Illuminating the Human Experience:
The Locations of Under the Banner of Heaven
by Shaun O’Banion
Photos by Matt Palmer/LMGI, except as noted
When producer Brian Dennis called supervising location manager and Calgary native Matt Palmer/LMGI to see if he’d be interested in coming home to Calgary to work on Under the Banner of Heaven, the new limited series for FX on Hulu, Matt initially said “yes.” Then he read the bestselling true crime novel by Jon Krakauer that had inspired the limited series and, for a moment, had second thoughts.
The book lays out the shocking events that led to the murder of Brenda Wright Lafferty and her 15-month-old baby daughter in 1984 followed by the 12-day search for the killers. The story is intertwined with the birth of Mormonism in the early 1800s, tracing the journey of Joseph Smith and his followers.
“It’s very dark. Even gruesome at times,” says Matt. “I just wasn’t sure it was something I wanted to be a part of.”
But the project would allow Matt to join his family who had just moved back to Calgary after spending five years in Vancouver when local work had dried up back home. It also meant he’d get to work with people he knew and trusted. He had worked with both producer Dennis and showrunner/executive producer Dustin Lance Black (Lance to his friends), before. Matt also knew that Black had grown up Mormon—and gay—in Texas, and that he would bring a personal perspective to the material. So, Matt decided to read the first few scripts before he made a decision.
In the end, it was the opportunity to return to Calgary and the strength of Black’s writing that sealed the deal and convinced Matt to accept the job!
Over the course of seven episodes, three distinct stories are told on two distinct timelines—one of which, the historical section, plays out over dozens of locations in the U.S. across a span of some 50 years. In the ’80s timeline alone, the Location Department would be called upon to find such diverse locations as Salt Lake City, Utah, Reno, Nevada, and Miami, Florida.
The series stars Academy Award nominee Andrew Garfield (tick, tick… BOOM!) and Gil Birmingham (Hell or High Water) as detectives Jeb Pyre and detective Bill Taba, both composites of the real-life investigators who asked not to be included, along with Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones as Brenda Wright Lafferty. The historical portion is experienced through the eyes of detective Pyre as he begins to question his own faith during the investigation that would reveal dark secrets about the Lafferty family, pillars of American Fork, a close-knit Latter Day Saints (LDS) community.
As anyone in film or television knows, on a project based on or inspired by a true story, filmmakers will often take liberties for dramatic purposes. And while Lance did make some changes on Under the Banner—this isn’t a documentary after all—authenticity was priority one.
“The assumption from the very start was that the Church of LDS was going to come for us on this one,” says Matt, “so Lance didn’t want to provide easy targets for them. In most cases, we worked diligently to stay as close as possible to the actual events.”
Accomplishing Lance’s vision while maintaining that authenticity would take a Herculean effort on behalf of every department. That and a fair bit of luck as more than 90 percent of the show would be shot on location.
To ensure they were always on the right track, the team had a rigorous set of parameters which came down to three questions or “tests.” Every single object, textile, building material—everything you see on screen—had to pass these tests before being allowed on set.
“The first one is obvious,” says Renée Read, production designer. “‘Is it period accurate?’ The second was: ‘Would this be in a Mormon household or in a Mormon town—which are distinctly different from the average American home or neighborhood.’ And the last was, when it came to homes or private spaces, you had to ask, ‘would these people have owned these particular objects?’”
Only after a location or set passed those tests would the team ask if it supported the overall design of the show.
For those unfamiliar with some of the tenets of the Mormon religion, these are examples of things you would not find in a Mormon town: a bar. Mormons don’t drink alcohol. A coffee shop. Mormons also do not drink coffee or tea because of the caffeine. And there wouldn’t be things like cigarette vending machines which were prolific back in the ’80s.
Then there’s the specificity of religious mores and customs. For those elements, the series employed three full-time non-LDS researchers, as well as a self-described “independent Mormon” woman who, along with Troy Williams—who grew up in the Mormon faith and is now the Executive Director for Equality Utah—served as the LDS consultants. And then, of course, they had Lance.
Producer Anna Culp recalls, “The number of boxes the Location Department needed to check every day, for every location, was extraordinary.”
Zoom became ubiquitous in all our lives once COVID took hold, but the service also played a critical role in prep on Under the Banner. With the creative team initially spread out across the globe, it was the only way forward.
