Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is recalling the time he came face to face with a murderer. In a Utah maximum security prison, he felt the man's bright eyes and charisma radiate through the Plexiglass and immediately thought of Silence of the Lambs.


"I understood what sociopathy looks like," Black says. "As he edged closer, I could see how pleased he was with himself, how much he enjoyed that he was about to have the opportunity to tell his story again. I wasn’t having it."

Discovering Dan Lafferty had nothing new to say about the murder he had committed – indeed, that he stood by the court's verdict and media coverage – which Black retells in his true crime drama series Under the Banner of Heaven, Black said, "Stop right there. I'm not here to help you get off on the torture and murder of women."

In 1984, the Mormon community was rocked by the brutal murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old baby Erica in American Fork, Utah. Having married into a Mormon family and dared to question its more fundamental members’ subjugation of women, Brenda was killed by her brothers-in-law, Dan and Ron.

At the time, Black's family lived in a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas. His father left to marry his first cousin – "his first step towards fundamentalism", says Black; the pair remain estranged – and the community rallied to help his mother Roseanna, who had been paralysed from the chest down since contracting polio as a child, and her three children.

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When the family moved to California three years later, 13-year-old Black began a journey of discovery. He read about San Francisco gay rights campaigner Harvey Milk, America's first "out" politician, whose story he would later explore in his 2009 Oscar-winning script for the biopic Milk, starring Sean Penn.

Embracing his own sexuality – he now has two sons with his husband, British Olympic diver Tom Daley – Black began to unpick the emotional damage that fundamentalist beliefs can inflict on individuals' identities. "Family comes first to Mormons, which is good," he explains. "But only up to a point: for a long time, [that meant] as long as you’re heterosexual."

Black has previously explored Mormonism as a screenwriter on Big Love, an HBO drama about polygamy, and narrated 8: the Mormon Proposition, a documentary about the church's opposition to gay marriage.

But the Lafferty case had stuck with him since reading journalist Jon Krakauer's 2003 non-fiction book about the case, after which the series is named. Brenda's outspokenness reminded him of his mother: "All my work addressing Mormon issues is in defence of the abuse I saw her take."

Using his Oscar clout to option the book, Black set about adapting it for a movie. More than a decade later, it arrived as a seven-part series (available as a box set on ITVX), reframed as a gripping true crime drama centred on fictional Mormon investigator Jeb Pyre.

Andrew Garfield, a fan of the book before taking on the role of Jeb, leads a British-heavy cast ("It's no secret I like Brits – I'm married to one!" Black jokes) which also includes Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda and Billy Howle as her husband Allen, alongside Australian Sam Worthington and American Wyatt Russell, who play Ron and Dan respectively.

Daisy Edgar Jones in a purple shirt and black trousers with one hand resting on her hip and the other on a table. She is looking over at someone with her head to the side
Daisy Edgar Jones in Under the Banner of Heaven. Disney

Brenda is our entry into the Lafferty family, as she witnesses its patriarch's claustrophobic grip on his sons and their wives. Her stand against the brethren's more toxic values was a beacon for Black.

"Clearly, this story could have fallen into the 'dead girl' tropes of crime drama, but my greatest ally in avoiding that was Brenda," he says. "She wasn't a victim, but a protector, a truth-teller. Whenever I felt the show was getting close to that trope, I let Brenda lead. She risked her life to save her family from losing itself in that death spiral of fundamentalism."

Edgar-Jones shines as Brenda, whose directness and clarity of thought is at odds with the immovable convictions of the Lafferty men. "I was a fan of Daisy in Normal People," says Black. "She was so genuine on screen, and that's not always easy. Brenda was so natural and didn’t filter herself, she didn't want to change for other people. I knew Daisy could convey that."

The drama scrutinises both the consequences of rigidly putting dogma above the law (the Laffertys refused to pay taxes or obey traffic laws) and the emotional violence of male entitlement.

There are echoes of both The Handmaid's Tale and the depiction of Bolivia's repressive Mennonite community in Sarah Polley's Oscar-winning film Women Talking in the church members' oddly out-of-time language and dress code. "If it seems alarming and strange, welcome to my youth," Black deadpans.

Through this specific case, he wanted to get to some uncomfortable universal truths that go far beyond religious faith.

Under the Banner of Heaven aired in the US in 2022, where Trump still looms large and escalating tensions in the Middle East have made its themes even more potent. "The whole world has faced great stress and strain; there’s a feeling that we're moving backwards," Black says.

"In times like this, people often turn to God. Unfortunately, they go back to mostly incredibly outdated rules, you see a turn towards violence and misogyny, to political, legal, historical and religious fundamentalism. This is a cautionary tale about how that happens."

Dustin Lance Black at the Under the Banner of Heaven premiere. He is wearing a light blue blazer and white shirt as he looks ahead
Dustin Lance Black at the Under the Banner of Heaven premiere. Mark Von Holden/Variety/Penske Media via Getty Images

Black, 49, left the church long ago due to its stance on homosexuality, but he found himself defending Mormonism during the making of the drama. Without brushing its controversies under the carpet, he addresses misconceptions about its place in the modern world.

"This is a pursuit of truth," he says. "We start to see and understand the dangers of leaning into the deep histories of anything. But we tried incredibly hard to make the distinctions between contemporary Mormons and fundamentalist Mormons."

Black and his cast spent time in Utah engaging with the church, inviting representatives to discuss anything they felt the book got wrong. But it's not always comfortable to have a mirror held up to one's beliefs.

"If the truth is offensive, I think some people may be offended," he acknowledges. "But once we're empowered with truth, we can make better decisions. I hope that's what comes of this show. Why are we afraid to look closer? When is the church going to change? That's the real question."

As for the answer? "There's work to be done until the Mormon church is a force for good in the world. Let's see what it gets up to."

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