With his feature debut Cam, Daniel Goldhaber considered the state of online sex work within an entertaining horror film that follows a classic doubling narrative. His sophomore effort, How to Blow Up a Pipeline, scales up the ambition but similarly explores complex themes, this time within the framework of a tense heist narrative. An ensemble piece, Pipeline follows an idealistic group of young activists plotting an eco-terrorism attack in rural Texas. This group of eight includes co-writer Ariela Barer, Lukas Gage, Kristine Froseth, and Sasha Lane. Unwilling to wait for painfully-slow systematic change, they feel forced (and therefore justified) to take this drastic action, even with the risk of hefty prison sentences should they be caught.
Art frequently mirrors the environment in which it was created and How to Blow Up a Pipeline carries the energy of the project’s very fast, 19-month conception-to-screen timeline, leading to its premiere last fall at the Toronto International Film Festival. Cam editor Daniel Garber returns and cuts everything together for maximum tenseness, utilizing a structure in which the documentary-like bomb construction, transportation, and detonation sequences are intercut with flashbacks for each character. How to Blow Up a Pipeline is a unique mix of urgent independent cinema that carries elements of studio slickness.
Goldhaber took a break from pre-production on his next project, a remake of the cult classic faux-snuff film Faces of Death––which he wrote with his Cam co-writer Isa Mazzei––to chat about How to Blow Up a Pipeline.
The Film Stage: Take me into your headspace during development and then pre-production, where everything is happening so quickly. How do you keep yourself mentally in a space where you’re not going “Wow, if one thing doesn’t happen, this could all fall apart. But it is happening”?
Daniel Goldhaber: It was like a 19-month panic attack. But making the movie for everybody involved was an act of sheer willpower. I don’t think you get a fusion of subject matter, content, and form like this very often. Once we had that lightning in a bottle we knew that we could run with it. One of the other things that lit a fire under our asses was the fact that climate change could not be more urgent. We’re looking at a timetable of months, not years or decades, where significant, serious action needs to be taken, and it’s not being taken. That was something else that really united all of us in this: a feeling that there isn’t time, in at least trying to move the cultural needle on this question of what kind of tactics are going to be necessary to fight climate change. The approach that we all had was there simply was not another option but to make this movie on this timetable. TIFF 2022 was where we needed to premiere the film, and we just did what needed to be done to make that happen.
I’m curious about the heist elements. Did you write it linearly and then solve problems that the group in the story ran into in real time? Or did you outline how their plot might go off without a hitch and then surgically pinpoint areas where things could go wrong along the way? What was your writing process?
We all wrote the script collaboratively. Because we were writing so quickly we just delegated who would write the first draft of what. Once we had drafts we would all work over it together. For me, a lot of what I was doing was taking first drafts that might have been written by Jordan [Sjol] or Ariela and putting it together––Jordan, who was doing a lot of the initial first-drafting of the bomb making and some of the stuff out in the field. He’s an academic, he’s a research guy. He took the lead on the bomb-making stuff. So he would do the first drafts of that, and then we would all get together and refine it as a team. And, similarly, Ariela built the ensemble and that opening sequence of everyone abandoning their lives. That was her first draft. That was something that really set the tone and the rhythm of the movie. In a lot of ways, I was taking those and laying them into a script and doing a first pass after they’d finished something. Ultimately, the best way to think about it and view it is that it was a writing process that happened as a collective.
What I will say about the actual heist: you kinda have this real-time stuff that starts when they show up at the house and goes to when they split up at the end. That was all fairly structured from the beginning. We had that all laid out in an outline form, and originally there was only going to be one big flashback. We found, writing that, there is all this information that we kept trying to lay into the real-time material. It felt like they would’ve already had this conversation three months earlier. It was all feeling really forced in. And that’s when we realized: “OK, we’re going to need multiple flashbacks. Well, how do we get multiple flashbacks? Ah, we’ll riff on Reservoir Dogs. We’ll engage in this novel flashback structure.” That was something that came a little later in the process. Then we found the places and ways to weave those flashbacks in after the initial heist had been outlined. We had written 40 pages under the first version and then we started over again with the new structure.
Suspension of disbelief is important for any movie, especially heist movies, and this movie toes that line really well. The bomb-making has more documentary-like elements and feels real, even if––like me––you don’t know anything about bomb-making. And then there are scenes that are more movielike, more overtly entertaining, one could maybe even say ridiculous in a fun way. What was that process like––feeling out what’s too far, what’s appropriate, when to push those movie elements?
I’m curious which scenes did you feel were the most “movie”?
Primarily with the Portland characters, where they’re having sex out in the field before their task, and then the gunshot scene. With those scenes it’s like, “This is a movie.”
I think a lot of stuff in the movie is very “movie.” Even the bomb-making montage: all of the steps they’re going through to make the bombs are exactingly accurate and specific. But would the bomb-making actually happen in something that feels like it’s the style of 1980s heist film montage? Probably not. The approach here was that we wanted everything that happens to feel extremely realistic and be something that’s rooted in realism. We wanted the way that we shot it and that it looks on film to feel very grounded and realistic. But also, the entire time, wanting it to be a capital-M Movie. And that, to us, was part of the subversion and provocation of the project was that this is a “movie” version of this story. This is a Hollywood version of this subject matter.
