Screenwriter, families reveal what’s fact and what’s fiction in ‘Under the Banner of Heaven’

Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black says writers define their style “by how far they can bend history before it snaps.”

Admit it. Whenever you finish watching a “biopic” on the screen, you immediately Google it to discover “the real story.”

Whether it’s “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” “King Richard,” or “Catherine the Great,” you want to know which parts of the action actually happened.

But what about projects that simply say “inspired by,” which is the case of the FX/Hulu series “Under the Banner of Heaven”?

It should let you know that fact and fiction are mingled in the seven-part series — which carries the same name as Jon Krakauer’s 2003 bestselling book about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, its history and the gruesome 1984 murders of Brenda Lafferty and her 15-month-old daughter, Erica, by her husband’s brothers — but how do you to tell them apart?

Writer-producer Dustin Lance Black readily acknowledges that the main character, Detective Jeb Pyre, in this “true crime drama” is an invention, that many of the character names have been altered, that the town where it takes place is called East Rockwell rather than the real American Fork, and that the investigation did not unfold the way it does in the show.

“Any filmmaker who says their biopic is 100% fact is telling a lie,” Black says in an interview from his London home. “A writer defines their style by how far they can bend history before it snaps.”

(Michelle Faye | FX) Detective Andrew Garfield stars as Jeb Pyre in "Under the Banner of Heaven." His character was created for the series.

Still, he is “one of the most diligent about trying to stay most close to the truth,” insists the screenwriter, who was reared in the LDS Church but has long since left it. “I wanted it to be authentic.”

Black, who won an Oscar in 2009 for the screenplay of “Milk” and was one of the writers for HBO’s “Big Love,” spent more than a decade researching this story.

He interviewed many of the key players, including Dan Lafferty, who is serving a life sentence for the murders; Allen Lafferty, the grieving husband and father; Sharon Wright Weeks, the victim’s sister and aunt; and many others. He has read transcripts of trials in 1985 and 1996, numerous news accounts, and Brenda’s journals and letters. He also spoke at length with her parents.

Ron Lafferty, who was sentenced to be executed, died in prison in 2019 of natural causes.

(ABC/Image Group LA) Dustin Lance Black, screenwriter of "Under the Banner of Heaven," says "any filmmaker who says their biopic is 100% fact is telling a lie."

“I worked very, very hard to not just rely on Jon’s book, but to dig deeper, to find firsthand sources, which are very important to me,” Black says, “and even put pressure on the book to make sure that what’s been challenged there is truthful enough to be included in the show. Sometimes in that process, I discovered things that Jon had not yet discovered.”

The filmmaker is, however, open to questions about the choices he made with the screenplay and how he shaped the story of a very real killing.

Let’s start with the adult victim: Brenda Wright Lafferty.

About Brenda Lafferty

(Photo courtesy of Sharon Wright Weeks) Brenda Lafferty holds her little sister, Sharon, on Christmas 1969.

The young mother had just turned 24 when she was brutally slain with her daughter on July 24, Utah’s Pioneer Day.

Originally from Twin Falls, Idaho, Brenda was a beauty pageant winner and editor of her high school paper. She later earned a degree from the church’s flagship school, Brigham Young University in Provo (not, as the show states, Salt Lake City).

Brenda was goal-oriented and spunky but she loved the church and its gospel, says her younger sister, Sharon Wright Weeks, of St. George.

Unlike the reconstructed scene of her wedding day in a Latter-day Saint temple, Weeks says, her sibling felt the temple ceremony was “sacred,” not “creepy.”

Still, Brenda was not as “churchy” as the miniseries suggests, her sister says. She never would have worn ruffles nor have said, “Heavenly Father wants me to have babies and grow Zion” or “Jane Pauley is trustworthy as heck.”

The lively mother sometimes swore and burped the alphabet.

“She was definitely not,” says Weeks, who is not active in the church herself, “a Molly Mormon.”

Some of the episodes that include Brenda, she says, are true.

Her sister did, indeed, help sister-in-law Dianna (Ron’s ex-wife) write a letter to senior Latter-day Saint leaders, including apostle Ezra Taft Benson, as is shown in Episode 3, about her worries that her husband was refusing to pay taxes and was becoming more anti-government like his brother, Dan.

And Brenda did get a position as news anchor on BYU’s television channel, but not for agreeing to keep quiet about a male communication adviser’s suggestive behavior.

“That never happened,” Weeks says. “She loved her professors.”

Black says Brenda did complain in her letters about professors “hitting on her” and how annoyed she was that they were not taking her seriously. That concern, he says, was what he tried to express in the scene.

