When prepping for FX’s new true-crime drama series “Under the Banner of Heaven,” production designer Renee Read worked to bring a feeling of unease and tension to the Mormon community where the story takes place.
Andrew Garfield stars as Jeb Pyre, a detective called on to investigate the gruesome murders of Brenda Lafferty (Daisy EdgarJones) and her young child after her family members have fallen into an extreme sect. Set in 1980s Utah, the series, now airing on FX and streaming on Hulu, filmed in small towns in Alberta, Canada, where many buildings hailed from the early 20th century. But Read was careful not to make the period setting “loud and heavy-handed.”
She chose an Arts and Crafts-style home for the Pyre family. “That movement grew out of a response to the Industrial Revolution,” Read says. “It was a return back to the land and craftsmanship and the hand of man working with the hand of God — which was nature — and that was important in the Latter day Saints church.”
Meanwhile, for the Lafferty home, Read aimed to create a vibe that was familiar yet “inexplicably uncomfortable and eventually quite chilling.” She made the rooms larger and hallways narrower so that the furniture seemed undersized, and she also played with color levels. “I wanted to increase the tension in there by having things start a little off-kilter and increase that with each episode. So I painted colors that were 25% deeper than other Arts and Crafts homes of that era,” she explains. As Pyre and partner Bill Taba (Gil Birmingham) start to unravel the clues, Read switched out the drapes and made them 50% darker.
Within the homes, she made sure each character had art specific to the Mormon faith — images of the Salt Lake City temple, of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, or biblical depictions. “We couldn’t use real art, so we hired artists to re-create [them],” she says.
She was careful that no caffeine and alcohol were shown in the homes, since Mormon households avoid those items. “You would never see a coffeepot, teapot or an ashtray. But you would see sweets,” says Read.
Series creator Dustin Lance Black takes the story back to the beginnings of Mormonism in the 1820s to examine how its history led to Lafferty’s murder. That meant Read also had to execute historic set-pieces, shooting across the expansive vistas of Alberta. “There is well-documented and iconic artwork that depicts these key events,” she says of Mormon founder Smith’s migration from New York State to Salt Lake City. “Our art directors spent several hours a day doing this research, because there’s the narrative from the Mormon church and there are the outsider narratives.”