'How To Blow Up A Pipeline' Director Daniel Goldhaber On Channeling Political Restlessness In Genre Film [Interview]

Daniel Goldhaber announced “How to Blow Up a Pipeline,” the film he made with Jordan Sjol, Ariala Barer, and Daniel Garber, on the morning of August 3rd, just out of nowhere, like Beyoncé dropping an album. It’s not only the spontaneity of the announcement that feels fitting, but the devil-does-care energy and urgency to it: not merely a “we did a thing,” but, like its assemblage of characters assemble in the film, a bomb waiting to go off. 

With a spectacularly quick turnaround of about 18 months, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” pulsates with frantic and frenetic electricity in every frame, channeling both an acuity in the language of genre it’s deliberately channeling and toying with as well as confrontationally (in a good way) forcing its audience to engage with provocative political discourse, and, perhaps even the potential for film itself as a mode of housing a radical restlessness (especially felt by its filmmakers). “I had the worst panic attack in my life on January 6th,” Goldhaber said; all of this angst with seemingly no outlet compounded by widespread climate nihilism amidst a global pandemic and a right-wing grabs for power in the United States and elsewhere had to go somewhere. And it had to feel real, material, and of consequence. 

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Adapting human ecology scholar Andreas Malm’s nonfiction book “How to Blow Up a Pipeline: How to Fight in a World on Fire,” which argues that the next logical and moral step for climate change is to sabotage the very industries that oppress people and land directly, the film tracks a collective of various people from around the country (from Sasha Lane to Forrest Goodluck, from co-writer Barer to Lukas Gage) who have seen their lives scalded by oil refineries and the fossil fuel industry. Dwarfed by the very land that they want to fight for, the eight collaborators meticulously craft a plan to blow up a pipeline at a nearby refinery in Odessa, Texas.

Toggling between the nerve-shredding process and execution of their action and the circumstances that brought them there, ‘Pipeline’ strikes an enthralling balance between high-octane thriller, thrumming with intensity, and essential piece of agit-pop, economically distilling its characters’ ideological perspectives and their interpersonal relationships, while edging its viewers to follow the characters down the road of extreme direct action. 

Shortly before the film’s TIFF premiere, Kyle Turner spoke with Goldhaber about how the film came together, genre as a vessel for political concepts, and shooting on film. 

But start off with how did this film initially come together?
So the origin was I was actually writing a different movie with Jordan Sjol. And he had come to visit me in LA in December 2020. And we were all podded up and hanging out with Ariela, who I became really good friends with. So the three of us were just hanging out a lot and became tight. And then as Jordan was leaving LA, he recommended this book [that was] very relevant to our other film, which was called How to Blow Up a Pipeline by Andreas Malm. And Ariela had this idea for a way into the story being an ensemble of eight characters and this notion of telling this story of this book, and the three of us kind of came together to write it. It was also born out of feeling really powerless and coming out of the year of COVID lockdowns and feeling very politically isolated, and powerless. I wanted to do something that felt like it was genuinely politically engaged. The three of us were really like, We want to do a movie our way, let’s do this immediately. We came up with the idea last February, and we spent two months researching. 

What was the research process like?
We interviewed a bunch of environmental extremists and political extremists, and then some climate journalists and people who kind of fleshed out our approach. And then, we spent four months writing the script, working with a variety of script consultants, cultural consultants, and fleshing out these characters. Ariela really brought a lot of people from her life into the movie, and  Jordan really related a lot, [having] grown up in rural Wyoming. Finished the script in August of last year, and then cast, financed, and prepped the movie in three months. And we’re lucky enough to find two financiers that were extremely game for this movie and what wanted to do and gave us total independence. But they were also pretty extraordinary collaborators, and really helped to make the project better and more of what we wanted it to be, threading this needle between something that’s deeply provocative, but also is trying to be a nuanced and complex argument.

Given the powerlessness that you were feeling, what was it like to channel all that restlessness into the actual creation and the development of the film, as well as being able to channel it through the characters themselves?
Not to be a dumb film nerd, Godard has this quote that is one of the driving principles of the way that I think about making movies, which is that every film is a documentary of its own making. And I really believe that, and I think with this movie, from the very get-go, we were like, This is about an impulsive act. And an impulsive act by characters who feel powerless. And so we’re going to make this movie just as impulsively if we can. And so I think that there’s an ineffable energy in the movie that I think comes from how quickly it was made and how spontaneously it was made, and how manically it was made. And we literally didn’t have time to think about almost anything that we were doing it. 

My number one note, as a director, was, It just needs to feel real. It needs to feel like you’re watching this actually happening. 