Many other Latter-day Saint and ex-Mormon women may find themselves in the language and style of the television Brenda, Weeks says, but she does not see her real sister on the screen — and Black gets that.

Even Academy Award-winning actors in their “most glowing” performances can’t embody the essence of a loved one.

“It’s a heartbreak because it always feels wrong to the real people or to the people who knew them,” he says. No actor or writer can “bring back their loved one, not in the way they knew them, not in the way they loved them.”

About Allen Lafferty

(Photo courtesy of Sharon Wright Weeks) The Wright family at the wedding of Allen and Brenda Lafferty in 1982.

In the series, police first encounter Allen Lafferty as he was walking to the couple’s home, covered in blood after discovering the bodies inside. They then take him in for questioning.

There, he engages in endless exchanges with Pyre, the fictional detective, about Mormonism’s history and practices. Speaking cynically and with some bitterness, Allen describes what he sees as the harm the church has done to women as well as violence and deception in the faith’s past.

Today, according to friends and family, Allen has remarried, is living in Utah, and remains an active Latter-day Saint — which seems at odds with the way the character is played.

Black, though, urges viewers not to jump to conclusions until the series wraps up.

The writer interviewed Allen many times and found him to be a “mature, kind, wise man who was still trying to sift through the wreckage of his youth,” Black says. “There were questions of faith that came up in our interview and in his history. But he was a confused man, a very young man [just 24] at the time [of the killings], and, of course, he was confused. Look at what happened. He struggled with his faith. How could you not?”

How can you hold onto your faith “when you see your child nearly beheaded?” Black wonders. “It’s going to falter. It’s going to stumble.”

Clearly, not all of Allen’s words in the series are his, but Black says he tried to reveal the man’s goodness and pain.

‘The new Brigham’

(George Frey | AP file) In this 2005 photo, convicted murderer and death row inmate Ron Lafferty is handcuffed after a hearing in a Provo courtroom. Lafferty died in prison of natural causes.

At the end of Episode 5, Pyre declared that Ron saw himself as “the new Brigham [Young].”

Did he really?

Creighton Horton, who prosecuted Ron in the 1996 retrial (after the first trial was thrown out due to a question of mental competency), does not believe that Ron was a religious zealot.

Though the so-called “removal revelation” was in scriptural language, Horton says, it was about taking revenge on Brenda and those who helped his ex-wife. And it wasn’t addressed to Dan but to a hitchhiker named “Todd.”

But Todd wouldn’t do it and the proposed “removal” didn’t get ratification from other members of their religious study group, School of the Prophets, the prosecutor says, so he turned to his “one true believing brother, Dan,” to carry out the execution.

Dan may have been driven by his religious fanaticism, Horton says, but Ron simply had a vendetta against the women who defied him.

It was a classic case of domestic violence, says Brenda’s sister, wrapped up in religious rhetoric.

Dan’s daughter agrees with the characterization.

“My father started out wanting to be Christlike, then evolved into wanting to become Godlike,” Rebecca Lafferty, Dan’s oldest biological daughter (there were two older stepsisters), says in a 2015 documentary about the case for “American Monster.”

He loved taking “center stage,” she says. “As leader of this created church, it was giving him an outlet.”

Being the daughter of a killer, she dealt “with a lot of shame,” Rebecca says in the documentary. “I carried a lot of guilt around me.”

She remembers many good aspects of her childhood — she was 8 at the time of the murders — but also brutality, insults and cruelty at his hands, too. At some level, Dan also was abusive to his family.

“My father,” she says, “is a monster to me really.”

(Tribune File Photo) Dan Lafferty arrives at his murder trial in the 1980s.

About the other brothers

The show features two other brothers, Sam and Robin, which are not real names, and whose words and actions do not necessarily reflect reality. No other Lafferty was arrested nor spoke as these characters do.

Whatever they did in their homes, Rebecca says in an interview, all the men in the family in public were “well-mannered and charismatic.” No screamers among them.

Though they are used to further the plot and their language and intonation seem extreme, Black disputes the fact that they were polite.

“That certainly does not match with all of my research,” the writer says. “Some of them were very helpful, and others were not. I frankly can’t go into who is who without breaking the kind of trust that the pseudonyms are supposed to provide.”

But there was no cabin in the woods, no pan-banging to shoo away strangers, nor any little girl holed up in a pioneer dress.

The family did have a farm in suburban Ogden, Black says, where some family members did “live off the grid” for a time before the murders.

That is where the “removal revelation” was found in a shirt of Ron’s as it is shown in Episode 5, Horton says, but there were no polygamists from Canada hanging out there.

