When the creators of “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” initially set out to adapt the book of the same name, which critiques the docility of climate activism, director Daniel Goldhaber had in mind a very different movie than what they eventually made.
“I was very much in a place of anger and feeling very powerless and I was like, ‘Let’s make a big old propaganda piece,’” he said.
Goldhaber recalled his writing partners Ariela Barer, who also stars in the film, and Jordan Sjol talking him out of that place and convincing him that idea would ultimately “make for a very boring movie.”
They decided instead on a kind of heist thriller, which opens in theaters Friday, that follows a group of young activists who plot to take down an oil pipeline in West Texas. While the group is composed of people with starkly different backgrounds and reasons for being there, many of its members are personally affected by climate change and are united in their desperation to fight it — not unlike the young creative team themselves.
Neon’s “How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is decidedly less prescriptive than Andreas Malm’s 2021 book, which argues that climate activists ought to look to past movements, such as the abolitionists and suffragettes, to see that substantial reforms in modern history have rarely been propagated by pacifism.
Goldhaber said he took into account critiques of the book and hopes the film is seen as a nuanced adaptation.
“If there’s a political viewpoint of the film, it’s not, ‘Go out and blow up a pipeline,’” he said.
But the movie does rely heavily on arguments that Malm puts forward, an idea which came from Sjol’s musings about “adapting a work of academic theory into a movie,” Goldhaber explained.
Malm is a scholar of human ecology, an interdisciplinary field of research that focuses on human relationships to their environments across cultures. In his work on the climate movement, Malm has been an outspoken critic of nonviolence and a proponent of property destruction, calling it the only viable response to the enduring power of the fossil fuel industry.
“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” joins a growing list of films exploring the issue of climate change and how best to fight it, from dark dramas like Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed,” to allegorical satires, such as Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up.”
Lukas Gage, who joins Barer and other breakout actors in the ensemble cast, recalled getting sent Malm’s book along with the script.
“I read the book first and I thought to myself, ‘How the hell is this going to be a narrative film?’” he said.
Already a fan of Goldhaber’s feature directorial debut, “Cam,” Gage was ultimately persuaded by what he felt was an important story that could facilitate conversations about a way forward in combatting the climate crisis.
“Because of Congress’ failure to do anything about this, it has definitely made me think about what little we can do, but maybe not so little,” he said. “I think it will stick with us forever.”
Gage’s character, Logan, is the obvious outlier of the group, a privileged punk motivated more by love for his girlfriend, Rowan (Kristine Froseth), than by his concern for the environment.
“I grew up in the punk scene in Los Angeles and also in activist spaces and those people are always there. Like, there’s always a Logan and a Rowan,” Barer laughed. “We wanted to have a degree of empathy for people coming in, being so well-meaning, while also unpacking the position their privileges would grant them.”
Despite his position of privilege, Logan’s character arc is a redemptive one, a point Goldhaber felt was important to make.
“Something that was really inherent in the DNA of the project was to just try to combat some of these narratives that I think kind of create a self-perpetuating toxic culture on the left, like the narrative that we can’t come together,” he said.
Goldhaber, who is the son of climate scientists, said he hopes the film adds vulnerability and complexity to their theoretical source material.
“I think that there’s something very provocative in that idea,” he said.
—Krysta Fauria, The Associated Press