“Lance lives in the U.K.,” explains Matt, “and David Mackenzie (Hell or High Water), the director of our first two episodes, was also abroad.” Add in limited travel due to the ongoing pandemic and it’s easy to understand why this show, like so many others shot last year, would have a whole other layer of complications.
“I started even before Renée came aboard,” says Matt, “because travel and quarantines were a real issue, so in the beginning, it was really just me trying to ramp things up.”
Originally scheduled to begin shooting at the beginning of August, the production ended up pushing by two weeks to August 16. This gave Matt and the team about 3½ months of prep but also meant that they would shoot right into winter.
Matt brought in local Calgary LM Mike Johansen/LMGI, KALM Jason Liadis/LMGI from Vancouver and scouts Ken Noda and Warren Cronin. Together, they began searching Calgary and its surrounding environs for the more than 100 unique locations the series would require. As soon as they’d found locations they thought could work, they’d hop on Zoom to share everything.
“I absolutely hated ‘Zoom Scouting,’” says Matt, “but thankfully, Renée was incredible at dealing with it and once she was here, the experience got better.”
Matt would provide photos of the various locations for Renée or she’d go get them herself, taking photos from a ton of angles. “On occasion, I’d have our art director act out the scenes and then I’d frame the shots in the way I had discussed with the DPs,” says Renée.
Back at the office, after a bit of post tweaking to maybe change the color of a wall, she’d add tonal and historical images, then combine them with shots Matt had taken and put them all into PDF files that the team would view in Zoom sessions.
While there is no replacement for actually standing in a location, Matt believes the presentations made a big difference in the way that locations were perceived.
“The PDFs Renée created were just beautifully rendered and, even on a laptop screen, blew everyone away,” Matt says. “It made things a lot easier.”
Ultimately, the creative team managed to select many of the locations from those presentations. Of course, they still had to visit in-person all of the pre-approved locations once everyone arrived in Calgary to confirm they’d made the right choices. Only a few had been fully approved from a distance due to construction times.
“The fact that I could feel comfortable signing off on shooting in Calgary and start choosing these locations without ever having set foot there in my life,” says Lance, “is not just a credit to Matt being able to find these places, it’s a credit to Matt and Renée knowing what lenses to shoot the stills and video on so that I could get an understanding of the physical space—because you don’t want to walk into a location and go, ‘guys, this is a 3×3 box … it looked like a mansion!’”
Very early in discussions about the look and feel of the show, Lance had set a unique challenge for the team that would factor into nearly every location they had to find: He wanted the characters to be able to walk from an interior to an exterior without breaking the shot and without the use of digital trickery. It wasn’t that a hero house had to be period, but that every house in frame once the camera came out the door had to be period!
In other words, they needed entire neighborhoods to be able to double 1980s Utah. In Canada. In 2021.
“I wanted the characters to be liberated so you could feel like they were just coming and going, and it just happened to be 1984 out there and that’s really hard,” says Lance. “In fact, the more I think about it, the more I feel like I really owe Matt,” he laughs.
As soon as he was back in Calgary, Matt started looking at small towns to find what he called “anchors.”
“For me,” says Matt, “it came down to four locations: the police station, Pyre’s house, the Lafferty family house and Brenda and Allen’s house where the murders took place.”
One of the first places he went to scout was a town about an hour north of Calgary called Didsbury. He had worked there a bit on Fargo Season 2 for FX and thought it might work. “The whole town is sort of stuck in time,” he says.
While walking around taking photos, Matt spotted the old fire station at the end of one of the main streets. The last time he’d been there, it was still in operation, but this time, he noted that it was all sealed up. He immediately reached out to someone from the town but was told it was being remediated for asbestos and was set to be torn down. “That was a bummer,” he laughs.
But then, in one of the first instances of fortune smiling on the team, something changed…
About two or three weeks later, Matt took Renée up to Didsbury to look at a vacant town office. “We stopped for coffee,” Renée remembers, “and I saw this sort of ’60s-style building on a corner—the fire house—and said, ‘I love that! Can we have that?’ without knowing he’d already asked and been told we couldn’t use it.”
Matt reached out to a new contact with the city and, despite having been told it was a no-go before, decided to inquire about the location again.
“The guy was going to bring me the keys for the town office, and I just said, ‘What’s happening with the fire station?’ and the guy goes, ‘Yeah, I’ve got keys for that, too—I’ll bring ’em over,’” Matt says.
Ten minutes later. they stepped into the building, and it was love at first sight.
