Television

Under the Banner of Heaven’s Bloody Ending Is a Warning

Creator Dustin Lance Black on the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Mormons’ response to the show, and its deeper resonances.

Andrew Garfield in Under the Banner of Heaven, with text that says, "Exit Interview" on the corner of the image.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo via FX.

When we talk about a crisis of faith, it’s usually about someone losing theirs. But in Under the Banner of Heaven, the crisis cuts both ways. Fundamentalist Mormon brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty are so radicalized by their faith that they’re able to murder their sister-in-law and her 15-month-old daughter in the name of God. Meanwhile Jeb Pyre, the Mormon detective assigned to their case, finds his belief shaken by the horrors carried out in the name of an extremist version of his faith. Dustin Lance Black, who spent more than a decade adapting Jon Krakauer’s bestselling book, was himself raised as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk left the faith in his teens, around the time he came out as gay. Like Krakauer’s book, the series interweaves the Lafferty family’s story with the often-violent early history of Mormonism and adds in a fictional framing story about Andrew Garfield’s detective and his Native American partner, played by Gil Birmingham. During the course of its seven episodes, the FX/Hulu series has generated plenty of controversy, and it ends with perhaps the darkest chapter in the church’s history: the Mountain Meadows Massacre, in which more than 100 men, women, and children passing through Utah in a wagon train were murdered by Mormon militiamen and Paiute Native Americans.

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As the series wound to its bloody conclusion, Black talked to me via Zoom from his home in London, while fighting off a case of COVID and putting the finishing touches on the final episodes of the series. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Sam Adams: You’ve been working on Under the Banner of Heaven for more than 10 years, including trying to make it as a feature film, before turning it into a limited series—a format that was much less common when you started. How did you decide where you wanted to end the story?

Dustin Lance Black: It’s a question that has three answers. The Lafferty story is based on a true crime, so I knew where that would end. The Mormon history, I’ve known from very early on where that would end, because I’m only laying out what I feel serve as clues to solving and understanding the case. So Mountain Meadows and really the installation of the third prophet who talked about the “one mighty and strong,” which inspired the Lafferty boys. So those two I’ve known all the way back to the feature drafts, the truly terrible feature screenplays I was writing 10 years ago that were hundreds of pages long. But the third, the story of the investigation led by Bill Taba and Jebediah Pyre, that was the big question. Where do you land in a story where the tension is between curiosity and faith, and can you have both in this area? Can you ask questions and remain in good standing in the church? And the answer is probably not if the questions start probing too deeply into the history and into the heart of the faith.

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I knew that this was going to be a show about how curiosity challenges faith. To completely disavow one’s faith in the Salt Lake Valley is not just about no longer going to church on Sundays. You risk your place in the community. You risk your eternal family, which means that perhaps your spouse will divorce you—and divorce is allowed in the Mormon faith. So you lose family, you lose community, which means you probably lose your job. You’re risking a lot when you start asking questions. And here was an investigator who had to [ask questions] in order to win justice for this young woman and her daughter.

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But I also thought it wouldn’t be realistic for him to say, “Well, there we go. I’ve asked so many questions, I no longer believe, and I’m out of here.” That’s not how life works, and it’s not how people experience their own loss of faith oftentimes. So I said, well, why don’t we leave it in that tenuous place that so many people have to live in? Where when asked, “Do you believe in God? Are you faithful? Are you Christian?” They say, “Yeah.” They waffle because it’s a safer answer. It’s a space I think a lot of people, if not most people, live in, where they feel shame around their doubt and they conceal it. This is a much more interesting place to land the series, to say, “Hey, you’re not alone out there in your doubts, and there may be more people like you out there.” Maybe this is a conversation we might need to start having. It’s not a clean-cut ending, but I feel like it’s an honest ending. And I feel like an honest ending will resonate more emotionally than something that might feel too Hollywood and cleaned up.

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I may just be asking you to undo the nuance of everything you just said, but in your view is Jeb Pyre on his way out of the church? Is he going to find his way back? Or does he just stay in that uncertain space forever? Where do you see him in 10 years?

That’s a good question for Jebediah Pyre. I think we leave him on a new path.

OK.

