With its exploration of how the principles of an American religion founded in 1830 informed a gruesome double murder 154 years later, Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith” became a New York Times bestseller in 2003. It also became a thorn in the side of the Mormon Church, where it has festered ever since: The book remains the top seller in Sociology and Religion on Amazon. That discomfort will become more acute with the April 28 premiere of FX limited series on Hulu, “Under the Banner of Heaven.”
The nonfiction book explores Joseph Smith founding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with its revelations of polygamy, justifications of violence, and capacity to foster would-be prophets. Even as the church officially abandoned polygamy, disenchanted Mormons created a modern-day Fundamentalist movement with multiple breakaway factions that hew to their (often conflicting) interpretations of Smith’s original teachings. (According to the church, which is now headquartered in Salt Lake City and has nearly 17 million members, “There is no such thing as a ‘fundamentalist’ Mormon… The Church discontinued polygamy more than a century ago. No members of the Church today can enter into polygamy without being excommunicated.”)
The book also unpacks the tragedy of the Lafferty family, who were known in Provo, Utah as upstanding members of the Mormon faith. In 1984, Brenda Lafferty and her toddler daughter Erica were brutally murdered by members of the Lafferty family who believed their actions were cosigned by a direct revelation from God.
For Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning writer of “Milk” and a lapsed Mormon, bringing this story to the screen required more than a decade of work and a lot of false starts. Black’s perspective of the faith won over Krakauer, as did the support of Ron Howard and Brian Grazer at Imagine. However, repeated attempts to adapt “Under the Banner of Heaven” into a feature screenplay revealed that the complex story was not designed to make a good movie. “I honestly was failing,” Black said.
That changed when FX picked up the option to adapt the book as a seven-episode limited series, with chairman John Landgraf championing the project and all its complexities. What follows is a brief oral history with the principals — showrunner Black, Krakauer, executive producers Howard and Grazer, and its star, Andrew Garfield — in which they examine their own motivations in creating this dramatization of a tragedy that the Mormon Church would very much like to forget. (Representatives for The Church of Latter-Day Saints didn’t respond to multiple requests for this story.)
Quotes may have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity, and sometimes reordered to create a cohesive narrative. While the Lafferty murder has been public record for nearly 40 years, this oral history contains spoilers for the ending of the “Under the Banner of Heaven” series.
“When God commands you to do something…”
JON KRAKAUER: Originally, this book was going to be an examination of faith and doubt. Having grown up with Mormons, I knew a brilliant physicist and some other brilliant Mormon scientists and I couldn’t understand how they could reconcile quantum theory and modern science with the fact that Mormons believe the Old Testament and that the Earth was 6,000 years old and created in six days. When you can’t reconcile something that is church doctrine, the bishops, the president, your fellow Mormons, tell you to “put it on the shelf.” This is how these scientists sort of juggle their belief in science and their absolute devotion to Mormon doctrines. They do believe they’re going to be a God on their own planet in the afterlife and be reunited with all their family for generations.
(AP Photo/Stuart W. Johnson, pool)
You know the story of Mark Hoffman, the guy who forged all these documents? There was a pretty good Netflix thing about him. He pretended to be a devout Mormon, when really he was an apostate and an atheist and he committed these murders to cover up his forgeries. I thought he’d be good to interview, so I wrote him in prison. Didn’t hear anything for a long time. Then I got a letter back from the prison but on the return, it wasn’t from Mark Hoffman. It was from someone named Dan Lafferty. And Dan said, “Mark’s my cellmate. He’ll never talk to you, he doesn’t talk to any press, but you should talk to me. I’m the most devout person you’ll ever meet.”
I had this interview with Dan Lafferty and it was maybe the creepiest experience of my life. It was utterly surreal… He was so cooperative and utterly sincere and had absolutely no remorse. He said, “When God commands you to do something, he needed me to do it and I was hesitant to do it, but I believed. I thought about it and I waited for this impression from the Lord and it was clear.” He told me just chilling, sickening details. He was unabashed with everything. In his trial he escaped the death penalty and he said, “I’m surprised. I thought they should have sent to me to death, and I would have accepted it.”
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I grew up as a faithful member of the church, of being a Mormon kid in a very devout family. You’re raised in the church to doubt your doubts, put your questions on a shelf. I was a very curious kid, so I kept tripping over those rules, asking questions when things didn’t quite make sense.
The Mormon church had been there for us in big ways. I was raised by a paralyzed single mother and the church supported us financially so the state wouldn’t come in and I wouldn’t potentially be separated from my mother. But when violence visited our home, the church was not there for my mother and was not there for me. I just started asking questions about this patriarchal structure, why only certain men would be making all the decisions for every woman in the church. Eventually you stop putting your questions on a shelf, and [“Under the Banner of Heaven”] had a lot of answers.
