Filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber remembers the exact moment his vision for How to Blow Up a Pipeline came to him. He read climate scholar Andreas Malm's nonfiction book of the same name at the start of 2021, a year that would be defined by political protests and global unrest, and saw in it an opportunity to say something meaningful on the big screen.
"It was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment," Goldhaber tells A.frame. "Jordan Sjol had recommended the book to me, and I was hanging out with Ariela Barer while I was reading it." (The three ended up adapting the script together, with Barer also starring in the movie and Sjol also executive producing.) "When I got halfway through the book, I suddenly had this image in my head of a bunch of kids in the desert struggling to plant a bomb."
How to Blow Up a Pipeline: Learning to Fight in a World on Fire explores the benefits of property destruction and sabotage in protest movements — particularly climate activism. "I still have the text message that I wrote Ariela and Jordan asking, 'What if it was this?'" says Goldhaber. "It was always meant to be an action-heist thriller, where you’re following these kids as they’re literally putting together their plan to blow up a pipeline."
The resulting film is, as its title suggests, a social thriller about a group of climate activists (played by Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, and Sasha Lane) who team up to blow up an oil pipeline in Texas. For Lane, who plays the terminally ill Theo, the project felt alluringly dangerous.
"When I first read the title and I read a little bit of the logline, I just thought, 'Are we gonna get arrested for doing this?'" she says. "The rebellious nature of it was appealing. I'm also from Texas, so the film's premise just made me grin a little bit. That's just part of my nature. I thought, 'Why not?'... If I feel like a project is right, then I do it. Thankfully, it usually works out in the end. It did with this, at least."
How to Blow Up a Pipeline, as Goldhaber envisioned it, would play like a genre movie in the vein of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven and Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and he hoped it would feel just as intense. "The hardest part of maintaining the film's momentum was in the edit, which is interesting because, when people see the edited version of the film, I think they really feel the strength of the editing and they feel the difficulty of the action set pieces," explains the filmmaker.
"When I read the script," Lane says, "I felt the power of it the most in the dialogue and the act itself. But being able to watch it and see how they edited it — from the scoring to everything else — it made me feel like, ‘Oh, we really made a movie here.'"
Goldhaber and his editor, Daniel Garber, found it particularly difficult to integrate the film's flashback sequences in a nonlinear way within its heist structure. "We eventually landed on the Reservoir Dogs riff that is the film's current structure." The flashbacks serve multiple purposes, not only helping flesh out the characters with their backstories but also exploring some of the many reasons — both philosophical and personal — why a group of kids would choose to blow up a pipeline. That's especially true in the case of Lane's Theo.
"If you want to talk about anything important, we can talk about it all day. But unless you're actually doing something, it's just words."
"I only need a few words or reasons to do certain things, and I think Theo is like that, too," says the actress. "I had a line where I say, 'I'm just happy to be here.' I thought that told me everything I needed to know about Theo. She knows that she's angry and she knows that she's going to die at some point anyway, so she just thinks, 'Why not try to go out with a bang?'"
Actually shooting the movie proved taxing in its own ways. Filmed outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Lane admits that there were plenty of moments where she and her fellow cast members were forced to contend with the brutality of the production. "It was around Christmastime, so there were definitely times where you'd think, 'I could be home, but I'm doing this and we're out here. Do I really want my nose to bleed today?' It was cold. It was dusty. We were outside a lot." She laughs, "It's part of the charm, I guess."
As demanding as the shoot was, "when it's 2 a.m. and it's freezing, you just get real bold and you let your guard down," Lane says of the bonds formed amongst the cast. "We reminded ourselves to just try to enjoy it rather than be miserable all the time. It felt genuine. It briefly felt like we really were just a group of kids hanging out together."
Ahead of the film's release, Goldhaber knows that he and his team put as much as themselves as possible into making How to Blow Up a Pipeline. As for what he hopes viewers take away from it, he leaves that up to the audience. "The real provocation of the movie is that we're asking the question: In an era of climate change and climate disruption, what tactics and strategies are necessary and defensible to prevent a climate apocalypse?" he explains. "If we're looking at the end of life on Earth as we know it, how do we stop that?"
"The ultimate provocation of our film is that we're asking you to empathize with our characters — eight people who believe that the destruction of an oil pipeline is an act of self-defense," Goldhaber continues. "That inevitably shakes one's notions about whether or not such an act actually is self-defense. I think there's a lot of value in that."
Lane knows that sentiment will make audiences uncomfortable. That's the point. "It's good when you can be uncomfortable. If you want to talk about anything important, we can talk about it all day. But unless you're actually doing something, it's just words," she says. "I think the cutoff for a lot of people is when they start to get uncomfortable about a topic, they usually just shut down. This film has the power to push people closer to learning how to sit in that uncomfortableness."
Lane adds with a laugh, "That's all I'm going to say. Because I'm not going to tell anyone to blow up anything."
By Alex Welch