And it’s a path where he feels he can ask questions, he does not have to doubt his doubts. That’s huge growth for someone who grew up in this area in this time and in this faith. I don’t know where he ends up, but I think there are going to be some very difficult, challenging conversations with his wife and his daughters in the future. If I had to guess, most people I know who start down that path, once you light that fire of curiosity, there’s no extinguishing it. Once you know the questions to ask—which I’m not sure he knew in Episode 1, but now he does—you don’t stop asking them. So my gut says he will become more curious, he’ll question more, and he’ll have many more challenges ahead in keeping his lovely, loving family together. That would be a challenge.

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How do you identify now with regard to your own Mormon upbringing?

I’m not a practicing or believing Mormon. That’s a simple sentence to say with a lot of story behind it. That was quite a journey, and it was a very challenging journey to take, to go from a place of complete insulation from the outside world, where all I knew was Mormonism. I never doubted it at all, because it’s all I ever learned. I thought everyone believed the way I did. But once you crack that kind of fervent belief open, it does make you question everything.

I’m still in that place. I question everything, and I’ve come to a place where I’m very comfortable with doubt. In fact, it excites me. Those are the places where you can ask more questions and put more pressure. I’d say I’m curious about faith and religion in so far as it serves human beings. I’m not so curious about notions of afterlife—if that exists, well, I guess we’ll get there. I’m not going to slow down the living for what comes next, if there is such a thing. But I remain very, very curious about the rules that faith creates and curious which might make life more livable.

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The murder investigation is what drives the story, but thematically, some of the most important scenes are the discussions between Jeb Pyre, a devout Mormon, and Allen Lafferty, a former fundamentalist who seems to have lost his faith in the wake of his wife and daughter’s murder. Allen says things like, “What I miss is the days when I still believed our God was love.” That’s not the picture of Allen I took away from Jon Krakauer’s book, and obviously Jeb is your creation entirely, so I’m wondering what went into those scenes for you, and where the arc of that relationship goes.

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I got to know Allen, interviewed Allen, and really liked meeting Allen in my conversations with him. But I met a man who had processed these things, though he was still trying to figure it out, and that had taken decades. In those interviews with him, I found contradictions, I found confusion. He was willing to share that with me, and I found that really honest. He was 24 when his wife and child were slaughtered by a family member. What I found was a very traumatized and confused young man who did start to question things deeply, but in the end, he does turn back to the familiar. I have encountered that so many times in my experience of faithful people in my interviews for this show, that some people question things incredibly deeply to the point that it begins to shatter a foundation, and that’s a moment where some of them, it’s like turning back to a warm, familiar blanket “You know what? I’m just going to stay here.” That’s a very interesting experience to me. But the dialogue that they have in the series in those interrogation room scenes is invention. It’s inspired by all of the research, it’s inspired by the conversations I had, but I’ve tried to be incredibly candid about the fact that it is not “based on,” it’s “inspired by.”

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Andrew Garfield has gotten a lot of deserved attention for his performance as Jeb Pyre, but the piece of casting that really intrigues me is Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty. He has that charismatic, upbeat quality of someone who could refer to the second coming of Christ as “the big party,” even when he’s serving life for murder. You can see why people would stick by him, even when he starts talking about and doing utterly horrendous things.

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I can’t say enough good things about Wyatt. I’m so excited for people to meet him as people watch the series—or meet him all over again, in a way, because he’s such a fine dramatic actor. He showed interest in playing the role a decade ago when it was a feature film. I believe he got in contact with Ron Howard, who was going to direct it then, and who’s still my right hand and executive producer on this now. He was too young then, but when I saw him again, probably two years ago, he had become the actor that he needed to be to actually tackle the role. In my experience getting to know the real Dan Lafferty in prison, the visits that I’ve made and the letters we’ve exchanged and the calls, he has that cheerfulness that is intoxicating. And you understand immediately why people want to follow him. He’s incredibly charismatic. The brightest eyes you may ever see, very smart, but wicked smart, meaning he can clearly rationalize anything.

