“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is an environmental-climate crisis action-thriller film. It’s based on Andreas Malm’s book of the same name. The New York Times called it a “cultural landmark” for its sympathetic portrayal of eco-terrorists. It deals with complex issues related to the climate crisis such as violence vs. non-violence, sabotage as self-defense and the necessity of fighting the oil industry.
In our latest, we talk with Daniel Goldhaber (@chronopictures), the director of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline. We talked to him about his motives for turning the book into a film, what messages he wanted to put across, his own views on the urgency of direct action in the fight to save the earth, the responses to the movie, past actions they considered when making the film and more.
Bio// Daniel Goldhaber is an American director, screenwriter, and producer. In 2018, he directed Cam, a psychological horror film set in the world of webcam pornography. In 2022, he co-wrote, directed, and produced the thriller film How to Blow Up a Pipeline, based on the book of the same name by Andreas Malm.
Scott: Welcome to the Silky Smooth Sounds of the Green and Red podcast. I’m your co-host Scott Parkin in Berkeley, California. And as always, I’m joined by Bob Buzzanco in Ohio. And today we are excited to be joined by Daniel Goldhaber, who is the director of the new film, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.”
Daniel, welcome to Green and Red
Daniel: Thanks for having me.
Scott: Your film is an eco-thriller. It is inspired by Andreas’s Malm’s book, “How to Blow Up a Pipeline.” The film takes a cast of characters through doing a direct action around the oil industry. I’ll leave it there as I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. But, how did you get the idea to first make this film?
Daniel: Yeah, the idea just came from reading the book and, and the conversations that I’ve been having with my, my co-writers, about not just the kind of movies we wanted to see, but the kind of conversation that I think that we felt was lacking, in relation to this question of how we institute change in our world. How we make that happen. And that was the real point of inspiration. Just wanting to add to the conversation in a fresh way.
Bob: The film is in many ways about how to blow up a pipeline. The book is kind of more general and a history lesson as well.
How did you decide to kind of create these characters in this particular action? Why, why did you decide that would be the way to approach it?
Daniel: Yeah, I think that there’s this problem that exists on the left when we tell stories, we tell stories of failure. We tell stories that are often very niche.
we tell stories that are kind of about moral complexity. Or that are very esoteric. And I think that the problem is, is that that’s not necessarily a way to build a coalition. I think that something that the climate movement really needs is to build a cultural coalition.
And so I think that there are these ideas in the book about how do we win? How do we start forcing a move away from the use of fossil fuels. but the idea is how do you get that conversation to happen in the mainstream? And so I love heist movies.
I love genre movies. And, and like a lot of my practice is kind of built around this question of taking kind of ideas that are a little bit more on the avant garde and finding a way to bring them into the popular imagination and a heist film is the perfect way to do that.
Scott: There’s been this long-standing debate on the left around violence versus nonviolence and around whether property destruction is violence. And, your film leans into that debate. And I’m just wondering how you and your co-writers decided to approach that conversation.
Daniel: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s, it’s a few fold. I think that absolutely the question that we’re asking with this movie “is the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure justifiable?” And I think one of the ways that we attack that in the movie is the idea that the oil infrastructure is the antagonist.
You know, we, we we’re not seeing kind of some oil company CEO or whatever, who’s the bad guy. It’s really, the infrastructure is the enemyYou know, because it’s a movie, it’s a Hollywood movie that that kind of on its own already starts to kind of open this conversation around justifiable tactics.
But I think beyond that, from an ethical standpoint, the real question is that we have these ideas that are pretty universal around what constitutes self-defense. And everybody kind of on planet Earth, more or less understands that if somebody’s pointing a gun at your head and intends to pull the trigger, you have a right to take that gun away from them and disassemble it.
At the very least, I think that when it comes to the question of climate change, I think that the fossil fuel industry has a proverbial gun to the head of the earth. And that what the movie is dramatizing is this question of do we have a right to take that away from them and disassemble it?
Even this notion of people calling sabotage or the destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure violence, we feel pretty strongly that a question needs to be asked is when you have an oil refinery that blights the land that causes cancer, that poisons the water and the products of which are creating a planet that is rapidly becoming uninhabitable for life on earth as we know it.