JON KRAKAUER: I think we’re wired to be religious. I think religion is fine if you have some distance and temper it with common sense. A danger is that religion, by design, is trying to create the opposite, to make faith trump intelligence and rational thought. Absolute power corrupts absolutely and absolute belief corrupts absolutely.
I grew up with Mormons and I envied them and admired them. They were my friends and had this certainty about what was going to happen to them, and the afterlife, and they were cheerful, and their families are so welcoming — until high school, when I didn’t convert. Then they just ghosted me and that hurt my feelings. So all of that is what led me to write this book.
One of [Joseph Smith’s] early revelations was everyone had to talk to God and listen to God’s commands. People right away started saying, “Well, no. God told me this — you’re wrong. I am the prophet.” And he was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Here’s the new revelation: Only Joseph Smith, my chosen son, is the prophet.” But the cat was already out of the bag and that’s why all through history there have been these breakaway prophets — more than any other faith I know about. It’s full of hundreds of breakaway sects. That’s a hazard if your church is based on revelations.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: [“Under the Banner of Heaven”] is filled with the information that the Mormon church says to stay away from. For the first time, so much of my own history, my ancestry, and the answers to why things were the way they were when they didn’t seem to fulfill the basic tenets of Mormonism — meaning they didn’t seem to make the family stronger — now I started to understand why and where that patriarchal structure came from. It was like a lightning strike for me, reading that book. I very much wanted to see if I couldn’t bring that to the screen so I could share the ideas more widely. That started a huge, long journey.
“I was busy failing”
JON KRAKAUER: Imagine started calling me about my book soon after it was published. I didn’t even really know who Imagine was. I kind of knew who Ron Howard was.
RON HOWARD: I was fascinated that [the Lafferty] family, by all metrics, was really succeeding and flourishing in the world and completely dissolved into this tragic story. What were those influences? Some of the same things that made them strong and connected and powerful were suddenly distorted and these seeds of fundamentalism and extremism were planted. I also thought it was incredibly dramatic. I think Brian saw something simpler, but vitally important.
Michelle Faye / FX
BRIAN GRAZER: I thought it would be a compelling, grizzly thriller. [laughs] I thought it would be a forceful, kind-of-like-“In Cold Blood” thriller. It had me thinking of those movies in the ‘50s and ‘60s, just really gritty and kind of dark. I like edgy stuff that has some sort of internal soul. I thought it was a cautionary tale about the dangers of extremism. If we’re able to cinematically animate this, I think it might have a strong effect on people.
JON KRAKAUER: I was burned by that horrible Everest TV show [based on “Into Thin Air”]. They asked me to be a consultant and they didn’t listen to any of my consulting and it was awful. It was sickening. It was not trusting the intelligence of the viewers, having to overwrite everything and just beat you over the head with it. I finally took a call from Erica Huggins [at Imagine] and they said, “Just let us come talk to you.”
RON HOWARD: I went to see him and in the very first meeting, Lance was a part of it. He was a vitally important collaborator. He’d already worked with Brian on a movie, “J. Edgar,” and had a really great experience. I talked to Lance about his history in the Mormon church and how he applied that to “Big Love” and how he would apply it to this.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I think I read “Under the Banner of Heaven” shortly before I started working on “Big Love” where I was brought in as a writer, but also kind of as “the Mormon.” I was put in a position of really defending the church more than anything in those writers’ rooms, which was a very strange position for me to be in. But that show did not have the tone needed to really dig deep into the faith. This was the property that was number one — if I could ever get my career to a place where someone like Jon Krakauer might listen to me and trust me.
JON KRAKAUER: I was so impressed with Lance, his vision. Right away I was like, “Yeah, I’m in.” I said, “I want to I trust you, Lance. I would certainly give you notes, you can show me scripts, but I don’t really want to be involved in this.” I was paid to be a consultant, but no one really asked for me to consult on the series. I was fine with that because, you know, I knew it might be bad. I knew from “Into the Wild,” which I love… it’s a miracle when a movie turns out OK because there’s so many moving parts and they can go off the rails in a thousand different ways. I understood that and I told myself. “Okay, I’m going to roll the dice with Lance and Imagine because I believe in these people and they seem trustworthy. I believe in their vision.”