Digital Tools to Scout an Analog World
The police station was a critical location that would recur over the course of the entire series and needed to be pitch perfect. “So much scripted movement and precise action takes place in that building and in front of it, so we knew we would have to build it all from scratch,” says Renée.
The interior of the building had already been taken down to its studs, so it was essentially just an old asbestos-filled shell with a leaky roof. Once they’d made the deal, Mike Johausen/LMGI got the roof repaired and took care of the asbestos remediation. Then Renée and her crew came in and took the building down to its steel I-beams. Getting it all finished in time for camera was no easy task.
“Painters were tripping over set decorators in that space. It gives me PTSD just to think of it,” laughs Mike.
It was all worth it, according to Brian. “Once you walked out the front door, you could really look out 360 degrees and it felt period correct, and I think you can tell that what you’re seeing isn’t just a bunch of green screen comps. That you’re seeing a real town,” he says.
In addition to the police station, Didsbury would end up as the site of several other key locations, including a large-scale parade sequence that included floats, marching bands and hundreds of background in period dress passing more than a dozen businesses and totaling about four square blocks. They also shot a series of car chases in the town and a house for another character.
“The town was incredibly accommodating,” recalls Anna. “And the townspeople were amazing. Just lovely.”
Ten minutes south of Didsbury, in a town called Carstairs, the team found the next anchor:
Detective Pyre’s house is another pivotal location that would recur across the series run and one that, like every other location in the show, needed to pass those aforementioned tests.
“From the moment I started, I was looking for that house,” says Mike.
He had been searching for about three weeks in a town on the opposite side of Calgary when it slowly became apparent that he was looking in the wrong place. That’s when the scouts found the house in the small community of Carstairs.
“I won’t lie,” says Matt, “I was a little worried about finding some of these places. Especially because Calgary is a very upper-middle-class city generally, but when they brought back photos of this house I was like, ‘how in the hell did you find that?’”
The house, on a non-descript street that fit in nearly perfectly with the period, was inhabited by a family with teenagers, and the idea of Spider-Man filming in their house was certainly intriguing to the kids, but what was being asked of the family collectively was no small decision: They would need to move out for a period of six months and acquiesce to having the interior of their home significantly augmented.
“I have to say though, Matt and his team were relentless in their attempts to bring my insane requests to fruition,” Renée laughs. “And I know they thought my requests were insane because they told me so. But no matter what I threw at them, like wanting to open up a wall in someone’s house, they’d look at me like I was crazy for a minute and then, a week later, there’d be construction guys in the house with hammers taking the wall down.”
Getting the family to “yes,” ultimately came down to timing according to Mike. “The father had been unemployed for a bit due to COVID, and they needed some money to fix up the house, so we ended up paying for a new roof that was already in process and then I managed to find a house for sale literally right across the street and I convinced the owner to rent it to us so the family could stay in the neighborhood,” he says. “It was actually a pretty good deal for everyone in the end.”
West Coast Arts & Crafts
The next anchor was another pivotal location: the Lafferty family home. From its first appearance in episode one, it needed to immediately set the tone for the characters, their faith and way of life. “The house itself is a central character in our story,” says Renée. “It needed to be adjacent to other homes but somehow eerily isolated. It needed to feel rich with history and to also have an inherent potential for darkness, so it was not an easy find.”
Initially, there were different ideas and different directions the team was pursuing. “It took us about a month to try to get clarity on what we needed to look for in terms of the houses,” recalls Mike.
Matt decided to go to the District of Springbank, just west of Calgary. “There’s a ranch there that’s been used many times for different things so I talked to the landowner and he said, ‘maybe take a look at the house we built by the river a couple of years ago for another show,’ so I went to see it.”
The structure had been designed as a two-story West Coast-style craftsman that wasn’t really right for Banner, and the team debated for a bit because they didn’t love the idea of going into something that had been built for another show, but in the end, Renée saw an opportunity.
“She really fell in love with it because it had this symmetrical feel to it that is very Mormon,” says Matt, “and the fact that it had been built for shooting meant it was oversized and we could change things that would bring it to where we needed it to be.”
Renée and her team completely re-did the facade of the house converting it into a Prairie Craftsman style. Then they changed virtually everything inside. “We removed walls, changed rooflines and added doors, windows and closets exactly where the script needed them to be,” she says. Once the house itself was complete, they set about re-landscaping the entire area around the house.
Brenda and Allen’s House
The final piece of the puzzle was the house where the horrific murders took place.
