'How to Blow Up a Pipeline' Filmmakers Hope You Take Their Advice

Alongside author Andreas Malm, the foursome behind the new heist film discuss the limits of art and the demands of the moment

Corey Atad

“Great book. Doesn’t teach you how to do it, though.” That line was common following the publication of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, by Swedish academic Andreas Malm, which many have accurately pointed out might better have been called “Why to Blow up a Pipeline” — salesmanship notwithstanding. Malm’s manifesto on the need for the climate movement to embrace tactics of violent property destruction generated plenty of conversation in and out of the movement, including lightly contentious appearances on the “New Yorker Radio Hour” with David Remnick. The line also appears in the new film inspired by the book, also titled How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which premiered to rapturous praise and a major distribution deal at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. A young activist approaches another curious person leafing through Malm’s book in a bookstore. He’s got an idea for making the “How” in the title very, very real.

Sitting down with Malm and the filmmaking foursome behind the movie — director Daniel Goldhaber, actress and co-writer Ariela Barer, co-writer Jordan Sjol and editor Daniel Garber — the author admitted, “It’s not like you write a book like this, and you count on it to be adapted into a film.” The movie they’ve made — something of a companion to the book rather than literal adaptation — transforms Malm’s advocacy for property destruction into a tense and propulsive heist thriller. One where the plan is, as the title states, blowing up a pipeline in West Texas.

Barer herself stars in the film as Xochitl, a militant young activist tired of the complacency of the movement in the face of increasing climate catastrophe, who teams up with Shawn (Marcus Scribner) to plot their direct action. They assemble a team, including Xochitl’s friend Theo (Sasha Lane), budding Indigenous bomb-maker Michael (Forrest Goodluck), punk activist dilettantes Rowan (Kristine Froseth) and Logan (Lukas Gage), country boy Dwayne (Jake Weary) and Theo’s girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson). Together, the eight would-be assailants, each motivated by their own personal relationship to the effects of the fossil fuel industry and climate crisis, set out to throw a massive, spectacular wrench into America’s seemingly unending oil supply.

Despite being the inspiration for the movie, Malm said, “I felt like I don't really deserve the credit of being based on my book.” But the filmmakers insisted. They first read the book in February 2021, shortly after publication, and were immediately taken with the ideas on offer: the author’s critique of the climate movement’s dogmatic and often ahistorical mantra of non-violence, the potential efficacy of destructive tactics, the need for an escalation after decades of movement with little to show for it other than a canceled pipeline project here and there while fossil fuel production reaches ever higher heights. Sensing a gap between Malm’s theoretical advocacy and actual direct action by the movement, Goldhaber, Barer and Sjol — artists that they are — came up with the idea to stage a fictional explosion, one that could effectively and viscerally demonstrate the arguments of the book.

“I was in a bad place,” Goldhaber said of his frame of mind at the time he picked up Malm’s book. The feeling was shared among his collaborators. “I had my first panic attack about climate change at 9,” Barer told me, adding of her generation, “Everyone I know, just kind of grew up with this sense of impending doom.” She explained she saw a space to make an impact through art. “Not a lot of movies about revolution in the climate movement exist at all,” she pointed out. “Definitely not about young people resisting climate destruction.” The notion of turning Malm’s provocative piece of writing into a “crazy cool heist film,” as Goldhaber described it, soon emerged as the best path forward to gain a wide audience for their message. In keeping with the film, they hatched a plan of attack. They took the idea to the Cannes Film Festival in 2021 with a well-rehearsed pitch that didn’t seem like a pitch at all, talking up any financier who would listen to them at a party, on the street, anywhere really, leading with the book and its ideas before making the case for their cinematic project. It worked, and the film premiered just 19 months after they’d first picked up the book.

Despite that desire to prompt real world change, the filmmakers are well aware of the limits of art.

Malm happily admits his book is a work of propaganda. “It doesn’t have any pretensions to neutrality,” he said with a smile. The film, meanwhile, is walking a tighter rope, no doubt in part due to the realities of movie financing and distribution, but also as a function of the human face its creators have tried to place on both the climate crisis itself and the direct action depicted. In one notable scene, Dwayne has his co-conspirators over at his house to plan out the bombing, his wife looking exhausted, supportive of their efforts but wary of the fallout and being left alone with their child while her husband galavants in the desert. Garber sees moments like these in the film as exemplary of the “challenge and conflict and humanity that just naturally comes when you bring this stuff into the real world,” describing the contradiction inherent in engaging in direct action while balancing “overlapping forces and scales of interpersonal relationships, and larger social and political relationships.” The question at the heart of it all, he said, is “how do you square all of those competing concerns within your own limited scope of action?”

