The setting of Hulu’s new true-crime series, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” depicting a brutal in-the-name-of-God killings in Utah’s Mormon community, is a world familiar to creator Dustin Lance Black.
Black, an Oscar-winning screenwriter for the 2008 Harvey Milk biopic “Milk,” narrated the 2010 documentary “8: The Mormon Proposition,” and was a writer and producer of HBO’s 2006-11 drama “Big Love,” centered on a Mormon polygamist family living in Utah.
“There’s really no beating that lived experience,” says Black, adding his identity as gay and a former member of the Mormon church inspires many of his projects.
His latest, “Under the Banner of Heaven” (first two episodes now streaming; then weekly on Thursdays), follows a detective, Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), as he investigates the real-life 1984 double murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, in American Fork, Utah, 30 minutes from Salt Lake City.
They were killed by Brenda’s extremist brothers-in-law, Ron and Dan Lafferty (Sam Worthington and Wyatt Russell), who disapproved of Brenda’s refusal to play the part of a subservient wife. The series is inspired by Jon Krakauer’s 2003 best-seller. .
Ron claimed God directed him to kill Brenda and Erica because of Brenda’s objections to his polygamist beliefs.
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Through flashbacks, viewers get to know the ambitious and outspoken Brenda, who dreamed of working as a news anchor and having a family. As he investigates the case, Pyre, a faithful but more modern Mormon, begins to question his religion as he learns more about its origins.
Brenda’s husband, Allen Lafferty (Billy Howle), challenges Pyre’s beliefs, telling him in the premiere, “This faith, our faith, breeds dangerous men.”
“The journey that Jeb goes on is a journey of expansion, coming from a very narrow worldview into a psyche, cracking open and realizing that he’s been living in a form of ignorance and brainwashing for all of his life,” says Garfield, 38. “He was born into this religion, basically.”
The show asks, “What happens when the psyche starts to get cracked open? And how do you reconcile everything in your life and can continue to live in a way that feels authentic to you, in just simply pursuing the truth of this case,” he says.
Garfield reacted strongly to Krakauer’s book.
“When it first came out, I was fascinated by its themes and horrified by how men can get to the place of feeling justified in doing such horrendous, horrific violent acts and name it God’s plan, justify it by saying it’s for love and it’s for God,” Garfield says.
Black, 47, describes Krakauer’s book as “a lightning strike. It was not only the answers to so many of the questions I had been asking, but answers to questions I’d never asked.”
Black left the church as a teenager. He “really loved” his Mormon upbringing, but disagreed with how the church treated his mom, who’d become paralyzed after contracting polio as a child.
“She seemed incredibly capable to me,” he says. “And it was baffling why the Mormon Church was treating her as if she was less than the men in the church, less capable.”
After his biological father vanished and married his first cousin, the church “assigned” his mother a husband “seen as equally unmarriable as a paralyzed woman was considered, and we soon found out why,” Black says.
“He was incredibly violent to me, to my mother. Though the Mormon Church had been there for us in lifesaving ways, at this moment the Mormon Church failed to allow us to go to the authorities to make this violence stop, to protect the home, and it was clear to my mother that if we didn’t leave soon, our lives could be in danger.”
Black says he often wondered whether Mormonism is “‘a truly misogynist religion. And the answer you get, when you look into the history, is it is. It’s not alone in that designation, but one of the answers I get from all of that research into not just Mormonism, but other religions, is I start to go listen, “(Does) a misogynist God deserve my prayers?’ And my answer is no. My answer is a misogynist God is probably one created by men, not a Creator themselves.”
He admires Brenda for “being brave enough and curious enough to ask those questions.”
Edgar-Jones, 23, was drawn to the limited series because of its portrayal of Brenda as a full person.
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“I have watched a lot of true-crime documentaries and series and read a lot of true crime books,” she says. “So often, the thing that I find odd is that in those sorts of depictions of the story, the victim becomes just the victim. That person’s life is defined by their death.” Here, “We really get to see her life and see how enigmatic she was and how much she gifted the other characters she interacts with.”
Garfield cites “a yearning to serve that I share with Jeb Pyre.”
But the actor says he’s “much more emotionally expressive” than his character. “I’m a theater kid, and playing a Mormon detective in the 80s, a much more stoic, sensitive and empathic person but someone who isn’t as well-versed in expressing his emotional inner life,” he says. “So that was a really interesting challenge for me, actually, was trying to be as contained as possible and to say as much with as little as possible.”
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Black challenged himself to write an accurate depiction of Dan, avoiding the “traditions and stereotypes and tropes of what a sociopath is, what a murderer is.” He spent time at Utah State Prison, where Ron died in 2019 at 78 of natural causes.
“I wanted to get to know the real man,” he says, “because if this was going to be instructive in any way, I needed people to know that this is not unique to Dan Lafferty, that some men will take great strides back in time towards fundamentalist texts when they’re feeling unempowered and would like to feel empowered again, to have more privilege again, and more power again.
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“The Lafferty brothers adopted the extremism of their forefathers word for word. Sitting with Dan Lafferty in prison, he challenged me the way he challenges most who interview him, which is, ‘Name a rule that I broke.’ And when you’re looking back at these texts that he decided to follow, tough to make the case that he broke rules.”
Black feels strongly that the events depicted in his limited series could happen today.
“We, as human beings, have had a pretty rough go of it in the past many years, with the pandemic, with the isolation that that’s caused,” he says. ‘We’re on the brink of a war that just a few years ago seemed unimaginable in terms of its threat level. This is a scary time. People feel like they have less, that their lives are less happy. This is the time when human beings seem to instinctively turn back towards fundamentalist texts. That’s the cautionary tale of this show. Fundamentalism is not the answer, people.”
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