5 Screenwriting Takeaways: 'Under the Banner of Heaven'
May 20, 2022
Another true crime limited series has premiered at a time when this genre continues to increase in popularity. NBC just wrapped its Renee Zellweger-led The Thing About Pam, based on the podcast of the same name and the original story aired by Dateline. It received strong ratings on the nights it premiered and continues to gain viewership on Peacock.
At the end of April, FX premiered its true-crime series Under the Banner of Heaven on Hulu. They also join a "new" trend when it comes to streaming services: not releasing everything on the same day. Back in the day, viewers had to wait for the next episode of their favorite TV show. Then streaming services began dropping everything on a single day, anticipating binge-worthy audience appeal. Not necessarily anymore.
Under the Banner of Heaven is a seven-episode limited series spread across six weeks. The show follows a Mormon detective investigating the murder of Brenda Lafferty and her baby in a Salt Lake City suburb. What he uncovers will question his unyielding faith and those who follow the LDS Church. As the story unfolds, the show focuses on a rift between different interpretations of Mormonism within the Lafferty family including a moderate version, as subscribed by Brenda, and her husband’s brothers, who are more fundamentalist.
The series is based on the book of the same name by Jon Krakauer and created by Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black. Andrew Garfield, Daisy Edgar-Jones, Billy Howle, Sam Worthington, Rory Culkin, Wyatt Russell, and Gil Birmingham star in the limited series.
Here are five screenwriting takeaways from the first two episodes of Under the Banner of Heaven.
1. How do you introduce a character?
When the viewer first meets Detective Pyre (Garfield), he is at home enjoying time with his family. He stops his household chores to play with his daughter, showing that he’s a good father and a decent person. Then he gets an urgent call. Pyre and his wife wake up his mother-in-law and the entire family prays together.
In the next scene, Pyre walks through a bloody crime scene. He’s meticulous in his investigation and disturbed by the gruesome murders. He cries briefly before composing himself and comforting a police officer who states, “I don’t know if I can go back in there.”
A mother and her toddler have been murdered — these crimes don’t happen here.
Writers can see how these first few moments define who the character is and ensure the viewers have all the information they need to size up Detective Pyre and how deeply this murder investigation could impact him. It also reveals the world in which he lives, which with good storytelling will be challenged.
2. Telling three stories
Under the Banner of Heaven is more than just a true-crime drama focusing on an investigation. There are three pieces to the puzzle, all of which intertwine. The first and main story is that of Detective Pyre who is interviewing the prime suspect of the crime: Allen Lafferty (Howle), the husband and father of the deceased.
Allen, however, is sharing two additional stories: one has to do with the founding of Mormonism, something that Pyre should already know, and the second is with his wife Brenda (Edgar-Jones), and how his family reacts to her.
Each story must have relevance to the overall narrative. Obviously, the story of Brenda directly aligns with the murder investigation opening up a series of suspects beyond Allen. The interpretation of Joseph Smith and the founding of the Latter-day Saints storyline gives the audience reference to why the characters are making the choices they are, including anti-government sentiment and patriarchal structures.
Writers can observe how Black interweaves these stories and how these two different time periods play their critical roles in the main story: the murder investigation.
3. Moving away from the main story
The first time the series moves away from the main story of the murders is when we learn about who Brenda is and how she gets along with Allen’s family.
It’s a complete introduction of a new character, the one we know will be murdered. We know her fate, now we go on the journey of how she got there. Brenda is a beauty pageant finalist and a determined young woman living in a Mormon household in Idaho. She dreams of going to Brigham Young University in Utah and majoring in broadcast journalism — an ambition that far exceeds the expectations of the faith. Yet, her family seems okay with these decisions, something we learn is not typical.
When Allen introduces Brenda to his family, everyone seems to flock to her as if they’re intrigued by this new, beautiful woman entering their group. The men in the family are attracted to her and flirt with her, even as their wives are nearby preparing the meals or taking care of the children.
Through unexpected circumstances, the Lafferty men are tasked with clearing their neighbor’s field or their neighbor risks losing it to the government to build a highway. While the women prepare lemonade and take care of the family, Brenda breaks the “code.” She jumps out into the field and helps clear rocks, essentially doing “men’s” work. Ammon Lafferty (Christopher Heyerdahl), the head of the family, is displeased by this and everyone else is surprised by the newcomer’s brazen attempt to upset the family dynamic.
This is just the beginning of major conflicts within the family. Writers can see how this first gathering, where we see Allen (the future suspect), Brenda (the murdered wife), and the family, plants the seeds for the impending fall.
4. Based on a true story
Detective Pyre does not exist. That’s not a spoiler or anything but rather a creative decision by the creator. Pyre, as well as his partner Taba (Birmingham), are creations to tell the story.
The Laffertys are real, and the series uses the information in Krakauer’s book to tell their story, as well as the story of the founding of the Mormon Church. What writers can take away is the license they have in creating or combining characters for the purposes of telling the story. There’s no doubt that someone had to investigate these murders but the choices that Black makes add a new dimension of conflict with Pyre.
Writers can see the importance of making a story their own, creating additional characters to ensure audience engagement, and realizing that when it comes to film and television, certain aspects will need to be made up.
5. A crisis of faith
Superheroes often wonder if their attempts at saving the world are futile.
Rick owns a bar in Casablanca and never sticks his neck out for nobody until the love of his life returns.
Giving characters a crisis of faith is one of the ultimate internal conflicts someone could have. Our faith and beliefs are often tested. Some call it flip-flopping, others call it hypocrisy. It’s actually human.
Detective Pyre faces the same crisis, as Allen questions who he is as a Mormon and what he believes. Giving characters an internal struggle that causes them to question who they are can help engage the audience more fully.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman is an award-winning, optioned screenwriter. He was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019 and won Best Action/Adventure in Script Summit’s Screenplay Competition in 2021. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.