Dustin Lance Black: ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

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Creator and Executive Producer Dustin Lance Black. Photo credit: FX

This week on The Treatment, Elvis welcomes back Academy Award winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Black’s newest project is as executive producer and showrunner of the FX limited series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” streaming on Hulu. The series is adapted from Jon Krakauer’s book of the same name. Black won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk” in 2009. Black, a former member of the Mormon church, tells The Treatment about his own complicated relationship to the church and why he was drawn to the story. He says while he originally tried to adapt the book into a screenplay, the story was too complex to be condensed into two hours. And he says the series is a warning for people who don’t question documents written hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

The following interview has been abbreviated and edited for clarity. 

KCRW: Welcome to the treatment. I'm Elvis Mitchell. The last time my guest, Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black, was here, he was writing "Under the Banner of Heaven" as a screenplay. It is now seeing the light of day on television instead. I wonder if one of the things about this material that appealed to you is people trying to toggle back and forth between their personal lives and what the world is demanding of them.

Dustin Lance Black: Yes, I think and believe that what is personal, often, if not always, in some form becomes political, becomes legal. The political and legal realms are based on personal struggle and trying to figure out what rules might make life more livable, hopefully. And so, I often write things about people who are trapped between their personal life and the law. And certainly this show is that.

That part of this show started in a personal way with me as a kid who grew up in the faith, grew up in the church, and for the most part was very happy to have been a part of the faith. I found it supportive and warm, and, in fact, life saving at one point in our lives, but at a certain point, violence entered into our home. It was violence brought in by a stepfather, and it was life threatening. And yet, the church asked us not to turn to the law, to turn to the church, to not expose our familial problems in that way, as they say, to trust our priesthood holder. And in fact, my mother was told that the real problem was that she hadn't built a home suitable to our priesthood holder. 

Cut to 2003, and I read this book by Jon Krakauer and found out that my experience was not unique, not by a longshot. And in fact, Jon was asking questions that I had wondered the answers to for a very long time and asking questions I never even thought to ask, mainly because in my childhood faith, we were taught not to ask questions. I needed to get to the bottom of this divide between the personal and the political, and the law. And I thought Jeb Pyre was the investigator to do that. A devout Mormon who has to ask questions, even though his faith says not to, in order to try and win justice for this young mother and her 15-month-old daughter who were killed.

KCRW: So often you go back to the emotional aspect of history and how people who were fighting these traditions are fighting a tradition that shouldn't be sacrosanct, that shouldn't be protected, and their emotional investment was to that tradition. The expanse of time gives you a real chance to do that in this miniseries, doesn't it? 

Black: I certainly couldn't have done it in a feature film. I know that for a fact because I tried for years. I mean, I think when we first talked about this, I was starting out on the journey, and it would be a good three years at least of just failing. I needed this space to be able to help folks understand just how personal the legal and the political are, to understand that this journey from unquestioned devout faith that this investigator takes to questioning, to finally having to find comfort in doubt, which I find to be a much more honest place, but that the Mormon church rejects that. And so it was going to take a lot of room to do it right.

KCRW: Really the first two hours of the show are just posing questions. Jeb, trying to figure out: who am I now? Because that's happening actually, in real time and because he has had the comfort of this institution as bedrock.

Black: Yes, unquestioned. He's inspired by a lot of conversations I had with actual law enforcement officers in Utah, some who were involved with the case. And I said, What was it like, when you started asking tough questions? That's something we're trying not to do. We were trained as young Mormons to put our questions on a shelf, to doubt our doubts. And I would say, to a one, they said, it was very challenging because I was asking things that made it increasingly difficult to believe in my faith. And in Utah, in that valley, in particular, if you lose your faith, that doesn't just mean you lose your ward, which is a congregation, you likely also lose your marriage, your family, your community, your job. I mean, it really puts you outside of that very warm world. Warm when you're in the middle of it; very cold when you're on the outside.

KCRW: This look at this incredible murder case starts off with Jeb going to the crime scene and just being overcome, which is not something we're used to seeing in dramas about murderers or procedurals. There's a detachment, but because it's an assault both on him as a person, but also as a person of faith, you've got to get a couple hours in to see how much he's internalized that and why this hits him so hard at the very beginning.