We were always looking for opportunities to make it a “movie” while also always trying to ground it in realism. For what it’s worth, I showed the movie to one activist friend recently who told me that they had an experience at an “action” where two of the people on their team hooked up during it. So it’s also one of those things where I do believe that a lot of these elements all have a place in reality––it’s just the way they all come together that make it what it is.
This is shot on 16mm, and you’ve said your DP, Tehillah De Castro, wanted to make it feel like 35mm, which I think it does. How did you achieve that? I’m also interested in the camera movement and the Steadicam sequences. There are a lot of ’70s-style punch-ins and zooms that are used in cool ways.
Shooting on film was necessary to get the right look and feel and vibe of the movie. I can’t speak to what Tehillah does to make it look so good. That would be a question for her. I’m not much of a camera or film junkie. A key part of that process is our colorist, Dante Pascanelli, who really spent time making this thing look great. That’s not to say that the raw image wasn’t amazing. She was shooting knowing what Dante would do with the image, which was really valuable. In terms of the camera moves––again, coming back to our desire for the movie to feel real––we wanted it to feel very tangible, like this was happening.
But we also didn’t want to fall into that trap that a lot of documentary-esque films and indie films fall into, which is essentially relying on handheld as a shortcut to naturalism, which to me is also something that makes the movie feel a little less “Movie.” We were using Steadicam at times––not even quite like handheld, but as a way to cover scenes in a naturalist way that still felt elevated and exciting. Something else that we were really cautious of is that we didn’t want to editorialize too much. We never wanted to tilt the scales so you could feel the presence of the capital-M filmmaking. The other thing that the Steadicam afforded us was the ability to be very observational, to almost put the audience in a place where they were participating in the action.
As for the zooms: I just love zooms.
I was talking to our mutual friend, Jason Lester, recently about the American independent cinema landscape. What does it look like post-mumblecore? I’m paraphrasing, but his take was that genre would be the future (not that it hasn’t been around). I’m curious about your broad opinions on genre as a whole. You’ve now made two very different films that exist in genre spaces: horror and thriller.
First, shout out to Jason. When I was previously saying that we’d written 40 pages and then realized that it was bad, that was partially because we wrote 40 pages and then showed them to Jason, and Jason was like, “This is bad, and you guys need to rethink how you’re approaching this script.” He was actually a core part of the writing process and the editing process, and he has a story editor credit on the movie. Big Jason fan.
I actually kind of take issue with that, only because I think that genre has been a part of film and filmmaking since the very, very beginning of filmmaking. I actually almost credit the current resurgence we have to a different thing, which is that: one of the reasons that horror has been evergreen is because horror is the only genre that has not been as decimated by the shifts in film distribution and filmmaking practices as other genres. It has the most loyal fanbase––a fanbase that has been most loyally and consistently catered to by Hollywood. It’s the only fanbase that doesn’t feel like a trust has been broken by Hollywood in the same capacity as other fanbases.
I think that the future of independent cinema is, personally, a future that is unfortunately not necessarily one that is financially sustainable, but rather one that begins to shift the model away from a market-based model to a patronage-based model. I don’t know where else it goes unless you’re making micro-budget / no-budget film, which is also an avenue that I think it is heading in. And obviously I hope that I am wrong, and I hope that there are avenues and forms of distribution that open up that could create something like the indie film boom of the ’90s. But I do think that the nature of how and why films are financed is changing and is going to continue to dramatically change.
But that’s ultimately something that’s driven by a combination of market forces and, unfortunately, a lot of this notion of independent cinema is not really very independent. You have the big agencies and the big financiers. There is so much institutional money that exists in independent cinema––the least of which is Sundance, which is a giant corporate event masquerading as an independent film marketplace. It’s not. It’s an industry event. It has become a kind of feeder into the Hollywood studio system, and that’s not really what the independent spirit is. The future of independent cinema is ultimately going to have to be greater independence because this kind of faux-independence, corporate culture that currently exists is financially and culturally unsustainable. That’s a really long-winded answer.
No, it’s great. If you look at the movies up for the Independent Spirit Awards each year, it’s largely just a rehash of the Oscars nominees. It’s like, “I don’t think this is what it was before, or what it was originally intended for…”
Are you able to say anything about Faces of Death?
I am! I’m making it. It stars Barbie Ferreira and Dacre Montgomery. We’re doing it for Legendary––basically everything that is in the press release. And I’m very excited about it. I’m currently in our production office not prepping it, as we speak, because I’m doing press for How to Blow Up a Pipeline instead. But it shoots soon!
I’m glad I could help you procrastinate on your next film by talking to me about this one.
I made a crack earlier today––if How to Blow Up a Pipeline is Soderbergh, this one is Fassbinder. So I’m very excited for it. It’s shaping up to be something that’s completely bananas. And I can’t wait for people to see it.
How to Blow Up a Pipeline opens in theaters on Friday.