Under the Banner of Heaven Debuts on Disney

Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black's new series tells the true story of a woman and her daughter murdered by their own fundamentalist family

Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black’s new series tells the true story of a woman and her daughter murdered by their own fundamentalist family 

In 2003, author Jon Krakauer published a bestselling true crime thriller about the 1984 murder of LDS church member Brenda Wright Lafferty and her baby daughter in a Salt Lake Valley suburb. Her brothers-in-law, who believed God had tasked them with the killings, were convicted for the crime, in what is not just a terrible tragedy but a cautionary tale about fundamentalist religious practices. Now, the story finds its way to the screen, written, directed and produced by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), with Ron Howard and Brian Grazer as his producers.  

Under the Banner of HeavenDisney+The greatest creative challenge, says Black, was weaving together the three storylines from Krakauer’s book: the introduction of Brenda to the Lafferty family and the events that led to her death, the murder investigation taking place in 1984, and the history of fundamentalist Mormonism dating back to the 19th century, with founder Joseph Smith’s wife Emma at the centre. To tie all three narratives together, Black created Jebediah Pyre, a fictional police detective and a member of the LDS Church forced to investigate his own religious community. Andrew Garfield plays the character that serves as the eyes and ears of the audience. “The viewer, alongside Jeb, is active in figuring this [mystery] out,” says Black. “This is a horrific thriller and the audience can’t be passive. They must get to know Jeb, they must get to know Brenda, and they must get to know Emma Smith to finally crack why this happened in 1984.” 

Garfield says he had been a fan of the book since its release in 2003. “I read it so hungrily, and I found it deeply fascinating, the themes, the story itself, how thrilling the story was, but also how horrifying it was,” he recalls. “With Dustin being so connected to the subject matter and the material, I was convinced right away that this was an incredible group of people that were going to not only honour what Jon Krakauer wrote, but also honour Brenda and Erica Lafferty and really unpick the rot at the core of what enabled such evil to take place.”  

Under the Banner of HeavenDisney+Black, who himself was raised in the LDS church, started his writing process with Krakauer’s book, but it was in speaking to Brenda Lafferty’s family that the characters of the show started to take shape. “I got to meet Brenda in the book and I really admired her, because I understood the strength it took to do what she was doing,” he says. “When I was lucky enough to meet her entire family, that admiration shifted and began to change into love. I got to a point where the family trusted me enough to share Brenda’s journals and her letters—things they hadn’t shared with Jon Krakauer. There I met the voice of a loving courage.”  

Brenda Lafferty was a strong-willed woman, who wanted to be the next Diane Sawyer. Her outspokenness frequently rubbed members in her community the wrong way—especially her brothers-in-law, who belonged to the splinter group School of Prophets. “It would take such courage for a woman in most faiths, particularly the Mormon faith, to do what Brenda did,” says Black. “The fact that she was doing that in 1984, surrounded by the people she was surrounded by, was so incredibly impressive.” 

Under the Banner of HeavenDisney+In portraying Brenda, Normal People breakout Daisy Edgar-Jones relied on Black’s research, including the letters Brenda had written to her sister. “Something that really struck me was what an incredibly empathetic person she was,” the actress explains. “She’s someone who is always more concerned with the experiences of the people around her than herself and that was what I really wanted to emulate in my performance.”  

Adding to the complexity of these characters is that while the Lafferty brothers committed heinous crimes, the two actors had to portray them as if their actions were, in their minds, justified. “Their journey is a descent, but to play them, you have to look at it as a rebirth, in the sense that their choices were based on love and protection of their family,” says Sam Worthington, who portrays Rob Lafferty. “When you’re playing it with another actor, it is about empowering them and giving them the justification that they are on the right path, rather than just plain bad guys or people who were losing their way and need to find the way out of what we consider their path to darkness.”  

Although a cautionary tale, Black believes that tragic stories told about religion could ultimately have a much-needed reformative effect. “If you do a deep dive into any religion, but I think particularly the Mormon religion, there’s only two ways to go: it is either going to become a musical comedy or it’s going to turn to terror and horror,” he says. “There are things that need to be changed in this church so that’s not the case anymore. That’s how I feel.” 

Under the Banner of Heaven streams on Disney+