Those contradictions and competing concerns extend to every facet of taking an action as drastic as blowing up a pipeline. There isn’t much overt theoretical dialogue in the film — Goldhaber said about 20 minutes of that ended up on the cutting room floor — but what’s there, often drawn directly from the book, is real, complicated, and meaningful to the characters. “If you want to help people, help people,” Alisha says at one point in the film, resisting the idea of Theo, recently diagnosed with cancer, joining the team. Discussions range from the place of the climate movement in relation to historical corollaries like the Civil Rights Movement, to the immediate negative consequences of their action to halt oil production. “These actions will likely not affect the people in power immediately, the way we would hope and the burden of it will fall on to people that are undeserving of that,” Barer explained. That questioning extended even into the making of the film itself. “Why make a movie about this? Who am I to put this out there? I love the idea of making propaganda,” Barer said, “But who are we to do that at all? How dare we? But also, if we don’t, who will?”

Despite that desire to prompt real world change, the filmmakers are well aware of the limits of art. Goldhaber recalled his first real jobs in film, working on climate documentaries in the late-’00s, and that impotent feeling is expressed in a scene where a condescending documentarian comes to interview Dwayne and his wife about their struggles against the oil industry and eminent domain. “Storytelling is not enough,” Goldhaber said, also speaking warily of the personal incentives involved for artists. “You make climate change documentaries, but you own these five cars?”

Malm sees a meaningful difference between those feeble awareness films, and the vitality of How to Blow Up a Pipeline, predicting it will be a “game changer” for the movement, dramatizing the real issues and conversations currently taking place among activists. The author shared that his favorite moment in the film is when the team arrives at a section of exposed pipeline, one of two spots they plan to detonate their massive explosives. Xochitl, moved by the sight, puts her hand against the steel pipe, feeling the gallons of oil rushing and rumbling through. “The whole focus of the action is on this material thing, this material infrastructure,” Malm said, commenting on how fossil fuel infrastructure has become a baked-in, almost natural-seeming part of our modern industrial landscape. “For the first time, here, you have a film that in a way, de-familiarizes this infrastructure and de-naturalizes it.” It’s a quality the film shares with Todd Haynes’ 2019 true-life drama Dark Waters whose tour-de-force sequence of Mark Ruffalo’s character explaining the terrifying effects of PFOAs in Teflon led several people I know to throw out their nonstick pans the moment they got home.

In the case of Pipeline, the notion that average people can actually exert control over such massive and apparently intractable infrastructure is radical in its own way. Sjol, describing a trip to the Houston area, said, “Seeing the sort of massiveness and ubiquity and accessibility of these infrastructural systems is important.” Eschewing the need for an Andy Garcia to George Clooney’s Danny Ocean, the film makes fossil fuel infrastructure into its true antagonist, even above any particular oil company CEO or political hack. “It's just a pipe,” Goldhaber said. “And yet we know, you know, what this pipe does.”

If infrastructure is the villain, the collective is the hero. Though directed by Goldhaber, he shares the authorial “film by” credit with Barer, Sjol, and Garber, an important reflection and meta-textual embrace of the film’s themes. In the film itself, the members of the group are not all friends. They butt heads at points, appear stand-offish with each other, make mistakes that jeopardize the mission, but through it all they keep their eyes on the prize. “That was actually really important to us throughout the writing process. To make a movie about leftist politics where the group didn't collapse in on itself in the process, or face some horrible consequences for their action,” Barer said. More pointedly, Sjol adds, “You can agree on what to do without agreeing on everything. We see something commonly on the left, in which tiny differences lead to an inability to get together.”

Central to the depiction of the group’s dynamic are their diverse individual identities, with race, ethnicity, cultural background, and personal experiences directly informing their need to take action, but as Malm said, “In the moment of the collective action, that just kind of evaporates.” As such, it was also a deliberate choice not to make any particular character the central figure of the drama. “We wanted to avoid the superhero,” Barer said. Instead, the film embodies the perspectives of its characters and makes their actions comprehensible on a human level, which may make it a more subtly provocative work than even Malm’s overt advocacy. “I think what scares people is that they can empathize with it,” Goldhaber suggested

What effect the film of How to Blow Up a Pipeline actually has is still very much up in the air. As Malm noted, sabotage is increasingly becoming a tactic of activists in the global north, with a recent coordinated SUV tire deflation action taking place across nine countries simultaneously. Still, there’s a big gap between deflating tires and exploding infrastructure. Beyond being an expertly crafted, suspenseful, and hugely entertaining thriller, there’s a space the film might occupy in the ongoing discourse about where next to take climate action. Goldhaber likened the current crisis and consumption of fossil fuels to an addiction, where recovery often comes as a result of hitting rock bottom, but it doesn’t have to be that way. “Sometimes when you see somebody who is spiraling towards rock bottom,” Goldhaber said, “you stage an intervention.”

Corey Atad is a writer based in Toronto. His work has appeared at Esquire, Hazlitt and The Baffler and he has an unhealthy obsession with Air Bud.