Why is that piece of infrastructure not seen as a violent piece of property? Why is the destruction of that seen somehow as violence? And I think that that’s the moral question of our time. And I think that the moral question that we’re kind of provoking a debate around with the nature of how this movie has been made.
Bob: Hollywood today is a business. A business related question. Hollywood today has a lot of Marvel movies and these big huge budget things. If you’re gonna do something like this, which clearly doesn’t have the kind of message that a lot of finances probably want to hear.
How do you go about doing it? How did you say, “Hey, I have an idea for this movie.” How did you approach people? I mean, it just seems getting it done probably was a fairly major task.
Daniel: It was, but it also, you know, it’s the fastest I’ve ever gotten a project off the ground. And I think that there’s this idea, it doesn’t only exist in Hollywood.
I think it’s an idea that’s really been drilled into the masses culturally, writ large, which is that if you want to get something done that everybody has to say yes. It has to be the kind of thing that everybody wants to do. And they actually think that the exact opposite tends to be true in raising money.
If you have an idea that only one or two people really wanna do, they believe in it with everything they have you’re gonna have a good partnership. And I think that it was the case with this. I think we just knew that most everybody was gonna say no, but the people that said yes were going to mean it.
And that, that really proved to be the case. I think that, as well on the left, there’s this difficulty that I think people have threading the needle between staying true to the ideology and the ideas, and then doing that in a way that is accessible to a wide audience.
I think that people think that to make something accessible you have to dilute the ideas. And I think that that’s not really true. I think to make something accessible, you have to be accessible about how you talk about it. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to cheapen the fundamental notion of the project in order to reach people where they are.
And I think we were lucky enough to just be working with partners who I also think understood that and who understood that we were gonna be uncompromising and the fundamental idea of the movie. But we would do everything we could to communicate it on a broad scale and in an entertaining way.
Scott: The New York Times reviewed it and called the film “a cultural landmark.” for its uniquely sympathetic betrayal of ecoterrorism. We are friends with a number of people who have been to prison as eco terrorists.
I’m curious, how much did you consider that past generation of environmental activists who used property destruction, arson, and things like that as a way to achieve change? And then the other thing is that there was a, there was a well-known action in 2016 called “the valve turner action.” Where they went and turned off valves at five different tar sands pipeline points on the Canadian border.
How much did you factor that into the story?
Daniel: Yeah, so, we were thinking about the legacy of sabotage in the environmental movement. Of course, I think, you know, we were looking at a movie called, “If A Tree Falls” by Marshall Curry about the Earth Liberation Front.
I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for people who are on the front lines, for people who’ve engaged with direct action and people who have sacrificed their bodies and their freedom for this movement. But I also think that with this film, we do intend to interrogate some of those actions and interrogate them predominantly from a standpoint of asking what kind of tactics and strategies are the most effective and the most productive?
And I think that one of the problems that I think that you can look back on groups like the Earth Liberation Front and identify with those tactics is that I don’t think the targets were airtight. Or fully justifiable. I think that it’s hard to say let’s, let’s set fire to this university and for that to be something that feels like that was the best possible use of this moment of sabotage.
And I think instead one of the things that is so effective for me about Andreas’s book is that he’s saying, “yes, there is this historical legacy of sabotage behind all social justice, justice movements, but what is the best target of those tactics?” I think that focusing in on the infrastructure allows him say “this is an airtight target” Especially if you were to destroy it in a fairly non-destructive way that’s hard to criticize.
You’re kind of cutting to the, the heart of the matter. And I think that that’s been similarly true, I think during other moments of sabotage and social protests and social disruption. So I think that, that there were a lot of problems I think with, with the Earth Liberation Frontfrom obvious issues that they had with OPSEC to not necessarily being totally clear on their tactics. But at the same time, I think that was a different time.
Now we were really inspired by the valve turners and the work that they did. They’ve seen the film. Some of them have felt positively about it.
We trying to pay direct homage to them with the sequence where the valve gets shut off. And, and as much as we’re paying homage to their work and we’re also thinking aboutthe ways in which it could be escalated.
Bob: You have a diverse group, you of characters. Some are kind of more kind of your typical activists, Indigenous activists, things like that. And you havea local guy is one of the characters. This white guy from Texas, which is really kind of compelling.
How do you decide like how to kind of create this group?
Daniel: Yeah, I mean, I think we wanted something that felt like it was like a cross section of the us. Climate movement. And that it was really kind of touching on as many different kinds of people who are affected as possible. And I think you see that.
