Necessary Defense

Director Daniel Goldhaber on turning Andreas Malm’s eco-terrorist manifesto How to Blow Up a Pipeline into a heist movie.

Malcolm Harris
April 18, 2023
Still from How To Blow Up A Pipeline, courtesy of Neon

“It doesn’t tell you how to do it,” one character tells another in director Daniel Goldhaber’s new movie How to Blow Up a Pipeline, nodding to what he’s holding: climate scholar and activist Andreas Malm’s book of the same name. The 2021 polemic is an unlikely candidate for adaptation to the screen. Malm’s call for a tactical escalation within the climate movement—he argues that sabotage of fossil fuel extraction enterprises is a vital strategy for combating environmental destruction—is marginal even among climate activists on the left. But How to Blow Up a Pipeline, an impassioned case against reconciling ourselves to a future of inevitable doom, became a cult hit, riding its provocative title and straightforward thesis to a surprisingly large audience.

The resulting movie made a splash at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, snagging a deal with the indie distributor NEON. How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which opened in theaters nationwide on April 7th, reimagines Malm’s book as a nail-biting eco-terrorist plot, following a diverse crew of saboteurs as they dream up and execute an attack on oil infrastructure in West Texas. If the book tells you not how to blow up a pipeline per se, then the movie shows what it might look like for a team to pull it off. This classic heist formula seems well-positioned to put mainstream audiences on the activists’ side: It’s hard, after all, to root for the pipeline. By treating fossil fuel infrastructure like an evil soulless object—the way American directors have often treated, say, the people of Iraq—the film levels Hollywood’s dehumanizing gaze on a worthy target.

A week before the film’s release, I spoke with Goldhaber about the relationship between storytelling and politics, and what it took to bring an aspirational take on eco-terror to the big screen. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Malcolm Harris: How did you encounter the book? Why did you choose to adapt it?

Daniel Goldhaber: During the pandemic, I hung out a lot with Jordan Sjol, a doctoral candidate in the literature program at Duke who I’ve collaborated with my whole professional life, and Ariela Barer, an actress I’d met when I cast her in a movie that fell apart in the early months of Covid. We talked about wanting to work on something together. At Jordan’s recommendation, we began reading How to Blow Up a Pipeline, and I immediately had this image of a bunch of kids in the desert struggling with a bomb, so we started interviewing activists and journalists and bomb experts and pipeline experts. We wanted to figure out not just how we would actually go about blowing up a pipeline, but also who would do something like this and why.

MH: What’s the goal of the movie?

DG: It asks the question: What kinds of tactics are defensible in fighting climate change? One source of climate doomism is the sense that this is such a big problem that it feels impossible to even start tackling it. That’s paralyzing. We’re telling a story about eight people who believe the answer is the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure; they see this as an act of self-defense. The film asks the audience to empathize with them and, by extension, to consider that argument. Ultimately, I believe that one of the only mechanisms that will actually facilitate the kind of systemic change that we need is the establishment of a necessity defense—protection under the law for people who resist environmental destruction. That’s only going to come about if there is social and political will behind that idea.

MH: The movie defies and sometimes subverts stereotypes about left-wing activists. Your characters aren’t insular weirdos, they don’t betray each other, they aren’t bloodthirsty. Was that something you all were conscious of when you were writing the story?

DG: Definitely. Two of our initial guidelines were that it couldn’t be a tragedy—the group couldn’t fall apart—and they had to get away with it. When we started, our first question was, Who are these people? During the research process, we were looking around our communities and realized: We have friends with cancer because they grew up in refinery towns. We know people who’ve engaged in Indigenous protest movements. The people who would be justified in doing something like this were readily available. That says a lot about where we are. Climate change is here, right now, and so many people are already living through the consequences.

We also wanted to combat the notion that activism fails. If we continue to tell stories about failure, it becomes difficult to imagine success. I think that it’s okay to tell a story that’s a little bit fantastical—and parts of the story admittedly are. So much of Hollywood is American military propaganda. Empire builds through movies like Top Gun: Maverick. If we want to organize on the left, we have to engage with a similar kind of aspirational storytelling; we have to allow ourselves to dream of success.

MH: So this is a Top Gun for the left?

DG: I would say that is not not the idea. The idea is to have fun with it and to dream big—and then to leave the movie theater and say, “What can I do to fight?”

MH: What other films were you thinking about? One that came to mind for me was Empty Metal, the 2018 movie by Adam Khalil and Bayley Sweitzer about members of a Brooklyn noise band who join an underground militia plot to assassinate three infamous police officers.

