How 'How to Blow Up a Pipeline' Got Made

Daniel Goldhaber and Ariela Barer break down how they made the most important movie of the year.
Screen Shot 2023-04-10 at 8
Image: How to Blow Up a Pipeline

In 2021, Swedish scholar Andreas Malm published How to Blow Up a Pipeline, a manifesto for considering direct action and sabotage as a way to protect the planet. It explored past social movements and the challenges of a purely nonviolent social cause. It is not, in any way, a narrative with a cast of characters on a mission. That’s the challenge writers Daniel Goldhaber, Ariela Barer and Jordan Sjol had when they adapted it into a movie.


How to Blow Up a Pipeline is one of the year’s best films, with high stakes, gripping tension and a cleverly executed approach. Eight young people meet up in west Texas to carry out an act of sabotage to disrupt the West Texas Intermediate oil price system. It’s a varied group, ranging from college student Xochitl (Barer) to downtrodden landowner Dwayne (Jake Weary) and the bitter Native American bombmaker Michael (Forrest Goodluck). Directed by Goldhaber, it's a meticulous film that’s willing to make the messy arguments Malm suggests, and show how they could actually be put into practice. 

Motherboard sat down with Goldhaber and Barer to discuss the climate movement and the film, with some mild spoilers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You both have been following the climate movement for a bit, but where were you when you discovered Andreas’ book and what was the process of saying let's turn this into a movie?
Daniel Goldhaber:
We were in the same room. Jordan Sjol, who is one of the other writers on the project, is actually the one who found the book originally. He’s an academic, he’s actually getting his PhD in just a couple of days [note: since the interview was done Sjol earned his PhD] and always wanted to adapt a work of academic theory into film. The three of us had been hanging out a lot and wanted to work on something together. He recommended the book to us just as something to read. We started reading it and I kind of initially had this image of a bunch of kids in the desert struggling with a bomb. In that image, the title and the ideas just suggest a really exciting action movie and a heist film. 


The book doesn’t actually tell you how to do it, but what if we showed you, and what if we showed you through the eyes of eight characters who believe what they’re doing to be an act of self defense? The three of us spent about two to three months doing research, talking to activists, writers, journalists, pipeline experts, bomb experts. We assembled a treasure trove of information. Ariela was the one who figured out how to distill that down into an ensemble. She wrote the first 10 pages that really kicked us off. 

You mentioned that it’s not a how-to book. So how do you turn that into a story? The movie is so striking, it starts and the characters are immediately at work and we follow and learn as they go. How did you approach building the character work and the plot?
Ariela Barer:
We had a solid two to three months of pure research. We realized very quickly that the central premise that we came to the movie with was what if it was us and our friends who did this, tomorrow? What would that look like? Through talking to all of these people, our friends or people one-degree separated, and just asking what their relationships were to the subject matter, we unlocked these rich stories from people not far from us in the first place. The realistic answer of what it would look like if we did this became what the story is. 

A lot of these characters are based on people very close to us, they’re credited as script consultants because they lent so much of themselves. Once we unlocked those characters and stories and we had the idea of a process-driven heist movie at the center, it became very straightforward and simple what we had to do. Of course it revealed itself to be very complicated, but the story and narrative drama was very baked into the concept.


You essentially had to plan the operation yourselves, and the challenges the characters face. Did you start with the pipeline blowing up and work backward? Were you thinking “what happens if someone gets hurt,” or “what happens if someone unexpectedly arrives at the site?”
We wanted the movie to be like Ocean’s 11. I think our first two comparisons were Man Escaped and Ocean's 11, in terms of being these process-based films that are kind of about success. The nail biting tension in them tends to be wondering how do they get away with it? How do they do it? The first thing we had to do was engineer the successful operation, then you need things to go wrong. Then it was about also finding believable roadblocks along the way that they could triumph over. Again, Ocean’s 11 is a movie we were looking at as a reference point, it’s a very fun entertaining kind of tense movie. Things go wrong all of the time in that film, but they ultimately don’t derail the operation entirely. They’re kind of there for the entertainment value. In this we were taking it a little more seriously, what these characters are doing takes a great deal of sacrifice. 

But we wanted to push back against this narrative that’s so predominant in progressive or leftist art, which is that we so frequently tell stories of failures instead of stories of success. Even though success is not always common, it doesn’t mean we can’t conceptualize or imagine success in the media we create.


In the opening of Malm’s book, he mentions the pandemic ground activism to a halt, as it did with nearly everything else in 2020. Were you looking to motivate others, or even stay motivated yourself when it came to fighting climate change?
It was a few things. From the get go, our research project started with talking to activists and saying we’re thinking about making this movie. We were asking them “what do you think we should cover? What do you think are the worst case scenarios of this film? What are your fears of this being made?” We were trying to push back against something we see as a common pitfall of the research process that is so often common in Hollywood, where people look to subcultures or consultants and ask them to give feedback on a preexisting idea. It’s really important for us that we were conceptualizing the identity of the film in conversation with the very people whose lives and work the movie would most closely represent. We did go in with certain ideas that were inherent with our conversation with Andreas, for instance, that the movie would ultimately be a success. But we let ourselves be open to what the film should be.