What I love about the film is that so much of it is about the process. We’re watching these characters do the thing. How did you approach directing the actors in such a tactile process?
In terms of the experience of working with the actors, it’s different for every actor on the movie. One thing that was cool was that I think that we have a lot of different actors who kind of each have their own different kind of process, you know, so there’s a range. Some people had a lot of thoughts on their character, and they had a lot of political interrogation and really wanted to get in there. And other people, I think, just really wanted to kind of bring themselves to it. It’s about meeting them where they are, seeing what they need, and what they want to bring to the character. At the same time, we also had a lot of days on this movie, where it was like, you’re moving barrels, you know, what I mean? 

We went in and tried to shoot that reality as stylistically and expressively as we could, and it still had this almost pseudo-documentary approach, even though we were shooting on Steadicam. It was really up to Dan Garber, the editor, to figure out how to take all of that material and craft the heist movie that you see. Dan comes from a documentary background, we studied documentary filmmaking in college together. And there’s this really fun challenge of trying to take this material and reverse engineer it back into like a narrative film, on some level. 

Can you talk about what it was like shooting on film and how that impacted the process?
The circumstances of the shooting, by and large, were very real and very visceral the whole time. We were out in the dust in the dirt doing these things, everything was more or less happening practically. I think the biggest fakery of the movie was the barrel — [it] was actually a nightmare, [during] production [and] in the edit, faking the barrel weight was a lot. It was just about creating very authentic circumstances and making sure that the characters were coming from an equally authentic place, and then just kind of letting it happen. Something else that was a big part of the shoot, stylistically, and philosophically was [that] we shot on film. And part of that was because I think we wanted that immediacy; every take mattered. Every time we were doing it, we were doing it for real. And we wanted to feel the sense that there’s a physical record of what’s being done. And the actors felt the urgency of the need to be fully present for every take. 

Right, right. I think you play with genre in a really interesting way, and I was wondering if you could talk about your interest in using genre as a vessel to explore these political ideas?
When I think of genre, I think of any sort of dominant modes of narrative communication in our culture. That’s what genre means. The first Westerns weren’t called westerns, but then it became a way of telling stories and communicating ideas about the American frontier and American expansion. And then those become memes, then they become interpreted and reinterpreted, and in the reinvention of the Western, you start communicating different ideas, about American imperialism. “Cam” was about trying to communicate the experience of a sex worker, and ‘Pipeline’ is about trying to communicate the ideas that are in the book and engage them in dialogue, to challenge them. So, it comes from, What’s the best way to engage in that in the popular discourse in a way that it will be accessible? 

I grew up watching genre movies, and I’ve always wanted to work in Hollywood; I’ve always wanted to work in kind of, you know, big capital M movies, because just on an aesthetic and a personal level, it’s what I love. And so it’s also just the sandbox I’ve always wanted to work in as an artist. But also, because those are the things I love. So there’s definitely a component of “it’s a heist film about eco-terrorism,” “Ocean’s Eleven” meets “Night Moves,” but it’s also coming from a place of love. 

I think your work is preoccupied with a really fascinating vision of queerness that I think is often underrepresented within contemporary film, and a sense that your work accesses its political dimensions and its critique of capitalist and hegemonic structures, be the intense labor precarity of cam or the eco and personal abuse from these oil refineries but executed by this, these desperate people that the systems seek to separate. And I was wondering if you could talk about how that and how you contextualize these concepts within fleshed-out characters?
There are
two questions in there. A lot of the time, it’s like, certainly, this movie started from a place of, Hey, there’s all these big heady ideas we’re trying to tackle, because that’s what’s in the book, we’re adapting this book, and we need to figure out a way to manifest these ideas in character. We’re all drawing from our personal experience, the people that we’ve interviewed and looking for those ideas in the real world, and finding them in the real world, and then manifesting them in character. Something else about this process is we’ve done what we can to credit those people that we’ve worked with, who help with that. I think something we should also put together at some point is a bibliography.

I think when it comes to queerness, I think the real thing is that I’m interested in movies and stories that challenge the status quo and challenge conventional structures of culture and power that I see as being kind of oppressive, and heteronormativity is one of the most dominant forms of cultural oppression, just because it is something that restricts a lot of what makes us human, what allows us to connect to one another, and what allows us to exist as genuinely free people to an extent. I think that that’s just such a part of my life. And it’s such a part of my belief that I’m always just trying to kind of reflect my experience in the work that I made. And I think that queerness being represented is something that is a very immediate and natural extension of that. 

At the end of the day, that’s just my life and Ariela’s life, and Jordan’s life. And, you know, it wasn’t really something that was initially thought about outside of, Hey, there are these people that we’re thinking about for these roles. And these two characters feel like they’re in a relationship with each other. People in radical spaces tend to live lives that are not necessarily cultural status quo rates. And that’s something that we’re reflecting accurately in a movie.

“How To Blow Up A Pipeline” is currently screening at the Toronto International Film Festival and it was recently acquired for North American release by Neon.

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