DG: We had a lot of examples of things we did not want to do. I loved First Reformed [Paul Schrader’s 2017 film about a pastor whose spiritual crisis leads him to become an eco-terrorist], but it’s still a tragedy. It can’t imagine climate resistance as something more than an extension of, like, toxic masculinity. A lot of films fall victim to that kind of logic when addressing the subject matter.

Empty Metal is an example of a really great and interesting and rich work of cinema that’s also kind of alienating and niche and difficult to penetrate. And that’s work that I love, and I hope that I can help communicate and spread [the ideas behind it] in a way that does have a more mainstream cultural appeal.

We were also thinking about movies like Ocean’s 11 and Reservoir Dogs. We cribbed the character flashback structure and some of the nonlinearity directly from Reservoir Dogs. It’s a defining film of the era, and yet it’s not really about anything; it is essentially a stylistic exercise—which is fine! It’s a really entertaining stylistic exercise. But I think it speaks to the hollow core of the American independent boom of the ’90s, and we thought it was interesting to take that familiar structure and use it for naked political ends. With our film, we wanted to take this taboo notion of property destruction as self-defense and speak about it in a way that is familiar and accessible.

MH: The characters in the film are all coming from very different places. You have Shawn (Marcus Scribner), a Twitter doomscroller, alongside Xochitl (Ariela Barer), a disenchanted activist, and Dwayne (Jake Weary), a rural landowner who doesn’t want the pipeline on his property. How did you think about the diversity of the team?

DG: We were trying to build an ensemble that represented a cross-section of the American climate movement—to approach this issue from different standpoints and to create different points of access for the audience. One of the great things about a heist film is that it’s inherently an ensemble movie; it lets us tell a story about collective action. The best heist movies—like Ocean’s 11, or [the 1969 French leftist classic] Army of Shadows, which was another one of our main reference points—have casts that speak to different sides of an issue. And so, we wanted to have an Indigenous angle. We want to have people from a refinery town who are organizing outside the law. We wanted to have a punk character who is a bit of a tourist in this scene.

We were also talking about ourselves: Jordan grew up in rural Wyoming, and we have been doing research for another project that takes place in rural West Virginia. We started that research shortly after Trump was elected, and we were shocked to meet a lot of people on the far right who thought, for example, that it was unconscionable that Energy Transfer LP was running a pipeline right near the Standing Rock Sioux’s water supply against the tribe’s wishes. These are people who may even be climate-change deniers, but their belief in land rights trumps even that. That inspired the character of Dwayne.

MH: How do you think filmmakers can be part of building political community on the left, especially in the age of Marvel and Netflix, where access to culture is increasingly mediated by large corporations?

DG: First, I think it’s important to recognize that filmmaking is not activism; it’s a form of cultural production, and it takes place inside a larger ecosystem. In making the film, you can engage with activists and then, once that film is done, you can use that platform to amplify the efforts of activists. It’s about placing yourself in a position to be responsive to what the movement needs.

It’s also important to understand where there’s an opportunity to be independent, to create in a way where you can retain editorial agency over your project and distribute something outside of corporate control. We booked no pitch meetings for this movie—and that’s exactly what we expected. Ariela and I drained our savings and flew to Cannes and broke into parties and pitched anybody who would listen. The people who were interested understood that this was a useful cultural provocation. We didn’t have any interest from Apple or Netflix or any of the streamers, but that comes as no surprise.

Earlier today, I was talking to some activists who are interested in telling a great story, but they’re married to telling it on television. And it’s virtually impossible to escape corporate interference at any stage of the production process when you’re making TV—that’s one reason there’s been such a push toward television production and away from movies over the past ten years, because there’s so much greater corporate editorial and financial control over the product in TV. So, it’s about figuring out how you can make something that can access the marketplace but where you can maintain control. In our case, that was an independent film. Maybe what I’m trying to say is that if you want to make work in the commercial sphere, you have to understand how the system works.

MH: How can audiences meet you halfway in those efforts?

DG: See movies in movie theaters. If you stream a movie, if you rent a movie online, you’re still going through one of these giant multinational corporations that strips creators of their agency. That’s not to say that going to giant movie theaters is not engaging with a corporate entity, but there is a significantly more direct line of dollar-to-artist. If you can see movies in independent movie theaters, that’s even better. Pay for your films, cancel your streaming subscriptions, and do your best to resist the gravitational black hole that is corporate content production.

Malcolm Harris is the author of Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World.