In early 2021, literature Ph.D. candidate Jordan Sjol and two collaborators began writing a film adaptation of the book How to Blow Up A Pipeline. Their screenplay followed a group of young environmental activists determined to do exactly what the title of the book and movie said.
Except, the book didn’t actually tell you how to blow up a pipeline. That was something Sjol, his collaborators, and their characters would have to figure out.
What they came up with was Ocean’s 11 infused with radical climate activism. The movie made a splash at the Toronto International Film Festival last month and was soon acquired by NEON, an independent distributor known for critically acclaimed films such as I, Tonya and Parasite.
“Our sales agents said they had never seen a movie get made and sold this fast,” Sjol said. “It was 19 months from when we said we want to do this to when we premiered at TIFF.”
“A Dangerous Idea and a Common-Sensical One”
Not long before he started his Ph.D. in 2016, Sjol met director Daniel Goldhaber in New York through a mutual friend. They hit it off, and Sjol ended up as the story editor for the screenplay for Goldhaber’s first film, CAM.
In early 2021, Sjol was in Los Angeles, working on another film project with Goldhaber and actress Ariela Barer. While they were hanging out, Sjol introduced his collaborators to the book he was reading at the time, How to Blow Up A Pipeline by Swedish academic Andreas Malm.
Despite its provocative title, Malm’s book isn’t a how-to guide or a fictional thriller, but an academic argument making the case that sabotage is a legitimate form of climate activism.
“It’s about using property destruction as one of the tactics of the environmental movement,” Sjol said. “It feels like both a dangerous idea and a common-sensical one. Reading the book is exciting because this feels like something everybody is dancing around, but the book comes out and says it. It’s not hedging. It considers consequences and counterarguments, but at the end of the day, it knows exactly what it thinks.”
Sjol had always wanted to turn an academic treatise into a narrative film. Goldhaber and Barer were inspired to try that with Malm’s book. In order to capture Malm’s moral certainty in his central thesis, they turned to the heist film genre.
“In a heist film, when the characters are robbing a bank, you don’t spend a lot of time wondering is it ethical or not to rob a bank,” Sjol said. “You know the characters want to rob the bank. Then you follow them, they rob the bank, and that’s it.”
At the same time, Sjol said, the film tries to take a more open approach with opposing viewpoints than the book does.
“There are characters having arguments who use similar evidence to what Andreas uses,” he said. “One of the characters has reservations, and she’s sort of the voice of the counterarguments that make it into the book.
“It’s about getting the ideas in there without it being a manifesto. We ultimately wanted to make something that was not propaganda, but that was more exploratory, willing to take in multiple viewpoints and contain multiple possible interpretations.”
Beyond capturing the ideas of Malm’s book, the filmmakers also had to work out how one actually goes about blowing up a pipeline, at least on screen.
That part fell to Sjol. He worked with a technical consultant, a “huge bomb nerd,” as Sjol put it, to ensure that the explosive shown in the film actually looked like the real thing.
Sjol also served as executive producer on the shoot, which was done primarily in freezing, dusty New Mexico in late fall and early winter 2021. He also produced a secondary shoot in North Dakota.
From conception to completion, the film took just 19 months. Its cast included Barer, Kristine Froseth, Lukas Gage, Forrest Goodluck, Sasha Lane, Jayme Lawson, Marcus Scribner, Jake Weary, Irene Bedard, and Olive Jane Lorraine.
On September 10, 2022, the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, which Sjol called an “absolutely overwhelming” experience.
“TIFF is a great festival, because it’s industry people and it’s people who just like the movies,” Sjol said. “So after we premiered, we were talking to many people in film, but we were also talking to people who just like movies.”
How to Blow Up A Pipeline received a slot in the Platform section, the only juried section at the festival. Sjol said that section features only 10 films a year, and typically only one American entry, so just being in Platform was an accomplishment.
“They also gave us a great premiere slot,” he said. “It was Saturday night at the best venue, and in a theater of 540 seats. We had three public screens while we were there, and all of them sold out.”
Three days after it premiered, the film was acquired by NEON, a distributor that Sjol says is an ideal partner for getting the movie onto screens across the country.
Now, they are preparing for a run of film festivals this fall in Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver, Europe, South America, and India, followed by potentially more screenings in the spring and likely a release date in 2023.
“NEON are champions of independent cinema, and they still put movies like this on screens,” Sjol said. “With this movie in particular, we want the theater to be a place where people can go and watch the movie together and talk about it. Those conversations are a lot of what we are interested in.”