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When the first episode of Under the Banner of Heaven finally premieres on FX on Thursday, it will mark the end of a decade-long journey for the project.
The show, an adaptation of Jon Krakauer’s true-crime novel about a Mormon detective investigating the murder of a young woman and her baby within a religious Salt Lake City community, was originally set up as a film, living in that form for six years before making the eventual pivot to limited series. There were so many ups and downs that at the Los Angeles premiere on April 20, creator-writer-director Dustin Lance Black told The Hollywood Reporter he was “still not quite sure” it would actually come to life, teasing, “They could still pull the plug; there’s still eight days left.”
Black recounted how he spent four years trying to fit the entire story of Detective Jeb Pyre (played by Andrew Garfield) into a feature, until eventually executive producer Brian Grazer suggested they jump onboard the limited series train and give the story more room to breathe.
“When I first optioned this property I was like a child; now I have a child, so it’s that long,” Black remembered. “My first notes meeting was in a car, driving as fast as me and my husband [diver Tom Daley] could down to the hospital where our son was going to be born, with [EP] Ron Howard on the first draft of the script — which, we didn’t talk notes on that call; by the end of that he was giving me parental advice.” (The couple’s son is now 3½.) Added the creator: “It’s been a journey, but we knew this would never be an easy one.”
Howard echoed that sentiment, saying, “There’s nothing cookie-cutter about this project. I think that’s what attracted us, that it was challenging and difficult.”
The story follows the real-life 1984 murders of Brenda Wright Lafferty (played by Daisy Edgar-Jones) and her daughter, Erica, and the detective’s discoveries of buried truths about the origins of the LDS religion along with the violent consequences of unyielding faith. The story had a personal connection for Black, who grew up in the Mormon church (and has since left).
“It is a deep-dive examination of faith, the faith I grew up in,” Black said. “My question is and will continue to be: Tell me a faith that treats the genders equally? I’m not sure we have one. And, why is that? And, what lesson is that teaching young women and young men? This is a series that says [those lessons] can be dangerous and deadly, so I’m not surprised it’s taken 10 years.”
Black continued, “When the superhero of a series is a man who shows the courage to have curiosity and ask questions of faith, that’s not necessarily the kind of capes and masks that Hollywood tends to embrace. We have a very different kind of hero in this show — two of them, really — and a woman who decided that she was courageous enough, strong enough and curious enough to dare question a faith that says questions are to be put on the shelf.”
Before casting Garfield as the lead, Black wanted to make sure that “whoever came to this role came into it with their eyes wide open, understanding the responsibility and the potential challenges and even dangers of asking these sorts of questions at this time in the world, when people are again turning toward fundamentalism,” which, after meeting with the star, Black was confident he could handle. And though Garfield spent time in Utah with current members of the church, Black himself also proved an essential resource for the cast with experience from his upbringing.
“The interesting thing is, more often than not, I was the defender of the church, which is an unexpected position to find myself in in a show like this,” Black said. “It was similar when I was [a writer] on Big Love; it’s because people come to the show with misconceptions, stereotypes about who Mormon people are and I said, ‘We’re not doing that here.’ I often was the teacher in terms of saying, ‘No, not every Mormon boy has three moms and there’s a difference between fundamentalist Mormonism, cultural Mormonism and mainstream Mormonism.’ In that way, I played professor.”
Under the Banner of Heaven premieres Thursday on FX and streams the next day on Hulu.
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