You see everybody from Indigenous activists to overprivileged punks cosplaying as environmentalists to conservatives and I think that we just wanted to touch on as many of those different kinds of groups and backgrounds as possible.
In part, we wanted to kind of send this message that this is something that touches people all across the country from all different kinds of backgrounds, and they all have reasons to fight and defend themselves.
Scott: There’s at least two scenes in the film where the members of the group, in the backstory where the lead character confronts an activist at her university because he wants to get the university to divest from fossil. And she says how that’s too incremental. And then there’s also the Indigenous character, Michael, who actually confronts his mother because he doesn’t actually think she’s doing enough either by working with a community group. And so to the organizer in me there’s like a wide spectrum of people doing a lot of work towards the same goal. Trying to undermine, disempower this all-powerful industry.
And part of what I got as a message from the film is that sabotage is the way to go. I kind of also feel like that was a little bit of Andreas’s message as well. And so for all of the folks doing climate organizing, climate justice organizing. I’m kind of curious what you would say to them because they may agree with sabotage, but they also know there’s a lot of other strategies as well.
Yeah. I think that we’re not sitting here trying to, again, diminish the work that anybody else is doing. And something that I hope comes across in the film, it’s like when Michael and his mom are fighting, you know he’s being he’s being a little shit to her.
You know what I mean? He’s being cruel. He’s being immature. He’s being childish. He storms out of the house. You know what I mean? This is a guy who’s going and getting in fights with people. There is a degree of kind of irrationality, uh, and extremism to his action.
I think that true of people that would do something extreme like this. So I think that, you know, it’s the same thing with Xochi and the way that she gets with the divest people that she’s making some good points, but, ultimately I think that one of the one of the big things here is that there’s an ecosystem of change.
There’s always been an ecosystem of change, and I think that the, the big question that we need to ask ourselves is what do the people trafficking in the more mainstream approach need to do? Have the leverage necessary to create systemic change. And I think that this comes back to kind of the point that I was making about the Earth Liberation Front.
I have a pretty bad understanding of how change operates on the local level. And I think that every time I find myself encountering local activists, I’m so impressed by how effective grassroots organizing and local organizing can be. But I think that where there’s a big disruption in our ability to think and our ability to make change happen on that larger systemic level.
And I think that in many ways that’s what Andreas is talking about. And in many ways, systemic change can operate in, in conflict with the change occurring on a local level. Um, because, because sometimes what one might need for change to happen systemically stands in the way of the change that needs to happen locally.
And I think that the question the movie is asking is an escalation of tactics necessary for a systemic change to occur? And while also recognizing that escalation of tactics can wound, can hurt people in the short term that revolution has collateral damage and that’s complicated.
And this question of who gets to decide what that collateral damage is, and what kind of collateral damage is acceptable, is complicated. So I think that’s something that we really hope that we are, are, are always acknowledging in the film and in the drama of the movie.
Bob: In a minute, I wanna ask about the response to it because there were reports of law enforcement going to theaters that were showing this. But even before that, while you were filming it, I’m sure people knew that you were adapting the book into a movie. Did you get feedback from or any visits from law enforcement on the set or did you get conversely, did anybody say, “Hey, great job, way to go.”
Did any environmental activists reach out and say, “Hey, I can help you, or anything like that?”
Daniel: We worked a lot with a number of activists. We interviewed a lot of people, everybody from pipeline experts to people who’ve been to prison for doing things to counterterrorism people who helped us with the bomb building stuff. You know what I mean?
We tried to talk to as many different people as possible, because again, we wanted to get the details right and we wanted to understand what would the incentives of the FBI would be in a situation like this. Do we think it’s believable that they might be able to be tricked in this kind of capacity?
And then you actually start digging into just how effective the FBI is at doing what they do. And, you’re pretty surprised that they’re really good at repression, but they’re not necessarily that good at anything else. And I think that’s kinda what they’re there for.
I’ve never been contacted by law enforcement at all. We had no presence of law enforcement on the set. We made the movie under a working title, as all movies do. We made the movie under the working title of “Wild West.” But I think law enforcement was smart enough to not try to effect this.
Too much, up until the movie came out and the, and the kind of warnings that came up. But yeah, I’ve been really heartened by the response that we’ve gotten from a lot of environmental activists and other.
