Gavin Brivik Blows Up: Film composer and UMKC alumnus strikes back on How to Blow Up a Pipeline

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Gavin Brivik. // Courtesy photo

According to filmmaker Daniel Goldhaber, the ingredients to his ongoing collaboration with Overland Park-born composer Gavin Brivik are simple: “Two critical components to my process with Gavin are smoking weed and playing Super Smash Brothers,” Goldhaber says, then backs it up with a story that could be lifted straight out of one of his own films. 

Last summer the pair were finishing up the music for Goldhaber’s latest movie, the environmental thriller How to Blow Up a Pipeline. Los Angeles was in the middle of a scorching heat wave, and the air conditioning in Brivik’s apartment and studio had quit working.

“Gavin’s studio is totally airtight for sound purposes. There was no airflow, and it got to be 100 degrees in there during the day,” Goldhaber says. “We had to work in our underwear, dripping sweat onto the keyboard.”

The unbearable temperature and heavy air meant the pair could only work for 20 to 30 minutes at a time before taking a break to cool down. Enter the twin muses: marijuana and Mario. 

“We’d go out into the living room with a mobile AC unit, smoke weed and play Super Smash Brothers for an hour and then go back in,” Goldhaber says. “I think that’s how real art is made.”

Brivik laughs at that story, and confirms it’s true, though he describes what he likes about their work together more holistically. “Daniel has a way of challenging me to do my best work,” he says. “Sometimes you hear a composer’s work and see it’s fulfilling its purpose, and then wonder if it could be better. Daniel is always asking that.”

How to Blow Up a Pipeline will have its hometown premiere at 7 p.m. April 14 at the Glenwood Arts Theater in Overland Park [3707 W 95th St.], with Brivik in attendance to introduce and discuss the film. For him, it’s both an exciting homecoming and an opportunity to highlight the local musicians he worked with to create the film’s score: percussionist Morgan Greenwood and guitar player Adam Schlozman.

“I love the idea of coming back home to show this movie,” Brivik says. “I want to keep fostering Kansas City people into the industry.” 

A collective creative language

Brivik first worked with Goldhaber on CAM, a Netflix-distributed psychological horror film set in the world of camgirls and online streaming. At the time, Brivik was fresh out of a graduate program at NYU. 

“He’d never scored a feature before, and I’d never directed a composer before,” Goldhaber says. “We were both starting to understand our sensibilities.”

The experience taught Brivik a valuable lesson in effectively communicating with the filmmakers he works with. “I like to say a composer is like a therapist for the director. I’m deciphering their emotions and trying to read what they want between the lines,” he says. “CAM was the first film for both of us. It was a rocky process where we were struggling to find a mutual language, and it worked.”

Goldhaber says the close collaboration that resulted has become part of his cooperative on-set approach.

“I don’t want to be prescriptive about anything. There are compilations of ideas that come together into a story,” Goldhaber says. “I ask ‘what are the ideas of the movie and how are we going to express them?’ That guides the collaboration at every step from the score to the cinematography.” 

The film, inspired by Andreas Malm’s 2021 nonfiction book of the same name, follows environmental activists Xochitl (Ariela Barer) and Shawn (Marcus Scribner) as they assemble a crew to destroy an oil pipeline in the West Texas desert. Xochitl’s friend Theo (Sasha Lane) is dying of cancer after a childhood spent in the shadow of an oil refinery. Theo brings along her reluctant girlfriend Alisha (Jayme Lawson). Crust punk couple Logan (Lukas Gage) and Rowan (Kristine Froseth) are eco-terrorists looking for their next adventure. Michael (Forrest Goodluck) channels his anger over the oil industry’s destruction of his town into a growing talent for homemade explosives. Dwayne (Jake Weary), a farmer, seeks retribution after an oil company takes his family’s land.

Goldhaber says the film partly stemmed from co-writer Jordan Sjol’s background in academia—Sjol sent Malm’s book to Goldhaber and Barer, who also worked on the script—and Goldhaber’s own experience growing up with parents who worked in climate science.

“More than anything, what spurred the project was spending a year in lockdown and feeling extraordinarily powerless, and creating a movie that spoke to that,” Goldhaber says. “We wanted to ask a hard question: If we’re staring down the barrel of the end of life as we know it, what tactics are justifiable?”

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Still from How to Blow Up a Pipeline. // Courtesy photo

The sound of the desert, manipulated

As with CAM, the score for Pipeline is mainly electronic. That, combined with the film’s heist-inspired structure, led Brivik to take inspiration from synth legends Tangerine Dream. Specifically, Brivik says he was inspired by the band’s propulsive score for the 1981 Michael Mann movie Thief.