“We needed to find a brick duplex as close to the real location research photos as we could,” says Matt, “and of course, the street and houses surrounding it had to fit the period as there is critical action that takes place in front of the duplex.”
After an exhaustive search, they eventually landed on a location in central Calgary that everyone really liked—but with one key story element missing: a patio door in the kitchen which led to a small deck and backyard.
After a discussion with the owner in which the team presented designs for the patio door and deck, they got their approval. The walls then had to be tested for asbestos and, once that was done, they punched a hole in the back wall of the kitchen and installed a new sliding patio door and deck. Once again, it seems the owners made out alright.
As with the Pyre house location, the tenants in the duplex were moved out, but this time for an additional month, allowing the company to keep the location dressed and to come and go as needed over a seven-month period. The location team also had to stay in constant contact with the residents of more than 60 neighboring homes as, with each visit, they needed to completely take over the streets, dress them with period cars and also have a place to hide work trucks and other support vehicles.
The Bishop’s House
Though not an anchor location, the Bishop’s house which appears in episodes four and five was another that ended up being pivotal and just as much for how the team got it as for what it provided for the story.
“We had picked a location and were prepping it but when Lance got to see it in person for the first time, he just felt like it wasn’t quite right. It needed to be … grander,” says Matt.
This was on a Monday, and the location was scheduled for Friday.
“I finally get to this location and the art department is already there and looking around and I just said, ‘Matt, I don’t know if this is the place,’” says Lance, “and I should qualify that by saying most of the time I’d walk into a location and immediately go, ‘you nailed it, Matt.’ But this one … I just wasn’t sure, so I turned to him and said, ‘What can we do?’ And every other producer was like, ‘Lance! What are you doing to him? What are you doing to us and our schedule? It shoots in four days!’ But that’s why I love Matt … he doesn’t stress out. Or, OK, he’s probably stressing out a lot but he never lets me know about it.”
For the record, Matt was stressed, and it was a massive scramble, but once again, the scouts came through.
“One of our scouts had gone to this area west of Calgary called Artists View,” Matt recalls, “and he had knocked on these people’s door a couple times to try to get a look inside their place but they just weren’t interested.”
The house had been built in the ’70s and really hadn’t changed much so it would be perfect for the show. The trouble was that it was owned by a retired couple, one of whom was a former plastic surgeon, so they weren’t the kind of people who were in need of money or interested in having a crew traipsing through their home. Undeterred, the scout eventually left the couple a letter and, surprisingly, he got a call back.
“The homeowner said, ‘You know, we weren’t planning to respond, but we showed the letter to our kids and found out that our daughter-in-law grew up Mormon, and when she read the Krakauer book, she left the church … so we’re going to let you shoot here.’” The woman, as it happens, was also a huge fan of Lance’s work.
It was the second time fortune had smiled on the production.
“It was kind of a galvanizing thing in that you realize the stories we tell can change people’s lives,” says Matt. “And that moment in particular, for a lot of us, was a reaffirmation about how powerful this story is in particular.”
There were numerous hurdles the location team had to leap over—from recreating an FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints) compound and trucking in nearly 100 cubic yards of red soil (which then needed to be removed when they wrapped), to finding a suitable location that could double the entrance to the old Circus Circus Hotel & Casino (they ended up using the facade of the historic Palace Theater in Calgary and installing thousands of dollars in lightbulbs under the old marquee). From finding a remote cabin in the woods to locating a Miami motel location. But perhaps nothing was more difficult than clearing away snow from their sets in the weeks leading up to Christmas and in minus 25 degrees Celsius no less.
The team would often spend a week pre-clearing a property of snow. Then they’d go in, paint the grass and add silk leaves to every tree and bush only to have it snow again the night before they were set to shoot, and they’d have to do it all again. “That’s exactly what happened to our Miami set,” laughs Matt.
“It was like a parasite attacking a cell,” Renée says. “We have videos of it and it’s completely insane. Guys up on the roof with blowers and dry steam trucks that create this very ethereal creepy environment.”
They even brought in a helicopter at one point just to blow the top layer of snow off a field of grass because you couldn’t walk on it lest you trampled it all down.
Having overcome these challenges leaves Matt with a great sense of pride for what they were able to accomplish.
“For me personally,” he says, “after having wrestled a bit with whether to be a part of this project or not, I felt like maybe what we were doing was illuminating something about the human experience … about how complicated it is and how easy it is to fall into situations you don’t expect to end up in.”
Having made it through one of the most challenging and complicated shows of his career, would he do it all over again?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says with a smile.