Flammable Matter: Daniel Goldhaber Discusses "How to Blow Up a Pipeline"

An interview about adapting a manifesto, Hollywood wish-fulfillment, and sabotage as a hopeful claw in the institutional fabric.
Saffron Maeve
Sabotage is a hopeful practice, a claw in the institutional fabric, and a tactic for long-term amelioration—so argues Andreas Malm, the provocative and ruthlessly efficient author of How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire. Malm’s manifesto, though uninstructive in the mechanics of the text’s title, runs in counterflow to both climate pessimism (or “fatalism”) and pacifism, arguing the mainstream environmental movement is lacking in one key flavor: functional sabotage. It isn’t so difficult to blow up a CO₂ emitting device, Malm says, and though his writing eschews the mechanics of how to do so, he offers ample rationale. “Will those in school today or born next year grow up to think that the machines of the fossil economy were accorded insufficient respect?” asks Malm.
In his sophomore feature, Daniel Goldhaber shoulders the task of realizing Malm’s paperback as a narrativized feature, How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Crafted with co-writers Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol and editor Daniel Garber (all of whom receive a “film by” credit), Goldhaber’s film lifts the eco-militancy from Malm’s pages and injects it into a heist narrative. It was a nineteen-month sprint from the initial idea to the finished film, which made its world premiere at TIFF in September—a speed appropriate to the movement’s urgency and proclivity to organize.
In the film, a troupe of eight climate activists hunker down in a vacant West Texas dwelling to assemble and affix an IED to an oil pipeline. With assorted motivations that echo Malm’s arguments for taking action—tribal land rights, eminent domain, terminal illness, grief, sincere optimism—the group hopes to inspire copycat attacks and eventually price fossil fuel out of the market. Goldhaber, whose 2018 debut Cam surveyed all of the tangly, uncanny bits of online sex work through intravirtual doubling, again fleshes out the nuances of a contentious subject with Pipeline. In refurbishing the all-American action film for a generation whose notions of civic duty slope away from flag-waving, Goldhaber and co. ask that we consider the practical merits of sabotage as institutional reform. 
I spoke to Goldhaber about the process of adapting a flammable text, Hollywood wish-fulfillment, and the persuasive sensibilities of Pipeline