Thief was a huge influence on the film,” Brivik says. “I took into account some sounds, and one of the synthesizers we used is a more modern version of a synth Tangerine Dream used all the time. It was so fun to listen to them.”

Another source of inspiration, fittingly, was the film’s environment. During filming, Brivik and Morgan Greenwood visited the set for four days to gather sounds that Brivik later turned into sound clips that he could manipulate.

“We brought all these drumsticks and cello bows and chains and instruments, and we banged on pipes and pieces of rusty metal and old trucks and oil drums we found in the desert,” Brivik says. “Morgan has such a creative ear.”

“In academic electronic circles, it’s very much about getting samples of materials that suit the point you’re trying to make, actively interacting with those materials,” Greenwood says. “This was like a natural extension of that.”

The only real challenge, Greenwood notes, was abundance; there were many opportunities for experimentation, but a limited amount of time to explore.

“The challenge we ran into most was making sure we didn’t spend too much time with any one object or space,” Greenwood says. “There was one large rusty propane or oil drum that had been there for god knows how long, and we were doing all kinds of rolling on it, I was activating it with stones and friction. We found an abandoned vehicle from the 1940s and spent an hour and a half bowing different parts of it. It was easy to spend hours exploring stuff.”

After gathering sounds, Brivik got additional input from Adam Schlozman, who added, in Brivik’s words, “that classic self-indulgent 80s guitar solo sound” to the mix. Brivik recruited sound designer Paul Corley, who also worked on the Oneohtrix Point Never score for Uncut Gems and Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score for Arrival, to run the samples through various vintage and modular synthesizers, which Brivik then sampled and manipulated to create the final product.

“I would send Paul a sample of Morgan hitting an oil drum with a mallet and Paul would make it sound more interesting,” Brivik says. “He could add effects to make that hit more resonant or more distorted, and I’d incorporate that into the synth stuff that I was writing.”

Goldhaber says the finished product provided important guidance throughout the filmmaking process. “He turned those samples into instruments that became the backbone of his score. I played that for the cast as he created it,” Goldhaber says. “Gavin working through the edit, writing something that then inspired us, that was invaluable.”

Brivik says the experience solidified that electronic music, rather than orchestral scores—such as the one he created for the 2021 indie drama Wild Indian—is his preferred medium.

“It feels much closer to my own voice and intuitions,” he says. “Wild Indian was challenging in that it was writing in a style that wasn’t exactly my bread and butter,” Brivik says. “On Pipeline I was constantly creating and felt more free because I wasn’t saddled to a specific set of instruments.”

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Still from How to Blow Up a Pipeline. // Courtesy photo

An invigorating reception

How to Blow Up a Pipeline premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, where it was part of the festival’s competitive Platform program. That led to the film’s acquisition by Neon, the distributor behind arthouse and genre contenders like Triangle of Sadness, Infinity Pool, and Titane. It was Brivik’s first time attending the storied festival, usually considered the unofficial kickoff to awards season.

“Our premiere was sold out, and the film was sold out in screenings throughout the festival. I don’t think I expected that level of reaction to the film,” Brivik says. “I’d been working on it for so long and had seen an early cut of it, but I think you lose perspective on it after a while. It was the right audience, and they got what we were going for.”

Any initial nervousness going into the screening, Brivik says, quickly dissipated when he saw the audience react to the film in real-time.

“It was really invigorating,” he says. “In a theater with a sound system that’s cranked up, that subwoofer hits big. Daniel’s family was there, most of the cast were there, and we got a standing ovation. It was such cool energy.” 

Brivik’s return to Kansas City for the film’s premiere will include a master class at UMKC, where he’ll get to talk about the music business and film scoring on the same campus where he got his first taste of writing music for movies.

“In my second to last year, Paul Rudy at UMKC offered a seminar in film scoring because he was working on his first film score,” Brivik says. “Now they have a full-time film score professor, which is really cool. The program has grown so much since I was there.”

Brivik says he’s excited for the opportunity to reach out to other aspiring Kansas City musicians.

“If some of the students feel like this is their calling and they want to break into the industry, I’ll always offer them as much assistance as possible and connect them with people who are hiring out here,” Brivik says. “I think now that we’re entering a post-COVID world, things are starting to change with remote work being more accepted. When I first moved to LA in 2018, I worked on the Netflix series Living Undocumented, and they were insistent that the composer live here. Now I don’t think they’d care.”

Primarily, however, he’s eager to see how the movie will be received by a hometown audience.

“The movie’s done so many runs across Europe and the U.S., and every screening audience has had the same reaction,” Brivik says. “I’m curious to see how KC reacts.” 

Categories: Movies