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Sitting across from Wyatt in this café in New York, he had all the charisma, all the effervescence, all of the joy. Thankfully, he’s not a sociopath, so he also has empathy. He has that quality that I’m not sure Dan has, where he won’t hurt someone and rationalize it in the name of God, but all of the rest of it he has, and also an extraordinary ability to grow a giant beard in no time flat, which was helpful in this show. I thought it was important to put someone in that role who would be able to create that energy the real Dan Lafferty had, because then it feels instructive to me as opposed to it just being the sociopath caricature. What I thought was instructive, and also bone-chilling, is that someone who could do something so heinous could live next door, could be your best friend, could be the life of the party and probably is. So that people will say, “Hey, I’m hearing this strange, very fundamentalist, backward-looking stuff from this guy, these rationalizations, but man, he’s charming, and boy, he’s smart and charismatic, so I should follow him, right?” If you’re paying attention to this show, you go, “No, no, no, no, no.” That turn toward the past in an unquestioned fashion is dangerous, no matter how charismatic the person is delivering it. So Wyatt was the guy. Frankly, we never considered anyone else.

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What has the reaction to the show from the LDS community been like?

The reaction has been what I thought it would be from the church, which is defensive, negative, trying to pick at any little detail they can find that they can claim is not accurate. But for the most part, I think they’re wrong and I know they’re wrong. Anyone who thinks that this is pure fiction needs to do their research better, frankly. In terms of authenticity, I think if you got to know these people in this time, you would find it quite authentic. I’ve heard a little bit about people saying, “Oh, they say ‘Heavenly Father’ too much.” And I say, “Well, maybe your Mormon family didn’t, but let me send you some of the letters they were writing back and forth. Let me send you some of the audio recordings.” This was a very “Heavenly Father” kind of family. If this doesn’t seem familiar to you, good. I’m happy for you. I hope it doesn’t. But for far too many people, and particularly far too many women, this is ringing incredibly true.

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The predominant reaction I’m hearing now that we’re past the first two episodes is that there’s a lot of processing grief in the Salt Lake Valley right now, a lot of people seeing themselves depicted and understanding the trauma they’ve been through, understanding that it should be OK to challenge the status quo, particularly in the treatment of women in this faith, in this region. We did a premiere in Utah, and we invited fundamentalist Mormons, mainstream Mormons, experts, LDS historians, and just radical, progressive Salt Lake City. I was concerned, but in the end, there was a tremendous amount of emotion in that room. I think a lot of people understood that it was time to start asking questions in the faith where that’s discouraged, and it will make the church uncomfortable. It’ll continue to make the church uncomfortable. But the only way that church is ever going to get better is if they allow questions to be asked.

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Jon Krakauer’s book interweaves Mormon history with the Laffertys’ case, but there are places where the show takes things further, as with the suggestion that Joseph Smith was essentially set up to be murdered by Brigham Young. I know you worked with historical scholars on the series, so I’m curious where that idea came from.

Brigham Young, when he blamed Emma Smith, which doesn’t make sense.

OK.

She loved him deeply. She stood by his side the whole time. She was heartbroken when he died. Why would she [turn on him]? And she was incredibly smart. So why do you blame the woman?

[Young’s involvement in Smith’s death] is not brought up as fact, it’s brought up as a question in the show on purpose. I tried to be very clear, this is a moment where people who’ve been taught not to ask questions are asking questions and going, “What we’ve been sold does not make sense.” He had been in this position before, understood that he would not receive a just trial and that he would be killed. So why would he do it again? Love Joseph or hate Joseph, he was no fool. He was very smart and strategic. So these are characters asking questions about an assassination that is pinned on his own wife. And I don’t buy it. If there’s doubt, it’s because I use common sense and Brigham Young said something that made no sense to me a long time ago.

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You also frame the Mountain Meadows Massacre through questions. For years, the Mormon church maintained that the massacre was carried out solely by the Southern Paiute, but as Bill Taba puts it, “That’s not how we tell that story.” In your version, the Mormons, including the ones dressed up as Native Americans, are the ones who carry out the bulk of the violence.

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Well, the Paiute were there, and then when they realized they were going to be scapegoated for this slaughter, they left. At which point the remaining Mormons disguised themselves as Paiute and then killed a lot of innocent people for no good reason. I don’t know that any of that is disputed. I think the thing that’s in dispute is who ordered it done, and that’s a good question. To me, it’s very clear. I don’t state it in the show, but I think people can figure that out themselves. But certainly, even a cursory read of the history of the Southern Paiute makes it very clear they were not treated well by the Mormons in Utah. The “help” being provided to the Southern Paiutes was a way of chaining them and turning them into servants, which is not who they are or should have been. So I think it’s brutal what happened to them and how they were scapegoated for so long. Unfortunately, I guess, for the LDS church historians, there were witnesses and people who wrote down their accounts, and we now know better what happened.