Black: You know, one of the things that was important to me was to keep Jeb honest to the experience of being a Mormon man and a priesthood holder in the church. And people might be surprised to find out that, in my experience, and those I've spoken with, the Mormon men are taught to show emotion, to keep their heart open, to push down the negatives of masculinity. When you listen to some of the prophets and higher ups in the church speak, there's a gentleness, almost a femininity, and certainly an access to emotion, and that's encouraged. I actually think that's one of the great things about the church. 

I could not create a police officer who was just hard bitten and had seen it all and wasn't going to react emotionally. First of all, this series is inspired by true events. These murders happened; an investigator walked into that scene, and we worked diligently to keep things as true and real and honest as possible. So the scene looks a lot like what you saw in the show. And if I'm going to send an investigator from a small town in Utah Valley, who likely has never seen anything like this into that scene, he had best react with some emotion.

KCRW: This thing that you tend to do is have characters who are at a crack in history, when the world is about to change, and in historical terms, the world is changing under their feet. The idea for you of being able to combine this true crime story with this character who is kind of an anachronism. Some of these things are sub-fissures in Krakauer's book, but you really make dramatic meat out of them here.

Black: I don't particularly like biopics and true stories that are simply nostalgic. We have so many critical issues going on in the world at any given moment, but particularly right now. 

The intersection of Proposition 8 and "Milk:" it was clear that that story from history was entering into the present tense in a way that hopefully would affect the future. That's always my hope. I am not happy to say that this series is entering into the present tense at an incredibly critical time and a meaningful time. The crime that's being investigated, at the center of it, is a family that was highly esteemed, that hit hard times. And the brothers in the family started taking steps back towards fundamentalist documents to try and find certainty, to try and regain their footing. So first, they turn back to the US Constitution, and strict and originalist interpretations of it. Does that sound familiar? That's where we are in the world. 

We have not had an easy past many years, and the world is looking for sure footing and unfortunately, many are doing what seems to be innate, which is turning back to originalist documents to try and find safety, whether that's the Constitution or the Bible, or even the Book of Mormon. This show is a cautionary tale that says: beware of following rules written by men thousands of years ago. They're not here. They don't know as much as we do now. We know better now, far better now than our forefathers did no matter how well meaning they were. We know better. So we must do better.

KCRW: This is what I think really is the crux of what you do. People who treat law as if it was handed down, but as scripture. 

Black: I think that when we look to our forefathers and now some foremothers, finally, to the laws and the rules that they've created in the past, probably for the most part, they meant well. They thought it was an improvement. Listen, the fact of the matter is calling being gay a mental illness was considered an improvement way back in the day because at least it wasn't the death penalty anymore. But we also know now that it's not a mental illness. 

As we've learned more, as we know better, what do we do? We take the work, the hard work our forefathers and our foremothers did, we see what still applies, what still makes life more livable for the most people on the planet, and in our country and in our communities. We keep those bits and we throw out the trash. 

Listen, we understand so much more now than people did 2000 years ago, when they were scratching out the New Testament or 200 years ago, when Joseph Smith was working on the Book of Mormon. We know so much more than our forefathers did when they were writing the laws that would become our Constitution. And the laws that have led up to today, we have to examine them. I do not think it's an insult to call yourself a cafeteria Christian or a cafeteria American. Take what's good. Save it, protect it, and leave the dead stuff behind.

KCRW: One of the most fascinating moments [in the series] was Jeb having to hurry the moment of evening prayer before he goes out on this case that is going to change his life. I mean, just in textual terms, the first 10 minutes of this piece is really fascinating. And I'm guessing that's one of the thrills of getting to do it as a television series rather than having to do it as a movie.

Creator and Executive Producer Dustin Lance Black on set of FX’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” 

Black: Yes, as a movie to move through a loss of faith in two hours and tell the story of the Lafferty murders and share the pieces from LDS history that serve as clues to solving the crime, I mean, there wasn't time to do it right. I have personally experienced stepping out of the LDS faith, and I know many, many people who have. And it's not something that happens in an instant. 

I love that you point out that first scene because I think it's very telling. It was challenged a few times early on in drafts, like, Well, shouldn't he just get to the crime? Why does he have to do this thing? It seems like he's a bad investigator. And I said, Well, no. What's important to someone like this is to be a good dad and a husband, a good "priesthood holder" in his home, before anything else. And so if he didn't do these things, I think other Mormons would be like, Hey, buddy, what's most important here?

