel Goldhaber: I think it would just be different had it been made back then, and certainly the movie would’ve had to explain climate change to the audience. I think that one of the things that makes Pipeline a shift, or I think one of the things that’s different about it in contrast to some films that have come before it is we don’t really talk about… Well, we do talk about the stakes of climate. We do talk about the impact of the oil and gas industry on people’s health, on people’s land, on people’s lives. But I think the movie accepts that you are aware of what’s happening in the world around you. And I think that that’s an assumption that, again, couldn’t have really been made until a post-COVID moment.
Anders Lee: [Inaudible] spend much time debunking right-wing talking points, that’s for sure.
Daniel Goldhaber: Yeah.
Anders Lee: Well, you mentioned criticism of the climate movement from the right, but it has also been criticized, perhaps unfairly, as being predominantly white, yet the cast in this movie is quite racially diverse. I’m wondering if you view that casting as correcting certain tropes about environmentalists, or was it perhaps an aspirational way?
Daniel Goldhaber: In all honesty, all of these people in the film are based on real people in the climate movement or real people in our own lives that we were thinking about. I think that, obviously, there are racial divides and privilege divides in the climate movement, but in many ways those have been easing. I think, especially, it’s important to recognize that most people that have been most directly affected by climate disruption have been Black and Brown people, have been minority communities and poorer communities. They’re the brunt.
The characters of Theo and Sochi were directly inspired by some Latina activists, Latina and Black activists in a community in Houston that we borrowed from a book called What We’re Fighting For is Each Other by Wen Stevenson. But then you have the character, Michael, he is an Indigenous extremist, but certainly Indigenous people have been at the forefront of the climate and the environmental movement since time immemorial. And so I think that more than being a corrective, I think if it’s a corrective, it’s a corrective in trying to actually represent the diversity of the different kinds of people and experiences that have fed into the climate movement.
Anders Lee: Right. Well, something else that the characters really grapple with in the film is the term “terrorist” or “terrorism”. Certain radical scholars have argued that that’s not a term people should use since it can be weaponized by the state. So it’s really interesting to see the characters having that same discussion. Do you agree with that assessment, or do you have an opinion on the term “terrorist”? Is it something that we should avoid or is it something that people who are engaged, perhaps, in industrial sabotage should take on?
Daniel Goldhaber: I don’t really know if I have a clear opinion on that. Here’s what I feel certain about. You have people who are being essentially turned into political prisoners of the US state using post-9/11 terrorism laws, terrorism enhancement laws that have allowed the government to charge people like Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya with terrorism for poking holes in the Dakota Access pipeline before there was even oil running through it. I think that it’s more important to focus on the ways that the US government is using the word “terrorist” and the terrorism enhancement to brand people as somehow worse than criminals, or really, fundamentally, to suppress speech and dissent and to suppress a movement that’s simply just trying to protect our ability to continue living on planet Earth.
And obviously, you’re seeing an even greater escalation of that tactic in Cop City in Atlanta, where completely peaceful protestors are being charged with domestic terrorism enhancements for simply attending a completely non-violent, non-destructive rally. So the only evidence being proffered being that they have dirt on their shoes because other people potentially had burned tractors. So I think that it’s more important to focus on those human rights abuses. And I think that, ultimately, then when it comes to the nature of how activists engage, it’s about what’s necessary for them to defend their own speech, right to protest, and right to justice. And so I think whatever gets us there is good.
And part of the reason I don’t take a strict position is I think I’ve just heard both sides and positions from the movement itself. I’ve talked to people who believe that you do need to defang the word [and I’ve] talked to people who bristle and worry about it, because if you embrace the label, you legitimize what the state’s using to criminalize your speech. So it’s a difficult thing to navigate, but I think, again, that’s why it’s all the more important to have eyes on what the state is doing.
Anders Lee: Right. And do you see that escalating in the coming years as the environmental movement hopefully gets more serious about these sorts of things? Are you concerned about the blowback that we could see from the federal government classifying environmental climate activists as terrorists? And what measures do you think could be taken that we haven’t seen yet?