Ariela, you mentioned in a Q&A last month that the characters sort of shifted as certain actors joined the cast. What went into finding the balance with the ensemble and the characters? Everyone feels fully defined and plays off each other believably. 
We had a full draft of the script before anyone came onboard, except maybe Sasha [Lane, who plays the terminally ill Theo], who was the earliest to come in. Theo is so based on a person I knew, and Sasha was so close to the character already, when she came on she had this energy we wanted to capture in the character. Someone who is sick but is living their last moments to the best of their ability and living their best life as much as they can. 


The other characters, I would say generally we would do a pass at the script every time a new actor came on board. We’d do an interview ith them asking what they wanted to showcase, what this character and this story meant to them and personalize it from there. It’s part of what makes it so realistic, specifically everyone’s dialogue, their little colloquialisms and those little things they do is baked into every character. 

At first we asked people to please not improvise, we’re shooting on 16mm and film is so precious. So of course everyone improvised and honestly thank god they did, every character feels so lived in. It’s simply not something we could have done at the speed and scale we did without the actors putting themselves in it.

Were all of the locations very clear from the start? Each space has a really vivid industrial presence. Were you always planning to shoot in places like North Dakota and Long Beach?
I had spent a lot of time in Long Beach and the sort of ports and refineries there, the structure there is haunting. I thought about it all of the time. When we were thinking about where Xochitl and Theo should be from, at first they were going to be from Texas. Then we realized it would be more interesting if there was a character who specialized in the land of Texas being necessary to the heist. So when thinking of other places for them to be in, I said “dude, Long Beach, we have to go there!” Danny and I had been funding our own location scouting at the beginning. I took Danny out there, we went over that big bridge where you can see the two refineries and the ports. It was also when there was that big supply chain block happening, so it was piled up. It was such a visual. We were listening to the Annihilation soundtrack as we drove over this crazy scenery. It was so apparent that it had to be this. 


As for North Dakota, that was Forrest, that’s where he’s from, where his family is. He had such a beautiful and rich insight into what living in North Dakota was like. He told us about that flame spire that they call “the Birthday Cake.” Just him describing that image, we knew we had to make it happen. He ended up earning his executive producer credit on the movie because he kind of creatively formed that whole leg of the shoot.

You mentioned the supply chain craziness. It was 19 months from idea to completion of the movie. Between writing and filming and releasing this, we’ve been through several crazy and disruptive moments, with the challenges of traveling, getting around, finding stuff. Were there things changing around you that you considered adding into the movie as you went?
It’s hard to make a film, especially hard to make a film quickly, even harder to make it quickly and cheaper, and virtually impossible to try and make it good. There’s the rule you can only pick two of those, and we were going for all three. There was not a component of making this that was easy, but obviously COVID, the supply chain disruption, travel disruption for the North Dakota shoot, weather disruption, all of that were significant curveballs that were thrown into production. It’s astute to recognize the ways in which the disruptions, the global ones we’re dealing with in supply chains, in the social fabric of our society, the ability for there to be an independent media, all of these social and economic disruptions, they disrupt movement. They’ve made it more difficult for the climate movement to organize in part because there’s so many more immediate or seemingly immediately pressing things that people are dealing with when it comes to day to day survival. 

That’s one of the things that is inherent to the film, this is a film that was born out of COVID lockdowns, born from the sense of powerlessness that came from that experience. The fact is that frankly COVID was kind of the first globally felt climate event, which is important to recognize. COVID is climate. Part of what the film is responding to is this notion of needing to conceptualize tactics that can shift the status quo in a meaningful way, but can also fit into the disrupted nature of our current world. 

Why did you decide to include the actual How to Blow Up a Pipeline book in the movie, in the bookstore scene? I had a good laugh when I recognized it and Logan (Lukas Gage) says that it’s not actually a how-to book.
That was a joke I made when we were writing and we didn’t kill it and it made it to the final cut somehow. There were a lot of jokes we put in knowing it would get cut, but a lot didn’t. 

Malm’s book was pretty divisive when it came out, and now you have a movie with the same name. What sort of reactions are you dreading, fearing or looking forward to?
I don’t think there’s a bad reaction. When you make a provocative piece of art, the hope is to promote conversation and debate. I just hope that people see it. I hope people talk about it. The goal is to really shift the conversation away from a climate doomist conversation and toward a conversation about which kind of tactics and strategies are needed and defensible to fight climate change. It’s not an easy answer, there’s no silver bullet. But the only way we’ll get to solutions and empower activists and governments and people to shift the way we run our world is engaging in actively pushing the movement forward. The provocation is the point. There are going to be people that really don’t like it, that are really upset by the film. But that’s good, it means people are talking about this stuff. 

How to Blow Up a Pipeline is in theaters now.