NOTEBOOK: How did you come across Andreas Malm’s text? 
GOLDHABER: One of the writers and executive producers on the film, Jordan Sjol, is an academic, and he’s always half-jokingly said, “Hey, it’s the era of IP and adaptations; why doesn’t somebody adapt academic material?” He recommended Pipeline to me, and about halfway through, I had an image of a bunch of kids in a desert struggling with a bomb. Between that, the ideas, and the title, a heist film sprung into my head. Ariela [Barer] was the one who took those ideas and wrote that opening sequence where everybody abandons their lives. That suggested the ensemble, tone, rhythm, and approach. 
NOTEBOOK: Narrativizing a manifesto seems like a demanding task. Can you walk me through the process of adapting Malm’s arguments naturally into a screenplay?
GOLDHABER: Half the battle in writing is figuring out what you’re trying to say. In this case, somebody handed us the argument of the movie and we had to just figure out how to make it. It was hardest in the edit, once you’re wrestling with what’s interesting and relevant to the story, and [asking,] “Does it actually feel like a character is saying it?” That was a process of refinement. 
NOTEBOOK: The text is much more about the why than the how, as you have Logan mention in one scene. How accurate is the bomb building we see?
GOLDHABER: Exactingly so. We had an actual bomb-making expert who works in counterterrorism and was a giant bomb nerd who hates when people get it wrong. We don’t see the bits that would take a month or two of prep, but we have all of the component pieces it would take to build these bombs. Part of the provocation of the film is how accessible this act is: it’s not something that costs a lot of money or takes an insane amount of experience or expertise. We definitely also embraced the criticism that the book doesn’t tell you how to do it, so we went and figured out the answer to that question. 
NOTEBOOK: One of the strongest choices is opting for film over digital. There’s an archival quality that might almost be lifted from a process doc. How did you land on shooting 16mm? Was this folded into your original conception of the film? 
GOLDHABER: Film was immediately the only choice and we never deviated from it. 16mm is also more affordable than 35mm, which we certainly could not have afforded to shoot on this movie. Everything from the grit of the image to the way that the cast and crew just show up for take one is great. Plus, film loves sunlight. [When you’re] shooting daylight exteriors on digital, you have to grade the material in such a way that it’ll look like a Levi’s ad. 
NOTEBOOK: I’m also interested in Kelly Reichardt’s depiction of eco-sabotage in Night Moves, particularly how she sustains the tension around the detonation, which viewers never see. Did you at any point, either aesthetically or because of the hop-skip filming process, consider omitting the explosion on screen?
GOLDHABER: We started off thinking we weren’t going to show the explosion. [The story] eventually insisted that we show it. Pipeline has almost the opposite dramatic hook of Night Moves: to feel a sense of victory for the characters, you have to see what they’ve pulled off. 
It was also a bucket list thing for me, on a filmmaking level, to stage a practical explosion. Basically all of the explosions in the movie are real, though there is a little bit [of VFX] that was added to the pipeline explosion. We also had to retime it because one of the explosives didn’t quite go off in sync, but otherwise, it was all a practical plate. 
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever have personal or professional anxieties about making a climate militancy film? 
GOLDHABER: I did not, but there were other people on the team who had more complicated feelings about it. That was what was great about making the film as a collective: there were a lot of different perspectives and viewpoints that became part of the process. 
It was apparent from the beginning, in our conversations with Andreas, that we were going to acknowledge criticisms of the book in the movie itself. We were going to push back against this idea in ways that even he doesn’t incorporate as counterarguments. Though, we weren’t cavalier about making a climate militancy film. We wanted to take the responsibility of the subject matter seriously, even if I wasn’t ultimately nervous about putting a story like this out into the world. 
The thing went literally exactly as we hoped it would. At the very beginning, we knew virtually nobody would want to finance the film. We booked zero meetings through mainstream channels. Ariela and I spent our savings and flew ourselves to Cannes, broke into parties, and met Spacemaker, who were immediately interested. From the beginning, the goal was NEON. They’re taking the biggest swings, especially with political subject matter, and they know how to bring those movies to an audience. We weren’t surprised that the people who ignored us weren’t paying attention. 
NOTEBOOK: The book is hugely persuasive front to back, and Malm leaves little room to dispute sabotage as the rational route. I’m interested in how that momentum was translated in the edit. 
GOLDHABER: The momentum was the challenge of the edit. Part of what’s so great about the title is that it does suggest a bullet ripping out of the gun; it suggests the breakneck speed and pace inherently. In terms of sustaining it: cut out all the bad stuff. Something that Dan [Garber] and I believe is that the target length of every movie is zero minutes, and you only keep what’s extremely necessary. 
That does not deny a film like Sátántangó, which needs to be seven hours to do what it’s doing, but for us to do what we were doing, it was continually about carving it back. We probably cut a minute the day we locked the movie. Nobody misses it. Gavin Brivik’s score is also a huge asset. He was instrumental throughout the edit in helping us establish a tone, rhythm, and approach. 
NOTEBOOK: There’s something quite moving about the film’s depiction of collective, youth activism, sprouting organically from two disillusioned college kids stacking their phones in a mini fridge, before discussing building a bomb.
GOLDHABER: There’s this criticism of the film that the characters aren’t as fully fleshed out or as rich, that they’re emblematic of a particular idea. Pipeline is an adaptation of a [manifesto], and we’re very nakedly dramatizing the rhetoric through an ensemble. We’re decidedly withholding a conventional narrative arc to say, “This is not the story of an individual, this is the story of a collective.” In an era when it’s become especially challenging to organize, these characters represent a cross-section of the American climate movement and how they can come together without dysfunction. 
NOTEBOOK: How would you respond to critiques of Pipeline which find the lack of bloodshed, both on the part of the instigators and the feds, unlikely or sanitized? 
GOLDHABER: If people want to be critical about that, I think that’s totally legitimate. But nobody looks at Ocean’s Eleven and says, “Why don’t these characters get more hurt?” That was the idea—it is a Hollywood wish-fulfillment fantasy. I don’t want to be reductive of that criticism; I understand that everyone has their own perspective on activism and its cost. At the same time, Pipeline is trying to defy the narrative convention that asks movies about progressivism to be tragedies, or failures to organize, or men being overcome with ego and having that ultimately destroy a movement, which is a criticism that I have of Night Moves. Part of the provocation of our film is to bring [these actions] into the mainstream in that capacity. 
One of the reasons that Hollywood and empires use these stories to build a country and culture is because they’re effective—they give people things to wish and hope for, even if they’re not accurate. At no point does Pipeline say it’s a documentary. It says this is an action film, a heist film; this is entertainment. To deny ourselves the ability for things like this to be entertainment is for the movement to deny itself a critical means of messaging inside the contemporary mainstream-media ecosystem. 


InterviewsDaniel Goldhaber
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