Daniel Goldhaber: Absolutely. It’s not even abstract. It’s here. You know what I mean, it’s already happening. Yeah.
Anders Lee: Well, again, one of the things I found really interesting about the movie is the characters working through these problems, many of which I know you discussed with Andreas Malm. One critique of his work revolves around the concept of the propaganda of the deed, that we need a mass movement and individual acts of violence or sabotage may not be what it takes to get us there, at least on their own. How did you reconcile that argument in making the film?
Daniel Goldhaber: Can you repeat? I’m a little confused about exactly which two arguments I’m reconciling there.
Anders Lee: The propaganda, the deed, so industrial sabotage, for instance, do you think that it’s a fair critique that may not galvanize a mass movement in the way that we need? Or is that something that you incorporated by thinking into the –
Daniel Goldhaber: I see what you’re saying. I think Andreas does not think that there is a silver bullet to climate change. And I think that ultimately what Andreas is… The way I read the book and the text is essentially as a three-part argument. There has never been a social justice movement in history that is not engaged in the disruption of civil life, and generally speaking, the destruction of property and the sabotage of the state that the climate movement and the existential threat of the climate movement and the timeline of the climate movement is such that it requires some form of escalation of tactics in order to succeed based on the historical precedence that come before it.
And then I think he makes a bit of a novel jump, which is the reason why I think his took off where other similar arguments like this have maybe not, which is to say, well, what’s the target? Because I think the problem is that when it comes to climate, it’s such a mass systemic problem that you can’t point to one industry or government or leader or individual who’s responsible. We all participate in it, some to a far greater and some a far lesser degree. But you consume, and if you exist in a contemporary capitalist, especially urban, life, you are participating in the destruction of the planet. So we’re asking this question: what do you do if you are going to engage in these historically precedented acts, what do you attack? Because I think that there’s one thing about attacking the police station when you’re suffering from police violence, that target makes sense. And I think that what the conclusion Malm drives is that we need to destroy the machines that are killing us.
And beyond that, there’s no ethical justification for the continued existence of fossil fuel infrastructure. This question of why is it that destroying an oil pipeline is seen as an act of violence, but the oil pipeline that destroys so many lives is not seen as a violent piece of property. So that’s the argument of the book as I read it. And I think that, ultimately, that’s what we’ve translated into the film, is it’s a story about eight people who believe that the destruction of this oil pipeline is an act of self-defense.
But Malm is very aware in the book that what he’s discussing is what a radical flank to the climate movement would look like and how it could be defensible. What’s great about a radical flank is it does not de-legitimize more mainstream efforts to then compromise with a state and a system in order to move forward. But I think that the point that he’s making is that without some sort of radical flank effort, the mainstream movement will simply always lack the leverage to do what’s necessary, especially when dealing with a problem and a social ill as abstract as climate disruption.
So I think that there are criticisms of that that are in the film itself. You have characters like Alicia and Sean and other characters who are pushing back and searching, questioning why they’re doing what they’re doing. But ultimately, I think that we are trying to simply present his argument through a dramatic structure.
Anders Lee: Another thing I found really effective is a motif throughout the movie of oil refineries that made it into the background at several points. And you mentioned fossil fuel infrastructure. Do you think it’s fair to say that the villain of the movie isn’t a person or group of people, per se, but that infrastructure itself, and how did you go about conveying that?
Daniel Goldhaber: Yeah, I think that was part of the novelized structure that the movie suggests. And it’s even in the sound design. We have this exactingly realistic sound design, except for the fossil fuel infrastructure, which has this larger than life dystopian vibe. And that’s a way in which I think the genre of the film also supports the thematic efforts of the film, that there is no individual bad guy, there is only the infrastructure. And I think that that’s very, very helpful, because I think that one of the failures of the climate movement is trying to manifest the enemy as a person when there is no single individual. I have a great belief that people actually have a fairly strong sense of moral hypocrisy. And I think that when they’re presented with moral hypocrisy, especially when you’re trying to change somebody’s mind, it becomes impossible. And I think that that’s one of the things about this that’s compelling, is that in destroying a pipeline there is at the very [inaudible] moral purity to the act and its defensibility.