Black reiterates that the style and length of the investigation were mostly created to add suspense to a story whose villains were largely known almost from the beginning.

“I’ll never forget Allen saying to me that he just couldn’t bring himself — though he had all the evidence — to just say, ‘It was my brothers.’”

That took some time.

About the Lafferty patriarch

(Michelle Faye | FX) Sam Worthington as Ron Lafferty, Wyatt Russell as Dan Lafferty, and Christopher Heyerdahl as Ammon Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

All Watson Lafferty Sr. (Ammon in the film) wanted, says granddaughter Rebecca in the documentary, was to create a “picture-perfect family life.”

Yes, he was a “stern” father, she says, and was known to correct the boys sometimes with his fists or with a belt or a switch.

Despite that, though, he could be gentle and kind, Rebecca says. “Banner” shows him “as a tyrant — and he wasn’t that at all.”

He was respected in the community and really “softened” in his later years. He left a treasure trove of home movies to ensure his life history was recorded.

Brenda, too, was fond of her father-in-law, Weeks says. “When he passed away from diabetes, she was devastated.”

He was into homeopathic remedies so did not seek medical help for his worsening condition. Still, Brenda urged the brothers to try something to save him, when they took him to the hospital in a coma.

“She left the room, crying,” Weeks says, after the machines were turned off.

Fallout from the killings

(Michelle Faye | FX) Denise Gough as Dianna Lafferty in "Under the Banner of Heaven."

For this large clan of six boys, two girls, and dozens of grandchildren and cousins, the sensational national and international publicity of the 1980s surrounding the Lafferty brothers’ horrifying actions was like collectively stepping on a land mine, blasting them into separate whirlwinds of pain.

Ron’s wife, Dianna, had already taken their six kids and moved to Florida. All but one of the remaining brothers moved out of state — at least for a time, family members report. Some changed their names. Some turned on the others, especially the killers’ families. There were mutual recriminations and hard feelings, yet love also remained along with the continued closeness of regular Sunday dinners in Utah County.

Claudine Lafferty, the family matriarch who is called Doreen in the show, was “so heavy in her heart,” says granddaughter Rebecca.

Grandmother and granddaughter went together several times to visit Dan in prison, but Claudine’s “heart was so sad and broken,” the younger woman says. “She didn’t know if she had done something wrong.”

Grandma prayed unceasingly about her sons until it became unbearable, until she finally had to “give it to Jesus Christ,” the granddaughter says. “At that time, she felt the burden lift and knew that there was nothing she could have done differently.”

Some family members lost their Mormon faith; others drew closer to it. One brother was so broken, his marriage disintegrated.

Residents of the tiny Utah County town of Salem whispered about them — and many in the church they had known all their lives turned their back on the families.

Rebecca’s mother, Matilda, who was Scottish (not Irish), was economically and emotionally devastated by Dan’s betrayal, Rebecca says. She did not have the means to support the family but couldn’t move so they lived in the same house that had seen so much agony.

At first, Matilda made bread to sell and deliver. On top of that, she worked into the night to sew clothes on industrial-size machines, and then she cleaned the church for a small wage back when that was a paying job.

Finally, somebody pointed out she could apply for funds from the state, which she did, Rebecca says, but she got no other help from the church. She was seen as “brave, resilient and pure in heart” but never went back to her adopted faith.

As a teen, Rebecca was bullied, badgered, insulted, teased and harassed by schoolmates.

Rebecca Lafferty, oldest biological daughter of Dan Lafferty.

Meanwhile, members of the Wright family were coping with their terrible loss.

A day after the deaths, Brenda’s father phoned Latter-day Saint apostle James E. Faust for advice and comfort, Weeks recalls, and he happened to take the call.

The Latter-day Saint leader “gave us a blessing over the phone,” she says. “We didn’t have speakerphones back then but I remember it very well.”

The Wrights never blamed Allen for his brothers’ treachery. They embraced him with graciousness, generosity and compassion as a genuine member of their circle of loved ones.

He spent his first solo Christmas with them in Idaho, Weeks says, and continued to join them for holidays for some years.

To this day, she says, “he calls me ‘Sis.’”

And how are they all dealing with this newfound — and unwanted — attention?

“It’s like ripping the scab off again,” says Rebecca, who is writing her own book about the tragedy. “I want to paint my family, especially my grandparents, in the light they deserve.”

Others are laying low, going on with their lives, not wanting to correct misperceptions of their family in the media, just hoping that this long-ago episode can return to being buried — at least until another outside filmmaker or writer decides to resurrect it.