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Know the West

Fossil-fuel sabotage comes to Hollywood

The director of ‘How to Blow Up a Pipeline’ discusses the value of popular media for environmental ends and whether destroying pipelines is an act of self-defense.

If the rhythm of the new film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, about a group of young people conspiring to do exactly what the name of the film promises, feels familiar, director Daniel Goldhaber says that’s intentional. The film, which is in limited release, was inspired by Andreas Malm’s 2021 manifesto of that name, although it sets aside the text’s academic arguments and instead imbues a group of eight young people with the author’s questions and concerns. It closely follows the structure of Ocean’s Eleven and other classic heist movies, complete with title slides and freeze frames to fill in the characters’ motivations.

But rather than celebrating the glories of high-stakes robbery, Pipeline explores the complexities of what, exactly, counts as terrorism, and whether some acts are too extreme to win ordinary people over to climate action. In short, it’s a strange hybrid of intellectual arguments and cinematic thrills, colored in the grays and yellows of the Southwest.


In an interview with High Country News, Goldhaber explains how he and his collaborators settled on the heist form – and what they hoped to accomplish with a film he says is explicitly political in its aims. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Director Daniel Goldhaber on the set of his new film “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” The film, which is in limited release, is based on the book of the same name.
Courtesy of Neon

High Country News: How did you explore what might motivate a person to this kind of sabotage, to this kind of climate activism?

Daniel Goldhaber: It was really the process of talking to people in this world and asking them that question, and then just trying to do justice to their answer in the making of the film. We interviewed a number of activists, a number of journalists, talked to Andreas (Malm, author of the book How to Blow Up a Pipeline), talked to pipeline experts. Then we were refining, even through the filming process and the editing process, trying to find a way to get to the core of why a person might do that.

But it’s also a movie based on a manifesto. So we were also always balancing the human with the rhetorical, because the movie is both making an argument and telling a story — making an emotional appeal around their characters, but also those characters are representative of ideas. Even once we cut to the core of why these people would do something like this, we were figuring out a way to represent that in a fashion that was, you know, both interesting dramatically and that preserved the rhetorical ideas.

HCN: When you say the film is making an argument, what do you see as that argument? To me, it seems to be a reasonably complicated one about the costs and balances, and who takes the fall.

DG: The movie is presenting is an argument about eight characters who all believe that the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure is an act of self-defense. And I think that in that argument is a question, which is that essentially — in a world where billions of people stand to die due to climate change — why is it that the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure is seen as an act of violence, when the fossil fuel infrastructure itself is responsible for so much mass death? If there’s a gun to your head, we recognize that we all have the right to take that gun away from a person and dismantle it. The fossil fuel industry is a gun to the head of the earth. Why do we not have a right to take that away from them and dismantle it? And I think the movie is, I think, hopefully standing at a bit of a critical distance from that argument and saying, “This is a story about eight people who are taking a side, and see their point of view.”



HCN: I’m curious how you thought about the tensions between the different people there, which came to the fore a fair amount, but never came to a head. How did you think about?

DG: Off the bat, I think that we wanted to avoid this common pitfall that exists in leftist stories where the group always breaks down, where the story is always kind of a tragedy. One of the great things about a heist movie is that you have a group that has a lot of internal tensions, but they come together to pull off the job. And I think that there’s something just fun and cool and interesting about that. And it’s OK if it's not exactly how things always go. That’s what Hollywood is about — aspirational thinking. So there are tensions with a group, a lot of them fairly unspoken. But we wanted them to kind of exist in the background as details, as shading, but not to become the story.

HCN: Did you see this as an explicitly leftist story? 

DG: 100%, including in the way that the movie was made. It was made by collective: There’s a shared authorship credit. Everybody was more or less paid the same; we essentially standardized all the rates to how much labor we were putting in, so nobody got any more, nobody got any less. There were still union regulations and a lot of stuff. But, as best we could, everybody was paid the same. There were no outside star fees.


Director Daniel Goldhaber during editing. “I think that if you want to spread ideas widely, you have to use the tools of mass communication to do,” he said.
Courtesy of Neon


HCN: It can be a challenge to make interesting art about the climate crisis. How did you come to a heist film? How did that come to be the way that you wanted to tell this story?

DG: One, it’s a very American story. It’s a story of kind of individuals resisting corrupt power. It has roots very explicitly in the Western, and the heist genre comes out of the West. That whole idea that a team getting together to rob a bank is something firmly rooted in Western mythology and American mythology.

Also, the heist film has always been an opportunity to explore inequality. You think about a story about people robbing a bank, that’s usually a story of people from outside the system, trying to engage and exact justice from a corrupt system.

And a heist film is also an ensemble film; it’s often a film without a singular protagonist. And we wanted them to be a collective action. We wanted to very much resist the idea that there was a singular story that you could latch on to. The more than we thought about heist films, the more that so many heist films actually revealed themselves to be movies about collective organizing.

Something that’s at the heart of this film is that the left and progressive circles are so afraid of entertainment because they see it as a conservative form. But the problem is that when the only forms that you use to communicate are revolutionary forms, the only stories you tell are niche stories. What you do is you condemn your political ideology to the niche. You send the message to the masses that this is for a small group of people. And I think that if you want to spread ideas widely, you have to use the tools of mass communication. That’s been true since the beginning of time, politically speaking. I think it’s critical for the movement to look for seeds of leftist thought in mainstream storytelling strands, and then figure out how to exploit them to discuss contemporary political ideas.

Forrest Goodluck (Michael) and Marcus Scribner (Shawn) in “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” Director Daniel Goldhaber says the film “has roots very explicitly in the Western, and the heist genre comes out of the West. That whole idea that a team getting together to rob a bank is something firmly rooted in Western mythology and American mythology.”
Film still courtesy of Neon

HCN: This film, frankly, didn't seem that preoccupied with how the escalation to destructive action happens. It sort of took as a given that, faced with this logic of climate change and fossil fuels, you would become this extreme.

DG: That’s a Hollywood tool: You give somebody a tragic backstory, and then a motive. Obviously, it’s more complicated than that. This is something that people criticize the movie for, and I get it. But we never criticize, like, Top Gun: Maverick for doing the exact same bullshit, right? We let our kind of hyper-militaristic propaganda use the shortcuts. But the second they’re applied to a radical idea, we're like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!”

Just to back this up further, Ariela (Barer, who co-wrote and acted in the film) and I went on CNN and spent 15 minutes talking about property destruction, sabotage and self-defense. And it’s because we made a mainstream film. We have an opportunity to now engage in mainstream media in a totally novel way. That does bring this conversation into the popular consciousness, and that’s really important. That has to happen. So, obviously, we’re aware of how much more complicated it is, how much more time things might take, how much more self-doubt one might actually have doing something like this. But, you know, that’s just the pictures, baby.

Behind the scenes of filming “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”
Courtesy of Neon

We welcome reader letters. Kate Schimel is thnews and investigations editor for High Country News. Email her at [email protected]  or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.