BRIAN GRAZER: We tried for about six years to make it work as a movie. You knew it was always going to be challenging material. We never could shape it into that compelling screenplay that you read and say, “This is a movie” because I don’t think it really was, as much as we tried. We did draft after draft, a couple of different read-throughs just to see if we could make ourselves believe. Flashes of great material, great characters, and yet in a way it felt smaller than the book. It couldn’t bring that broader, historic perspective to the story. It was also frustrating because Lance kept coming up with even more detail and insight about the actual events, the crime, the family, and there wasn’t room to really develop the characters. We could do the crime, but we couldn’t really do the characters, and we could do the crime and a sense of the world, but we couldn’t allow you to understand.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: What was I thinking? [laughs] It was impossible. In my first draft were like 300, 400 pages and I’m showing them to Ron Howard and he’s so nice that he kept being incredibly encouraging, but you know what? I honestly was failing. You know, some people say, “Well, where were you all this time?” And I was like, I was busy failing. [laughs]
I eventually set it aside a little because it was impossible to do it, to do the book justice. And, really — it’s going to be a drama, and those were becoming increasingly less popular in movie theaters. Certainly dramas that were going to be four hours long. The day that Brian Grazer called me and said, “Hey, the miniseries is a legitimate form again. What do you think?” That was a very happy day. I thought if I had seven, eight, nine hours, I could absolutely do it.
RON HOWARD: I’m grateful that we went to the long-form format. I’m grateful that we also connected with John Landgraf, who creatively brought a lot to this party, he and his team. He’s a really strong storyteller in addition to being a brilliant executive. It really aligned with what we were trying to do. He recognized the personal connection that Dustin Lance Black had with the story, respected that and nurtured it and challenged it. I am grateful we didn’t succeed in making it as a movie. I think we always would’ve felt we’d compromised what we loved about the book.
“This is a really incredible thing to act”
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: There has to be an understanding on the part of the filmmakers of what people will actually tune in and watch. There’s got to be something about it that feels like a hook, that goes beyond just telling the truth. You have to understand Mormon history to understand this crime, which is why I took the step to create an investigation story, in which the characters are a fictionalization. We needed to do what the book did, which was to ask the reader to stay active, not passive, in putting together past and present to figure out who did this and why.
BRIAN GRAZER: That’s one of the really great things about the fictional characters that were largely inspired by John Landgraf, really. He said, “I think we need a character who could give us the audience’s perspective on this.” Then it evolved into, “Let’s have somebody with something at stake, an emotional investment in the world and the culture and the religion.” I thought it was a real creative breakthrough.
Michelle Faye / FX / Hulu
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: This story unfolds almost exclusively inside the mind of Jeb Pyre. We’re with a character who’s trying to put it together and so we start to do the same. In the same way the book does, we are utilizing Mormon history to try and figure out who did it and why and where they are. That was the trick of the book. We didn’t have the first-person perspective unless you created it and that is a fictionalization. I wholeheartedly admit that I’m, in fact, a little proud of that. It is inspired by true events—dramatized, yes, but inspired by these true events. And thank goodness that the powers that be at our network not only embraced the idea of making it investigative, making it a true-crime thriller, they encouraged it and kept pushing for more of that, which I was pleased with.
ANDREW GARFIELD: I think the invention of this character from Lance was pretty brilliant. I read [the book] first when it first came out. I was just riveted and fascinated, and felt there were secrets in there for us to know as human beings that were vital in order for us to expand our consciousness about how men can get to the place of doing such heinous, evil acts with the certainty that it’s in the name of goodness, righteousness, and God, and love.
I found that kind of psychological unpicking that Krakauer does so exquisitely, and so subtly and elegantly, so compelling. Going on that journey as this character, Jeb Pyre, having to reckon with the sins of the past while his internal psychological structure starts to get chipped away. He starts to expand his consciousness. That felt really exciting to me and actable, playable.
There’s a very visceral tension that I got to live as the character: Truth pulling me on one side, which is just me doing my job to the best of my ability as a man that believes he’s decent, with integrity, and wants to honor the memory of these two souls that were taken in such a horrific and violent way — but then there’s this equal tension coming from the other side, which is if I pursue the truth, if I unpick the past, if my psyche starts to dissolve, what’s going to remain? Am I a person still? Am I just a void inside without this religious structure? And do I lose the love of my life? The four loves of my life, my mother, my wife, and these two miraculous girls that we created? That is a really incredible thing to act.
RON HOWARD: Lance made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t want to be the last word. We had consultants all along the way and during the filming. It wasn’t all according to Lance’s sense of it and interpretation.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I spent a lot of time in Utah and frankly, not just me. Some of the actors, Garfield included, went to Utah and met active Mormons. In a conversation with one of the actual investigators, he said that he would prefer if he was not depicted and didn’t have to live through this again. I was more than happy to fictionalize the investigators.
I understood when people were frustrated with me versus truly being warm with me. And let me tell you, that ain’t easy in the Utah valley [laughs] but I speak Mormon. I’m fluent in it, so I also know when “Mormon nice” is actually not that nice. I don’t know how you do this show without that.