KCRW: There's just so much subtext really happening in the first ten minutes of this, and there's so much breathing room, which is not something I think of with you, but just because you've had to work so fast. And the thing you really try to keep lighted in your work is this sense of idealism and almost aggressive optimism in these characters. 

Black: I think Jeb is an optimistic character, and I think he's not going to lose that part of himself. As he starts to question his faith, that's something that he's learned probably from Mormonism, to be hopeful. But to put work behind it.

 Mormons were on a hunt for their "Zion" for a very long time being chased from city to city across this country and experiencing tremendous violence as they went. But they kept hope, and they kept optimism, understanding it had to be attached to action. They're going to have to take a wagon train across the country to land in this valley. And even then there was hard work to be done. So it's in your bones as a Mormon to be optimistic, but to understand that optimism and hope, detached from action, are just delayed disappointment, really, and that you have to attach action to it. 

You see that with Pyre. He wants his family to be strong, and he wants to protect them. And there's times in which he has to do that in this series. He wants to keep them together, and he has to make some difficult choices later about how candid to be about his loss of faith in order to keep his family. And that's it. You know, this show was not going to have the simplest, neatest of conclusions, but I hope it's deeply satisfying because people relate to it.

KCRW: Even in the first hour of "When We Rise," we get to see where people live, what food is like on the table. What happens here is that same sort of thing that we don't get [usually] to see, how people inhabit the walls away from where they do their jobs. 

Black: People call me naive and optimistic because of that. But listen, that goes to having grown up being raised by, yes, a Mormon mom who taught us we can do anything we set our mind to. But she demonstrated that in action. She was paralyzed from the chest down by polio and raised three boys mostly on her own. And so we understood in our bones that anything was possible. What people were telling us, we weren't strong or smart or good or rich enough to do, well, BS. Yes, we can. Look at what my mom is doing. 

I think a part probably of something that lives in my work is to humanize your characters. Humanize your heroes and the "villains." I don't think about them in that way. Because what I feel like I always want an audience to know is that could be you. You could do that. You could change the world. You could lead a rebellion. You could fight for equal rights and win. Or you could take a dark path and start leaning on fundamentalist documents that lead you the wrong direction, or turn to violence as a solution. This could be you. You got to pick which way you're gonna go.

KCRW: There really is that point we have to ask ourselves: who are the heroes and who are the villains here? We should say here, too, that faith has such a stronghold in Utah that there's a whole subset of dramatic products made just for Mormons, their movies and television shows and for a long time, these kinds of de facto secret requests of studio films. And so for you to offer that purview, that examination of that world and what that history is, without a judgment of it, and actually giving this incredible narrative momentum as these tensions that led to the creation of LDS is really fascinating stuff for those of us who don't know about it to see.

Black: We did a premiere of the show in Salt Lake City shortly after the premiere here in Hollywood. The audience was filled with mainstream Mormons, with some fundamentalist Mormons, meaning they had more than one wife, with some radical, Salt Lake City progressives, and just some rank and file Mormon folks and historians from the Mormon church. I have to say, I was ready for a brawl. I thought, boy, this is a terrifying design.

We screened the first two episodes, and there were many tears and an array of people having to step out of the theater, particularly women, to catch their breath, to process it. And they'd step back in, and the conversations I had with them were so similar to what had been in my heart decades ago when I stepped out of the church and read Krakauer's book. They were saying to me, I didn't know I needed to ask those questions. I didn't know it was the answers to those questions that would help free me, that would help me understand it wasn't my fault. So in that way, I think it created a space where people could see what they valued about the faith and what they wanted to hold on to.  It's not like it was going to create a mass exodus from the church, nor do I need it to. But in that way, it was beautiful to see people say, I now understand what's broken in this faith I love. And I'm going to put that aside because I understand it's continuing to cause me injury.

The Mormon Church, much like the founders of the US Constitution, claims to this day that it is an ever changing church, that it is not supposed to be calcified. And so I hope the Church listens to these people, mostly women. I hope they see the tears, and I hope they understand it is time to be loyal to the words of their founders, and to let the church change in the ways it needs to change again because I gotta say, and this isn't specific just to the Mormon Church, I think it's high time we stopped teaching our little boys and our little girls to pray to a god who is a misogynist. I think it's time we say to our children, we're going to pray to a god who believes you are equally capable, regardless of the color of your skin, where you come from, your gender or who you love. We know that that should be the case now. So we should start teaching that and leave behind this notion of a misogynist god. Our children deserve better.



Rebecca Mooney