Anders Lee: Well, I don’t want to give any spoilers, or I guess I should’ve just warned – Spoiler alert – But there is a pipeline that does get blown up in the movie, and I know you did not want to use CGI for this in particular. So what was it like to produce a massive explosion like that in real time?
Daniel Goldhaber: Extremely fun. It’s a good time. I think that the funny thing is it was much harder to build the pipeline than it was to blow it up. I think that’s the moral of the story. And so I think, in part, just because you need to blow something up that you can clean up, isn’t going to produce shrapnel, that you can actually build affordably. You can’t use screws. It has to hold up under New Mexico weather conditions and high winds and rains. That was a significant challenge. The blowing it up was the easy part.
Anders Lee: And I take it you were not running oil through this pipeline.
Daniel Goldhaber: Oh, of course not. It was made out of cardboard.
Anders Lee: And you mentioned the precautions you take. Specifically what did you do to make sure this wasn’t causing deleterious effects to the environment where you filmed?
Daniel Goldhaber: We just cleaned up the trash. It wasn’t any more polluting than that. It was cardboard and wood. Well, I think the cardboard, I believe, was recyclable.
Anders Lee: Well, I’m particularly interested in that choice because, of course, now a lot of movies rely on CGI. Why was it important to you to actually use the real life pyrotechnics and not depend on animation with this?
Daniel Goldhaber: I think it’s because the movie is supposed to feel real. And I think that the provocation of the movie is its immediacy and its sense that it’s a possibility. And it was also, honestly, to some extent, a matter of price. We explored it. Also, we couldn’t have afforded a strong CGI explosion that looked halfway decent. And there is CGI enhancement to the explosion itself. We had to do some cleanup work on it, but it’s about getting that real plate is the big thing.
Anders Lee: Yeah. Now, some people have described this as a heist movie, an eco-heist movie. I know you yourself have said that you are genre-agnostic, so I won’t ask you to categorize the movie, but what were some of the cinematic influences that you drew from in making it?
Daniel Goldhaber: Oh, I would definitely say it’s a heist movie. I think I’m a genre-agnostic when it comes to my own work, but this is definitely a heist film, very consciously. There were a lot of different influences that went into it though. On the heist side of things, Ocean’s Eleven, Thief, Charlie Varrick, and it’s corner case movies like Army of Shadows, the Jean-Pierre Melville film, which is not really a heist film, but he’s a master of heist genre, and that’s a similarly political movie that is actually secretly a heist film in its structure and in the way it moves.
We were also looking at movies like Zabriskie Point, [inaudible], Battle of Algiers, If a Tree Falls, Woman at War, Night Moves. And in some cases, like Night Moves, which is by a filmmaker who I adore, Kelly Reichardt. I think we were also looking at a bit of a tendency in movies about progressive movements and contemporary progressive movements to be tragedies and movies about failure. And I think that’s something that was really important to us with this film was to conceptualize success.
Anders Lee: Right. Well, that brings me to my next question. Do you have an ideal audience for this picture? And if so, what kind of thinking or action do you hope that is inspired in them?
Daniel Goldhaber: I think that it’s art, so I think that art that tries to inspire a particular prescriptive thing is usually not very good art. I think that the goal is to provoke conversation and empathy. And in this case, I think it’s to present eight characters who believe that blowing up a pipeline is an act of self-defense. So maybe challenge audiences, what do you think about that, and how does that align with your… If you believe that that is true, what does that mean for the way that you think about the climate movement, the way that you think about the nature of praxis? And I think that we hope that it’s a film that people can come to with wherever they are politically.
Anders Lee: Well, I think that’s a great note to end on. Do you have any other projects or anything in the works?
Daniel Goldhaber: I’m shooting my third film right now in New Orleans: Faces of Death, and very excited to bring it to the world. It’s about content moderation and cycles of violence online.
Anders Lee: Right. Well, it will be on the lookout for that, but in the meantime, Daniel Goldhaber, thank you for joining us.