ANDREW GARFIELD: I had access to some incredibly fascinating people in the spectrum of the faith — from ex-Mormons who are LGBTQ to feminist Mormons or previous Mormons who had to leave in order to claim authority over their own lives, to people who are very active in the faith, to bishops who are trying to change the faith from the inside and to detectives who are struggling with their own faith. People love to talk. People love to share their stories.
I got to meet someone in my research who was a police officer, a detective and Mormon who had the exact same experience, just on a different case. There was a case about — a horrific case that I’m not going to talk about because he talked to me anonymously, but the acts were justified by citing Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. Mormonism sent him into a real kind of psychological breakdown. He’s on the other side of it now and has a sense of — he’s living with it. He’s living with this expanded consciousness holding the tension between all of these things.
No fundamentalists, but I didn’t think it was important for me to meet any fundamentalists for the purposes of playing [Jeb]. It was probably more useful to not to have my first experience with fundamentalism being through the character [but] being through the story itself with all of the horror and the shock that this particular breed of fundamentalist brings.
“They will not be sending me a flower basket”
JON KRAKAUER: [Black] didn’t want to beat around the bush about the role of faith in the murder. I was thrilled with the scripts. I prepared myself to be disappointed and instead it far exceeded my expectations. I thought it was brilliant that he invented this character Jeb Pyre who was not in the book at all. I was thrilled there was so much that was accurate.
One thing that I really liked that Lance did was showing the sort of absolutism — how the Mormon church is this dictatorship. It is all about controlling the members. It’s a little better now, but anyone, no matter how devout, if you criticize the church you could be excommunicated. It’s only in 2013 that the Mormon Church officially admitted for the first time that Joseph Smith had more than one wife. That is astonishing. The only reason they did it — the only reason they ever admit anything — is because of the internet. The only time they fix what’s broken is outside pressure. Finally, thanks to Lance and others, they don’t just kick gays out unless you actually want to practice sex. Yeah, you can be gay, just can’t have sex. Right. That makes a lot of sense.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: They will not be sending me a flower basket. [laughs] In the Mormon church, we were told not to question things, to put our faith in the current prophet, to not look backward into our history. Mormons do not like those outside of the church discussing the faith or the church’s history. They take it very personally and get quite upset when people do.
So in the same way they went after Jon Krakauer to nitpick things they felt he got wrong, I know they’ll come for me as well. That’s going to happen. And they will create a list of things that they’ll say are wrong. But I’ll tell you what: I did my research and I worked incredibly hard to get this thing right. You know, right down to the paint color for the walls of Kirtland Temple [laughs]. They’ll come for me and if I actually got something wrong, I’ll admit it but I we worked incredibly hard not to. But frankly, their criticism is inevitable. That’s a part of who Mormons are.
JON KRAKAUER: I know for a fact, from emails that have been leaked to me, that the church is really concerned about this series and they don’t know what they’re going to do about it. Over and over again I hear, “We’re not going to make the mistake like we did when Krakauer’s book came out.” I don’t know what they are going to do. I don’t think they know. I think if my book pissed them off… I mean, I’ve only seen the first five episodes. But I can tell you that from what I’ve seen if my book made them angry, this is going to make them apoplectic.
Some of the criticism I got from my book, and I’m sure we’ll get for the series, is that it wasn’t the church’s violent past that caused the Laffertys. It was misogyny and the patriarchy, and all of that’s true. You can’t separate them. This is the church’s culture, which was formed by the violence, informed by the violence.
I learned some years ago, but I believe it’s still true, that every Saturday [imprisoned fundamentalist leader] Warren [Jeffs’] followers pray for my destruction. All of them. They were commanded to do so. I mean, I don’t worry much, but it’s legit. Blood atonement is for real for these folks.
DUSTIN LANCE BLACK: I was sitting with leadership at the Mormon church when I got the rights to the book and I let them know this was something I was going to do. They brought me into a meeting in the Joseph Smith Memorial building right there in Temple Square. And I said to those gathered: “Listen, I’m going to do this. I know you had criticism of Jon’s book. I’ve read those issues you had. If you have more, you want to share, you have my number.” And I never heard from them.
But listen, we don’t do enough of that these days. I have real issues with the Mormon church, but I have really close, warm relationships with a lot of Mormons. It’s easy to attack from afar. It’s easy to attack from the silos we live in. It’s much more challenging and, frankly, potentially productive to actually sit across from one another when you have big disagreements like I have with the leadership in the church.
The rank-and-file Mormons for the most part are loving, warm, familial people. But the leadership of the church, I think it’s about time. If they’re uncomfortable with this show, I think they need to answer the question Pyre asks in episode 5, “What kind of Mormons are you defending?” Perhaps there’ll be a revelation that corrects some of what’s caused such great harm in that faith for so long.
“Under the Banner of Heaven” premieres Thursday, April 28 on Hulu.
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