It can be really challenging working in activism and feeling constantly like “is anybody listening, is anybody playing attention?” There’s so little focus and amplification for mainstream media. And so I think to just even kind of see this thing that is trafficking the language of, Hollywood.
And then saying, “Hey, this is work that’s happening.” This is work that’s important. I’ve received a lot of feedback that that’s really empowering.
Scott: I’ve been wanting to ask the FBI question. The story came out in the Intercept April thatthe film had been flagged as a “developing threat” by the Kansas Fusion Center.
Which is not the typical thing you see with a film that’s in theaters. But also it Malm’s book was also flagged in a similar way in 2021.
What’s your response to the federal government elevating a threat level around the film?
Daniel: I think that the last time there were this many security warnings issued about something, as far as I’m aware, was after the Roe v Wade decision dropped, which is crazy.
But I think it actually just speaks to the laziness of law enforcement or this kind of law enforcement in particular. This is just an easy thing to write a security briefing about. And it’s an even easier thing to write a security briefing about and then say, “we need an increase in our budget.” Which I think is really where this response comes from. There’s a cultural moment, you can point to it and say, “see, there’s a threat.” Give me more money and I think that there’s a lesson there. Uh, Generally speaking about just how law enforcement works and when law enforcement says, oh, this is dangerous, this is a problem.
It’s a movie man. There’s, there’s all sorts of movies about violence, about radicalization, about illegal acts that are not security threats. But, this is an easy one to point to and say, “you know, I need more taxpayer dollars.” I think that’s, there’s kind of a lesson and an observation in that.
Bob: I’m sitting about 30 minutes from East Palestine, Ohio, and the locals there have deemed Erin Brockovich, who’s about as mainstream as you can get, to be an eco-terrorist threat. And they’ve developed, kind of what, what you’re saying, task forces and things like that.
Moving forward, this has seemed to, to land well. It’s, a lot of movies to deal with this kind of thing have characters who I think are caricatures, not the kind of people like Scott and I have really ever seen on the streets. Do you think there’s a future now that you can continue, others can continue because at the end of the movie it ends with what I think was a teaser.
That there’s more to come. This stuff’s still gonna happen. Do you think that this is gonna become the success of what you’ve done will spur on more? Considerations like this.
Daniel: I mean, again, I think that this is a cultural object. So the hope is that, where I see the movie, right?
The hope for the film is that it leads to people thinking and talking about this issue more. Um, when it comes to, to, uh, you know, whether or not acts like this are gonna occur. I think that there’s a few things already have. You know what I mean? There’s Jessica Reznicek and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
You go to Nigeria, people blow pipelines up. There’s already been lots of acts like this. And as the planet warms, as the crisis escalates, Resistance to the crisis will escalate. That’s just how it happens. That’s just how it’s always gone. The purpose of the film is not to get people to go blow up pipelines.
It’s to get people to understand why somebody might blow up pipelines and to spur conversation around what might need to be done to prevent that kind of escalation of resistance. So for me, I’ve just been heartened by the places where those conversations have taken place.
I think the other thing I can actually say, just to, just to add on, is one of the other things that I am hopeful for is that, I don’t know how familiar everybody is with this, but this question of the necessity defense. But the necessity defense is a legally enshrined way of codifying some of these questions.
I’m talking about, about self-defense and I think that the hope is that. I do think a necessity defense is necessary that we see them happen. But, I think that people sometimes have this belief in the courts that we have the moral authority.
The courts will see that the courts don’t respond to the moral authority the courts respond to. The culture, the courts respond to the political will. At the end of the day, and if we are going to see a necessity defense even be allowed to be argued in court, that will only happen when the social and political will exist, when the social political will will exist, only when there’s awareness of it.
And so I think that, you know, if, if there is on some level of political purpose of the film it is, is okay, let’s start that conversation so that hopefully that’s a place where I think you can start then seeing, um, Ways in which what movies do well, which is manufacture, social and political will, where that can actually take root.
Bob: Oh, last if, if somebody wants to see this, I know it was in theaters, but is it kind of being streamed now or is it available elsewhere?
Daniel: Yeah, it’s available to rent on kind of all the standard, the platforms where you can rent things, and I think sometime in September it’ll go on streaming video, on demand, on Hulu.
Scott: Great. Thank you. Thanks for joining us.