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I wanted to ask you about a specific moment in Episode 6 where Ron Lafferty goes to John Bryant’s polygamist compound, and while he’s in the hot tub, he’s kissed by another man. We know Ron is short-tempered and extremely straight-laced, and I sort of cringed anticipating he would respond with violence, but you don’t play into the gay panic trope. What went into that moment for you?

It’s no secret that homosexuality, as they would put it, was a part of John Bryant’s compound and belief system, and that Ron had said himself, in the trials and things, that after he was there, after he participated in what he participated in, that he would forever be haunted by a “homosexual spirit.” I’ll tell you what: Genuinely straight guys probably aren’t going to be eternally haunted by a homosexual spirit. They’ll probably just be like, “Well, that was interesting.” So if he was, I feel like his reaction wouldn’t be purely defensive, particularly with how inebriated it seemed he was when he was there. His intention going there was to find a place he could bring his wife and kids to a pure Mormonism, so he probably wasn’t going to engage much further with John Bryant. But it’s not a gay panic moment. Maybe because I am a gay guy, I understand it from the inside. I’ve also seen such things happen many a time, and that’s not how people really react usually. They don’t start throwing fists. But I think it did give him pause. And probably got in the way for him more than it would’ve for a purely heterosexual man, because there was something in his spirit, as he said, that was touched.

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During the almost 11 years you’ve spent working on Under the Banner of Heaven, what kept you going?

I grew up Mormon. I experienced what it felt like to start asking questions and to be slapped on the hand for doing that. Many of the questions I had were about the way my mother was being treated and the other women in society were being treated, particularly when it came to violence, which we experienced in our home. And if you know that there is a problem in your community and your country, a place that needs light to be shown in so that we can fix it, I do believe I have a responsibility to do that. So some of it was responsibility, and that got me through the first few years of, just, terror. Like I said, really long, bad screenplays that did not achieve what I wanted at all. And certainly not what Warner Bros. wanted. And many years passed, and a few years ago, I set it down for a little while. I did When We Rise, wrote a book, got married, had a kid. But what I always understood about it was that this was a family that hit hard times and decided that the path back to safety and prosperity was through fundamentalist originalist interpretations, of first the Constitution and then the Old Testament and New Testament in the Bible. And it was these steps they took back into these dusty documents that led to bloodshed.

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I’m not saying anything that’s going to be a revelation to you, but three years ago, when I picked it back up, the world had hit hard times, the world was struggling. And certainly nowadays, a pandemic, war in Europe again, great uncertainty, and you watch the world stepping back towards originalist interpretations of ancient documents. Just look at the United States Supreme Court, proud to say that they are returning to originalist interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. These are outdated documents. They were written by men, exclusively, a long time ago. We know so much better now, and we have to do better now. I just find it incredibly dangerous what we’re doing now in the United States, around the world. And it’s what these brothers did. They followed the rules to the letter and where did it take them? They turned to the blade, turned to bloodshed, and in that way, became a cautionary tale for our times. This is a warning to the world that you will find no comfort, no safety, and no stability stepping back in time and following the rules of men written to address concerns of a very, very different time in the world.

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The Mormons I know don’t come from especially strict backgrounds, but talking to people from different kinds of fundamentalist backgrounds, they’ve told me the show rings true, but it’s also been a little bit triggering.

“A little bit.” It’s very triggering. I’ve not said this to anybody yet, but it’s triggered me. This is a faith that I loved as a kid. It provided a lot of safety and warmth for me. It protected my family when it needed to be. Most of my family’s still in it. Many of my friends are still in it. And it’s triggered me on many an occasion. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say my health is not well nearing the end of this experience, not just because of COVID, but this has been a heavy weight to carry for this long, and ripping open the things inside of me in order to get it to the page and try and be honest about it has been painful. You’re going to make me cry, but it’s hard. It’s hard to be as honest as we’ve tried to be in this series, because it means you get to see some of the great damage that was done when you were a child. Things that you learned that you shouldn’t have had to. And I don’t think I’m alone. When you tell me people out there are being triggered, yeah, me too.

Well, I hope you finish the effects and the sound mix and can find a little bit of comfort once it’s all over.

Eight more days. And then if I have my way, I’ll be on a beach in Barcelona, just trying to get my skin to bake off.

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