Based on Jon Krakauer’s 2003 nonfiction novel of the same name, FX’s Under the Banner of Heaven tells the true story behind the heinous murders of Brenda Lafferty and her infant daughter, Erica, which took place in Utah in the early 1980s. The series, which was adapted and created by Dustin Lance Black, is all the things that a true-crime thriller should be: Compelling, intense, and packed with interesting characters. It’s also something that very few true-crime shows manage to be: Sensitive to the real-life people at the center of its story.
That becomes evident very quickly in Under the Banner of Heaven. The series’ premiere episode opens with its lead investigator, Detective Jeb Pyre (Andrew Garfield), making his way through the crime scene that will send him into a crisis of faith the likes of which he’s never encountered before. However, very little of the crime scene itself is actually shown. Instead, Jeb’s walkthrough plays out almost entirely on his face, with Garfield’s increasingly heartbroken, disturbed reactions telling you everything you need to know about what has been done to Brenda and Erica without actually showing you.
Below, Black talks with Digital Trends about choosing to open Under the Banner of Heaven after its central crime has occurred. The screenwriter also discusses how the show attempts to avoid falling into the same exploitative, gratuitous traps that so many true-crime thrillers have, and why Andrew Garfield is the perfect actor to play a man struggling with his faith.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: What drew you to this project? I’ll admit that I have a bit of a soft spot for detective shows.
Dustin Lance Black: I’m hoping you’re not alone in that. When I did the research around the investigation itself, which isn’t a huge part of the book, I felt it was a necessary part of a TV series. When I came to find out that it was this 10-day journey and that, for a lot of that time, they didn’t know who did it, they didn’t know why they did it, and they discovered there was a list that meant there were many more people in jeopardy. I thought, ‘Oh, boy, maybe I can finally fulfill my childhood wish of writing a true-crime thriller.”
The show’s structure is really interesting in that it opens with the central crime scene and then the first two installments, in particular, are essentially episode-long interrogations. What made you approach this story like that?
I think some of that is particular to Mormonism. I grew up in this faith, so I know it well, and one of the things I know is that the rank-and-file mainstream Mormons like Jeb Pyre, who’s been tasked with investigating this crime, would not know his own history. The Mormon history holds the clues for him to be able to solve this case, but that information is withheld from mainstream Mormons. So I needed to put him in a situation where he’s going to get schooled in the things he needs to get schooled in to get him to a place where he could even start to believe that it could have been anyone other than her husband who committed this crime. That was going to take a little bit of time.
By doing that, you’re also giving the audience the information they need about Mormonism.
Yeah, I mean, I’m asking the world to step into a faith that many do not understand and the things they think they know are probably not true. They’re probably the stereotypes. I need the audience to understand that there’s a distinction between mainstream Mormons, cultural Mormons, and fundamentalist Mormons. There’s a lot the audience is going to need to know if I was going to recreate the experience of the book, and the book demands an active reader, a reader capable of putting together history in order to solve a crime that took place in the 1980s. I wanted the viewer to have a similar experience. So I needed them well-armed with, at least, enough information that they could feel like they were trying to solve the crime as Jeb was trying to solve the crime.
In that way, I had a lot of first act work to do. I figured I could spend a lot of time trying to do it in this way or that. Or I could get world-class actors together in a triangulated scene, which means that the drama, hopefully, is more compelling than just one-on-one. There’s a triangulation here between Jeb, Allen (Billy Howle), and Bill (Gil Birmingham). I had to hope that I was a decent enough writer that I could make those scenes compelling, at least for the first two hours of the show, before we break free into a fast-moving more visceral investigation.
I feel like true crime is one of the most difficult genres to get right because when you don’t, it can feel exploitative. How did you avoid that when you were writing this? Was it even on your mind?
It was on my mind. I have a woman and her 15-month-old baby in this who have been brutally killed, and they were real people. This is inspired by a true story. These were real people. I became even more sensitive to that when I met Brenda’s family in Kimberly, Idaho, and I got to know them well. Sharon, Brenda’s sister, held me to account on many occasions to make sure I did not make this exploitative. This had to be something that furthered a necessary conversation.
The themes were important to me. You know, making sure that part of this show was fulfilling a mission that Brenda was on — to illuminate the problems with the patriarchy in this faith and the dangers of stepping back into fundamentalism. So making sure the themes of the show speak to tomorrow, that they feel pertinent and necessary, I think that helps it not feel exploitative.
You also don’t linger too much on violence, which I think helps you achieve that.
Well, it’s disgusting and it’s vile, but it’s true that there are men who love watching violence against women, and I did not want to write a show where men could look forward to that. So I got the crime scene out of the way in the first 10 minutes, and I do not show the crime in a way that anyone or any man can enjoy.
As you get to the finale, you’ll understand exactly what I mean. That was important to me. That was important to Brenda’s family, and frankly, it was important to Daisy Edgar-Jones, who took the role saying, “This cannot be exploitative.”
The opening scene does a really good job of doing that. You don’t show too much and essentially rely on Andrew’s reactions. What made you think of him for this role?
I’d met Andrew a couple of times before this, but I couldn’t say that I knew him. I knew what he was interested in, and I knew that faith was a part of that just by looking at the choices he’d made in his career. So I thought he was absolutely the right person to go to for this because I had a feeling he would understand the challenges of what he was stepping into and the potential dangers of what he was stepping into.
Once I met him, and we started having conversations about the scripts, the story, themes, and the culture of Mormonism, I knew he was the right person to play Jeb. He was showing great curiosity. He made it clear that he was not going to solely depend on my lived experience and my shared stories, nor was he going to solely depend on the research that I had done and others had done. He was going to get on a plane and go to Salt Lake City and meet with Mormon people and build his characterization based on that.
He wasn’t going to play into stereotypes.
Yeah, and that was meaningful to me in, perhaps, an unexpected way. When I was a little kid growing up in the Mormon church, I got called names and I’d have to explain that I didn’t have three moms, and that was confusing. I didn’t know why I was being treated terribly. But you learn quickly as a Mormon that people are going to view you through the lens of the stereotypes that are predominant around Mormonism. Andrew was not going to let that happen.
You know, as much as I want to hold the church to account, I also do not want to subject Mormon children to abuse based on stereotypes. There’s a line to walk because there’s good to be found in this church like any other. But there are also some deep problems within the church that are worthy of discussion.
New episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven premiere Thursdays exclusively on Hulu.