BRUCE R. MILLER
Keen to adapt Jon Krakauer’s book, “Under the Banner of Heaven,” producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer looked for ways to squeeze as much detail as possible into a two-hour film.
“We worked very hard on it for years and yet there was a creative frustration that kind of blocked our belief that we should really move forward as a movie,” says Howard. “We couldn’t tell the whole story.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black was following a similar path, trying to figure out how to tell a story of religious extremism. The response was to expand on Krakauer’s story and provide details over several nights. Enter: “Under the Sky Banner” on FX.
“I love stories, if they can be honest, that are cautionary tales about the dangers of extremism,” says Grazer. “It’s definitely all about that. This theme is transferable to so much going on in our world today on a larger scale.
To connect the dots, Black created a character who investigates the 1984 murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her infant daughter in a Salt Lake Valley suburb. Played by Andrew Garfield, he is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which has its own questions about religions.
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“I grew up in that faith and at least half of my family is still very active in that faith,” Black says. “Particularly in very difficult times, we see people go to the extremes – to the fundamentals. And, in this case, it was this family that faced a very difficult time in Utah. to make distinctions between modern and contemporary Mormons and fundamentalist Mormons.
Like Black, Garfield was intrigued by matters of faith and doubt. “That’s where I think we start to really get into what we’re doing here.”
To ensure that church officials would not question the accuracy of the limited run, Black spoke to them and asked for suggestions. He also got cast members to meet Mormons so they wouldn’t lean into stereotypes or distinguish between mainstream Mormonism and fundamental Mormonism.
“My family members who are very traditional and would rather not look to the past, I’m sure, won’t be happy,” he says of the show. “But if the truth sets you free and this is a church that claims to be ever-changing, why are we afraid of the truth? Why are you afraid to take a closer look? And when will the church change? That’s the question.
Garfield’s character reflects this concern. “It’s ultimately about finding the truth in the face of the potential loss of one’s family, one’s social structure, one’s life,” he says.
Black says the world is grappling with changes that suggest “we are moving backwards. There are clearly global conflicts that are of deep concern. And in times like these, people often turn to God. Unfortunately, when they go back to the ground rules, which for the most part are incredibly outdated, we are in trouble and you see a turn towards violence and misogyny. We are currently in one of those periods where there is the danger that people will revert to political, legal, historical and religious fundamentalism. This is a cautionary tale of how it happens.
“Under Heaven’s Banner” also delves into the history of the Mormon faith to explain what prompted Lafferty’s murder and why those involved felt vindicated.
Wyatt Russell, who plays Dan Lafferty, one of the brothers convicted of murder, says he met Fundamentalist Mormons while on vacation. “It looked like they were from the 1800s,” he says. “There was this dichotomy between the world we live in and the world they still live in.
“I couldn’t help but wonder if they were born in a different place, how would they be? They’re trapped in this kind of scenario where the outside world is something inaccessible.”
Through the research he and the other actors did, Russell felt a sense of sadness because Lafferty was born into the situation “and drove this rabbit hole in a way that only fundamentalist and extremist views can somehow drive you down”.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” premieres April 28 on FX.